[Written originally in 2012. I’ve modified this, since some of my thoughts have changed a little.]
David Abram, author of The Spell of the Sensuous, 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.
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.
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 the Divine and S/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.
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 of the animals were predators of humans. If you got lost on a hike or walk, just keep going and you’ll hit someone’s farm. Get lost in Alaska and no one will see you again.
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.
The lack of disparity in the light was especially hard for me when I lived in California. I always felt that the days were never long enough in June, never dark enough in December. Even in Washington, the days aren’t quite long or short enough.
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.
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 feel full and blessed to have been given the gift of Place and Land in a way that seems rare these days.
I still struggle with longing when I go home to visit. My husband tells me that he’s actually jealous of Juneau. Juneau is my hometown sweetheart. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.