northern wildlife essayists share their awe

Five years ago, I was talking to a young Tetlit Gwich'in activist, trying to get some language issues straight for a piece I was writing. Among several questions, I asked Elaine Alexis what the word for wilderness is in her language. She said her people...

Five years ago, I was talking to a young Tetlit Gwich’in activist, trying to get some language issues straight for a piece I was writing. Among several questions, I asked Elaine Alexis what the word for wilderness is in her language.

She said her people had no traditional word for wilderness because they never knew it. I didn’t understand. She explained the wilderness was always where they lived and the concept of it being something “out there” was foreign to their language.

I’ve thought a lot about this conversation, realizing how distant our society has become from its roots. Sure, there is ‘wilderness’ in Alaska and the northern territories, in the farthest reaches of Brazil and Africa and Siberia. But all of it’s trammelled, boxed by civilizations. Hardly any of us live in our true home any more.

Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North, an anthology of wilderness experiences published by Snowy Owl books, University of Alaska Press (237 pages, C.95) and edited by Michael Engelhard, is a brave attempt to deal with that issue, to allow us to meet the wild again, an event becoming increasingly rare for the vast majority of human civilization.

Unfortunately, the book restricts its wild moments to animal encounters. There’s a lot more out there than grizzly bears and sea lions, and the inclusion of additional encounters would have given the anthology a little more variety. I don’t know about most people, but some of my most challenging wild experiences have been with bogs and mosses in unpassable cedar swamps, Arctic ridges bearing walls of fossils and crystals, or when the sun gives up the ghost and the blizzard comes around the mountain.

That said, the animal world certainly can provide its thrills, delights and tragedies.

After a slightly overwritten introduction by Engelhard (which he fortunately makes up for in a well-written postscript), and a chilling ‘prescript’ on climate change and animal behaviour by Daniel Glick, the stories begin with Richard Nelson’s evocative encounter with a doe and a fawn on an island. Nelson is the author of the classic natural history, The Island Within, and he knows what he’s doing. It’s a good start for the anthology.

Unfortunately he’s followed by a number of uneven moments. The problem with assembling an anthology of animal encounters is that some writers need to embellish their magic moments with streams of adjectives and adverbs as each writer undergoes his or her personal epiphany.

There’s just a little too much shiny shivering shimmering beautiful indelible delicate brilliant bright intricate burbled magical gushy prose that any good line editor should have caught and trimmed. And at first, there was a sameness to the stories.

Briefly, it felt like I was reading a plastic Disneyland of animal stories that someone had poured honey over. Then, all of a sudden, a straight and simple story snatched my attention.

There’s many fine moments here, such as Douglas H. Chadwick’s narrative of tracking wolverines, including one intrepid creature who summited a 3,230-metre mountain, doing the last 1,493 vertical metres in 90 minutes. Or renowned Whitehorse poet, Erling Friis-Baastad’s simple and elegant meditation on Arctic terns.

Real stories rise above the treacle and take your breath away, the collection growing better as it nears its conclusion. Some of the images actually are indelible, a long line of beluga whales following the coast, a seal like a ghost in the bioluminescent waters of the night. Sometimes it’s just impossible to write about the natural world without the adjectives and exclamations.

The most gripping story is of a fisherwoman and a coast guard official attempting for eight hours to free a humpback whale from a gill net tangle. The story of this woman attempting to clear its blowhole and diving with knives under and around the whale, gradually freeing its fins, and climbing across its back at sea while trying to chop off the net, has to be one of the most gripping animal encounters I’ve ever read and is worth the price of the book alone.

I soon found myself forgiving the more glittery patches of prose and the pretentious epiphanies in a few of the pieces, enjoying most of the encounters where the authors got on with telling their tale.

Near the end I found myself growing disappointed when I realized there were only a few encounters left to tell in its final pages. Engelhard winds up the book with a thoughtful postscript on the musk ox crisis in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and endangered species in general.

The great tragedy is that as the human race continues its relentless destruction of the natural world we’re only going to have films and stories and zoos to remind us of the magic that we once lived inside. It already looks like the polar bear, the tiger, the killer whales of the inside passage, and the mountain gorillas have little chance of seeing the next century.

There’s a word, “uniari,” I’m told that the Inupiat people use. It means the nervous awe you feel when you are facing an overwhelming encounter with a natural phenomena. It’s a disappearing emotion.

Let’s hope for an expanded, closer-edited second edition of Wild Moments once it sells out, because most of the children to come will only know those encounters through the voices of others lucky enough to live and work in the wilderness, among the beautiful creatures that inhabit it.

Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His most recent book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.