“Looks like northeasterly winds fifteen knots with scattered clouds and light rain,” the Alaska Airlines pilot announces (or something like this) when you land at the Kodiak Airport. You drive into town with waterfalls and scree slopes on your left, the seaport on your right, and a magpie dashing along beside you. Maybe you’ve come for the sportfishing, or maybe you’re here for the Whale Festival, the Crab Festival, the Music Festival or the State Fair and Rodeo. The town of Kodiak is so small that you rapidly exhaust its surface, and after that, well, if you’re not a history buff, there are the bars to explore, and wherever a bout of drinking might lead you in the company of whatever unusual companions. There’s that, or the wilderness.
Like a stream hidden by leaves, but leaping and splashing on all sides—that’s how the grace of nature flows. I kneel, I seek it out, I drink from it. If you have loved deeply, you know the impulse to kneel before that which you love. A wordless satisfaction wells up, irrepressible, deaf to old differences, and in this clean state of gladness, I am far from all the old means and ends: I am all forgiveness.
The hills link in a great chain on this peninsula, where I hike unimpeded as far as I please. I reel under the welcoming sky, arms outstretched. Or I lie in the grass, in the palm of creation, a northwest breeze rustling the leaves, pink shooting stars and lupine in bloom, the water gurgling at my ears, my eyelids trembling in the sunlit warmth of the day, hardly able to lift my head for this weight of lassitude and delight.
From nature, this being-in-the-wild, I get a profounder knowing, profounder reassurance, profounder affirmation than was ever communicated to me through self-help psychology or scholarly syllabus. I have no feud with science, none at all. What impresses me is the generous organization of what I see around me, the web of laws and linkages that underpin—that underpins—the natural world. I note, I analyze, I categorize, I test and tinker. Reason and science go far in elucidating the mechanics of nature, in patterning phenomena. Yet they fail to satisfy my yearnings and will never rival the canticle that beats in my chest. Call it a visceral conviction or call it faith, but I am less interested in nature as science than in nature as my all-in-all, nature in the rough and God in nature.
A giant bull kelp stretches across the shore, the carcass of a great beast. From the base of its scarred stipe, where it holds fast to a rock, it measures fifty feet in length—five zero—and the amber flags that radiate from its bulb spread another eighteen feet across the beach. Here too is a mystery. And when I have taken all of its measurements, I will still be here, pacing and fathoming it.
How a person comes to faith, or how faith comes to the person—this is our conversation as we clean our harvest of snails. We speak in lazy murmurs, not of theology but of feelings and visions. The matter of faith never seems gratuitous after a day in the tidepools. No, it’s practically an outcome of it. Every curtain of kelp drawn back, every rock overturned, brings a revelation, a reminder of how much remains concealed, how many of yesterday’s secrets lie out of reach, how many of today’s truths lie undisclosed. Late into the night we work, cleaning our harvest and nibbling at the edges of a protean reality.
This is Alaska’s gift to me, this creed, this natural faith. It unites me with all of life, and not only with organic life but also, necessarily, with life’s conditions and precursors, with our host, the planet Earth. The nihilism, the experience of nature as an emptiness, a stick-and-mud stage for the acting out of my corporal will, that was a misapprehension, egotistical and incomplete. I was made for this, not this for me. What I once felt estranged from was my own substance, the stuff I am made of: my maker. Every stage is a construction I leap from, every construction an artifice through which I pass into the boundlessness of the elements, of earth and air and fire and water, of mountain, sea, sky and forest, of gas and stardust and radiant song, and within and forever beyond these, the immutable abiding something that owns me, puts me here, frees me for a cycle of seasons, individuates me, colors me, and never, itself never ceasing to be, disowns what I am.
Land of Bear and Eagle: A Home in the Kodiak Wilderness was published in December 2022. Award-winning novelist and essayist Tanyo Ravicz was born in Mexico and grew up in California. After attending Harvard University, he settled for many years in Alaska, a place which continues to inspire his work.