Our series, Active Voice: Writers Respond, is back for 2018. We ask Alaska writers to reflect on the current state of democratic values in our society and to answer the question: How are current events shaping your work as a writer? At a time when national news seems to move at the speed of the latest tweetstorm, it is in the spirit of quiet reflection that we offer this latest piece from Jessica Shepherd on taking the long view as 2017 drew to a close.
It is a day of long shadows and weak sun in late December. I am visiting a classroom of first-graders where, together, we will make small beach scenes with watercolors, tiny sea shells, wave-tumbled beach glass, and dried sea stars the size of a child’s thumbnail. As we begin, I ask them to sit in a half-circle on the floor, eyes closed, and use their artist’s minds to recall what the beach sounds like. Twenty pairs of eyes close tightly as they eagerly mimic the sound of waves and the cry of gulls. Next, I ask them to breath in deeply and tell me what the ocean smelled like.
“Wood smoke and hot dogs.”
“Nice,” I say. “A picnic at the beach.”
Their minds are supple, open. It is easy for them to mentally transport themselves to the sloping sands of a beach less than a mile from their school where waves froth and gulls drift overhead. These are coastal children. The shoreline is as familiar to them as playgrounds are to city kids.
Next I have them paint three-inch squares of watercolor paper that will become the backdrop for small shadow boxes. They paint ocean waves, rainbows, whales and boats. I walk among them admiring their efforts. One painting makes me stop and turn my head to the side in an effort to rationalize what I see.
“And what’s this?” I ask the sturdy little boy who is swirling his paintbrush in the bluish rinse water.
“It’s an oil rig.” He tells me.
“I thought so.” I reply. “You did a nice job on that.”
“They pollute the ocean.” He says, looking up at me with frank blue eyes.
“Sometimes they do.” I agree, and wonder why an eight-year-old would paint this particular monument to the oil industry. But then I consider where I am. There are oil rigs in Cook Inlet, a short distance away. It could be one or both of his parents work on the rigs. And it’s true, there have been small oil spills recently. Children absorb what they see and hear, then try to make sense of conflicting values.
The next day is winter solstice, marking the shortest day of the year. Here, in Southcentral Alaska, that means the sun will slip from sight before four-o’clock and won’t edge back over the mountains until after ten the next morning. The moonless hours in between can be relentlessly bleak and cold, especially this winter when there is scant snowfall to bounce around the glow of street lights and the twinkle of Christmas trees. The long evening hours get under your skin, prompting a desolation of the soul if you’re at all prone to that sort of thing. Fitting then, that today, the elite in Washington should pass a federal tax bill rewarding the richest Americans with a hefty tax break while opening the door to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the largest protected wilderness remaining in the United States.
At times like this, I wonder if the human race isn’t comprised of two distinct species. The Cains and the Abels if you will. The Abels shepherd the land, espousing the notion that nature merits a respect bordering on devotion. For nearly 60 years, since the Arctic Refuge came under Federal protection in 1960, these shepherds have worked to safeguard an area the size of South Carolina. Put another way, if the 20-million-acre refuge were our 51st state, it would best ten other states in size.
The Cains, on the other hand, see nature, first and foremost, as a commodity. The intrinsic value of wilderness doesn’t carry the vote when that wilderness holds a projected 12 billion gallons of oil. The Cains are emphatic that the best use of the 1.5 million acre arctic plain, where most of the oil is thought to be, isn’t the preservation of scattered herds of caribou and ambling polar bears. They see opening the Arctic Refuge to oil drilling as a long-overdue security measure. Their arguments, in strictly economic terms, are compelling. New oil fields could rekindle Alaska’s faltering economy, boost profit shares in retirement portfolios as a greater percent of Americans enter their golden years, and reduce our dependence on increasingly hostile foreign markets. Oil would flow for the next several decades through new pipelines built across currently virgin tundra, offsetting dwindling production in adjacent arctic fields. Yet, at our current rate of consumption, that oil only would supply the energy-thirsty United States for three years.
Just a few years ago, under another administration, it appeared we might be on the verge of a new Age of Enlightenment. Great thinkers in our nation espoused a broader interpretation of tolerance, and put renewed trust in the scientific method. But in the last eleven months there’s been an ambitious backslide into a new dark age, where short-term profit and a disregard for environmental early warning signs extinguish insightful progress, and the hope that we might reverse a human-propelled ecological disaster.
While this night should mark a return to the light, I see descending darkness. From the perspective of an Abel, the question isn’t how much oil we can recover from the Arctic Refuge through a system of new ice roads and drilling platforms. The question is, how much time do we have left before the altered atmosphere creates a planet too warm for human and nonhuman life?
As a naturalist and marine educator, my aim is use the marriage of art and science to plant seeds of awareness in the fertile minds of our children. If an eight-year-old can recognize that the oil industry pollutes the ocean, maybe a twelve-year-old can grasp the concept of climate warming, and do her small part to reverse that trend. Maybe these same students, once they reach college, will embrace the gift of sound reasoning on which science is based.
Today, the students close their paint boxes, and set their little ocean scenes on a counter so the glue can dry. They circle up again, sitting on the floor with expectant faces. I ask them to now imagine they are tiny hermit crabs, or sea stars living in the wet sand. We talk briefly about what it would be like to have giant two-leggeds lifting us out of the water, and how we would want to be returned safely to our homes, rather than dropped in a bucket or tucked into a pocket.
As they shout their goodbyes and head back to their classroom, I watch them go. They are my greatest hope on this, the longest night of the year. A hope that we are raising up a new generation of Abels who will care passionately enough about wild things and wild places to safeguard what remains.
Jessica Shepherd is a naturalist, writer, and marine educator in Homer, Alaska. She is the Education Coordinator at the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, with the University of Alaska Anchorage. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing, non-fiction at UAA.
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