Wayfinding

03-08-450LargeSimpson

OUR FAMILY MOVED eleven times before I turned seven. I attended three first grades: in Utah, in Colorado, in Virginia. I remember the July day we arrived in Juneau, Alaska, the way the barnacle must regard its final and lasting attachment, with relief and a niggling worry: Is this the place?

The following summer we lived in Mount McKinley National Park, as it then was known. My father, a civil engineer, was in charge of a project to pave the first fifteen miles of the park road as far as the Savage River. For three months, we lived at park headquarters, wedged into a trailer so small that the four kids shared two bunks embedded in the hallways, like beds in a Pullman sleeper. My strongest memories feature me as a half-feral child roaming from adventure to adventure, discoveries all around.

This, then, was the child becoming herself. I pounded dull cubes of fool’s gold free from granite rocks. Dug green bones of snowshoe hares from beneath a duff of dry spruce needles. Felt the blast of my heart when I woke from daydreaming to see an impassive moose standing before me. Heard the drum of my feet against the damp trail as I ran away. Tasted the sour burst of blueberries picked warm and dusty. Scuffed through the silvered ruins of some long-dead prospector’s cabin.

This is how I discovered my home. This was my first act of wayfinding.

Sometimes, though, we lose our way, without ever realizing it. The summer in Mount McKinley ended, and we moved back to Juneau, to the Mendenhall Valley, hedged by a glacier at one end and tidal flats at the other. On this suburban frontier I grew up climbing trees in a rainforest and riding motorcycles on back roads scraped from glacial till. I camped with friends on uninhabited beaches and stood in line for Star Wars, fished with my dad off Shelter Island and played third-string basketball in high school, ate (reluctantly) ocean-bright salmon two or three times a week and Kraft macaroni and cheese when we were lucky.

I never became the sort of Alaskan who flies planes, kills wild animals, fishes open seas, climbs mountains, or treks through the backcountry as if it were no more troublesome than driving to the local 7-Eleven for a newspaper. Life felt interesting enough in a place where the separation between nature and home seemed no more substantial than the faint rattle of a beaded curtain between doorways. Black bears strolled through backyards. Humpback whales coursed silently like intergalactic freighters beneath my father’s boat. The Mendenhall Glacier was a grand blue slab of scenery for thousands of thrilled tourists and a playground where everyday hooligans like me spent afternoons leaping off moraines and plinking rocks at castaway icebergs.

There were moments that scraped away this unmindfulness. After a night of babysitting, for instance, I watched the four a.m. dawn pinking the clouds behind Thunder Mountain, and some foreknowledge of a larger world both frightening and exhilarating pierced me. On a day in November, huddled in dead grasses on the Mendenhall wetlands, I watched Canada geese so intently through binoculars that the tide rose unnoticed and stranded me, and it was not so much the bitter cold but some recognition of life’s blind passage that made me cry as I waded through chest-deep water toward solid ground.

Of course I could never have used the words home or wilderness then with any awareness of their complex meanings, nor did I know the phrase mysterium tremendum, a German theologian’s term for awe-fullness, numinous dread, an apprehension of the Other. Somehow I did know that the only way to experience that searing intensity was to push beyond the known world, past a life eased by familiarity. Years fell behind me, miles passed beneath my feet, before I recognized that such moments — and how painfully few they are — help us recognize axis mundi, the center of the world, which is not a place but a way of being. Like wilderness. Like home.

Sherry Simpson’s essay in this issue is excerpted from her book The Accidental Explorer, published recently by Sasquatch Books. She teaches at the University of Alaska, Anchorage.

Comments

  1. Sherry Simpson’s essay “Wayfinding” really made my day, especially the concepts of axis mundi, home and wilderness. “Wayfinding” prompted me review my concepts of my world and connect some of the high points of my growing years to my present views and values.
    Axis mundi reminded me of da Vinci’s Vitriuvian man and the artful way that he linked the human body, its symmetry and proportion to the universe. It reinforced my beliefs that mountains, high places and trees are my sacred places and my link to the heavens.
    As far back as I can remember I have always had an intense sense of belonging, safety and security among trees and mountains. They are indelibly linked to my being. I love John Muir’s essay “A Windstorm in the Forests” where he details climbing a huge tree to ride out and experience a windstorm – nature at its wildest and finest! I have always felt at home among mountains and trees, especially the trees. That’s probably because my childhood was spent in a little New Jersey town (Yes, there once were places like that!) Our “mountains”, the rolling, time worn foothills of the Appalachians towered a meager 300 feet above our sleepy river valley, but they were our mountains. I like to think that I spent most of my childhood hiking those mountains or cradled in the high branches of a tree. When I wasn’t up a tree I was usually paddling my canoe on the river. My wilderness was a couple miles of river that flowed under and between the ornate white county-road bridges just upstream from town. There was the center of my universe where I felt at home: my world to discover, and my escape. Towering oaks, hickories, maples, tulip trees and sweet gums filled the riverside slopes; fat sycamores and weeping willows lined the riverbanks. One of my special places was a secret campsite in a grove of huge old hemlocks tucked away along a river bend. Great horned owls nested there. Their regurgitated pellets littered the forest floor around the nest tree. Picking apart a desiccated pellet was like viewing the menu from the owl café: bones and fur and feathers!
    Living here in Alaska for the past 31 years, essentially my entire adult life, I’ve bonded with some REAL mountains. Mountains are more prevalent than tall trees here in the North. The Chugach Mountains cradle Anchorage along the Pacific coast and form the heart of my sense of place, home and belonging. They are my primary axis here. Occasionally in my wanderings I find a nice big tree, and those same old feelings from my childhood come rushing back.
    I live for the chances to experience and explore these mountains in every season. When I can’t be there, I like to study them, following the ridgelines, picking out the trails, ridgelines and peaks that I know and love, watching them transform in the ever changing light. When I fly in or out of Anchorage, my head is glued to the window, straining to get a bird’s eye view of my favorite places.
    Thank you Sherry for sharing your essay. It brought back so many feelings and memories. It reinforced my sense of place and belonging. Keep up the good work!
    Gary Bullock, Anchorage, AK

  2. As a crochety elder I am usually not easily satisfied with today’s reading fare. However, I found the extract from Mrs. Simpson’s latest opus to be an exception. Perhaps this is so because I agree with her concept of “being” as a symbiotic relationship between self and the marvelous, life friendly planet on which we find ourselves. Many thanks .
    Yours sincerely,
    Pierce Cabot

  3. I discovered your magazine’s website this morning after reading “In search of silence” by Kathleen Dean Moore in “UTNE”. What a gift! This essay by Sherry Simpson meets me in my heart. Having grown up on the coast of British Columbia, then moved to Switzerland at the age of 22, I feel at home in wild places of rock, forest, and water; and have sometimes wondered if it was really best for me to leave the true wildness of B.C. This essay confirms the truth I have had many glimpses of over these 44 years: namely, that we can experience oneness and a perfect feeling of being at home with a tree, a rock, a flower, or the waves anywhere if we just stop and be.
    Thank you, Sherry.

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