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.