Book Review: Hometown Alaska

During my youth I often indulged in daydreams about moving to some lovely little town in the middle of nowhere, filled with odd-personalities, tough characters and unending opportunities to indulge in wilderness exploration while building survival skills. These little fantasies of mine were always filled with a rich social life woven from solid relationships with good, trustworthy people.

What can I say? I was young.

Amazingly enough, Heather Lende accomplished my youthful fantasies. I honestly had to check the book a few times, just to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up a novel by mistake – a novel that just happened to perfectly reflect those wistful somedays that filled my head back when my back didn’t creak and my muscles didn’t ache after yet-another-day of to-many-hours hunched over a desk.

Side note: getting old is a dreadful experience.

There’s nothing fictional about If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name; everything in the book is 100% biographical. Ms. Lende achieved the very thing I’d resigned myself to accepting as impossible. She lives in the Alaskan wilderness, raises children in a small town, and has learned to rely on sort of basic life-skills most Americans have lost to industry and urbanization. Even the quirky personalities of her neighbors are described in lovely detail:

There’s an artist who lives with his wife, a weaver, in a fanciful cabin overlooking Rainbow Glacier. He keeps a dead temple pit viper in a big jar filled with vodka and takes sips of the “snake juice” every now and then to ward off illness. He’ll offer you some if you stop by.

I was amazed.

I couldn’t put the book down.

Here’s what happened: She and her husband moved to Haines, Alaska and built a home – both literally and figuratively. Eventually, Ms. Lende’s husband acquired a local business and established a career as an entrepreneur, while she pursued a career as the obituary writer for the local newspaper. While this sounds like an odd career, she describes it beautifully:

Being an obituary writer means I think a lot about loss, but more about love. Writing the obituaries of so many people I’ve known makes me acutely aware of death, but in a good way, the way Emily Dickinson meant when she wrote, “That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet.” My job helps me appreciate cookouts on clear summer evenings down on the beach, where friends lounge on driftwood seats and we eat salmon and salads by the fire while our children play a game of baseball that lasts until the sun finally sets behind the mountains, close to eleven o’clock…Most of all, though, writing about the dead helps me celebrate the living—my neighbors, friends, husband, and five children—and this place, which some would say is on the edge of nowhere, but for me is the center of everywhere

Throughout the book, Ms. Lende’s deep understanding and knowledge of this tiny little town comes through in colorful detail.

Being both small and remote, it’s the kind of place where teenagers are almost required to complain about a lack of adventure and activity. Yet, this book is filled with events that range from amazingly exciting to terribly sad. There is nothing easy about life in Haines, Alaska; but there’s a lot to be gained from living there.

(sigh)

I am so very envious.

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name: News from Small-Town Alaska by Heather Lende

Book Review: The Family That Forages Together Stays Together

When I picked up this book, I was looking for practical information on foraging for food in an urban environment.

I like to garden and (frankly) would prefer to live in the country on a little hobby farm, but I work in IT Security, so my job keeps me city-bound. Identifying and using wild plants is something I’ve had a long-standing interest in, but was never able to pursue, so I started poking around different blogs and forums, looking for information on plant-identification classes and nature hikes. That was when I stumbled across this book.

The family lives in a suburban environment. Midwestern cities tend to look very suburban, even in the inner city – this is not universal, of course, but as a general rule, we have a lot more green space than people in much more densely populated areas (particularly along the coasts). Therefore, this book describes a living situation that is very close to my own.

If you are living in the inner city (a truly urban environment) you will probably find this book equal parts interesting, entertaining and not-entirely-useful.

The book is filled with hands-on practical advice, but the facts are provided through the medium of the journey of discovery this family experienced during a year of living off of what they could forage. Every family member had been involved in learning these skills – and they clearly had a wonderful time playing outside together as they pursued this interest. So, the decision to attempt living off of their foraging for an entire year was a natural and logical progression of this pursuit.

Personally, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was fascinating and eye-opening from the perspective of what is possible, even within a suburban (or urban) environment. There are several points where they decide to collect apples, berries or rose hips off of public land (e.g.: the decorative bushes planted in the medium in the middle of a road or an apple tree in a public park) and find themselves asking – or being asked – if that was even allowed. Of course, the next question was always – who’s going to stop us? After all, there aren’t any official apple-protecting-police-officers assigned to the park.

There are also a lot of really good tips and commentary on raising a family. The beneficial aspects to simply setting a goal and pursuing it together, as a family and as a team, are beautifully illustrated by this book.

It’s an excellent read. I strongly recommend taking a look.

Quotes from this book can be found HERE.

Browsing Nature’s Aisles: A Year of Foraging for Wild Food in the Suburbs by Wendy Brown and Eric Brown

Misogynistic Expectations

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I have included several quotes from this essay because the subject and the story felt very real to me. I can’t help but wonder how many women of my era physically injured themselves trying to hide the blessing of physical strength (or height) in an effort to fit in, become invisible or simple live through a difficult period while hoping things would improve on the other side.

I found myself both impressed by the author’s ability to flaunt her physical strength and skill, regardless public opinion, and envious of the opportunities and community structure available to her, thereby making this flaunting possible (not easy, just possible).

I truly hope the trend toward strong female characters (both physically and intellectually) in movies and literature (of all kinds and for all ages) not only continues but helps provide the widespread cultural change that will allow more young women to be both strong and unafraid of being seen as strong.

QUOTES:

“The power of mass media pales in comparison to the power of high school gossip.”

As the story went, I fought him off, not because he was weak, but because I was a freak. I was stronger than I was supposed to be…I was not really a girl—but could never be elevated to the power of a guy—so I was somewhere in between: a genderless monster….It was that I sometimes walked down streets, or went to a movie alone. Occasionally, I stopped and helped someone who was stuck by the side of the road. I acted as if nothing had changed since we were all boys and girls playing four-square on the playground, all equal in power. I had not grown up. I had not learned how to be constantly, subconsciously, submissive and afraid. I was not a woman.”

I was downright, happily, self-confidently crazy. I was a girl in high school, and although I did not assume I would always win, I knew I always had a fighting chance.

Animal, Mineral, Radical: Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food by BK Loren

The Perfect Wisconsin Gift

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Having grown up in Wisconsin, I find many of the descriptions in this book to be somewhat nostalgic. While the people described are primarily transplants or visitors from Illinois, the following quote made me stop and laugh. Of all the things I have seen and read (over decades of time), this is one of the most perfect descriptions of the kinds of things people in Wisconsin will do (as well as the reasons behind the actions):

To celebrate the cabin’s completion and the bond of their friendship, Ted presented Erle and Clara with an eight-point buck to hang over the rustic oak mantle as a housewarming gift.”

Return to Wake Robin: One Cabin in the Heyday of Northwoods Resorts by Marnie O. Mamminga

Befriending Rats

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One of the things that struck me while reading this book was the freedom that comes from being a wildlife biologist – or any outdoors related scientist (particularly a well published and widely respected one, like Mr. Hutto).

In my experience, making friends with rats, squirrels, chipmunks, deer and other ‘vermin’ are something that most farmers and ranchers simply don’t do. If they were to participate in the kinds of activities Mr. Hutto describes, they wouldn’t admit to it publicly (or even privately).

The few wildlife ‘friends’ I’ve seen or heard discussed invariably turned into easy meals for the humans handing out the treats. After all, what better way to fatten up and trap a squirrel than to feed it off the back porch and then shoot the poor thing when it stops by for a visit?

This sounds brutal and, in a way, it is. But farming and ranching tends to be brutal work. At one point Mr. Hutto mentions his relief at being able to maintain the ranch without requiring an income from the effort. In other words, he is not ranching (or farming), he’s living on a ‘hobby farm.’ This is an important distinction because the competition with the animals, both predator and prey, is primarily academic. For people who survive off of a farm (or ranch), competition with these furry friends is primarily economic – and can easily become brutally Darwinian in nature. Some would say this is a matter of good (or bad) farming/ranching practices, others would say it’s God or weather or fate. Regardless, the perspective toward wildlife creeping onto the farm or ranch tends to be the same: it’s us or them.

That said, the book includes descriptions of locals stopping by the ranch and meeting the deer herd Mr. Hutto manages to ingratiate himself with and I do not doubt the reactions he describes are both real and sincere. Being able to touch and interact with a wild animal, without all of the pressures of ranching/farming concerns is more than the wonder of interaction with wildlife, it’s freedom from work and the pressures of survival.

This is the subject that came to mind when I read the following quote because I could not help but see these words being spoken to a collection of ranchers and farmers standing around the local diner (or wherever they gather for casual socialization). In my mind’s eye I saw the listening crowd shaking their collective heads and chuckling while muttering ‘scientists’ under their breath.

QUOTE:

“Leslye has also cultivated a relationship with the remarkable rodent known as the pack rat, which often lives in accommodating rock shelters, but also loves old barns or derelict buildings. Large and beautiful rats with un-rat-like bushy tails, they are extremely intelligent and display a complex social life. Leslye can call a name, and a pack rat will emerge from a hole in a log wall of the barn, walk out onto Leslye’s lap, and casually take a horse cookie.”

-Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch by Joe Hutto