BOOK REVIEW - ALASKANA Tracks of the Unseen
Jans, Nick, TRACKS OF THE UNSEEN Fulcrum Publishing, hardcover, 26 color photographs. $22.95
Since John Muir alerted the world to the grandeur and beauty of Alaska visitors and residents alike have written essays on nature and its power in our state. Jans is the latest writer of this genre and one of the best. Even better, he is a photographer; each essay in this beautiful little book is illustrated by one of his pictures.
Jans has several advantages. First, he lived so long in the country around Ambler, up by the Noatak River, that he understands and loves that stark country so many find featureless and ugly. Next, he is able to let the reader appreciate the glory and beauty that a lover of the country sees in the mountains and rivers and in creatures from owls to caribou and moose because he is a very good writer.
We follow the evolution of his initial youthful wonder at the plentiful game and fish to the mature enjoyment of simply watching and recording life as it passes through its seasonal rounds. He taught school in Ambler for twenty years but is careful not to judge the people other than to write affectionately about his old Inupiat friend Clarence Wood, beloved outdoorsman and elder.
Jans also is clear-eyed about traveling in this dangerous Alaska; his adventures on his snowmachine spell out the suddenness with which an ordinary trip can turn into near tragedy or worse.
The last few essays concern his move to Southeast Alaska, a place he loves but finds too unfamiliar to thoroughly enjoy. Honesty in an essayist is one of the best qualities; he is frank about his mistrust of the ocean and we are glad he is.
A lovely tribute to Michio Hoshino, the wildlife photographer killed at far too young an age, finishes this fine collection.
There is only one quibble. This book will surely be read for many years to come, so the use of slang is irritating and distracting to the reader. "...arctic trees max out on hillsides..." or "...so wired by everything that I was about to jump out of my own skin" or "...get messed up" do nothing but detract from such lyrical writing as this: "Tundra is one of those small words that spans an entire state of mind. There’s a high, lonesome sound to it, something that summons longings half-forgotten, a vision of limitless space, silence, wind, and cold." Or , speaking of autumn around Ambler: "One by one, leaves flicker and fall. A line of birches, golden at dawn, stand bare a few hours later. The wind eddies north, heavy with the scent of snow. As we watch, the land breathes out, sighs, and slides into its cold, white dream." Far too nice material to lead to confusion in fifty years.
If you have family or friends who wonder at the appeal Alaska has for you, this book should help answer their questions. As a matter of fact, if sometimes you wonder just why you put up with the weather and inconveniences, perhaps this will clarify that for you as well.