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Experiencing the intimacy of place

Posted: October 5, 2011 - 12:01am

An early autumn sun warmed the air as we rested on the sandy slope of Boy Scout Beach this past weekend. The rising tide was etching tender arches along the shoreline. The view stretched west toward Shelter Island until its rolling tree line guided our eyes south all the way to Young’s Bay. Between the sand at our feet and Admiralty Island’s towering peaks, the water rested calmly. We took a few pictures, but we knew they wouldn’t capture the way serenity seemed to whisper the meaning of life.

About three quarters of a million people traveled through Juneau this past spring and summer. Many raced along the east side of Shelter Island on the way to a whale watching opportunity. Some may have even hiked the short trail out to Boy Scout Beach. Wherever they went, their cameras were pointing, shooting and digitizing the land and seascapes into trophies of their exotic travels.

These days it’s too easy to take pictures. Quality cameras are relatively inexpensive. They accurately meter the light conditions and automatically adjust the aperture, almost guaranteeing the colors of the scene will be perfectly preserved. But after a while, panoramic vistas, like the one we saw from Boy Scout beach, all begin to look the same. As pictures they’re often flat and emotionless and fail to reveal the possibility of story beyond the moment frozen by the shutter.

Some people, such as Juneau’s Mark Kelly and Michael Penn, have an innate ability to turn almost any scene into a beautiful photograph. But even an artist must practice his craft to excel at it. And by living here all year, Kelly and Penn have plenty of time to absorb the energy exuded by our natural surroundings. That may be why many of their photos are able to capture the sounds of serenity.

Imagining the quiet in a photograph seems to blend the audible into the visual world. It’s as if those images have to rein in the continuum of time in order to evoke an enduring silence. Perhaps it’s not their skill that accomplishes this seemingly magical trick. For we can imagine what we sense in a picture only if we’ve first experience the mood it conveys.

What is experience though? Is it the same as living an event filled life? Do we imagine we gain more experiences by visiting the widest variety of places? Or is it about the quality of the events and places we’ve been that hold our attention long after they’ve passed into memory?

“There must be a vision of what is happening, deep ideas to create experience” writes archetypal psychologist James Hillman. “Otherwise, we have had events without experiencing them and the experience of what happened comes only later when we gain an idea of it — when it can be envisioned by an archetypal idea”.

It is these frequently recurring archetypal themes that form the memories, and stories, of our lives. And long before there were cameras, we only had stories to describe our experiences. Simple words were never enough for the story teller who wanted to convey the poetics of place. Images and emotions had to be burned deep into the bank of their memories.

For those of us who love living here, the quiet and solitude are moments that endure. That’s why they’re often the motifs of local photography, paintings and literature. They require patience to feel and hold, which is something usually unavailable to the tourists who arrive on cruise ships. And if we’re rushing around to build a resume of memorable events, we too might lose our bond to the true sounds of Southeast Alaska’s peaceful places.

If we reflect on what keeps us here after weeks of seemingly constant rain we’ll find the sense of serenity is present in the act of wondering. And it’s here among us even when the sun isn’t shining. On days when the water is still and the mood is gray, we can absorb the quiet without ever seeing the mountain peaks hovering above the dark green forests. Like the silence we felt at Boy Scout Beach, the best experiences in life often come from an intimate relationship to the land around us.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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