Bill Sherwonit: Of Essays and Animal Stories


Bill and Denali along Turnagain Trail


In opening up my month’s worth of guest author postings, I’ll
briefly reference an earlier 49 Writers contribution I made way back in
September 2010, titled “Some Musings on the Essay.” To quote myself from that
“When people ask what I do, or how I make my living, I almost
always answer in one of two ways. Depending on the circumstances (and the
person asking the question), I will either say ‘writer’ or ‘nature writer.’ If
probed further, I will eventually add that I’m an author. But hardly ever, if
at all, will I describe myself as an essayist. And that’s a curious thing, for
a couple of reasons: first, I began writing essays long before I knew there was
a literary animal called nature writing and also years before I wrote my first
book; second, I love essays. They are, in fact, what I love most to write.”

I then confessed, “If I could afford to do so, I would spend the
rest of my literary life simply writing essays.”

Now, like then, I can’t subsist on the essays I write. In fact
subsisting on the entirety of my work has become a challenge for this
freelancer, given the way the literary/publication world has changed in
combination with the fact that my writing ambitions have waned as I’ve moved
deeper into my 60s. But that’s another story for another time.

Given my love for essays (both writing and reading them), it’s a
special delight to have a collection of my pieces published this fall by Alaska
Northwest Books, an imprint of Graphic Arts Books (based in Portland, Oregon). Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’sWildlife includes thirty-four essays, written over two decades’ time. One
of the joys of doing the book was to re-read scores of the essays I’ve written
across the years and to find that a good number of them still “hold up” (at
least as judged by me and the editors).

To give a sense of the book’s scope and intent, I’ll here borrow
from the “Author’s Note” that introduces the essays.

“I first began writing regularly about wild nature in the
mid-1980s, while employed as an outdoors writer at the Anchorage Times. My
interest deepened, and my approach shifted, when I began life as a freelance
writer in the early 1990s. [I’ll insert here that it’s something to celebrate,
I suppose, surviving as a freelance journalist/creative writer for more than
two decades while living in Alaska.] At the newspaper I’d primarily written
articles, but as a freelancer I became a student of the essay form, which has
allowed me greater latitude in the ways that I explore the nature of Alaska’s
wildlife and wildlands. I have especially embraced the personal essay, which
enables me to weave my own experiences, observations, perspectives, and
insights, with what I learn through research plus interviews with people who
represent a wide range of experiences and expertise, for instance scientists,
managers, conservationists, hunters and trappers, and Alaska’s Native peoples
(recognizing overlap among those groups).

“Over the past two decades, I have written scores of essays about
Alaska’s wildlife, which have been published in assorted newspapers, magazines,
literary journals, and anthologies. Some I’ve included in my own books, either
as essays or woven into a longer non-fiction narrative.

“These animal stories have a wide reach, in a number of ways.
Besides essays about Alaska’s best-known and most charismatic animals—for
instance grizzlies and wolves, moose and Dall sheep, bald eagles and beluga
whales—I introduce readers to many of our state’s largely overlooked species,
from wood frogs to redpolls and shrews. Other essays describe encounters with
well-known animals that people rarely meet in the wilds, for example lynx and
wolverines. The stories are also geographically diverse; they stretch across
the state, from the Panhandle to the Arctic, and also from Alaska’s urban
center, Anchorage, to its most remote backcountry. Part of the intent is to
remind people that we share the landscape with other creatures wherever we
area, even where we least expect it. And that even the most easily overlooked
or ignored animals lead remarkable lives.”

This last point is greatly important to me, because it seems
people so easily dismiss the common and/or small, overlooked animals who share
the places where we live.

To continue: “The essays also show, and examine, the complicated
relationships we humans have with other animals, and consider different ways of
knowing, and relating to, these critters. In sharing what I’ve learned in my
own explorations (near and far), I intend to open up new worlds and possibilities
to readers, just as my own life has been enlarged by both firsthand encounters
and what I’ve been able to learn from research and interviews. The essays are
intended to be thought-provoking as well as entertaining: to increase readers’
awareness and get people thinking about their own relationship with our wild
neighbors, our wild relatives, and the inherent value that these animals have,
irrespective of what they give to us.”

Here I’ll jump to the final paragraph of this introductory

“One final thought. Though I’ve been blessed by many memorable,
even astonishing, encounters with wild animals in Alaska’s wilderness, several
of my most extraordinary—and in some instances, life changing—experiences have
occurred within Anchorage, sometimes without leaving my yard. Or house. Thus
one of the great lessons that the animals have taught me, and which I am
excited to share here, is the reminder that nature’s wondrous wild surrounds us
all the time, wherever we live, if we’ll only open our senses and pay

I think these final words—and the collection as a whole—are
connected in a way to what Scott Russell Sanders told a group of writers this
summer at a workshop following the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference (words and
ideas wonderfully recounted by workshop participant Barbara Hood, in her July 8
49 Writers posting, “Finding the Spruce Tips.” Hood tells us that Sanders, at
his stage of his 40-year career,  has
decided his work is “all about the earth” and contemporary humanity’s complex
(and often destructive) relationship with our wild planet. Furthermore, stories
play an essential role in building (or deepening) our connections to place, by
creating a “storied” landscape. I absolutely agree. Perhaps another way to say
this is that places become more meaningful—and I would argue, wondrous—through
the stories we tell and write. One way to deepen a relationship with place is
by learning more about its inhabitants, paying more attention to the animal and
plants and other life forms. This is part of what I hope I accomplish with Animal Stories: deepen our connection to
both the animals and the landscapes, the homelands, that we share.

A transplanted New
Englander, nature writer Bill Sherwonit (49 Writers featured author for September) has made Anchorage his home since 1982.
He’s contributed essays, articles, and commentaries to a wide variety of publications
and is the author of more than a dozen books. His newest,
Animal Stories:
Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife, will
be published this fall by Alaska Northwest Books. His website is

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