I hope you enjoy my conversation with Alaskan author MICHAEL MCBRIDE.
Michael McBride is the author of THE LAST WILDERNESS: ALASKA’S RUGGED COAST, released in October 2013. Michael and I usually encounter each other once a year, when we join a yoga/meditation group on the Big Island of Hawaii orchestrated by our wonderful yoga teacher and friend, Lynne Minton. In January 2013, Michael and I gave a reading during an evening program at the Kalani Honua Retreat Center.
Michael, in many ways your memoir is the quintessential Alaskan book. When non-Alaskans think about Alaska, I think they imagine the kind of life you depict. Yet even most Alaskans will never experience the kind of wilderness adventure that you are living. For those who haven’t yet read your book, will you describe how you came to settle in Kachemak Bay?
As a bachelor in l966 and as a new arrival in Alaska and just out of college, I had the good fortune to be invited into the home of Clem and Diana Tillion in Halibut Cove across Kachemak Bay from Homer. One look at the Bay and that community made it clear to me that I would spend the rest of my life in that area. Growing up in a military family, I had never put down roots because of those regular changes of place. When asked where I grew up, I usually said Japan because as one of the first families and first children into Japan after the war, it colored my sense of place very powerfully and I brought that with me to Kachemak Bay. I was a stranger in a strange land in both places, yet was comfortable and immediately at home in these situations. Japanese was my second language as a child. The new language I needed to learn was one of survival in a rugged place without roads or electricity or other people. This attitude has figured throughout my life and led to deep roots in Africa, for example where I co-founded a non-profit group called The Bateleurs, Volunteer Pilots Flying for Conservation in Africa, and to my election as an African Game Ranger. There again, another language, an unusual culture and endless opportunity for reinvention.
As newlyweds, we moved to China Poot Bay, a roadless estuary across Kachemak Bay from Homer, where we bought an unfinished one room log cabin with no electricity or running water and no roads or neighbors. This presented serious challenges to a newly married couple with few skills, no jobs and zero money but was made easier because there was a clear vision of what was possible. Hard work and determination paid off and our grandchildren are now fully engaged in setting the lodge table and harvesting salmon from set nets and expanding their own horizons at the lodge kitchen table.
You mentioned during your reading in January that you’ve been writing for many years. What kind of writing have you undertaken, and how did it culminate in this book?
In the mid l970’s I was asked by the editor to write an article for The Alaska Outdoors Magazine. I wrote about the value of incorporating ethics into the sports of hunting and fishing. This serious conversation stimulated a lifelong awareness of the value of communicating effectively about the wise use of resources. I have contributed articles to the International Journal of Wilderness about Alaska and Africa and have written a string of articles for National Geographic at News Watch, their electronic newspaper.
A friend, Boyd Norton, is the author of 17 books with people like Diane Fossey, Peter Matthiessen, Richard Leakey, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and others. He pestered me to write a story about how we felt on the first day we ventured across a storm-tossed bay to begin a life in the wilderness. He showed it to our mutual friend Bob Baron, publisher at Fulcrum in Golden Colorado, and that became the first chapter.
Do you have a favorite passage or scene in THE LAST WILDERNESS?
Page 175, pushing forward the throttle of our floatplane on a remote wilderness lake where we built a lovely refuge for ourselves, big and spacious for clients from around the world who seek this kind of place.
What are some of your favorite books?
Margaret Murie --Two in the Far North, and Island Between
John Hanes --Stars Snow and Fire
Dr. Ian McCallum --Ecological Intelligence
Barry Lopez --Arctic Dreams
Charles Wohlforth --The Fate of Nature -- The Whale and the Supercomputer
EO Wilson --The Naturalist
Corey Ford -- Where the Sea Breaks Its Back
From our encounters over the years, I know that yoga and meditation are a big part of your life. Please tell us how you came to develop these practices, and how they have affected your personal path.
I have a great love of opposites, real and imagined. I love being very active and competitive and believe that I must balance this drive with restorative quiet and peacefulness. This is reflected in the choices of places to live and profession but it is still easy to make life in such a place too busy and driven.
Yoga in the end is about finding a pathway to joy, and for me that is best accomplished by turning inward to the indwelling teacher. That turning leads to the discovery of real concentration, then meditation and at last surrender. The BIG surrender when this dance is over, and the LITTLE surrender that is accessible every day in a regular practice.
Do you have a saying or motto that embodies how you feel about your life?
“Never Stop Exploring” and “Don’t let being lost spoil the fun of not knowing where you are.’
Do your plans for the future include another book?
Yes, Alaska/Africa as mirror images of on another (opposites again and how much they are usually alike, starting with man and woman, earth and sky, etc.):
One is hot, one cold but they are on opposite sides of the planet. Both are tourism icons/hotspots. Both have wild animals out there that will eat you. Both have extreme climates. Both have mosquitos. Both have charismatic mega fauna. Both have vast areas of little known wilderness. Both have a disenfranchised indigenous people who, having been overwhelmed in colonialism, still seek their rightful “place in the sun.” Both have to deal with a hungry and rapacious industrial world that wants our natural resources
I want to use the curiosity provoked by these “gee whiz” statements to give a segue into my observation that the environmental conversation since Rachel Carson, Aldo Leupold, Al Gore, Jane Goodall, and hundreds like them, has not been successful enough to direct us to a sustainable path to the future.
If this is true (and I think it is) then it begs a question, how do we reshape the conversation? I cannot do much about this global dialogue, but I can do a little to reshape the conversation with what I write. If I can provoke curiosity, I might be about to introduce new perspectives and “tweak” the conversation just a little.
It is a big thought, a big undertaking, but ----
“Lest our reach exceed our grasp, what else might life be for?”