I've been to Alaska only once, in 2009, to teach and read at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference. My friend Mike Steinberg had taught there the previous year and I was invited on his recommendation. The conference was held at the Land's End Resort, at the tip of a narrow spit of land extending out from Homer, a small city on Kachemak Bay opposite a longer arm of the Kenai Peninsula. To prepare for the conference I read books by other presenters, especially those essayists and memoirists who lived and wrote in Alaska: Marybeth Holleman, Nancy Lord, Peggy Shumaker, Miranda Weiss, Sherry Simpson, and the poet Eva Saulitis. I was eager to hear them read at the conference, eventually acquired some of their subsequent books, and was saddened to later learn of Eva's and Sherry's deaths.
Sue came with me to Kachemak Bay and our son Tom flew up from LA to wander some of Alaska with us for a few days. We visited Anchorage and locations on the Kenai Peninsula and, perhaps most memorably, toured Harriman Fiord on a vessel that took us close to a glacier that sheared tremendous sheets of ice into the water. I had wanted to see the glacier because, prior to the trip, I'd read both John Muir's Travels in Alaska and another book about Muir's experiences with naturalist John Burroughs on the 1899 Harriman expedition, gathering material as if I might write a book about John o' Mountains and John o' Birds. (I didn't, but I still have folders full of notes and printouts.) We three then returned to our homes in California and Wisconsin and I didn't keep in touch with many of those Alaskan writers for long, except for one.
Bill Sherwonit, a journalist and outdoor essayist, shared his experiences in the wild reaches of Denali National Park and what he terms Anchorage's "backyard wilderness," Chugach State Park. He'd written To the Top of Denali: Climbing Adventures on North America's Highest Peak (it's 20,310 ft high), and I knew I wouldn't emulate him there, but his later books, Living with Wilderness: An Alaskan Odyssey and Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness, gave me a somewhat less intrepid model for the kind of nonfiction of place I wanted to write. We talked some at the conference, and in later years I linked up with his writing on Facebook. "City Wilds," his column for the Anchorage Press Sports and Outdoors section, is accessible online and its subjects are wide-ranging, including remembrances of poet Robert Bly and Anchorage birder Dave DeLap; considerations of ravens, Bohemian waxwings, snowshoe hares, snow spiders, hiking in the Chugach Front Range; a celebration of the black-capped chickadee; a call for a "healthier relationship with our home planet, the wild earth"; a celebration of the "wondrous wild."
These memories of Kachemak Bay and Alaskan nonfiction were triggered by reading Bill Sherwonit's recent column taking "a brief look back at 40 years of writing in Alaska." It provides an overview of his writing life since he left southern California in February 1982 and anchored himself in the north. He mentions coming "to identify [him]self as a 'nature writer'." I especially appreciated his perspective on what being a writer has meant to him. He writes that whenever he's asked when he'll retire, he responds, "A writer never retires," yet acknowledges to himself that he doesn't "devote the time and energy to writing that [he] once did," spending more time now "in the close company of nature." He adds that "writing for me has long been more than a job or career, and something closer to a way a life, a way of being in the world." Those comments are the ones that I related to the most in that particular column.
Last week, when I finally opened the log I keep to record thoughts about this blog, I pondered some reasons for taking time off for so long but also found myself imagining topics that might prompt more new entries in the coming months. Every so often I seem to need to be reminded that writers usually keep on writing even when there's no likelihood of—or any particular interest in—publication. Writing does something for them that they need to let it do. It's a psychological necessity, perhaps even a spiritual one. It helps them come to terms with themselves—to know who they are and where they are and why they need to be there. They don't always remember those things—I haven't lately. The next time I read Bill Sherwonit's "City Wilds" column, I hope it will remind me of them and I will be able to reassure myself that I am still writing.
Notes: Bill Sherwonit. "City Wilds: A brief look back at 40 years of writing in Alaska," Anchorage Press. (February 9, 2022). [If you scroll below this particular column, you'll find other "City Wilds" entries.]