“If the only prayer you say in your whole life is ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.”
— Christian mystic Meister Eckhart
In the darkness of a late November morning, I scroll through my life and give thanks for bountiful blessings.
Like everyone born into this world, I’ve experienced dark times, crises, failures. But I’ve also had my share of joy and wonder, fulfillment and love, peacefulness and mystery.
Yes, I’ve been blessed.
Part of the good fortune I’ve experienced can be attributed to the fact that I’m a white male living in the United States. I’m sure I’ve benefited from white privilege in a country built on grand ideals of freedom, equality and justice for all, but with its own dark shadows. Yet it’s more than that.
Looking back over my life, I sense that my early boyhood was touched by wonderment and magic (and yes, love). But something shifted, something happened, and I moved into a more cautious and anxious, even fearful, way of being in the world, and my own life darkened—though still marked by moments of great brightness and celebration—as I moved through adolescence and young adulthood.
Then I experienced a miracle of sorts.
In my mid-twenties, while finishing up graduate school, I was called to Alaska. At the time I didn’t recognize it as a calling, but rather an opportunity, an adventure. I traveled north to work as a field geologist. And my job took me to the Arctic, to the Brooks Range wilderness. And that wild place transformed me. I think some deeper, more intuitive part of me knew that I’d come home.
Though the place inspired me, the work did not. I just didn’t feel the passion for exploration geology that many of my colleagues (some of them my closest friends back then) exhibited. Though I’d gotten an MS in geology and had figured it would become my career, I gradually came to accept my heart wasn’t in the work. At the same time, I discovered the inspired—and inspiring—writings of Robert Marshall in his book “Alaska Wilderness.”
As I’ve written in my own book “Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness” (one that like Marshall’s celebrates the Central Brooks Range), his writings “didn’t make me question what I was doing, at least not consciously. But looking back I’m certain Marshall’s passion for wilderness, as presented in those pages, touched mine. In doing so, his writings must have reignited some long-dormant embers by reconfirming the importance of wildness in my own life. . . .
“More than any geologist, he would become a role model and inspiration.”
Though stirred by Marshall’s zeal and the passion I saw in my friends’ pursuit of geology, I didn’t immediately consider changing my own path. That would take time and some additional influences.
It wasn’t until my late twenties, while living in the L.A. megalopolis, that I decided to take something of a leap of faith: I would abandon geology and seek other possibilities.
My parents thought I was crazy to “throw away” a profession in which I’d already had some notable success. And for what? I didn’t know what I would find—heck, I didn’t even know if I’d succeed in my new quest—but I knew I had to take that chance.
To make a long story short, I found my path through journalism, which led to sports and then outdoors writing and finally nature writing and advocacy on behalf of the larger, wilder world we inhabit. My new vocation of writing brought me back to Alaska, my adopted home (the first being Connecticut, where I grew up).
In my late thirties, a friend gave me an audiotape collection called “The Power of Myth,” a series of conversations between broadcast journalist Bill Moyers and the late mythologist and storyteller Joseph Campbell, both of them highly respected in their fields. Their conversation was and remains a revelation and is something I return to now and then for inspiration.
Campbell shares the perspectives, insights and wisdom of many cultural and spiritual traditions. Among my favorites has to do with following your bliss, which might also be expressed as following your heart, your passion, your intuitions: “If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Follow your bliss and don’t be afraid, and doors will open where you didn’t know they were going to be.”
Perhaps I love that idea, that sentiment, because it seems to be true of my own life. It was only when I took a risk, a leap of faith, that I found my passion, my path. I think I knew and followed that path when I was young—not necessarily the writing part, but a deep connection to wild nature, which I have rediscovered through my writing, which, joined with story, has become more of a lifestyle, a way of life, than a career.
Moyers and Campbell also talked about the notion of “being helped by hidden hands” and the idea that life events which once seemed accidental or coincidental, when seen from afar (as one ages) may link together in a meaningful way. All of that, too, resonates with me.
So here I am, now a 70-year-old “wild man” who loves where he lives and loves his life’s work—and both place and work fit so perfectly together, almost like it was meant to be. (You can imagine a smile here.)
Besides all that I have the gifts of a sweetheart, family (including and especially daughter and grandkids), circles of friends, community, a sweet and rascally canine companion, good health (physically, emotionally, spiritually), and wildness all around me every day, manifested in many different forms—and a nearby mountain wilderness, the Chugach Front Range, that I visit frequently. And then there’s that Brooks Range wilderness, which I don’t visit often but which I cherish and is with me all the time, as important a place as any in my life. I think of the Nancy Wood poem: “Never shall I leave the places that I love;/Never shall they go from my heart/Even though my eyes/Are someplace else.”
So yes, I’m filled with gratitude. And I’m reminded of a personal meditation I’ve composed, which ends, “May I be open to possibilities, appreciative of my blessings, and celebrate the miracle of life, my life.”
Amen, once more, to that.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness” and “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.