What is Alaska?
What is Alaska, really?
After four seasons here, I find myself grappling with this question once more.
What is it, beyond answers factual, pithy, or glib?
Alaska is a place where the tidal wave of civilization broke; where the cycle of exploration, settlement, development, and sprawl sputtered to a halt.
It’s a place where the land is viciously rugged, full of raging cataracts, mighty glaciers, impassable ridges, and isolated valleys.
“Some say God was tired when he made it,” as the poem goes. It is not a gentle place. However, in spades it is blessed with that rare type of beauty found amongst savage gales and misty mountains.
It is a place where the rhythms of the natural world play out much as they did for millions of years, over millions of acres of untrammeled wilderness. Bears walk, salmon struggle upstream and whales feed on fleets of tiny krill.
The tide washes the rocks, and the fog banks silently flow across the wide waters. The sun rises and the aurora dances behind a veil of cloud. In buckets or ephemerally, the rain falls. Wind blows as soft as a whisper and as loud as a hurricane.
To survive here, organisms have to be adaptable, tough, sly, or strong. To thrive here, they must be all of the above. This place is Darwin's proving ground, where everything must weather the weather however possible.
The constant, merciless math of calories in-versus-calories out rules all life here, from the bear to the porpoise to the banana slug to zooplankton adrift in the ocean.
Even man isn't immune to this imperious arithmetic. We must bend to Alaska, accede to it, if we are even to simply pass through. The longer we persist in this land, the more it demands of us in observance of and obedience to its rules.
Because of this, the ancient ways of an unbroken land continue, in defiance of humankind. These rhythms were here long before we were, and in Alaska, they remain.
It is a window into the Earth's past that humbles us and thrills us, instills us with dread and envelops us in a feeling of glory. Time itself seems to have a different meaning here, where trees live for four hundred years and mountains grow over millions.
Put simply, it is a place where our effect on the land is less than the effect of the land on us.