By Jenny Neyman, Redoubt Reporter
“Where we love is home — home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.”
— Oliver Wendell Holmes
“Home interprets heaven. Home is heaven for beginners.”
— Charles Henry Parkhurst
“Human beings are the only creatures on earth that allow their children to come back home.”
— Bill Cosby
Before this summer, these were some of my favorite quotes ruminating on the inextricable connection between heart and home. Including, of course, the cliché, “Home is where the heart is” (Pliny the Elder).
It’s cliché because of its nail-on-the-headedness. Few other forces have such foundational influence on our identity, sense of belonging, culture, comfort, security, utility and activity than home.
But after this summer, I’ve got a whole new reservoir of wisdom and perspective regarding the influence of home. Even better, they speak to the novel experience of calling the Kenai Peninsula home.
Everyone’s experience in and relationship to the place in which they live is as unique as they are. What one person loves — the damp cool of fall that settles with surprise, like a yellowed leaf newly shed from its branch — another might hate (summer’s over?!? Noooooo!). One person’s favorite spot — a quiet, slow-water river bend, or a rocky windbreak 3,000 feet above a hanging mountain valley — others might never have seen. The experience that dominates one person’s life on the Kenai — fishing, hunting, tending a garden, building a home, starting a business, raising a family — others might never have tried.
But one commonality for all who live here, whomever they are and whatever the reasons or circumstances owing to their presence, is that the Kenai is like nowhere else. There is a distinct character to this place that will not be ignored. It is not shy. It is not forgettable. It will not be homogenized. It’s a full moon exerting an inescapable influence on all life that ebbs and flows here, whether still pools that run generations deep or changing tides that splash and gush and churn with change.
Last spring, participants in the Pen the Kenai writing project challenged themselves to put in words their experience on the Kenai. It was a companion to the Paint the Kenai project, where artists painted a mural depicting their idea of that theme.
My admittedly completely biased opinion is that the writers had it harder. There are far more words than colors from which to have to choose, and emotional landscapes are much more difficult to capture than visual ones. (That is not to say the murals aren’t outstanding, however. They absolutely are. And as one who’d get a zero in paint by numbers, I’m particularly awed at the talent and creativity the murals demonstrate.)
The submissions were quite varied in style and subject matter, and distinct in tone and take on life on the Kenai. Yet many evoked central truths to which all who live here can relate. Visually, life on the Kenai is framed by universally distinguishable landmarks — Cook Inlet, the volcanoes across the water, the Kenai Mountains, Resurrection and Kachemak bays, the Kenai River, Tustumena, Kenai and Skilak Lakes.
But there is an invisible framework to life here, as well, felt as unmistakably as Mount Redoubt is seen on a clear day. Things like summer’s frenzied feeling of needing to live life to the fullest. The yearning of newcomers to form community and connection, as they’re separated from what and whom they’ve previously known. Being awestruck by the grandeur of the mountains and rivers, the wildness of the moose and bears, the abundance of the fish and berries, or the beauty of a field of fireweed or alpenglow against a clear sky, no matter how routine those sights have become. Those jolts of readjusted perspective when faced too close with wildlife, clobbered by an unexpected wave or battered and shriveled by a winter wind, stripping away the comforts of civilization and laying bare the reality of mortality.
Some of my favorite examples:
“The sky slips low on hillside, slides
down runnels of snow melt, down
rills from blued glaciers, along ridges,
the pass, valley, cove, fiord, through
outwash plain heavy with cottonwood gold,
to rock-strewn forelands of beach, fold on
fold, to the sea. Fades, into leaves of cloud.”
— Deborah Poore, Homer
“Neither the strong nor the weak survive unscathed but are reduced to an amalgam of equality where sex or age or social status matter not. The wind is in control, an equalizer. The wind scours away the veneer of respectable civility in the same manner it scours the streets of winter sand and salt.”
— Marilyn E. Wheeless, Kenai
“I compare new places to this place. When I started college Outside, I scoffed at the hills they called mountains, wondered why they had so few small planes motoring through the skies, fretted at the absence of saltwater and sockeyes. Too much flat land makes me nervous. Too few rivers and beaches leave me parched. A dearth of moose cannot be compensated for by a fenced-in field of dairy cattle.”
— Clark Fair, Sterling
“Spring along the Kenai is the day of the vernal equinox. The day the first sandpiper arrives in town. The day your favorite restaurant opens for the season. The day when you can see grass in your yard. The day that the grass actually looks green. The day you drain the antifreeze out of the water system on your boat. The day the humpback whales return from Hawaii. The day your neighbor returns from Hawaii.”
— Mareth Griffith, Seward
“I smile at happy contradictions. Certainly, at the decadence of a hot tub on the edge of wilderness, but more than that at this Place Apart, this place of abundance, with river and forest and tundra and sea, where my neighbors’ footprints show pads and claws and hooves, where flight paths are traced by raptors and waterfowl more than aircraft — but where we enjoy comforts and connections once found only in distant, forgettable places with curbs and lawns.”
— Christopher L. Robinson, Funny River Road
“Growing up, there was a palpable stigma about people who didn’t leave the peninsula after high school. The theory was that if someone failed to leave, they weren’t capable of ever realizing their potential. After all, what options could such a small community provide considering the world at large? … Never have I felt such pride to be part of this vibrant, cultured, and beautiful peninsula that I call home. I’m thankful to be back here where I started, to know this place for the first time.”
— Mike Crawford, Kenai
“Big in the windshield, small in the rearview,
quiet from the shore.
This place is love.
This place is life and majesty
and fits like your favorite clothes.”
— Cassandra Rankin, Nikiski
“When I was in need of answers, Nature found me and taught me balance and that everything has a time and a purpose. The vibrant fireweed, velvet meadows, lush emerald valleys, stately spruce, whispering aspen and the sapphire waters will sleep and then awaken to renewal with the precision of surety.”
— Nicole Bowers, Soldotna
“I can barely remember when I didn’t dip net
Or watching others with a gill or set
Or beached on the bank till a friendly yank
Or digging for clams in the muck and mud
Till the tide comes in and the beach is flood.”
— Tonya Halliday, Nikiski
“She would gloss over the months
Of disappointment with a single tryst.
I know the consequences of a lost summer,
for the breadth and depth of winter.
At first, I push her away.
Shorten my gaze for fear of succumbing.
But then, I, a knowing fool,
Explain the terms of probation.
I give her one more year.
She promises and leaves with a wink and a smile.”
— Darrell Keifer, Sterling
“Those fish! The gold that swims toward you when the sun doesn’t set, the oil that doesn’t have to be sought year after year. Those slippery, messy treasures paid for in laughter and heartache, sandy laundry and sunny afternoons. Those seven — or 70-pounded swimmers that bind families and fracture towns. Those rough diamonds in the water that keep us healthy and we keep healthy. Those floppy, gasping meals that feed smiling people all over and right here.”
— Selia Butler, Kenai
These and the many other Pen the Kenai entries will be posted on the Redoubt Reporter online.
On Friday, the selected Pen the Kenai mural submission and Paint the Kenai writing submission will be announced. Both will go on permanent display in the community. The event begins at 6 p.m. at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center. Tickets are $35, available in advance at the center.
Although only one mural design and one writing submission have been selected as the “winners” of Paint and Pen the Kenai, everyone who participated has won something valuable — the richer perspective of a life examined.
It’s a worthwhile exercise to reflect upon what makes this place this place, and what we are made into from living in it. After all, “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom” (Socrates), and “wisdom begins in wonder” (Socrates again). As “Paint and Pen the Kenai” has shown, we on the Kenai are indeed blessed with a wondrous place to call home.
Jenny Neyman is a reporter and editor of the Redoubt Reporter.