I woke up this morning in a gloomy mood. My mind soon filled with dark thoughts, as it swirled with the many ways our nation and more generally our species are acting in crazy, harmful ways. I’d been planning to write a celebratory essay for this week’s City Wilds column, in praise of Anchorage’s woodlands, but could I write such a piece given all the cultural insanity to be addressed?
Perhaps “inspired” by Indi Samarajiva’s commentary (“I lived through collapse. America is already there”) in last week’s Anchorage Press, I resolved to write a reflective piece about some aspects of humanity’s madness.
And then I went for my morning stroll with Denali. Immersed in the beauty of the day and season and the soft morning light, my spirit lifted. My earlier gloom didn’t exactly vanish, but it largely gave way to joy and gratitude. What a blessing, to be part of this amazing world and the larger cosmos.
So I changed my mind again. The darker commentary could wait. I would write about the gift of Anchorage’s forests, as I’d been planning.
The inspiration for this essay came over the weekend, on a hike along Chugach State Park’s Middle Fork Loop. Looking down toward the Anchorage Bowl, I was struck, once again, by its abundance of trees, of woodlands.
I think this richness is most easily observed in May and September (not coincidentally my two favorite months, partly for the reasons I describe here).
May, of course, is the month of green-up, when the leaves of Anchorage’s birches, aspens, and cottonwoods open. In their first days, the leaves are a vivid, glistening green. Seen from the upper Hillside or the Chugach Front Range, the Anchorage Bowl shines brightly verdant.
Then, in September, those same leaves turn yellow and gold. The effect is stronger in some years than others; thanks in large part to this past summer’s abundant rainfall, local woodlands glowed with a golden brightness this fall. And so did the Anchorage Bowl, seen from on high.
By early October the colors had dimmed and many leaves had fallen, but even then, enough remained to grab my attention.
While taking in the beauty of my adopted homeland, my thoughts at one point drifted to John McPhee and his assessment of Anchorage in the best-selling and still-acclaimed book, “Coming into the Country.“
It’s true that our city is rarely lauded for its wild nature (except, perhaps, by certain nature writers) or frontier aesthetics. Some of Anchorage’s harshest critics are those Alaskans who live in more rural areas; many consider the state’s urban center a northern incarnation of Lower 48 excesses. Some derisively call the city “Los Anchorage,” a not-so-subtle comparison to Southern California’s sprawling megalopolis. Other Alaskans, including some locals, ridicule Anchorage as “Anywhere USA” and consider its only saving grace to be the close proximity to “real Alaska.”
Outsiders, too, sometimes get in their swipes, the most famous of them being McPhee’s. To quote him (in part), “Almost all Americans would recognize Anchorage, because Anchorage is that part of any city where the city has burst its seams and extruded Colonel Sanders. . . . (Anchorage) is virtually unrelated to its environment. It has come in on the wind, an American spore. A large cookie cutter brought down on El Paso could lift something like Anchorage into the air.”
As I’ve written before, the truth stings. To some degree, Anchorage deserved McPhee’s late 1970s jabs. And it still merits them and, arguably, those of rural Alaskans. Much of the city is an appalling mix of malls, fast-food restaurants, boxlike discount stores, massive parking lots, and residential neighborhoods with tiny yards and big buildings squeezed so tightly there’s little or no room for trees.
Yet for all of this laying down of asphalt and mushrooming of boxy buildings, pockets of wetlands, woodlands and other wild areas remain scattered through the Anchorage Bowl. And in some areas—most notably Kincaid Park and Bicentennial Park/Campbell Tract and other parts of the Hillside—forests are dominant landscape features.
This becomes obvious when you look toward the bowl from above it. And it’s confirmed—for those who need such confirmation—by a scientific assessment of the Anchorage Bowl’s “tree canopy.” The most recent assessment, conducted in 2018, found that 35.3 percent of the local landscape—yes, more than a third of it!—is covered by trees and shrubs, more than any other type of landcover, including “impervious surfaces,” for instance roads, buildings, and parking lots, which accounted for 28.9 percent of the total.
Imagine that: Anchorage has more tree canopy than human structures covering the ground. I’d guess that might surprise a lot of people, including (and perhaps especially) John McPhee.
Among other things, it reminds us that what people notice depends on where they put their attention. This might seem obvious, but how often do we consider its importance in shaping our perspectives and attitudes about so many things?
Just this morning, my emotional state changed when I shifted my attention from thoughts of our troubled world to the natural beauty, and one might say grace, of that same world.
That same 2018 “Anchorage Bowl Tree Canopy Assessment” (which can be found online) noted, “Anchorage forestlands are the foundation for the health, sustainability, and economic well-being of Anchorage communities. These forests are an essential living and dynamic resource that provides critical support and ecosystem services to both people and wildlife.. These benefits contribute greatly to quality of life and the identity of Anchorage . . .”
I’m greatly encouraged that a government agency, the state’s Department of Natural Resources, would fund a project like this, and that the value of forests to our city, our community, would be so clearly stated.
I commend the city leaders, activists, and other residents who worked to set aside so many woodlands, so many trees, and then preserved them as a key part of the Anchorage Bowl.
It will come as no surprise that, besides all the benefits listed above, I find other value (and values) in the presence of Anchorage’s forests and other tree-rich places, for instance the wonder, magic, and mystery to be found in the company of trees, which even scientists now recognize as wildly amazing beings. And here I will recommend another best-selling book, one that’s changed the perspectives of many people around the world: “The Hidden Life of Trees: What they Feel, How they Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World,” written by forest ecologist Peter Wohlleben.
That seems about as good a place as any to nudge reader’s attention. Yet here’s an even better one: to take a walk in the woods, heart and mind both wide open.
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.