Saturday, September 16, 2017

Nancy Lord's new ''cli-fi'' novel "pH" resonates in Alaska and the Lower 48 as well

''pH: A Novel''

    • By Nancy Lord in Alaska
    • WestWinds Press
    • 256 pp.
    • Reviewed by C.B. Santore in Connecticut!
    • C.B. Santore has worked as an analyst, writer, and editor in both the public and private sectors since moving to the Washington area in 1980. She began her freelance career in 2005, offering writing and editing services for a variety of business and government publications and information technology projects. Ms. Santore holds a BA in history from Connecticut College, an MA in history from the University of Connecticut, and an MBA from Virginia Tech.
    • Excerptsfrom review
    • September 16, 2017


    This novel picks up in fictional form where Lord left off in her most-recent nonfiction work, Early Warming, with the topic of ocean acidification. The novel’s title refers to the pH scale, which measures acidity. As the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide, it becomes more acidic, compromising the pteropod and, in turn, threatening the food chain.
    Lord’s insights into environmental issues and the integral part the environment plays in the lives of the indigenous Alaska Native population (Eskimoes and Indians) come from her own experiences. She has worked in commercial fishing, as a naturalist, and as a trustee of the Alaska Conservation Foundation.

  • These experiences, married with her writing skills (she has an MFA and teaches writing), have given Lord fodder for several other nonfiction books and short stories about Alaska. 

  • She sets pH in the present, in a locale she knows well, rife with complications like corporate corruption and contentious politics.

  • This is a departure from other examples of “cli-fi”  like Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, both of which are set in post-cataclysmic, dystopian landscapes where survival is the main concern.

Lord’s book pays homage to the dogged dedication of scientists like Berringer. She seamlessly weaves into the story detailed, but not distracting, explanations of the ocean’s chemistry, the biology of marine life, and scientific methodology, along with descriptions of Alaska Native life and customs. The novel, an anthem to saving the environment, is as educational as it is enjoyable.

It raises an interesting idea, too. Lord argues that neither art nor science alone can save the planet. She makes a full-throated plea to understand and appreciate the interconnectedness of science and art. Both, she says through Annabel, require creativity, and one can inspire the other.

Annabel perceives the pteropods as a representation of the vitality and fragility of life. (I don’t think it’s coincidental that a butterfly, another beautifully fragile creature, foreshadows approaching environmental disaster in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.)

In pH, Annabel uses art to convey this perception on a visceral level that obviates the need for a scientific explanation. She makes sculptures of organic paper that are set alight and launched on ice pedestals off the ship’s stern one night. The paper and ice dissolve, and the flame is extinguished — a subtle reminder that what exists now may not always.

CBS is a freelance writer and editor in East Hampton, CT.

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