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october 2008

Scene4 Magazine: Shopping for Porcupine reviewed by Griselda Steiner

A Life in Arctic Alaska
Collection of Essays and Photographs
by Seth Kantner
Published by Milkweed Editions 2008 

by Griselda Steiner

Inherent in the title of Seth Kantner’s second book “Shopping for Porcupine” is a subtle irony. If it were “Hunting for Porcupine” the meaning would be clear, but politically incorrect.  Seth writes, “Hunting was once the thread in every stitch of my life, before technology and dollars unraveled me to a point where I could not eat, wear or justify all I could hunt.”

Having grown up in a sod Igloo in Northern Alaska and raised by parents who gave up the conveniences of middle class American life, Seth learned skills similar to those used for centuries by native Inupiaq. In my 2004 review of his stunning debut novel, “ORDINARY WOLVES”, I wrote, “The book offers vivid descriptions of his unique experience living off the land, hunting caribou, clashing and reconciling with local Eskimos and traveling a vast landscape threatened by exploitation. Without addressing eco-political issues directly, the book champions conservation by simply sharing the author’s intimate tale of survival and reverence.”  In this nonfiction book, Seth’s critique on the effects of modernization, global warming and misguided Federal policies is to the point.  His romantic view of his people and landscape gives way to a clear vision of the devastating changes that have taken place in the span of four decades.

In his beginning essays, “the candy store” and “non-dairy creamer”, Seth tells stories of his father Howard’s youth, marriage to his mother Erna and decision to live off the land.  In “counting fish” and “brothers on the trapline”, he describes the primitive hunting, trapping, fishing and food storage techniques he and his older brother Kole imitate and innovate as well as long winter nights spent with only icy winds, mice and home schooling books as companions.

As Seth grows older, his essays include character studies of old timers and their unique perspectives.  He tells how, even after he finds a wife who shares his wilderness lifestyle who gives him a daughter and his writing career takes off, the beauty and challenge of the tundra fuels his inner drive to ‘camp’.  When he goes out on his snowmobile, a machine that replaces the homemade dog and sled team of his youth, he observes in detail animal tracks, direction and quality of wind, condition of water, snow and ice and distant sounds turning his lonely treks into fantastic journeys.

Disgusted by the indifference of tourist trophy hunters, Seth gives up using his gun for a camera. His double page photographs of caribou crossings in changing seasons, musk oxen in snow drifts, the Jade Mountains silhouetted by night skies on the horizon, lone wolf chased by ravens, porcupine strolling on the river shore, grizzly guarding a kill, bring his text to life.   His innate understanding of nature is made more poignant when he writes about the fate of his dear friend, a naturalist photographer who is killed by a bear.

The issues Seth raises are multi-dimensional.   In terms of global warming, Seth writes, “Ironically, warmth, on the surface at least, is not hard to accept.  Especially in the Arctic.  With it, I’m afraid we may have to accept many other things; funerals not just for people but also for whole species and food and familiar ways we love – such as traveling on the ice.” In matching photographs of open tundra taken in 1965 and 2007 the amount of new vegetation due to climate change makes a stark comparison. 

Seth discusses the history of native rights legislation in his essay ‘once upon a frontier’.  Bogged down in conflicting interests and value systems, some questions seem to have never been resolved.  According to Seth, “National parks surround this place, begging for tourist statistics and appropriations, the native corporation dreams strip mines and jobs and somehow subsistence hunting; the state schemes road corridors and petroleum.  The oil companies have leapfrogged us too and are galloping across the North slope, encircling us too, up the Chukchi coast. The bureaucrats have plans, big plans.”

Sarah Palin, running as VP on the Republican ticket, puts Alaska’s ecological issues center stage on the national scene.  Rather than call for restoration and protection of natural resources and wildlife, she is for more drilling in her state, specifically in Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Coast of the northern terrain Seth has marked on his map.  Perhaps Red and Blue designated states will turn Green and Black as voters have a choice between a party promoting alternate energy fuels and the other continued destruction of Mother earth.

“I’m thinking that here, as in the Old West, it is what we’ve lost that marks who we are much more than these things we’ve gained.”  Here, Seth implies what shouldn’t have to be put into words - that certain places should be left alone, their purpose solely ‘to be’ and like some deep reservoir in the subconscious mind, preserved as an everlasting source of sacred space.

Seth Kantner is also the author of ORDINARY WOLVES
Winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize,
the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award and the Whiting Award.


©2008 Griselda Steiner
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Griselda Steiner, who has written book reviews, drama and poetry published in Scene4, has a new book on KINDLE, Amazon.Com’s Wireless Book Reading Device, entitled, My Take ... Your Take (Cultural Reflections).
The book is a collection of articles from the 1970’s to today that offers historic perspective on film, art trends and political events and includes interviews with Rip Torn, Lee Strasberg, Irwin Corey and many more 
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives


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