Two views of Juneau's natural surroundings

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2006

I once entertained some visitors to Juneau for several days during one of our improbable spells of glorious summer weather. We saw bears eating salmon, whales foraging on herring, spectacular views of the Chilkat range, hummingbirds visiting the red columbines, and of course our local glacier. As they departed, their comment was, "Well, we can see why you like it here - the scenery is great."

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Yes, it is! It can be great even when the clouds are settled in among the peaks, when the channel is a choppy turmoil, when the mist is swirling through the trees. But what struck me most forcibly was the difference in perspective between the visitors and me.

They saw a glacier surrounded by some nice mountains and toe-ing into a lake with some icebergs. Very photogenic. I saw that too, but in my mind's eye I also saw a landscape that is constantly transforming itself: mountains rumpled up by tectonic plates, a glacier growing and retreating, land rising when released of the glacier's weight, rivers changing channels, avalanches and landslides bringing down rocks and soil, wind snapping off whole stands of trees. This is not an analytical perspective; rather, it is a feeling for a highly dynamic landscape - so different from my native Midwest. They saw a postcard, so to speak; I saw a "picture" of constant transformation, one of the most dynamic inhabited landscapes in the world.

They saw a bear chasing salmon in a stream. I "saw" a complex tension between predator and prey: the need of the bear for high-quality food in preparation for hibernation and successful cub-rearing, the need of the salmon to reach the spawning area to reproduce its own kind, and the ecological "ripple effects" as the bears help spread the nutrients from the salmon (and the sea) across the land.

They saw a hummingbird visiting the red columbines along a trail. I "saw" a flower becoming both a mother (making seeds) and a father (sending pollen to another columbine via the bird), and a bird being paid for this service by a meal of nectar. I also "saw" the hummingbirds migrating south along the mountain meadows, visiting flowers along the way; if one piece of this connection is lost, "our" hummingbird will not be with us.

They saw the spectacle of humpback whales bubble-net feeding on a school of herring - three or four gigantic, gaping mouths rising together from the water through the encircling net of bubbles. I saw a predator that can use the schooling behavior of the herring to its own advantage, the bubble-net forcing the fish into a tighter ball as each fish tries to hide behind another, only to find that the whales engulf the lot. I saw some of the largest vertebrates on Earth cooperating to capture some of the smallest, gorging on the richness of the northern seas before heading south to give birth and mate in warm but impoverished waters near Hawaii and Mexico.

And so it went. The visitors saw lovely scenery, and perhaps the real thing was better than a postcard, but it was essentially static and separate from themselves. I saw dynamism, interaction, links, and consequences - not analytically, or step by step, but as an instantaneous mental image. For me, these images only enhance the scenery, because I can, in some way, sense at least some of what is happening. Because I feel an intricate relationship with the natural world, these events and connections are part of me.

My visitors think I am crazy. I think they are missing a lot. We are both content.

• Mary F. Willson is a retired ecology professor and a Trail Mix board member.

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