An essay on returning to Sitka:
When I first moved to Sitka relatives and friends, especially relatives, would ask “when are you coming back to civilization.” Back more than 35 years ago you could forgive them for asking that question. Often they could not get calls through to us, the circuits were all busy, especially like days like today, Father’s Day. When they did get through there was an echo and a delay on the phone line. It got to the point where my dad would say “over” each time he completed a phrase and wanted a response. And of course it was expensive.
TV came by airplane, not by satellite. Seattle TV stations were recorded and put on the plane to Juneau where they ran a week later, and a week after that in Ketchikan and a week after that in Sitka, which meant that we were getting our Christmas specials as a lead in to Valentine’s Day… if the plane didn’t overhead. When it did we had a night of quiet reading. And back in those days, before GPS “Fog busters” we had a lot more missed airplanes.
Back then everything came by barge and ferry. Fresh produce and milk, like TV programs, were almost always past sell-by when we got them. Now with fresh fish flying out of Sitka we get fresh food on the backhaul. Our kids grew up not knowing fresh milk. It was “Milkman” powdered milk for them. A standardized testing organization sent a query to the school district when almost all the kids tested in Sitka said bananas were brown.
So you could see why friends often made comments about “getting back to civilization.”
But even then, and certainly now with modern communications, more reliable air service and fresher produce, I have often thought of Southeast Alaska, and Sitka in particular as the most civilized place I know. Civilization as in civil; people have a real sense of community. Because of the isolation Civil Society, non-profits that enable us to do things for ourselves, are strong. There are many of them. Civilization in that in Sitka, because it is small and isolated, forces me to have friends who may never be friends in the lower 48. I engage in conversation and civil debate with people with whom I disagree but with whom I am thrown together with in our island community.
And Civilization is pursuing the arts and literature in a place where cultures intersect. Our isolated town is a center of Alaska Native art, with master carvers creating gifts of culture that we all enjoy and share with the world.
Totems in Sitka National Historical Park
Sitka also has a Jazz Festival, a Folk Society, coffee houses that burst with conversation and music and a Fine Arts Camp that brings together master artists every summer to teach our kids, offer adult sessions and perform for us. The Sitka Sound Science Center brings in noted scientists to make presentations on topics relating to the sea. And because it is a small town and it is something to do I go to a science symposium that I wouldn’t dream of attending if I lived in a big city with lots of options that may be closer to my own inclinations.
But the crown jewel is our Sitka Summer Music Festival, a chamber music festival that for 45 years has brought in performers from around the world to astound us with Classical, Romantic and increasingly, modern music. They perform in every kind of venue, in schools, in cafes, in auditoriums, in private homes and, like tonight, on a boat moored in Deep Inlet after a cruise across Sitka Sound and a catered dinner.
The pictures are from the Sitka Summer Music Festival chamber music cruise. Jeffery Solow and Zuill Bailey, cello, Ben Breen, violin and the shadow of Martin Sher’s viola.
This is all against a backdrop of jaw dropping natural beauty and natural abundance of fish and wildlife, deep forests and hiking trails that I enjoy daily. When I think of civilization I think of Sitka, Juneau, Petersburg and the other communities that makeup Southeast Alaska. I especially think of Sitka and now, sometimes when I am working in a big city I wonder when I will get back to civilization.
Written on Father’s Day, 2016.