Nature Writing in Review: The Sun is a Compass

April 3, 2019 Uncategorized 8 ★★★★

Nature Writing in Review: The Sun is a CompassTitle: The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds
Author: Caroline Van Hemert
Source: from publisher for review

Summary: Lovely – full of beautiful nature writing, incredible adventures, fun facts, and moving personal stories.

When Caroline Van Hemert finished her PhD, studying beak deformities in chickadees, she felt more uncertain than accomplished. Her years in the lab had left her feeling burnt out. She felt out of touch with the love of nature that led her to study biology in the first place. To try to reconnect with nature, she and her husband decided to pursue a wild dream of theirs – travelling more than 4000 miles through the Pacific northwest to the Alaskan Arctic entirely under their own power. They would spend many months hiking, skiing, rafting, traveling by rowboat, and by canoe. They hoped to finish with some clarity about what came next.

I empathized with the author’s grad school burnout, but wasn’t sure her problems would be compelling enough to make the ‘finding myself in nature’ story fresh. It turned out that her problems weren’t really the point. Her beautiful nature writing, incredible adventures, and frank descriptions of her partnership with her husband were what made this shine. The author drew me in with a fantastic prologue that captured the spirit of the book perfectly. She and her husband overcome life-threatening obstacles as a team of equals. They derive a lot of joy from surviving nature, but also simply from being surrounded by it. She particularly enjoys observing birds in their natural habitat, which I loved. All of these themes appear throughout the book.

I was still concerned the author would ascribe a deeper meaning to her experiences that would just feel cliched. Thankfully, she largely avoids that. She talks a bit about her internal work, figuring out what she wants to do next, but doesn’t claim some nature-inspired epiphany. She does do some lovely nature writing. Her writing isn’t overly flowery, in some cases quite sparse, but she selects the perfect details to make the reader share her sense of awe. Her blend of these visual descriptions with fun facts about animals, wilderness survival and local history was constantly engaging. The bits about her personal life didn’t dominate the story of her adventures and did make me more emotionally invested. I’m incredibly impressed that the author balanced all these different threads so well. This worked for me as a memoir, as a natural history, and as a source of inspiring nature writing. I’d recommend it to fans of any of these genres.

8 Responses to “Nature Writing in Review: The Sun is a Compass”

  1. whatsnonfiction

    This sounds amazing! I was excited for this one but I have many of the same apprehensions you mentioned, about cliches or problems and the solutions found in nature coming across a bit simply or as something we’ve heard a million times before. I’m glad to hear that wasn’t the case and that the writing is so impressive to boot!

  2. Lou

    This sounds really lovely, and maybe ideal since I am also just finishing off my PhD and experiencing grad school burnout – I love nature writing and have been yearning for some rural travel recently for exactly this reason (though I am much less adventurous and would probably just want to sleep in a nice stationery tent). It’s not out yet in the UK but I think I will be picking this up when it does arrive.

    • DoingDewey

      This does sound like it might be a good read for you right now, so I hope it’s available in the UK soon. Congrats on finishing your PhD! I hope you’re able to recover some of your zeal now that you’re done with it. Tent camping is the level of adventure I prefer too 🙂

  3. Naomi

    I like that she writes it as a memoir about her adventure and not about how it has resulted in some kind of growth or epiphany. I just like stories about people in nature.
    My husband watched a documentary recently about a group of people who were dropped into the Alaskan wilderness and their journey out. Sort of like Survivor, except they work together – and the people who leave, leave by their own choice.

    • DoingDewey

      I liked that too! When people try to give too much meaning to experiences like this, it feels a bit too neatly packaged to me.

      That documentary sounds interesting. I don’t watch many, but I think my husband would probably enjoy this too 🙂

    • DoingDewey

      I’m not sure I expected quite how much of a survival book this would be, but it definitely was. They ended up having some very close calls! I enjoyed it a lot, even if I’m not adventurous enough to ever want to do something similar.

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