Originally published in Points West magazine
Harold McCracken’s Nature Writing
By Mary Robinson
In a previous, two-part Points West Online installment, Mary Robinson told of Harold McCracken’s adventures as a naturalist and explorer of Alaska. Here she adds insights into his published writings.
Harold McCracken is first and foremost, a naturalist who knows his wilderness and his animal characters, and presents them dramatically and truthfully. But he is also a writer whose prose has power to transport his reader to the cruel beautiful North, to share the adventures of the wilderness.
– from the dust jacket of Sentinel of the Snow Peaks
Harold McCracken’s books for young people about Alaska wildlife are largely out of print and unknown today. That he won enthusiastic audiences for his work seventy-five years ago, can be explained only in part by the novelty of the subject matter. For the rest, suffice it to say that McCracken could write with originality and style.
Sentinel of the Snow Peaks (Lippincott, 1945), for example, tells a story of the wild sheep of the St. Elias Mountains. The narrative focuses on a young ram as he confronts a variety of threats from predators and human hunters. In the passage below, the animals have left the high country for the shelter of a snowy spruce forest, where they witness a brief drama in the struggle to survive:
They [the band of sheep] were all suddenly attracted by a whirring of wings and looked up to see a great eagle diving down through the air like a shooting star. At the same moment, there was a chorus of excited cackling by the little flock of ptarmigans who had been feeding nearby. But instead of taking flight, as these birds generally did when attacked on the upper ridges, they all dashed into the thicket, half-walking and half-flying until they were in the densest part. The last one barely escaped under the protection of the branches as the big bird flared its wings and tail to bring its hurtling power dive to an abrupt stop. Lighting heavily in the snow at the edge of the thicket, the eagle stared coldly at the escaped quarry for some time; then he walked awkwardly through the snow until he was in the open, and rose slowly into the air to soar away.
– Sentinel of the Snow Peaks, pg. 66
This is McCracken at his best, describing a highly active scene with images that appeal to the senses. The cackling of the ptarmigan, the “cold stare” of the eagle who has missed an opportunity—these details transport a reader into the moment. Descriptions of weather and wilderness landscapes, together with closely observed animal behavior, recreate the northern world. In The Last of the Sea Otters, McCracken describes marine life in the Bering Sea with similar authority.
His books offer an unadorned view of this world, and his stories are filled with death and loss. Notably, his narratives place animals within the confines of their natural habitat. For example, sea otters must spend most of their lives in the ocean, which makes them vulnerable to predation, storms, accidents, and injuries. In The Last of the Sea Otters, the young otter unwisely ventures from the sheltered cove of his birth and endures violent storms that exhaust him and drive him from his familiar surroundings. He narrowly evades swift death from killer whales in the open sea. After a brief reunion with his mother, she is shot and killed by a native Aleut hunter. Thus, McCracken recreates the correct environmental circumstances for each of his animal species and shows how the young—whether they are caribou, sheep, sea otters, brown bears, or walrus—are from birth hemmed in by specific dangers.
Attractively illustrated by some of the leading wildlife artists of the day, McCracken’s books were in high demand. Lynn Bogue Hunt was perhaps the best of these, and his paintings and drawings for McCracken’s Son of the Walrus King are striking examples of how book illustrators bring dramatic moments in the narrative to life.
About the author
Mary Robinson has been an active professional in the Wyoming library community since 1993. She holds an MLS from Emporia State University in Kansas and a Special Collections Certification from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois. She became the Housel Director of the Center’s McCracken Research Library on April 1, 2010.