Saturday, October 01, 2011

Shopping For Porcupine: A Life in the Arctic by Seth Kantner


Just when you think your Alaska vacation is over and done with, along comes Seth Kantner and his remarkable elegiac book, Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska.   You can't pigeon-hole this series of vignettes because some are autobiographical, some historical, some sociological, and some almost religious. His musings begin with "My memory started under snow . . . " and proceed through childhood and adult experiences that always seem to focus on the land and the people who survived on it. The text is accompanied by exquisite color photos mostly taken by the author.  

All the animals are there. You meet (and see in the photos) the caribou, the musk ox, the seal, the salmon, the bear, and of course the porcupine. The quirky title essay doesn't arrive until midway through the book, but it demonstrates the overreaching theme.  A porcupine has been killed, skinned, butchered, and the meat saved in a nice plastic bag.  Kantner reflects,  "I stand back and look at the brown plastic bag laid gently closed, the shiny jetboat, the red gas cans and heap of guns. The cooler full of Pepsi and turkey spreadables. . . I feel the the sheer weight of this technology that has come to carry our lives." At the end the porcupine's skin is burned in an age old ritual of respect for the animal that gave its life to nourish other life. 

But there lies the rub.  Those rituals are going. The arrival of the new pushes out the old. As Kantner says, "There's a war going on up here on the last frontier." It is a "bitter range war" between the subsistence life of the past and the life brought by the oil and mineral companies, the government, the trophy hunters, and the tourist conglomerates. There is still subsistence of a sort in the rural areas, but even there it has been overrun by technology, snowmobiles, repeating rifles, electric generators, the internet, frozen pizzas, and Wal Mart. The world is out there,  but somehow not the same and definitely not as pure or as holy as it once was.

Throughout there are Kantner's detailed descriptions of arctic life both before and after the arrival of statehood. You get telling accounts of his early life in the sod igloo built by his parents on the bank of the remote Kobruk River. When he fixes on the weather you can feel each new blast of freezing wind and swirling snow. When he hunts you feel with both the predator and the prey. Several chapters serve up bitter winter battles against the sea, the ice, and the snow,  then in a nice balancing act, others take you on flower scented walks over the summer tundra under semingly endless arctic sun.

The world Kantner paints is so distant from the plush cruise ship ethos that surrounds the tourist that I found myself feeling a bit ashamed for daring to tread so comfortably on his holy ground. Ultimately it was a picture of an Alaska that we did not see or feel on our recent trip, except perhaps at isolated moments. It is definitely a side of that gigantic and remote land that needs to be added to every traveler's experience.  This is a book you might wish to read even if you have not just traveled to Alaska.

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