A well-written and deeply intriguing collection of essays on humans and nature in Alaska.

ENTANGLED

PEOPLE AND ECOLOGICAL CHANGE IN ALASKA'S KACHEMAK BAY

A veteran biologist and longtime Alaska resident explores the region’s Indigenous and natural history.

In this debut volume of nature essays, Sigman applies the ecology concept of “shifting baselines” —essentially, establishing a new sense of normal after a significant change—to her own life and to Homer, Alaska, and the surrounding Kachemak Bay, where she has resided for many years. The book’s pieces draw on the author’s work as a researcher and environmental educator. They focus on the connections between the changing populations of fish, mollusks, and marine mammals and the shifts in the human population, both the region’s Indigenous communities and the waves of settlers who have migrated from the United States mainland to Alaska for more than a century. The essays are both informative and enjoyable reads, as Sigman does an excellent job of conveying scientific topics to nonspecialist readers. “In the Spirit of the Lamp” shows how the prehistory of a location is deeply connected to its present. In “The Silver Horde,” the author makes an effective comparison between artificially breeding salmon and driving a Prius, each solving one problem while contributing to another. The prose is vivid (“Parents exchanged nest duties with courteous butler-like bows before the stay-at-home mom or dad flew off to forage along the north shore”), and the essays provide a clear sense of place and belonging. Readers will discover that Alaska’s environmental problems are complex and layered, with competing interests vying for supremacy and outcomes that are clear only in the long term—halibut overfishing, for instance, or the challenges of managing salmon hatcheries. “The Bidarki Story” is one of the collection’s strongest essays, following a graduate student’s shellfish research that succeeds by treating the Indigenous bidarki harvesters as scientific partners rather than passive subjects. Readers who have never been to Alaska will come away with a clear sense of the landscape and the wildlife and people who inhabit it as well as an appreciation for the work of ecologists.

A well-written and deeply intriguing collection of essays on humans and nature in Alaska.

Pub Date: March 15, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-60223-348-5

Page Count: 250

Publisher: Univ. of Alaska

Review Posted Online: Feb. 4, 2020

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Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

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LAB GIRL

Award-winning scientist Jahren (Geology and Geophysics/Univ. of Hawaii) delivers a personal memoir and a paean to the natural world.

The author’s father was a physics and earth science teacher who encouraged her play in the laboratory, and her mother was a student of English literature who nurtured her love of reading. Both of these early influences engrossingly combine in this adroit story of a dedication to science. Jahren’s journey from struggling student to struggling scientist has the narrative tension of a novel and characters she imbues with real depth. The heroes in this tale are the plants that the author studies, and throughout, she employs her facility with words to engage her readers. We learn much along the way—e.g., how the willow tree clones itself, the courage of a seed’s first root, the symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi, and the airborne signals used by trees in their ongoing war against insects. Trees are of key interest to Jahren, and at times she waxes poetic: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.” The author draws many parallels between her subjects and herself. This is her story, after all, and we are engaged beyond expectation as she relates her struggle in building and running laboratory after laboratory at the universities that have employed her. Present throughout is her lab partner, a disaffected genius named Bill, whom she recruited when she was a graduate student at Berkeley and with whom she’s worked ever since. The author’s tenacity, hope, and gratitude are all evident as she and Bill chase the sweetness of discovery in the face of the harsh economic realities of the research scientist.

Jahren transcends both memoir and science writing in this literary fusion of both genres.

Pub Date: April 5, 2016

ISBN: 978-1-101-87493-6

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Jan. 5, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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Drawings, words, and a few photos combine to convey the depth of a tragedy that would leave most people dumbstruck.

A FIRE STORY

A new life and book arise from the ashes of a devastating California wildfire.

These days, it seems the fires will never end. They wreaked destruction over central California in the latter months of 2018, dominating headlines for weeks, barely a year after Fies (Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, 2009) lost nearly everything to the fires that raged through Northern California. The result is a vividly journalistic graphic narrative of resilience in the face of tragedy, an account of recent history that seems timely as ever. “A two-story house full of our lives was a two-foot heap of dead smoking ash,” writes the author about his first return to survey the damage. The matter-of-fact tone of the reportage makes some of the flights of creative imagination seem more extraordinary—particularly a nihilistic, two-page centerpiece of a psychological solar system in which “the fire is our black hole,” and “some veer too near and are drawn into despair, depression, divorce, even suicide,” while “others are gravitationally flung entirely out of our solar system to other cities or states, and never seen again.” Yet the stories that dominate the narrative are those of the survivors, who were part of the community and would be part of whatever community would be built to take its place across the charred landscape. Interspersed with the author’s own account are those from others, many retirees, some suffering from physical or mental afflictions. Each is rendered in a couple pages of text except one from a fellow cartoonist, who draws his own. The project began with an online comic when Fies did the only thing he could as his life was reduced to ash and rubble. More than 3 million readers saw it; this expanded version will hopefully extend its reach.

Drawings, words, and a few photos combine to convey the depth of a tragedy that would leave most people dumbstruck.

Pub Date: March 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4197-3585-1

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Abrams ComicArts

Review Posted Online: Nov. 26, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2018

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