Nearly half a century has passed since I worked on a geological exploration team in the Brooks Range in Alaska, our team’s mission to search for deposits of economically rich metals such as copper, lead, zinc, silver and gold. By the end of my first summer in the Arctic wilderness, it had become apparent that many of my values differed from those of my colleagues, some of whom were close friends.
Most of my bosses and buddies seemed to despise bands like The Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club and consider them evil enemies. The vehemence of their criticism shocked me, although perhaps it shouldn’t have. These “d***” conservationists wanted to preserve much of the Arctic in parks and refuges, “ruling out” those who wanted to develop Alaska’s rich resources.
Many of my colleagues saw these efforts as a direct threat to their livelihoods. I, on the other hand, couldn’t see what was wrong with these bands. It seemed like they were trying to do some good.
Fresh out of school, I was naive enough not to realize that many Sierra Clubbers would probably feel the same disgust toward me, simply because I was part of a field crew searching for metal deposits in the arctic wilderness.
My green ethic was still largely formless, a wispy thing years away from taking solid form. But I knew this: environmentalists were not my enemies.
At the time, I was insecure enough to keep my feelings and attitudes to myself. But over time, my discomfort increased. And eventually I would have experiences (recounted in the book “Changing Paths”) that made it clear that the wilderness was far more valuable to me than the discovery of any mineral deposit, no matter how rich. And I would look for a new direction, a different path.
Memories of those distant and life changing days have recently resurfaced as a result of stories I have read. The first I will mention is Kathleen Dean Moore’s new collection of essays, “Earth’s Wild Music”, which is both a celebration of the wild Earth and its community of miraculous life, and a lamentation over the enormous losses that our source of life and the enrichment of the home planet suffers.
Like me, Kathy Moore calls herself a naturalist writer (as well as a philosopher and activist). Like me too, she believes that “all members of the Earth community have rights”. In an essay titled “The Silence of the Humpback Whale”, she referenced the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Released in 2010, the declaration (among other things) defined the inherent rights of our planet and all of its “beings,” which include ecosystems, natural communities, species, “and all other natural entities that are part of the Earth. Mother”. It also provides a list of “Obligations of Human Beings to Mother Earth”.
I won’t say more here about Kathy Moore’s book except to note that I find it to be both inspired and inspiring writing. And I would recommend curious people to check out both his book and the Universal Declaration; the latter can easily be found through an online search.
The second “read” I will share comes from the online site, DailyGood.org, which shares “news that inspires” every day. I found that to be true and highly recommend the site. A recent publication featured a conversation (in audio and written transcription) that the online publication “Emergence Magazine” had organized with the famous Indian author Amitav Ghosh. Although best known for his novels, Ghosh has also written non-fiction books, including his most recent, “The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis.”
I haven’t read the book yet, but I found the conversation/interview with Ghosh compelling and again, I recommend it to anyone interested in considering “earth-friendly” (and yes, progressive) ideas. outside America — and more generally, the West — the general public. thought. A description of the book notes that Ghosh “finds the origins of our climate crisis in the violent exploitation of human life and the natural environment by Western colonialism…Our crisis, he shows, is ultimately the result from a mechanistic view of the Earth, where nature only exists as a resource that humans can use for their own purposes…”
I admit here that until recently I knew next to nothing about Ghosh and his work, but I admire and appreciate what I have learned so far, perhaps partly because it argues that “wisdom exists in the context of stories, in the context of storytelling, in the context of songs. And all of that is what we lost and what we have to try to bring back.
Among the most important stories that need to be resurrected are those that have been silenced in the age of Western domination and exploitation, for example those that give voice to non-humans or what some (including me) call the world more than human; stories that show how meaning, even wisdom, can be found in the larger, wilder world we inhabit.
So, a reader might ask, what does any of this have to do with Alaskans, or Alaska?
In a word, everything. Our Western culture has long viewed Alaska as a “resource colony,” and it has been treated that way ever since Russia and then the United States claimed this part of the planet as their own. It is well documented that these colonial powers and their governments and private corporations have since the 1700s exploited Alaska’s wild riches – from sea otters and fish populations, to gold, ancient forests and ” petroleum products, to cite but a few obvious examples – and, for much of the last three centuries, also its indigenous peoples.
Of course, nowadays, exploitation is done under the guise of “environmentally friendly” development. Or “management”.
Yes, those dastardly “environmental extremists”, some native groups in Alaska (even though much of the native community has been co-opted by their investment in Western-style societies) and others from the “radical” left. And victories are sometimes won by those who love and defend the Earth and her wild communities, as evidenced by our state. But it is a long and difficult battle. And resource-building attitudes (including the “management” of Alaskan wildlife, with its ongoing predator-killing programs) prevail among most politicians and residents of our state.
From my position on Alaska’s far-left political and cultural fringe (and as someone who’s tinted a deeper shade of green than many environmental and conservation groups), I don’t expect much of change, if any, in our dark red state, at least not anytime soon. However, I suspect that some Alaskans troubled by what is happening here – and around the world – are looking for other possibilities, other ways to live on this wild miracle of a planet; but perhaps their own “green ethic” has so far been hazy and shapeless, just as mine was in my mid-twenties.
These Alaskans, whether young or old or somewhere in between, might be encouraged, perhaps even inspired, to know that there is a community of people, both in our state and around the world, working actively to create new stories (or resurrect older ones) and alternative ways of behaving, new paths forward that are healthier, healthier, more respectful and celebrating the larger community of beings who belong to the Earth .
For those considering such paths, the whole wild world is waiting to welcome you.
Anchorage nature writer and wilderness/wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and author of more than a dozen books, including “Changing Paths: Travels and Meditations in Alaska’s Arctic Wilderness” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”
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