Paddling into a breeze, I marveled, our backs pulling such small blades against such a mighty river. The Colville, on the north slope of the Brooks Range, is Alaska’s largest Arctic river. Eleven of us were on Day Four of a six-day trip to learn how to be more effective in our various roles of protecting from oil and gas development this wild, 23-million-acre area with the unfortunate name of the “National Petroleum Reserve.”
Thick fog on the first day forced us to into a quick decision to float the Colville River, abandoning previous plans. The maps we brought weren’t useful and any destination or goal – pooft – was gone. None of us had ever floated the Colville and we were in “uncharted” territory. We knew we were on the Colville, but had no clue as to exactly where on the Colville. We only knew that as we went with the flow of that river we were headed toward something deeper, richer, wilder.
We paddled past peat-lined banks where heat had exposed the permafrost layer that defines the Arctic. We floated by beaches covered with gravel – skull-size, fist-sized gravel. Round and flat gravel. Gravel flaked during a thousand springs as winter melted. Tundra carved from riverbanks by high water had been rolled and deposited onshore as the river dropped, leaving their hulks sprawled like corpses on the gravel. Approaching what we all thought were more giant compressed piles of torn tundra, one of the forms suddenly got up and moved. Then another and another.
Four had been lounging in the sun not far from the river when we invaded their solitude. They ran off into the tundra on the far side of the gravel beach, their long, blond, dreadlock-like capes waving beneath them.
They stopped 30 yards away, turned and stared. Two more joined them. Never have I felt what I felt as one large female looked at us through dark eyes mounted near her helmet-like horns.
I was not aware of time passing as my gaze locked onto the ancient, solid creatures. We took turns watching them through the two spotting scopes we had with us on the trip. Then inquiry began chipping away at attention, trying to replace wonder with knowledge. Which are the males and which the females? Aren’t they hot? Why, with all that fur, were they lounging on the gravel beach on such a hot day? What are they eating? There doesn’t seem to be much to eat right here.
Then I caught myself: This is what typically happens. I’ve lived a blessed life with more than my share of awe-filled moments like this in the wilds. Awe, as I see it, is attention lodged in my body. My brain is uncomfortable with this. My brain needs to be involved in every aspect of my life and tries to quickly overcome this awe, this body-based attention. Always, what the mind can’t make some sense of, it tries to discredit or ignore.
I caught myself because I recently vowed to, when possible, ignore my brain and pay close attention to the rest of my body. Lately I’ve been trying to understand awe and the ineffable, a term associated with the mystical and often included in descriptions of wilderness. Here’s the standard definition:
As the Wilderness Act turns 50, those of us continuing to advocate for more designations find ourselves in a tough spot. Once, the biggest opponents of wilderness protection were the extractive industries that saw wilderness as an obstacle to their maximizing shareholder value. But wilderness has insidious new opponents who mask their opposition with compelling verbiage about humans’ role as masters of the planet – sugar-laced venom about how if we love wilderness in these times of global warming, we need to intervene in it to protect it. We need to become, as the author of a recent New York Times article suggests, “reluctant gardeners.”
This new faction seems to not understand that without wildness there is no wilderness. Wildness is the force by which life adapts, responds to changing conditions, evolves. No gardening required. While many of us find our experiences in wilderness ineffable, wildness itself – its rhythm, its force– is also ineffable. Wildness is beyond words or description. Take away that ineffability and life loses much of its meaning.
Face to face with those musk ox, I settled into the ineffable. I felt 10,000 years vaporize and there we were standing together, some strange understanding passing between us. It was all brand new and somehow age old at the same time – as if deep in the past, part of me had been there before.
The world may be divided between those who are comfortable with the unknown – with the possibility and promise contained in what cannot be named or described – and those who consider not knowing a weakness.
We paddled a few more hours, found the perfect beach, set up our camp, and settled in. As we’d done every night, we discussed politics and told personal stories, but all of it paled when the musk ox were mentioned. We didn’t talk about the deep feelings the musk ox induced in us. Or exactly why we all cared so deeply about that place. Or why we had each devoted large parts of our lives to protecting all wild places. We didn’t need to. It was all understood. I looked around the group, knowing that besides love for wilderness and a passion for trying to save it, we all shared one key element: Each of us had had at least one (perhaps many, perhaps one that very day) core experience in the wild that changed the chemistry of our lives.
Lately, whenever I’m in a meeting with like-minded souls, I’m aware of the depth to which the ineffable experience of wildness has stabbed into each us. I also realize how “smart” we’ve become, how good at speaking the language of law and politics – and how afraid we are of appearing softheaded. If something can’t be quantified and qualified, measured and priced, we can’t talk about it. Recall that ineffable has a second definition: taboo. Telling stories of our awe and wonder and dreams is unacceptable, and yet it is those stories that make us who we are, that differentiate us from our political opponents. The world may be divided between those who are comfortable with the unknown – with the possibility and promise contained in what cannot be named or described – and those who consider doubt and not knowing a weakness, priding themselves in their ability to ignore anything for which a convenient meaning cannot be manufactured.
That night, musk ox invaded my dreams. (How else do these stories begin?) The large female who stared at us the day before came back to me. In my dream she controlled time. As she stared at us she inhaled the present, which is merely a vapor, a thin gauze that civilization has draped over Earth. For as long as she held her breath we knew our place, standing there together – no them, no us. As she held her breath depth and grace replaced anything that glittered or shined. The gravel bar became a billion individual stones, each vibrating and alive without the curtain of the present holding it down. In my dream we were all connected to the same heart, each of us playing a unique role in how the planet spins into the future. Exhaling, the present spread back over the stones and filtered the sun. The curtain hardened into a bright shell, sealing us off once again, us from the musk ox, from our deep past where we know exactly who we are and what we need. At least here, I thought in my dream state, that shell is thin enough to see through. In my dream the musk ox are 10,000 years old and have seen the way and will not let us forget the balance of those times.
The next morning, during breakfast, we spotted two more musk ox up river on the opposite shore. They seemed to be young males, and as they foraged they played and sparred with one another. One found a loose piece of tussock and began knocking it around with its large head, tossing it up in the air, catching it on the tip of its weird horn. We took turns watching this game of Pleistocene soccer through the spotting scopes, and I thought about musk oxen in both my inner and outer worlds.
No more than 500 people will visit these 23 million acres this year. If it is protected by national monument or wilderness designation, it will be due to support from millions who will have never seen it. What is my responsibility, as someone who has? I’ll write to Congress and to President Obama conveying my passion and support for protecting this place. I’ll spread the word to others hoping they’ll do the same. But I’ll do something new. I’ll say how I felt and what I learned during those ineffable moments watching a musk ox breathe: We are not a static species, and this is not a static Earth, and all of those wild, ineffable moments hold the truth about how this planet can make the best use of us.
For the past decade, Brooke Williams has been exploring routes connecting wild places in southern Utah, Alaska, and southwestern Wyoming with those hidden in his own psyche.
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