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Red Desert (March 13, 2002)

Wilderness is something you fight for, so said Bob Marshall, a founder (1935) of the Wilderness Society. How's the fight going? How are we doing?

From Wilderness Watch, a recent mailing:

“…those of us who've experienced the spirit of Wilderness or who simply appreciate knowing it still exists also know that it is worth every effort to protect.”

Every effort! That suggests severe struggle, a readiness to go the distance. Great! What's the plan? Each of us is asked to contribute $25, entitling us to a quarterly newsletter and “action alerts.” You know, those alarm cries with instructions attached: Send a form letter or sign a petition. If you have time, write your very own letter. Is that all? Is that the “every effort”?

Big Green enviro mailings have a disheartening sameness, as if a single ad agency services them all, clichés abounding: “our national heritage,” “our vanishing wildlands,” “the spirit of the wild.” As I scan them I feel unreality creeping in, the world turning into two-dimensional cut-outs shepherding the core message: We're the professionals, the experts; send money, follow instructions.

From an Earth Justice ad, “Learn how you can support our efforts.”

No, I send my pittances to a couple of regional outfits, one in the Adirondacks, the other in Wyoming. Their communications to members include genuine, difficult research as well as alarms, and they know their territories, the emotions, the ways the winds blow.

Natural Resources Defense Council action alert, Robert Redford speaking:

“Our spiritual continuity as a nation, which comes with experiencing these natural treasures, is something we owe to our children and grandchildren…”

Spiritual, another sameness, probably the most overused word in the whole enviro vocabulary, but I was almost ready to go along with Redford's “spiritual continuity,” the implication that continuity is a value. I caught myself in time, noticed the standard glib assumption that we already have a handle on continuity, that it's a singular “thing” we all recognize as well as the tune of Star Spangled Banner. No, we Americans are only beginning the long dig, the discovery of the past, where we've been and what we've done.

As for “owing” children and grandchildren,” let's realize that we're really talking about our own lives, the living of now, making what we desire, the future beginning yesterday. The precious petroleum our corporations and military machine are squandering is our future. We're in the flow, now, feeling the badness of it, “mad as hell,” I hope, not standing off in pious abstraction.

Like an underline of these sour notes, recent news of another Green Giant biting the dust, UK director of Greenpeace accepting a position with Burson-Marstellar, a lobbying outfit whose clients include Monsanto. See Cockburn and St. Clair, Anderson Valley Advertiser, Jan. 9, 2002. Dangerous, those cuddlings in Washington, they create a slavish devotion to the art of the possible. Case in point right now is the single-minded campaign to keep drill rigs off the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), that “untrammeled” wilderness routinely compared to Africa's Serengeti, so diverse and populous are the big mammals: caribou, grizzlies, polar bears, mountain sheep, musk ox, wolves, lynxes, wolverines, foxes. “Our last great wilderness” that must be sequestered, passed on to our future generations.

What's wrong with these pictures? The possessive tone: Even “the wild” embedded in that kind of language seems threatened, as though on the verge of turning into a precious object and taken south for display.

Where, in the public print on ANWR is there mention of Canadians, what they're trying to do with their huge part of the circum-arctic? They have two national parks right up against ANWR. Where are the Siberians and the Russians with all their faults and efforts regarding whales and bears and reindeer? And the Scandinavians and Finns and Icelanders? Where is the overview, the one that biologists in several nations have tried to bring forward for serious discussion: the Arctic entire? ANWR, great as it is, and we do have to save ALL of it, is only a segment of a vast fling of land and ice and ocean. Those places, the tundras, the mountain ranges, the ocean life, the animals and far north peoples, all endangered.

Native peoples are often referred to, in passing, but the only serious reference I have is by Robert Krear (a biologist who knows the country). He makes a solid point. “The destruction of the 20,000-year-old Gwich'in culture is too great a price to pay…” (The Trail-Gazette, Oct. 19, 2001).

From the other side, we hear that some of the coastal Inupiat would welcome a degree of industrial development. I'm wondering what they think about “the wild.” Maybe they'd prefer to not say, out loud. And are they a part of “our” heritage? Who is encompassed by that careless possessive, and by what right? And who can speak without a forked tongue about those who live the long dark arctic winters as well as the sparkling days of summer when visitors drop in by aircraft and then go away?

I've mentioned just a few ornery pieces of a very big puzzle. Here in the lower 48 the same hunt is on, for more oil, more methane. The Red Desert of Wyoming is hard-pressed, Environmental Impact Statements underway, the Bureau of Land Management poised to issue permits. Don't let labels on the map fool you, most of western Wyoming is a wilderness of sorts, a very special sort. Not pristine (can't we retire that word for awhile?), it has many a lonesome mile of gravel or dirt road leading to abandoned places, thriving ranch headquarters, oil rigs, methane pumping stations. And the monster machine that feeds coal to the Jim Bridger power plant is still on the move, plowing the sagelands. But you can stand on a mountain ridge and look across great rolls of high desert… sage and rough grasslands… to more mountain ranges on far-off horizons. And the animals are still there, all but the buffalo. Antelope, mountain sheep, horses and half-wild cattle, desert-dwelling elk, mule deer, coyotes, falcons, eagles, prairie dogs and rattlesnakes.

I've heard the Red Desert compared to the Serengeti and that highlights a problem, Red Desert activists competing with ANWR for activist attention. Desert against tundra, elk against caribou. There are other places in the same fix, places of integrity, “trammeled” by “man” or not, they're part of the earth. Gulf Coast, Rocky Mountain Front, southern Utah, Missouri Breaks… all waiting for the green light that will flash as soon as ANWR wins, loses or is miserably compromised. “Lesser” places, having been served by lips only, will then stand wide open to “environmentally sensitive” high-tech, state-of-the-art oil/gas/coal onslought. We're trapped, by all these abstractions and evasions. I suspect that a lot of us are working very hard to avoid facing the big picture, the necessity for uniting in an all-out struggle against the entire energy sell-out.

Here's a scene, from Ohio, about 30 years ago, a meeting of activists trying to keep the Army Engineers away from a free-flowing stream. Two Sierra Club honchos huddle, standing aside. I overhear one say to the other, “This one is a loser,” and the other guy nods. That's the last we see of them. Sure, we were losing and knew it, but kept on, trying to get in a few licks on the way down. Why? Because that's the way to show yourself that you're serious, and while you're about it you show others that you're serious. You're so serious you can laugh, and cry, free of the clinch and grinch of going along to get along. It's how you reach, it's a way of pushing out, out, against that secret boundary lurking inside every one of us. Besides, sometimes you read it wrong, and a victory comes your way. Yes, there are times when, preferably in the early stages, it's best to back off from a sure loser. Run, to fight again another day.

These things are hard to call. I think the Sierrans called it wrong that night. And then there's that pesky thing about trust. Once in, can you just walk away, without a word to the others?

A true and valued friend once said, “The American people will have to learn to trust each other.” We're a long way from that. We'll have to do it by junking the corporate mode of environmental organizing, in order to seriously build democracy into all our ways. That's something to work toward, and let's not be too slow-pokey about it. Meanwhile, we seem to be tied to tedious paper and e-mail campaigns that begin with packets of instructions and end in hang-dog victories, or papered-over defeats, campaigns that ignore the people on the ground, the survivors, the watchers, the workers, those who keep our species alive and alert, day by day.

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