A bitter wind had blown somewhere else that morning, and sun bounced off remnant glaciers hanging in the valleys across Kachemak Bay. We could see water, green forest, the white backbones of mountains, sharp cliffs, glittering ice, bright snow, autumn’s butterscotch spread across rolling hills, pristine clouds, and a robin’s-egg-blue sky from the ridge above Homer, Alaska, where we were staying. This was on the Kenai Peninsula, where the bay flows into Cook Inlet, which itself reaches 150 miles to Anchorage.
An embrace, I might have thought, of nature.
It was late September; the harvest moon, twenty-four hours shy of fullness, had just set over the northern horizon. The day before had been rainy, foggy, windy, and cold, and my daughter and I despaired of swinging out on the water to get a closer look at those glaciers. Dixon, Portlock, Grewingk, Wosnesenksi, Doroshin, named by the explorer W. H. Dall in the late nineteenth century.
We hurried down to the Homer Spit—a needle of land extending into Kachemak Bay about four and a half miles—once a wild, lovely place of spruce trees, lupine, and native grasses but now a hurly-burly of tourist shops and restaurants and nuts-and-bolts marine operations, including water taxis. (It was once also longer and higher, but the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake sank a good bit of the tip.) We had nine minutes to board the only water taxi going that day. We would ride along as the skipper took four others to Bear Cove to stay in small cabins in Kachemak Bay State Park, about to shut down for the season. I ducked in and out of the wheelhouse as we made our way. No one spoke.
We were on the water, in nature. Nothing existed except the cold, the sun, the wind, the drone of the catamaran’s twin engines, and the clicking of the shutter on my daughter’s camera. I was deliriously happy.
But where were we, really, out there on the water? On an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. On a bay in the inlet. Off the Kenai Peninsula. On the opposite side of Kenai Fjords National Park. In the state of Alaska. West of the Gulf of Alaska. Well below the Arctic Circle. East of the Aleutian Range, east and slightly north of Augustine Island and its 4,025-foot volcano. We were on our way to Tuts’inlegh K’etnu, “spawn in shallow place river,” the place-name in the Dena’ina Indian language for Bear Cove. We were in the United States but not in the Lower 48, nor in the Inside Passage.
Where we were not was in nature.
Nature is not a place. I’ve come to accept this now. (I didn’t really want to; it meant I had to stop complaining about the city in which I live.) A forest is a place, Sacramento is a place, Mount Whitney is a place. Nature is not a place but rather an idea, a mental construct, and I can assure you the differences among us on the subject of nature are sharp and shocking. Even more so because these ideas about nature are unexamined, and unstated. Every day we speakers of a shared language use the word and assume the person listening to us knows exactly what we mean when we use the word, and agrees with us.
But it’s not true. I’ve asked people. I’ve heard the responses. Rich, diverse responses that would surprise you.
A definition of nature. For a young person in Boston, it might be a group of trees in a public park designed by the Olmsted brothers; in Los Angeles, perhaps the wilder places of the Los Angeles County Arboretum. “Oh, nature,” someone wrote to me recently, “it’s everything. Even this hideous carpet came from the earth.”
The experience of nature, though—that’s something else entirely. That has to do with what we think, how we think, the stories we were told, books we’ve read, the world we took in through our senses before we had words. It’s unconscious background. It’s in our hearts.
Recently the poet Mary Oliver was interviewed on National Public Radio. “The woods that I loved as a child are entirely gone. The woods that I loved as a young adult are gone. The woods that I most recently walked in are not gone, but they’re full of bicycle trails,” she said.
Then the wild online rumpus began. She was cheered, and also excoriated, especially by bicyclists. “Not everyone in the woods is looking for the same experience as Oliver,” one writer began. In the end, upset, he snapped off the radio.
Nature: the word is complex and ever changing across generations, cultures, geography. Your definition frames how you look at the world, how and where you choose to live, and what you think of when you think of a garden. Understanding it is a task of a lifetime.
I can tell you that in the time of the harvest moon on that catamaran in Kachemak Bay with my beloved daughter, I was close. Really close.