FROM THE INTRODUCTION: The question was a simple one, but it held far deeper implications than I could have imagined when Tom Andrews posed it to me in the spring of 1974: "Would you like to work in Alaska this summer?"
Tom had worked seasonally in Alaska before. Now, about to get a masters degree in economic geology, he’d been hired full time by an Anchorage minerals-exploration company. His first assignment: round up summer help. A classmate of Tom’s at the University of Arizona, I happened to be in the right place at the right time. Back then, I would have considered this to be a happy coincidence, a stroke of luck. Now I’m not so sure. The older I get, the less I believe in the notion of coincidences. Things happen for a reason, I like to tell friends. There are no accidents, I say, though not entirely certain that’s what I believe either.
Whatever put me at UA in 1974 -- fate, chance, a guiding spirit, or some grand plan -- I answered Tom with an emphatic "Yes!" And with that response, I took an unexpected fork in the trail, one that ultimately brought me to where I live today: Anchorage’s Hillside, along the margins of Alaska’s largest city -- and at the edge of an immense wilderness protected by one of the state’s grandest parklands, Chugach State Park.
Strangely, until Tom popped the question, I had never fantasized traveling to America’s "Last Frontier." And I certainly never imagined that I would someday call Alaska home. Not simply my place of residence, but the place to which I belong. At age 24 I knew almost nothing about Alaska, except for the usual stereotypes: that it was a land of Eskimos, polar bears, vast wilderness, and Mount McKinley.
In answering yes, I consciously knew only one thing for certain: a great adventure lay ahead. Now I suspect that some deeper, wiser part of me knew a doorway was opening to more than a summer’s adventure. In some curious and inexplicable way, I would be coming home, to a place whose wild spirit would touch my own like no other had since my boyhood days in Connecticut. Though I didn’t settle here immediately, in time I would establish deep roots -- physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I can’t imagine living anywhere else, just as I can’t imagine a life without writing. Yet both came to me relatively late, during my twenties.
Who can explain such things? But I sense the truth of it. Alaska is every bit as much my homeland as Connecticut, the place where I spent my first 18 years (and to which I remained closely tied through my mid-twenties). Perhaps it always was.
Connecticut and Alaska make curious bookends to the life I’ve lived so far. A continent apart, one is among the smallest and most densely populated states, with only small, scattered pockets of wildness. The other is a place of immense wilderness and untamed nature, a place where caribou outnumber people and where thousands of streams and mountains remain unnamed. Connecticut, one of the original thirteen colonies and deeply rooted Anglo-American traditions. Alaska, the 49th state and still a foreign land to most Americans, separate from the Lower 48 states and much of it geographically closer to Asia. Here you can walk from the Arctic Coast to Bristol Bay -- more than 700 miles -- without intersecting a road or village. And indigenous peoples still follow subsistence lifestyles that reach back thousands of years.
West vs. East. Big vs. little. Sparsely populated frontier vs. densely packed and urbanized New England state. For all of its differences with Alaska, Connecticut set the stage for later dramas. It was there that wild nature -- in the form of woods and swamps, frogs and snakes and fish -- first touched me deeply. My boyhood days and discoveries put me on a path that would eventually lead me west and north to my second homeland and new understandings of my place in the world.
It surprises me, more than three decades later, that I knew so little about Alaska when I first traveled north. There’s so much here that resonates with me: high mountains, abundant grizzly bears and wolves, alpine meadows, northern lights, ice-sculpted fjords, immense wilderness landscapes that seem to stretch forever -- and the chance to keep them whole. In my adopted homeland, I may find black bears, bald eagles, or moose calves right outside my door. Chickadees and squirrels are among my closest and dearest neighbors. I can gaze north and see Denali, "The High One," glow in day’s first light, watch the aurora pulse in midnight skies, or share the yard with a hawk hunting songbirds.
Besides knowing almost nothing about Alaska, at age 24 I didn’t clearly understand the importance of wild nature to my life. Or, perhaps better put, I’d gradually forgotten its importance, something I’d intuitively understood as a young boy. In Alaska I have rediscovered my early passions and reformed primal bonds that connect me to the more-than-human world. Along the way, I have redefined -- and continue to explore -- what wildness means to me, and its relevance to my life and the larger American culture.
As a nation, we seem to be ever more separated from wild nature. And because of that, our relationship with the Earth and our planet’s other beings is increasingly ruinous. How do we stay connected, whole? One answer, given by many others before me but worth repeating over and over, is that we need to pay more attention to the nature -- the essence -- of the places we inhabit: the seasons and weather, the shape of the land, the natural and human history, the animals and plants. And we must do so wherever we live, from remote backcountry to inner city. Paying attention is an essential step to becoming a true inhabitant, a native; it’s part of the practice that poet-essayist-philosopher Gary Snyder so beautifully describes in The Practice of the Wild.
Most Americans seem to believe that true wildness is only to be found "out there," in the remote backcountry. By and large, our culture equates the two: wildness equals wilderness. Looking back, that’s pretty much how I saw things for much of my young adulthood, especially while living in Tucson and Los Angeles in my 20s; though as a young boy, I innately understood that wildness was right outside the back door. And sometimes even infiltrated our house.
As Jack Turner points out in The Abstract Wild, this popular misconception helps to explain why people so often misquote Henry David Thoreau, erroneously substituting wilderness in his famous saying, "In wildness is the preservation of the world."
Of course wildness and wilderness are not at all the same, a point that Snyder, Turner, Paul Shepard, Wendell Berry and many other American nature writers have emphatically made in their works, sometimes at great length. (I use the term "nature writers" loosely, to include all those who’ve written about humans and our relationship with larger nature; some would shudder at being defined this way.)
Wilderness is a place. And, some would argue, an idea. As Roderick Nash explains in his acclaimed work, Wilderness and the American Mind, "for nomadic hunters and gatherers, who represented our species for most of its existence, ‘wilderness’ had no meaning. Everything natural was simply habitat, and people understood themselves to be part of a seamless living community. Lines began to be drawn with the advent of herding, agriculture, and settlement. . . . For the first time humans saw themselves as distinct from and, they reasoned, better than the rest of nature. It was tempting to think of themselves as masters and not as members of the life community." The concept of wilderness thus emerged as a way of thinking about larger nature – the "natural world" as opposed to the civilized human world – with the shift from hunting and gathering to a more pastoral lifestyle some 12,000 years ago.
For some cultures, of course, nomadic hunting-gathering lifestyles extended deep into the twentieth century. Certainly that was true of Alaska’s indigenous peoples, from the Tlingits and Haida of Southeast Alaska to the Inupiat and Nunamiut Eskimos in the state’s far northern reaches, and many tribes in between, among them Dena’ina Athabascans who’ve inhabited Southcentral Alaska – including what is now the Anchorage metropolis – for thousands of years. For these peoples, Alaska’s wildlands have been homelands, places they cohabited with other life forms, places inseparable from their cultural traditions and understandings of themselves.
While no longer nomadic, many Dena’ina and other Native Alaskans continue to experience themselves as part of nature, not separate from it. Thus they struggle with the idea of wilderness and consider it a perplexing western Euro-American myth – or conceit – that ignores and denies the indigenous way of being in the world.
Nash and other scholars point out that the idea of wilderness has evolved significantly over time. For much of the past 12,000 years, westerners imagined wilderness to be a frightening place of savage beasts (and sometimes humans), a wasteland to be avoided, subdued, or exploited for its "natural resources." Nowadays, wilderness is more often romanticized and celebrated than despised or feared. Certainly that is true in the United States, where large pieces of the American landscape have been designated, protected, and yes, managed, as wilderness with a capital W.
Most Americans today would likely describe wilderness areas as places that are pristine and uninhabited by people, with a primeval feel; places where wild animals still roam through forests and deserts and high-alpine tundra unblemished by human touch; and places where they can "return to nature" and escape the stresses and responsibilities of their day-to-day lives. Or something like that. Alaska is rich in such places, with millions of acres preserved as wilderness and millions more than could easily qualify for the capital W.
Wildness, on the other hand, is a quality, a state of being. Perhaps that’s why wildness and its root word, "wild," are so hard to define, or pin down. I love Snyder’s discussion of the two in The Practice of the Wild. "The word wild," he writes, "is like a gray fox trotting off through the forest, ducking behind bushes, going in and out of sight." Later he compares its various definitions to "how the Chinese define the term Dao, the way of Great Nature: eluding analysis, beyond categories, self-organizing, self-organizing, self-informing, playful, surprising, impermanent, insubstantial, independent, complete, orderly, unmediated, freely manifesting, self-authenticating, self-willed, complex, quite simple. Both empty and real at the same time. In some cases we might call it sacred."
Then, considering wildness, Snyder comments, "[I]t is everywhere: ineradicable populations of fungi, moss, mold, yeasts and such that surround and inhabit us. Deer mice on the back porch, deer bounding across the freeway, pigeons in the park, spiders in the corners. . . . Wilderness may temporarily dwindle, but wildness won’t go away."
Even in our high-tech, polluted world of the early 21st century, wildness is all around us. And within us. Our bodies, our imaginations, our dreams and emotions and ideas are wild. But in going about our busy, modern lives, we consciously or unconsciously suppress, ignore, deny, or forget our wildness. In adapting to the human-dominated, civilized environment we’ve built, Paul Shepard argues, we become tamed.
Still, the wild animal remains, waiting for release. And – naturally – it’s most easily set free in wild surroundings free of artifice and development. Free, largely, of the human touch. That’s why the feeling of wildness most deeply resonates within us when we enter wilderness. And for many of us, the longer we stay in the "wilds," the more connected, refreshed, invigorated, and even healed we feel. There’s a sense of being at ease, and sometimes even of being one with nature. Something shifts inside.
That’s what happened, I think, when I came to Alaska in the mid-seventies and spent several summers working deep in the wilderness. Something shifted and opened up. Feelings and understandings I’d had as a youngster were subtly resurrected. My life took a necessary detour to Los Angeles, but I knew I’d return to Alaska. I had to return. And after moving back in 1982, I resumed my wilderness explorations. Over time, I also began to pay more attention to my new homeland: Anchorage and its surroundings. At the same time, I began to explore a literary genre that I’d largely ignored; or, more to the point, that I hadn’t been aware of: nature writing and the literature of place.
In my fourth and fifth decades, I’ve rediscovered how much wondrous wild there is to be found right outside my door, or even inside it, though I live on the edge of Alaska’s urban center. It seems that for me, entering the wilderness was a necessary step to recovering this lost, or buried, recognition. And living in Anchorage, I have the advantage of being an urban guy surrounded by wildness. But I also believe that this sense of connection, this love for wild nature, is part of being human. It’s alive in us when we’re born, no matter where that is. The question, then, is how do we nurture our wildness, rather than subdue and tame it?
In The Abstract Wild, Turner argues that "in many inner cities, here [in the United States] and in the developing world, people no longer have a concept of wild nature based on personal experience." I agree wholeheartedly with that. But I also believe it is possible to have "raw visceral contact with wild nature" wherever we live, if we take the time, make the effort, and leave ourselves open to wonder and mystery. Then the challenge becomes: how do we reinforce and encourage this wild awareness in each other, in our children? I don’t have any easy answers. But I do have a story to share, one that shows some of the possibilities that I’ve found – and relearned – while living in a far north metropolis.
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