Windows on the world

When Suzanne and David Henry worked for Parks Canada in Haines Junction they had one of the most spectacular views imaginable from their living room window.

When Suzanne and David Henry worked for Parks Canada in Haines Junction they had one of the most spectacular views imaginable from their living room window.

Their former home, in the Parks Canada compound north of town along the Alaska Highway, looked out on the front range of the St. Elias Mountains rising majestically above the Alsek River Valley. The panorama couldn’t fail to impress at any time of the year.

Now enjoying their retirement in Aberdeen, Saskatchewan, a half an hour’s drive northeast of Saskatoon, David and Suzanne’s view has changed. Their breakfast table presents a vista out across a farmer’s field towards a far horizon; it drinks in a broad prairie landscape with its endless sky.

Windows focussed both views, mountain and prairie, but they didn’t contain them. A stunning perspective should draw one into it, to be opened to the visual possibilities it presents. Angles, varied light conditions, clouds and other factors can change how we see the world that is presented to us.

Last weekend my travels brought me to the Oregon coast for a family wedding. Our guest house vantage replaced prairie and mountain views with those of breakers rolling in off the North Pacific and the straight, clean line of an ocean horizon. A broad sandy beach and the Three Arch Rocks, a landmark of the town of Oceanside, completed the picture.

Among the invited guests at the wedding was Dr. Tom Stafford, a recognized global authority on carbon-dating techniques. He had mentored the bride, Emily Lindsey, involving her in his research projects, among them studying the famous Kennewick Man whose skeleton, found on the banks of the Columbia River in southern Washington State, dated at over 9,000 years old. I eagerly sought him out.

Stafford told me that in this week’s issue of Science, results of research he had collaborated on in the Paisley Caves complex of south central Oregon, east of the Cascade Mountains and several hours drive from Oceanside, would be published. Dates of human fossilized feces found there came out at well over 12,000 years of age. This makes them among the oldest definitively dated evidence of human presence in North America and challenges the long dominant Clovis-first archeological orthodoxy.

Clovis-first proponents hold that based on the discovery of 11,500-year-old spear points embedded in woolly mammoth remains near Clovis, New Mexico 79 years ago, the first peoples were a highly specialized population of big-game hunters that migrated southward into the Americas via an internal, ice-free corridor partially in the Yukon. Mounting concrete evidence provided by Stafford, and a growing chorus of other voices, offer alternative theories such as multiple maritime and coastal migration pulses. Old ideas die slowly though.

Stafford has had to deal with unbending orthodoxies all his professional life. He noted an example of a religiously driven research project that paid for the retesting of samples at his laboratory near Boulder, Colorado. The dates didn’t conform to its theology. He took their money for new tests but the dates didn’t change.

How do we deal with unbending individuals or institutions that refuse to see beyond worn ideological or economic positions? From climate change to holocaust deniers, what do you say? As Stafford put it in relation to the Clovis-firsters, maybe you just have to wait for them to die off.

Ideas are our mental windows on the world. They can open up our minds and imaginations if we allow them to do so. They also can push us in to re-examine well-viewed concepts. We shouldn’t be afraid of them. Changing perspectives can offer new insights that challenge us to reach for new intellectual horizons. New vistas and new ideas open us to the world.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact