Something I learned a long time ago about myself is that nature is my cathedral. It is where I am brought to my knees, where I am offered perspective.
Last Sunday I visited a vast cathedral: Denali National Park. The day’s sermon was on the subject of scale.
At the park entrance most of the foliage was gone from the shrubs and deciduous trees, the sky was gray and the air had a wool sweater edge to it. A short climb in elevation led us into snow flurries. A higher climb left us waiting to see if we could even make it to the end of the road for all the snow that had accumulated on the pass. Thankfully, the snowplows prevailed and we made it to Wonder Lake, where it felt less like winter and more like late autumn again.
Deep inside the park, the cranes were having their giant meet-up in the sky. Hundreds, possibly thousands of the birds gathered and one group would meet another group and they’d rise together and circle. Another bunch would join and in the distance a group five times the size of the smaller group circled and rose and their soaring bodies gave shape to the air currents.
A thousand years earlier it must not have been so different. Gray sky, sun shining at a low angle through the clouds to the base of the lower mountains. Layers of riverbed, glacial moraine, cut valleys.
Alaska is huge. Denali National Park and the surrounding Preserve—not even the biggest National Park in the state—encompass more than six million acres. The 92.5-mile long road into the park allows casual visitors like myself just a glimpse of what is out there. Part of what I loved about going in the park was how little of it I could see.
I grew up hearing a story of how the world came into being, and how it is that I am supposed to navigate through this world. The story shaped everything. I learned to pretend to ‘believe with conviction’ in the story I was taught, and I could fake it as long as my imagination was limited to just that one story—as long as I never left the one road.
Nature tells its own story. It’s less tidy. It involves a scale of time that the human brain cannot comprehend. It’s based on death and renewal and resilience. It’s based on birth and decay and physics and chemistry. Although it contains mysteries and induces wonder, it is not capable of lying.
Near the end of the road, where the snow had gone and we found remnants of blueberries still hanging on their leafless branches and lingonberries bunched close to the ground, where the mountains made perfect reflections into the ponds and where overhead the cranes continued to call—the sun came out for a few minutes. The clouds gave way to bits of blue sky and for a moment the summit of Denali showed through. It didn’t last long.
I am always looking for a story. I continually narrate, create and assume. It was tempting to think that the clouds parted for my benefit.