This article first appeared in the March 10, 2011 issue of The Juneau Empire
by Amy Condra
Alaska attracts adventurers, people who come for the tall mountains and the deep rivers, who envision themselves discovering something new even as they lose themselves in an ancient wilderness.
Among these dreamers from down south are the artists who want to capture the less tangible aspects of the quest: An image, a rhythm, a phrase, that will evoke what it means to be here.
But for writers, describing a place so larger-than-the-usual-life can be hard to do; too often, the words and phrases used to convey Alaska’s vastness can dwindle into small stereotypes.
“I grew up in inner-city Portland,” said local poet Emily Wall. “It’s almost easier to write about nature in tiny restricted places. Here, oh my God, where do you start? It’s so large!
Wall, an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Alaska Southeast, will be reading her poems at next week’s Wildlife Wednesday, a lecture series sponsored by the Alaska Wildlife Alliance, a nonprofit organization committed to the conservation, protection and promotion of our state’s wildlife.
Her presentation is titled “Writing Eden: Looking for Home in the Natural World.” Wall will be reading poems from her previously published book, “Freshly Rooted,” as well as works from a new collection.
Many of the poems in “Freshly Rooted” explore Wall’s experience both as a new wife and a new Alaskan, and were written after she and her husband decided, almost on a lark, to come to Juneau.
They moved here five days after they got married; they planned to stay for a year or so.
But then they fell in love with the place, said Wall, and ended up settling in.
Wall believes many of us are searching for the archetype of Eden, for an unspoiled frontier.
“People will sell everything, will buy a boat and go, looking for that perfect cove where there will be no one but orcas, where they can be alone and content,” Wall said. “That can be very hard to do, to find that — but it’s amazing how many people have that dream.”
Wall’s poems, which often focus on our place in the natural world, recast our perceptions of daily life in Juneau by enticing us with a new take on what many of us see every day.
In her poem “Composition Ravens,” Wall writes, “Three black knives/cleave morning air./Snow has softened the sound/but even driving/beside them, we hear the slicing of wings./One has a bright orange/peel, the other two stroke,/young swimmers, toward/the concrete wall, kick/off at exactly/the right moment,/toward the highway,/guardrail left/quivering and greasy/in their wake.”
Tina Brown, president of the Alaska Wildlife Alliance and coordinator of Wildlife Wednesdays, said she is looking forward to Wall’s reading.
“I have always admired her work,” Brown said. “It’s so good that we want to share it with our community.”
Like Wall, Brown was initially drawn to Juneau because of the town’s proximity to the Alaska wilderness.
“My husband and I would come to Denali to backpack every summer,” said Brown, who moved here from Georgia about five years ago. “One time we came to Juneau for a night, on our way to Denali—it was raining sideways and was 53 degrees, and I said, ‘This is great!’”
Brown believes the character of Juneau’s people enhances its appeal.
“There is no pretense here,” she said. “You can’t tell a person’s occupation or level of education by his or her way of dress, for example — all you have to do here is be yourself.”
Developing a sense of self in relation to a natural landscape is a theme Wall has thought about while editing her work for her new book, “Liveaboard.”
“’Liveaboard’ can be used as a verb and a noun,” said Wall, who lived on a boat with her husband for four years. “It can also be a metaphor for how we live in the natural world, for communities, for issues of faith.”
As liveaboards, Wall and her husband would cruise for 2,000 miles up and down the coast, using a dock in Vancouver as their home base.
The experience taught her that nature’s untamed wildness, its fierce lack of predictability, can actually foster community; sometimes the farther into the wilderness we venture, the more we need other people to help us survive it.
“It’s difficult to dock a boat on a river without help,” said Wall. “When we saw people come into the harbor, there was an immediate connection. You count on people to catch lines, to give accurate information on the weather, on what’s going on out there.”
The need to help, and the desire for support, creates an intimacy that isn’t so common in the Lower 48, says Wall.
“You seldom need your neighbors in suburban America, when you’re just bringing in a bag of groceries,” she said. “Community is the way we live together, and don’t live together.”