Learning Beauty

Nothing here below is profane for those who have eyes to see.
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

“At the end of our eight days, we finally heard the comforting buzz of the Cessna,” I said, “and around the corner of the mountain a tiny speck swelled to take the shape we knew and waited for, and came in for final approach on the tundra. We took off with a sense of relief, and a sense of sadness, looking at the stretch of the Arctic coastal plains and the undulations of the mountains. We knew that we were leaving a piece of ourselves behind as surely as we took this sacred place back with us in our hearts.”

The audience clapped and smiled politely. My husband and I smiled back, having just presented our two 2009 trips to the northernmost reaches of our continent. We’d talked about the grizzly bear we faced off against, the tens of thousands of caribou that enveloped us on their migration, and the wolf pack we lived across from for a week. The Alpha Female had come to visit us, sitting silently across an irrigation ditch-sized river, watching us eat dinner, inspecting our campsite. We talked about the threats to this last wild space, the continued pressure to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the push for oil and coal in the Western Arctic, and the plans for drilling in the Arctic oceans.  We’d considered the animals and the ecosystems, their fragile balance still so poorly understood.

“Tell us about the bear fence,” someone asked, and we talked about the thin wire we used to circle our tent while we slept or hiked powered with an electric charge meant to discourage the curiosity of bears.

“So the coastal plains we hear so much about — aren’t they just . . . flat?” asked someone else.

I felt a sense of terror, a helplessness in the face of implied assumptions about an area  that I’d learned to be holy. Just flat? Of course they are flat. The coastal plains on the northern most coast of Alaska, compressed by the Brooks Range toward the coast, are most certainly flat. I wish I could say I didn’t understand his question, but I did. Flat isn’t beautiful, he meant. We should protect the places that are beautiful and special, sure, but the places that are just . . . flat? We need energy. We need to use our resources. If we’re going to pick a place to use, a flat place would be best.

I grew up in Alaska, well south of the Arctic circle, on the outskirts of Anchorage. Our home sat in the foothills of the Chugach Range, the craggy aretes of which scraped the sky. Ocean glittered at the base of the mountains in three directions. It was undeniably, inescapably beautiful. Now my husband and I live in Seattle. On a clear day I’m surprised that nobody drives right off of the floating bridges. The Olympics soar to the west, the Cascades to the east, icy glaciers of the North Cascades and Mt. Rainier to the north and south sparkling against cerulean sky.

There is something about mountains that inspire dreams. Aspiration and challenge are written in these slabs and spires of rock up and down the Rocky Mountains, the Sierras, the Cascades, down the White Mountains of the east. Mountain meadows, deep valleys, and rushing rivers speak and saturate the senses. They allow the possibility of escape in body, mind, and spirit. This is the landscape the Europeans called “wilderness” for the first time and meant that it was ugly, evil, and terrifying. Native Americans, on the other hand, call it “green song.”

Photo: Shannon Huffman Polson

But yes, also flatland. My father moved to Alaska when the Army drafted him out of law school in the late 1960s. He left his home state of Kansas where he’d lived his whole life. Initially, he said, the mountains made him feel claustrophobic. He learned to love them, but he missed what Willa Cather describes as the “wide embrace of prairie.”

I thought of Kansas as flat, too. Compared to our home in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains, visiting my grandparents on the prairie was never very interesting. There was less to look at, less to wonder about. The first time I saw the virgin prairie of the Flint Hills in northeast Kansas when I was twelve, I was thrilled. Finally, during this trip on flat land, contours of the earth pulled my eyes along, soft and rolling away and away.

But it still wasn’t the mountains. I was trapped in the American mindset that there is only one number one. That one thing is “best.” That one thing is most beautiful. And that other things therefore cannot be as good, must have a lesser value. So, I hadn’t learned to see.

This is the mindset of competition which has built our country into one of the leading economies of the world. It has allowed us to push ourselves, to want to do better, to build an exceptional standard of living for many. But the cracks in that system are beginning to show, and to widen. One of the cracks is believing one thing to always be best — our competitive mindset does not allow us to appreciate beauty in the many ways it comes.

To see the flat land is partly about time. To see the mountains requires no effort. To see the desert, to see the horizon, and to let our mind wander in the space between, takes work and patience, and sitting still, and taking time.

To see the flat land is partly about awareness, too. It is the awareness that to fill a space, we must have created that space. To see something in the near and middle view, we must have cleared the space, gone into the wilderness, spent time in the desert.

There are places in Alaska’s Arctic where mountains probe the sky and glaciers cling to rock. In other places, the land spreads out like water, pulling the eye to the horizon. Colors are muted in the long view, providing a canvas for light to play upon. It is the Arctic light that travelers know best. The near view might be full of flowers; moss campion clinging to rock in defiant clumps of pink blooms; the curl of a Dall sheep horn, peeling in paper thin layers; a caribou antler, bleached white and nibbled on by small animals in the calcium rich soil.

Photo: Shannon Huffman Polson

Environmental historian Paul Shepard says that understanding the idea of place requires "a perception of otherness, a glimmer of the utter mystery of natural beings. This awe is seldom inspired by visual middle distance, but by the great panorama of the desert, or by the very close, such a crystals in a stone." At first glance, the Arctic can appear desert-like. Without the rare gift of the pulses of wildlife, distances are difficult to judge, yet the vastness of the Arctic far ground is a canvas on which the tiniest details explode with awe-inspiring life. Shepard says the experience is "a saturation of solitude, the ultimate draft of emptiness, needing courage and sanity to face . . . space and time and silence are metaphors of the eternal and infinite." In the desert, "silence and emptiness convey imminence by their lack of prosaic forms." It is "the environment of revelation." It is the place of mystics.  

The mystics lived in a progression of faith from desert to mountains to cloud. The desert was the trial and suffering of life. Mountains represented illumination. Cloud represented divine union. These places, desert and mountains, run through the text of the Bible in the Old and New Testaments. Both desert and mountains are necessary for the ultimate union, which most will not find until the next life. The problem in our world of sound bites, tweets, and twenty-two-minute sitcoms is that we just want the mountains, and now. We’d rather not see the desert. And then we wonder why we miss the union.

The Arctic offers room for the soul to move free.

Despite the easy lines of Arctic landscape, hiking in Arctic tundra is hard work. The tussocks of grass which grow together to attract dust and form a protective barrier against the withering winter winds and blasts of ice make walking more like a StairMaster workout. A seemingly gentle slope viewed from a distance might be covered in tussocks. These tussocks are perfectly engineered for their environment. Tiny flowers capture the distant sun’s rays and trap it, warming the air within their petals by several degrees.

In this landscape roam all three species of North American bears, hundreds of thousands of caribou (one herd of which makes the longest land migration of any animal on earth), wolves, foxes, muskox, and sheep. There are wolverines, Arctic hares, and 130 species of birds from all over the world that fly to the Arctic each summer to nest and breed. Mountains and sea compress five different ecosystems so that biologists gasp at the density of biological diversity.

All of this is not immediately apparent if you go to the coastal plains. You have to learn this, and learning it, allow yourself to see it. There is so much we need to learn to see. How do you tell this to someone who asks, “But aren’t they . . . flat?”

“I’ve never been to the sacred calving grounds,” says a Gwich’in woman I met, whose people are from central Alaska and Canada and who believe that they share the heart of the caribou. The Porcupine caribou herd calves on or near these coastal plains in their annual epic migration. I have thought of the Arctic coastal plains as being the sacred calving grounds for the Gwich’in, but the reverse is true. They have always been the sacred calving grounds. I, who came much later, call them the Arctic coastal plains. This difference is important. The plains are not only a political instrument and a point of interest, though they are bartered this way. They are sacred land. On them pulses life, an epicenter of creation.

I once talked to a writer from Kansas. We compared notes about where our families came from, sharing some similar terrain along the northern border on the east part of the state. That’s where the black squirrel lives, he said. They’re only in Marysville in Kansas. It turns out they used to be common across the U.S. before Europeans arrived and we cut down all of the trees. Marysville has a legend that they came through with a traveling circus and escaped, then stayed. Now, as a melanistic form of the grey squirrel, black squirrels are rare, concentrated in a few places in Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Iowa, West Virginia, Connecticut, Michigan, Ontario, and, apparently, Marysville, Kansas. Who knew? When I was young, I thought Kansas was just flat open land. Maybe the black squirrels in Marysville cause me to wonder. They are there to give me the near view. And the prairies are there to cause me to wander. And the space in between is for souls to roam.

Social conditioning accustoms me to wonder at a special animal or at jagged mountain peaks. These objects serve my conditioning to recognize something as best. Polar bears or black squirrels, mountains and rivers. Environmental groups use them as symbols, something people can identify with as they rush through their lives. Frequently, though, they are all that we see, even though they are only parts of the landscape, pieces of an ecosystem, and we must open our eyes and hearts to understand them. Our society takes in these symbols in the same way it ingests junk food — gorging, belching, and then shitting them out, moving on to the next thing.

The Arctic coastal plains are flat, stretching from the mountains to the sea. The lines shimmer with beauty. The social view of beauty thinks something is missing in this flatness. In between is nothing. But in between is the space where imaginations live and souls dance. There’s so much more to see than flat. The flat distance offers the middle view. The middle view that’s missing is something that takes effort to see.

It is not only true that the possibility of significant oil deposits in the coastal plains is around 5%. It is not only true that any drilling in those plains would take years to develop, billions of dollars, and an extensive infrastructure that would cover and eventually destroy this fragile tundra. It is not only true that any oil recovered would make up less than 1% of the U.S. energy requirements, having no impact on gas prices. All of these things are true. But it is also true that our society atrophies from lack of space for our minds to wander, wedged among the details of crowded lives, ceasing to understand the psychic need for space and time and the places that they intersect. The occasional sight of ocean or sunset triggers a longing in us we barely know how to recognize anymore.

The Arctic coastal plains are flat, and if we learn to understand them, they are beautiful. To desecrate this space is to lose near, middle, and far ground. And if we learn to understand ourselves, the coastal plains and other landscapes missing the middle ground will free not only our eyes, but also our souls. Barry Lopez notes that Eden is "the conversation of the human with the Divine" and that it is "the reverberations of that conversation which create a sense of place." It is a place where, if we choose, we walk hand in hand with God.

Photo: Shannon Huffman Polson

Shannon Huffman Polson is the author of North of Hope: A Daughter's Arctic Journey (March 2013, Zondervan). She writes about creation care, the natural world, faith, family, and the military. Polson and her family live in Seattle and spend as much time as they can in the wilderness of Washington and Alaska.

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