As a child growing up in the small coastal town of Seward, one of my earliest memories is standing in our front yard and staring at the rugged Kenai mountains across Resurrection Bay. In Winter, my mother would bundle me up and send me outdoors where I’d stand immobile for long periods, taking it all in. I think I was about three.
The neighbor lady called on the telephone, my mom later told me. She asked: “Is Frankie alright? He’s been standing out there staring across the bay for the longest time.”
“He’s fine,” my mom would reply. “He just likes looking at the mountains.”
I put myself in their shoes and can visualize how I must have looked. Suspicious neighbors might think my parents had me anesthetized on some drug.
I was entranced, but it wasn’t drug-induced. The mountains had a hold on me. They seemed majestic, mysterious, formidable. Time after time, I made imaginary routes up the most prominent peak, Mount Alice, wondering what Seward would look like from there.
As I grew older, no matter where I walked—whether to school, the neighbors’ houses, or downtown, the mountains always captured my gaze.
In later years, Dennis Hitt, a friend, and classmate died after a fall on Mount Alice. It was one of Seward’s most tragic events. His parents, Vance and Amy Hitt were then owners of the Alaska Shop and quite prominent in the community.
In summer, my friends and I routinely scrambled up Mount Marathon, which over the decades, has become a famous 4th of July venue for the annual races. Today, athletes from Alaska, the U.S. and across the world consider the race a quintessential mountain challenge.
As kids, we were always outdoors, immersed in the sights and smells of the seasons. In Spring, we could smell the sap running in the cottonwood and willow trees. We pressed the sticky-green alder leaves against our arms to make temporary tattoos. In Summer, the sweetness of fireweed blooms swept through the neighborhood. And when we climbed Mount Marathon, the enticing fragrance of forget-me-nots and other wildflowers drifted across the mountain’s slopes. In Autumn, as the leaves on the large cottonwood trees turned a brilliant yellow and fell to the ground, we tried to catch them. A southerly Winter breeze brought the smells of the restless ocean that by mid-afternoon, usually became dark and stormy.
At the time, we probably didn’t really know what love was. But subtly, nature was reaching out to us and teaching us. In the small town of Seward, without the internet or television, we were substantially cut off from the outside world. But somehow, nature yielded valuable lessons and ultimately, along with our parents, taught us what it meant to love.
My parents and sister were vital in shaping my life and imbuing me with love. In later years I would fall deeply in love with my beautiful wife, Rebekah, to whom I’ve now been married 39 years. I am also blessed with the love of my two children, David and Emily, my granddaughter Eleanor and others in our extended family.
Without these people and friends I have known over the years, I would not be the person I am. I would not be able to reach out to Alaska’s wilds to find beauty and closeness to God. Conversely, without the edification of nature, I am not sure how evolved I would be as a compassionate and loving human being.
I have often written about my respect for nature and my connection to it, but I think it’s a feeling most of us share. Through all of the rhetoric and debate about the environment, climate change and humanity’s effect upon our Earth, I return to a simple truth: the planet Earth is a ship hurling through space, and it is the only home we have. It protects us from the deathly ravages of space. As inhabitants of that ship, there is no “them and us.” It is only “us.” As fellow passengers, we have to learn to live peacefully with one another and fundamentally take care of our spaceship.
Not too many years ago in Eklutna Valley, I came within 60 feet of a wolf. It was big, so I assume it was a male. We stared at each other for about a minute before he ran back into the woods. Yet his gaze was different than mine. Rather than looking at me, it seemed as if he was looking through me. At that moment, it struck me that with all of my experience and education, the wolf knew more than me. I was in his environment, his world, and he knew best how to live in it.
It made me think: “As humans, we’d better learn how to live in ours.” I think we would probably take better care of our world if we all truly learned to love it.