IN RESPONSE TO AMERICAN TRANSIENCE, writers like Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver describe the rewards of a lifelong apprenticeship to a place. We rarely encounter books that show how those who wander, ending up thousands of miles from their birth places, inhabit a chosen landscape, a heart’s home — and how they do that humbly, bravely. In her first book, Tide, Feather, Snow, Miranda Weiss chronicles her own “coming into the country,” not as a visitor, but as a novitiate. She asks: What does it take to earn the right to call Alaska home? What does it take to claim a bay, a shoreline, a community as home?
Weiss shares a few commonalities with Chris McCandless, the tragic subject of Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild. She grows up on the East Coast and is educated at East Coast universities. She travels north as a young woman, leaving family, friends, known terrain, familiar language, landing at the end of a road in Alaska. She arrives carrying dreams of wilderness in her wide-open eyes. Like McCandless, over the course of her story — eight Alaskan seasons (he lasted only one) — she faces herself, and what she finds is both transcendent and troubling. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike McCandless, Weiss survives. She knows what she’s up against. She earns her home in Alaska by listening, observing, naming, skinning, gutting, hammering, and ultimately respecting the huge unknown before her. What we learn as we follow Weiss through her difficult apprenticeship is that it takes a lot to truly inhabit a place, to be taken by it.
Open to any page, and you’ll find a sentence like this: “Out on the bay, you could see these things: the curiosity of sea otters, the leisure of gulls. You could witness how birds lived, how the bay slowly gyred, and how the sea was a seamstress and kelp its thread.” Weiss’s story carries you forward while her prose slows you down, each phrase as surprising as the tide pool or moose track it describes. You’ll want to don your rubber boots, your chest waders, your spray skirt. You’ll want to savor each word, the way she does. “Skiff, skiff,” she repeats, memorizing its feel in her mouth. She has to absorb this language, into her mind, into her body; that’s the point.
Weiss is fearless. She walks into her Alaskan life essentially alone, senses awake, mind curious, carrying questions we need to ask if we’re to truly inhabit the places we call home.