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Photographer Robert Adams once wrote that “what disturbs us most about development is not the destruction of some far-off wilderness, but the relentless destruction of those private places near to home where we became, and intend to continue becoming, ourselves.” ACEP (3 of 11)

Living in Alaska for 26 years, I heard, many times, of the impending destruction of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, about to be devoured by the evil oil companies.  Having never set foot on the Arctic Refuge (although my wife spent a summer there, once, a long time ago), I found it hard to get too worked up about that distant wilderness.  I had my own secret places, some of them distant, hundreds of miles beyond the end of the road, some of them much closer to where I lived, where I felt at home.

We moved out of Alaska this past year, sold the house in February.  When Rachel and I talked about the twenty one years we spent there (the longest either of us had ever lived in any place), we agreed that we had developed a grudging respect for the 1970’s tract house.  It was functional, but never our dream home.  There were things we did love about living there, though, including the quiet walks we often took in the nearby woods.

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Rachel came back to Alaska to work a summer seasonal job—Ben and I came to visit for a couple weeks, arrived a few days ago—and we took a drive up to the old neighborhood.  It’s changed.  In the past few weeks, the road we lived on has been extended into the small woods at the end of the street—trees cut, a dirt path pressed into the earth—the extension of our street, where new houses will be built.

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In many ways, this is neither unexpected, nor a tragedy.  We knew, before we bought our house, that every real estate map showed our road extending through those trees.  We bought in the neighborhood because it was very close to town—now with energy prices higher than ever, it makes sense that people would want to buy houses close to town—and therefore that builders would  eventually accommodate them by completing the development.

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But during the 21 years we lived in that neighborhood, that small, quiet birch forest was one of the secret places that sustained me.  Rachel and I, later joined by our Australian Shepherd Suka and our son Ben, took hundreds of walks through those trees—walks often accompanied by conversations about our future, dreams, plans.   There was always something to look at—tracks in the snow, hoarfrost on the high branches, new leaves in the spring, yellow leaves in the fall, bare limbs in fading light of October—always different, but always beautiful and peaceful.

I took a short walk in the woods again a few days ago, late in the evening—it’s a bad bug year in Fairbanks, and I had on a short sleeve shirt, so it would have been an unpleasant walk even if the trees were all still standing—but the stumps, the sawdust, and the powdered silt all seemed to conspire to make the walk especially jarring.  Most of the old pathways through the trees were gone, replaced by a wide swath clear-cut through the forest.  It wasn’t just that some things had been removed and others remained (which was, in fact, true), but that the nature of the place had been profoundly changed.

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On one level, it seems pointless to even mention the loss.  This woods was never set aside as a park or recognized in any way as being a special place of beauty.  It was just a piece of land waiting for the housing market to heat up again, enough to justify the cost of finishing the road according to plan.  And I don’t even live in the neighborhood (or the state) anymore—and I have other woods to walk in now—but still, I find myself thinking of what happened as something akin to the death of an old friend.  This woods, which I once knew, has passed on.  Conversations and memories remain, but there will be no new times together.  This walk has ended.

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4 Comments

    • Margie Root
    • Posted June 26, 2013 at 7:45 pm
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    Dennis,
    There is a drive I often make to Oklahoma City that takes me through a few miles of country before it connects to a state road and becomes a major hightway though the city. For some miles, it used to be open fields of alfalfa and cows with an occasional horse farm. It’s so pretty and one summer I counted the red tail hawks along that road each time I drove it. I’ve often thought to document the one mile intersections of this area because of the changes that come to it as the city expands.

    Now there is a strip mall and restaurants popping up at the edges. I no longer see the hawks. There is traffic along the road which I used to hardly share with anyone. My dialog with the drive has changed.

    I don’t think anything can match the remote wilderness and beauty of Alaska, but everything changes. Maybe more slowly there than here. But on a more upbeat note, there will be new walks, different drives, new conversations and more memories to create. When you close one chapter you begin another.

    • Marvin Falk
    • Posted June 29, 2013 at 1:14 pm
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    I am pleased that you still have reason to comment on Alaska, even if the subject is not a pleasant one. I have been photographing structures in Fairbanks since the 1970s. The nature, the ambiance, has completely changed. The Quonset huts are almost all gone and the Los Anchorage box stores have appeared. There are a lot of subtleties that go with that and many are worth exploring — but how to express this in one or even many images? I think of the possibilities that I have missed in the past and can not go back to remedy. But still, there are continuing themes to develop. I hope you remain engaged.

    • Burton
    • Posted August 3, 2013 at 7:02 am
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    Robert Adams draws on writings and poetry for his inspiration and a poem by John Hollander, you may or may not be aware of, called “An Old Fashioned Song”, I think encapsulates what you have written about very eloquently. The ‘Eagles’ have put it to music and it is the first track on their album “Long Road Out Of Eden”. They have titled it “No more Walks In The Wood”.

    If you don’t know it I think you would be rewarded by a reading (or a listening)!

    • Trish
    • Posted June 9, 2017 at 7:23 pm
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    My siblings and I had a similar experience as kids in southeast Alaska. A beloved wood our parents would have to call us out of late every summer evening was clear cut one month when we were out of state. We had been stunned when we first entered the wood after moving there from California. The sun streamed in rare patches through the tall trees that met in the sky like heads conferring, far below little sparkles showed on the rivulets that would pop their heads up from underground on their way to the beach less than 100 feet away. The tall tree stump we called Fortay, the low mossed over log bridging a tiny alcove we called the fireplace and where we stored our bag lunches in its dark coolness. The paths through the moss on the large logs we could run down almost as swiftly as whatever creatures had blazed them. All gone. We could hardly look our school bus driver in the face, it was his son who had owned the land and cut down ‘our’ woods to give an ocean view to his house across the road. I think we still grieve it, much the way we do our faithful tabby Thomas or our dog Heidi. There are other lovely woods, but they aren’t ‘our’ woods. Thank you for sharing.


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