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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Fisher Poets, Astoria, Oregon

March 2024

I just came from Fisher Poets, Astoria, Oregon, its annual location. I’m not invited because I’m some fisherman or run a fish tender. No, I’ve never been a commercial fisherman. I was first invited in 2010 because of a book I researched and wrote, The Night Orion Fell, published two years later in 2012. F/V George Allen was one ofthe family fishing boats that led me to write The Night Orion Fell and that led me to Fisher Poets Gathering. This painting has these boats docked in Garibaldi, Oregon.

FV George Allen

FV George Allen at dock in Garibaldi, Oregon. A Vandecoevering family boat. (Artist unknown)

My work since then are stories from local fishermen in Alaska who don’t write but still have good stories to tell. They tell me and I write them. I also write poems about the sea and stories and poems about my Nova Scotia ancestral seagoing fisherfolk, master mariners, and merchant mariners, two of whom died at sea, deaths that impacted my father’s family.

Even though I see most of these Fisher Poets people only the last weekend in February, I have formed some very good friendships there. They are deckhands, troller and trawler people. No one is from my hometown of Gustavus nestled on Icy Strait, but some from various Southeast and Southcentral Alaska parts.

In Astoria, we listen to stories that have me hanging onto my chair or make me laugh aloud and some that bring tears to my eyes. People performing and attending are so very thoughtful and caring. We at Fisher Poets care about one another, ocean acidification, the written word, art, and music. Oh the music! Come some year and listen. I buy poets’ and musicians’ CDs to hear their rhythms and voices, to hear their stories again and again in my own home in Alaska.

Each year so far, my husband and I come down to eastern Oregon for a month after Fisher Poets. My reason for being here lives in Lakeview. The Night Orion Fell started in the room where I now sit. Larry’s wife wallpapered my study. She told me the story of her husband’s fishing accident in this room and it stayed in my thoughts. Forty minutes later I had the story’s outline. The interview and writing work began that afternoon.

Where I sit right now, I feel fortunate to be in eastern Oregon and not on the ocean as I watch the winds drive the snow here. The wind has calmed and only blows at 22 mph this afternoon. It’s a whiteout at the moment and I can only see half a block away. Here I can stay indoors and the house does not yaw or pitch. Or I can go out on my cross-country skis.

Twenty years ago, a friend gave me a pair of her used cross-country skis and boots. I took them to our second home in Oregon, Oregon’s tallest town at 5,000 feet. In time, the leather wore off the boots. I replaced the old boots with second-hand ones that cost all of $10. They needed a little help. When we got them to Lakeview, Robert went to the basement workroom of his childhood home, a place which has things from at least its two previous owners. I walked down to the odor…oh the odor of whale oil! Not sweet, not acrid, but rich and full. An odor from his childhood and mine. Whoever purchased it in whatever year, paid 60¢ for the can. The image is familiar to me. Did we have Currin’s whale oil in my childhood home in Massachusetts or did I see the can in a whaling or fishery museum? I don’t know. Its odor, again, is rich and full, that odor from my childhood. I know that smell as well as I know the odor of the musty basement or the roses in bloom in the sunken garden we had.

Currin’s whale oil paste

Currin’s whale oil paste. Price 60¢ a can. How many years ago was that?

No one can buy whale oil anymore. The last I smelled it was at my childhood home probably in the 1940s, 1950s or 1960s. Now I know of none but the can in the basement of my husband’s childhood home.

I did a little research online. I was astonished to read that in this country “…whale oil was used in cars as a constituent of automatic transmission fluid until it was banned by the Endangered Species Act of 1973. I’m astonished it was that recently. Worse, also from the Internet, “Commercial whaling was finally banned by the IWC [International Whaling Commission] during the seasons 1986-1990.” This moratorium still holds today, though it is not honored by all countries. Yes, there are three countries that still indulge in whaling—Iceland, Japan, and Norway.  

Now comes the long wait for the last weekend in February 2025 and Fisher Poets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon. Meanwhile, I work on more fishing stories and research into my own family background in that unforgiving place of the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean.

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