“My help is in the mountain
Where I take myself to heal
The earthly wounds
That people give to me . . . “
— Poet Nancy Wood
During a recent gathering with friends—all of us white males—someone mentioned a commentary written by Anchorage social justice advocate Barbara Hood (also active in the local writing community), which appeared in the Press under the headline, “The legacy that needs to end.”
Hood’s column is a powerful, insightful look at racism, racial injustice, and the ingrained attitudes we all carry within, and I was encouraged that one of the other guys brought it to the group’s attention. In all, three of us had read the commentary and recommended it highly.
Our discussion of Hood’s column provided a bridge to some issues I’d been planning to discuss, particularly the idea (and reality) of white privilege in our country and also what’s called unconscious or implicit prejudice, sometimes also known as implicit bias. I shared some of my thoughts—and feelings—about both, particularly my increased awareness, as I’ve grown older and matured, that I’ve been the beneficiary of white privilege, just as members of my extended family, and most of my friends, have been. And yes, I talked some about my recognition of prejudices I carry, even if deeply buried and lessened by “inner work,” and not all tied to race.
Recent events, starting with the horrific killing of George Floyd (and other black Americans) by police; the protests, rallies, and in some cases, violent riots, that followed; and media coverage, including special reports, all had combined to shake me up. That’s a good thing, but it did leave me unsettled and in a mood to talk about some of these unnerving realities.
I also talked a bit about our nation’s “shadow side,” its legacy of slavery and genocide of indigenous peoples, to name a couple of egregious examples, that is too often overlooked or denied by those—overwhelmingly white, of course—who are blindly patriotic.
I figured, even expected, that a robust discussion of those topics would follow. I was wrong.
The conversation quickly moved in other directions, with hardly a mention of what I’d shared. This surprised me, baffled me, and ultimately saddened me. But I didn’t say anything to my friends. As the minutes passed, I gradually tuned out. And when someone in the group later asked if I’d done any recent hill climbs—something I normally recount with great enthusiasm—I was largely non-responsive. I left the meeting early, without giving a reason why.
I’d already been thinking about going for a hill climb the next morning, but this clinched it. I would hike into the Chugach Front Range accompanied only by my collie mix, Denali. And there I would find the help and healing that Nancy Wood writes about in her poem, “My Help Is in the Mountain.”
Wild nature has been a refuge, a place of healing, and a place where I can most be myself, for as long as I can remember. During my Connecticut boyhood, The Woods and The Swamp were the places I found not only adventure and mystery, but solace. Solitude. And escape from judgment, escape from expectations.
Nowadays “The Mountains” are the place I primarily go to find solitude, peace, joy, adventure, magic, and mystery, though I also spend a good bit of my outdoors time in local woodlands, which hold their own sort of magic. Now, as decades earlier, I feel most myself in nature. It is, in a sense, my sacred space.
Hiking through forest and then subalpine terrain, and finally across alpine tundra, I lost myself in the wild. Or perhaps better put, I largely left behind my busy mind, so filled with thoughts—and yes, judgments—and moved more into my body (both physical and emotional) and my senses, while my attention moved outward, into the surrounding world.
Part of my what made that day’s hill climb so delightful was the abundance of birds, both in numbers and diversity, many of them singing:
Black-capped chickadee, nuthatch, redpoll, robin, junco, ruby-crowned kinglet, fox sparrow, white-crowned sparrow, golden-crowned sparrow, savannah sparrow, orange-crowned warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, Wilson’s warbler, yellow warbler, Townsend’s warbler, hermit thrush, Swainson’s thrush, varied thrush, olive-sided flycatcher, alder flycatcher, western wood pee-wee, Lapland longspur, raven, bald eagle . . .
Many wildflowers were blooming too, brightening both the landscape and my spirit.
Wild geranium, starflower, bluebells, baneberry, red-berried elder, false Solomon’s seal, dwarf dogwood, watermelon berry, red currant, spirea, Labrador tea, alpine azalea, moss campion, mountain avens, rose root, narcissus-flowered anemone, wooly lousewort, windflower, mountain buttercup, one-flowered cinquefoil, alp lily, purple mountain oxytrope, blueberry, bog rosemary, arnica, bell heather, Alaska spring beauty, alpine forget-me-not, pixie eye primrose . . .
I understand that including such lists here is evidence that I didn’t completely leave my thinking self behind. Of course that’s true. And while such lists can’t capture the joy of discovery and the pleasure of shared company, they’re a record of the many exquisite life forms with which I share the landscape on my journeys into the mountains. They also can become a reference of sorts, and stir memories.
Writing this, I also realize that the simple act of regularly journeying into the mountains or local forests is itself a form of privilege, though I would add that such experiences are important enough to me that I make sure they’re at the center of my life.
As I expected, my time in the mountains with Denali brought me great pleasure and comfort and occasional excitement. It also brought more clarity.
I realized (or was reminded) that sometimes I simply become overwhelmed by the complexity of our species, of the “human condition,” such a blend of love and hate, peace and violence, brilliance and ignorance, kindness and cruelty, on and on. These times of solitude in the presence of something so much greater than myself, greater than the human community, give me perspective and keep me healthy physically, emotionally, spiritually.
And then there’s this: I know my friends who attended that meeting to be thoughtful, compassionate and largely open-minded men (we all have blind spots) who’ve done good work in their lives. That, I think, is why I was baffled and disappointed that they didn’t pursue what I’d shared.
But in retrospect, more disappointing—and surprising, in a way—is that I didn’t speak up when the conversation so abruptly shifted. Instead of asking for their thoughts, their feedback, I stayed silent as my discontent grew. That was my mistake. And eventually, my lesson. (One I’ve had to relearn, over and over.)
Both personally and culturally, I’ve come to recognize and understand the dangers of staying silent, when it’s a form of hiding.
If we Americans have learned—or relearned—anything during this time of transformative social change, it’s that silence and inaction have been a huge part of our nation’s failings.
There’s a time for the healing, revitalizing solitude of mountain walks and a time to speak up, to take action, even—or perhaps especially—when one feels that others haven’t really been listening, haven’t been paying attention. Or maybe just don’t care. Or even worse, might vehemently disagree. What a privilege that is: to speak openly without having to fear what the response might be.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.