The Glorious Indifference of Wilderness

The Gates of the Arctic are open.

We arrived by wings.

An Otter with wings delivered us here—

It was here, a yellow-billed loon called from the lake.

It was here, a circle of white wolves—five on the flanks of the mountain—appeared.

It was here, an emissary of crowned caribou emerged from a fold in the land.

We arrived just before the snows.

The tundra was red, gold, and green.

My presence was dark. I had just signed a restraining order against my brother, not because of him, but because of me. I was afraid for both of us. My heart had become a violence, a ticking time box that forgets nothing and holds everything red.

The tundra was red and gold with blueberries.

I picked blueberries with the bears, each of us keeping our distance. There were more than enough to share.

I was with friends and my husband, Brooke, who knew enough to let me be.

This is wilderness, to walk in silence.

This is wilderness, to calm the mind.

This is wilderness, my return to composure.

There was a mountain shaped like a pyramid. Each day, I sat before it. Each day, something happened. Changing light from the changing weather animated the geometry of the slope. A bear walked by. Cotton grass swayed in the breeze. Down feathers tumbled across the tundra. Morning frost melted quickly. The mountain was a glorious indifference, a repeating grace, a geologic fortress that softened in the shadows.

I walked toward the mountain. I climbed its talus slope, rocks wavering with each step. It was arduous. I kept going. My imagination reached the summit before my legs. The view was vast. I was small. I found relief.

We handed my brother’s gun to the sheriff in Wyoming. What we didn’t know is that in Wyoming, it is a felony to take another man’s gun. We took my brother’s gun. We were detained at the Teton County Jail. Felony charges were pending.

I care about my brother.

I care about wilderness.

To care is to lament.

My brother is a wilderness, unknowable.

Sitting with the mountain, I gain strength. A stability of soul is transmitted.

Stillness is an abiding presence in the form of a fox watching, waiting for a hare. The hare is hidden from the fox, also waiting, watching for the moment to flee. The mountain remains when both are gone.

What happens when wilderness is gone?

What will remain?

Great pains are taken for those we love: Brother. Wilderness. Fox and Hare.

To take pains suggests a sustained carefulness, an effort to see that nothing is overlooked but that every small detail receives attention, as to “take pains with fine embroidery.”

Before the Great Mountain this sentence comes to mind: “Weave grasses together for no reason and you will find god.”

In wilderness, there is no reason, and so I weave grasses.

In our species, there is no reason, and so we go mad.

The grasses I am weaving together remove me from my mind, my terrible, violent, creative mind. The storm brewing inside me is passing. I have made a small mat of grass as a resting place for larks.

In wilderness, we are defined by the body, not the mind.

Yet, still, I, you, we.

lament [luhment]

1. to feel or express sorrow or regret for.
2. to mourn for or over.
3. to feel, show, or express grief.
4. a formal expression of sorrow or mourning, in verse or song; an elegy or dirge.

Synonyms for lament: bewail, bemoan, deplore.

Synonyms for wilderness: desert, waste, wild.

Gates of the Arctic is one of these.

And what is a synonym for wild?

My brother. He would love it here. If only he could see this. The horizon belongs to Rothko. Rothko, who committed suicide after completing his chapel in Houston. Fourteen canvases. Purple in one light; black in another; maroon at dawn. When I stood before one of Rothko’s panels at dusk, the north painting, it became a portal—a wilderness—an ocean—the universe. And for a moment, I was unafraid of death.

Our species is committing suicide—that is a choice—and in the process, we are causing others pain.

Who cares?

Who cares about this wilderness?

This glorious indifference?

In the afternoon, I began crossing a deep, dry creek bed that if followed would lead to the river below our camp when I noticed a thin line of water had begun trickling down from the snowfield above. I decided to wait for the rivulet and see how long it took to reach me, and when it did, I walked with the water, stopping now and again to watch the water pool behind a small gathering of stones until more drops from the melting snowpack joined them. The water pooled long enough to raise red birch leaves like boats until they, too, spilled over the tiny ledge of a flat rock in a rush of water, gaining momentum as the trail of snow tears widened and pooled again, eventually filling half the streambed, advancing pebbles along its way. And as I followed the leading edge of the rivulet that was now accepting rain, I could hear its faint, emerging voice, announcing itself to the river.

It is in our nature to survive.

My brother will survive.

Our relationship will survive.

The irony of our existence is this: We are infinitesimal in the grand scheme of evolution, a tiny organism on Earth. And yet, personally, collectively, we are changing the planet through our voracity, the velocity of our reach, our desires, our ambitions, and our appetites. We multiply, our hunger multiplies, and our insatiable craving accelerates.

We believe in more, more possessions, more power, more war. Anywhere, everywhere our advance of aggression continues.

My aggression toward myself is the first war.

Wilderness is an antidote to the war within ourselves.

In Gates of the Arctic, following caribou tracks, I am finding peace.

Would you believe me if I told you I was skipping?

We came by wings.

Yes, our ability to travel here is a privilege.

But it is also a choice. Money is time. Where do we spend our time? Watching cable TV, walking the streets of Paris, or fishing for bass on Lake Powell? People talk about leisure. Wilderness is not my leisure or my recreation. It is my sanity.

These valleys, these rivers—creased, folded, and pushed. What wisdom mountains house. My God—they are Gods. My God has feet of Earth. We are but flickering moths in migration.

In a circumference of beauty, we join the dilemma of the Little Prince: Where do we turn our chairs? Where do we set our gaze?

The yellow-billed loon alone on the lake: Does he know his numbers are few, that he is a candidate for care under the Endangered Species Act?

The tribe of white wolves meeting on the mountain: Do they know they are an open target for helicopter hunters crossing boundaries no one can enforce?

The emissaries of caribou, crowned and rising: Can they taste the oil bubbling up through the melting permafrost?

The legacy of the Wilderness Act is a legacy of care. It is the act of loving beyond ourselves, beyond our own species, beyond our own time. To honor wildlands and wild lives that we may never see, much less understand, is to acknowledge the world does not revolve around us. The Wilderness Act is an act of respect that protects the land and ourselves from our own annihilation.

The tundra is red and ripe with blueberries. Bears with blue-stained tongues, just like mine, anticipate the winter.

It is in our nature to survive.

My brother asked me for help. What I gave him instead was rage.

I am addicted to rage.

My brother and I are both addicts. If you looked into our eyes, you would see no difference. We are not bad people. We are people who feel badly about things we have done.

Sex. Money. Oil. Drink. Aren’t we all addicted to something, someone, some secret shame we harbor?

In wilderness, there is no shame.

In wilderness there is acceptance in the evolutionary processes of life. No plant or animal petitions for mercy. There are no complaints rendered or excuses made. There is only the forward movement of life and the inevitable end.

The end of wilderness scares me.

I am unsteady on my feet. Tussocks on the tundra covered in dwarf willow bring me to my knees. My eyes drop down to the level of lichen, reindeer lichen, and I note the branching of one is reminiscent of another. I look up. Nothing. Everything.

With the help of my hands, I rise, and keep walking toward the knoll, visible from camp. Brooke is ahead of me. We scramble up scree. From the top, we count five drainages and three lakes, knowing from the map that there are four more beyond our view. It is this kind of scale that protects us from smugness. At our feet, a bleached caribou antler embedded in the ground appears as a graceful curve.

We fall asleep on a bed of bones—bird bones, rabbit bones, the bones of voles—and nestle inside one another as we have a thousand times in wild places. The small feathers that remain beneath the whitewashed outcropping of stone, a testament to death, suggests the perch we found for ourselves is also the perch of falcons, eagles, or owls.

My brother bands birds of prey during fall migration. As I am in the Arctic, he is on Commissary Ridge in the Salt River Range in western Wyoming, where it is not unusual to see 125 golden eagles pass through in a matter of days. He told me before our splintering that it takes three men to hold an eagle down while placing a band around its leg. He described the day he watched an eagle from afar, who was watching him, as he twirled a pigeon on a string above his head like a feathered lasso designed to catch the eagle’s eye and lure him in; how the eagle, a mile and a half out, became a winged torpedo directed toward the prey, focused and deadly, and as my brother held steady, the eagle swooped down feet first toward him and the pigeon. I forgot the rest of the details, only that somehow, stoically, he held the great bird in its protest long enough for others to help him place a silver band around its ankle that would later glisten against a rain-hungry desert.

“Sorry to interrupt,” our friend Kyle said, appearing on the knoll and out of breath, “but I wanted to be three instead of one.” He had startled us awake. We sat up from our bed of bones. Below us was a grizzly, upright.

Brooke stood, the bear caught him in view and dropped on all fours and ran a few yards, turned, stood up again, faced us, sniffed the air, and then fell into a gallop across the terrain of dwarf birch, willows, and black spruce, never looking back. We watched the golden bear until she became a point of light moving across the great expanse. Who knows who else was watching us.

“Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches in a forest with eyes,” writes Richard Nelson in Make Prayers to the Raven. “A person moving through nature—however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be—is never truly alone.”

We are in a country of eyes.

We are walking in a country of eyes; a world intimately known by the Inupiat people, the Koyukon people, and the people who came before them. There is no such thing as a wilderness without humans. Our imprint on the land is a matter of time and scale and frequency.

The Gates of the Arctic Wilderness sits inside a national park bearing the same name. Covering over 7 million acres, including much of the Brooks Range, it is bordered to the west by the Noatak Wilderness, making this the largest contiguous wilderness area in the United States. Go east and you will find the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Go northwest and you will cross into the National Petroleum Reserve. Within this national park, native lands remain intact where native people exercise their subsistence rights as they have done for generations. Nothing exists in isolation, especially not wilderness.

How do we find our way back to a world interrelated and interconnected, whose priority is to thrive and evolve? What kind of belief systems are emerging now that reinforce and contribute to a world increasingly disconnected to nature? And what about the belief—my belief—in all that is wild?

I return to the wilderness to remember what I have forgotten, that the world is wholesome and beautiful, that the harmony and integrity of ecosystems at peace is a mirror to what we have lost.

My brother and I became lost to each other. Isolation was the trigger. Isolation is always the trigger behind a gun, a drink, or a war.

Wilderness is not a place of isolation but contemplation.

Have you heard the thrumming of the Earth? It is here.

This morning, while we were drinking tea, a short-eared owl banked its underdown and quill so close to us her beauty and power startled. Was this an omen or an oracle?

Was my brother safe?

Am I?

Wilderness is a knife that cuts through pretense and exposes fear.

The call of the wild is not what you hear, but what you follow. I want to follow the owl and dare to touch that which threatens to kill us—

“Wait, I see something—” say the Koyukon.

Wilderness is the surprise of tenderness. What we think is destroyed can be restored.

Perhaps this is the definition of pristine: a sustained integrity; a vow of health and renewal; an ecological body of knowledge uncorrupted.

My brother, this wilderness, and I are approaching a pristine place of understanding.

In wilderness, I see my authentic reflection in the eyes of Other: an owl, a caribou, a bear.

My brother is Other, and so am I.

Can we love ourselves enough to change?

This was the question my brother and I asked ourselves on a morning walk in the Tetons before we broke apart.

This is the question I am asking myself again.

I have not seen my brother since I passed through the Gates of Wilderness.

I await his return. He awaits mine.

The scales of equilibrium can be found in wilderness.

A feather can tip the balance.

It is time to forgive—

my brother, myself, this wilderness.

I want another chance.

Change is beauty.

The Great Mountain I have been watching, courting, studying as my mentor, is shivering. Rocks are falling. A small slide is apparent. Snow is accumulating on the pyramid peak, threatening to erase it, and there is a quality emanating from this massive presence that I recognize as a reverence. Nine caribou are traversing the white-tipped tundra. They stop and stand resolute in the deepening storm. When the winds arrive, and they will, this quieting will become a blizzard capable of taking our lives.

I am facing the mountain, this glorious indifference.

I am watching as someone is watching me.

Wilderness is the source of what we can imagine

and what we cannot—the tap root of consciousness.

It will survive us.

Hear a conversation with Terry Tempest Williams about wilderness and writing at www.orionmagazine.org/multimedia.

Terry Tempest Williams is currently the Annie Clark Tanner Scholar in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Orion Magazine, and numerous anthologies worldwide as a crucial voice for ecological consciousness and social change. She has also published several books, including Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, Refuge, and Finding Beauty in a Broken World. Her most recent book, When Women Were Birds, was published in Spring 2012 by Macmillan.

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