With Alaska in the political spotlight, and with that spotlight showcasing someone with a less-than-stellar record when it comes to the environment, reading about sustainable life in Alaska, in this case, the rural Arctic, might just be a blast of cold, last frontier air. Seth Kantner’s second book, Shopping For Porcupine (Milkweed Editions, $28), a collection of memoirs on his life in Arctic Alaska, documents his upbringing by transplanted parents and his current life with his wife and daughter in Kotzebue. Accompanied by Kantner’s stunning photography of life in the tundra, Shopping for Porcupine is a beautiful tribute to land that, despite its remoteness, is slowly succumbing to the influence of globalization.
Kantner, the son of lower-48 transplants who moved to the tundra in the 1960s to go back to the land, was born in an igloo and raised among Inupiaq people, sled dogs and caribou. From an early age, he and his brother helped care for the dogs, process animals for meat and furs, and collect plants, all while being homeschooled by their mother. His stories talk of a remote childhood immersed in nature and the ecosystem of the tundra, highlighted by interactions with few and far-between neighbors, who, despite their relative separation, were integral support systems in the sometimes unforgiving climate.
Kantner’s narratives are fascinating, particularly to those, like me, who are intrigued by the remoteness, the wilderness, and the uniqueness of Alaskan culture. His description of both the breathtaking landscapes of the tundra, juxtaposed with the minutiae of everyday life living off and unforgiving land, create a comprehensive portrait of life on the tundra.
Even more fascinating are his perspectives on the slow creep of outside influence, the impact of the flood of government money granted to Native Alaskans in exchange for oil and power, which threaten the subsistence way of life. Kantner skillfully navigates conflicting emotions on the overall impact of “progress”:
“The oil companies have leap-frogged us and are galloping across the North slope, encircling us too, up the Chukchi coast. The bureaucrats have plans, big plans. For years, I’ve struggled to write about this Arctic without telling a single secret, weaving between worry and worship, tryin to say how much I care while hiding place names, all description that could lead a sranger to my priceless homeland. And meanwhile? We locals have woken up modern.”
If current events have got you interested in the other Alaska, one steeped in generations of traditions and skills, Shopping For Porcupine provides a heartachingly-beautiful ovation to this secluded, rich, and dynamic landscape.