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To Alaska

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As guest blog writer, Inian Islands Institute welcomes Elizabeth Hillstrom, a wonderfully bright Stanford student in mechanical engineering — and, we hope, a future intern at the Inian Islands!

We came to Alaska to learn about sustainability.  There were over twenty of us at any given time: twelve undergraduate students, plus our professor, instructors and course assistants, a local coordinator, a media tag-team, and a rotating cast of guest lecturers, experts in everything from ecology to policy to art history.  We moved as a herd.  We did not come to the woods to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life; we came as a mob of disoriented students with a support crew, hoping to glean something intellectually useful from an environment and lifestyle completely foreign to us: to neatly wrap up these lessons and take them back to our well-planned academic lives.

We quickly learned how integral boats are to the way of life in Southeast Alaska.

We quickly learned how integral boats are to the way of life in Southeast Alaska.

The class we had enrolled in was called In the Age of the Anthropocene: Coupled Human-Natural Systems of Southeast Alaska.  Only the instructors, who built this class two years ago, actually knew what that meant.  In preparation, they had armed us with readings: John Muir’s Travels in Alaska, the text of the Wilderness Act, and several books on the Tongass National Forest among them.  But printed words had not prepared us for the abrupt contrast between Alaska and the suburban world from which we’d come.  Our plane dipped to land on what seemed to be a barren strip of tarmac stranded on a lump of rocks in the middle of the ocean, and we disembarked in Sitka.  Around us: small pockets of humanity, a little fleet of fishing boats, a persistent drizzling rain that made tall rubber boots standard garb, and, overwhelmingly, the enveloping coastal temperate rainforest and the towering mountains, too steep to see the tops of from the windows of our van.

We spent the next two weeks in a whirlwind of learning, hearing lectures from biologists, conservationists, politicians, native Alaskans, and resource managers, taking measurements of forest diversity and salmon habitat health, touring homes, sawmills, and hydroelectric dams, seeing native dancers perform, discovering the backstory of cultural and environmental tourism, and getting a sense of what it means to live in Southeast Alaska.  We were there to meet as much of the community as possible, to figure out what they care about with regard to natural resources and why.  We had no weekends or relaxing days off; those two weeks were a continuous parade of fresh faces, issues, and ideas.  We drank it in with a child’s thirst for understanding, and talked late into the nights.

To the Hobbit Hole

By the end of our forestry survey, we became "devilishly" good at identifying this plant: Oplopanax horridus, or OPHO, for short.

By the end of our forestry survey, we became “devilishly” good at identifying this plant: Oplopanax horridus, or OPHO, for short.

Most of us met Zach Brown 10 days into the course, on top of a mountain.  We had taken our sole unscheduled day to hike the 3,300 feet of elevation to the summits of Mount Verstovia and Arrowhead, two neighboring peaks that overlooked the town of Sitka.  The open alpine air was a fitting place for an introduction to such a person, a bright-eyed and spry twenty-something not made to be indoors.  Zach, the founder of the Inian Islands Institute, and one of the originators of our class, was to be our guide to the Wilderness we were soon to encounter.

The mountains were a constant backdrop to our field activities.

The mountains were a constant backdrop to our field activities.

It took us two long boat rides to get to the Hobbit Hole, a private inholding in a section of the Tongass National Forest designated as federally protected Wilderness.  “That’s Wilderness with a capital ‘W,’” our course instructor Aaron joked, referring to the 1964 Wilderness Act that prescribed strict practices to keep this area guarded, in perpetuity, from the advance of human development.  This means that the federal government recognizes an intrinsic value of the land that outweighs its capacity to produce extractable resources.  This value is often intangible; for instance, the law specifies that wilderness land has “outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation.”  Our class was drawn to the Hobbit Hole by many things, but chief among them was this rare and profound solitude.

Our sea journey to the Hobbit Hole brought us past long stretches of the Tongass National Forest.

Our sea journey to the Hobbit Hole brought us past long stretches of the Tongass National Forest.

The places we traveled in this Wilderness were astoundingly beautiful.  We surveyed Glacier Bay from the island’s highest point, the whole of sea and mountain, cloud and piercing blue sky laid before us.  We circumnavigated the island by kayak amid swirls of kittiwakes, paddling through kelp forests adrift in clear turquoise glacial-melt water, delighting in the gentle hiss of blowing whales.  But by far the most surreal moment was one of quiet, stillness, and solitary reflection.

Towards the end of our time at the Hobbit Hole, Zach and Aaron asked us to each find a place on the island to be alone and to think for an hour.  We were to take no time-keeping devices, only pencils if we wished to write; our signal to return would be a note blown on a ram’s horn.  My place was a lone boulder in the middle of a tidal range of round stones.  As a light rain began to fall, I sat and thought of all we had seen in our time in Alaska: all the people, all of the stories.  I thought about how, often, you do not truly learn without space to reflect, and I was reminded of a line from a favorite poem, “Montauk,” by Sarah Kay: “There are some things you cannot learn in New York City. There are places where fish nets do not mean stockings, where the learning happens in between moments, like after a wave passes, and you break the surface gasping for air.”  From my rock, I watched a sea otter play in the cove, unconcerned by my presence, and thought how right it was that this space was shareable, that he and I could co-exist so harmoniously without the need to feel that either one of us owned it.  Finally, too soon, I heard the long mellow note of the horn.

To Home

The black wingtips identify this bird as a kittiwake, headed towards the same pass that we are.

The black wingtips identify this bird as a kittiwake, headed towards the same pass that we are.

It is often said that only by leaving and returning to a place do we see it for its true self.  Our jet circled like a raptor above the twinkling lights of San Francisco, homing in on a little strip of asphalt amidst a sea of humanity, more homes visible in this one glimpse than I could have found in all of Southeast Alaska.  This world was one of flat rectangles, small boxes moving along linear tracks lit for them by evenly spaced dots of orange.  I felt the absence of Southeast Alaska’s mountain monoliths, bearing the marks of the power of ice, now carpeted with conifers.  How strange to see only the shapes of humanity: a world of straight lines at right angles that my engineering education would label “a normal reference frame.”

Reflecting on my time in Alaska, I begin to see that perhaps this is part of the difficulty in promoting the idea of sustainability.  So many of us will live our entire lives in this comfortable constructed reality, so acclimated to our “normal reference frames” that they feel more natural than Wilderness.  But what’s missing from this landscape is the connection between the goods we use and their origins.  We look at an apple and see only sanitized store shelves and the anticipation of a warm apple pie, not the seed it grew from, the water that a farmer fought for the right to use, and the human hands that picked it, packaged it, and drove the truck that brought it to us.  We look at a guitar and see the music we might make, the campfire songs we might sing with friends, and miss the 500 years of life that some quiet Sitka Spruce lay nestled in the forests of Southeast Alaska, building layer by layer the wood that now sings so sweetly.  In a sense this ignorance is the great gift of the modern world: that we may have the privilege of thinking only of potential and not of cost.  Yet this gift can be damning to our persistence as a species.

I think of this as I move into my room for another year of college.  The hall is rendered impassable by strewn boxes.  Clothing, appliances, and even whole pieces of furniture wait by the curbside for garbage collection, lovingly stored four months ago, now discarded as too bland, too “last-year.”  The cycle of purchase, use, and disposal is offhand and superficial because we see the cost only in terms of monetary loss.  For some, the financial loss is enough to curb this replacement mindset, for others it only enables it.  In a world where virtually any conceivable item, large or small, trivial or exotic, can be bought and delivered to your door in two days or less, it is incredibly easy to forget that resources are finite.  The majority of us live a life so distanced from its origins that we do not even notice the umbilical cord to the natural world being snipped.

Zhi Ping Teo looks out from the highest point of the Island, towards Glacier Bay National Park.

Zhi Ping Teo looks out from the highest point of the Island, towards Glacier Bay National Park.

In Southeast Alaska, it is impossible to ignore one’s relationship to the land.  Not only are livelihoods tied to the natural resources, financially and for basic subsistence, but the imposing landscape is always visually present, always a reminder of the relative scope of the power of humanity in relation to the natural world.  The resource-based economies of Southeast, I believe, will always tend towards sustainability because the consequences of greed are clear: if you take beyond your need, the natural world that defines your sense of home will wither before your eyes.  However, most of us are not fortunate enough to live enfolded in the cradle of our own survival, which makes it far too easy to blind beyond our own noses.

This is a lesson that the twelve of us who spent an hour alone in the Wilderness will remember, perhaps when we are choosing a career in technology or education or resource management, or deciding which scientific puzzles are most worth pondering, or advising the president on policy that will shape the future.  Perhaps the memories will resurface when we are figuring out how we want to live our lives or what ethics we will teach our children.  For, like Thoreau, we went to the woods to experience lessons that, once discovered, cannot be forgotten.

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