Monday, October 31, 2011

Moving Deeper Into Wilderness & Embracing Wildness Wherever We Live by Moderator Bill Sherwonit

Glancing at my first two postings, I realize that I’ve devoted little of my discussion/reflections to the Arctic wilderness itself. Why have some called the Brooks Range our continent’s “ultimate mountains”? And what qualities make the Central Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park particularly alluring to me (and others)?

For starters, the Brooks Range’s far-north and remote location and harsh climate have made these mountains among the most lightly touched by humans. For most of human history they’ve largely been beyond the reach of people, except for the hardiest of explorers and treasure seekers and even hardier indigenous tribes. And since 1980, this wide sweep of mountains – which stretch 700 miles across Alaska, from the Chukchi Sea coast to Canada’s Yukon Territory – have had their wild character protected by a string of parks, preserves, and refuges that encompass many millions of acres.

In the mid-1970s I found the range’s wildness to be expressed “in wave after wave of knife-edged ridges that stretched to the horizon and beyond; in glacially carved basins that grew lush in mid-summer with the rich greens of tundra meadows and the rainbow hues of alpine wildflowers; in wolves, caribou, bears, and wolverines; in a largely unpeopled landscape where one could travel for days, perhaps even weeks, without seeing any obvious signs of humans.”

Though the Central Brooks Range stirred me, it wasn’t because the mountains were spectacular, at least in the way people ordinarily use the word. By Alaskan standards, they’re mostly ordinary hills (though there are some notable exceptions, for instance the Arrigetch Peaks and Mount Doonerak, the latter discussed in more detail below). Most of the mountains top out below five thousand feet; and their comparatively gentle snow- and ice-free slopes can be ascended without any mountain-climbing expertise or technical gear. But that was part of their appeal:

“In midsummer you could walk among the range’s high places in jeans and short-sleeved jersey without worrying about avalanches or crevasses or falling off cliff faces. And from the top of almost any of those hills, you could spin your body 360 degrees and see nothing but other mountains and river valleys, stretching without end. I had never seen – or imagined – such vast, open spaces with an acutely primordial feel, as if I were somehow transported to a distant epoch before machines and cities, pencils and maps. Before humans.” I’d spent time in Arizona’s deserts, the Grand Canyon, and the Rocky Mountains, but none of them matched this.

Who knows; if I’d spent my first northern summers in the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountains or Alaska Range I may have been smitten in a similar way by them. But I have since spent time in both those alpine wilderness areas (especially the Denali region, which also has a special place in my heart) and other enthralling landscapes. And still I sense that for me there’s a magic to the Brooks Range other places don’t have. I suppose the reasons that we come to passionately love a particular place can be as mysterious as why we fall deeply in love with a certain person.

Thinking back, there were other reasons the Central Brooks Range quickly became a special place to me: it’s where I saw my first grizzly bear, first heard the howling of wolves, first witnessed the northern lights. And it’s where I began to recover the deeper sense of wild wonder I’d once known as a boy. This place, more than any other I had known (or would come to know) stirred old, buried understandings of my connection to, and place within, the wider, wilder world.

Of course I’m hardly alone in sensing the magic that the Central Brooks Range holds. The Nunamiut Eskimos have understood the power of this place for generations, and long ago found it manifested in the legendary giant, Aiyagomahala, who lived near the headwaters of the Alatna River and created both the Nunamiut people and, with his glove, the Arrigetch Peaks, “fingers of the hand, extended.” Today, as in the past, the Nunamiut also sense it in the region’s caribou, which in many ways shape their lives. Bob Marshall certainly found the landscape to be wondrous and shared much of what he experienced in Alaska’s Wilderness.

John Kauffman, too, fell under the range’s spell. The leader of a National Park Service planning team, Kauffman was assigned to study the Central and Western Brooks Range in the early 1970s and determine what portions of those areas should be protected as parkland. In the wake of my solo trek, I knew I had to learn more about the efforts that led to Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. What I discovered is woven into Part 3 of Changing Paths. And Kauffman plays a central role.

In the weeks he spent there, Kauffman became captivated not only by the landscape’s marvels, but the immensity of the place. Later he would write, “the most critical resource was size, spaciousness itself. . . . With awe and dread we realized that this was America’s last big chunk of raw wilderness, the last land of solitude. There would never be any more. . . . Somehow, the nation would have to make this last remnant do, forever, what the whole American wilderness had done to challenge and mold and temper and inspire us as a people and nation.”

When deciding how Gates of the Arctic should be developed, Kauffman’s planning team decided to follow Marshall’s advice: do nothing. There would be no roads, trails, campgrounds, or other visitor amenities. In Kauffman’s vision, Gates would be “a black belt park. Not for neophytes, it would be at the ascetic end of a spectrum of national parks in Alaska that would range from the comforts of hotels and cruise ships to the most basic of wilderness survival.”

My solo trek had its share of miseries: hordes of mosquitoes, badly blistered feet, aching muscles, drenching rains. And there were plenty of times when I was more focused on daily chores, mundane routines, and backpacking logistics (and worries) than the beauty and mystery of the place. But the deeper I moved into the wilderness, the more I shed my city skin and opened to its enchantments. One memorable day I ascended a rocky spine near the Arctic Divide. Returned to camp, I later wrote in my journal, “There are moments on this ridge walk when my heart sings. I don’t know how else to put it: I feel bursts of joy that I can’t explain. Nothing specific seems to trigger these moments; no special insights or revelations accompany them. It is, I think, the entirety of this day, this trip. My spirit has been stirred and lifted by this glorious landscape, Marshall’s presence, and memories that stretch back a quarter century. In a receptive mood, I am touched by wildness – and perhaps my own wildness responds.”

The trek was enlivened by several encounters. Two described in Part 3 I’ll mention here. One involved Mount Doonerak, in Marshall’s words “a towering, black, unscalable-looking giant” that both wowed him and thwarted his efforts to climb it. Angling uphill from camp, I rounded one final bend in the terrain and was greeted “by the face of God. Or at least one of His more spectacular faces.

“Even after reading and rereading Marshall’s enthusiastic descriptions, I wasn’t prepared for such a landscape. Desolate, yet sublime. The word, the idea that keeps coming to mind, is transcendent. I’ve been lifted into an extraordinary realm. It’s not only Doonerak that overwhelms me, but also its neighbor, Hanging Glacier Mountain, and the chasm, Bombardment Creek, that separates and connects the two. A deep gash between looming, steep-sided rock walls three thousand or more feet high, this narrow gorge is unlike any I’ve seen. . . . It’s as if I’ve transported to the edge of the Alps or Himalayas and stand at the entryway to what Galen Rowell called ‘the throne room of the mountain gods.’”

There’s a lot more, but you get the idea.

The other encounter was with singing wolves. In part, my remembrance of the meeting reads, “The rain is falling harder now, but I hardly notice. Or care. The wolf songs last a minute or two, but resonate much longer. This is what I dream about: to share the wilderness with howling wolves.” Again there’s more (of course), followed by this reflection:

“Throughout this trip, my most memorable times have come as moments of surprise: sudden (even if anticipated) encounters with the Valley of Precipices, Doonerak, grizzlies, a bear skull, now wolves. Animals have been the best example of this. For all the looking and “hunting” [with binoculars] I’ve done, the wildlife I’ll remember most have come to me. It seems I’m being given new opportunities to let go of expectations and, at the same time, be open to possibilities. Both ideas, and the practice of them, have become important guideposts in my middle years.”

Even while I traversed one of the continent’s greatest remaining wildlands and reflected upon my personal relationship with wilderness (and more generally, wild nature) a growing number of people were debating the idea of wilderness that’s guided the preservation of lands and waters in the U.S. and elsewhere. Only years later would I learn about this largely academic dispute and be pointed toward a book that explores The Great New Wilderness Debate. I include a discussion of that debate, and what I’ve learned about it, in Part 3 of Changing Paths, then offer these thoughts: “I still have much to learn about this new wilderness debate, but it seems a desirable and necessary discussion. The ideas [expressed by those engaged in the debate] are helping me to better crystallize my own, evolving credo: let us protect and celebrate the Earth’s remaining wilderness areas and their inhabitants, human and otherwise. And let us celebrate and honor the wild nature that is all around us and within us, all the time.”

This leads to my final reflections for this week’s posting. In Chapter 19, “Middle-Aged Discoveries,” I consider the differences embodied by “wilderness” and “wildness,” a discussion informed by the wisdom of Gary Snyder, Jack Turner, and other American “nature writers.” I also share some observations about the nearby wild of my adopted home, Anchorage, where I eventually settled after changing careers, from geology to journalism (eventually to end up a nature writer and something of an activist, an evolution traced in this section of the book):

“I’m constantly reminded that wildness is all around us, all the time, even in the city. It’s just that most of us humans don’t notice the ‘wild side’ of our busy urban lives (some, it’s true are simply trying to survive their urban lifestyles, which leaves little, if any, opportunities for wild connections). Of course in many a metropolis you have to look hard to find even hints of the wild behind the elaborate layers of human construct that shield us from the rest of nature. Anchorage’s juxtaposition of malls and moose, brewhouses and bears, libraries and loons makes it easier to notice urban wildness here than in cities like Los Angeles or Tucson or even Lewiston, Maine, all places that I’ve lived. This city, more than any other, has opened my eyes and enlarged my awareness of wild nature in a way that wilderness couldn’t.” Though it seems that for me, entering the wilderness was a necessary step to (re)discovering that larger, ever-present wildness.

I’ll end with this observation and question, also from Chapter 19: “In recent years I’ve come to believe strongly that this sense of connection, this love for wild nature, is a crucial part of our humanity. 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?”

Some additional questions to consider:
  • In Part 3, I also present a lengthy discussion on the importance – even the necessity – of solitude. What role, if any, does solitude play in your life? Do you consider it essential to becoming intimate with wildness? Why or why not?
  • Are you familiar with “the great new wilderness debate”? What is your perspective on the American idea – and ideal – of wilderness?
  • What wilderness (or other landscape) is especially magical to you? And why?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Connecticut Roots: A Sheltered Christian Childhood and A Place of Refuge by Moderator Bill Sherwonit

For a writer who embraces solitude, one of the benefits of doing an extended wilderness journey alone is that you have long, uninterrupted hours to write, read, and reflect. Assuming, of course, that your travel schedule is flexible enough to allow such activities. When planning my expedition, I intentionally gave myself enough time for both side trips and “weather days.” When the weather was stormy, I could hunker down inside my wonderfully dry and spacious tent, rather than get drenched, wind-blown, and chilled. There I had the option of reading excerpts from Bob Marshall’s Alaska Wilderness (I’d actually ripped out portions of the book to save weight and space; in retrospect it was a rather silly thing to do, considering some of the other hefty items I carried in my 70-pound pack) or Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey , the perfect book to bring on such a trip, given its small size and enthralling essays, stories to be slowly savored and reflected upon. Or, when the spirit moved me, I would write. And remember. I did a lot of both.

Of course if you’re someone prone to worrying, too much tent time can also lead to excessive fretting. I did lots of that, too, during my two-week trek through the Central Brooks Range.

Having a flexible schedule can present its own sort of quandary. When the weather was marginal, I often got into internal debates: Should I stay or should I go? I documented one such episode in Chapter 8 of Changing Paths :

“July 24. Time to resume my journey. That means breaking camp, something I hate to do in the rain. And it’s pouring again. Few people enjoy wilderness packing when soaked, but my dislike is almost neurotic. I suppose it’s connected to my desire for comfort, or being in control of my environment. At least my tiny piece of it. Back home, I am what some folks call a “neat freak.” Some might add, “control freak.” They’re likely the same. I need order and structure and routine in my life. That’s less true out here, but it’s not easy to let go of old, familiar patterns, as my watch monitoring demonstrates.”

I then contemplate whether I am more like Marshall or Henry David Thoreau in my approach to wilderness and life. And I consider a paradox: “I am a man who seeks comfort and day-to-day routine, yet I’ve also chosen the uncertainties and anxieties of a freelance writer’s life. And I’m drawn out of my comfort zone by an even greater need: to be immersed in wild nature. I suspect it’s a way of letting go, like meditation; a way to escape the ego, become part of something greater. It’s a way to heal, to open up to mystery, to touch – or at least approach – the divine. In that, I know I’m not alone. Many of my friends, including some who are Christians, have told me they feel the most spiritual, the closest to God, whatever that concept means to them, when out in wild nature.

“By moving into more-than-human nature, I most closely approach that threshold between the mundane world and what Eiseley calls ‘quite another dimension.’ Immersion can happen at home, in the back or front yard, with chickadees or spiders. But there are times when I have to go deeper. And there is simply no place that has touched me – or released me – like the Brooks Range.

“Given all this, I am drawn to consider the roots of my behaviors and wild desires . . . This means traveling across the continent and through decades of time, to my first homeland, Trumbull, Connecticut. There, in my early years, I moved back and forth between two great influences: the Lutheran church and wild nature.”

Part 2 of Changing Paths goes on to examine my sheltered, fundamentalist Christian upbringing and, following that, my escapes into the “natural world . . .   a place of refuge, play and healing, except my buddies and I didn’t call it that. To us it was the outdoors. Or even the outside. ‘I’m going outside, Ma’ had all sorts of meanings. It usually meant that homework or house chores had been done, which in turn meant play. And freedom.”

In describing my two primary refuges, the Woods and the Swamp, I recall the delights and mysteries – and adventures – that lured me into the nearby wilds, both with friends and alone. And I reflect: “Though a rather timid outdoorsman, I loved the outdoors. The Woods and the Swamp and even the yard were my refuge, places where I could escape family feuds and tensions and the roles I’d learned to play: the good and obedient son, the good student, the choir boy. Expectations and judgments dropped away. I could be more myself. Curiously, given my fears of getting lot in the woods, I could easily lose myself in nature, at least the judgmental self. In the community of humans, it seemed that people were always judging each other. And of course God was omnipresent, watching, watching. Being good Christians, my family, friends, and I had to set a good example to the rest of the world. The standard was impossibly high: perfection.

“Outdoors, especially by myself, I didn’t have to try. I could simply be me, while doing what I loved . . . [whether] I hunted frogs and snakes, fished for rainbows, explored the Woods, or skated across the frozen Swamp. Nature drew me out of myself into something bigger. I still can’t define that something bigger, but it had nothing to do with religion; and unlike my Lutheran God, it wasn’t judgmental. Nor did it seem indifferent. . . . I don’t know if it was nature itself or something even bigger than nature, some creative force or energy. But I felt accepted by the natural world. As a boy I sensed a beneficence that was ‘out there’ but somehow included me. Sometimes I sense it even now. I suppose it may simply be my projection, but I don’t think so.”

As I note in the book, my sense that the larger, wilder world has an awareness isn’t so different from some traditional Native Alaskan beliefs. It may also be tied to what Robert Bly describes in Iron John: A Book About Men , in relation to the “Wild Man” (or Wild Woman) who exists within us modern Westerners. In one passage Bly describes the Wild Man as a mentor, who guides us into nature and reveals the nonhuman awareness – or intelligence – to be found there. He suggests a person may even have the sense of eyes looking on, from a pond, forest or mountain. For some people, he writes, this sense of wild nature’s own consciousness “arrived early in childhood, when we were amazed by woods and gardens [or swamps], and knew they were ‘alive.’ ”

Gary Snyder, too, has touched upon nature’s wild intelligence in The Practice of the Wild , as has David Abram in Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology . And in his own curious way, one that interweaves science with a sort of mysticism, Loren Eiseley surely hints of it in his essays.

Besides the Wild Man, I mention two other mentors in Part 2, both adults from my Connecticut years. First there was my dad’s younger brother, Uncle Peach. Much more than Dad (or any of my extended family’s other adults), Peach was an outdoorsman who loved to hunt, and camp, and garden. But more than anything, he loved to fish. When I was 11 or so, Uncle Peach invited me to join him and his buddy, Johnny Trotz, to go trout fishing. As I recount in Chapter 9, “Despite my jitters and inexperience, I landed a trout or two, to the ‘attaboy’ praise of Peach and John. I couldn’t have been prouder. Or happier. In a way, this was one of my few guided initiations into manhood. All of it was grand . . .

“That was the start of a relationship unlike any other I’d had, on that lasted into my late teens. Every summer for six or seven years, Uncle Peach and John Trotz and I would fish streams and lakes and reservoirs, later to be joined by my brother Dave and Peach’s two sons in what was an exclusively male fraternity.”

Yet there was a “shadow” side to Peach’s teaching and guidance: “For all that he taught me about fishing, Uncle Peach gave me mixed messages about the value of other life forms. To him, fish came in three distinct categories: game fish, bait fish, and trash fish. As with religion, things were pretty much black-and-white . . .

“As I got older, it didn’t seem right that some fish were good and others bad, just because we didn’t like their taste or they weren’t good ‘fighters.’ In the same way, it began to bother me that some people were damned to hell, simply because they’d been born into a different faith or culture.”

All this troubled me. I tried not to worry about it, but being a worrier, of course I did. Over time I began to see things less as black and white and more in fuzzy shades of gray. By the time I reached my late teens, I’d begun to question my Lutheran beliefs. And I rarely went fishing with Uncle Peach anymore. Sadly, I didn’t then have anyone with whom to share my agonizing.

My other mentor (though I didn’t recognize it at the time): Miss Anderson, an earth science teacher at Trumbull High School who put me on the path to becoming a teenage “rock hound” and eventually a geologist. “Among her gifts to me, Miss Anderson showed kindness to a shy, timid kid who [as a freshman] felt lost and scared among the throngs of strangers. . . .

“My memory of Miss Anderson is blurred by time. Or perhaps it’s that even the happiest moments of those years are edged in shadows. But what I recall is a smallish woman with short dark brown hair, high-pitched voice, and first name of Donna. She could be stern or warm, as the situation dictated, but what I remember most is her firm but gentle nature, her encouraging manner. She wasn’t the type to bubble with enthusiasm, yet I sensed her passion for earth science. Miss Anderson made the class come alive. She, in turn, noticed my natural affinity for the subject. . . . I quickly learned to identify the rocks and minerals she brought into class. I wanted to learn more.”

Through Miss Anderson’s class, I learned that people could actually made a living studying rocks or collecting minerals. Some businesses even catered to rock hounds. And there were places in Trumbull and elsewhere in Connecticut where you could find crystals. All of this was immensely exciting. Eventually I’d major in geology at Bates College and then earn an MS in geosciences at the University of Arizona.

Of course this new passion also proved troubling. Many of geology’s basic tenets clashed with my deep-seated Lutheran beliefs. “I’d always been taught that the Earth had been formed in six days and our planet plus all of its creatures were five thousand to six thousand years old. This was my truth. I’d never doubted the Bible’s creation story. Why would I? It was all I knew. Now I was being told that our planet was billions of years old. And humans had not been created in God’s image, but had evolved from the apes. How could this be?”

Initially my faith held strong. I accepted science’s version for my class, but the Bible remained my deeper truth until college, when geology and my introduction to other religions – and the first atheist I’d ever known – challenged my faith like never before. At age nineteen I had my first real spiritual crisis. But several more years would pass before I would “turn my back on the Christian church, though not what Christ stood for.” While I generally shy away from labels, it’s fair to say that nowadays I imagine myself to be something of a panentheistic pagan: one who finds and celebrates the divine as it is manifested in the many forms of nature. Or creation, if you will. And that’s a story in itself.

Some questions to consider:
  • Any wilderness journey requires hard choices about what to bring and what to leave behind. What (besides fuel, food, and sufficient clothing) could you not do without? Would books be among your backpacking essentials? Which one(s)? Why?
  • What are the ways that you escape the ego, become part of something greater, open up to mystery, or touch – or at least approach – the divine?
  • Changing Paths discusses two different experiences of “being watched” by some larger/greater entity. One involves a judgmental God, the other the nonjudgmental – and perhaps even beneficent – world of wild nature. What are your thoughts about such experiences? Have you ever sensed a larger, nonhuman “wild intelligence” in nature?
  •  What role have mentors played in helping to shape your life’s path (including your career, beliefs, ethics, etc.)?
  • How, if at all, do you balance/reconcile science and spiritual beliefs in your own life? 

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Geologist in Alaska: Two Life-Changing Discoveries by Moderator Bill Sherwonit

Greetings, WILD READERS! I’m delighted and honored to begin my turn as guest moderator and to join the voices of the writers and other discussion facilitators who’ve led the way in this exciting new venture. It’s a special treat to follow Robert Michael Pyle’s musings on ditches and other “small wilds,” inspired by his excellent book, The Thunder Tree. Though I’ll be journeying through one of North America’s “big wilds” – the Central Brooks Range – I too will have some thoughts to share on the importance of neighborhood wild places. Both the nearby and faraway wilds have been essential to my own life. In fact the path that eventually led me to Alaska’s Arctic wilderness began in the Woods and the Swamp of my Connecticut homeland. As you might expect, that path was long and winding, with detours and some dead ends along the way (and of course the journey still continues).

One bonus of these blog postings is that they allow me to reconsider some of my life’s strange twists and the “changing paths” that led me to Alaska and the Brooks Range, my favorite place of wilderness. As I wrote in Changing Paths, “It still sometimes seems amazing to me that a person so drawn to comfort and predictability would take the leaps of faith I’ve made, from geology to journalism and then to freelancing. And settling in Alaska, of all places! Not many of my childhood friends – or family members – would ever have guessed that the small, shy, sensitive boy of long ago had the potential to become an author, wilderness lover, and activist, or that he’d some day ascend the continent’s highest peak or trek alone across miles of untrailed arctic wilderness.”

My solo trek through the Central Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park forms the narrative spine of Changing Paths. At age 50 (now more than a decade ago, hard to believe), I undertook the longest and wildest backpacking trip of my life, 50 miles in two weeks, while finding my own way through remote and still largely pristine wildlands. I realize that’s no big deal by many adventuring standards (and in fact the story of my trek proved too “quiet” and tame for publishers seeking more extreme exploits). But I never intended this story to be primarily about danger, conquest, or daring, dramatic feats. This is the story of a wildly special place, one that inspired and informed Robert Marshall, among our nation’s earliest and greatest wilderness advocates; a place that some have called America’s “ultimate” wilderness; and a place that changed the course of my life. I hope I’ve succeeded in showing why all of this is so. The narrative also considers “why wilderness [and more generally, wild nature] matters,” both in a human context and for reasons that have nothing at all to do with Homo sapiens. It naturally follows that such places need to be protected. Beyond that, the story explores the unexpected ways a life can change, sometimes suddenly and other times subtly over the course of many years, while also examining the many influences that shape our paths and lives, whether nature, mentors, or religion and other belief systems.

Though many writers and editors helped to shape and polish the narrative, Scott Russell Sanders, more than anyone, was able to envision – and helped me to see – an approach that led to the book’s final structure, a story in three parts (plus epilogue) that follows my trek but which also allows me to move through space and time to other important periods of my life. And so Changing Paths became something of a memoir as well as a (quiet) adventure tale and a book about the Brooks Range and the importance of wilderness.

In the remainder of this first posting, I’ll discuss two of the major threads in Part 1, namely my geology days and the influence of Bob Marshall’s book, Alaska Wilderness. It was, after all, geology that brought me to Alaska and the Central Brooks Range. To be more specific, in 1974 (just out of grad school), I was hired to work on a mineral-exploration crew hunting for metal deposits in the Arctic. Paradoxically, my experiences in the Brooks Range wilderness led me to gradually question the work I’d undertaken and, more generally, my chosen career path. At the same time the wilderness worked its magic on me, I became troubled by the anger and disdain that several of my colleagues expressed toward environmental groups:

“The depth of my coworkers’ anger shocked me. I didn’t consider myself an environmentalist and knew little about the emotionally charged battle over Alaska’s wildlands, a battle that many of my peers considered a direct threat to their livelihoods. But I couldn’t see what was so awful about the Sierra Club or The Wilderness Society. . . .

“At twenty-four, my green ethic was still largely unformed, a vaporous thing still years away from taking solid shape. But I did know this: Sierra Clubbers were not my enemies. Still, it wasn’t a perspective I could openly share with my co-workers, even those I considered good friends. I didn’t know enough about conservation groups to defend their actions. And I didn’t wish to be ridiculed by my peers as an environmentalist sympathizer. So I hid my misgivings and questions. Yet little by little, my discomfort built.”

As I then go on to note, “my uneasiness may have been nudged along by Marshall’s spirit, or at least his book, which had somehow made its way into the geology crew’s library.

“If you gave Alaska Wilderness (or even the book’s jacket) anything more than a cursory read, it quickly became clear that he sought – and found – far different riches than what we pursued. . . . In its advocacy of wilderness protection, Marshall’s  book was a subversive presence in camp.

“The book didn’t make me question what I was doing, at least not consciously. But looking back I’m sure that Marshall’s passion for wilderness, as presented in those pages, touched mine. In doing so, his writings must have reignited some long-dormant embers by reconfirming the importance of wildness in my own life. Here was a man who loved the mountain landscape and its wild inhabitants for what they are, not for what they might become when utilized by humans. . . . I sensed the importance of what he sought, found, and then shared through his writings. More than any geologist, he would become a role model and inspiration.”

My growing internal conflicts were in a sense crystallized in an experience that I describe in detail in Chapter 7, “A Life-Changing Discovery.” While prospecting in the upper Ambler River one summer’s day in 1975, I found a patch of rocks coated green with malachite, a copper-carbonate mineral. At first I was excited. This was exactly the kind of thing we sought. But as I broke rocks and collected samples, other thoughts began to play in my mind: “[W]hat if, against all odds, this small malachite-coated outcropping was the tip of a copper-rich iceberg of rock? What if beneath this arctic soil there was a mother lode of metals, enough to develop a mine?” I then imagined likely scenarios, with the bottom line that “this beautiful, wild valley would be torn apart. . . . by my way of thinking, it was an ugly picture. And I realized, with a clarity that approached the Ambler’s streaming water, just how special this river and its valley had become to me. It was a remarkable place, even a holy place, whose purity was held and reflected by those sparkling, rushing waters.

“. . . I felt a clash of values, more strongly than ever before.”

In writing these words, I’m reminded of Aldo Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in which he recounts his part in the killing of an old wolf and “the fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” an encounter that proved a turning point in his life. (I loved the provocative postings and follow-up conversations about Leopold’s essay, which kicked off the WILD READ discussions back in May.)

Like Leopold’s changing perspective, my transformation “from geologist to writer and eventually wilderness advocate has been gradual, occurring in bits and pieces over a span of many years.” And that, I add, “is another reason I keep returning to the Brooks: to learn what else awaits me. In changing my life, this arctic landscape also reaffirmed my most fundamental values, which include a respect and passion for wildlands and wildlife, and the understanding that their inherent value has nothing to do with human utility.”

In closing, I’ll briefly mention a secondary but important theme that I examine in Part 1: the notion that the Central Brooks Range generally, and Gates of the Arctic National Park specifically, is an “inhabited wilderness.”  This idea recognizes and validates the fact that lands and waters protected by the park have for many centuries been the homeland of Alaska’s Nunamiut Eskimos. It’s also at odds with the idea of wilderness as our modern Western culture usually imagines it: a place where people are merely visitors. I explore this unconventional view, along with the Nunamiut culture and my brief but enlightening stay in the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, in Chapter 3, appropriately titled “The Nunamiut.”

Some questions to consider:

-- What is your favorite wilderness area? Why? How, if at all, has your relationship with that place changed across time? And have your desires for a “wilderness experience” changed over time?

-- How, if at all, has wilderness – or a specific wilderness experience – changed your life?  (Or more generally, wild nature.)

-- What do you consider the primary role(s) or value(s) of wilderness?

-- Is it naïve or wrong-headed to think that wilderness has value in and of itself and should be protected for that reason alone?

-- Was there a time when you faced a disturbing and perhaps deepening “clash of values,” either in your work or some other part of your life? How did you respond?

-- When did you first notice your own “green ethic” taking shape?

-- What writers have influenced your life’s path? In what ways?

-- If you’re a writer (or other artist) and activist, how does one influence the other, if at all? Should art and activism be kept separate?

-- Another idea that I consider in Part 1 (though not discussed in detail in this blog posting) is the idea of a “calling.” Did you ever have the sense of being “called” to a place, a vocation, or a different way of being in the world?

-- What are your thoughts about the idea of an “inhabited wilderness”? How does the presence – and recognition – of indigenous peoples and their lifestyles complicate our Western notions of wilderness and the management of such places?

[Use the "Comment" link to respond and discuss with Bill]

Friday, October 14, 2011

Welcome Bill Sherwonit

WILD READ moderator and author - October 16-November 13, 2011 - Discussion topic: Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1950, Bill Sherwonit grew up along the edges of rural New England, where he got his first taste of wild nature in the woods behind his family’s yard and along the edges of the neighborhood swamp. After becoming a “rock hound” in his teens, Bill went on to get a BS and MS in geology (from Bates College and the University of Arizona, respectively) and traveled to Alaska in 1974 to work as an exploration geologist. Between 1974 and 1979 he spent parts of four summers traveling through the Brooks Range and other remote parts of the state; and along the way, he fell in love with Alaska. During the late 1970s Sherwonit discovered a new passion: writing. He changed careers from geology to journalism in 1978 while living in California and in 1980 began work at the Simi Valley Enterprise newspaper. In February 1982 he became a sports writer for The Anchorage Times, which brought Bill back to Alaska. He worked at The Times for 10 years, the last seven as the newspaper’s outdoors writer/editor.

Sherwonit has been a freelance nature writer since 1992. In recent years he has increasingly focused on literary journalism and creative non-fiction writing, especially the personal essay/narrative form. For more than three decades, Bill has written extensively about wild lands and wildlife. Though he continues to journey into the wilderness each year, he has also paid increasing attention to the wild nature of his home landscape: Anchorage. His primary interests are wilderness, the natural history of animals and plants, wildlife management, connection to place, conservation issues, and notions of wildness. He’s contributed stories and photos to a wide variety of national publications, including Orion, National Wildlife, National Parks, Sierra, Backpacker, Alaska, Outside, and Wilderness and his essays have appeared in several anthologies, including Best American Science and Nature Writing 2007, The Best Travel Writing 2005: True Stories from Around the World, American Nature Writing 2001, Arctic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony, and The Last New Land: Stories of Alaska Past and Present. He is the author of 13 books about Alaska, including three books about Denali, two about the Iditarod, and others about the Brooks Range and the necessity of wilderness, his evolving relationship with wild nature, Alaska’s bears and state parks. His most recent books are Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey, Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness, and Chugach State Park: Alaska's Accessible Wilderness, the latter a collaboration with photographer Carl Battreall.

Besides his writing, since 1993 Sherwonit has taught creative nonfiction writing classes , first at the University of Alaska Anchorage (through both the Alaska Outdoor and Experiential Education Department and Creative Writing and Literary Arts Department) and now on his own. His primary emphasis is nature and travel writing. Bill has visited several primary and secondary schools within the Anchorage area, to discuss the writing process, keeping a journal, and nature writing. Other public appearances around Alaska have included Earth Day readings; weekend workshops; panel discussions; and natural history presentations. In 2004 and 2009 he was a presenter at the nationally acclaimed Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference and in 2008 he participated in the Alaska Book Festival. Bill has also organized an evening of readings by several Alaskans to celebrate the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and he shared an essay at a special program following Sept. 11, 2001. And in fall 2005, he was one of the chairs of the "Conservation Writing" program associated with the 8th World Wilderness Congress, which met in Anchorage. Outside Alaska he has done readings and book signings at Third Place Books and Elliot Bay Bookstore in the Seattle area and he's joined the circle of Pacific Northwest and Alaska nature writers who since 2006 have met every other year at the Blue River Writers' Gathering In Oregon.

After more than a dozen years on Anchorage's forested Hillside, Bill now lives and works in the city's Turnagain area, where he is learning more about the wild side of Alaska’s largest city, the source of many of his stories.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Thank you Bob Pyle!

Thank you, Bob Pyle, for a month of illuminated ideas, Thunder Tree wisdom and a pocketful of humor as well. Our WILD READ archives will store these essay nuggets in our treasure trove of blog moderator's posts that have come through America's WILD READ but also our nine-month long Rachel Carson Centennial Blog back in 2007. Our readers can continue to respond to your older blog posts and to topics in and around your book, The Thunder Tree. We are so honored to have you with us, Bob, and hope you continue to chime in as we read and discuss books and essays that highlight how we have connected to the land in companionship with others or alone. America's WILD READ celebrates storytelling that communicates science, the workings of the natural world, with a certain spin that seems to deepen understanding and cultivate appreciation. Perhaps a good story helps to nurture a deeper conservation ethic; touching or understanding nature through a good yarn can perhaps inspire the reader to care enough to join the conservation community. So thanks for the very good times this last month as we look ahead to ushering in author and moderator Bill Sherwonit on October 16. If you haven't gotten your book Changing Paths and do like to read from an electronic copy, be in touch and we will supply a link to our ebooks.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Ditchwater Tales by Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

Discussion Topic: The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland

Everyone who opens a book, I suspect, is looking for a story. And everyone who steps outdoors in the morning, senses open, is bound to find one. When we get together and talk about the wild spots, wild creatures, and wild times of our youths, back when we lived as wildlings ourselves at least now and then, what we do is to tell stories, back and forth. When I ask people at gatherings about their own places and times that made them who they are, invariably they are eager to tell tales spawned of those times and places. Of course, that's what The Thunder Tree is: a gathering of narratives, large and small, from the artificial watercourse that was the fountain of my youth. I have always thought of this book not as a memoir of myself, but of those waters and lands, told through the lens of my own stories and those of others for whom that particular old ditch has mattered. And in that sense, these ditchwater tales connect my place, and my life, to yours.

It has been an honor to discuss The Thunder Tree on Wild Read. I mentioned at the beginning of these essays that our goings-forth as children gifted with the freedom of the day often involved some element of risk. It's that very quality (Will the train come before the kids cross the trestle? Are there rocks or snappers under the surface of the swimming hole? Will the bullies (or worse) be lying in wait behind the hedge?) that gives story its essential tension. Most of our risks were small ones: farmers and ditch-riders intent upon our being elsewhere, Big Kids with designs on our allowance or magpie eggs, fragile tree limbs and high pipes to cross, and the like. But the risk turned personal and serious one sultry afternoon in 1954, when the great hailstorm of July 27 reduced the roofs of our young subdivision to pebbled pulp. You can read the details in the first chapter of the book, if you wish; but the outcome was that my older brother Tom, 11, saved our lives by tugging me, 7, into the great hollow cottonwood that gave the book its name.

No doubt that sounds hyperbolic. Tom and I grew up believing (and repeating) that another kid had actually been killed by the hail, trying to hide beneath a tractor in the field next to us. Well, I'm a conservative when it comes to fiction vs. non-fiction; our memories are all different, but I believe that if we're going to call something non-fiction, it should actually have happened that way according to our own lights. If we're going to make something up whole-cloth, fine, but call it fiction. So I researched the hailstorm carefully, and while most of my sense of the facts held up (hail the size of softballs, and so on), there was no evidence of a fatality. When I brought it up with George Swan, the very ditchrider who used to throw us out of the canal, then in his nineties, he confirmed that no kid had been killed. "But you knew about the cattle, right?" he asked. It seems half a dozen cows had been killed by the hailed, brained or back-broken, and he'd had to deal with the carcasses. So the story was even better, with no kid lost; and the risk had been real.

What stories will this hollow tree spawn?

Naturally, the hailstorm became one of the main narratives of our lives; the hollow tree, one of the great icons (it was already the center of our available universe). In just such a way, stories themselves save us: save us from taking the days, and the world, for granted. There is no sharper key for engagement than Surprise with what comes up, and how it works out. And though there is no excuse for boredom in this fecund world, the best antidote when it threatens has always been story. This is why I feel today that the old ditch saved my life not just on July 27, 1954, but over and over again. It wound through our days, warp and woof as one, giving texture and discovery and solace and surprise, whenever I walked its dusty loops. My first writing came from there. And ever since, when I have attempted to "make words fast on paper" (as Sequoyah, creator of the Cherokee alphabet, put it), my stories have flowed directly out of that canal and all of the wild places that have succeeded it.

As I conclude my hitch as Wild Read's wildwriter, I find myself asking whether the love of land and literature can still save the world; or, if not quite that, then make life more worth living. And I have to answer is yes, I think so. At least we know that writing about what needs to be done has sometimes gotten it done, or moved it closer, or perhaps begun the conversation necessary to getting it done. Re-read Cristina's final posting on trophic cascades and The Wolf's Tooth if you doubt this. "To save the world" is a pretty pretentious idea, and the world doesn't need it anyway. But the gods know that parts of our estate that we have mishandled to our detriment, and that of many other lives, can indeed be restored or repaired, and further such mistakes prevented. This is certainly one reason we write--like Rick Bass and David James Duncan's recent emergency book, the remarkable Heart of the Monster: Why the Pacific Northwest & Northern Rockies Must Not Become an ExxonMobil Conduit to the Alberta Tar Sands.

But we also write (= share our stories) in the hopes of improving upon each day's encounter with life's demands and disappointments. In an unsatisfactory world, a good book can make it better; I know that this has always been one of my own main reasons for writing, the hope of making a personal connection with individual readers, and perhaps improving upon their day. Welcome letters from readers let me know that this sometimes happens. As John McPhee said in an interview "How else can I know that anyone really reads the books, or cares?" But just as letters are growing rare, readers too are thinning out. A terrific recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (Norton), shows how, thanks to neuroplasticity and our new habits, many people are losing the ability and inclination to cope with longer texts and "deep reading." Yet there are signs that some people are recognizing the insidious suck of the shallows, and are throwing lifelines back to books; and some have never left. For my part, as long as I have a sense that my stories may affect others, I will keep writing them. And reading, of course. Because it is only through that magic mix of wildness and words, told back and forth across the fire, the printed page, or even the screen, that we can learn to love the world enough.

Final questions:
Do your childhood memories suggest a central story, about which all the others revolve?

Is literature becoming a bygone among those you know?

Do you ever write to writers whose work has mattered to you? Do! It matters to them. And thank you for reading my posts.