A selection from my essay collection Nature is Enough.
Dirty Glaciers (Better than Heaven)
“Doubling cape after cape, passing uncounted islands, new combinations break on the view in endless variety, sufficient to satisfy the lover of wild beauty through a whole life.”
~John Muir, Travels in Alaska
On a family journey this summer I ventured by car, plane, bus, train, foot and ship to the still wild lands of Alaska. We saw the rugged and majestic peak of Denali (McKinley if you prefer), observed grizzlies and caribou, mountain sheep and fox, moose and eagles. Coming back down the Inside Passage on the Marine Highway the jagged mountains, ice-cold whale-blessed waters and emerald islands gathered around us with a deep, dark sense of wonder and mystery. There is nothing like the wilderness for restoring the feeling of relation, connection (perhaps more meaningful words than “spiritual”). Honestly, at times it seems too big–a frightening kinship with distant relatives I’m not sure I really want to know!
One can be grateful that a little over 100 years ago Theodore Roosevelt had the vision to preserve over 20 million acres of forested land in Southeastern Alaska (Tongass, Chugach and the Alexander Archipelago). TR’s expansive instincts, so infuriating to some, set aside something grander, something even our wildest imagination cannot get a hold of. And so it must be.
As we enjoyed the rather leisurely, buoyant experience, I read some of my favorite passages from John Muir in his memoir, Travels in Alaska. Since I consider Muir one of Nature’s Chaplains I once again delighted in his delight and recalled my decision a few years back to transform super-natural faith into natural delight.
Up in the northland where there is still a palpable feeling of frontier, we learned more of First Nations culture while visiting museums, reading historical pieces and speaking with Native Alaskans (we stopped for lunch in Wasilla, but the only ex-governor sightings were on calendars and coloring books). The raw emotion of the injustice done to the aboriginal people by our culture and religion was painfully present. I felt taken back over one hundred years to the time when Muir was exploring this same land. Stepping off his ship into an old Stickeen village south of Wrangell, Muir thought it strange that the missionaries were so interested in a deserted place. Before he witnessed the chopping down of the sacred totem poles by the party, he exulted in pure Muirian language: “Divinity abounded nevertheless; the day was divine and there was plenty of natural religion in the newborn landscapes that were being baptized in sunshine, and sermons in the glacial boulders on the beach where we landed.” The Scotsman of Yosemite, forced to memorize scriptures as a child, utilized the old language to express a wider, more inclusive spirituality undistracted by super-naturalism. Unafraid of immersion in the wild beauty, he was fully disgusted by the actions of those who came to that land to alter it with altars, to tame its wilderness and wild people who called it home. Thankfully it appears they were not completely successful (sure is satisfying at times to see how profoundly some ancestors failed in their efforts to impose their will and their way, isn’t it?
Our ship sailed deep into Glacier Bay. Like some living cathedral (only better), it was akin to sailing straight into a sanctuary where the roofless beauty leaves you speechless. We drew near to the Margerie Glacier with its 350-foot wall of crystal-blue ice. Unlike anything I’d ever seen, the dramatic “calving” of huge chunks of ice made for quite a silencing show. In close proximity to the Margerie is the Grand Pacific Glacier that stretches across the border from Canada. This glacier is the widest in the bay (2 miles). With frigid water below, frosty air all around, and ice shelves as far as your eye can see, you almost feel you’re inside the refrigerator/freezer of the world.
This naturalist lesson only highlights an observation. On our visit the entire ship was focused, with eager expectation, on the cracking and crumbling drama of the Margerie. This was completely understandable since the Grand Pacific, even though 25 miles long and the widest, is covered in dark rock and dirt. It is what is referred to as a “dirty glacier.” It doesn’t draw attention and just isn’t as full of sexy drama as its more spectacular neighbor. Few cameras were focused on the muddy mammoth.
I suppose it’s time to draw the connections, to make my point about “spiritual things” and ethics. For a number of years I served as an Interfaith Chaplain, first with mentally exceptional adults, then in a county jail and finally on the streets with “residentially challenged” people. I ventured into many dark, damp and dirty places to practice a presence of compassion. To sum up the experiences I might simply describe the scene I witnessed: Commanding the center of attention was business and busyness, money and work, traffic, and the frantic and frenzied scramble to get more. In this madness stood the faith community, theology and study of sacred books, ritual, tradition and great talk about something called “community.” Many stood or sat mesmerized by the drama, expectantly awaiting the next chunk of exhilarating wisdom to come sliding down from the pulpit of pastor or professor. Off to the side, rather hidden (though in full view if one cared to notice), was the very un-dramatic and ever disturbing, uncomfortable and offensive distraction of the unclean, the dirty ones. What emerged from all this mucking around in the muck was a Copernican revolution in my thinking and vocation. My Glacier Bay moment came like a cold arctic wind. What are we seeing? What are we not seeing? It makes all the difference. Seriously. We cannot practice any form of ethics without a fresh formation of seeing, of sight, of vision.
The troubling term “wild” is disturbing for a reason. This is not a place where we immediately feel a belonging, though the expansive beauty attracts and seduces our senses. But somehow we know that we indeed do belong, it is a part of us and we of it. The land is us, not merely the U.S., a bordered state or political coloring book. In seeing the wild we see if not sense our own wildness and the essential need to care for that somehow, some way.
A tourguide on the train directed our attention to the vast green open spaces and said something I thought was a joke but wasn’t: “Just keep looking out there and you’ll see things that don’t seem to fit–those are the animals.” I just shook my head in amazement at that level of ignorance. Who doesn’t fit out there? Who would perish in a very short time in this country? A local bus driver boasted that he gets an annual oil dividend check along with all Alaskans, using part of it to hunt caribou, moose and bear, and of course catch just about all the salmon he wants. He was so proud. We were so shocked. With shortsightedness the open spaces of wild beauty become what one lumber company executive called “resource inventory systems.”
An environmental ethics is needed that includes all ethical systems because the environment is our teacher, text and tradition. In other words, there can be no ethics or even spirituality without an immersion in the great classroom and sanctuary that is Nature. Muir knew it, felt it, lived it. So did his friends John Burroughs and Teddy Roosevelt. We need to listen, and get dirty; we need “dirty” ethics.
In one of the most stunning passages in his journals, John of the Mountains wrote, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars. . .still all is Beauty!” (June 26, 1875). Did Muir see the dirt? Clearly he did. Was he sensitive to the turmoil and tragedy, the disease, death and destruction on the planet? No doubt. Yet for spiritual (that is, wonder-filled) explorers like Muir there is no separation from the dirty glaciers of our existence, no disconnection from the wild beauty of our surrounding, embracing home, except in our minds. To the extent our religious traditions acknowledge and celebrate the connections, they have relevance. To the extent our “spirituality” can see and value and participate in the hidden wonders, it has meaning. If we can call any God we choose “Beauty” then maybe, just maybe, we can accept the dirt as beautiful and practice an ethic that encompasses all points of the compass, as people of the land, the ground, the dirt, the water, the grinding glaciers still carving our heavenly, better-than-any-heaven-you-can-make-up, home.