Tuesday, November 26, 2019
A Republic of Rivers: Three Centuries of Nature Writing from Alaska and the Yukon, edited by John A. Murray
A well-edited sampler of natural science, travel, literature, and lore
I have traveled to Alaska and the Yukon once, just on a brief vacation, but it was enough to make me fantasize about a longer stay and deeper exploration of the region. Though I may make it back someday, for now I’ll have to admit I am an armchair adventurer who primarily enjoys the idea of the North vicariously through the accounts of others. Whether you’re a long-term resident of the region or just a dabbler like myself, chances are you will find much to appreciate in A Republic of Rivers, an anthology of 48 writings on Alaska and the Yukon. Edited by John A. Murray, a nature writer himself, the book was published by Oxford University Press in 1990.
Murray has done an admirable job of selecting from a wide variety of sources and organizing and presenting them in a manner that truly gives the reader an educational crash course in the literary history of Alaska and the Yukon. The selections are divided into three sections. The Age of Exploration covers the era of Russia’s dominion over Alaska, and contains excerpts from explorer narratives including those of James Cook, George Vancouver, and Alexander Mackenzie. The Age of Exploitation covers Alaska’s period as a U.S. territory and features a wide variety of writers including John Muir, John Burroughs, and Jack London. The Age of Environmentalism covers the time from Alaska’s statehood to the present (1990) and includes many contemporary writers and environmentalists such as Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, and Barry Lopez. These categories are more chronological than thematic, as you will find explorers, exploiters, and environmentalists mixed into all three. The myriad writing styles include exploration diaries, empirical scientific observations, adventure travelogs, personal memoirs, literary nature writing, studies of animal species, poetry, myths and folklore, and more. Murray wisely includes at least a half dozen selections from Native American, First Nations, and Inuit writers, including Koyukon riddles, Eskimo poetry, Haida myths, and a first-person narrative from a Tlingit trapper.
Although this book is 325 pages in length, each selection gets its own title page and author bio page, and it has many intentionally blank pages. As far as the excerpts themselves are concerned, you’re getting at most maybe about 190 pages of text divided among 48 entries. Each selection gets anywhere from one to eight pages. The Age of Exploration excerpts are all very short, which is unfortunate since those are the ones I found the most fascinating. Murray is clearly more interested in the more literary nature writing of the later twentieth century, so he grants those selections a higher page count. At times there’s enough text to leave you feeling content at having read a satisfyingly eloquent piece of natural observation, but often it feels like you’re only getting the barest general idea of what the works from which these excerpts were drawn are actually about. If anything, this collection succeeds as an appetizing variety platter that allows the reader to choose which writers are worthy of further follow-up. To aid the reader in that quest, Murray includes complete citations for each passage and a sizable bibliography in the back matter.
Though the book is attractively designed, a more judicious use of page space would have allowed for the inclusion of more content. The brevity of the selections is really my only major criticism, however. Murray has done a very fine job assembling this collection, and he is both knowledgeable and thoughtful in his selections. Any state or region would be happy to have an anthology of this quality to represent its natural environment and Indigenous culture.
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