Living with Wildness: Q & A with Bill Sherwonit

I sat down with Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit at a local coffee shop a few weeks ago. He was just back from a 10-day solo trip in the Brooks Range, during which his tarp and tent had been “investigated” by an unseen grizzly — just one detail on an sometimes quiet and contemplative, sometimes challenging trip alone. I had just started this blog, and so my caffeinated, internet-jumpy pulse was racing about a zillion times faster than Bill’s, but I appreciated that we could still find time and a mutually acceptable pace for talking about home, nature, solitude, and spirituality — topics I’ve enjoyed discussing with Bill for a decade.

The contrast between urban and wild — as well as the distinction between wildness and wilderness, is one of many themes in Bill’s current essay collection, published by University of Alaska Press. LIVING WITH WILDNESS is the author’s eleventh book about Alaska; he has written three books about Denali, two about the Iditarod, and others about Alaska’s bears and state parks.

One other note this week, during which I’m profiling nature writers — I’ve chosen to let these blog posts run longer than usual (a choice relevant to the very topics of nature and thoughtful living). Some future Q & As will be shorter, of course. What length and style do you prefer for your online reading about books and writing?

Andromeda: The title of your book is LIVING WITH WILDNESS, not WILDERNESS. What’s the difference?

Bill Sherwonit: It’s remarkable how often people confuse the two. I even had a person at the University of Alaska Press (not my editor, I should point out) send me an email about the new book and the subject line was “Living with Wilderness.” Another good example is Thoreau’s famous quote, “In WILDNESS is the preservation of the world”; many people unconsciously and mistakenly substitute wilderness.

I go into an in-depth discussion of the difference in my book, but getting to the heart of it I’d say wilderness is first, a place, and second, an idea, while wildness is a quality, a state of being.

As many other writers and scholars have noted, “wilderness” has no meaning to humans who live (or once lived) in hunting-and-gathering cultures, because the larger, wilder world is their home. Only when humans began to settle into communities and separate themselves from the larger world did the idea of wilderness as the wild “out there” begin to emerge. Most Americans today tend to think of wilderness areas as pristine and largely untouched – even uninhabited – by humans, but in fact even most places in the U.S. now defined as wilderness (by The Wilderness Act) have been occupied by people.

Over time I’ve become more interested in “wildness” than wilderness, because wildness, as Gary Snyder and others have pointed out, is everywhere, including within us “civilized” humans. Because it’s a state of being, wildness is harder to pin down than wilderness. Yet it’s easy to recognize in the fierce presence of a grizzly bear, the howl of a wolf, the power of a fierce storm, the shimmer of the aurora, or even the feistiness of a chickadee. All of these things can send shivers of recognition through our body.

If I may quote from the book, “Even in our high-tech, polluted world of the early twenty-first century, wildness is all around us. And within us. Our physical bodies – some might say our animal nature – our imaginations, our dreams, emotions, and ideas are wild. But in going about our busy, modern lives, we consciously or unconsciously suppress, ignore, deny, or forget our wildness.”

This is one of the major points I’ve tried to make in the book: that we are constantly immersed in wildness – and carry wildness within us. We are, after all, animal beings. Such qualities as spontaneity, zestfulness for living, ferocity, playfulness, the feeling of connectedness with the larger world, free-spiritedness, sensuality, even the sense of the sacred when in nature, all hint at our inherent wildness.

Most of us modern humans are a little bit frightened by our wild, animal nature, or anything that hints of wild (i.e., “animal”) desires. I think that’s why we have so many issues around such things as sexuality, eating, and death, because they bring us face to face with our wild, animal nature.

ARL: While the details of your Brooks Range trip are fresh, tell me about that and contrast it with the local pockets of wildness that enrich your daily life.

Bill Sherwonit: For those who may not know the Brooks Range, let me first say it is the continent’s northernmost major mountain chain, located entirely above the Arctic Circle and stretching east-west across the width of Alaska. Much of the Brooks Range is now protected as officially designated Wilderness, in a series of parks, preserves, and refuges.

The Brooks Range has been my favorite place of wilderness since the mid-1970s, when I first went there while working on a geology crew, and I try to get back there every few years, whether alone or with friends. It is a vast place of immense wildness, where you can go days or even weeks without seeing another person. What I’ve discovered is that the longer I remain in such a place, the more I shed my urban, “civilized” persona and more easily touch the wildness that resides within me.

This is especially true when alone. Things begin shifting; I think less and get more fully into my “animal body.” Usually my dreams become more vivid and I move into “wilderness time” while also more easily feeling my connectedness with the wild “other.” Ego shrinks and I better sense my place in the larger, wilder world, even if briefly. I’ve actually written a book about my decades-long relationship with the Brooks Range and it’s importance in my life. In that book I go into more detail about some of these ideas. In the book-length narrative (which I’m happy to say the University of Alaska Press has decided to publish), I have the ability to show some of what I’m telling here. You know, that whole show-vs.-tell issue that writers constantly struggle with.

While I treasure places like the Brooks Range, in recent years I’ve come to more fully appreciate and savor the pockets of wildness that are scattered through my adopted hometown of Anchorage. I’ve learned that when I pay attention, wildness is manifested everywhere, including my yard – and even inside my home at times. I truly believe that when we open ourselves to new possibilities, amazing things begin to happen that remind us we’re part of amazing, wondrous world. In my Turnagain neighborhood I’ve watched a northern goshawk chase down a magpie right in my yard; my neighbors and I have shared the block with nesting merlins, we’ve had our yards visited by hundreds of berry-picking bohemian waxwings, and we share the area with moose and foxes and all sorts of birds. And these are just the most obvious manifestations of wildness. Each encounter, each experience of the “wild other” can be a reminder of what a miracle it is to be alive and part of this larger spectacle. What I’ve learned – or relearned in my middle years – is that these moments of wonder and magic are possible anywhere, not just in deep wilderness.

Several of my favorite writers, philosophers and “wisdom keepers” address the importance and value of experiencing the wonder and mystery of life. These include Loren Eiseley, Wendell Berry, Matthew Fox, Terry Tempest Williams, Scott Russell Sanders, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Gary Snyder. Another is Thich Nhat Hanh. I’ve pinned a quote of his to the wall above the desk where I work: “People usually consider walking on water on in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child – our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

My encounters with wild nature are what most remind me that “all is a miracle.” It’s easiest for me to experience that sense of wonder in deep wilderness, and I will always have the need for the renewal and refreshment and amazement that wilderness trips provide. But by relearning to slow down and pay attention – and to be open to mystery and magic, something that we seem to lose as we grow from childhood into adulthood – I also have learned to experience and appreciate the miraculous right here in town.

ARL: As a teacher of nature writing, you’ve worked with many students. What is one thing you think you’ve been able to get across to other apprentice writers?

Bill Sherwonit: I emphasize that writing, to me, is a three-step process. No. 1 – and most important – is the experience itself and the act of paying attention, being (or becoming) aware of the larger world and what’s happening within it. I think the best, or at least most interesting, writing is about relationships: with self, among humans, between humans and the larger world, and between humans and “the divine,” however you imagine that term. Only by paying attention can you write well about relationships.

The next step is going from experience to notes. I am a firm believer in journals and note taking. It’s in taking notes, I think, that many of the essential details critical to story telling are recorded. The third step (and beyond) is going from experience and notes – and tossing in memory and reflections – to story. And then the polishing, of course, the willingness to refine and polish and take others’ feedback to make a story as powerful as it can be. I also firmly believe that the best writing comes from the heart. We write best and most movingly about what means the most to us, what we care most about.

ARL: Finally, this book is published by a university press. How is that process different from say, an Alaska regional publisher?

Bill Sherwonit: Well, for one thing the regional publishers I have worked with (most notably Alaska Northwest Books, The Mountaineers Books, Sasquatch Books) all shied away from a book of creative nonfiction that is essentially a collection of essays, and they did so for marketing – i.e., economic – reasons. The sad fact is that essay collections don’t sell very well unless the author has achieved a certain level of celebrity or notoriety. I was fortunate to approach the University of Alaska Press (without realizing it) at a time its staff had decided to expand the press’s line of books to include more literary works.

The actual process of getting a manuscript accepted for publication is actually quite an ordeal. Getting the editors of a university press interested in a manuscript is merely the first step. The manuscript is sent out to at least two reviewers who are considered experts in the “field” or area that the book addresses. From past experience I can tell you that one bad review can sink a manuscript, even if the review is illogical and fails to properly address the merits of a book, and can even override the editors’ enthusiasm for a project.

In my case with the University of Alaska Press, the reviewers recommended publication, subject to some revisions. I made some changes, resubmitted the manuscript and got both the reviewers’ and editors’ approval. Then it had to go to the press’s advisory board for final approval. The UA Press advisors were highly supportive of the book project and that led to a contract and eventually the book. The entire process, from my initial submission of the ms. to publication, took just over a year and half.

One other thing: university presses don’t usually have much money for advances, so it’s not an easy way for a freelancer to make money. They also don’t have a lot of resources for marketing the book, so I’ve been putting in a lot of time and energy helping out in that regard. But I’m happy to do that, because I want to reach as large an audience as possible.

You can hear Bill speak and celebrate his new book — and taste some wild berry treats as well — at Title Wave this Thursday, at 7 pm.

2 thoughts on “Living with Wildness: Q & A with Bill Sherwonit”

  1. Thank you for this insightful interview. I especially enjoyed the discussion about wildness contrasted to wilderness.

    To answer your question about what format we like, I appreciate the depth of the articles you’re posting here. One of the beauties of the blog format is that you don’t have to limit the length of the piece. Instead, you can change the length based on how much relevant material you glean from your interviews (unlike some print media).

    Finally, when a piece is well-written, it can be any length you please. Thanks for asking.

  2. Hey Andromeda/Bill,

    Thanks for this post, I enjoyed it a lot. I attended Bill's talk last night, and thought it was great. I very much appreciate the discussion on wildness, and value Bill's treatment of the subject.

    I posted a brief note about his talk on my blog, I hope you don't mind me adding a link here.
    Bill's talk.

    Thanks again.



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