By Jessica Shepherd
Between cloudbursts, I make my way by gravel road and wet grass to Michael’s Bench. Taking a seat on the damp wood, I pat the space beside me as if Michael’s spirit might appear. Michael introduced me to this landscape as a helpful neighbor when I first moved to Homer, then an easy friend, and now a somber memory.
The view from here always delivers. Today brooding clouds muscle up against the formidable Kenai Mountains while rain-washed glaciers glint milky blue in the wide throat of an emerging valley. Closer at hand, the sidewalls of McNeal canyon drop away to frame a V-shaped glimpse of Kachemak Bay, her mood a ruffled silver in the fading light.
The shores of Kachemak Bay are poignant with memories. I drift my eyes along her southern shore and, in my mind, revisit each bay and gravely outflow. I have hiked, kayaked, fished, and camped along the length and breadth of this bay. Every cove, island and tidal flat has borne my footprint or the stroke of my paddle. I feel a keen sense of ownership and responsibility toward these marine waters and the woodlands that rise up from her shores.
Now, all around me, the fireweed, which was so dazzling this summer, has advanced to burgundy leaves. Slender seeds dehisce, splitting open along their narrow shafts and wafting umbrella fluff into the air, seeds hanging down like gifts for another summer.
I could drink in this view for the rest of my life. Each day the sun illuminates different facets of the Kenai range, revealing valleys or rock walls I never admired before. Eagles drift aloft, chittering to one another, white heads and tails flashing. The wind waltzes among the alders, which sway and bow in deep familiarity. I want the human equivalent of that familiarity – to know a place so completely it envelops me. After moving between jobs, towns, and relationships, looking for something I couldn’t name, I have finally settled, here at the end of a dirt road at the farthest reaches of the continental road system.
But even as I sit, tipping my face up to a feeble sun, change is coming to our hamlet. Beyond the nearby sing-song of boreal chickadees, dump trucks full of gravel for new driveways growl and downshift in their climb up East Hill Road. Closer at hand, I hear the beep-beep-beep of a truck backing and then the rumble of a ton of rock, pulled from the quarry near the Anchor River, sliding into place. Done with that load, the truck downshifts into a turn and grumbles away. Closer still, the steady drone of a chainsaw indicates a new opening in the forest canopy.
Homer is experiencing a housing boom. Right here, on our dead-end road, two building sites have replaced the radiant fireweed and tangled deadfall that were, until this spring, part of the wild lands that encircle me like a sanctuary. In fairness, I know I impose my ways on the land like everyone else, and this is my version of NIMBY.
Is this region of Alaska slated to become a sacrifice area, with woodlands yielding to ever-expanding suburbs, and oil well leases abutting the boundaries of our bay? In August, we cheered the success of President Biden’s climate action bill, only to find we had been singled out as a concession prize to Senator Joe Manchin. Lease sale 258, which we thought was dead in the water last spring, puts the whole of lower Cook Inlet up for auction to the oil industry.
Everything changes. I know this. But does it have to change so quickly and with such disregard for the ecological soul of this place? I wonder, as I sit here taking in the expanse from Michael’s bench, what he would make of these changes. Certainly, he would welcome these newcomers, stopping to pull their trucks out of snow banks, or piloting them over to China Poot in his Bay Weld to dipnet for reds, as he did for me. But what would he make of the ruling to allow jet skis in the bay and sight-seeing helicopters whop-whopping to land on Grewinkg Glacier? Would he rant at this assault on the wilderness that drew him to this corner of Alaska. Or would he smile at me, with his Einstein mustache and Italian good looks, and say, “You’d be happier if you appreciated life for what it has to offer, flaws and all, rather than pining away for some political overhaul that pleases you.” He would be right, but perhaps I imbue his memory with more of a Buddhist nature than he was wont.
I set out to write a memorial to Michael, but instead, I ended up writing a tribute to this land as he first knew it. Before spruce bark beetles, overfishing and oil development began nibbling away at this sacred place.
A light mist has begun, and I stand to leave, touching the inscription on the bench before I go,
In fond memory of
Friend & Neighbor