When talking about the writing life, I like to tell a story from my geology days, about a boss who absolutely loved the work we did. As I recount in Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska's Arctic Wilderness (2009, University of Alaska Press), “Inwardly I cringed when a crew leader named Joe talked about our work. ‘You know,’ he said with gusto, ‘geology isn’t just a job to me. It’s my hobby, too.’ For me it was more chore than challenge. I think of Will Rogers’ joke about golf: a nice walk ruined. That’s pretty much how I felt about stream sediment sampling and pounding on rocks while hiking through one of North America’s wildest landscapes (the Central Brooks Range).”
Nowadays I smile when recalling Joe’s words and my wincing response to them, because I better understand his perspective. He and my other geology buddies would eventually become role models of a sort. Only four years after earning an MS at the University of Arizona, I decided to seek a new career, one that I could love as much as they loved geology. (Passion for the work – or rather my lack of it – was only one of several factors that prompted the change, but it was a crucial one.)
Here I’ll again borrow from Changing Paths, which in part chronicles my evolution from geologist to journalist and eventually nature writer and wilderness advocate:
“What that (career) would be, I had no idea. Many friends and family members thought I must be nuts, to throw away all the years of hard work, the MS in geology, and the opportunity to work in a profession where I’d already had some notable success. But the void beckoned. I had to make the leap into the unknown, because the real craziness lay in doing work I’d found to be either boring or destructive to what I loved. . . .
“A serious amateur photographer for several years, I decided to return to school and see how photojournalism suited me. Without much savings, I focused on local junior colleges, which seemed ideal for experiments like mine. As a California resident (where I’d settled in the late seventies) I could take a full load of courses for under $20. Among the schools that taught photojournalism, one immediately caught me eye (for reasons I explain in the book): Pierce College.
“I wouldn’t learn until later that Pierce’s journalism department was nationally acclaimed. Nor could I know that its staff would quickly recognize some raw talent in this serious new student – in writing and reporting, more than photography – and shepherd me toward a new and then unimaginable life. My three-semester apprenticeship at Pierce led to a real newspaper job at the tiny Simi Valley Enterprise and my entry into the life of a professional journalist. But more than that, it led me to something that soon became a passion: writing. All that remained was one final link to a lifelong love, wild nature.
“Much like the circumstances leading from grad school to Alaska, this turn of events initially seemed to be a string of coincidences or lucky breaks. But with a quarter-century of hindsight, I now hear the words of Joseph Campbell, who in talking with Bill Moyers during The Power of Myth series referred to the ideas of nineteenth-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: ‘When you reach a certain age and look back over your life, it seems to have had an order; it seems to have been composed by someone. And those events, that when they occurred seemed merely accidental and occasional and just something that happened, turn out to be the main elements in a consistent plot.'”
Ah, life as a plot. Now there’s something that should resonate with creative writers. I won’t continue with Schopenhauer’s ideas here, but the notion that accidents or coincidences or lucky (or unlucky) breaks might in fact be more than they seem resonates with me. So does Campbell’s famous counsel to “follow your bliss.” I don’t have his exact words at hand, but essentially he says that to follow one’s true passion, a person must heed “the call” – and act upon it. To do so often requires a leap of faith. Such a leap may appear intimidating, even dangerous. But the potential rewards are great.
In taking the leap, a person may discover a path that has been there all along, though unrecognized. And once on that path, all sorts of miraculous things seem to happen, as doors open and new possibilities emerge. It sometimes also seems that “invisible hands” are there to guide a person along the way.
It’s hard to write or talk about such a thing without seeming a little “woo woo,” a bit weird in a new-agey sort of way. Indeed, it seems a strange thing to me. And yet it somehow makes sense. Or at least I see it in my own life. It’s as if a path were always there, waiting for me. Maybe I actually walked (or crawled) upon it in my earliest days, but then got sidetracked by other forces, other influences. But in “leaping” from geology to journalism/writing, I found – or rediscovered – a path I was meant to take. (Though I’m not sure it’s the only path I might have followed and still found my passion.)
The ideas of being called and finding one’s own path are linked to the notion that our lives have meaning, a purpose. Whether or not that’s true, I think that most of us humans believe in the notion of purpose and we look for meaning in our lives. Or we at least want to live in a meaningful way. We want to leave a positive legacy of some kind.
It makes sense to me that my life’s purpose somehow would be closely tied to the larger, wilder world of nature. It’s always been a refuge, a home, a place of solace, inspiration, wonder and hope. (It is also sometimes intimidating and frightening.) The writing part is harder to explain. I don’t remember being a voracious reader or passionate writer when young. As a member of a deeply religious Lutheran family, mostly what I read – or had read to me – were the Bible and “Bible stories.” I sometimes feel envious when people talk about their favorite early books. None come to mind for me. Could I have blanked them out?
In grade school my favorite class was spelling. And I was pretty good at penmanship (when older I’d be praised for my handwriting). I suppose those might have been early hints of the importance that words and writing would later have for me. But in high school and college, I was a “math and science guy.” I didn’t particularly like English or history or more generally “the arts.” I remember reading classic novels in high school, for instance The Scarlet Letter, Ivanhoe, and A Tale of Two Cities. But they didn’t particularly inspire or excite me, though I do vaguely remember enjoying Ivanhoe. I was more into books about baseball, stories about fishing.
Sometime in college I became interested in Ernest Hemingway and eventually read several of his novels, but I’m not sure I can call him an important influence. I also began keeping a journal, off and on. In those journals I recorded my thoughts and experiences, reflected upon puzzling aspects of my life, tried to better understand my life. But they were very private, nothing to share.
Even after writing became my livelihood, I paid little attention to literature for years, either as writer or reader. My earliest creative efforts were the newspaper columns I wrote about sports and “the outdoors,” which sometimes took the essay form. But I didn’t begin to more seriously explore essay writing or longer narrative nonfiction until I’d embraced the life of a freelance writer, after The Anchorage Times lost its newspaper war with the Daily News. Becoming a freelancer, too, was something of a leap of faith, and something I’ve never regretted, despite the inevitable ebbs and flows – and rejections by all manner of publications.
What still amazes me is that I had no awareness that there was a literary genre called “nature writing” until I’d reached my late thirties, maybe even early forties. Though I’d read – and loved – Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men and Arctic Dreams, I knew little or nothing about Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, John Haines, Richard Nelson, Terry Tempest Williams, Robert Michael Pyle, Scott Russell Sanders – the list goes on and on. Many, if not most, of the above would hesitate to call themselves nature writers, but they have contributed greatly to the body of work that is called “nature writing.” And all have joined my personal library, inspired and fed my own writing efforts, since they made their way into my life.
As I’ve reflected in an essay, “Anchorage’s Wild Coastal Fringes,”
“There are strong links between my middle-aged ‘discoveries’ of songbirds and Anchorage’s coastal refuge and several other things that have become important to me – and to my understanding of the world – over the past decade or so (now closer to 15 years). Two examples are nature writing and a yearly Alaskan event called the Sitka Symposium (which recently ended after a run of 25 years) . . .
“Looking back, it seems I had a dim awareness of all those things – songbirds, coastal refuge, nature writing, symposium, and more – for years, as they moved in and out of my life. Yet I didn’t, or perhaps couldn’t, sense their power, their ability to expand, deepen, enrich, even transform a life, until some triggering event opened my eyes, my capacity to understand. The trigger itself might be perfectly ordinary. . . . But each somehow lifted a veil, opened a door, revealed a previously hidden path. And suddenly my world opened up. I learned a new way of experiencing the world that I had never before imagined. Of course such opening up isn’t limited to middle age; it can and does happen throughout our lives, if we’re lucky. Or paying attention.
“I think about all these things in my own life, because I want to know more about the ways we humans broaden our perspectives, the circumstances through which we willingly change or reshape our core beliefs and behaviors, the triggers that open us to new possibilities.”
Among writing’s greatest gifts to me is that it helps me pay greater attention to what’s happening around and within me. It is also one of the primary ways that I explore life’s mysteries, reflect upon my place in the world, and better understand wild nature, human nature, my nature. Yes, I’ve been fortunate enough to earn a living as a writer. But like Joe’s relationship with geology, writing has long been more than a job or career to me and something closer to a way of life, a way of being in the world. Writing is also a reminder to remain open to possibilities – and the way that a life can blossom when a person pays attention to his intuition, his heart.
Born in Bridgeport, Conn., nature writer Bill Sherwonit has called Alaska home since 1982. He has contributed essays and articles to a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, journals, and anthologies and is the author of more than a dozen books. In September 2014, Alaska Northwest Books will publish his collection of essays, Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife. His website is www.billsherwonit.