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Miranda Weiss

    2017

  • Project Award
  • Literary Arts/Scriptworks

In a Warming World, a Love Letter to Snow

“Snow is the perfect subject for me,” Miranda Weiss states as a fact. “It’s something I love. It’s rich scientifically but also culturally, aesthetically and metaphorically. I have a personal stake in it, and I find it so beautiful.”

Snow is the subject of Weiss’ current book project — the one supported by a Rasmuson Foundation grant. Following on her acclaimed 2009 memoir “Tide, Feather, Snow: A Life in Alaska,” the new work, while grounded in her own experiences, takes a broader look at all things that swirl around the single subject of snow.

Weiss grew up in Maryland, received an undergraduate degree in biology, and was drawn to Alaska in 1999. She undertook a Master in Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction writing at Columbia University, from which she graduated in 2006. Her memoir grew out of the work she completed for her thesis there and is largely about life in her adopted town, Homer.

While at Columbia, Weiss found herself labeled a “nature writer” — not necessarily in a way that was appreciated. She recalls a professor scorning nature writing and wondered if she would be better off writing about her immigrant grandmother and urban settings. Eventually, though, she came to see that the natural world was her natural beat. “Now I happily call myself a nature writer. I embrace the label and find it freeing instead of confining. It’s helpful to have a specialty.”

In recent years, Weiss has kept up an active freelancing career, with essays and reporting in a variety of publications. Her work has extended from the local (a summerlong series of stories about the Homer Spit for the Homer News) to the statewide (essays in various publications) to the national and international (several articles in The Economist about Alaska subjects — the 2015 seabird die-off among them.)

For a year Weiss was a regular contributor to The American Scholar with a weekly on-line column titled Northern Lights; these essays, archived on the site, are “about the wonders and challenges of living in Homer, Alaska.” Through them Weiss explored such subjects as fishing, walking in the dark, the death of forests, the end of tourist season, and — yes — the delights of fall’s first snow.

Weiss has also been busy being a mom to two daughters, both of whom are now school-age. If her writing productivity has been less than she might have desired, she also enjoyed seeing the world through the eyes of her children, and those aspects infuse her writing. “Kids in nature resonate with readers,” she says. When kids are part of a story — or just helping the writer see things in a fresh way — readers are drawn into common experience and can share understanding and empathy. One of Weiss’ concerns is what the loss of snow will mean for kids’ outdoor play. “Losing snow,” she says, “means one less medium of play.”

Losing snow is, in fact, a major driver behind her book project. In recent years Homer has suffered through winters with little or no snow. This has meant not only icy roads, gray cheerless days, and fewer opportunities to play in snow, but significant changes to hydrology and salmon habitat.

Although climate change is not the subject of her book, Weiss considers it the backdrop. She describes the book-in-progress, succinctly, as “a scientifically rigorous love letter to snow in a warming world.”

For now, Weiss is taking advantage of exploring snow in as many ways as possible. The best part of her project year, she says, was a trip to the Arctic in the spring. She was able to accompany snow researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to the Toolik Field Station in the foothills of the Brooks Range and then to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Barrow observatory. The experience of learning with experts the value of tundra snow for climate regulation and ecosystem functions was, however, more than about snow for her. The northern coast in particular was what Weiss called a “magical place,” with its snow, sea ice, open water, and the people and creatures that flourish there. She watched whalers towing boats behind snow machines and a snowy owl backlit by the sun, surrounded by sparkling snow.

Future travel and research will likely involve a trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains in California (the source of so much snow-melt water for California residents and agriculture) and perhaps a snow festival in Japan.

Back at her desk, Weiss keeps writing — writing in “chunks,” “putting together pages” that will join a book proposal. Soon enough, she will tell the story only she can tell about snow.

Nancy Lord, Alaska's writer laureate from 2008-10, is the author of several books including “Fishcamp,” “Early Warming,” and “pH: A Novel.” She received an Individual Artist Award in 2007.

Image credits - All gallery images courtesy of the artist. Artist portrait by Linda Smoger. Writer portrait by Irene Owsley.