Jeffrey Alan Lockwood is a Professor of Natural Sciences & Humanities, and Director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Wyoming. His work has been honored with a Pushcart Prize, the John Burroughs award and inclusion in the Best American Science and Nature Writing. His current projects are a book on the ways in which the energy industry has censored science, art and education and a noir mystery novel featuring an ex-cop-turned-exterminator.
Denali National Park—A Place for Big Thoughts about Little Things
To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour
—William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
Let’s begin with the overwhelmingly obvious. There’s a huge mountain (Denali, 20,310 feet) in a gigantic national park (Denali, about the area of Vermont) in an absurdly large state (Alaska, about the area of two Texases and one California). And the park is filled with humongous creatures like caribou (400 pounds), grizzly bear (600 pounds), and moose (1200 pounds). The curtain of northern lights that we call the aurora borealis would weigh 700 million tons if it was an actual theater curtain.
Denali National Park has a single, 92-mile road. If you figure that most visitors don’t wander more than a half-mile from the road (a good bet), then the swath of land trod by the vast majority of humans is about 1 percent of the park’s area. But let’s say someone decided to hike the perimeter of Denali at a pace of 1 mph (the boreal forest and willow thickets would offset a quicker pace on the alpine tundra) for six hours per day, it would take about two months.
The temptation for an artist is to capture and express this enormity. At least this is pattern for visual artists. In my Google image search with “Denali National Park,” the first 100 pictures showed unfathomably large landscapes or megafauna, except for one image of a ptarmigan. And in terms of the literary arts, James Michener’s Alaska runs to 868 pages (Michener’s Texas is longer although by proportionate area it should only have been 347 pages).
Being something of a contrarian and an entomologist (maybe these are somehow related), I decided to write about the little stuff that nobody seems to celebrate. And with a background in science, I decided to take a systematic and quantitative approach to my 10 days in a remote cabin as a guest of the superintendent.
The first step was to decide on an appropriately small scale for my observations and inspirations. Suppose that instead of 9,500 square miles, the park was a trillion-fold smaller or 38 square inches. This area would be encompassed by a piece of string 22 inches long. So, I brought along a two-foot piece of string (close enough with rounding errors), tied it in a loop and that was my viewing context for my writing each day I spent at the park.
The next step was to decide on how many words I’d be allowed for each piece of writing. This too should be appropriately miniaturized. For this I analyzed the three books that came to mind when I thought about Alaska: Jack London’s Call of the Wild (37,058 words) and White Fang (72,071 words), along with James Michener’s Alaska (560,584 words). If I was going to shrink Denali by a trillion-fold, it seemed appropriate to condense my writing by a thousand-fold. So I decided that I’d write micro-essays of 37 words (Call of the Wild) or 72 words (White Fang) about whatever I saw in my little chunk of the park.
What about Michener’s tome? It’s not high literature although he did win a Pulitzer for Tales of the South Pacific. I brought the book along on my trip (full disclosure: I didn’t read the whole thing). One might think that half-a-million words are plenty, but I figured that one of my pieces could justify 560,584 words. That’s how many are in this introduction to the shorter pieces that foll...
A bed of fireweed: fuchsia flattened against emerald and sage. Some big animal slept beside our cabin. The patch is warm. Probably just the sun. Nonetheless, each morning we rattle the door. It’s good manners to knock.
(July 28, 2015. Observation/Inspiration: patch of fireweed)
If only the planet had the spongy resilience of Denali’s mosses. This botanical pillow sinks softly beneath my foot—and then slowly springs back. My imprint disappears as I clumsily crush a cluster of crowberries. If only.
(July 29, 2015 Observation/Inspiration: the mossy blanket and fungal mattress of tundra)
Along the East Fork of the Toklat, just below our cabin, we found the tracks of a wolf in the silt of the braided channel. And a little further, the hoof prints of a caribou. We imagined a desperate chase into the glacier-ground gray waters, and a great crashing into the willows on the other side. A few ephemeral marks in the riverbed, but I have believed much more with far less.
(July 30, 2015 Observation/Inspiration: tracks on a river bar)
Denali is both ostentatious and pragmatic, megafaunal and microfloral. Artists labor to express the breathtaking grace of caribou and the jaw-dropping power of grizzlies. But the essence of the ecosystem fits under the sole of a boot. The tundra plants hug the ground for warmth and to avoid the ravages of the wind. Mosses, lichens, and fungi quietly shape the land—stagehands humbly and graciously allowing the divas to take the limelight.
(July 31, 2015 Observation/Inspiration: patch of tundra)
I’m told that people have spirit animals, dreamtime creatures with admirable powers that folks emulate. Wolves, bears, and eagles are common mentors. So Denali is a spiritual animal sanctuary. I’m pretty skeptical about such things, but if I had a spirit animal it might be the ptarmigan. A bit plump, it quietly saunters along, savoring whatever it finds, matching its background to avoid conflict, and somehow making gray, brown and white beautiful.
(August 1, 2015 Observation/Inspiration: a ptarmigan)
We cling to sweet, blueberry memories of sumptuous encounters—and the soapberry recollections of alluring, ruby red promises and bitter betrayals. But life is mostly purple-black clusters of low-growing crowberries, just sweet enough to make oatmeal special.
(August 2, 2015 Observation/Inspiration: a patch of mixed berries)
I admire the ground squirrel’s industriousness, but I do not envy its chronic anxiety of teeth and talon. I admire a grizzly’s strength, but I do not envy fueling a quarter-ton body from the tundra’s larder. I admire the caribou’s grace, but I do not envy its crazed dash to momentarily escape the torment of biting flies. I do not admire, but perhaps I envy, those who believe that Nature is sweet.
(August 4, 2015 Observation/Inspiration: an Alaskan ground squirrel living under our porch)
I dig deeply into Denali’s flesh, unearthing tangled tendrils woven into gritty compost. Reaching into the tundra wound, I envisioned veins of smoldering decay descending to the grinding heat of tectonic plates. And my fingers grow warm.
(August 5, 2015 Observation/Inspiration: a tundra hole)
A bumblebee lumbers down the buffet line of a fireweed stalk. Like a steamer table, the blossoms provide sun-warmed nectar. She gorges herself before the Alaskan autumn ends the all-you-can eat deal. Gluttony is so rarely admirable.
(August 6, 2015 Observation/Inspiration: bumblebee foraging on fireweed)
For Everything There is a Season
It was pleasant to be seated on our porch and gaze across an expanse of tundra, toward towering snow-capped peaks. My reverie was broken by a slight movement. A petal dropped from a cinquefoil flower, alongside the path. For a week, I watched that yellow droplet wither, until only a glint remained on our last day. Inevitably it will decay into the black earth. Robert Frost was right: Nothing gold can stay.