“A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”
--The Wilderness Act, 1964
|"isolated figure, looking north"|
Such a laudable thought--this image of landscape without evidence of people--and such a dream, truly. If there is such a place as described in the Wilderness Act it is in the future when the earth is rid of us finally, which will come to pass, eventually, for this is how it is with life. Booms are followed by busts which are followed by boons which are followed by catastrophes. I've been to the Burgess Shale and held those dinner plate-sized fossils in my lap and contemplated the randomness that has allowed my kind and not some other now extinct mammal to survive any number of population bottlenecks, the last of which I understand reduced the planet's population of my kind to fewer than two to ten thousand breeding pairs. (What interesting social dynamics those numbers must have generated!) This was roughly 70,000 years ago of course, a drop in the bucket geologically speaking, but my goodness what progress we have made since the Toba Catastrophe. There is not one single place currently under federal protection that had been truly "untrammeled"--not in 1964 and not now--and though I understand and appreciate and support the protective intention embedded in the language of The Wilderness Act I am not so sure that it helps to perpetuate such a euro-centric fantasy. We've already all but wrecked the atmosphere of the entire planet and there's no getting away from that, not here in the arctic, not even in antarctica which has the sole distinction of never having been truly fully inhabited by "Man." I fear our current crisis has come to pass in part because we've divvied up nature into that which we shall use and that which we shall protect as if somehow by fencing in some currently uninhabited places with legislation we might be thereby freed to trammel the rest with relative abandon. And trammel it we have--and still we are fighting about the protection of the rest, making deals, wheedling and pleading and bargaining with the kinds of people who should be beneath contempt, the ladies and lords of industry and their various agents who would suck and drill and bomb every last dollar out of every last mountain no matter the consequences--if they can get away with it--and they will if they hurry up and coerce and bribe and blackmail and threaten and murder and jail those in charge of protection while there is still air fit for life.
Walking down the beach outside of Kotzebue today I came across a spotted seal that had been shot in the head and left to rot. No one had bothered to remove the skin or harvest the flesh, which suggested to me the killing was for the sake of killing and nothing more. Farther down shore, in the rusting heap of a barge out by where there are the vestiges of a garbage dump I found seagulls that that had been shot and stuffed in the crevices of the boat--and I had the strange sensation that I was in a museum devoted to the worst kind of degradation: that of self hate. It's a museum I have visited before, unfortunately, not just here in Alaska but almost every where I have lived. I don't know of another kind of species that kills just to kill and not to eat. It's been such a short span of time since the people who have lived in far northwest Alaska for such a long time have been forced into contact with all things European, but in that time a way of life--one in which the word wilderness did not exist because nature was not something seen as separate from the self--has come terribly undone. Upon the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act perhaps a revision is in order, one which eschews the sentimentality of the earlier draft. The era of concessions, of wheedling and pleading and dealing, needs to be put to rest once and for all. There is a lot to be learned from the people of late prehistory--a lot to be taken away from the record they left behind--such as those cairns and tools and cache pits we surveyed last week. I don't for a second sentimentalize the past. I know that what I saw there in the Brooks Range were the seeds of all industry--anxiety about famine and raids and thieves and plagues--but along with the evidence of "man's" trammeling there was also evidence that once upon a time we had a sense of proportion, a view of ourselves as one among many species sharing a landscape.
We sat one afternoon last week in the open air of an ancient meeting house whose sod roof had long ago melted away, the blue dome of the stratosphere above our heads, and listened to Hannah reading from the ethnographic record of that so called "wilderness settlement." Each story she shared seemed to have been infused with an ecological sensibility, an ethic rooted in respect for both the self as well as for all things as if all things were animate. Something came over us after that, an energetic sense of community that drove us to put our GPS units and backpacks and cameras away. We wandered to the end of the lake and stood staring at the outflow creek that was rippling black with fish. Without discussion or planning of any kind we set ourselves in motion, one of us gathering blueberries from the tundra, another fashioning a weir with willow and a mosquito headnet, yet another a nearly perfect fly from one small feather from the tundra which was then woven atop a hook. An arctic fox, whose job it had been to keep tabs on us every day, emerged out of the willows and watched from a distance as we caught no more than we needed. What we had we shared with each other, and for the entirety of the experience we gave and continue to give thanks. We were just five people and that was just one afternoon in an otherwise tremendously busy week, but I felt a glimmer of hope in that experience. I believe there is still a good deal that can be accomplished when people work together closely in small groups and out of a sense of a common cause. Despair is not--nor should it ever be--an option.
|"3 AM, Late July"|