Land as Lover

Inspired by The Spell of the Sensuous I want to explore more personally what Land and Place mean to me.

David Abram talks about geography as a container. More than just mountains that enclose or fields that spread out, land shapes our views of the world, our experiences with future places, how we perceive time and seasons, how communities function, and how we relate the non-human world. I see this so clearly from my own upbringing in Juneau, Alaska. It has so profoundly shaped me that, even though I’ve not lived there for a decade, I still consider myself an Alaskan first – even before being an American.

My friend Jennie came to visit from Seattle. She thought having an actual end of the road was hilarious. 1994.

Juneau is small-ish in population, but spread out over a 50 mile strip of land, clinging to 3- and 4,000 feet tall mountains, hemmed in by glaciers and water ways. You cannot drive in or out. It sits in a fjord, in one of North America’s largest, oldest rain forests. Black bears in your backyard, deer eating your garden flowers (that bloom for about 6 weeks), porcupine, whales, bald eagles, ravens larger than any I’ve ever seen elsewhere…. all normal inhabitants.

How did these things affect me?

The mountains and water, the ice fields and forests helped me feel safe. Of course, you could die if you hiked off trail or went boating in bad weather. I went on one epic hike when I was 18, a hike that was supposed to be about 9 or 10 hours (from Sheep Creek up and over the ridge and down Mount Roberts). It ended up taking us 18 hours. I nearly slid off one of the peaks into a gully from 5,000 feet. It’s not a gentle landscape! And yet…. I felt, still feel, that with proper respect (which includes preparation) I was safer there than in most other parts of the world.

A picture I took of my dad in 1987. On our boat somewhere in SE Alaska, fishing at sunset.

When I left Alaska for college I couldn’t wrap my head around how it was possible to cross a street and be in a different town. It took me many years to understand that. Perhaps this is why maps and geography are so important to me. I want to know the shapes and boundaries of towns.

I felt something divine in the land. I was a Christian in my teen years, and yet I still felt God’s existence and presence in the land around me. It wasn’t just an idea that God had made the land, but more that the land was an expression of God and he comforted me and spoke to me through the land itself. I’m not sure I could have articulated that then.

I grew up around people that used the land. They used it to feed their families; they used it for their occupation. By ‘using’ I mean, they worked with the land. The men and women I grew up around knew that the land was the source of their livelihood, whether that was building infrastructure during the opening of ANWR and the pipeline in the late ’70s, or working as fishermen. The land provided….. and the land, if not worked with, if not respected, could take away as well. There is no power over the land in Alaska, only power with.

Me, hiking the Chilkoot Trail between Skagway, AK, and the Yukon, Canada. Most people take a week to do this. My crew did it in less than 3 days. Not sure that was wise… 1999 (I think).

In fact, that’s one of the things that amused me when I lived in Wales – there was nothing that could kill you in the land. Sure, you could get too drunk and fall off a cliff. But the weather is generally mild and none fo the animals were predators of humans. If you got lost on a hike or walk, just keep going and you’ll hit some one’s farm. Get lost in Alaska and no one will see you again.

Our friend Tim (may he be at peace) took this of me and Jennie. He led us hiking under the Mendenhall Glacier. This part of the glacier has since melted far away. 1995.

Something else that has affected me my entire life is the disparity of light in the seasons. I never suffered seasonal affective disorder, though I know many people who do, who have, or have some variation of it. We have 18 hour days in the summer with extended twilight; 18 hour nights in the winter. Until only recently I’ve always felt that the days were never long enough in June, never dark enough in December. This was especially hard for me when I lived in California.

It rains so much in SE Alaska that autumn is truly only 10 days at the end of August. Spring is about 2 weeks at the end of May or early June. October was always my least favorite month. It wasn’t until I lived in Washington that I learned that October is AMAZING. It is now my favorite month. Perhaps this is why fall is now my favorite season. Autumn makes me giddy! Spring is also a joyous surprise every year. Grow up with only two seasons, and the 4 season climate is something of a revelation. Each year I get two extra seasons! It’s like nature gives me a present every three months!

Light, dark, rain, water, fish, mountains…. I was in love with my Land. In fact, for over a decade I felt like I was in an adulterous relationship. Alaska was my lover and I was cheating every time I flew to Washington to start another year of college. I was cheating when I moved to grad school in Berkeley. I figured Alaska was my childhood sweetheart and I’d be back when I was ready to settle down. I always, always intended to return.

Me visiting Juneau in March 2004. Mendenhall Wetlands and my then dog, Dawson, named after the town in the Yukon.

This rather dysfunctional relationship with my Land, as foundational and beautiful as it was to me, also kept me from diving deep into other lands and places. It took me a long time to settle into the Bay Area, into Washington. The only places that were never a struggle for me were Ireland and Wales. If I’m honest, that separation from Alaska made me feel broken.

What was wrong with me that I couldn’t adjust to other places? Why was I so overwhelmed in cities? I did just fine on an intellectual level: I loved the energy, the opportunities, the food, the excitement. But at a core level, I was so deeply overwhelmed, like there were was too much buzzing, too much noise, too MUCH all the time. Why did I need trees the way most people need food? No one else I knew (other than people from Juneau) wanted to return to their home towns. Everyone wanted to flee. Why was I unable to function in cities? I felt like I was failing as an adult. It’s not something I ever really talked about, but I felt it. My two-week vacations home once a year were not feeding my soul.

I needed to break up with Alaska. Moving to Wales, not moving back to Alaska, was a good first step. And finally, at some point while there I realized that Alaska was a part of me and I took my Land with me where ever I went. I may have to spend the next 25 years working to know the land I’ve chosen as home now, but it’s possible. I no longer feel broken. I feel full and blessed to have been given the gift of Place and Land in a way that seems rare these days.

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About Niki Whiting
  • http://twitter.com/ThornCoyle T. Thorn Coyle (@ThornCoyle)

    What a gorgeous piece.

    The land I live on – San Andreas Fault, ocean, bay – orients me. My animal understands it, deeply. I tried to move away once and could not. Sure, if life took me elsewhere, I would adapt, but my animal soul calls this home.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      My animal soul is thrilled to be back in the Pacific North West. I never really was at home in CA, although I felt like it was a very welcoming place and also had so much to teach me.

      What surprises me is how deeply Ireland and Wales sang to me. I MISS those lands. Which is odd, because I have spent a lot of time in Australia and my mother is from there, and yet it is Wales and Ireland that feel like my ‘other’ home.

  • http://aquilakahecate.blogspot.com/ aquilakahecate

    It’s how I feel about 2 places in the world: Berkshire in England, and the Highveld of South Africa.

    I’ve lived all over the globe, but parts of me are *in* these 2 places.

    I expect if you dug enough, you’d come up with my heart in one and my brain in the other.

    Love,

    Terri in Joburg

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      Yes, I feel similarly about Wales and Ireland.

  • http://iris365.wordpress.com Rebecka

    This is exactly how I feel about the Pacific Northwest. I didn’t believe how much it held my heart until I returned to where I thought I belonged to- Missouri and Arkansas. I was born in the midwest and every story of my family has its origins there. The farm and homestead still stands. When I went in 2006 (not the first trip), I knew deeply all of these places and smells and sights so clearly from stories, even if it was my first visit to that particular town or home. But then I went again in 2007, searching deeper, and discovered that that was NOT my land. Everything turns brown in the winter, the snow turns brown. The modern farming industry and CAFOs break my heart.

    I returned to Washington and felt such relief to be back with evergreens, wet air, green grass, familiar birds and animals, plants I could identify. I loved that I could pick things to eat in the forest without worry that it was toxic. As much as I complain about the rain (hello seasonal affective), there is an almost ritualistic encounter for me with the seasons as they change and I feel a need to prepare and release with each one. But I know them deeply, know what the mean to me, and know how to balance myself within each one.

    And on an even more microscopic level, this is one more reason why I love having my business in Centralia/Chehalis- because it’s a chance to return home every single week.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/awitchsashram myownashram

      I’m looking forward to getting to know this land. We have a passing acquaintance, and hopefully over the next few decades we’ll get more intimate with each other.

  • Jennie

    Finally had some time to read this properly. Beautiful! Can’t wait to talk more about this topic. I have lived into my strong sense of place in the past seven years, but I don’t think I was really aware of it before, even though it’s always been with me I can now see…


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