It was my good fortune this summer to be invited to be “writer-in-the-park” in Denali
National Park for ten days in August. This is the second year the park has included a
writer as part of the AIR (Artist in Residence) program that otherwise includes three or four visual artists each summer. Each artist (with a companion, if desired) is allowed to stay in the historic East Fork Cabin (also known as the Murie Cabin, where Adolph Murie lived while he conducted his famous wolf research from 1939-1941) and receives a road permit to take a private car into the park. Readers will recall poet John Morgan’s Denali Park Journals Part One and Part Two, posted here last year about his experience.
August is a fabulous time of year to visit the park. The berries! My partner Ken and I are enthusiastic pickers of berries—although one of us is a “clean” picker who enjoys the tactile experience and one of us uses a metal “picker” that crushes the berries and collects sticks and leaves the clean picker has to pick out later. In any case, we picked and ate blueberries to our hearts’ content. (That’s me above eating blueberry pie.) And the colors! The colors were just turning from greens to fall’s yellows and reds; the hillside opposite the cabin was all green one day, and the next was lit with a line of yellow willows. Our final morning, the first day of socked-in skies, the clouds lifted to reveal new snow in the foothills.
I’ve participated in a lot of other residency programs but none like this. Other places—many of them in lovely physical settings—I keep my head down and my seat in the chair’s seat and only occasionally reward myself with a hike or canoe paddle. I go to those residency places to write. In Denali, with only ten days, all of them graced with exceptional weather, I maximized my time in the out-of-doors, going places and doing things. I took a “discovery hike” with a knowledgeable ranger and fun group of mostly Europeans, to learn everything I could from the ranger and other peoples’ park experiences. I spent a day with a dinosaur expert, finding and documenting dinosaur footprint fossils high in the mountains. (Note hadrosaur footprint above.) I spent time with another scientist, a stream ecologist, and with a “bear tech,” who responds when people and wildlife get too familiar. (Ken has his own story to tell.) I searched for an old wolf den. I hiked up high again to watch golden eagles and northern harriers. Very early, before the buses, Ken and I drove to a view of the mountain and ended up watching four wolves hunt caribou on the plain below Polychrome Mountain. Another day Ken and I drove out to Kantishna and came back in the dark, our headlights illuminating swans, Dall sheep, and husks of hares. (Yes, a group of snowshoe hares is called a husk.)
I took notes about everything, and photos. I read a whole bunch of books about the
park’s history and wildlife and natural history/science, and took notes from those. I’ll make something of all this. I don’t know what, exactly, but something about dinosaurs and the kind of place Denali was 70 million years ago, and about wolves and predator control, and about all those hare feet I found all over the place. (None of the hare’s predators eat feet, and the hares have just come down from a several-year peak during which they trimmed all the willows at snow-level and fed a lot of lynx.)
Here’s the dilemma: what do you say (write) about a place as grand and gorgeous as Denali Park? What words do you use? My last evening I gave a talk at the Denali Education Center, and this question came up from the audience. How does one describe Denali (the mountain) on a clear day? Sure, the view is awesome. Sure, the mountain is majestic, magnificent, amazing, and really really big. All those words are overused, trite, clichéd. I couldn’t say how I would describe the mountain, because I didn’t know, and I didn’t know if I ever would even try to describe it, even though it’s the centerpiece of the park and hard to ignore. Instead I told a story from Kes Woodward, the first AIR artist. He’s written that he visited the park for 15 years before he could begin to think about trying to paint its highest peak. I’m paraphrasing here, but he wrote that Denali was an icon and he didn’t know how he could do it justice. Also, it had been painted so many times already, by Sidney Laurence and so many other fine artists; how does an artist today represent it in a fresh way? Kes finally painted his way into an answer that, in my opinion, responds respectfully both to the mountain’s grandeur and the history of earlier depictions while applying his own vision and a modern sensibility. For just one example, see Kes’s “Denali Spring” below. The challenge to us writers is to do the same—to “make it new,” beyond the usual and the cliché. Our job as artists is to encourage or provoke viewers and readers to “see” and understand the world in fresh, stimulating, unexpected ways.
The Denali AIR program was started in 2002 and now has a substantial collection of
artist work on display, both at the visitors’ center at the park entrance and in a larger gallery in the new Eielson Visitors Center out the road. (Each artist is asked to contribute a work in exchange for his or her stay in the park. Writers are asked to contribute something too, but how these will be displayed or printed is yet to be determined.) The artwork is as diverse as the artists, ranging from landscapes to 3-D baby ravens, wood carvings, and constructions of found objects. Take a look at some of it. My favorite art at the Eielson Visitors Center is an enormous quilt (below, in part—I couldn’t fit all of the side panels into my viewfinder) by Ree Nancarrow, depicting the park and its life in all seasons and with great attention to accurate depictions of flora and fauna. (“Seasons of Denali” was a commissioned work, not an AIR donation.)
You can learn more about the Denali AIR program at
http://www.nps.gov/dena/supportyourpark/artist-in-residence.htm. The artist part of the program is by application; the writer part has been by invitation, but plans call for opening it to applications as well, perhaps next year. The Denali program is part of a national one that involves 28 other parks around the country. Many of these accept writers. See the whole list at http://www.nps.gov/archive/volunteer/air.htm.