In Search of Wildness

An English teacher's Alaskan sojourn
Funded in part by a William C. Friday Foundation Fellowship Grant

My Photo
Location: Juneau, Alaska

From mid-June through late July 2006, I posted my thoughts and photos to this blog in journal fashion. Unlike Chris McCandless, though, I welcomed the opportunity to engage in dialogue across thousands of miles. While blogging from the edge of the Tongas subarctic rainforest in Alaska, I encouraged readers to drop me a line using the comment function. Mail from home is always welcome, and I relished messages from family, friends, students, colleagues, and total strangers.

I traveled to Alaska to further understand and experience nature without human influence. I read literature about the wild as I explored nature in a purer form than we normally can. Alaska, despite its development has not been tamed. In such an environment, we can learn a lot about nature, ourselves, and our society. We all share a common root in the wild and a common future relationship with the natural world as we together choose to sustain it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Cruising the Web and the Sea

I woke up this morning to a flooded inbox. You see, I receive email notification when someone posts so that I can pick up the thread of conversation. This morning, I received notification that a cruise line whose reputation I will not tarnish publicly defaced this blog with the online equivalent of grafiti: a tag of its name hyperlinked to its site. This has forced me to moderate the blog. I have effaced that which I do not endorse puzzeled at how unthinking the perpetrator considers the American public. Why would a company plaster its information on a site which points out how glaciers are melting (in large part due to cruises of the region). I have been on a cruise. We saw many Greek Isles. They are beautiful. I had a good time. At the age of 15, I had no notion of the environmental impact of my actions. I urge my readers to be more wise than I. Why get on a ship so big, so stable, so polluting that it seems no different than a four or five star hotel on land. If you prefer urbanized land, stay there. If you enjoy the open water, paddle or sail.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Walking Alaskan Bedrock
Alive in the Sea of Information

with a wink and a nod to Gary Snyder*

Spruce, hemlock, pine
Rain—fine droplets—rising and falling
Walk around puddles
                           stones worn free in the path.

Noiseless drizzle (lush moss)
Silent poison blushing crimson
Trudge on and upward; slick rock terraces
Bare of lichen, adorned
With cabled hoop earrings
Rusting like the uplifted pyrite

Descend into the silent woods:
Alder, moss, mud, glazing rain.
Waterproof jacket, pants, boots—
Frothy mountain streams taken in a leap

Gridlock in a teenage forest:
    inch    forward
                        to a glistening rocky descent

Scenic trail—bookmark it!
A well-worn path dips down to the edge of a glacial lake—
       bushwhack to skirt the flooded trench
Ten literary scholars following
       a geologist, a biologist, and their pedagogue
Jagged rockface ripped by a receding glacier
Above, the uplifted rock ground smooth
But for a grooved fingerprint
The scored mirror of a frozen Sea
Of Information.

Lichen and clear pools
Slabs of smoothed rock
And in between, mineral-rich detritus
Like the dust between the floorboards the broom ignores
Tenacious fireweed in miniature at a mid-summer full bloom
Alder cones patiently waiting for nitrogen—

Sliding rock with only a film of dewy rain
And below, flowing ice
Frozen in the impassive scene and inaccurate memories.
Cameras at the ready, scramble down:
   white sheet, depressions, hollows, tunnels—
       rock gives way
       to mud the color of cement and as packed with gravel—
   an arch carved in the ice, a subterranean stream,
   the cave its rising steam expands—
       crouch on the ground
       in the frigid air
       beneath a Sea
       of Information;
       wipe melted data
       from the digital photographic apparatus—
   electric blue.

Appointments loom more impressively than the ice cliffs
The obvious path unintelligible, walk     into the wild
Move, pause, move*
Ridge-top view of unnoticed gullies
                                                                           a large pool
                                                                                                     stepping stones

       Resume the trail;
       Seek the shelter of an open-air shed.

             Cool mist and friends

       Rivulets down cheeks

             One story—thirteen tongues

       Alive    in the liquid Sea of Information.

*Gary Snyder, “Walking the New York Bedrock Alive in the Sea of Information,” The Gary Snyder Reader, 1999, New York: Counter Point, 2000. 587-91.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

South Sawyer Glacier (Tracy Arm)

Yesterday, a group of us Bread Loafers boarded a small icebreaking vessel to travel down the Lynn Canal from Juneau and then back north up Tracy Arm toward Canada to see South Sawyer Glacier. South Sawyer is the most actively calving glacier in Alaska and for that reason it has become a tourist destination. People dedicate a whole day to a journey whose sole purpose is to witness and capture on film the breaking up of a glacier into icebergs which will float away to melt in the relative warmth of the ocean. For those of us who made the pilgrimage aboard the Wild Alaskan yesterday, the irony of our own attitude chilled us more than the crisp sea air cooled by the over-sized ice cubes floating next to us. We had come to see a glacier calve, but each time an ice shelf crashed into the water, we remembered South Sawyer's staggering statistic: While the glacier is currently 30 miles long, we are sitting 6 miles from the Canadian border, and the glacier is melting 60 feet per day. At the current rate of recession, Alaskan visitors to South Sawyer glacier will need to carry a passport in January 2008!

An extensive series of photographs accompanies this entry. The viewer may find that the photo blog for my Tracy Arm trip lacks a cohesive caption sequence typical of my other photo series. My loss for words reflects a combination of awe and the lack of a narrative framework to the spiritually nonlinear pilgrimage.

Click here and scroll up to join me.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Blue Ice

Today, Alaskans Cathy and Erin Connor (geologist, biologist; mother, daughter) took the Wildness class on a "fiesty" hike in the rain. Beginning in a successionary coniferous forest, we passed through a much younger alder forest out onto bedrock only recently uncovered by Mendenhall Glacier.

For this entry, I've decided to narrate the journey in an extensive series of photographs, commenting and reflecting on the experience through the caption sequence.

Click here and scroll up to join me in an electric-blue glacial ice cave. I'm sorry I have no photos from our climb up the waterfall on the way there.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Climbing Ripinski

When I climbed Mt. Ripinski a week and a half ago, I wanted to summit. I set a fast pace--too fast--at the outset so that my climbing party might reach the goal by our established turn-around time. The others in the group seemed to be of like mind, and we fed off each others' determination all the way up the trail.

Above 2000', we met another party returning from the top. They warned us that visibility wasn't good further up and that there were strong winds above the tree line. Rather than discouraging us, the news spurred us on. Getting to the crown of a veiled mountain had become more important than reaching the point from which a 360-degree vista is possible.

I no longer needed to see the wide world of the surrounding mountains rising from the bay fed by the Chilkat and Chilkoot rivers. Alpine meadows of lush flowering heather, mist-encrusted lupin, and scattered buttercups attracted my attention, each more glorious--to use John Muir's term--than the last. The summit was still my goal, but only in as much as pressing on towards the summit meant passing through the next meadow further up the slope.

Once at the rocky top, my friends and I noticed the chill air, added layers, snapped a few photos documenting our success, and headed down the mountain without much ceremony. We had underestimated the time needed for our descent, however, for each turn brought into focus a new view for my camera. Reviewing the photographs now, I can see how powerfully the mist-enveloped flowers on the cloud-enveloped mountain pulled at my soul.

Gary Snyder is correct that "Mountaineers climb peaks for the great view, the cooperation and comradeship, the lively hardship--but mostly because it puts you out there where the unknown happens, where you encounter surprise" (164). I've sought great views of the wild--my photo blog is testament to the desire--but my experience on Mt. Ripinski surprised me. Under a veil of clouds, I noticed myself most strikingly out there.

In that the mist shielded the range of mountains from my view, it also invited me to focus on the immediately proximate in my life. All around me was silence. And then I heard myself breathing. As much as I admired the striking colors of the ground cover and the angular shapes the fog brought into relief, I considered my presence in the midst of the scene.

*Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North Point, 1990.

Monday, July 17, 2006

At Home in a Sea of Information

We are indeed, as Gary Snyder puts it, "the most highly developed tool-using animal" (Snyder, "Four Changes" 245). As I sit before my computer, emblem of the religiosity of the technological, I wonder to what purpose we have progressed. While we are highly developed animals, so are our tools, yet what good does our historical collective innovation serve? My laptop is a convertible; its monitor can spin to form an electronic version of a stone tablet. The logic behind producing such a machine--more importantly, behind purchasing such a commodity--is to enhance the rapidity and facility of recording and recalling information.

American society in general has moved beyond the formative wilderness condition and the successive technological ages into the information age. Our national product is no longer the object "Made in the USA" but knowledge transference. The human mode of experience seems no longer to have to deal with the real but exclusively with the categorized, the interpreted, the transmitted.

It was precisely for this reason I sought wildness this summer. I came to Alaska in order to continue gathering and digesting information as a graduate student in an environment I perceived as more real than the suburban one I usually inhabit. In this place of more palpable wildness, I have noticed the correlation between the "life network" and the information technology network (Snyder, "Four Changes" 250).

Increased understanding has been the goal of philosophy since time immemorial. Schools of the Liberal Arts press students to ponder the positions of multiple disciplines on converging and divergent issues in the hopes that they arrive at a state of enlightenment. While most such schools do not encourage their instructors to teach "while walking," Americans approach the process of learning as a journey (Snyder, Practice 88).

Through what environment do the student and teacher walk? Regardless of the academic discipline, the pair walks into the wild, for "Wildness is the state of complete awareness" (Snyder, "Four Changes" 251).

Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Beauty of the Dark Side

Reading Gary Snyder's "Decomposed" in The Practice of the Wild, I come across the line: "the dark side of nature--the ball of crunched bones in scat, the feathers in the snow, the tales of insatiable apetite" (118). The feathers on the concrete path here on campus come to mind. I've never seen anything quite like the two-foot-wide scatter pattern of feathers. Having lived in suburban areas my whole life, I'm used to seeing carcasses on pavement. The sight isn't pleasant, but it's familiar.

The feathers on the concrete path would shelter a naked bird, but the body has left them behind. Some animal sat on the path one night, stripped its prey of her clothing and stole off with the body. I shudder at the thought of being denuded and carried off by an unknown predator. In the context of wilderness, though, the feathers on the concrete represent an appropriate cycle. They are a sign that everything will be alright. I mourn the loss of the bird; I'm glad the bear had a nice meal. I thank him for not leaving the carcass behind after the kill.

*Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, San Francisco: North Point, 1990.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Glacial Succession

Today, Alaskan naturalist and birder Matt Brooks took the Wildness class on a walk through glacial succession land uncovered by Mendenhall Glacier (2.5 miles away) a hundred years ago. It was amazing to see 60 year-old coniferous trees stunted to the size of a 15 year-old Christmas tree due to an abundance of water in the detritus slowly becoming soil as nitrogen gets fixed by red alder growing from nutrients deposited by moss and lichens.

For this entry, I've decided to narrate the journey in a series of photographs, commenting and reflecting on the experience through the caption sequence.

Click here and scroll up to join me.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Be Playful

"Be playful," says Kim Heacox, conversationalist-conservationist. "Be playful with language." That's precisely what I've been thinking my writing lacks. After all, I'm writing about my "search for wildness." I've sought a wilderness experience in Alaska, the state I had until this summer considered a U.S. territory--the land of the freer than I.

I sit in class listening to guest lecturer Heacox wondering when I have taken a moment this summer while in Alaska to be playful. Sure, I've gone on hikes and have socialized with friends (obviously, after we've each climbed to the next camp up our mountain of reading), but have I "introduced levity" to my experience of Alaska?

Auke! Auke! Auke-Auke! My hosts to Juneau, the ravens of Auke Auke! Bay Lake! swoop over head as I sit outside Egan Library at the University of Alaska Southeast looking at a giant welded raven sculpture. They no longer terrify me as they did when I arrived three weeks ago. I want to know what they're saying. Auke! Auke! They welcome me into the conversation, but I plead ignorant and walk away.

Sitting in the gazebo beside Auke Lake, named for the people who once lived here, I wonder--English teacher that I am--at the redundancy of the name: translated, "Lake" Lake. The cartographer must have been listening to the ravens without knowing their destination either.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Chilkoot: "No-Fish Basket"

I've just returned (Sunday) to Juneau from Haines via fast ferry. Haines is a small town north of the island of Juneau up the Lynn Canal. My "Searching for Wildness" class camped out on the Chilkoot River just north of Haines (which is located at the mouth of the river. The trip was lots of fun. We saw a couple brown bears and many bald eagles (one roosted above our campsite). Seals bobbed to the surface in the bay from time to time. I climbed Mt. Ripinski (roughly a 3000' climb), summitting in dense fog and chilly persistent wind. The scenes I got on film from that hike are amazing. We met with Tlingit Alaskans in Klukwan who showed us how they live closely with the land, and enjoyed the companionship of Dick and Nora Danhauer, linguists and poets.

For this entry, I've decided to narrate the journey in an extensive series of photographs, commenting and reflecting on the experience through the caption sequence.

Click here and scroll up to join me.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Smokey Shower

Mid-afternoon shower. What a blessing. I stand under the falling water sealed away from the wild Alaskan experience from which I've just returned. Warm water washes over my forehead and down to my toes. Not until this shower have I noticed how the water will trickle through my beard in droplets like Plinko chips. I think of the slender mountain streams which meandered down rocky cliffs in cascading torrents. They were ice cold. I waded into the Chilkoot River and quickly returned to the fire. The air, thick with steam, doesn't raise a mountain-fresh scent. Instead a smokey cloud hangs about me. I peer into the fire from the shower closet. The glinting embers dance in my mind.

Who is not drawn in by fire? At our campsite on the Chilkoot, everyone settled round the fire, staring into it and chatting. Beside a rushing river, surrounded by a dense forest, and under a gloriously lavender twilight which lasted for hours, we concentrated our attention on the fire located at the focul point of our encircling presence.

The seductively orange embers haunt me. They provide the warmth I sought after joining the polar bear club. Their intense heat warns me off. Paradox: that which would sustain me would also burn me. The fire, while alive, doesn't care about me. I find myself an individual not in society but in natural wilderness.

I wish my shower wouldn't wash away the fire's smoky wildness.

I reach for the washcloth.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Pressure Change

Seated indoors before dinner, some friends and I were continuing our ongoing conversation of the human relationship to wilderness when we felt the air turn chill. A cool breeze, persistent as a wind yet gentle as a feather, stroked our cheeks. The conversation halted; our eyes met, communicating in silence. All four heads angled toward the door to inquire the messenger's secret. The breeze bid us turn our heads toward the window for it heralded a climatic shift.

The sun had been shining since 4 a.m. and had warmed the land around Auke Bay sufficiently to finally dry mowed lawns and even elevated patches of moss climbing up the bases of trees. I had read John McPhee's Coming Into the Country outside under the warm sun this afternoon. The University of Alaska Southeast grounds crew had turned on the sprinklers with reason for once.

In an instant, the barometric pressure had dropped over Auke Lake. The air became active again, tossing young trees and older boughs about. Birch leaves fluttered like wind chimes designed for the hearing impaired. The breeze shaped the water's surface as glaciers carve valleys from rock. We awaited the storm.

The clouds we had seen obscuring Mendenhall's icy slopes have now descended over the lake. The towering spruce sway in the wind, groaning as their boughs rub. The blueberry bush beside me shivers beneath the icy touch of fine rain.

A gust of wind slaps my face: the land has been communicating with and through its inhabitants for two hours now--well, at least that's how long I've been listening. Prof. Jeff Nunokawa suggested to his Social Character of the Victorian Novel class that communication is the practice of secular faith: the hope that the interlocutor will "get through" to someone. The land would seem to have a natural faith in the populations it sustains.

Were we to listen to the voice carried on the wind and let the land "get though" to us, what would our environment say? Climate changes with pressure, but so does society. Policy which affects the sustainability of the planet is subject to the whim of the social environment. For societal pressures to shift, individuals will have to observe the wildness which is around them. Through observation and experience comes appreciation.

As John Muir writes in his Travels in Alaska, "the eye is called away into far-reaching vistas" yet "where there is no distant view [...] your attention is concentrated on the objects close about you" (13, 12). The human eye opens in wonder and scrutiny; in tandem, a neurological dialogue ensues offering perspective after reflection.

*John Muir, Travels in Alaska, 1915, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Through a Glass, Brightly

These [small islands] the eye easily takes in and revels in their beauty with ever fresh delight.

~ John Muir

I have been snapping many photographs since my arrival in Juneau two weeks ago, downloading on average twenty-four a day from my digital camera. When I look at a lush scene crowned by a grayish-purple peak cooled by a cap of fresh snow, I see it in a frame on my wall. I'm in the wilderness, yet my technique of observation is urbane. My eye revels in their pixelated beauty.

I grew up on the border of suburban Maryland and Washington, D.C. My schoolmates and I would joke about the tourists, cameras at the ready, who seemed to desire the visual preservation of the moment over the actual multi-sensory experience. I am repulsed by the thought that I may act like a tourist. To me the tourist is an individual who passes through a scene without engaging the setting.

My parents taught me to want to assume the identity of a local when visiting a new place. While adopting a new accent may not be possible or even considered appropriate by the local populace, making an effort to adopt local outlooks, at least temporarily, allows the tourist the opportonity to experience the flavor of the visited community. Perspective, therefore, can be achieved through discourse as well as the camera.

Face-to-face interaction enriches the tourist act, which is the modernist pursuit of making familiar that which is strange, by establishing a two-way exchange thereby encouraging mutual understanding; observation "through a glass, darkly," only leads to partial understanding (1 Cor. 13:12). Yet how does the adventurous tourist communicate with nature? The language barrier seems insurmountable. I must resort to my camera!

Indeed my camera has documented Nature's discourse. Every few days I have stopped at the same spot along Mendenhall Loop Road to take two photographs--one westward, the other eastward. Alone they present pretty scenes: glacier, spruce, ocean, mist, fog, sky, cloud. Yet read in series, they tell a story: Juneau has been breathing--rain; bright day; mist rises out of the forests; clouds form over the mountains; rain. In and out within a closed system. That nature is alive is not news; the most urbane scene presents critters who creep and crawl. That my environment breathes with one lung shakes me awake. I rub my eyes clear of their scales.

*John Muir, Travels in Alaska, 1915, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988. 15.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Can a forest possess nobility? John Muir writes of Puget Sound as "the noblest coniferous forest on the face of the globe" (7). I have encountered references to individualized woody nobility: most notably the noble oak. Oaks are strong trees through the density of their trunks, yet an especially old oak is venerated back East for having been considered worthy when all its neighbors were clear cut to make way for farmland. How noble of the lone oak for sticking around so long without any company!

The oak's steadfastness would warrant our esteem were the tree sentient. Nobility, though, is present in old trees of every species, just as nobility resides with the human elderly. The elderly automatically assume a higher rank in society than they enjoyed or suffered individually in their youth. One can assume that the coniferous forest of Puget Sound which Muir encountered in 1879 was an old-growth forest--the collective elderly.

The nobility of a forest therefore signals its age. Yet why do we respect a forest for its age when we daily discard countless objects which seem to have outlived their utility yet are perfectly serviceable. I contend that a forest may possess nobility because humanity could not have created it. We did not create humanity itself--a higher being or Nature performed the act. So when we acknowledge the nobility of a whole forest or that of a single tree, we tip our hats not simply to the forest but more significantly to the majesty of the creative force in which we individually believe.

*John Muir, Travels in Alaska, 1915, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988.

Monday, July 03, 2006


Having hiked the Nugget Creek trail up the canyon south of Mendenhall Glacier earlier in the day, I turned to John Muir's Travels in Alaska last night after dinner. The poetry of the second paragraph drew me in immediately. What I had sat down to read fairly quickly (for I knew that I'd lap up every word) I met with slow progress. Each phrase called to my pen; scribbling ensued, yet my marginalia is neatly printed, developed, methodical--far from ordinary, even for this student and teacher of literature. Muir's style had tempered my anxiety to speed through the text. He writes that "to the mountaineer a sea voyage is a grand, inspiring, restful change;" the same could be said of an awe-imbued travel narrative for the fictionist (3).

Muir writes that we can see the ideal of permanence expressed in the "water hills and dales in eternal visible motion [or] rock waves" (3). The ocean's surface undulates, yet its motion is the very essence of its constancy--its dependability. Permanence, then, can be represented in the interconnectivity of the dynamic and static elements of nature. Glaciers, like Mendenhall, appear static but in fact suffer annual measurable decay.

I had not previously considered change coincident with permanence. In my experience, change has described abandonment: the world is irrevocably changed as it continues to lose the glacier. How does a melting glacier express permanence? The world does not lose the water; the molecules remain within the closed system of the Earth's climate. Seasonal change is a given. Permanence is not static at all, but rhythmic.

Mendenhall glacier will recede, though, at a faster rate than glaciers of past ice ages. Increased CO2 levels which increase at a rate which far excedes that of any of the past 650 million years threaten the permanence of the system. The climatological system which contains the ebb and flow of hot and cold extremes has been ruptured, altering systemic permanence itself. When change no longer occurs within consistent margins, the model is no longer dependable.

A "formless" free verse poem whose line length varies from eight to twelve syllables expresses permanence--reasonable, reliable fluctuation--and therefore adheres to a formal convention. Were a seventeen syllable line to break the poem's convention, the structural integrity would collapse, leading to metaphysical and actual losses of permanence. The poem would not be anthologized because of its instability--its lack of unity.

Our glacier has become a line of verse which is too short for its poem. Disunity abounds in the system; nature's anthology is in the process of being trimmed. The time of ascetic wonderment has passed. The moral imperative incumbent upon the non-permanent members of the world community--which is a permanent body as long as the global system is not imperiled--must act to preserve the observed order of the natural environment in order that we might sustain ourselves to enjoy permanence.

Individuals, communities, whole societies, peoples have come and gone innumerable times, yet humanity is not a permanent fixture on Earth. Neither is our glacier; nor the ocean, or even the mountains. Change is permanent. Fluidity is the sure foundation of the world. We must remember that as we continue to face new challenges, we must update the ways by which we approach the fragile permanence which we inhabit.

*John Muir, Travels in Alaska, 1915, San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1988.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Reading the History of a Place

Today, Alaskan naturalist Richard Carstensen took the wildness literature class on a bushwhack (without a machette) which was really a lot more like Twister than war, my favorite childhood card game.

For this entry, I've decided to narrate the journey in an extensive series of photographs, commenting and reflecting on the experience through the caption sequence.

Click here and scroll up to join me on the walk through peat bogs & fens, an all-age forest with old-growth trees, and a younger blow-down forest.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Rainy Day

Rain, rain, go away.
Come again some other day.

So goeth the nursery rhyme. The already water-logged ground here in Juneau has attempted to absorb rain non-stop for about twenty-four hours. Rain in Juneau is an interesting phenomenon. While each day since my arrival has seen precipitation, only three of the past week could be considered to have born rain. The usual day in Juneau includes the chance encounter with the finest of water droplets, condensed out of the atmosphere more than from a specific cloud, who have suffered the inevitable gravitational effects which act on the massified.

I found myself humming the above tune as I walked through the slop even though I welcomed the rain. Urban, Western (though I'm now more westerly than I've ever been before!) mores have conditioned my outlook on the world, no doubt. Roderick Nash's discussion of the ancient European roots to the American mentality toward wilderness seems alive and well in this Romanitc citizen's subconscious. After all, my "wilderness condition" is one of intellectual appreciation more akin to the literati figures such as William Byrd and James Fenimore Cooper than to the utilitarian scrutiny and moralizing hatred required of the pioneering figures who first settled the wilds of the American continent. And yet I share in the tradition which reads wildness as a pejorative.

Humanity cannot control the weather; rain is therefore, an extension of the wild. Today, rain has made the picturesque ambiance of my wilderness surroundings still more wild, heightening the ingrained subconscious notion that my locale and motives are strange. The day has been a gloomy one only because I have been conditioned to think it such, for gloom is a human construct. In reality, the surrounding wilderness has not taken a turn for the gloomy, becoming ever more wild, rather the soggy peat under my feet has developed brown puddles rich with nutrient. In closing, I shall venture outdoors once more today in order to cast off the dark, heavy feelings I've worn in favor of simply getting wet.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Encounter with a Red Squirrel

On my way to lunch today, I happened across a little red squirrel chirping away in a tall spruce. At first I couldn't find the animal who was singing, it was so small by comparison to the tree and was situated some distance up its trunk. I felt myself drawn to the sound, though, by its sheer volume and the mystery of the moment. The mystery revealed itself to be a squirrel oriented veritcally, parallel to the trunk. I wondered for what purpose the creature barked so insistently, for I could now discern an urgency in its voice.

Just then a blue jay's shadow played over the daylight illuminating the path. I realized that the squirrel had know of the bird's presence all along; for the furry fellow's cry only intensified with the bird's flight. While the squirrel had not welcomed the jay's presence, it preferred the status quo to movement, which required renewed strategizing.

The blue jay alighted in a tree, yet the squirrel kept up its mighty bark. As I remained before the little animal, it charged a few paces down the trunk and let out its yawp. Yet I stood beholding the foxy coat and bushy tail. The squirrel charged a second and third time. Upon hearing the third cry, I realized that I, the human, had been the unwanted visitor. From the episode's start, the squirrel meant to ward me off, yet by sounding the alarm it had intoxicated me.

Squirrels have not announced themselves in my urban, suburban, or rural experiences. They have preferred to scurry across the scene without attracting the notice of passers by. Here in Juneau, this wild--or is it rural still?--squirrel continued barking for fifteen minutes straight. Not so terrified by my presence as to scamper away before I might see it, the squirrel had had the audacity to stand its ground against a formidable foe. Had my camera been the gun of one of my pioneering ancestors, the squirrel would have found himself in a Brunswick stew.


Later today, I watched a bald eagle soar on the air currents above the shores of Auke Bay. I was on a walk along the shore and happened to be standing thirty yards from the spruce atop which it chose to perch. After admiring its magnificent size from that distance, I crept up under the eagle's tree. The eagle glanced at my approach. Standing a yard from the tree, I studied the eagle's yellow eye, its large, gripping talons, its fluffy, slightly unkempt feathers. Head in wing, the eagle resumed its nap.

While the eagle did not feel threatened by my presence as the squirrel did, both animals shared a quality I could recognize only as wildness for a few hours. But, of course, the two animals I encountered today are wild and live in a region which is wilderness relative to my experience. By terming the eagle and the squirrel wild, I had identified them as inhabiting a different zone from my own habitual realm of existence--one in which even a squirrel considers me part of the throng of nature.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Photo-Journal Blog

For ease, I've created a parallel blog to which I'll post photos throughout the summer. I'll create links to specific photos within my writings, but they may be viewed together at my Juneau, Alaska Photo-Blog (

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


I arrived in Juneau, Alaska nestled above Auke Bay this morning at 12:30 a.m. (4:30 EST) and immediately caught a taxi to my lodgings where I promptly went to bed, having been awake for about 22 hours. Despite my overbearing fatigue, I had trouble falling asleep due to the dusky early morning sky.

This morning, I awoke refreshed, though, and began to settle in and get my bearings around the University of Alaska Southeast (UAS) campus. I've uploaded to my photo-journal blog a few photos I shot while walking the Spanish-moss-tinseled evergreen-lined path from my lodgings to the main campus. While last summer in Bread Loaf, Vermont, waist-high ferns amazed me, their cousins here in Alaska no longer seem unusual. The foliage that has caught my imagination already this summer gives the impression of a seemingly prehistoric weed. Easily four-feet tall, the more illustrious specimens seem to be just the right size for a dinosaur's chomper.

The day began overcast and misty and about 5o F, but vacillated from wet to cloudy to clear all day and reached 70 F (very warm for Juneau, according to the locals, who wore T-shirts and shorts while I remained comfortable in my jeans, long-sleeve shirt, and fleece vest). At 8:40 in the evening now, the light outside would suggest 6:00 pm back home in North Carolina. I'm looking forward to seeing my first Alaskan sunset on the longest day of the year.

As for sunlight, the absence of sunglasses has struck me today. I have only seen one pair of sunglasses the entire day -- they were mine. I presume that locals see so little of the sun during the winter that they welcome the intense ambient light of the extended daytime during summer months.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Comments of Particular Note (June 09, 2006)

On the last day of class this year, I asked my students to read the blog's first post and leave me a comment. Some left kind retrospective notes about the year which I've left (mostly for me to remember them while away this summer); others left more introspective or reflective commentary on my original post, "Naturalized Nature" or the general notion of a trip to Alaska. As they take up the questions I posed, I've listed their names for the reader's ease.

Ben S.
Julie C.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Naturalized Nature

I must admit that as I prepare for my trip to Alaska, the current immigration debate echoes in my mind’s ear. As a nation of immigrant descent, we embrace moves of assimilation. When we speak of naturalized citizens, images of immigrant families who have begun to fold themselves into the population come to mind. Yet how natural is it to allow one's self to be assimilated by another culture? Is not the natural state of every individual to be true to her or his identity? How natural is it for dogs to be "man's best friend"? How natural is it for my beloved cat, Moonshadow, to curl up in a human's lap -- even if it is my own? I have made Moonshadow a naturalized citizen of my home -- he does not step foot outside -- just as waves of immigrant populations have been naturalized since the founding of our country. Were I to release Moonshadow to the wilds of my suburban neighborhood, he would surely perish.

Behind my townhouse, I maintain a modest specimen garden, befitting my status as a young teacher. My fiancee and her mother introduced me to gardening as an alternative to sculpture which I've found too messy without a proper studio. For the past two years, my studio has been the great outdoors ten feet from my back door. I get to work with my hands to cultivate living visual art. At first I felt a connection to the land through working the earth. Yet I have begun to question my garden’s claim as "natural," for by definition, cultivation requires the manipulation of nature by a green thumb.

We who inhabit urban or suburban zones exist denatured -- even while some of us get dirty after work before stepping back indoors. My students and I have been realizing this through discussions of Chris McCandless's story as told by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild. We find ourselves longing to take the pulse of the "raw throb of existence."* This summer I have the opportunity to venture in search of wildness. While attending graduate school in Juneau, Alaska, I hope to become a truly naturalized citizen. I invite you to join the experience.

*Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild, 1996, New York: Anchor, 1997. 22.