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Exploring the art of prose

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Author: Keely O’Connell


Author’s Note

This essay was inspired by a series of phrases from The Encantadas, Herman Melville’s gorgeous “sketches” about the Galapagos. Melville’s prose is lush and evocative, and his descriptions of the harsh and alien-to-him landscape and atmosphere of the islands reminded me immediately—and oddly, since the landscapes are so wildly different—of my first impressions of the Arctic. “No voice, no low, no howl is heard; the chief sound of life here is a hiss,” wrote Melville, and I heard the wingbeats of a raven in my memory. I selected short passages from his work, ordered them in a way that spoke to my own experience, and then wrote responses to them that drew on my impressions. In most cases, these were direct parallels inspired by phrases like “washed up on this other and darker world” or “the charts […] accorded with the strange delusion.” I knew those feelings intimately, and found I had a lot to say about the condition of being newly arrived in a surreal and demanding place and of being frightened and enchanted at once. The piece’s collage-y construction is a result of this inspiration.

In one case I chose a phrase that I couldn’t write to directly. Melville wrote, “[T]he special curse […] of the Encantadas […] is that to them change never comes; neither the change of seasons nor of sorrows,” which got me thinking about climate change in the Arctic. A change of seasons and of sorrows. Climate change is too big for a little essay like this, so it wasn’t something I wanted to tackle head on, but it’s there in the piece, just like it’s there in any writing about the natural world now, and I think it’s the element that eventually gave me the confidence to throw out the Melville quotations and let this essay stand alone. After several rounds of revision, the only phrase in the piece that owes anything directly to Melville is the title. He refers to the wonderful Galapagos tortoises as “antediluvian” which is a beautiful word that, when used for something contemporary, suggests an imminent disaster. In my own piece, I imagined that the antediluvian animals were the humans and the ravens, and that the flood was yet to come.

 


KEELY O’CONNELL is a writer and teacher based in Alaska, where she lives year-round in a yurt. A lover of boats, chainsaws, sled dogs, campfires, and skis, she never gets tired of exploring the wilderness. Her work has appeared in Northwest Review and Hippocampus.