I'm happy to have a guest post by Emily Wall on Planet Alaska:

To Write Big, Write Small
Being a nature writer in Alaska feels a little like being a foodie in a gourmet grocery store.  Where do we even start?  It’s overwhelming.  When I first moved to Alaska 17 years ago, I was fresh out of grad school and fleeing the two cities I’d lived in.  It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but I came to Juneau because of a photo in a National Geographic showing downtown Juneau—Franklin Street actually, in the sweet shadow of Mt. Juneau.  My husband and I got on the next ferry and stayed for years.  But how to write about it?  It was overwhelming. Alaska is so much, so big, so mythical, and so over-photographed I had no place to begin.

Thankfully, I started reading Sitka writer Richard Nelson almost immediately, and in his book The Island Within he has a beautiful chapter about a hummingbird who flew in his window and landed on his desk lamp. Reading that, something clicked for me.  We aren’t writing about nature, or about birds, or even about hummingbirds. We are writing about the hummingbird that one day landed on our desk lamp.  That is how we write (and see) the natural world.  That day I looked up from my book, and the first thing I saw was a half-built spider web across my window (my window which has a view of the ocean and the mountain and a waterfall).  I started with the spider web.
That way of looking at the world stayed with me when I left Juneau to live in Vancouver, BC for a few years.  It was my husband’s turn to do graduate work, and we decided the only way we could leave Alaska and live in a city again, was on a boat.  So we bought a big, run-down sailboat, moved aboard, and lived on it for four years.  This month my second book of poems, titled Liveaboard, is coming out and it chronicles that experience.   

Today as I flip through the poems in this new book, I see that my way of writing the natural world hasn’t changed.  Many of these poems are about individual moments and about the minutiae of the natural world.  I wanted to write about living on the Fraser River, about living on a boat, and about living in a community of liveaboards.  Like writing about Alaska, that idea was daunting.  But by writing one poem about a river otter eating crabs, and another about a flotilla of geese, and another about the drowning death of a friend, those poems started to mosaic to form a larger picture of the natural world.
Writing this way has made me see this way too. When I’m overwhelmed by oil spills, or genetically modified foods, or by the beauty of a recent avalanche in Juneau, I try to remind myself to start small. Start with one argument, one bird, one feather of snow in my hand.

Saying Thank You

Some mornings—when the mist is low
on the harbor water, when a river otter
is streaming his path through wooden boats—

it would be painful to not say thank you—
to not enjoy swallowing those words,
to understand we are not at the apex

of anything, perhaps even our own lives. 
What a relief this is, like shedding jeans and shoes
and slipping into water, embracing this fragile skin.

Bio: Emily Wall is a poet and an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. She has been published in a wide variety of literary journals and has won several poetry prizes. Her second book of poems, Liveaboard, is being launched this month. Her first book, Freshly Rooted came out in 2007. Both books are published by the Irish Press Salmon Poetry. Emily lives and writes in Juneau, Alaska.

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