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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Richard Nelson

Discovering Alaska

As a writer, I believe in the nearly magical capacity of words to communicate a sense for the beauty in our world. And yet, I cannot fathom how any human language could capture even the haziest sense for the grandeur and richness of the Alaska coast that we have experienced on this voyage. It isn't just language that fails, because I've also felt that my mind and my senses themselves are incapable of grasping what we have seen.

Each day, the abundance and diversity of plant and animal life has made me feel like the witness to a renewing, expanding miracle. It has made me feel like a pilgrim in his own land, like a man who walks out the door, throws open his arms, and shouts for the joy of witnessing the world in his own back yard.

Alaska's beauty is not just a reflection of nature's genius, but also of the human genius. One of the most amazing things we can say about Alaska is that it looks like a "wilderness" in the purest sense of the word -- as if people had never lived here -- and yet this land has been intensively used and intimately known by human beings for many thousands of years. Of all the places we have visited, only one -- St. Matthew Island, in the middle of the northern Bering Sea -- has never had permanent human inhabitants.

Everywhere else, the Alaskan land is deeply imbued with an invisible human presence. One manifestation of this presence is the encyclopedically detailed knowledge of landscape, plants, and animals that has been accumulated over thousands of years by Alaskan Native people. When I lived with Inupiaq Eskimo people in the North Slope village of Wainwright, I saw how they have thrived in one of the earth's most challenging environments -- and I learned that they achieved this success in large measure by knowing their place intimately. How else except by exquisitely sophisticated knowledge could people using stone-tipped harpoons and skin-covered boats undertake to hunt enormous bowhead whales? How else could they hunt polar bears, one of the most formidable predators on earth? To illustrate the intricacy of this knowledge, consider the Inupiaq elder who told me how he lured a polar bear toward him by laying on the ice and imitating a basking seal, then killed the bear when it stalked close enough to shoot. The key is in understanding your prey so well that you can enter its mind.

The first time I hunted caribou inland with a group of Inupiaq men, I was told to head for a place called Nasiqruagvik, a name meaning "High Place to Look Out Over the Land." But because I was unaccustomed to the flat and seemingly featureless sprawl of tundra, the "high place" was completely invisible to me. Here was a vast terrain, intimately known by my companions, carrying hundreds of names handed down through the generations, but all that they knew about it was invisible to an outsider like me.

Similarly, when I lived with Koyukon Indians in the Alaskan interior, I learned about another world that lay beyond my sight and grasp. This is a world in which spiritual power pervades all of nature; in which humans must give gestures of respect toward animals, plants, and the earth itself; in which misbehavior toward anything in nature can bring the offender bad luck, illness, or physical harm. In the Koyukon tradition, for example, ravens have a benevolent power to help and protect people; grizzly bears are not only physically imposing but also possessed by a demanding and temperamental spirit; the loon's beautiful voice and plumage are an expression of its spirit; game animals come to the hunter as a gift and their meat should be treated as a sacred substance; conservation of animals and plants is not just based on ecological principles but also on a spiritually based code of morality toward nature.

People like the Koyukon recognize that their community is not limited to the human sphere, but includes their entire surrounding environment. This is a community to which people belong, a community they must honor, serve, and protect from harm. And, perhaps most importantly, the natural world is an expression and manifestation of what we in the Judeo-Christian world would call God. Similar beliefs and principles to those of the Koyukon Indians are a part of all traditional Alaskan cultures, and I believe they help to explain the biological richness and diversity of Alaska after many thousands of years of human inhabitation.

We newcomers to Alaska -- as well as the inheritors of these traditions in Alaskan Native communities today -- might benefit by learning the ways in which Alaska's land and natural communities have been known, and by the wisdom of treating nature as an abiding place for spiritual power. Combining these older views with the insights of modern science may guide us toward a more responsible, harmonious, and sustainable relationship with the Alaskan environment. There is universal value in the principle of approaching nature with humility and restraint, taking from our environment in measured and sustainable ways, giving something back to the natural environment in return for all that it gives to us, and being constantly aware that we depend on the earth for every moment of our existence.

The beauty, wildness, and biological richness of Alaska are a gift not just to those of us who live here, but to all of humankind. Much of this beauty is protected today as public land belonging to every American citizen, land that is permanently locked open so that all can all visit and replenish their souls here. I believe this free and open access to our national public lands is among the greatest achievements of American democracy. I also believe that protecting this remarkable national heritage is both a privilege that we are given and a responsibility that we should undertake. Above all, I believe that preserving the beauty, health, and biological richness of the American land is among the highest forms of patriotism.

Much of Alaska today remains as spectacular, as wild, as naturally diverse today as it was when the original Harriman Expedition traveled along this coast a century ago. Grizzly bears still roam the forests of Baranof Island, humpback whales still breach in the waters of Prince William Sound, bald eagles still soar above the Katmai Peninsula, fur seals still crowd the forelands of St. George Island, polar bears still prowl the ice floes around St. Lawrence Island. In this sense, Alaska shines for all of us as a beacon of hope for the future.

But I am not suggesting we can rest on our laurels -- far from it. We must consider what is to be learned from the ongoing damage to marine life caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. We face immediate questions about keeping the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as it has always been, or opening this last pristine section of the North Slope for oil development. We must decide whether to continue clearcutting large tracts of old-growth rainforest in the Tongass National Forest, or to let the ancient trees stand for future generations. We must balance intensive commercial fishing in the Bering Sea against our desire to maintain healthy populations of seabirds and sea mammals.

Perhaps the most important lesson Alaska has to teach us is that humans do have a rightful place here, not just as pilgrims admiring scenery from afar, but also as participants in our encompassing natural community, as citizens of the world that gives us life, and as people who share the great responsibility of keeping Alaska as rich and beautiful as it was before the first humans walked across the Bering Strait many thousands of years ago.

As the Harriman Expedition of 2001 sails toward its final destination in Nome, lines from the concluding poem in T.S. Elliot's Four Quartets drift through my mind:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will to be arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

 


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