When I sat down to write a few words about my journey to the Brooks Range in Alaska, I stared at the blank screen for a ridiculous amount of time. Finally, a random memory lodged itself in my mind. I couldn’t shake it, so in a writerly leap of faith this account of Alaska’s remotest region begins ten years ago on a crowded London subway.
I was studying literature. Specifically, I was on my way home from a pub crawl, when I pulled out a copy of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was a halfhearted attempt to prepare for class, but as I read the poem I felt as if a beloved friend had just slid into the seat next to me: How do you know but ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? Across a span of 300 years, this voice articulated ecstatic wonder toward the world: The howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are all portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. Blake’s exultation appealed to something essential inside my own heart. Exuberance is Beauty! said he, and I agreed.
The following week, I turned in a paper on the subject of Blake, but when the professor handed it back to me he had a blatant expression of scorn on his face: “Chalk up another one for Blake. That’s the sad thing about Blake fans: they all think they’re the only one.” I was crushed by this dismissal. Apparently my identification with Blake was a tired cliché.
I sense the legacy of this incident in moments when I hesitate to speak freely and deeply about what moves me. And here’s where the Alaskan wilderness comes in: When we travel in a wild landscape, our “normal” ways of thinking are quickly replaced by a soul-scouring rapture that will clarify our understanding of human nature as well as the environment around us. My journey in Alaska was filled with this rapture and exuberance. I believe we humans are in great need of these sensations, and it is out of a sense of urgency that I describe my experience here.
We had flown in from all corners of the country for an eleven-day trip on the Canning River. We were eight people in two rafts, all wearing binoculars. During sunlit nights, we sat on tundra ridges watching semi-palmated plover and short-eared owls. Infinitely changing angles of light took our breath away, and we had run out of words to express our amazement at where we were. Observing a wolf, we wondered what we humans thought we were doing on the planet.
On the ninth day we spotted a bird’s nest from the river. High on a cliff face, the nest was massive and disheveled and held three gyrfalcon chicks: two sleeping, one tottering around the periphery. They were huge bumbling things, fuzzy gray with blue-tinted old man’s faces. The tottering one settled down and regarded us with one eye open. The two sleepers awoke, and all of us by the river gasped as the chicks bumped each other and nearly knocked the totterer out of the nest. We worried when one of them choked on the stringy remnants of a meal. They stretched their winglets. They cried out for food. They fell asleep, leaning precariously near the edge of the only world they knew. We rooted for them with all our might. We were a line of comrades in rain pants and goofy smiles: two teachers, a man who led African safaris, a metal sculptor from New York City, a retired lawyer and two guides who were as excited as we were. Our world became the world of the chicks, creatures that would eventually fly over tundra and snow, over that part of the map we call “refuge” and the part we call “petroleum reserve.”
Who are we if we cannot protect what is fragile? What have we become if we do not speak out for the things that ignite our rapture and evoke our love? We will live in that hell we create when we know what is right yet we go on living as if we do not. He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence, says Blake, and I agree.
My cynical professor had it exactly backwards: it is not sad, but amazing that Blake’s words (not to mention experiences of the wild) empower us with passion. Our rapture is a compass by which to direct our energies. By following this instrument, we will steer ourselves back to a life in which we do what is closest to our nature: we love and delight in each nest of chicks as if they were our own blood. We protect their home as if our own children lived there.