Monday, September 3, 2012

Douglass Bourne: Claiming a Place

I was raised on land that had been in the family for some time. The land changed yearly from never-ending fields of corn to fields of soybeans. The squeals of hogs were heard more often than traffic. Life passed by at the pace of a John Deere. Garrison Keillor’s tales from Lake Wobegon remind me of that time. We were a methodical and deliberate people, and we loved to tell stories.
Rain or corn or sun often served as the main characters to the stories we would tell, but people weren’t left out of them entirely. We all did such silly things from time to time. We certainly were never too proud to share our mishaps with others. We admitted our mistakes. In my own family, the way I saw it, there were often problems with the stories being told, beginning with the fact that my older brother got to tell them while I had to stand there with my hands in my pockets. Many days were ruined because my mouth remained shut for far too long, yet my family would probably argue my mouth wasn’t ever shut long enough. Sometimes deciding who got to tell a story would escalate to arguments, occasionally to bruises.
Maybe most households contain brotherly events for story rights. Maybe that is all part of normal life in America. I haven’t reached a point in my own life to see a household from the adult angle, but since becoming an adult, I do see people fighting to tell stories. The recent mauling of Richard White by a grizzly bear in Denali makes a pretty good example of my point.
Writers about this event, as tragic as it was, have an interesting fact to lean on—No previous records of a bear attack death in the park. Since this is the first death each writer loves sharing his or her stance on the attack occurred. You can read the author’s angle like headlines: Bear-anoia, Machismo and Bear Terror, and Tourist Inexperience. Essentially, there are dozens of themes writers are trying to use to write the Truth of Bear Attack Denali 2012. Allow me to offer more examples from the extremes: Peta People Don’t Respect Wild Animals; Yosemite Sam Would Carry More Guns If He Relocated And Became Denali Sam; If You Walk In The Woods Alone You Deserve A Bear Attack; or to the other extreme: Herrero Bear Science Leads To Reduced Encounters, and an eco-psychology approach—Now That A Death Has Occurred The Perceived Danger Increases Therefore More Adrenalin Shall Be Released During A Denali Backcountry Experience.
A person could spend a day writing new themes to describe Denali, bears, and White’s death, but none of the themes, especially the stuff in the media, describes the event in a Truth that fits the Denali I know. I came to Alaska because of that park. I worked there for nearly a decade. I feel I know the place pretty well.
As far as I’m concerned, White’s death is unfortunate and tragic. I also think White was an unlucky person. According to press releases, it sounds like White was too close to the bear, but how many tourists have been closer to bears? Guess how many have behaved even more foolishly around bears?
Hundreds of tourist could be Richard White.
Many of my friends could be Richard White. I could be Richard White.
Ever fly fish separated from a bear by a thick alder bush? Ever tried to grab a bear by the back of the neck because it was dark and you thought a sled dog had gotten loose and was feasting in the feed bin? Ever charged a couple sub-adults because they were invading your fishing hole? Ever forgot to be noisy just below a ridge? Ever tried to get home on a late walk without a flashlight? If we were all punished by bear death every time we did something foolish, the population of this state would be cut in half. White made mistakes, and it is unfortunate White paid the ultimate price for it.
In 2005 a bus rider told a friend of mine, “I want to hug a grizzly cub” and then later became a missing person—one of many missing persons in Denali—not counted as death by bear. Death by bear in Denali is more complicated than the media knows. Telling the whole story now, getting to what I see as the Truth about Bear Attack Denali 2012 is a much longer essay than I have time for here and is actually outside the purpose of this essay.
The purpose of this essay is to show that each of us has something to say about the places we inhabit. When we write about a place the physical details are important, sometimes those details can become a character, but most importantly, place writing encompasses so much more: the values, the attitudes, the experiences, the desires, and the two that I think are most important: the love and passion of a place. It feels good to know a stream or a sidewalk, a mountain or a coffee shop. It feels even better to share it with others.
After a survey of Bear Attack Denali 2012 literature would a reader judge some articles being right? And others wrong? Readers might have criticisms. There might be questions about authenticity or sincerity. Some readers might dislike the persona on the page, yet whether it is fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction readers are trying to make sense of the world we live in. It’s our jobs as writers to offer another point of view.
Organization is a recent skill I developed since leaving the Bohemian seasonal-employee lifestyle. Somewhere along the line, I began collecting quotes, but I don’t have records for where I found most of them. Here’s a Joan Didion quote from an unknown source, “A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image.” My older brother had the ability to claim it harder than I; however, now that I’m an adult I’ve found much healthier ways to claim place.
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Douglass Bourne worked as a tour guide in Denali for nearly a decade. He earned an MA from Western Illinois University, followed by an MFA from University of North Carolina—Wilmington, where he served as Nonfiction Editor of Ecotone: Reimagining Place. Douglass teaches in the English Department at UAA and is faculty advisor to the undergraduate creative writing magazine, Understory. His screenplay won a Sir Edmund Hillary Award at the 2011 Mountain Film Festival, and his poetry and prose have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals. This fall, Douglass will be teaching a course in Palmer for 49 Writers called "Writing Your Alaska."

1 comment:

Eric said...

I'm frightened by your examples of stupid people. But you're absolutely right, it could have been anyone who was the first. It just happens to be this idiot. Oops. Gave away my point of view.

When it comes to making it your place, you're in a great position to do that with Denali. Never mind assorted Muries, your experience driving the bus puts you in a strategic position.

You're so much nicer than I am--I don't believe anyone can write a good essay about any place. But some people can. In this case, you.