A few weeks ago New England environmentalist Bill Sargent emailed, saying I would really enjoy Crocker Snow’s book, ‘Nantaska, the Minnow and the Whale’, about his love of Alaska and Nantucket. Snow, another New Englander, is an award winning journalist and nephew of the late Norman Vaughan (1905-2005), the adventurer who accompanied Admiral Byrd to Antarctica, 1928. Vaughan moved to Alaska in the early seventies to race sled dogs. Snow was often at the finish of Vaughn’s twelve Iditarod races, and fell in love with the 49th State and its people.
During my childhood of the 50s and 60s, I spent summers at my grandparents’ home on Martha’s Vineyard, 38 miles from Nantucket, also off Cape Cod. Reading Snow’s book brought back the smell of pea-soup fog, the brackishness of salt marshes with razor-sharp Eelgrass, which entrapped shards of clam and scallop shells and glass beer bottles. Wading, I would routinely slice my feet. Like Snow, I had experienced Hurricane Carol, 1954, trapped off Cape Cod (he on Nantucket, I on the Vineyard) without electricity or cooking fuel. I can still see my grandmother’s wrought iron porch table dance across our lawn and split in two pieces.
My actual Nantucket experiences have been scant. In the fifties my nanny took me via steamship, for a short visit along with another governess and her charges. In the thirties, my grandfather and dad participated in annual overnight sailing races from the Vineyard to Nantucket. But otherwise the island was my ‘other’ that I touched-down upon when flying from the Vineyard to Boston, sadly heading back to another winter of school.
Having lived in Alaska for over 45 years, maybe, like Snow, there was a reason husband Dave and I found Alaska akin to the islands off Cape Cod (the Vineyard in our case). Lucy Lippard’s book, ‘The Lure of the Local’, is about her love of Maine, and is my go-to for understanding ‘place’. Lippard writes, ‘The lure of the local is the pull of place that operates on each of us, exposing our politics and our spiritual legacies. It is the geographical component of the psychological need to belong somewhere, one antidote to a prevailing alienation. The lure of the local is that undertone to modern life that connects it to the past we know so little and the future we are aimlessly concocting (Lippard 7).”
It was a drab March afternoon in my Midtown Anchorage studio when I made a cup of tea and began perusing Crocker Snow’s ‘Nantaska’. His comparing/contrasting of Nantucket to Alaska, overlays two places he routinely visits and feels at home. Alaskan photographer Brian Adams provided most of ‘Nantaska’s’ imagery. I got a surprise when I found a Dana Gaines New England Primitive, depicting harpooning. Painter Gaines’ grandparents were our neighbors on the Vineyard. His grandmother, Doro, would let my sister and me shortcut to the beach over her lawn.
Nantucket is an actual island while Alaska is a psychological one, as it’s tessellated with Canada. The Internet age has virtually connected Alaska and Nantucket to news of the world, but there is still a uniqueness/remoteness that inhabitants of both places enjoy, albeit imagined. The World War II-GI Bill provided families with higher paying jobs and thus leisure money for travel, making Nantucket and Alaska popular tourist destinations. However, long before there were hordes disembarking off airplanes, ferry boats, and cruise ships, the harvesting of whales connected both places. Nantucket sea captains, having depleted Atlantic whales, worked their way into the icy Pacific waters off Alaska. The ‘aura’ of amassed wealth continues to be felt in their former houses, white clapboard- black shuttered mansions that still line Nantucket’s main drag. Whale oil and resulting products modernized Nantucket; decades later oil discoveries helped Alaska profit internationally.
‘Nantaska’ is a quick read providing a feel for both Nantucket and Alaska. Summer tourists and houseguests would enjoy this short tome over a glass of wine along with some tabasco drizzled half-shelled clams or crackers smothered with smoked salmon and cream cheese. Snow provides a smattering of history along with today’s culture experienced in his beloved places, but doesn’t retreat from issues that remain challenges. And, Brian Adams’ photographs generously positioned throughout the text are not only gorgeous, but contextualize the good and problematic of Alaska and Nantucket.
Among famous folks mentioned, Snow writes of John Muir coming to Glacier Bay, 1878, and Herman Melville situating a portion of his classic, ‘Moby Dick’ 1851, in Nantucket. But Snow’s dialectic admits all was not fair: Native Americans in both places lost property and identity to early white settlements.
Snow expresses the thrill of first seeing Alaska and Nantucket after having left the mainland thus encountering Alaska’s craggy mountains or Nantucket’s grassy sand dunes. Visitors often come specifically to annual festivals: Alaska’s Fur Rendezvous; Nantucket’s Memorial Day weekend sailing race from Hyannis. Again Snow reverts to his reality check dialectic. Long bleak winters produce depression, alcoholism, and even suicide. But then there is the wealth pocketed in Alaska and Nantucket, which has bred do-good philanthropy: Alaska’s Rasmuson Foundation and the Community Foundation of Nantucket.
According to Edward O. Wilson’s book ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’, “Studies have shown that given freedom to choose the setting of their homes or offices, people across cultures gravitate towards an environment that combines three features, intuitively understood by landscape architects and real estate entrepreneurs. They want to be on a height looking down, they prefer open savanna-like terrain with scattered trees and copses, and they want to be close to a body of water, such as a river, lake, or ocean (Wilson 271-272).”
People flock to summer on Nantucket, which is why it’s so expensive. Similarly, people head North for Alaska’s cool summers, and fishing. Owning beach frontage in Alaska is less pricey, but the waters for swimming and boating are very cold and cautiously inviting.
Snow’s dialectic surfaces once again as he speaks about The Cape Wind and Pebble Mine Projects, as Alaska and Nantucket also attract profiteering. Cape Wind would have put a wind farm in the aesthetic sea lanes between Cape Cod and Nantucket. Although the corporation gave up, vigilant groups are still wary. Pebble Mine, desired for its easy to reach underground copper veins, would potentially pollute Bristol Bay’s salmon industry should mining commence. Copper is needed to operate cell phones and wind farms are considered a better source of energy than fossil fuels—Globalism’s conundrum.
Climate Change which affects the entire planet, very noticeable in both Alaska and Nantucket, is one of Snow’s main comparisons/concerns as beach frontage in both locales is visibly eroding. Obama signed the ‘Paris Agreement’, as this book was going to press. My update: President Trump has sadly abandoned Global Warming as part of his neo-Nationalism.
Repairing shorelines is very costly. While store bought sand is trucked onto beaches, waterfront McMansions to basic shelters have had to be raised and moved. I get it; taking a walk recently on Nome’s beaches, I maneuvered awkwardly around the large boulders (erosion control). As Crocker Snow concludes, “Nantucket and Alaska have too much going for them to foul it up. They are picturesque well beyond the norm…. For Nantucket and Alaska, climate change and the possibility of their “island” lifestyles being disrupted by it is more and more apparent. The greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and the sea rise below directly affect both places in somewhat different ways. Finding cost-effective ways of tempering climate change is the primary challenge for those living in each place (Snow 71).” The Sleuth says enjoy Snow’s informative musings and Adams’ drop-dead photography, this upcoming summer.
Mini Sleuth: ‘Nantaska’, by Crocker Snow; ‘I Am Alaskan’, and ‘I Am Inuit’ by Brian Adams are available at the Anchorage Museum or thru Amazon. ‘The Lure of the Local’ by Lucy R. Lippard; ‘The Social Conquest of Earth’ by E.O. Wilson were quoted and are on Amazon.
Jean Bundy aica-usa is a writer-painter living in Anchorage