Sherry Simpson: Essaying Alaska


Sherry Simpson

On Wednesday,
Mar. 12, 7 pm
 at the
Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center (W. 7th Avenue entrance), local author
Sherry Simpson (Dominion of Bears:
Living with Wildlife in Alaska) joins Healy writer Christine Byl (Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods)
for an onstage conversation about “Essaying Alaska: Beyond Images of the
Last Frontier.”

post, condensed from the preface to The Way Winter Comes (Sasquatch Books, 1998),
addresses some of the themes that
have preoccupied Sherry as a writer, whether she’s writing about exploring or
bears or murder (her next project!).

Whenever I return to my hometown
of Juneau, I walk along Auke Beach. It is a generous beach, shaped like a
parenthesis that both gestures to open water and encloses the cove. Wide and
sloping, the shore is good for wandering and good for standing mute and staring
at the ocean. The footing grows easier in the deepest curve, where an
unnaturally even layer of pebbles yields underfoot. Only a meadow of cow
parsley and wild rye marks the winter home of the people of the Aak’w Kwáan,
where totem poles and the clan house of the Big Dipper, Yaxte Hít,
brooded above the bay.

Winter is the best time to visit
Auke Beach because no one else is there. When I was young, my family came on
November nights. The lowest tides of the year undraped the sea floor for
hundreds of yards, and my father went after Dungeness crabs. He wore stiff
green hip boots and carried a Coleman lantern in one hand and a long-handled
net in the other. He waded through the shallows, the small lantern casting a
dim halo against the murky water. Occasionally the distant light flickered out
momentarily as his body hid the lamp from view, and I watched fearfully,
imagining the worst. “Father of four lost to mysterious sea monster,” the
headlines would say. While my father stalked crabs, my brothers and sister and
I explored the tidal flats, flashlights twitching across the mud until we
speared something monstrous with the beam. Clams squirted, eels wriggled,
mysterious mouths opened and closed in the muck. It was all marvelously

My mother liked the tidal pools
tucked gemlike among the rocky outcrops. Still and clear, the pools revealed
extravagant gardens inhabited by organisms that seemed charming before they
grew large enough to alarm innocent children. Tentacles of purple and green
anemones swayed like hula dancers; one touch and they would pucker up. Prickly
globes of sea urchins embedded themselves in crevices. Miniature armored
sculpins flitted through the seaweed, and fringed worms coiled beneath rocks.
The more you looked, the more you saw, but you could never see it all.
Eventually the tide reclaimed everything, the lovely and the grotesque, the
enchanting and the awful.

On those dark, wet nights, our
attention flickered constantly between these two worlds: the wondrous confusion
of the tidal pools and the raw immensity of the ocean. Each tidal basin was a
delicate prism. But beyond my father’s uncertain light lay deep water ruptured
by uninhabited islands, threaded by unknown currents, navigated by unseen
creatures. In the dark, all we could apprehend was the ceaseless slur of waves
and the briny reek of the sea brought to us on November winds. That is the span
of Alaska for you: an intensity of detail set against a landscape beyond
measure or knowing.

How does one understand such a
place, much less explain it? Alaska has been so shellacked by icons and images
that no one sees the place clearly anymore. Call it The Last Frontier or the
Great Land, and you’ve said nothing useful at all. Think of everything we
demand from Alaska—not just timber, oil, and fish, but space, beauty, meaning.
We expect so much, even when we cannot name what we want.
Like the rest of Alaska, Auke
Beach is strewn with history and myth, imagination and desire, legend and
truth. No one can sort out all of the meanings, and why would we want to? It is
the problem of the tidal pool and the ocean: for a moment, peering into that
small basin, it all seems clear, so exquisitely laid out, and then you lift
your gaze and realize how little you can know.

I return to Auke Beach whenever I
can—waiting to see what comes next, waiting to see what the world reveals. Sometimes
what I’m waiting for appears as surely as if I had stood on these rocks, cupped
my hands to my mouth, and shouted an invocation. On a gray November morning, my
husband and I walked the point, watching wind scud across waves and surf spill
into shore. Suddenly the water erupted. A pod of black-and-white Dall’s
porpoises burst through the waves, curving toward shore, toward us, so quickly,
so powerfully that we could say nothing and only waited to receive them. Just when
it seemed the porpoises would impale themselves on rock, they lunged underwater
and disappeared, as if discovering a passage below our feet. For a long time
after, we watched the ocean but did not see them again.

1 thought on “Sherry Simpson: Essaying Alaska”

  1. Rest peacefully with the waves, and wind, wolves, and your dogs. May the beauty you captured in words envelop your spirit forever. We will miss you dear Sherry.

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