More on Nature Writing

I found another, quite different, book that has added to my writing options, Where the Sea Breaks its Back, by Corey Ford. This is a much older book (first published in 1966), and though the prose has a somewhat dated quality at times, it uses some techniques that I am attracted to. The subtitle, “The Epic Story of a Pioneer Naturalist and the Discovery of Alaska,” gives the basic premise, but I would say this is just where it begins.

Instead, I would call it an ostensible premise, and while it is something like a biography of Georg Steller, who was indeed remarkable and deserving of a biography, this book isn’t really that. Instead, it uses Steller to explore with him and document, partially through his eyes, Bering’s second journey to discover whether Eurasia and North America were linked or not. But even here it is much more about natural history than the history of the voyage itself, though one gets both. The human ordeal is told well, mostly on the basis of Steller’s notes and those of Lieutenant Sven Waxell, who took over command of the party after Bering’s death on the island that bears his name.

The writing is quite effective. It is not a scholarly book, and there are no footnotes to the many quotations. I don’t suppose I’ll be able to get away with quite so little in terms of references.

The remarkable thing is that the book has something of a narrative arc that is different from the story of Bering’s voyage or Steller’s life. Somewhere around page 140 out of a little over 200, the sea otter makes its appearance through Steller’s observations. After that, it never really leaves the book, and Steller almost seems to take a second place to it. In fact I found myself beginning to be more interested in the fate of the sea otter as a species, which was almost completely wiped out over the next 150 years of plunder, than I was in Steller, whose role grows less important as he departs the scene and becomes weaker in spirit, until he finally fades out in a blur of alcohol.

But the otter endures, and the book’s final pages are devoted to it, a strong move on the part of the author, it seems to me, moving from the naturalist to nature.