This summer I am reading books about the Pacific Northwest Coast, because that is where I am, writing in a cabin above a tidal cove in southeast Alaska. I like to read books set where I am sitting. It’s right and fitting, like eating jalapeno peppers in the desert or wearing a yellow slicker in Maine.
So I’m reading The Curve of Time, by M. Wylie Blanchet, who gunk-holed with her children along the British Columbia coastline in the 1920s. I’ve just discovered the work of Holly Hughes, a poet who works as a skipper and naturalist up in humpback whale country; the book I’m reading is Boxing the Compass, poems of navigation by the compass or sometimes by the steady rhythm of your heart. A man who berths his boat next to mine in the little harbor loaned me a collection of essays women have written about sailing on the reflections of cliffs and calving glaciers, as you do up here — Steady as She Goes. And I’m reading Alison Deming’s new book of poems, Rope, many of which are set on the Atlantic coast.
As I think about it, I probably read field guides and natural history more than I read fiction, and two I love are Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast (Pojar and McKinnon) — far better than most field guides because it includes traditional ecological knowledge — and Southeast Alaska’s Rocky Shores, Animals (O’Clair and O’Clair), which was a gift to me from a friend in Sitka, who also sends me columbine seeds and the dried heads of Icelandic poppies.
I didn’t know until recently that Ed Ricketts, “Doc Ricketts” in The Log from the Sea of Cortez, co-authored a wonderful guide to north Pacific mudflats and tidepools, Between Pacific Tides. John Steinbeck wrote the introduction: “There are good things to see in the tidepools and . . . interesting thoughts to be generated from the seeing. Every new eye applied to the peep hole which looks out at the world may fish in some new beauty and some new pattern, and the world of the human mind must be enriched by such fishing.”
In the tidewater village closest to my cabin, there is a little wooden building the people call the “Bus Stop.” That’s where they drop off jackets or canning jars or, most importantly, books they would like to pass along. Many of my books end up in the bus stop, but I hoard the coastal books on my shelves: The Only Kayak by Kim Heacox; The Island Within by Richard Nelson; Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea; holy, hilarious John Muir, Travels in Alaska. Then, of course, the best of all, Moby Dick, which is by now a thick stack of pages in a ziplock bag. There are sometimes four of us up here in the cabin, and we all want to read Moby Dick again, and nobody can bear to wait until the others are done. So the fastest reader tears chapters from the paperback book as she reads them and passes them to the next reader, until the book is entirely dismembered and we are all sighing with satisfaction as we read the perfect paragraphs — a travesty, I know, but arguably unavoidable.
I don’t know why it’s such a pleasure to read books that are of the place I find myself, but that is the way it is. The very best place to read Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder is close by the pounding surf. When I am in the desert, I can’t get enough of Edward Abbey. When I am driving past 100 Mile House in the broad valley between the Canadian Rockies and the Coast Range, I love rereading Smith and Other Events and Breaking Smith’s Quarterhorse, sly, fond, and funny books deeply grounded in that place.
It’s as if there are two kinds of resonance. Sometimes it’s as if the muscles in my heart were all violin strings, taut and tuned, and when a book sounds a tone, the same vibration trembles in me. So there is that kind of resonance, the sympathetic vibrations of a reader and a writer in perfect tune. But then, there is the resonance of the bell, which rings only because of its emptiness. Reading can shake that lonely space to shimmering. The books I read in winter will be all bells. Rick Bass’ stories about Montana in winter. Alison Deming’s poems about desert heat. Linda Hogan’s essays about Colorado. Brian Doyle’s riffs on God.