How Jonathan Raban’s Passage to Juneau Decolonizes Nature Writing
Robert MacFarlane on Indigenous Pantheons, the Western Notion of the Sublime, and Raban's Disruptive Language
One of the epigraphs of Passage to Juneau comes from Joseph Conrad’s novel The Shadow Line: “‘That’s a funny piece of water,’ said Captain Hamilton.” Funny-strange, of course, not funny-haha. Funny-ominous, in fact. Funny like the floating object that the steamer Patna runs over in Conrad’s Lord Jim, as smoothly as a “snake crawling over a stick,” very far out to sea. Funny like the “slight roughening of the horizon line, like the deckle edge along the top of an invitation card” that Jonathan Raban knows is “a signal to batten down the hatches” when sailing.
And “funny” like the omens, scattered here and there, of the event that gut-punches both Raban and his readers in the concluding pages of this extraordinary book. Afterwards, you look back across what you’ve read and realize that the foreshadows of this calamity were there throughout, increasing in number and thickening in darkness.
It all begins so brightly, though. “Forget the herring and the salmon,” writes Raban, “I meant to go fishing for reflections, and come back with a glittering haul.” Over the course of a “fishing season” he will sail solo from Seattle to Juneau in a thirty-five-foot ketch fitted out with a dozen yards of teak bookshelves, following the legendary “Inside Passage”: a mazy, tricky route that picks a path among the countless islands, skerries, and islets that complicate the coastline. Along the way, he intends “to meditate on the sea, at sea.” Raban sails a working boat, but his catch will be words, chapters, a book, and his labor will be upon the two battered typewriters he keeps in the cabin.
My copy of Passage to Juneau went to sea with me, and it shows. Its pages are sun-browned, foxed, and dog-eared. The front cover is water stained. I first read it in 2001 while idling along the south coast of England in a hired yacht, skippered by a sailing friend called Ben who’d given me Raban’s book as a Christmas present. “I think he writes better on water than anyone since Conrad,” said Ben.
I came to agree. I underlined and scribbled on my copy, picking over the language like a magpie in a field of unearthed coins. Much as “They rode on” becomes the key anaphora in another epic North American journey, Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, in Passage to Juneau “The sea” recurs as a sentence-starting refrain: “The sea was smooth as a pool of molasses. Twists of smoke rose from its surface in the chilly early-morning air”; “The sea, scored with current-lines, was like an ice rink imprinted by the tracks of figure skaters”; “The sea was covered, shore to shore, by the glossy membrane of its surface film…like an enormous sheet of Saran Wrap.” Even things which are not made of water become watery: on the quayside, two people work threading floats onto a quarter-mile-long gill net, while “the jade-green, gossamer nylon mesh shimmered at their feet like a river.”
I could go on. I must stop. I’d end up quoting a quarter of the book. Each of these is a tiny, shining prose poem in its own right. It’s characteristic of Raban that he’s ready to reach for a brand name (“Saran Wrap”) to evoke the texture and structure of the sea at that moment. Passage to Juneau is full of such disruptive, category-breaking imagery.
I take him to be stylistically at work on two convergent tasks here. The first is to escape the suffocating language of the “sublime” which has characterized so much white Western apprehension of the coastline of the Pacific Northwest, from John Muir’s raptures at the “embosomed…scenery,” to the gushing copy of contemporary cruise company brochures (“You cruise this enchanted waterway and each vista surpasses the one before”).
The second task is driven by what would now be called a decolonizing impulse. That is to say, Raban seeks both to honor and to write with the perceptions of the First Nations people from the regions through which he passes. Those bookshelves in his cabin hold Trollope, Arendt, and Homer, sure–but also a monograph on Kwakiutl art and translated collections of Tlingit stories.
Influenced by the “marvelous, stylized, highly articulate maritime art” of those people, Raban’s own prose begins to shimmer with lozenge-like, luminous images, resembling “the tiny capillary wave raised by a cat’s-paw of wind, as it catches the light and makes a frame for the sun.” He is drawn to the Kwakiutl understanding of the ocean as a dynamic, sentient “place,” a “mobile surface full of portents, clues, and meanings,” and finds repellent the aqua nullius described by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century white sailors, to whom the sea is only waste, threat, or “empty space.”
If there’s a god in this book, it isn’t the Christian God of George Vancouver–the Royal Navy captain who mapped the Inside Passage in 1792, scattering colonial place-names as he went–with whom Raban conducts something of a running sea-battle of opinions. Rather, it’s Komogwa, the “Master of the Seas” in the Kwakiutl pantheon: the “avatar of malevolence and greed, lord of oceanic disorder and chaos.” As the voyage proceeds, Raban’s tranquil plans to “meditate” and “reflect” are first unsettled, then capsized. The sea discloses its “spooky depth[s].”
Unnavigable cross-currents pull him far off course. He’s swept away by rips and races. Even as disorder builds, though, his prose retains its grace of accuracy. Gray water is “moving seaward in looping arabesques…[streaming] out from a piling like a long braid of thick hemp rope.” A putrescent salmon corpse in the harbor at Gold Creek slowly “fell to bits and sank in a gaseous pink cloud.”
Raban seeks both to honor and to write with the perceptions of the First Nations people from the regions through which he passes.
These days my copy of Passage to Juneau sits on the “go-to” shelf next to my writing desk, reserved for the books for which I reach when I need to remember why and how to keep the pen moving. On the back cover, Raban looks out from his author photo, regarding me with what his friend Paul Theroux once called his “evaluating alien eye.” The trademark ball cap. The enigmatic, sleepy sort-of smile. The scouring stare.
Journeys, he writes here, “hardly ever disclose their true meaning until after––and sometimes years after––they are over.” The same can be said of books. Once read, Passage to Juneau will stay with you, shifting its meanings over time, fluid and mysterious.
From the new introduction to Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings by Jonathan Raban. Used with permission of the publisher, Penguin Classics. Copyright 2023 by Robert Macfarlane.