YUKON NEWS COLUMN — WIND RIVER
Every landscape is magic.
Each has a characteristic that makes it unique enough to sweep your breath away. You can find the magic in a jungle cave in Thailand or in the deserts beyond Marrakech. You can find it in a square foot of garden soil in a Toronto backyard.
The real question is how we define landscapes. Many people consider their own region the most beautiful – because they know it. Others believe beauty dwells in the next valley. Everyone has delusions about where they live.
Yukoners think they are living in wilderness. Vancouverites believe they are living in a barren city.
These are the lies we tell ourselves.
Take wilderness. Does it exist? Or are we all living a collective delusion?
I had an opportunity to consider this question when I was one of the lucky participants chosen for the Three Rivers Expeditions. Funded by various environmental organizations under the auspices of Canadian Parks and Wilderness, it introduced a number of photographers, artists, and writers to the Wind, the Bonnet Plume, and the Snake River.
A dozen of us canoed the Wind River, paddling its brilliant green water above a treasure of coloured rocks, encountering wolf pups and caribou, unpredictable mountain weather, more blueberries than we could ever eat, and the tracks of grizzlies that occasionally circled our camps.
We encountered a wall of fossils, and a mountain of ochre that the Tetlit Gwich’in had used for ceremonies since beyond recorded history. We found a mountaintop littered with broken geodes and great, white crystals.
These three rivers are endangered by various commercial megaprojects — foolish schemes to smelt iron, harvest coal, dam their great waters. The usual stuff. If allowed, in a few government-subsidized decades, they will likely leave behind more government debt, a cluster of wealthy promoters and a larger number of unemployed workers — along with a polluted, corrupted landscape.
There’s no place wild that we can bear to leave alone. We have to cut the trees, poison the air, pollute the soil, kill the fish, slaughter the animals. It’s the history of the human race.
Those tanks racing through the desert towards the recent conquest of Baghdad were rolling over what we once called the Garden of Eden.
Business interests constantly tell us there is plenty of wilderness, or at least parks.
Yes, we have parkland, like the travesty that Banff has become, like the West Coast Trail with its year-long waiting list, like boardwalked pathways to wooden blinds for bear-watching “in the wild.”. These are parks, that’s for sure. But they aren’t wilderness. Only a scant few parks remain natural.
Oddly, the most fervent advocates of mining it, blasting it, logging it, polluting it, or selling it, will still admit that wilderness is a necessary thing. “Just not in my backyard.”
Wilderness is like poetry — poetry is a cultural necessity that even our greediest entrepreneurs will grudgingly agree is intrinsic to human nature, while regarding with amusement those who practise it as a way of life — like the need to sing, an art that few among us can earn a living at, yet an art we all admire.
What is wilderness? Too many of us think like the American Supreme Court Justice who despairingly admitted that, while he couldn’t definite obscenity, “I know it when I see it.”
Similar, foolish, subjective beliefs have led to the destruction of almost all that is wild in the world.
Looking out of a cabin window in the Yukon, people believe they see wilderness. That’s the myth they are telling themselves. They are viewing a severely impacted, and in most places, permanently damaged veneer.
The natural world is disappearing at an astonishing rate. We all know that, but we look at a treed valley and convince ourselves everything’s all right.
I watched it’s destruction in my own backyard of southern British Columbia, forest after forest, salmon after salmon. Now the natural world has been replaced by pretty sunsets. The pollution in the atmosphere provides more colour.
Wilderness is a strange concept with mostly European roots. Europe laid waste to its forests years ago, perhaps because Europeans somehow grew to fear wildness, and hunted it down and destroyed it. This could be why they often portrayed undomesticated animals as violent, bloodthirsty creatures, unless a religious figure was ‘taming’ them.
Historically, most aboriginal cultures didn’t understand our concept of the natural world, because they lived in it and were part of it. Those that survive still see themselves living inside nature. We always see it as ‘out there.’
So many of the famous nature photographs of our past are devoid of people. A legendary Ansel Adams photograph of ‘wild’ Yosemite was taken with his back to a tourist parking lot.
Is this the real reason behind our need to contaminate our world? Is the very thought of leaving it alone, or ‘untrammelled,’ as the American Wilderness Act defined wilderness, scary?
According to the act’s definition, wilderness is land we live in or use minimally, but don’t alter.
That means having a minimum impact. There’s no landscape without impact. The Wind River has probably been inhabited since the last ice age, and now faces a stream of eco-tourists in the summer and big game hunters in the autumn. It is one among few rivers that have seen minimum impact or are ‘untrammelled,’ perhaps half a dozen watersheds in North America.
Yet daily, we witness palpable anger directed at ecologists, the insistence that a road or a mine or pipeline won’t alter the land.
Like a virus in a body we are infecting everything, making it ours, destroying our home. How long before Whitehorse becomes a Baghdad? Certainly not in our lifetime, or our children’s, but it will come.
In the future I fear that real wilderness will only be found in the memories of those few who were wise enough to leave it alone, and its loss will be like the loss of poetry and song.