Wednesday, March 21, 2012


The world is full of magic things,
                                                                            patiently waiting
                                                                          for our senses to grow sharper.
                                                                         ~W.B. Yeats

I've spent years roaming this country, slowly, like a heavy rumbling engine, but my transience hasn't diminished the degree to which I value a sense of place. Rather, I think I've come to appreciate it more, because my time in any one place has been fleeting. Knowing you'll be leaving a place makes your time there more meaningful, perhaps, more poignant. More vivid.

Yet it's also true that to see a place for what it is, you usually have to spend some time there: wake up to different seasons, fall in love, drink the water, feel the soil. You must peel back the layers, get beyond the first impressions that jump out and grab hold of your senses. During the year I spent on Ebon island, half a mile wide by five miles long, I was amazed by how much more I saw with each passing week. After six months, I thought I knew every rock, insect and plant, and yet almost every day I noticed something that I'd previously overlooked. How well did the people who spent their entire lives there know the island? And if such a limited environment can produce such limitless inquiry, how can anyone, ever, truly know a city or a whole range of mountains?

At the Wildbranch Writing Workshop last year, Craig Childs told me that his job as a writer is to land in a place and physically experience it in as raw a way as possible, to tell the secrets of where he's been; to invoke that place in such a way that the reader is transported there.

Thinking back on my experience in the Marshall Islands, I wondered how that was possible. If you're only in a place for a short while, how can you discover its secrets? How can you see it clearly enough to put its essence on paper? I wrote in my journal: “I think I must train my senses to go deeper – at first, as a conscious effort when I need them to, and then all the time, until it becomes a habit, a new way of seeing the world.”

Later, a few days into the workshop, I wrote the following:

“I've now eaten at least six meals at a picnic table outside the dining area, and I just noticed the giant cobb oven twenty feet away. There must be a limit to the amount our senses can absorb at once, because it's not as if I was being unobservant. I noticed the nodding white bell flowers, the quality of the evening light, the silver bracelets on the wrist of the woman sitting across from me, the dinnertime chatter, rise and fall of voices, the way the feathery tops of ferns growing on the hillside formed tiers like terraced rice. I saw the blue sky through gaps in the branches of the spruce, the dark boughs swaying in the wind. I was engaged in good conversation. There is only so much our senses can absorb, and apparently, a cobb oven didn't make the cut. Still, I think I can train myself to notice more, and I think that once I do, I'll derive an even greater pleasure from this life. I once thought that the dissection and deconstruction of literature would detract from its beauty, rendering me unable to lose myself in it. But in fact, the opposite is true: I appreciate it and love good writing even more when it's well done. Perhaps so it is with a life of sensory fullness.”

Such powers of observation – and curiosity – can be dangerous. Autism has been described as a kind of sensory overload, and Craig, sitting at a table made of a giant slab of hammered wood, said that he could write pages and pages about something as simple as a table. Perhaps all good writers can, but that doesn't make it good writing. “Take me with a grain of salt,” Craig said. “I have to get rid of 90 percent of what I write. Writing is a process of omission.”

In jazz, they say, the most important notes are those that aren't played. In writing, perhaps some of the most important things we say are those we omit.

From my Wildbranch journal, again: “Just went for a walk in the woods barefoot as part of an assignment from Craig to focus on the sensory experience. For me, that was the cold, wet, bare earth sensing chills up my shin bones, which then inexplicably jumped to my forearms. The chill compelled me toward a sunny patch, where a moss-covered stump stood like a pedestal. If our senses tell our feet where to go, why have mine gone in the direction they have?”

In three weeks, I will be back in Alaska. 


  1. Krista, this is beautiful. Thank you for taking us on this journey of senses, which has awakened deeper questions within me. Some days I feel so vibrant and alive with the world, and those are the days that details seem to radiate from their places. Other days, I slip into unawareness, and later realize I have gone through the day with my eyes unfocused. Then I think of all the major turning points in my life, when I needed to take a step but was unsure of where to go, and in all of those moments I followed pure instinct, followed my senses before my thoughts could interrupt, and always they have led me aright. I am so happy for you and Alaska, and I look forward to reading where your senses lead you!

  2. Hey Krista, This post really hit home... first of all, it was written on my birthday! Second of all, I travel quite a bit like you and understand the first paragraph that 'Knowing you are leaving a place makes it more meaningful and poignant'... well said... I move every 3 to 6 months and I do and see more and appreciate more in that time somwhere than most locals I meet. I LOVE it too. Thanks for blogging, your words are extraordinary! Great photo too by the way! And maybe, YOU should write a book about your experiences... Ebon Island? Marshall Islands? Now Alaska and more? At such a tender age too :0). Keep on traveling and experiencing.
    Cheers, Chip


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