By Lara Messersmith-Glavin. University of Alaska Press, 2022. 190 pages. $16.95 paperback, $13.95 ebook.
Most of the writing about commercial fishing in Alaska focuses on dramatic events – storms at sea, shipwrecks, testosterone-fueled chaos. “Spirit Things” is something else. In a series of essays, Lara Messersmith-Glavin, who grew up on a seine net fishing from Kodiak, presents fishing life as she lived it, in memory, reflection and deep dives into the myth and meaning. The memories come from her childhood and teenage summers on the boat – from her early days in the late 1970s at the age of two, to 21, when she left the family business to embark on in his own travels and earthly life.
Each of the 17 essays is titled with a ‘thing’ – a word that serves as a vehicle of meaning and provides a launching pad for related thought. Net, salmon, wave, winch, buoy, knot, glove, radio and so on. His descriptions are detailed, precise and beautifully written – as enjoyable to read by those who fish themselves as by those who may never have stepped on a boat or seen a fish outside of a restaurant. They offer a clear and privileged look at a way of life, including the changes it has undergone during the 20 years of its participation. They also offer a retrospective look at that earlier era, already lost in the mists of history.
Messersmith-Glavin is extremely sensitive to visual details, sounds, smells, movements and patterns of all kinds. His “TOC brain” and synesthesia – experiencing one meaning through another – reinforce his perceptions and language. When she steps on a dock – “a minefield for the strange and sensually sensitive” – her feet find patterns in the wood, and she must match the pressures of one foot then the other, the pressures triggering a feeling in his mouth. “The pattern unfolds like origami unfolds.”
Or consider this, from the “Light” chapter: “The path of the moon paints a brilliant band, our wake mimicking its foamy shape and color, a rare occurrence occurring in the water around us. A line of bright green snakes behind us, incredibly lit as if being struck by a wand, the glow from this was a cloud of microscopic droplets, tiny bioluminescent organisms flickering and blazing like a storm of sparks, their twinkling collective merged into a misty glow. ”
One chapter, “Buoy”, consists of five parts, each recounting one of his July birthdays. It forms a sort of brief memory: at age 5, his first experience of cod jigging with the help of a favorite sailor; at age 7 swinging on a buoy attached to the power pack after receiving gifts from his “hundred big brothers” in the fleet; at 12 wanting to be home with friends; at 18, take the time to soak in the hot tub at the tender; and at 21 in a bar during a strike and returning, sullen, to the boat that bears his name.
Messersmith-Glavin doesn’t dwell on her status as a girl and young woman in a male-dominated industry, though she does refer to it from time to time. In “Skiff”, she discusses the hierarchy on board a seiner, where the “skiffman” is highly skilled and highly valued and the deck crew occupy the lowest ranks. “Despite my mother’s experience on deck, I was raised, implicitly and explicitly, to believe that women were fundamentally mechanically incompetent.” She was completely content to be on deck, where she could be “the toughest muscle, the quickest thinker, the best with the knots and the gear.” I stayed on my estate, where it was safe.
In the “Knots” chapter, the author celebrates the history, puzzles and magic of knots. The first knots she learned gave her “a secret pathway into deckhand’s rites of passage as a girl – a way in which knotting felt both masculine and feminine and in turn made me feel to feel deeply useful, which was rare”. As a teenager, she “had the dubious honor of doing the job of mending threads on the clumsy hands of grown men…my pride kept my knife and needle quick and safe.”
The “Wake” essay at the end of the book is a nice triptych that explores the multiple meanings of the word. The first section recreates a scene of waking up to the creaking of the engine starting and rushing to pull the anchor, proof for the sailor that she is “a superior worker”. The second part is about the wake which is “the imprint of the passing boat, the foamy trail it traces behind it, with ridges winding at angles and choppy water behind”. In the last section, the wake refers to the death of a good friend, who went down with his boat. Here, Messersmith-Glavin recounts his return to Kodiak for a memorial gathering of shared stories and shared food. “It’s a wake – standing in the dark in a circle of loving people and clearly seeing how someone has touched you, waking up to their presence in your life, their impact on others and the world .”
Messersmith-Glavin has been out of fishing longer than she lived her life, and yet in “Spirit Things” the experience of that time is captured, like a net full of salmon, in sparkling detail and nourishing. This is a book to love and cherish.