Intimacy and Participation In Our Vanishing Wild Places by Tom Martinez, Southwest Conference United Church of Christ

Our Lost Sense of Intimacy and Participation In Our Wild Places

guest post by Tom Martinez

When it comes to bucket lists, I can check off being chased by a Grizzly.  Of course had I not run, it probably wouldn’t have chased me.  It would have been like the other Grizzly encounters I had while rafting through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (or ANWR), with them watching me or me watching them, more or less calmly, across the species divide.  Though few people realize it, the protected status of the Refuge is endangered by the President’s new budget, a provision of which—if unchallenged—will open up the Refuge to drilling.  Hence the religious consortium rising up in defense of ANWR, which is likely to become the next “Standing Rock.”

My encounter with the Grizzly happened roughly midway into a three hundred mile river-rafting trip my first wife and I took through the Refuge.  During our preparation we thought a lot about bears.  But once we were there we realized they had been a lightning rod for a complicated mix of feelings about the Wild. That’s not to say we lost all fear, but as the exaggerated nature of our fears became evident, our fear deepened into reverence.

We chose ANWR because it is one of the last really wild places in North America and because the Porcupine River offers one of the longest stretches of water-born travel (our trip covered 300 miles) without major rapids.  The refuge itself spans over 19 million acres of wilderness and enfolds one of the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world.  Despite its rich biodiversity and long-protected status, the current tax bill threatens to open the area up to drilling.  To do so would be turn back the clock on what has been, since 1960, its legally protected status.

In addition to being home to Grizzlies, Polar Bears, Arctic Foxes and 200 bird species, the Refuge is also home to the Gwich’in people, an Indigenous tribe that had already been living off the land for thousands of years by the time Columbus “discovered” America.   To this day their diet consists mostly of Caribou.

During our first few days rafting through the Refuge we were puzzled by the complete absence of wildlife. Then as we sat on a boulder eating lunch, a fox sauntered by practically close enough to touch.  As he passed he looked over his shoulder as if I were the curiosity.

We took to traveling down the river by night, which never grew completely dark.  The sun lowered in the sky and then rose again, plunging us into a kaleidoscope of beauty and wonder. One night we heard the sound of wolves howling.  We howled back and to our surprise they appeared along the riverbank and ran alongside us.

Because so little of the Wild remains we have lost this sense of intimacy and participation, opting instead for metaphors of domination.  In the process, awe and wonder have been replaced with greed and extractive exploitation.   That’s why the Refuge and its protected status is now threatened.  Some in power see no reason not to drill there.

But Standing Rock signaled a new ecological awakening.  Images of Native Americans on horseback facing off with police in riot gear gave symbolic expression to the sense that nature is in trouble.  We are wondering if scientists are perhaps right and the sudden upsurge in “unprecedented” weather events and super storms are a function of our having upset the balance of nature.  If so, we’ve managed to accomplish that in roughly two hundred years.  Meanwhile the Gwitch’in stand for a way of life that’s been sustained for many thousands.  Perhaps they have something to teach us.

Many religious voices are attempting to call attention to the ethical or moral nature of this historical moment.  The growing sense of urgency felt among the human family is being interpreted as a call to deepen our understanding of our true place in relation to God’s creation—a shift from dominion and even the notion of stewardship, to one of kinship.   As we begin to shift at the paradigmatic level, the Earth transforms from an object to be exploited, to something more akin to way the Gwitch’in view the Caribou calving ground, “the sacred place where life begins.”

A disruption of the herd’s massive migration would be similar to what we did to the Plains Indians, who moved in such dramatic harmony with the  buffalo.  Only this time we have a chance to do something different.  Preserving this bio-region and honoring its people would mean preserving a way of life that has moved to the deeper rhythms of the Wild for close to ten thousand years.  The choice is clear: we can keep it as protected for centuries to come, or we can throw it away for an estimated three years’ worth of oil.

In the wake of my encounter with the Grizzly I’ve often wondered whether we will ever come to see that the Wild we so fear is ultimately a projection of the danger we ourselves pose.   But it’s hard to see that from inside our cars and cubicles.  We’ve got to get out into the Wild, which is why its preservation is so important.

When that Grizzly got close enough to make out what I was, she went from a full sprint to a complete stop.  I was poised and ready to shoot.  We beheld each other for a few brief but unforgettable moments, precious time that allowed me, eventually, to see her as she was. Then, she turned and disappeared into one of the last vestiges of the wild, a place I pray we preserve for generations to come.


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Photo by Elizabeth Meyers on Unsplash