AK Voices: Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Living with Wildness" and "Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness."

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Some Birthday Musings and a Story from Long Ago

I have never shied away from birthdays; in fact as I’ve gotten older, I’ve more fully embraced my birthdays, sometimes stretching my celebration of them over a few days. Perhaps it has something to do with the realization that most of my birthdays are behind me now, so they remaining ones have become more precious. In honor of this, my sixty-first birthday, and as a sort of giving back, I would like to share some reflections about my long-ago boyhood, excerpted here from my book “Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness.”

A PLACE OF REFUGE

It’s the most natural thing, to want to connect with nature. For as much as we ignore or deny the fact, we are of nature. It’s our original, most deep-rooted home. And it’s a miraculous place, with all sorts of marvelous beings. When we’re new to the world, I think we sense, we intuit, the wonder and mystery all around us. But as we grow older, we seem to lose that understanding, and, as scientist-mystic Loren Eiseley has written, “tend to take [the world] for granted.” This is especially true in modern high-tech cultures like ours, where we keep ourselves busy with daily routines, “all the time imagining our surroundings and ourselves quite ordinary creatures.”

In our society, and increasingly around the world, there’s a large and growing disconnect between humans and wild nature. This is old news, of course. Visionary Americans have been telling us so since at least the latter half of the 19th century. Yet it continues to happen, at what seems to be an accelerating pace: we grow more and more separate from the “natural world” as our attention increasingly turns toward the technological wonders and distractions of our time: TV and cell phones and iPads, movies and videos, computer games and the Internet, snowmobiles and jet skis, cars and trucks and SUVs. We go from home to car to office or shopping center or health club or movie theater, barely noticing the wider more-than-human world around us. It’s not just in the cities. Even a place like Anaktuvuk Pass, in the middle of the Arctic wilderness, has satellite dishes, televisions, and computers with Internet links. The Nunamiut regularly travel on ATVs and snowmobiles and jets.

Kids everywhere spend less and less time outdoors. They learn less and less about the nature of the places where they live. As Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods” makes clear, today’s culture is in many ways pushing children away from direct contact with nature. The result is what he calls “nature-deficit disorder,” which in turn can lead to all sorts of associated problems, including childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression. Perhaps most importantly, he argues, “as the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow, physiologically and psychologically, and this reduces the richness of human experience. . . .

“Reducing that deficit – healing the broken bond between our young and nature – is in our self-interest, not only because aesthetics or justice demands it, but also because our mental, physical, and spiritual health depends upon it. The health of the earth is at stake as well. How the young respond to nature, and how they raise their own children, will shape the configurations and conditions of our cities, homes – our daily lives.”

The “natural world” was an essential part of my boyhood in Trumbull, 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. Escape from the rules and demands of adults. Escape from the tyranny of judgments.

* * *

Though a rather timid outdoorsman as a boy, I loved the outdoors. The Woods and Swamp and even our 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 lost 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.

Complicating things was this fact: using the Bible as their evidence, my parents, pastor, and teachers hammered home the fact that, by nature, humans were sinful. Bad. We had to guard against our sinful tendencies and the influence of Satan. Being a sensitive sort, I took these lessons to heart. For all my talents and good behavior, I came to believe I wasn’t good enough. I sure tried, though.

Outdoors, especially by myself, I didn’t have to try. I could simply be me, while doing what I loved. As if by a miracle, the judgments vanished – if only for a while – as 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. It’s often said that wilderness – or, more generally, wild nature or the universe – is indifferent to the fate of humans: the wilderness doesn’t care if a person drowns while crossing a stream or is killed by an avalanche or hypothermia or a bear. Yet I sensed something different. 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 young 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.

This isn’t so different than some Native Alaskan beliefs. As Richard Nelson writes in “Make Prayers to the Raven: A Koyukon View of the Northern Forest”: “Traditional Koyukon [Athabascan] people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature – however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be – is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel. They can be offended. And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect. All things in nature have a special kind of life, something unknown to contemporary Euro-Americans, something powerful. . . . The world is ever aware.”

One significant difference between the Koyukons and me, it seems, is that I didn’t fear offending that greater, wild otherness in nature. Perhaps it was simply a child’s naiveté, but at some level I must have experienced the natural world as an embracing and forgiving presence, tolerant of a youngster’s mistakes and occasional meanness. Though I didn’t always treat small critters respectfully or mercifully – in fact I did some awful things to frogs and fish and insects – I think I always had a reverential attitude toward larger nature or what you might call creation. Maybe that made a difference.

My experience is perhaps more closely tied to what Robert Bly describes in “Iron John: A Book About Men” and his discussion of the “Wild Man” (or Wild Woman) who exists within us modern Westerners, whether we recognize him (or her) or not. In one passage, Bly describes the Wild Man as a sort of mentor, who guides us into larger nature and reveals the nonhuman intelligence or awareness to be found there. Bly suggests there may even be a sense of eyes looking back (not so different from the watchful world, the “forest of eyes,” that Nelson describes) from a pool of water, a forest, or a mountain. For some people, this sense of eyes, 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, touches upon this notion of wild intelligence, in “The Practice of the Wild”: “The world is watching: one cannot walk through a meadow or forest without a ripple of reports spreading out from one’s passage. The thrush darts back, the jay squalls, a beetle scuttles under the grasses, and the signal is passed along. Every creature knows when a hawk is cruising or a human strolling. The information passed through the system is intelligence.”

* * *

I recall a memory, perhaps distilled from many childhood nights. Again I’m standing at a window, this time in my own bedroom, facing west. It’s late at night and my younger brother, Dave, is breathing softly. His face, turned toward me, looks so peaceful. I’m restless, unable to sleep. Maybe I’ve been having nightmares or I’ve heard my parents quarreling. I place my hands against the knotty pine wall, lean my head against the glass, and look out into the night. Deep inside, a longing wells up. I need hope. I need to know I fit in, somehow, somewhere.

I gaze toward a familiar form, an old oak tree that’s perched upon a knob above the house next door. It used to be Grandpa’s place, but the Seperacks live there now. The season must be fall or winter, because the great tree’s limbs are bare. It’s a huge skeleton, standing black against the sky and dominating the horizon. I wonder what secrets such an old, grandfather tree might hold.

After a while, my attention is drawn from oak to sky. It’s a clear night, a starry night, and as my thoughts move among the stars, I try to imagine infinity, endless space. Of course it’s impossible to grasp, so I settle for something else: wonder. I shrink in size, humbled by the immense grandeur of the universe, the untold numbers of suns, many of them dwarfing our own. My life, in this context is so tiny, so insignificant. Yet, paradoxically, my life takes on greater meaning: to be part of such a mystery is a true blessing. In my own boyish way, I come to sense a sort of holiness that I don’t get from religion. And a voice, or something like it, whispers out of the night. You are safe. You are cared for.

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