Try Orion

Ground Truthing

An open journal from the Arctic: part two of the author's triptych on the open space of democracy

by Terry Tempest Williams

Published in the May/June 2003 issue of Orion magazine



<i>Ever </i>
Ever
Painting by Mary Frank, courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, NYC; used with permission

This is the second essay in a three-part series by the author. See also part one, “Commencement”; and part three, “Engagement

GROUNDING TRUTHING: The use of a ground survey to confirm findings of aerial image or to calibrate quantitative aerial observations; validation and verification techniques used on the ground to support maps; walking the ground to see for oneself if what has been told is true; near-surface discoveries.

The arctic is balancing on an immense mirror. The water table is visible. Pools of light gather: lakes, ponds, wetlands. The tundra is shimmering. One squints perpetually.

Drinking from the river—I am drinking from the river—this tincture of glaciers, this press of ice warmed by the sun. My arid heart has been waiting for decades, maybe three, for the return of this childhood pleasure of drinking directly from the source.

When my father asks me what it was like to visit the Arctic national Wildlife Refuge, I will simply say, “We drank from the river.”

Experience opens us, creates a chasm in our heart, an expansion in our lungs, allowing us to pull in fresh air to all that was stagnant. We breathe deeply and remember fear for what it is—a resistance to the unknown.

It is a day of walking. Most decide to climb an unnamed peak. Cindy Shogan and I choose a more modest hike where we can find a vantage point to watch animals. To our great surprise, our attention focuses not on big mammals, but poppies.

We are on our bellies for a ground squirrel’s look. Tissuelike petals form a yellow cup that literally holds light which translates to heat as the flowers turn their heads to continuously follow the sun. The blossom is supported on a threadlike stem. The poppies we meet have survived the pounding rains and brutal winds of the past three days. Not a petal is torn or tattered. They simply raise their heads toward the sun and lure in flies with the seduction of warmth.

Cindy, the executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League, is one of the smartest strategists of her generation. She talks about the political challenges presented by the Bush administration and their relentless drive to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

I ask her what she fears most. Ever the optimist, Cindy says, “We’re not going to lose the Arctic, it’s just the opposition’s endless bombardment and trickery.” Alaska’s senior senator, Ted Stevens, head of the powerful Appropriations Committee, is now planning to attach his drilling proposal to any piece of legislation that can be bought, from energy to transportation.

This is Cindy’s first trip to the refuge. We are here to see the lands left in limbo, coldly referred to in Washington as “the 1002” (ten-o-two), a number referring to a particular amendment which says that these 1.2 million acres within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could be opened for oil and gas development. These disputed lands are part of the Coastal Plain, where the great caribou migrations occur—the long sweep of land that stretches from the foothills of the Brooks Range to the Beaufort Sea.

Cindy and I discuss the story of Subhankar Banerjee, a talented young photographer from India who quit his job, cashed in his savings in 2000, and has been taking pictures of the Arctic ever since. He recently published a book titled Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land.

In March 2003, during the budget debate, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer introduced an amendment to prevent consideration of drilling in the refuge from being added to the bill. She held Banerjee’s book up on the Senate floor as an example of the elegance of this place and why it deserves protection. She then invited members to visit Mr. Banerjee’s upcoming show at the Smithsonian Institution. Ted Stevens took note and said, “People who vote against this today are voting against me, and I will not forget it.” Boxer’s amendment passed anyway.

A few weeks later, the show Subhankar Banerjee had been promised by the Smithsonian, which was to hang in a central location near the rotunda, had suddenly been relegated to the basement. Evocative captions offering a rationale for conservation with quotations by Peter Matthiessen, David Allen Sibley, Jimmy Carter, and others had been removed and replaced with perfunctory labels such as “Buff-breasted Sandpiper: Coastal plain of the Jago River.” A cry of foul play went out in Washington and in May 2003, Senator Richard Durbin used a hearing on the Smithsonian’s budget to question whether outside influence had been used to move Subhankar’s exhibition.

It was Cindy and the Alaska Wilderness League that placed a copy of Subhankar Banerjee’s book in Senator Boxer’s hands. It was also Cindy who nudged Senator Durbin for an investigation. She did not tell me these facts. I had to find these details in the press.

Subhankar Banerjee has become, unwittingly, a celebrity photographer who bears the distinction of being censored by the United States government. For what? The threat of beauty.

In the open space of democracy, beauty is not optional, but essential to our survival as a species.

In a few days, we will reach the confluence of the Marsh Fork and the Canning River. The Canning is the fluid western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that determines where one can now drill and where one cannot. It will carry us into the heart of this national debate. Right now, the rallying cry and corruption of politics seem a world apart from the world we are in, because in the rock-hard, ice-sculpted reality of the Arctic—they are.

Arctic still life: a caribou antler, laced with lichen, orange and yellow, is wrapped around a dwarf willow which now provides shade and shelter for what was once held high in motion.

Cindy finds a piece of quiviut, musk ox hair, and hands it to me.

What will we make of the life before us? How do we translate the gifts of solitary beauty into the action required for true participatory citizenship?

Brooks Yeager, Cindy’s husband, has just come down the mountain. He was assistant secretary for policy in the Department of the Interior during the Clinton administration, when he labored long and hard on behalf of the Arctic. He has tender eyes and this trip for him, as it is for all of us, is a “ground truthing” to see if what he has fought for and imagined is true. He knows firsthand how politics translates into policy and how much is bargained away in bills before Congress.

More rain. More stories. They pop open like umbrellas. Jim Campbell, our guide, tall and lean, with gray, cropped hair and large, skilled hands, crouches down over the stove to make coffee. He knows wilderness intimately, the wilderness of war and the wilderness of peace. For more than twenty years, he has traversed the Brooks Range by foot, run its rivers, and camped night after night in the buoyancy of the tundra.

He tells of coming home from Vietnam in 1968, walking into his father’s tavern in Pennsylvania, still in uniform, completely disoriented. A few weeks later, he found himself holding the security line in Chicago at the Democratic Convention and fighting the antiwar protesters. “Nothing made sense,” he says. “Nothing.” And then, just a year or so ago, he attended a ceremony for Vietnam veterans in Fairbanks, Alaska. “Welcome home,” a woman said to him. Jim paused, holding back emotion. “It was the first time I had heard those words.”

Light shifts. An opening is created. We step outside the cook tent and place four topographical maps that encompass the 19.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on the ground to see where we are and where we are going. We will cover another ten to fifteen miles on the river today. In a week, we will be camping on the Coastal Plain.

Scale cannot be registered here in human terms. It is geologic, tectonic, and planetary. Stegosaurus-like ridgelines form the boundaries of our passage. Ribbon-like waterfalls cascade for miles down cliffs. What I thought was a swallow became an eagle. Weather changes minute by minute. Gray tumultuous clouds weave themselves into patterns of herringbone, yet a strange softness abides, even in the razor-cut terror of this rugged terrain.

Coming into the confluence where the Marsh Fork meets the Canning River feels celebratory. It is a great flooding, far and wide. Blinding light ricochets off platinum strands of water. Braided rivers, braided energies. Wild waters intertwine. We pull the boat over a few rock gardens until we find the deeper channels. The roots of silver-leafed willows, exposed in the cut bank, tremble like the nervous system of the Arctic.

I cannot sleep and slip from the comfort of our tent to face the low, diffused glow of midnight. All colors bow to the gentle arc of light the sun creates as it strolls across the horizon. Green steppes become emerald. The river, lapis. A patch of cotton grass ignites. My eyes catch the illumined wings of a tern, an Arctic tern, fluttering, foraging above the river—the embodiment of grace, suspended. The tern animates the vast indifference with its own vibrant intelligence. Black cap; blood-red beak pointed down; white body with black-tipped wings. With my eyes laid bare, I witness a bright thought in big country. While everyone is sleeping, the presence of this tern hovering above the river, alive, alert, engaged, becomes a vision of what is possible.

On this night, I met the Arctic Angel and vowed the 22,000 miles of her migratory path between the Arctic and Antarctica would not be in vain. I will remember her. No creature on Earth has spent more time in daylight than this species. No creature on Earth has shunned darkness in the same way as the Arctic tern. No creature carries the strength and delicacy of determination on its back like this slight bird. If air is the medium of the Spirit, then the Arctic tern is its messenger.

What I know is this: when one hungers for light it is only because one’s knowledge of the dark is so deep.

A grizzly has just circled the rock. Tom Campion spotted him first from the river. We stop, tie down our boats, and hike to a knoll where we can watch from a safe distance, separated by a ravine. The grizzly is pawing the ground for roots. The bear is oblivious to us. We are not oblivious of the bear. We sit down and eat lunch, mindful of where and how the grizzly is moving. An upland sandpiper cries, circles us, and raises her wings as she lands. Light breaks through clouds and catches the bear’s honey-colored coat, with a brown line traveling down his hump and back. His massive body, moving in all its undulating power, makes my blood quiver. I note his small eyes, his large head, and the length of his claws, perfect for digging. Another hour flies. We eat and watch as he eats and saunters. The wind shifts, the bear looks up, stands, and sniffs the air. We freeze. He turns and runs downhill.

It is called “Bear Shaman”—an Iñupiat sculpture carved out of soapstone. At one end is Man, crouched close to the earth. At the other end is Bear, in search of prey. Both Man and Bear live inside the same body. Their shared heart determines who will be seen and who will disappear. Shape-shifting is its own form of survival.

For several days, we have been floating the Canning River. In the end, we will have covered almost 125 miles. We are now camped on the famed 1002 lands. On one side of the river is the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. On the other side are the Alaska State lands where oil and gas exploration is underway. Keep walking west and you’ll bump into Prudhoe Bay.

I thought I saw a musk ox across the river. It was an empty oil drum.

The Arctic is made up of dreams. And not everyone’s is the same. My dream of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was planted in my heart by Mardy Murie. The year was 1974. The place was Moose, Wyoming, at the Murie Ranch where the famed naturalists, Olaus and Adolph, with their wives, Mardy and Louise, made their home at the base of the Tetons.

I was a student at the Teton Science School. I was eighteen years old. Mardy introduced us to Alaska through her stories of growing up in Fairbanks, of Olaus’s field work studying caribou for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1920. She showed us her slides of their summer on the Sheenjek River in 1956 with Olaus, Brina Kessel, Bob Krear, and George Schaller. She shared with us their dream of Arctic protection, and the dedication of their group of friends, including Bob Marshall, Ed Zahnhiser, George Collins, Lowell Sumner, Starker Leopold, writers Sigurd Olson and Lois Crisler, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, along with local conservationists Celia Hunter and Ginny Wood, who helped build a state and national constituency for the creation of the Arctic National Wildlife Range, placing pressure on Congress until it was created in 1960.

Revolutionary patience. This community of Americans never let go of their wild, unruly faith that love can lead to social change. The Muries believed that the protection of wildlands was the protection of natural processes, the unseen presence in wilderness. The Wilderness Act, another one of their dreams, was signed in 1964.

It was Mardy who inspired me to join her and a thousand others on June 5, 1977, to attend the Alaska Lands Hearings in Denver, Colorado. I hitched a ride with friends; we slept on the floor of a church. The next morning, road weary, we cleaned ourselves up and found seats inside the capitol building. This was one of the many regional hearings conducted by the House Interior Subcommittee on General Oversight and Alaskan Lands.

Those who wanted to offer testimony signed up. Mardy was among the first to be called forward. I remember her white braided hair, her poise, her strength. Her love of Alaska transcended her words. When she stood before the presiding congressman, Representative John Seiberling, her whole history and community stood with her.

“I am testifying as an emotional woman,” I can still remember her saying, “and I would like to ask you, gentlemen, what’s wrong with emotion?”

Perhaps she was remembering the emotion in Olaus’s voice when he testified before the Senate two decades earlier and said:

We long for something more, something that has a mental, a spiritual impact on us. This idealism, more than anything else, will set us apart as a nation striving for something worthwhile in the universe. It is inevitable, if we are to progress as people in the highest sense, that we shall become ever more concerned with the saving of the intangible resources, as embodied in this move to establish the Arctic Wildlife Range.

I have held this dream of visiting the Arctic for thirty years. That the refuge has become a symbol for how we define our national priorities is a testament to its innate power. That it continues to survive, resist, and absorb our own greed and economic tensions, year after year, is evidence of the force of love that has protected these wildlands for generations.

As the Brooks Range recedes behind us, I am mindful that Mardy is approaching 101 years of age. She has never shed her optimism for wild Alaska. I am half her age and my neice, Abby, is half of mine. We share her passion for this order of quiet freedom. America’s wildlands are vulnerable and they will always be assailable as long as what we value in this nation is measured in monetary terms, not spiritual ones.

What are we willing to give our lives to if not the perpetuation of the sacred? Can we continue to stand together in our collective wisdom and say, these particular lands are inviolable, deserving protection by law and the inalienable right of safe passage for all beings that dwell here? Wilderness designation is the promise of this hope held in trust.

The open space of democracy provides justice for all living things—plants, animals, rocks, and rivers, as well as human beings.

We are camped on Shublik Island, another part of the 1002 lands, what Cindy and Brooks call “the soul of the Arctic.” Cindy has the maps out, looking at Red Hill and the miles we paddled yesterday on the river, close to twenty-five. It was a long, arduous day and our muscles ache.

A fragrance drifts across the Canning. Without thought, each of us begins breathing deeply. Sighs emerge on the exhale. We are being drugged by perfume. An innocence is wafting on the wind. I am weeping and I don’t know why. Brooke stands up in our boat and points. The plains are magenta all the way to the horizon, a blanket of petals, pink and violet variations of wild sweet pea.

When I ask Carol Kasza to describe the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in one word, she doesn’t hesitate. “Wholeness,” she says. I am in the back of the boat with her as she steers us ahead to our last camp.

“It’s not just the refuge or ANWR, the 1002, the National Petroleum Reserve Area, or any of the other throwaway names that are being bantered about in Washington,” she explains, “but the entire region of what lives and breathes in the shadow of the Brooks Range with all its peaks and valleys, braided rivers, and coastlines. It’s this layered sense of wilderness, the uninterrupted vistas without man’s hand on it.

“If we choose to continue to only focus on particular areas, then this whole region becomes part of an intellectual and political project of fragmentation. Do we have to keep cutting it up into smaller and smaller bits and pieces until we finally call it a compromise? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is already a compromise—it was in 1960 and again in 1980.”

Carol, a woman in her fifties, is as fierce and wise and beautiful as the lines that give her face expression. She is a woman who has made her work her passion and has brought her whole family into her explorer’s heart.

“I want to hear a different discussion,” she says. “I want people to ask, ‘How does it feel to be in this country? What do you remember here that you have otherwise forgotten? Why do we want to destroy or diminish anything that inspires us to live more honestly?’”

The sanctity of solitude: I sit above a lake after a long walk up the steppe and then north across the tundra. Two swans are mirrored in the water.

A long-tailed jaeger sits next to me. I try not to move. With my legs crossed and my eyes barely open, I enter the space of meditation.

A wolf howls. My body leaps. The jaeger flies. Fear floods my heart. Presence creates presnence. I am now alert. To feel yourself prey is to be shocked back into the reality of the Arctic’s here and now.

This is what I have learned in these short weeks in the refuge:

You cannot afford to make careless mistakes, like meditating in the presence of wolves, or topping your boots in the river, or losing a glove, or not securing your tent down properly. Death is a daily occurrence in the wild, not noticed, not respected, not mourned. In the Arctic, I’ve learned ego is as useless as money.

Choose one’s traveling companions well. Physical
strength and prudence are necessary. Imagination and
ingenuity are our finest traits.
Expect anything.
You can change your mind like the weather.
Patience is more powerful than anger. Humor is more attractive than fear.
Pay attention. Listen. We are most alive when discovering.
Humility is the capacity to see.
Suffering comes, we do not have to create it.
We are meant to live simply.
We are meant to be joyful.
Life continues with and without us.
Beauty is another word for God.

Here is my question: what might a different kind of power look like, feel like? And can power be distributed equitably among ourselves, even beyond our own species?

The power of nature is the power of a life in association. Nothing stands alone. On my haunches, I see a sunburst lichen attached to limestone; algae and fungi are working together to break down rock into soil. I cannot help but recognize a radical form of democracy at play. Each organism is rooted in its own biological niche, drawing its power from its relationship to other organisms. An equality of being contributes to an ecological state of health and succession.

“We can only attain harmony and stability by consulting ensemble,” writes Walt Whitman. This is my definition of community, and community interaction is the white-hot center of a democracy that burns bright.

Within the refuge, if I rotate slowly in place, what I see is a circumference of continuity. What I feel is a spiritual cohesion born out of wholeness. It is organic, cellular. I am at home in the peace of an intact world. The open space of democracy is not interested in hierarchies but in networks and systems where power is circular, not linear; a power reserved not for an entitled few, but shared and maintained by many. Public lands are our public commons and they belong to everyone. We enter these sacred lands soulfully and remember what it is we have forgotten—the gift of time and space. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the literal open space of democracy. The privilege of being here is met with the responsibility I feel to experience and express its compounding grace.

Raw, wild beauty is a deeply held American value. It is its own declaration of independence. Equality is experienced through humility. Liberty is expressed through the simple act of wandering.

3:00 a.m. Divine light. I am called out of the tent by the sun. I walk north, blinded by its radiance. On top of the ridge, I see two figures—human—Jim and Kyle. I wave. They wave back. Kyle raises his arms above his head with bent elbows. I understand. Caribou. I walk briskly up toward the men.

“Thousands upon thousands of caribou,” Jim says. I turn. My binoculars scan the landscape for several minutes. Heads, antlers, backs, tails, legs, hooves, one caribou merges into another. Calves are jumping next to their mothers. It is an endless stream of animals walking across the tundra. Without field glasses, they register as a heat wave. I cannot take my eyes off them.

Jim and Kyle walk down to the flats and wake everyone. One by one, they rise from their tents. They rise to a rainbow, and another. A double rainbow is arching over the plains in Arctic light and we watch, as human beings have always watched, the great herds in motion.

Orion publishes six thoughtful, inspiring, and beautiful issues a year,
supported entirely by our readers – we're completely ad-free!

Please consider donating to help us continue to explore the future of nature.

This article has been significantly abridged for the web.

TERRY TEMPEST WILLIAMS lives in Castle Valley, Utah, with her husband Brooke. Her publications Leap and Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, continue her exploration of people in place.

Article Resources