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Life on the Edge: Travel writer pushes limits in exploration and storytelling

Kelsey Gobroski / Sun Star Reporter
Sept. 13, 2011

Captivating the audience with his every word, adventure and travel author, Lawrence Millman, reads from one of his newly published essays chronicaling his travels in the southwestern islands of Alaska, in the Wood Center Ballroom on Sept. 9th, 2011. Erin McGroarty/ Sun Star

Captivating the audience with his every word, adventure and travel author, Lawrence Millman, reads from one of his newly published essays chronicaling his travels in the southwestern islands of Alaska, in the Wood Center Ballroom on Sept. 9th, 2011. Erin McGroarty/ Sun Star

Explorers find beautiful frontiers in desolate landscapes. Lawrence Millman travelled to Arctic islands for the same reason the gnarled tundra originally sprouted up: only a certain type of tenacity would thrive here.

Millman came to Fairbanks last week to teach about exploration, writing and fungi. Millman read selections for the Midnight Sun Visiting Writers Series Friday, Sept. 9 in the Wood Center Ballroom. The series brings several writers each year to UAF to do a reading and coach graduate students.  Millman has written many books on a variety of topics, and the University of Alaska Press likely chose him because of this breadth of knowledge, Midnight Sun coordinator David Crouse said.

Millman read a story from “Lost in the Arctic” about the time he was marooned on an unmapped island with a pair of jovial Inuit locals. He also read selections from “Northern Latitudes.” This collection of stories offered a glimpse into his heart, he said, because editors had removed many of these pieces from original manuscripts. About 40 people attended the reading.

MFA student Sarah Holsteen studies memoirs, and listening to Millman’s readings gave her insight into the travel-writing genre. Holsteen was “blown away by the kinds of places he’s traveled to,” she said.

“I kind of like places where nature wields the big stick, and the works of man tend to dent that stick,” Millman said.

Millman last visited Fairbanks 10 years ago to speak to the local chapter of the Explorer’s Club at the Fairbanks Princess Riverside Lodge. An explorer’s mindset has been with him for some time.

“I must have been 5. I grew up in the Midwest and growing up in the center means you are attracted to the edges,” Millman said. “My first tentative trips were to the edges of the backyard.”

After earning a doctorate in literature, Millman pursued the edges of his world: life without books or poetry. Seeking refuge from the written word, he traveled to western Ireland to immerse himself in oral culture, he said. Magazine editors interpreted the resulting cultural book, “Our Like Will Not Be There Again,” as a glimpse into Millman’s marketability as a travel writer. He has since been published in Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic Adventure and Sports Illustrated, and has written 15 books. Many of those books tie back into his ethnography roots – “A Kayak Full of Ghosts,” for example, includes folk tales from around the world.

Millman used travel writing to feed his need to explore, traveling ever northward, “all the while getting more and more delight in the absence of luxuriant foliage and what people might call ‘attractive scenery,’” he said.

“In the end, I think of travel writing as a bastard genre,” Millman said at an English department “Craft Talk” – a conversation between Midnight Sun visiting writers, graduate students and faculty. Some travel writers include fiction, others hyperbole. In “Suburban Safari,” Hannah Holmes wrote about her back yard with a travel writing slant.

It’s a no-rules genre as long as writers keep their voice and accurately portray the place at hand, he said.

Millman offered another tip: eat the local food. Sometimes, that’s the only way to communicate.

With this mindset, Millman ate a grandmother once, he told students at the Craft Talk. When a loved one dies, the Shuar of the Ecuadorian Amazon mix the ashes with other ingredients and drink them. “She would become a literal part of those who loved her,” Millman said.

Advertising drives modern travel writing, Millman said. Advertisers eat up the space around articles, which must in turn be as rosy about the destination as possible. Millman opposes this trend. If you pursue reality, humor, and your own voice, “then what you write will be better than the sunniest prose,” he said. He also foregoes the quick keystrokes of a distracted generation by writing out his first drafts longhand, scratched up like a Jackson Pollock painting, he said.

Millman continued reading Friday night despite the din of dishwashing and Sweating Honey’s outdoor concert. Throughout the evening, he would occasionally look up at the audience, more as if he were weaving a fisherman’s tale than reading in a dim and ill-placed room. The timing in his writing provoked laughs at nearly every humorous aside.

Recently, Millman pursued a new frontier, infusing his humor with mushroom identification in his new fungus guidebook, “Fascinating Fungi of New England.” All manner of mushrooms and conks kept popping up in the northern communities he visited. As funding for exploration settled into hibernation in this frigid economy, he diverted attention toward explaining the fungi in his own locale.  Millman wove his present fungal pursuits into his trip to Fairbanks. Millman also lectured about ethnomycology, the cultural use of fungi, on Sept. 6 at UAF.

Alaska has its own collection of fungus enthusiasts. Last month, UAF hosted the Mycological Society of America’s annual conference. Millman spent the last three weeks buzzing around Alaska to attend the Girdwood Fungus Fair and lead five other mushroom walks around the state.

On Saturday, Sept. 10, the golden birches of Creamer’s Field glistened in the rain and temperatures dipped down into the 40s. A group of about 70 people huddled under a tent on the front lawn, crowding around Millman as he placed mushrooms and field books on a picnic table. Everyone gathered here for a mushroom walk. Three groups, including several families, trudged around the field’s Boreal Forest Trail. People constantly plucked mushrooms and lichens in hopes of an identification from Millman, who remained coy as to whether the specimens were edible.

Millman wrote from a fungus’s point-of-view in his final reading Friday night, “Arctic Mushrooms.” To his fungus, a windy Arctic is not as barren as it seems to the outsider. It gives enough food to fungi for mushrooms to reign in autumn.

“We travel down the river of time with slightly quicker paddle strokes than you…” Millman wrote, “come back tomorrow for instance, and we’ll be gone…and all the more beautiful because of it”

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