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The Inside Passage, Alaska
(From a work in progress, The Trail Less Traveled)
"...gazing from the deck of the steamer, one is borne smoothly over calm blue waters, through the midst of countless forest-clad islands...we seemed to float in true fairyland, each succeeding view seeming more and more beautiful, the one we chanced to have before us the most surprisingly beautiful of all. Never before this had I been embosomed in scenery so hopelessly beyond description...tracing shining ways through fiord and sound, past forests and waterfalls, islands and mountains and far azure headlands, it seems as surely we must at length reach the very paradise of poets, the abode of the blessed."
- John Muir, Travels in Alaska, 1879
When I read the words above, I wonder how Muir wrote them. Was this a gift in the great man, an ability to translate easily and directly the wondrous surroundings? Or did he labor over them, writing and rewriting the words and sentences and paragraphs, carefully perfecting his prose? How does one write so well, describe so perfectly, is it an acquired skill, or a god-given blessing? I read and reread his descriptions of this fairy tale land we bore smoothly through, braving a slight wind in cold air to lean on the railing and stare at it all myself.
Walden, of course, and A Sand County Almanac. The Outermost House, by Henry Beston, the hand-written monuments of nature, of description, words somehow endowed with a magic quality of wisdom and knowledge strung together in a pattern so compelling, so irresistible, that you must follow them to the end, like a falling star in the hollow, cold night. How did these men do it, what was the day like when the idea came to them, the day they first sat down and faced the empty pages, the day they started filling them with a form of life that would endure long after their own? What is it in a man that truly makes him a great writer, is it tragedy, or love, or hatred or fear or is it travel and experience and work and penance and loathing and responsiblity or some mystical, or methodical melding of some, or all of these? Do you have to be different to describe it differently? Do you have to be lost to lose yourself so completely that you stare about in panic, desperate to get out, to find your way, to relieve the great fears that impound your reason and pound your heart, until running, gasping for breath, you burst into the familiar, the found, having written yourself back to reality?
The oddest twist, the oddest paths of reason: I think of Irish music, of pipes haunting in smoky Dublin pubs, how lonely and wistful the tin whistle sounds, how mesmerizing it is, the crowded faces all silent and staring in at one whose eyes are closed, his fingers roving, the simple ancient sound of thousand-year-old stone fences and fields, thatched -roofed cottages mired in a poverty stricken countryside, and visions of big, bearded men hovering a fire in some lost valley, the storytellers in front, their hands waving and gesturing and pointing, their gap-toothed grins spinning tales of ten generations in the cool, hilly air. I wonder if I was one of them because I feel I was, I wonder if I roamed the hills and valleys of England or Germany would I recognize my land, my valley, the place my European ancestors inhabited for a thousand generations before the world turned, and began to read and write. I wonder if I could smell it, or see it, somehow sense it in the wind, would I recognize the imprint, would I finally stand and stare, then drop to my haunches and realize this was once mine....
This scenery is so stunning that it stirs my imagination into these improbable, unrelated realms of thought. I think of that Arctic masterpiece, Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams, the passages I dog-eared for their remarkable insight, his brilliant correlation of seemingly unrelated events, thoughts, and fact - and I suddenly feel humble before these men, these masters of nature, and understand I will not challenge Muir's vision, attempt to duplicate or expand, I realize I cannot describe this passage through these Alaskan waters ordinarily, in the traditional sense, but only through the thought it inspires in me...I marvel at all this, smile to myself, grab the railing hard and laugh out loud it's happening and then turn and go inside, into the restaurant to buy a cup of coffee, and then sit down with the others, and listen to their stories.