White worms and deadman's fingers were underfoot, and we had severe blue tongue. We were not trapped in some hall of horrors but hiking over a natural carpet of mosses and lichens on an early August trek through the mountains and valleys of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The blueberries were everywhere and irresistible.
We had seen wolves by day and heard their distant howling at night. At the end of another long day, we watched for hours while a bear, unaware of our presence, ate soapberries, laying on fat for a long winter.
Most of the Porcupine Caribou Herd had moved east into the Old Crow Flats before our trip began. The few caribou we did see were stragglers.
For a while it looked like we would see more bears than caribou, but one or two sightings a day of the latter upped that tally.
We had humped heavy packs over roughly 50 miles of mostly open tundra with far vistas amid wide mountain valleys.
President Bush appears more determined than ever, with the election behind us, to try and bring us energy salvation by a "drill 'em, spill 'em" policy for the refuge and the nation. Why embrace conservation or do something about global warming when there is money to be made on unrestrained consumption?
Omitted from the bogus claim that only 2,000 acres would be affected is any mention of the impacts from hundreds of miles of seismic lines that would precede drilling, not to mention those from a proliferation of roads, pipelines and airports needed to support any development. Two-thousand acres, maybe, but in many scattered smaller units with far greater impact.
Visitors to Alaska come to see its wildlife and natural landscapes.
There is always that not-so-readily-described something that soaks in from being in a wild place, away from the confines of four walls and the abiding noise that is part of city life.
We were more connected with our roots in the Earth and the sense of peace that brings. All around was a kaleidoscope of form and color that soothes and heals. We all need places for rejuvenation and rest in our lives.
The refuge and its coastal plain is America's premier Arctic wilderness. Its greatest but intangible value lies in those ineffable qualities that inspire and uplift the spirit.
Who finds inspiration in a sunset over an oilfield with all its sucking machinery, clamor and pollution?
Allowing oil exploration here is like having a lovely daughter who is a virgin. An acquaintance comes to you one day, saying, "my son is in love with your daughter and wants to marry her." You know his son has a history of physically and sexually assaulting young women. He pleads with you, knowing of your great love for your daughter, saying, "my son has been cured of his violent ways using the latest medication and is no longer a menace. He loves your daughter very much and I can assure you their marriage will be a happy one."
But you know from past experience that he has less interest in your daughter's welfare and happiness than for the large dowry he covets and believes will be his at their wedding.
For many of us, the refuge is like a place of worship--sacred space yet free from dogma or agenda. One does not enter without a sense of humility and respect. It is not just another place for desecration and taking.
In the wilderness of the refuge, from its tundra plains to boreal forest, love and beauty intertwine in ways that leave one fumbling for words. It is a sanctuary of peace and unity one can return to again and again if only in mind's eye.
It reminds us that the abode of peace is within. In wild places is the potential for reconnection and an end to our separation from creation and the Creator. We must save our virginal places for the healing power of their "still waters."
If we affirmed life more than death, we would place greater value on the spiritual than the material. We would take our rightful place as healers and peacemakers, not as a culture still in diapers more often dominating and destroying.
The American people, so-called "extreme environmentalists," have said "No more, not in this place" to the unalterable scarification of America's "Sistine Chapel" to satisfy our energy gluttony. May the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge remain forever wild.
P.S. "I'm pulling for you, we're all in this together."--Red Green
Don Ross is a Vietnam veteran and a longtime Fairbanks resident. He flew for many years in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.