Thursday, August 23, 2012

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty is found within luminescent ribbons splitting the few moments of darkness into the mysterious Northern Lights.  It is the rich, organic, sweet smell of the tundra permeating the air from the labyrinth of plant, fungi and bacteria as the weight of our feet plunges toward the permafrost a few inches below.  It is in the tart taste of lowbush cranberries and the sweetness of blueberries as their sun-warmed richness slides down our waiting throats.  It is in the change of fall as green grass in a single night erupts the next morning into a symphony of gold, oranges, and reds painting rainbows down the hills of shale coated peaks.  It is the deafening sound of perfect silence.  It is a sunset that fades into sunrise in a land that night has fled.

 Some might see the beast in the grizzly tearing at a bloody caribou leg as the first dust settles along  the early morning Dempster Road or in the Arctic Ground Squirrel feasting on its brother’s road kill remains as it prepares for the deep sleep of winter.  For us, the beast is not those natural and necessary events; rather, it is the dust and the drugs that seep into the fabric of life on and near the Dempster.  It is rancid, yellow water from a tap where a gallon of store bought pure spring water costs $5 dollars now and will double and triple in cost during the transitional months of freeze and breakup before ice roads can be built.  It is the pain of paying $35 for a 12” pizza of canned vegetables on edible crust.  Of all of the beasts, it is the drugs that prey like a dark animal on young kids buying from men in dank campgrounds or in the vacant eyes of a mind and soul lost to family and friends as their owner stumbles through the streets of Inuvik.

The small towns surrounding Inuvik have formed almost vigilante like efforts to eradicate drugs and alcohol from their communities as seen by the signs warning those who would deal.  For us, Inuvik is a place at the end of a 760 km road to finally turn back toward family and friends, but for others, it is clearly the end of the road when there is nowhere else to go.  The town has beauty in people like the young man who took us on a boat tour.  He had much to teach us about the effects of global climate change from the observations of his elders and his family’s almost 50-year relationship with a scientist who has measured the destructive effects of climate change on permafrost.  But much of the town feels like the brightly painted colors covering dilapidated metal and deteriorating wood buildings.  There is beauty, but it covers a beast. 

 Perhaps the most significant beast is not one inherent within individuals from the north, but from the global connections playing out in places like our hometown of Gunnison.  As John Muir wrote, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”  Each day we made decisions about our use of energy and resources as we accumulated more than we needed.  Our carbon footprint continues to affect the globe as it marches toward a warmer future.  That future is not theoretical at the poles. Many still debate the reality of climate change while the people in the extreme north watch its actions as land thaws beneath their feet. The permafrost is melting at an unprecedented rate and soil is sliding into the rivers as the land becomes a quagmire and life strangles in the waters.

The Dempster Highway is a 760 km gravel road that travels north across the Arctic Circle and through a Canadian province, a Canadian territory, and two time zones.  The land, and the road, are contrasts, harboring both beauty and the beast.  We have been changed by our visit as our souls strain to understand the meaning of the words from the soft crooning of the elder Neil tapping his beaded, moose-hide moccasins in a rhythm ingrained into a mind softened with age but rich with understanding.

Posted on the Dempster Highway in Eagle Plains, Yukon.

1 comment:

  1. I was wondering if you would get a flavor of some of the depressing aspects of Inuvik . . . I had a wonderful afternoon with my first year students at Hartman's doing trail building with Jim and Kristi from the BLM - they did a great job with the students Sally - and Jess, from my vantage, the FYE is going well -- I am really enjoying my students and the activities so far (hope this isn't intruding on your solitude).