Lawrence Millman’s The Last Speaker of Bear, a would-be memoir which settled into a collection of far away encounters, is an archive we need more than ever in a world of tweets and texts. Millman introduces a parade of remote dwellers and shares their stories, offbeat recipes, and traditional medicines. A culmination of Millman’s many years of traversing obscure and frigid terrains, and talking with and observing the resilient people who live there, these episodes offer laughter, sadness, and food for thought. This book is better than ketamine and a shot of Jack Daniels.
Millman’s resume as a writer spans several decades and genres, crossing almost as much territory as he does in his books. In 1977, he made his first major appearance with Our Like Will Not Be There Again – Notes From West of Ireland, a book which traces his journey across remote stretches of land “where conversation is not dead.” He recounts the amazing stories of those who may well be among the last conversationalists in the world. He followed up with a novel, Hero Jesse, and a book of short stories, The Wrong Handed Man, which includes a tale about a farmer who fell in love with a woman found in a peat bog. Last Places – Journey in the North, followed Millman from Norway to Newfoundland as he attempted to retrace a ten century’s old Viking route. In A Kayak Full of Ghosts, he translates the songs of the Inuits, which are often times funny and insightful. More recently, he released The Last Voyage of Baron Munchausen and Other Wayward Tales, and his new volume, Fungipedia, a wonderful and informative look into the world of mycology.
For our interview, discussed his new book, his seemingly endless travels, and the things he has eaten and those he has met along the way.
David Breithaupt: You mentioned in the introduction to your new book, The Last Speaker of Bear, a fishing trip your parents took you on in Northern Ontario when you were young, during which you encountered a Cree guide who allegedly talked to fish. Do you think this helped inspire your lifetime of travels?
Lawrence Millman: Being a primitive person myself, I’ve always been interested in other primitive people. For me, primitive = healthy and sane. So the answer to your question is: I think the Cree fishing guide did indeed inaugurate that interest. He seemed to be a part of his environment and thus very different from folks in the urban environment where I grew up.
What other takeaways did you collect from all your travels?
I ate all sorts of traditional foods. If I couldn’t speak the local language, I could at least eat the local food, and that helped local people accept me. Examples: warble fly larvae, caribou brain, rotten shark’s meat, fruit bat penis, and so on.
Mercifully, none of these items can ever be found at a McDonald’s.
Another takeaway. I have a lifelong prejudice against standing in lines or being stuck in gridlock traffic. In the off-the-map places that I prefer to visit, Nature triumphs over the mechanisms of humankind, and thus there are no lines (no gridlock traffic, either).
I remember reading in a Boston paper some years ago about the island tribe that slipped you a (as previously mentioned) fruit bat penis. What did that taste like?
In the article I wrote about fruit bat penis, I described its flavor as being like “a concentrate of uric acid wrapped in old tire tread.”
In your book Last Places, you recount a story that a woman in the North told you about an old Viking who slit a sheep’s throat and began to drink the blood. He kept pumping the ribs until the sheep was empty. What’s a takeaway for the modern urban dweller in this story?
I’m not sure what the moral of the tale would be for the modern urban dweller. Perhaps this: Keep on truckin’. Or: Don’t be satisfied with a casual sip if you can glut yourself.
After reading Last Speaker, I had the feeling our “civilization” is heading in the wrong direction in a way I hadn’t thought of before. We seem to be devoid of what you call the primitive values in life. Can you explain this better than me?
We’re losing what the poet Dylan Thomas called all our five and country senses. Instead of touching, seeing, smelling, and engaging in actual conversation, we’ve umbilically connected ourselves to some sort of digital device. Or glued ourselves to a television. Thus gone are what you’re calling primitive values, but which I prefer to call a sane and healthy way of being alive.
What books inspired you in your youth to commence a life of journeys to faraway places?
My favorite books as a youth were Mysterious Island (by Jules Verne), Robinson Crusoe (by Daniel Defoe), and The Lost World (by Conan Doyle). These books inspired me to visit off-the-map places and especially off-the-map islands as an adult. However, I might not have been inspired in this way if it weren’t for the fact that I was already an off-the-map person. I didn’t watch television nor did I have any interest in cars or a driver’s license. Instead, I read . . . and I went outside at night to look for nocturnal insects.
I love the stories in your new book, The Last Speaker of Bear. It leaves me in wonder about the life you have led, the places you’ve been to, and the people you met. You write in the introduction about the troubles you had trying to write a straightforward memoir and instead, created a travelogue (my word, substitute a better one) of the amazing range of people you’ve met and obscure places you’ve tramped across. Can you expand a little on the difficulty you had with writing a memoir for those who haven’t read your book? Do you think your travelogue (my word again) turned out better than a memoir in describing your life?
I’d call the book a quasi-memoir (definitely not a travelogue) whose pieces have been cut and then juggled around without an apparent order. Unlike a travelogue, who knows what the next locale will be? My outsider personality gives the book order, if you think of order as something in the eyes of the beholder.
The difficulty of writing a memoir was simple. So many northern locales—how can I link them all together? It would have required a celestial seamstress. And I do indeed think the book turned out better than an actual memoir. Why would I want to write about my love affairs, my dinners with eminences, and my published works when the primordial North occupied such a crucial spot in my mind?
What is one place you have always wanted to visit but haven’t been able to?
The island of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic.
Why is that?
Because it’s more off the beaten path than anywhere else. Or was. Now cruise ships are visiting it, and locals are brandishing curios for the passengers. So I’ll take back Tristan da Cunha and, in its place, substitute Prince Charles Island in the Canadian Arctic. Its only year-round inhabitants are polar bears. No people at all. This seems to me a decent proportion.
Did you ever make it to the Kingdom of Redonda? [Note to the home audience; Redonda came to light through the writings of M.P. Shiel, most famous for his 1901 apocalyptic novel, The Purple Cloud. Shiel was declared the King of Redonda in the early 1880s. The story was expanded upon recently by Michael Hingston’s book, Try Not to be Strange – The Curious History of the Kingdom of Redonda.]
No, but I wanted to. On a visit to the island of Montserrat, I tried to secure a boatman who would take me to this legendary island, but I failed to do so. Here I should say that I tend to travel in the opposite direction of the title of the new book about Redonda: I try to be strange.
While on the subject of books, what contemporary writers do you admire in their quests and explorations?
Living writers I admire are: Bernd Heinrich, Paul Kingsnorth, Robert Pyle, Tim Cahill, Andrei Codrescu, Benjamin Radford, and Jim Christy.
As you have traveled widely and spoken with remote villagers for over forty some years, what, if anything, have you noticed as vanishing in these cultures?
Vanishing is everywhere thanks to globalization. When I lived in Iceland, hardly anyone spoke English. Now kids speak it as their first language. And when I lived in Iceland, hakarl (fermented shark’s meat) was eaten by all and sundry. Now it’s eaten mostly by the occasional tourist. Subway, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC have changed the diet of Icelanders to such extent that obesity, previously an unusual morphology, is now a very common one.
You have so many great stories in your new book, how did you select the finalists?
I refined some of my incomplete or second-rate efforts for the book. Also, the editor more or less picked the finalists, a deed not uncommon among members of that profession. There was a story about mushrooms being used as soap by an East Greenland monster. I wanted to use it in the book, but the editor said that there were always enough stories about mushrooms.
You describe an interview in Last Speaker with a ninety-plus-years-old Inuit woman (in 1995), named Rosie Iqallijuq, which was one of the most fascinating encounters I’ve ever read about. Can you elaborate a bit on that piece?
I chat with elders rather than youngsters during my travels. For I’m looking for a window on the rapidly disappearing past. Rosie was a veritable celebrity in Igloolik. Among other things, she was the last living person in the Arctic who had a firm memory of Knud Rasmussen’s (and Peter Freuchen’s) extremely important Fifth Thule Expedition, which ran from 1921 to 1924.
I was a bit taken back when she asked me to climb into bed with her. A ninety-something-year-old woman wanted me as a lover? No, she believed that you needed to be close to a person in order to talk with them.
You missed meeting the last speaker of “Bear,” who died a day or two before you arrived. How did it feel to witness the death of a language?
I felt bad, because I thought bear-ese, or whatever it might be called, was special. But I was commonly seeing (and hearing) language deaths. Consider Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit. A seemingly living language, but with each passing day it’s peppered with more and more English words. By 2050, it will probably be no more.
Where are you off to next?
Maybe to Iceland at the end for the month, maybe to the Azores, maybe to Puerto Rico. Nothing is written in the books yet. That’s the way it is. Go where my mood tells me to go. And then write up the result.
Please note that I would never go to Rome or Paris. Too many people, not enough nature.
David Breithaupt has written for The Nervous Breakdown, Rumpus, Exquisite Corpse, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and others. He has worked as a bibliographic assistant to Allen Ginsberg, a newsstand checker for Rolling Stone, and a staff member to the great Brazenhead Bookstore in New York City. He currently works for two sports newspapers in Columbus, Ohio, covering the Cincinnati Reds and OSU collegiate sports. Recent writing can be found in One Last Lunch: A Final Meal With Those Who Meant So Much To Us, The Columbus Anthology, and on Storgy.
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