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Seeing and loving Juneau's unique character

Posted: May 22, 2012 - 11:01pm

Juneau has received 2 1/2 times the normal rainfall this month. But although it’s dampened the atmosphere, it hasn’t slowed the return of the birds or the king salmon. And in response to the longer days the landscape is turning overwhelmingly green. These are the real signs of spring, the season of renewal that’s more vital to this place we call home than the opened doors of the downtown tourist shops.

It’s true that tourism is a mainstay of our economy. But the hundreds of thousands cruise ship visitors don’t come here to shop. The main attractions are the waters of the Inside Passage, its sheltering mountains and dark green forests. These form the backbone our of community’s character. For many it’s this intangible beauty that keeps us here.

The Aak’w Kwáan and T’aaku Kwáan people subsisted along these beautiful shores for thousands of years before greeting the first “tourists.” They didn’t see the Russian and European explorers as an economic opportunity. Money as we know it didn’t define wealth in their culture.

It wasn’t until gold was discovered that the dollar bill became embedded in the area’s history. Gold built the town and acted as the driver of the local economy until the 1940s.

Juneau’s character has changed dramatically since those days. By the time the first modern cruise ships arrived, our economy had become dominated by state and federal government employment. But the question of character has more to do with how we live than how we earn a paycheck. And one way to define that is the lasting impression we leave on the outsiders who pass through our town.

It’s not likely they’ll recall much of the city’s history after their visit. Most of it has been buried by time’s natural reclamation of the land and the modernization of the downtown architecture. They may have purchased jewelry, shirts and trinkets as mementos of their trip, but the stores where they found them aren’t memorable. In fact, they aren’t much different than the ones they saw in Ketchikan, Sitka and Skagway.

If their visit included a local tour to a get closer look at the beauty of our natural surroundings, then there’s a good chance they’ll remember of a local guide whose affection for the land could reach into their heart. Or they might have a memory of a friendly conversation with a local resident while taking a stroll in the older downtown neighborhoods. Kindness matters, and it’s often more genuine when we’re deeply connected to our place in the world.

But the focus of groups like the Alaska Travel Industry Association and the Resource Development Council is money. They’re busy tracking people to make statistical forecasts about the dollars to be spent here. And those who want more don’t seem troubled by the possibility of extending the waterfront shopping district all the way to Gold Creek. That’s a formula for making Juneau remembered as a tourist trap.

Those of us who object to more of this so-called economic development are often ridiculed as liberal obstructionists. The irony here is that preserving the integrity of our community actually aligns with the conservative pursuit of maintaining traditional values. Conservation of place is about respecting the land and protecting the quality of life it grants to us for future generations to enjoy.

Last month farmer, poet and conservationist Wendell E. Berry called for a “neighborly, kind, and conserving economy” when he delivered the Jefferson Lecture for the National Endowment for the Humanities. It’s the highest honor given for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities. Berry said “to live and belong in a place, to live from a place without destroying it, we must imagine it. By imagination we see it illuminated by its own unique character and by our love for it.”

As a society we have a long way to go to create the kind of economy Berry envisions. It existed here long ago with the Aak’w Kwáan and T’aaku Kwáan people. Maybe if we imagine the land is alive as they did we’ll be better able to see that it’s the beauty of this place itself that calls out to be shared.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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