WATER MASK, Alaskan Stories from the Heart


Water Mask by Monica Devine
THE DESIRE to hold a mirror up to one’s face and reflect upon the past is uniquely human. We imagine the places we have lived, the people we have known, and we create stories from these memories in order to make sense of our lives. But we also write memoir in order to keep safe within the pages of a book the places and people who have touched our souls.

In 2012, Alaskan author, artist and photographer MONICA DEVINE flew from the wilds of Alaska to the mountains of Wyoming to attend the Literature & Landscape of the Horse Retreat that I co-lead with Sheri Griffith. I was excited to share Wyoming, a landscape that claimed my soul, with a woman who called Alaska home. I sensed we shared a common kinship.

Carolyn at the Vee Bar, Monica Devine
Monica was working on a collection of essays and, though she had ridden dogsleds across the frozen tundra of Alaska, the idea of riding Wyoming ranch horses across the open range still thrilled her. The photographs she took captured that thrill, such as this one of Carolyn, a born-and-bred Wyoming cowgirl, bringing 80 horses in at a run. 

This year, the University of Alaska Press published Monica's collection of essays. When she asked me if I would consider writing a blurb for WATER MASK, I was eager to dive into her stories. Here's what I wrote:

"Picture Alaska—her braided rivers and arctic tundra, her tidal shorelines and thrashing salmon. Imagine flying over the Yukon–Kuskokwim Delta with an inexperienced pilot, charging into an ever-changing rodeo of sky, clouds so thick it’s like flying through milk.

"Imagine Yup’ik elders whose humble behavior and reverence for their homeland teaches you more about living with intention than formal education ever could. Imagine learning that to practice deep listening is to practice silence. Imagine spending 21 days on a 42-foot trawler boating the Inside Passage. 

"Monica Devine’s new collection, Water Mask, captures these experiences alongside stories of New Mexico deserts, Wyoming horses, and family, making accessible through lyrical essays this remarkable American landscape."

Gastineau Channel by Monica Devine
Monica's Alaska is not the Alaska into which I disappeared when, as a young girl, I turned the pages of Jack London's novels. White Fang. The Call of the Wild. The Sea Wolf. All of them.

London's stories depicted man against nature, man wrestling with the wild, the wild as a foe to be feared and conquered. I suspected, even as a teenager, that Jack London’s Alaska wasn’t the real Alaska, or at least his stories were not the ones told around the winter fire by the Yup’ik villagers.

In WATER MASK, Monica tells of a different Alaska, an Alaska as seen through a woman's eyes. She tells of carrying her own baby in a pack on her back "when I was young and lean, my arms and legs strong." She tells the tragic story, as told to her, of a young Athasbacan Indian woman who was dip-netting on the Copper River with her baby wrapped in warm sheepskin in a pack on her back, how the young mother leaned over in the water, how the baby slipped from the pack into the roaring current.

This is not my story to tell. In the first few pages of Water Mask, Monica tells the story as it should be told, solemnly, respectfully, as it was told to her by Agnes at the Mendeltna Creek Lodge. Monica tells of a woman name Grace who ran a little bed and breakfast, the only such place along a 100-mile stretch of river.

She tells of women who make dolls for their daughters with caribou hairs and birch bark wrap. She tells of women who sit around tables sewing, telling of their own grandmothers who sewed with sinew drawn from the backs of white whales. She tells of silver moonlight falling through cabin windows onto the rough-hewn wooden tables where the women sat.

Monica Devine, Mt. Baldy, Alaska
I am grateful to Monica for bringing this Alaska to me, for keeping this Alaska safe between the pages of a book.

This wild landscape is changing, and the old traditions are being replaced by new traditions, but our stories keep the landscapes we love alive. As long as we can still turn the pages, silver moonlight will still fall through cabin windows and into our hearts. Snow will still fall on the highest peaks of our imaginations. Our souls will continue to be touched by the people who light the way for us.

NOTES: View more of Monica's photographs. Read about more of Monica's books.

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