Everyday is like this
the short and long of forgetting:
a man with a walking stick, a limp;
his daughter in a red sweatshirt
crossing the berm.
— “Listening for the Rain,” by Wendy Erd, one of her Beluga Slough poems
BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG
Last August as a Bunnell Street Arts Center Old Town Artist in Residence, Homer poet Wendy Erd immersed herself in the short and long of forgetting, the transience of a pocket of nature in the middle of town and all the things that pass through it. Tides, birds, seasons, history, weather and wonders, Erd let them all pass before her senses as she explored Beluga Slough.
“I just spent so much time in the estuary — a great amount of time,” she said. “I started developing this amazing, intimate relationship, and listening, really deep listening. I just wrote down what I heard.”
Out of that residency came a series of poems Erd wrote that will be installed as interpretive signs on the Beluga Slough Trail.
At 1 p.m. Saturday at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, Erd reads those poems and then at about 1:30 p.m. invites people to join her as she walks the slough trail for a formal dedication of the trail and new signs.
Her reading is part of activities of Earth Day on Kachemak Bay running from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center. Erd also will be honored in an artists’ reception with music from 6:30-7:15 p.m. with artist Mavis Muller and columnist Shannyn Moore. Moore gives the keynote address at 7:45 p.m.
Erd wrote the poems in a collaboration with Bunnell, the city of Homer, the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, and the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
Erd got the idea for doing interpretative poems after she heard about Bunnell’s call for artists to do residencies. She walked Old Town and the slough with Bunnell executive director Asia Freeman, and on the boardwalk trail kept coming upon bumpouts — side viewing stations that would be great spots for public poetry.
Several years ago, the city of Homer got a $448,000 grant from the Alaska Coastal Impact Assistance Program to rebuild the slough trail, formerly built on modular plastic sections, and help restore habitat and wetlands. Jay-Brant General Contractors finished it in the fall of 2012. The trail runs on both city and wildlife refuge lands and starts at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, the building that houses the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge and the state Kachemak Bay Research Reserve.
The old trail had interpretive signs, but with the new trail, the idea came up of doing something different, said Marianne Aplin, Islands and Ocean Visitor Center manager. She talked to Freeman about maybe doing art and sculptures, but then Freeman suggested Erd’s poetry.
“When I think of interpretative signing, I picture a bird and a couple of paragraphs of when they visit us,” said Homer Public Works Director Carey Meyer. “We came up with the idea of educating users of the trail about the environment through poetry.”
That idea goes back to a project Erd started several years ago, Alaska’s Poems in Place. Erd was inspired by a series of poems the late Oregon poet William Stafford had done in 1994 along the Methow River in Washington, a tributary of the Columbia River. The U.S. Forest Service commissioned Stafford to write seven poems that were placed on plaques along the Methow River.
“It will give you a sense of what can happen when there’s a conversation between poetry, a place and a wanderer by,” Erd said of Stafford’s poems. “The intersection of those three things: the poem, the place and the reader.”
That idea stuck with Erd, particularly with a poem the late Homer and Fairbanks writer Kim Cornwall wrote, “What Whales and Infants Know.”
“I was thinking of Kim, I was thinking of her so strongly, that poem came to mind,” Erd said. “It has that little epigram, ‘Beluga Point, Turnagain Arm,’ and I thought, that poem has to be at that place.”
Working with Alaska State Parks and the Alaska Council on the Arts, and Cornwall’s family, Erd got a plaque with Cornwall’s poem overlaid on an image of a beluga whale installed at Beluga Point, a wayside on the Seward Highway south of Anchorage. The poem was dedicated in May 2011. Funding came from friends and family of Cornwall.
But why stop with that one poem? Erd asked, and so Poems in Place was born. A three-year project, the goal is to get poems installed in each of the seven divisions of the Alaska State Park system.
Funding for Poems in Place comes from the Rasmuson Foundation, the Alaska Council on the Arts, Alaska Center for the Book, the Alaska Humanities Forum, Usibelli and private donors. Poems by Ernestine Hayes and Emily Wall have been installed at Totem Bight Historical Park near Ketchikan and by Frank Soos and the late John Haines at Chena River State Recreation Area near Fairbanks. Future work will be installed at Wood-Tikchik State Park near Dillingham and Independence Mine State Park near Palmer.
Aplin said she and others, including staff from the research reserve, came up with general themes for Erd to explore.
“We said, ‘These are the important stories we think you should tell here,’” Aplin said. “Wendy came back to us with these beautiful poems. I don’t think I’m exaggerating that they brought tears to our eyes.”
During her residency, Erd walked both sides of the slough. She sat through an entire tidal cycle, from low tide to high tide. She talked to historian Janet Klein about how the slough came to be and the days when fishermen used to anchor their boats there. Erd talked to scientists like Jim Rearden, who told of when Steller’s eiders used to nest at the base of the Spit.
“There are so many voices in that slough. Time lives differently there,” Erd said. “You can travel in time if you sit there long enough. You can hear those voices. You can imagine.”
Originally, Erd had been asked for three poems, but she kept writing. The result is seven poems, including a welcome poem at the top of the trail, all the way to the storm berm by the Bishop’s Beach parking lot. Sprinkled along the trail also are little gems, poems written on wood by students in a workshop Erd did during her residency, “Writing from the Edge of Place.”
Meyer said as an engineer he initially was hesitant about Erd’s project.
“I think the poetry not only conveys information about the slough, but it does it in a more emotional way,” he said. “It does a very nice job of communicating both the facts and a little bit of the spirit of the place.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
Earth Day on Kachemak Bay
at Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center
Kids activities, workshops, films and seminars and booths
Poetry reading by Wendy Erd
Dedication of Beluga Slough Trail Poetry Project and trail walk (weather permitting)
Artist reception and music for Wendy Erd, Mavis Muller and Shannyn Moore
Keynote address by Shannyn Moore