Sitka Abecedarian

Ellen Bayer

(The Cascadia Bioregion)


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This lyric essay and prose abecedarian invites you to navigate the tensions between a writer’s impulse to know and to name a place and its inhabitants, and the inability to speak because our jaws are dropped in awe of the natural world. 

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“Abecedarians were a 16th-Century sect of Anabaptists who affected absolute disdain for all human knowledge—contending that god would enlighten his elect from within, giving knowledge of necessary truths by visions and ecstasies—and claimed that to be saved one must be ignorant of the first letters of the alphabet” (Wikipedia). 

But the Oxford English Dictionary tells me that in the 17th century, abecedarian was used in English as a noun that meant, “A person who is learning the alphabet or who is engaged in elementary education.” 

Contradictions are afoot. 

Does it matter that I know botanists call this golden-globed pendulum Rubus spectabilis, or even that the locals say, “salmonberry?” 

Eating the tart roe-round globules, slick with Sitka’s mist, do they taste better because I can recite the name, or is the sensation of pods bursting on tongue-tip undefinable ecstasy?  

Foraging brown bears, I suspect, do not consult field guides to the edible plants of coastal Alaska; they see only orangish-yellow cones and intuit, “eat,” or notice gold berries shifting to red and register, “hurry!” 

Go ask a Sitkan fisherman how he knows that the Chinook are in danger these days. 

Hold a fallen raven’s feather up to the fog-filtered light and just try to deny that it is the catch in your throat that conveys to your brain, “this is beauty.” 

I delight, all the same, in fingering evergreen needles with the words to say correctly, “cedar;” “fir;” “spruce;” or “pine.” 

Just how am I to navigate this push and pull I feel between the pride in pointing and naming and the liberation of unfiltered intuition?  

Koo.éex’ is the Tlingit word for a memorial party, to which they bring beloved salmonberries to celebrate the dead and show respect for their food. Tammy, a Tlingit storyteller, explains this to me then shares, “My father died when I was five, and it was then that I learned my name. My name is the sound the glacier makes when it calves and the falling ice meets the water: Kkhhhhhh Kkhooshhh.” 

Lazing through the Totem Park that morning, I had thought only of the bears who would revel in the berry-laden brambles and did not pause to ponder what the berries meant to the Indigenous people who have stewarded these bushes and this land since time immemorial, and who continue to do so today. 

My white guilt now flushes my cheeks with hot blush. 

Necessary truths reveal themselves to me through observation of, and listening to, the inhabitants of my environment, and I hold firm that this enlightenment is not reserved only for the elect.  

Opening my physical body to the physical world simultaneously complements the words I’ve read in books, and transcends them. 

Perhaps both lines of Abecedarians had it partly right; perhaps it is at the confluence of precise language and wordless ecstasies that we begin to be in relation with the land. 

Quietly crouched over the tide pool this morning, I saw a small worm-like sea creature glide like a velvet ribbon among the clamshells and seaweed; the sense of wonder seeing this new-to-me being elicited is, on the one hand, enough, but, on the other, I also want to know the facts of its existence. 

Recording in my notebook its chocolate-brown skin, its two inches in length, its comparableness to a tiny earthworm marooned on a sidewalk after the rain, or an eel that has been shrunken by a machine in a sci-fi movie, the way it slid along the floor of the pool, I grasp for how to tell you the way my body registered the thrill of this discovery. 

Stories are human knowledge, the accumulation of impressions our senses collect and process, and which we then pass on. 

Tammy says, “When you’re harvesting clams and find one that’s too small, put it back; leave it there—the people at the Science Center tell me that’s ‘conservation,’ but I don’t know about that; I just know this is what you do.”

“Unitarian pastors, or whatever you call them,” Tammy continues, “tried to explain things about the world to us, but I don’t need them to interpret it for me; I have a direct line to god through the land.” 

Versions of Tammy’s ancestral Tlingit knowledge have been stolen and presented as new by white men at least since the Romantic poets finally realized they could commune with the divine in the natural world. 

Waiting for visions, I plant myself beneath the drooping branches of a Western Hemlock.

Xylotomy is just a fancy way to describe the ageless practice of looking closely at the shaved slivers of wood in order to know the tree.  

Yearning for connection to this place, I study the lines and marks plotted on a topographical map of Baranof Island, then set it aside while I slip and slide along the stones glazed with the remains of high tide.    

Zephyrs leave traces of Sitka Sound’s stories on my nose and lips and weave through my hair as I alternate between feverishly scribbling notes and quietly feeling with intention.

Ellen Bayer

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Ellen Bayer is Associate Professor of Environmental Arts & Humanities at the University of Washington Tacoma, where she teaches place-based literature and nature writing courses. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy, and her book, Ecopedagogies: Practical Approaches to Experiential Learning, was published by Routledge in 2022. She lives in Tacoma, Washington, which is on the unceded ancestral lands of the Puyallup., with her sweet cat companion, Buster.

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