Pressing Forward

In the open space of democracy, beauty is not optional, but essential to our survival as a species.”
— Terry Tempest Williams from her triptych essay “The Open Space of Democracy”

To create order out of chaos is a fundamental principle of art. Photographer Subhankar Banerjee — a thirty-something computer scientist from India turned artist and conservationist — has honed his artistic proficiency from the seat of a kayak, a Cessna, and even an iceberg, documenting the wonders of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge over a two-year period.

His poignant shots of willow ptarmigan, pregnant porcupine caribou, purple anemone, polar bears, and rivers speak volumes about one of the nation’s most prized treasures, and construct a persuasive case for tender conservation over speculative profiteering. In March 2003 Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) denounced oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, zealously defending the crown jewel of the United States with Banerjee’s book in hand.

Banerjee’s talent and access to the remotest wilderness captured the attention of a Smithsonian curator. Originally arranged as an exhibit in the museum’s prestigious Hall 10 gallery, poetic captions were penned and, very typically, fervent opinions clashed. But after the “Boxer rebellion,” mysteriously, Banerjee’s debut was relocated to a hallway leading to a loading dock, with revised didactic captions replacing the poetic and ardent legends originally conceived.

Banerjee prepared this caption before Senator Boxer’s debate to accompany a photograph of a buff-breasted sandpiper on the coastal plan of the Jago River: “This species, a long-distance traveler that migrates each year from Argentina to the Arctic Refuge coastal plain to nest and rear their young, is one of the top five bird species at greatest risk if their habitat is disturbed.”

After the Senate vote, the Smithsonian edited the caption to read: “Buff-Breasted Sandpiper / Coastal Plain of the Jago River.”

Despite obstructions like these, democracy seems to have worked for ANWR for the time being. But as economics and nature collide, this could just be the calm before the (re)election storm.

While the Arctic Refuge contains roughly a six-month supply of oil at current national consumption levels, President George W. Bush’s 2005 budget has designated the area as a billion-dollar revenue machine for its oil lease sales in 2006. Recently, Congress voted (again) not to open the refuge for drilling this year. Come November, the refuge is in the voters’ hands.

For his part, Banerjee continues to travel across the country lecturing on the Arctic Refuge, and pressing forward with warm memories of frostbite as he fights for the sanctity of this pristine wilderness.

Tricia Louvar is a senior editor at Glencoe/McGraw-Hill. She lives in Los Angeles.

For more information about the work of Subhankar Banerjee, visit his website: World Without Borders.