Voices in the Wilderness: Guest post by Aleria Jensen

This guest post, subtitled “Check out the New Writers Residency in Southeast AK: By Kayak, In Wilderness,” was a great surprise in our inbox this month, and just the kind of writers’ opportunity we might have missed otherwise. Thanks to Aleria for sending it and good luck to those writers and artists adventurous enough to apply.

Think Xtra-Tufs for nine days. Think deep fiords and high peaks. Whisper-lite stove hissing on gravel beaches. Notebook in the pocket of your paddle-jacket—scribble, scribble, scribble.

If this sounds like your speed, think Voices of the Wilderness Program. This new opportunity sponsored by the US Forest Service (USFS) kicked off its first season in summer 2010. Three artists joined wilderness rangers for week-long field trips in the Tracy Arm-Fords Terror Wilderness, 45 miles south of Juneau, to celebrate art in one of Southeast Alaska’s wildest landscapes.

After being accepted into the program last spring, I was thrilled at the opportunity to head out for a field residency in July. In years past, I’d spent a lot of time in these fiords for both work and play, but never with writing at the center of the experience. Add to that now being the mother of a toddler, and the chance to attend to my own creative space for a week had me all but salivating.

Modeled after the Park Service’s Artists in Residence program, Voices of the Wilderness seeks to highlight both the Tongass National Forest and the National Wilderness Preservation System. The program broadly targets all forms of artistic expression, including visual artists, writers, storytellers, dancers, musicians and performance artists (not limited to Alaskans). Applications for 2011 will likely be due in April with selections made in May.

The program is the brainchild of Barbara Lydon, a wilderness ranger and artist who divides her time between Alaska and Montana. She started thinking about the concept through the course of several experiences in 2009: an artists’ celebration at the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, the World Wilderness Congress in Mexico, and a volunteer stint for the National Park Service in Gates of the Arctic. Now that her original idea has evolved to become an official program, Barbara is looking ahead to 2011. “We’re really excited about the second year of Voices of the Wilderness after the success of the first [year]—the program has just taken off,” she says over coffee on a recent rain-blowing-sideways fall day in Juneau.

So what’s expected of the writer? Artists should be motivated and willing to ‘give back’ after their residency by 1) donating a piece to the USFS to raise awareness about the Tongass, the wilderness area, or the value of public lands, and 2) communicating their experience to the public (this could take the form of a workshop, reading, exhibit, slideshow, performance, etc). A larger art show featuring pieces from the Voices of the Wilderness program is planned for 2014 at The Canvas in Juneau to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

Imagine yourself writing in the fiord, and you’ll get to the particular Alaskan twist here: the platform. Right, a kayak. Whereas a more traditional residency might involve, say, a desk, the USFS residency has artists on the move, shadowing rangers, traveling over water. This is not a sit-and-stare-at-the-mountains kind of week—you paddle, you hike, you explore new terrain. Pick up camp, wake to a new beauty each morning. Write in your tent, on the beach, in between paddle strokes.

And don’t forget the other twist: you’re not plugged in. Think back a decade or two—yup, that’s right, when we actually wrote, as in by hand. Since laptops and kayaks don’t exactly mix, there was no choice but to return to the original state of pen and paper. Hello cold hands, wet fingers, and bad handwriting. Now back at my kitchen table, I’m still trying to translate pieces of chilly chicken-scratch from my Write-in-the-Rain notebooks.

But the lack of a computer is exactly why you’re here. You might camp a half mile from an active tidewater glacier (see if you can sleep with ice crashing through your dreams). You might hop aboard a tour vessel (or, more accurately, wrangle your kayak, huffing and puffing, up the swimstep), where rangers talk to visitors about public lands, management challenges, climate change—and it’s all there in front of you, spelled out in rock and ice. You might race alongside a cruise ship in a small skiff while rangers read smokestack emissions to try to preserve wilderness character.

Voices of the Wilderness gives writers the chance to immerse themselves in this raw world for a week, ponder our relationship to place, and put it to paper. If you want to learn more about applying for a 2011 residency, contact Barbara Lydon at lydon_barbara@yahoo.com. Anyone with questions about the 2010 residency is welcome to contact me at aleriaj@hotmail.com.

Aleria Jensen’s poems and essays have appeared in publications such as Orion Magazine, Alaska Quarterly Review, Tidal Echoes, Potomac Review, and Terrian.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. She currently has work included in the collection Wildbranch: An Anthology of Nature, Environmental, and Place-Based Writing, released this month by the University of Utah Press. Aleria lives in Juneau with her partner, Kevin, and their two year old son.

2 thoughts on “Voices in the Wilderness: Guest post by Aleria Jensen”

  1. Aleria, it's nice to see a post from you here. I am a great fan of your work and want to thank you particularly for writing "Deconstruction".
    I think I might have seen that same piece of baleen in that place and "Deconstruction" articulated everything so beautifully. I always look forward to reading your pieces.

  2. Aleria- thanks for passing this great opportunity on to the group, I'll never forget reading and re-reading your coda piece in orion (my favorite mag). Mised you at the 49writers meeting hope to apply for the residency!

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