Grasping at Ghosts

Sitka Sound, Baranof Island, Alaska

Sitka Sound, Baranof Island, Alaska

The light illuminating Alaska’s Baranof Island spurns verbs and adjectives like so many unworthy suitors. I could write of its burnished twilights and immersive qualities that seem to be borne more from energy fields than mere humidity, or muse over whether the angle of the sun that far north is the alchemical magic that sets it apart. In the end I still feel as though I’m grasping at ghosts, trying to hold onto images while they’re vaporizing. It’s me v. the words—my ability to persuasively convey what I’ve experienced while it’s fresh in my re-collection. In describing nature, I don’t want to pin the butterfly to the velvet. The language has to breathe. 

My notes from Day one in Sitka: Gleaming, glimmering water. Dreamscape quality to the light, not hazy exactly, not misty, but luminous in a way I had never seen. Not crisp, light and water merged in an enveloping way, an immersive embrace…palpable and magnetic. Sort of Avalon…or Van Morrison: ”as we sailed into the mystic.”Hesitate to use “ethereal”…gossamer? Shroud of light…but wasn’t cloaking…although did conceal the volcano…a halo over the water…radiant… but more than that. I stared across the Sitka Sound toward Mt. Edgecumbe from dawn to dusk throughout the week, hypnotized and taunted by this shape-shifting entity. With each new writing attempt I felt the light looking askance at me with a “Seriously? You’re going to use shopworn descriptions?” aura of judgment. Days, weeks, months can pass crafting such passages, trying to get at the beating heart of the object of observation. Much like a good biscuit, you can’t over-handle the ingredients without the end result being overwrought— tough and heavy. It’s a delicate process.

In the lyrical The Island Within author Richard Nelson aptly (and effortlessly, it seems) describes Alaskan island light: Translucent clouds are wrapped around the upper slopes like a chiffon veil, so thin that the dark streaks of ridges blown clear of snow are visible through it. And the overcast is heavier, sunken, oddly luminous, with almost no visible texture. To be fair, Nelson had bathed in Alaskan light for decades before he wrote that passage, while I’d only been in Sitka for 24 hours when I wrote mine. Still, I’m envious of how he so elegantly captured it in forty-one words. With so many visions from a nation full of islands to share (with photographs doing a lot of the talking), I can’t linger long on one kind of light. I might just need to bow to the master and pull that quote, allowing the spirits to rest.

 —Anna Marlis Burgard