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A woman with a piano, a dog, and not much else ferries into a tiny Southeast Alaskan village. The townspeople — a grumpy, shouting philosopher in a wheelchair; a burly, jobless, fix-it-all man; a teenage would-be bear guide with a secret girlfriend — watch the woman arrive and help her haul her piano onto the porch of her cabin.
‘Piano Tide’ and environmental ethics 011817 AE 1 Capital City Weekly A woman with a piano, a dog, and not much else ferries into a tiny Southeast Alaskan village. The townspeople — a grumpy, shouting philosopher in a wheelchair; a burly, jobless, fix-it-all man; a teenage would-be bear guide with a secret girlfriend — watch the woman arrive and help her haul her piano onto the porch of her cabin.

"Piano Tide," a novel by Kathleen Dean Moore, who writes from Chichagof Island, is based in an imaginary Southeast Alaskan community.


The writer Kathleen Dean Moore. Photo by Frank L. Moore

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Story last updated at 1/17/2017 - 8:41 pm

‘Piano Tide’ and environmental ethics

A woman with a piano, a dog, and not much else ferries into a tiny Southeast Alaskan village. The townspeople — a grumpy, shouting philosopher in a wheelchair; a burly, jobless, fix-it-all man; a teenage would-be bear guide with a secret girlfriend — watch the woman arrive and help her haul her piano onto the porch of her cabin.

Then Axel, a local businessman, decides to dam a salmon stream and cage a wild bear for a tourist attraction, and the woman with the piano, and her new friends, have to decide what they’ll do about it.

That’s the premise of “Piano Tide,” environmental ethicist and writer Kathleen Dean Moore’s first book of fiction.

“For a long time I’ve been writing books and speeches and harangues about stopping climate change and extinctions, and it’s all been very abstract, and I’ve been saying really abstract things like ‘stand strong against the corporate plunder of the planet,’” Moore said. “And it seemed to me I really needed to know what that meant. How do people do that? How do they make the plans? What does it cost them? What regrets will they have?”

Moore, until recently a professor of environmental ethics at Oregon State University, spends her summers on Chichagof Island in Southeast Alaska (her author bio says she “writes from a small cabin where two creeks and a bear trail meet a tidal cove”).

She first came to Southeast Alaska as a writer in residence at the Island Institute in Sitka in 2006. She worked on “Piano Tide” for 8-10 years, she estimates.

Initially, each of her characters represented a different theory of environmental ethics. Axel, for instance, represented the anthropocentric point of view, she said.

(An anthropocentric view is one that “regards humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals,” according to an online definition.)

But “as soon as I started to get these characters fleshed out, they refused to be pigeonholed,” Moore said. “I wanted all my characters to be complex that always, they were trying to do the right thing…. I spent years and years making these people into people the readers would care about, until I couldn’t write about them without laughing and crying.”

Moore said the point she considers most important is that “there has to be a better way.”

“It’s not that we can’t cut trees, but we can do that honorably,” she said. “It’s not that we can’t fish, but we can’t fish out the breeds. We need to find a way towards a sustainable, honorable harvest, which is entirely possible if we start questioning our presupposition about who deserves what.”

Home is a central theme in the narrative, as is the consequence of taking action, and music itself. There’s a beautiful passage in which Moore draws parallels between the tuning of a piano and the environment.

Much of Moore’s knowledge about music is due to her friend Rachelle McCabe, a concert pianist, Moore said. The two have been touring together on a program about extinction.

“She has taught me so much about music,” Moore said. “It’s been thrilling for me… I see things differently.”

The art on the cover is by Juneau painter Dick Zagars.

Also, “Because there’s so much music in the book, I’ve been trying to bring a musician to the stage” when she reads, Moore said.

She’ll be reading in Juneau at Hearthside Bookstore in the Nugget Mall at 6 p.m.. Juneau musician Linda Buckley will perform with her. Later she’ll be reading in Anchorage, sponsored by 49 Writers. Other reading locations haven’t yet been decided.

Some of Moore’s books are “Riverwalking: Reflections on Moving Water,” “Holdfast: At Home in the Natural World;: “The Pine Island Paradox,” “Wild Comfort,” and “Great Tide Rising.” She’s won the Pacific Northwest Book Award, Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award and Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction.

Moore is now working on the sequel to “Piano Tide.”

“I didn’t think I would,” she said. “The characters just walked into my life laughing, so what can you do then?”

Excerpt

Just before midnight, a bulge of sea rolls smoothly past Good River Harbor. It’s the flood tide of the dog-salmon moon, the highest tide of the month. On its dark currents, it carries a lost gill net, drifting unmoored. These are the dangerous nets, detached from human intention. A dog salmon nudges into the net. Her head slides through the mesh, but her body is too wide to pass. She backs away. The net snags her gill plates. The fibers dig into the feathery red tissue, deeper as the salmon tugs to get away. She curls her body and snaps it straight, yanking at the net until her blood pinkens the sea. There she hangs by her head, caught by gill plates bright and round as the moon, cratered with the moon’s shadowed seas. More salmon nudge into the net, flashing silver as they struggle to escape. A school of salmon weaves through the kelp forest, approaching the net, wary in the night. Salmon and salmon and salmon nose into the net that seizes them more tightly the more they flail. The nets bulge and recoil. Silver tails swirl.

Tasting blood, a salmon shark sways close to the net, singing his rough flank against the fibers. He snatches off a thrashing tail, snatches another. But then he veers and noses into the net. He catches first a tooth, then pushing forward, catches another. The shark whips his head from side to side, savaging the net, driving the falling scales into silver swirls. He vomits salmon tails and trailing intestines that sink through the currents. A gray cod snaps up the falling pieces and pushes into the net, where she finds her own death. Heavy now with the dead, the net slowly sinks until it settles, swaying on the floor of the sea.

A hermit crab reaches tentatively for torn flesh. Dungeness crab move in, scuttling sideways. A small sculpin thrusts its spiked head into the red tissues and spins, tearing off flesh. The water is cloudy with sea-fleas and shrimp eating the soft meat under the silver skin, nibbling around the bones, a cloud of eating. Hear the tick of small teeth, the click of small claws. Spot-shrimp stalk in on spidery legs, following their orange prows. Long antennae reach toward the dying and the dead. Bubbles pop from shrimps’ mouths and stream toward the moon. When the banquet is finished, there is no flesh, only skeletons and strips of white skin, swaying.

Without the heavy flesh, the net rises again on its floats. Listen now. Skeletons with silver skirts ride the ghost net, hissing. Strips of skin swirl. Plated heads grin. The ghost net floats past the town on great tidal currents, gathering bones.


 

• Contact Capital City Weekly managing editor Mary Catharine Martin at maryc.martin@capweek.com.