I always love reflecting on the little things: the remarkable details that make up the whole, the deconstructed universe of raindrops, the fractal patterns of bark and grains of sand. But this week, as I tour the Kenai Peninsula area south of Anchorage, in Alaska, it’s the big things that are on my mind – things like neon blue glaciers and roaring cataracts of melt water that pour thunderously from the very rocks, towering spruce rain forests and massive valleys girded by snow capped alpine peaks.
These are the big things that set life in perspective – timeless rocks and grinding glaciers, the unstoppable force of rushing water that carves valleys and dizzying gorges, the very clouds that descend from the sky to cloak entire mountains. Few things put humanity in perspective like standing alone in a forest of spruce, a fine mist dripping endlessly from the evergreen branches, the sun angling through in starburst beams of light, the roar of water from all directions and glimpses of craggy mountaintops rising far into the sky all around. Alaska is big and wide and unlimited. The only frame of reference here is the sky.
John Muir’s words come repeatedly to mind. Muir, who spread the gospel of the wilderness from coast to coast at the turn of the 20th century, was especially fond of Alaska.
“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world, ” he wrote in Alaska Fragment, in 1890. ” —the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”
It’s hard to call Alaska “unblighted” today – a hundred and more years of gold mining detritus litter trails and spoil valleys; the ruins of half-finished cabins and chalets lie broken along roadsides, and tourists and residents alike trail the residue of their leavings in their wake wherever they go. But Alaska is big and powerful with the strength of unbridled nature behind it, and even the ruins of a couple or three measly centuries of humans scratching about on its glacial surface do nothing to subdue it.
Debate about the causes of climate change and the commensurate shrinking of said glaciers aside, Alaska’s remote, untamed massiveness largely shields it from extensive encroachment. Most visitors stick to cruises and well worn trails, leaving millions upon millions of untouched wilderness – untouched. And the season in which I visit is that time betwixt and between – when the summer tourists have gone home, and the winter sports enthusiasts have yet to arrive; when the fall rains descend and there’s mud underfoot, but the roads relatively open and the vistas wide and stunning.
Everyone should take some time to stand alone in a big sweeping landscape, and experience the wonder and freedom of feeling small. For to realize we are just a small part of an immense whole, a mote within the speck of our portion of the universe, is an opportunity to free ourselves of pretense and posturing and pettiness. Within the timeless evolutionary landscape of a glacial valley, the momentary flash of our existence seems little more than the glint of sunlight on a rushing stream. And with the awareness of that smallness and brevity comes, to me at least, the brilliant wash of wonder and appreciation that I am here at all, and gifted not only with life, but with the perspective to make the most of it.
“Fresh beauty opens one’s eyes wherever it is really seen,” said Muir. ” but the very abundance and completeness of the common beauty that besets our steps prevents its being absorbed and appreciated. It is a good thing, therefore, to make short excursions now and then to the bottom of the sea among dulse and coral, or up among the clouds on mountain-tops, or in balloons, or even to creep like worms into dark holes and caverns underground, not only to learn something of what is going on in those out-of-the-way places, but to see better what the sun sees on our return to common every-day beauty.”
Alaska is that fresh beauty for me, and I will breathe deeply of its grandeur.