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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Green Alaska

Air Date: Week of

Steve talks with author and Living On Earth commentator Nancy Lord about her new book Green Alaska: Dreams From The Far Coast, in which she retraces the 19th-century Harriman Expedition, and finds that Alaska is not only green, but in much better shape than it was 100 years ago.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. One hundred years ago the wealthy industrialist Edward H. Harriman loaded up a large steamship with some of the world's most noted scientists and naturalists, and headed north and west to Alaska. The scientists collected specimens of the unique species they encountered. And naturalists, including John Muir and John Burroughs, captured the landscape in writings, paintings, and photographs, that gave many Americans their first glimpse of the vastness and beauty of territory purchased from Russia in the mid-19th century. Last year author Nancy Lord retraced the route of the historic Harriman expedition. The result is her new book Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast.

LORD: I've lived in Alaska for about 26 years and I've always heard about the expedition. I would run across references in books or see photographs or hear people say something. I guess I was particularly interested because John Burroughs and John Muir were part of it, and they're both some of my favorite writers and naturalists.

CURWOOD: So, it's their relationship that really sparked your interest. I'm wondering, actually you wrote in your book something about this, on page 15. I wonder if you could read that for me.

LORD: Sure. "These two men, destined to be the two great nature writers of their age, were absolute contrasts. East and west, quiet and loud, mild and combative, they praised entirely different natures. Muir was said to have badgered Burroughs on the expedition, criticizing him for his bovine contentedness back in the East and for failing to speak out for the protection of forests, Muir's latest mission, and other conservation causes. All this he did with rather good humor, apparently, with a fondness that Burroughs returned. But Burroughs, too, could twist a barb. Describing Muir in his official expedition account, he wrote, "In John Muir, we had an authority on glaciers, and a thorough one. So thorough that he would not allow the rest of the party to have an opinion on the subject."

CURWOOD: (Laughs) One of the pictures I get of John Burroughs in your book is that, well, he may have liked nature but he would have maybe perhaps rather stayed on deck of the boat with a meal nicely served to him. He wasn't about to go, you know, camp out in it and get his hands dirty in it.

LORD: He was very often seasick on this two-month tour of the coast of Alaska, and he was also usually cold. So he wasn't really too interested in being out in the wet and cold. The parts of Alaska that he enjoyed the most were the sort of pastoral kind, especially Kodiak Island and some of the rolling green tundra that appealed to him the most. He was really not that much taken with the steep mountains, the mountain peaks, and the glaciers, and the wilder part of it.

CURWOOD: Now, Alaska as a place, you think of ice and snow. So your book is called Green Alaska. Why green Alaska?

LORD: For a number of reasons. First, because of just what you said, because of the misconceptions that people have about Alaska being locked in ice and snow all the time, which it's not. Secondly, Burroughs titled his account of the expedition, "In Green Alaska," so I was playing with his title or taking off from that. And third, I wanted to use the word "green" in the environmental sense. That green stands for what's environmentally correct, or environmentally well taken care of, and that the future that we may have in Alaska is a green one.

CURWOOD: You write about greenness in your book. I'm wondering if you could read from your chapter entitled, "Green," in which you write about the Schumegan Islands.

LORD: "What I see in the lowering light is more fiery Irish green, spilling like liquid down the slopes. Colors seeming to drip from rock to catch and concentrate on every level surface. It's that same green about which Burroughs waxed all the way from Kodiak, this way and beyond. He adored this country for its, as he saw it, pastoral splendor, all the smooth rounded hills as green and tender to the eye as well-kept lawns. All the sweep of green skirts, green carpet, vast meadows, for suggesting endless possibilities of flocks and herds and rural homes. 'Green is a lawn,' he says again and again. Five times I find Burroughs comparing this treeless green country to tended lawns. I see the same green splendor, the same openness that Burroughs saw, and I adore it, too, for entirely different associations and near-opposite reasons. I look upon these achingly green islands and see not lawns and farms, nothing tame or domesticated, but wildness. What I see is seamlessly green and tirelessly unrolling, untracked by man or woman or domestic beast. Not tended, not mown, not made useful."

CURWOOD: What was your big surprise when you did this research on this expedition? What was the one thing you found that you really didn't expect to find?

LORD: What surprised me in writing the book was to find out how heavy the impact had been 100 years ago on wildlife and fisheries, that the unregulated hunting and fishing was really kind of devastating then. And things are in much better control today, and the populations of wildlife and fish are actually better.

CURWOOD: Hmm. So, Alaska's better off today than it was when the Harriman expedition took place.

LORD: In a sense, yes. They had a very hard time finding any bears, and they never saw any sea otters. Bears are very plentiful today. Sea otters are very plentiful. The fisheries are well-managed. They were quite upset when they saw the cannery operations at that time, where the canneries were barricading stream mouths and taking all of the salmon and essentially wiping out entire runs.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you, Nancy.

LORD: Well, thank you, Steve. It was a pleasure to talk to you.

CURWOOD: Nancy Lord's new book is titled Green Alaska: Dreams from the Far Coast.



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