Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Geologist in Alaska: Two Life-Changing Discoveries by Moderator Bill Sherwonit

Greetings, WILD READERS! I’m delighted and honored to begin my turn as guest moderator and to join the voices of the writers and other discussion facilitators who’ve led the way in this exciting new venture. It’s a special treat to follow Robert Michael Pyle’s musings on ditches and other “small wilds,” inspired by his excellent book, The Thunder Tree. Though I’ll be journeying through one of North America’s “big wilds” – the Central Brooks Range – I too will have some thoughts to share on the importance of neighborhood wild places. Both the nearby and faraway wilds have been essential to my own life. In fact the path that eventually led me to Alaska’s Arctic wilderness began in the Woods and the Swamp of my Connecticut homeland. As you might expect, that path was long and winding, with detours and some dead ends along the way (and of course the journey still continues).

One bonus of these blog postings is that they allow me to reconsider some of my life’s strange twists and the “changing paths” that led me to Alaska and the Brooks Range, my favorite place of wilderness. As I wrote in Changing Paths, “It still sometimes seems amazing to me that a person so drawn to comfort and predictability would take the leaps of faith I’ve made, from geology to journalism and then to freelancing. And settling in Alaska, of all places! Not many of my childhood friends – or family members – would ever have guessed that the small, shy, sensitive boy of long ago had the potential to become an author, wilderness lover, and activist, or that he’d some day ascend the continent’s highest peak or trek alone across miles of untrailed arctic wilderness.”

My solo trek through the Central Brooks Range and Gates of the Arctic National Park forms the narrative spine of Changing Paths. At age 50 (now more than a decade ago, hard to believe), I undertook the longest and wildest backpacking trip of my life, 50 miles in two weeks, while finding my own way through remote and still largely pristine wildlands. I realize that’s no big deal by many adventuring standards (and in fact the story of my trek proved too “quiet” and tame for publishers seeking more extreme exploits). But I never intended this story to be primarily about danger, conquest, or daring, dramatic feats. This is the story of a wildly special place, one that inspired and informed Robert Marshall, among our nation’s earliest and greatest wilderness advocates; a place that some have called America’s “ultimate” wilderness; and a place that changed the course of my life. I hope I’ve succeeded in showing why all of this is so. The narrative also considers “why wilderness [and more generally, wild nature] matters,” both in a human context and for reasons that have nothing at all to do with Homo sapiens. It naturally follows that such places need to be protected. Beyond that, the story explores the unexpected ways a life can change, sometimes suddenly and other times subtly over the course of many years, while also examining the many influences that shape our paths and lives, whether nature, mentors, or religion and other belief systems.

Though many writers and editors helped to shape and polish the narrative, Scott Russell Sanders, more than anyone, was able to envision – and helped me to see – an approach that led to the book’s final structure, a story in three parts (plus epilogue) that follows my trek but which also allows me to move through space and time to other important periods of my life. And so Changing Paths became something of a memoir as well as a (quiet) adventure tale and a book about the Brooks Range and the importance of wilderness.

In the remainder of this first posting, I’ll discuss two of the major threads in Part 1, namely my geology days and the influence of Bob Marshall’s book, Alaska Wilderness. It was, after all, geology that brought me to Alaska and the Central Brooks Range. To be more specific, in 1974 (just out of grad school), I was hired to work on a mineral-exploration crew hunting for metal deposits in the Arctic. Paradoxically, my experiences in the Brooks Range wilderness led me to gradually question the work I’d undertaken and, more generally, my chosen career path. At the same time the wilderness worked its magic on me, I became troubled by the anger and disdain that several of my colleagues expressed toward environmental groups:

“The depth of my coworkers’ anger shocked me. I didn’t consider myself an environmentalist and knew little about the emotionally charged battle over Alaska’s wildlands, a battle that many of my peers considered a direct threat to their livelihoods. But I couldn’t see what was so awful about the Sierra Club or The Wilderness Society. . . .

“At twenty-four, my green ethic was still largely unformed, a vaporous thing still years away from taking solid shape. But I did know this: Sierra Clubbers were not my enemies. Still, it wasn’t a perspective I could openly share with my co-workers, even those I considered good friends. I didn’t know enough about conservation groups to defend their actions. And I didn’t wish to be ridiculed by my peers as an environmentalist sympathizer. So I hid my misgivings and questions. Yet little by little, my discomfort built.”

As I then go on to note, “my uneasiness may have been nudged along by Marshall’s spirit, or at least his book, which had somehow made its way into the geology crew’s library.

“If you gave Alaska Wilderness (or even the book’s jacket) anything more than a cursory read, it quickly became clear that he sought – and found – far different riches than what we pursued. . . . In its advocacy of wilderness protection, Marshall’s  book was a subversive presence in camp.

“The book didn’t make me question what I was doing, at least not consciously. But looking back I’m sure that Marshall’s passion for wilderness, as presented in those pages, touched mine. In doing so, his writings must have reignited some long-dormant embers by reconfirming the importance of wildness in my own life. Here was a man who loved the mountain landscape and its wild inhabitants for what they are, not for what they might become when utilized by humans. . . . I sensed the importance of what he sought, found, and then shared through his writings. More than any geologist, he would become a role model and inspiration.”

My growing internal conflicts were in a sense crystallized in an experience that I describe in detail in Chapter 7, “A Life-Changing Discovery.” While prospecting in the upper Ambler River one summer’s day in 1975, I found a patch of rocks coated green with malachite, a copper-carbonate mineral. At first I was excited. This was exactly the kind of thing we sought. But as I broke rocks and collected samples, other thoughts began to play in my mind: “[W]hat if, against all odds, this small malachite-coated outcropping was the tip of a copper-rich iceberg of rock? What if beneath this arctic soil there was a mother lode of metals, enough to develop a mine?” I then imagined likely scenarios, with the bottom line that “this beautiful, wild valley would be torn apart. . . . by my way of thinking, it was an ugly picture. And I realized, with a clarity that approached the Ambler’s streaming water, just how special this river and its valley had become to me. It was a remarkable place, even a holy place, whose purity was held and reflected by those sparkling, rushing waters.

“. . . I felt a clash of values, more strongly than ever before.”

In writing these words, I’m reminded of Aldo Leopold’s essay “Thinking Like a Mountain,” in which he recounts his part in the killing of an old wolf and “the fierce green fire dying in her eyes,” an encounter that proved a turning point in his life. (I loved the provocative postings and follow-up conversations about Leopold’s essay, which kicked off the WILD READ discussions back in May.)

Like Leopold’s changing perspective, my transformation “from geologist to writer and eventually wilderness advocate has been gradual, occurring in bits and pieces over a span of many years.” And that, I add, “is another reason I keep returning to the Brooks: to learn what else awaits me. In changing my life, this arctic landscape also reaffirmed my most fundamental values, which include a respect and passion for wildlands and wildlife, and the understanding that their inherent value has nothing to do with human utility.”

In closing, I’ll briefly mention a secondary but important theme that I examine in Part 1: the notion that the Central Brooks Range generally, and Gates of the Arctic National Park specifically, is an “inhabited wilderness.”  This idea recognizes and validates the fact that lands and waters protected by the park have for many centuries been the homeland of Alaska’s Nunamiut Eskimos. It’s also at odds with the idea of wilderness as our modern Western culture usually imagines it: a place where people are merely visitors. I explore this unconventional view, along with the Nunamiut culture and my brief but enlightening stay in the village of Anaktuvuk Pass, in Chapter 3, appropriately titled “The Nunamiut.”

Some questions to consider:

-- What is your favorite wilderness area? Why? How, if at all, has your relationship with that place changed across time? And have your desires for a “wilderness experience” changed over time?

-- How, if at all, has wilderness – or a specific wilderness experience – changed your life?  (Or more generally, wild nature.)

-- What do you consider the primary role(s) or value(s) of wilderness?

-- Is it naïve or wrong-headed to think that wilderness has value in and of itself and should be protected for that reason alone?

-- Was there a time when you faced a disturbing and perhaps deepening “clash of values,” either in your work or some other part of your life? How did you respond?

-- When did you first notice your own “green ethic” taking shape?

-- What writers have influenced your life’s path? In what ways?

-- If you’re a writer (or other artist) and activist, how does one influence the other, if at all? Should art and activism be kept separate?

-- Another idea that I consider in Part 1 (though not discussed in detail in this blog posting) is the idea of a “calling.” Did you ever have the sense of being “called” to a place, a vocation, or a different way of being in the world?

-- What are your thoughts about the idea of an “inhabited wilderness”? How does the presence – and recognition – of indigenous peoples and their lifestyles complicate our Western notions of wilderness and the management of such places?

[Use the "Comment" link to respond and discuss with Bill]


Ted Schmidt said...

I have never had a "true" wilderness experience as in weeks out as you experienced in the Brooks Range but even my day and overnight hikes in Baxter (Maine) or even Dolly Sods Wilderness area in WV have given me a taste of the profound step we humans have taken to protect these areas for their own sake. We have a long way to go but at least there's been progress. Wilderness for our own visitation of course reminds us of our connectedness to the wild which is so important for the soul and perhaps even the spirit that runs through all living creatures and plants and in our unity ensures survival.

Bill Sherwonit said...

Thanks for the comments, Ted. I'm not sure that a "true" wilderness experience requires weeks in remote wilds, though I would say that (in my experience) there's a deepening of experience that occurs during longer journeys or stays. As I write in Changing Paths, "The farther I go -- whether measured in miles or time -- the easier it becomes to shed the pressures, anxieties, 'shoulds,' and spinning out-of-control busyness of day-to-day urban and suburban life. It become easier to FEEL the oneness with creation [or larger nature] that I have intuitively understood to be true, first early and then decades later in my life -- a 'knowing' that I largely denied or suppressed for years, because of the influences of family, religion, and our larger culture. . .

"The shifts of consciousness that occur seem nonlinear, almost quantum leaps, as my time in the wilds increases from an hour or two to a day, a week, a month. The more deeply I move, both into wilderness and out of regular time and busyness, the more cultural layers I shed and the more easily I become part of the larger nature that's always there."

I agree with you that we've made considerable progress in protecting wild places for their own value and, as you say, "we have a long way to go." As indicated in the excerpt above, I also agree with your comment that our visits remind us "of our connectedness to the wild which is so important for the soul and perhaps even the spirit that runs through all living creatures and plants . . . " I would only add that some folks, myself among them, would suggest that spirit runs through ALL of nature, even that which our modern Western culture considers to be inanimate.

Nikki said...

My experiences of wilderness don't even scratch what you have seen Bill but I have had enough to appreciate any movement to protect it.
You speak of a calling, and I had that calling to visit the great state of Alaska long before I went to work for the airlines. While my photographs of Hatcher Pass, the drive to Denali(more than Denali itself), and into Exit Glacier were not the best that I have done, the experience left its mark.
Montana was the next stop that deepened my relationship with wilderness.On the hunt to photograph old mining towns,I was placed out of my comfort zones in many wilderness spots. Since then I have seen Tahoe, the Sierras, and now Yosemite and I want to see and be a part of more.I can understand how it slowly grew on you Bill because I feel it happening to me. I'm not an activist by any means but maybe that is an avenue my photography might take me. Like my favorite photographer Ansel Adams who photographed wilderness beauty then became an activist, I feel the passion for my subject growing and am interested in hearing about your journey and how it lead you to where you are today.

Wayne said...

You ask "How, if at all, has wilderness – or a specific wilderness experience – changed your life? (Or more generally, wild nature.)"

I realize that as time goes by I think less often about a wilderness experience that indeed changed my life. Your question here Bill brings me back to it. You know most of this already but here it is again, for the record….

A long, long time ago, my lovely partner and I left the east coast of the US, bound for residency in Washington State, with a little Alaskan canoe trip in between. The canoe trip journal begins, “Monday, June 19, 6:10pm Bering Standard Time. Seated now on Nimiuk Point, fire burning, sun shining, breeze blowing. We have been two days out in the canoe but this has been the first chance to write.”

The whole story is longer than the canoe trip itself but on August 6, the day before the trip was completed, the journal says, “This trip is close to being finished. Although it was a bitch at times, it was the best trip and summer of my life, the arctic Alaskan wilderness is beautiful and I will return.”

We never repeated that exact trip but we did return to the arctic many times. And, largely as a result of that first trip, we decided to remain in Alaska. With many good, and a few bad, consequences that decision was based on wilderness. Not having to constantly be in it, but knowing it is there and just being close to it, in one way or another. And maybe sneaking back into it from time to time.

Thanks Bill.

Bill Sherwonit said...

Nikki –
Thanks for sharing aspects of your own journey. As you suggest, photography may be what leads you deeper into both wilderness and activism. I’d say, follow your instincts (and passion), heed your calling. All best wishes as you move along your path.

And what a wilderness adventure it was, that “little Alaskan canoe trip” you and Marilyn pulled off, far beyond what I’ve ever attempted. I can’t even imagine carrying a canoe across a high mountain pass, as you had to do to complete your remarkable – and remarkably ambitious -- river trip through the Brooks Range and neighboring lowlands. Apparently neither one of us suspected (how could we?) that our first summers in the Arctic wilderness would put us on a path to making Alaska home. So here we are and now our paths have crossed and overlapped and we’ve become good friends with a shared passion for wilderness and, perhaps more importantly, wildness in its many forms.