Robert Finch begins The Primal Place, a collections of personal essays about living on Cape Cod, with the line, “One of the occupational hazards of living in a place like Cape Cod is not always knowing where you are.” Finch goes on to describe disorienting weather conditions ranging from fog to storm, yet the discombobulation mostly comes from change. Cape Cod is a place with four seasons, fish and bird migrations, insects infestations, tourist infiltration, and, perhaps most importantly, humans reshaping the land. “Change is the coin of this sandy realm,” Finch writes.
If you’ve been to the Cape, I’m sure you’ve noticed the changes Finch describes, if not from the seasonal variations then from the diversity of places within a few miles of one another. If I were to re-write Finch’s first line to be appropriate to Alaska, I would only make a slight change: One of the occupational hazards of living in a place like Alaska (or The Valley) is trying outsmart the weather.
I’m a new year-round resident to Alaska and The Valley and find the weather defeating me time and time again. This is no isolated occurrence to cheechakos like myself. Look in the ditches of the Glenn Highway for plenty of examples. Before I go into further details, let me clarify: I haven’t been caught by a ditch. I grew up Outside, but in a corn-growing state with snow. I’m well traveled. I’ve worked and played in Denali for nearly a decade. I know the difference between foolishness and preparation.
This is my second Alaskan winter. I had only settled in for a short time when I learned that Wasilla sucks and Palmer blows. A lady at one of the stores in downtown Palmer said we had thirty days with 50 mph winds last winter. I’ve lived in windy places, but no place has ever blown like Palmer last winter.
Despite the prevalence of wind last winter, when I shoveled the driveway, I piled the snow far into the yard to be certain I had plenty of room for more snow storage as the winter continued. Last winter, those berms never accumulated too much. Two or three days after the storm would arrive, the winds would kick up and blow the snow into the Knik Arm, and the grass would become visible in the yard again.
No point moving the snow too far, if the wind is just going to blow it all away in a couple days, I told myself this year. This winter I have been shoveling as little as possible, expecting the wind to kick up at any moment and blow the snow into the inlet. During the past couple of weeks, my driveway has become an alleyway with chest-high snow berms. I barely had enough room to open my car doors. I could narrowly wedge the car in from the road. I felt like a groundhog driving into my tunnel. Something had to change.
Anticipating the arrival of more snow and not having anywhere to put it, I set out to move one of those chest-high berms. I need room for more accumulation and space to easily maneuver my car into the driveway. I know people with plows. I could have asked them to give the berms a push. I could have even paid them to do it; however, I wouldn’t stand for such a thing. I created the problem, so I was going to solve the problem.
It might sound strange, but I saw moving the snow berm as an opportunity for solar power to reign over oil power. The sun grew the salad for my supper. The sun grew the grains for my hearty crockpot chicken. Who needs oil to move a berm when I have calories and time?
Moving a snow berm is much like moving a hole in soil, as assignment my Grandfather gave me when I was a child with too much energy. It may be good exercise, but it feels like unnecessary exercise. If the hole were in the right place the first time, it would not have to be moved. If the berm were in the right place . . . .
I moved that berm with my shovel. Afterwards I felt satisfied and proud. While shoveling I also decided that by next winter I want to have a four-wheeler with a plow or a neighborhood kid with enthusiastic shoveling skills. Moving the berm was a miserable experience I never want to repeat.
We all have these minor misfortunes or miscalculations from time to time. During our teenage years, the adults tell us that misfortune is part of growing up. When it occurs during adulthood, we like to think it is all part of understanding the place we live in. These events and how we describe them say much about who we are. These events say much about how Palmer doesn’t blow this year.
Most importantly to us writers, these events come in layers. We have the obvious physical action like moving snow. But there is always more to the story: why and how was the snow moved? What does moving snow via “solar power” say about living in The Valley, Alaska, or the world for that matter? Taking advantage of these moments is our job as place writers.
Just being Alaskan allows us to describe an interesting world for our readers. For a few years, I summered in Denali and attended graduate school near my hometown in rural Illinois. Hundreds of people asked, “What is it like to see a glacier?”
I was raised among miles of cornfields and since living here not one person has asked, “What is it like to see a cornfield?” Granted glaciers and cornfields are very different things, and I would argue both are equally beautiful and amazing just in very different ways, but this isn’t the place for that argument.
Alaska is a special place. Trying to write about Alaska can be difficult. Trying to describe any place can be difficult. We have plenty of models at hand, the most famous one being Henry David Thoreau and Walden. Thoreau described his life at Walden Pond and in turn he describe the world of man. We innately think of Thoreau as a nature writer, but take another look at Walden. The first chapter is entitled “Economy.” Ideas and values are just as important to place as plot and action.
Most nature writing has been incorporated into place writing. The nice thing about place writing is that you don’t have to live by a pond or, for that matter, in the wilds of Alaska. The place around you is important, whether it is a suburban neighborhood or a shack in the woods.
The place-writing course I will be teaching will take place at the Palmer Library during February and March. Check out the 49 Writers website for specific dates. We will be work-shopping your writing, working with a fun method to generate more material, and reading writers you are familiar with and hopefully some new ones for your reading list. I’m still solidifying the readings, but here’s the list so far: Thoreau, Sherry Simpson, John Lane, Robert Finch, Katie Fallon, Tom Montgomery Fate.
I hope you can join me at the place-writing workshop. Regardless of your attendance, try to refrain from attempts at outsmarting the weather. They rarely turn out the way we want them to. If you know a kid in my neighborhood who enjoys shoveling, please send him my way. I have a berm on the other side of the driveway with is name on it. Like Cape Cod, Alaska is ever changing. Why not write about this great place?
Douglass Bourne will be teaching a 49 Writers workshop Writing Your Place at the Palmer library beginning Feb. 2; registration required. Douglass has worked as a tour guide in Denali for nearly a decade. Over many winters he earned an MA in from Western Illinois University and followed that with an MFA from University of North Carolina—Wilmington. For a couple years he served as Nonfiction Editor of Ecotone: Reimagining Place. Now he’s the faculty advisor to the undergraduate creative writing magazine, Understory, at UAA and teaches in the English Department. His screenplay won a Sir Edmund Hillary Award at the 2011 Mountain Film Festival. He has an essay forthcoming in Quay. His poetry and prose have appeared in Cirque; Cold Flashes: Alaska Literary Snapshots; The LBJ: Avian Life, Literary Arts; Tusculum Review; and Pank. His book, Tundra Bum, is making the rounds to publishers.