(WestWinds Press, 2017)
Although Nancy Lord has been writing powerfully about our role in the destruction of our natural environment for a long while, this is the first full-length fiction by the famed Alaska naturalist and former Alaska Writer Laureate (2008-10). Among her published books are three collections of short stories and five works of literary nonfiction, including the memoir Fishcamp: Life on an Alaskan Shore and the powerfully cautionary Beluga Days and Early Warming: Crisis and Response in the Climate-Changed North. In addition, Lord recently edited the anthology Made of Salmon: Alaska Stories from The Salmon Project (2016). Lord hails from Homer, Alaska, a small town of some five thousand people on the Kenai Peninsula. Homer is not only the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World,” home to singer/songwriter Jewel and two of the crab boat captains on Deadliest Catch, it is also home to the abundant bird, wild, and sea life many of us picture when we think of Alaska.
Anyone interested in or concerned about climate change knows that in many ways, Alaska is ground zero in the United States. We’ve all seen photos on the web of the rotting permafrost, the starving polar bears, and the disappearing sea ice, but what Lord’s novel does is give compelling life to one of the most devastating and often unseen aspects of climate change: the acidification of the ocean. The title “pH” refers to the focus of the science at the heart of Lord’s novel: the rapid changes in pH in our waters indicating an increase in ocean acidification.
For those unfamiliar with the science, as I was, here’s a quick primer: when carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater, hydrogen ions are released, lowering the pH; the shift toward a lower pH is called “ocean acidification.” This acidification is a threat to the entire ocean food chain. If carbon dioxide levels in the water increase enough, ocean life that forms protective shells (coral, calcifying phytoplankton, crabs, shellfish) will be unable to form shells. Of more immediate concern, and central to Lord’s narrative, are those creatures that form the very basis of the food chain in our oceans—the calciferous plankton, specifically a planktonic, free-swimming snail called a “pteropod” or “sea angel.” The pteropod is what is known as a “keystone” species: foundational to the diet of many commercial fish, including pink salmon, herring, and pollock. If these “sea angels” can’t build their shells the entire ocean ecosystem will shift, or in more basic terms, no more Deadliest Catch and no more fishsticks.
In case you’re one of those readers, like me, whose eyes often glaze over when there’s too much science in a book, be assured that Lord’s prose is always accessible. The science is skillfully interwoven with a compelling plot and a cast of well-wrought characters. Complex scientific ideas are cleverly reworked into clear dialogue between a scientist and a “lay person”—often in conversations between the graduate students and other characters. Lord never “dumbs things down” but instead puts complex ideas in plain language, all within a compelling story.
The novel focuses on a group of faculty, graduate students, family members, and others involved in the events on and after a university-sponsored scientific ocean cruise in the Gulf of Alaska. With an eco-thriller tone, pH incorporates academic jealousies and the fight for research funding at the nastiest level, sexual tension, the corrosive influence of conservative politics on scientific research, and alternative responses to climate change through the voices of a pre-teen girl and a post-sixty female conceptual artist.
Moments of brilliantly etched natural beauty bring the reader into the powerful spaces and places that make up Alaska and our troubled oceans. In one example told from the point of view of the conceptual artist Annabel, we see Ray Berringer (scientist and champion of pteropods) and his young daughter Aurora watching as porpoises surround the ship. Aurora leaps with joy, “singing out, ‘I see them! I see them! I see you!’” (34). It is this ability of Lord’s to draw us into both the science and the sheer joy of witnessing the natural beauty of the ocean that makes this novel such a powerful read.
For those concerned that pH might be far too depressing with its dire warnings about climate change, or those perhaps not particularly interested in the cutthroat world of academic and scientific research funding, there is much joy to be found here, too. Both Annabel and Aurora serve as our guides in understanding the science and in finding alternative ways to respond to the threat of climate change. Annabel is both campy and deeply, artistically spiritual in her expressions and responses to the natural world and the threat to the “sea angels.” Aurora is the foil for the ridiculousness of much of the adult world, including her own father’s bumbling. Aurora draws us all in to the narrative with her fresh and exhilarating reaction to the world (the porpoises are just one early example). By giving the final pages of the novel to Annabel and Aurora’s point of view, Lord gives us all hope: hope in the future and hope in our children to do a better job as caretakers of our world and our oceans than we have done. As Annabel says to Aurora in the final pages of the novel, “It’s a beautiful world, girl of light and duende. And you get to write the next chapter.” Let us all hope that our children will get to write the next chapter in a world that still includes the tiny pteropods.