Friday, August 27, 2010

Images of semi-sustainability

I don't know anyone who loves a place as much as David loves Acorn Abbey. It's not just the home he loves, it's also the plants, trees, stream, and animals that call this place home, too. Even though Mr. Groundhog—our leaf-eating neighbor—is often found snacking in our sweet potato patch, David doesn't have the heart to shoot him like any normal farmer would. When we went through a dry spell and the bees didn't have enough flowers, he refused to cut the flowers off our basil plants because "the bees have to eat too."

He spends a large part of his day scanning weather updates on the internet to keep tabs on the storms that will make the plants grow and help him realize his green-bearded, vine-choked vision of Acorn Abbey. David's mood—I've learned—is oftentimes directly linked to the weather. If it's hot and dry for a protracted period of time, his curmudgeonly side is sure to rears its head. When the radar shows that other counties are getting dumped on when we're not, he's overcome with envy.

"It's just our luck," he says, gazing at a hopelessly blue sky. "I swear I'm going to sell this place in move to the mountains where there's rain."

The truth is that we do get our fair share of rain. And sometimes—even when we do—David is still unhappy if he knows some other place is getting more. David could be standing knee-high in a flood and still be dissatisified. "You think this is rain," he'd say. "You should see what Yadkin County's getting on the radar!"

When we get dumped on with rain, though, he's as happy as can be—which is, to me, a reaction that only someone who dearly loves his home and feels a sense of unity with the natural world can have.

Anyway, I want to point out that the following are images of semi-sustainability because—of all the lessons I've learned this summer—I've realized that it takes a lot of determination, sweat, blood, money, know-how (of which I had none), and—most importantly—rain to even begin to live off the land.

It's David's goal to set the clocks back to 1935; to grow his own food and to cut back on all the non-necessities. It's a work in progress. When he bought his five acres of land, the plot of land where his garden would go used to be a pine forest standing atop eye-stingingly acidic soil. To go from a stand of pines to a fully sustainable garden overnight is impossible. It takes time and a lot of work. That's why he gave me room and board this summer.

These are not images of complete sustainability (if that's even possible) quite yet. These are images of the projects we've undertaken to begin to lessen our dependence on the corporate food industry, and to sow the seeds today, which—hopefully—will make Acorn Abbey's inhabitants happier and healthier human beings when reaped tomorrow.

Our first order of business was to build a fence. David's garden and orchard—if left unprotected—would be at the mercy of a large white tail deer population. We bought around 40 4x4's and 400 feet of six-foot-tall welded wire fencing. David—who prefers work in the kitchen—groaned and moaned throughout the process. I, however, loved every minute of it.

In order to dig the holes, we rented a two-man mechanical hole digger. David's lawn was so clay-baked that it took us several days for the machine to dig the holes. The key was to hold onto the handles tightly because the torque of the machine was powerful enough to throw you if an insufficient amount of strength was applied.

Around hole 30 of 40, I started day-dreaming and lost focus. When the digger jolted against a rock I accidentally released the handles. When I regained my balance, I saw David in the air flying across the garden—zero-gravity-Matrix-style—as if he just took a roundhouse kick to the chest.

I apologized profusely after he staggered to his feet. There was a good cut on his shoulder, and he seemed a little rattled. The digger was still swinging round and round, helicoptering uncontrollably in the hole. The handles were moving so quickly and so violently, we didn't dare try to grab them.

Here's David about to do something stupid, which, thank god, he didn't do.

The motor choked out fifteen minutes later and we couldn't restart it. So, between the the broken machine, David's brush with what could have been a serious injury, and a general distrust for all things mechanical, we made it our goal, for the rest of the summer, to use only hand tools (except for a power drill, lawnmower, and weed-whacker). Which meant that it was now my job to manually dig the rest of the holes—a duty, I found, to be quicker and more enjoyable than machine work.

Once the fence was up, we started planting. This is a grape trellis. We planted two native varieties (scuppernong and muscadine). They'll start producing next year.

Here's the orchard. Last year he planted eight apple trees. This year we added two peaches and three figs.

Here are three blueberry bushes. We have reason to suspect that Mr. Groundhog has been stealing all our berries this summer.

Our compost bin, at the moment, is overflowing. It's 3/4ths full of chicken crap, which—from what I've heard—is rich in plant-loving nutrients. All our food waste goes to the chickens, which then goes to the bin. Next year, David will mulch the garden with the compost.

Our fall veggies just planted: beets, mustard, and turnip.

Early in the summer we went to a berry picking farm and made about 20 jars of strawberry preserves.

This is homemade blackberry pie. I picked the berries, David baked the pie.

I planted Shitake mushroom spores into these logs by a shaded creek on his land. If all goes well, these logs will be covered with mushrooms in 5-12 months, and will continue to produce for 3-5 years.

After the fence was erected, we let the chickens out of their coop to roam and wander. Since then, we feed them 75% less chicken mesh because they now snack on insects all day. The eggs, since then, have been noticeably tastier, and the chickens, noticeably happier.

David has five acres of land. We've developed one acre, and have allowed the other four acres to exist as an animal sanctuary. We have many different animals that call Acorn Abbey home. Among them are a few bats that are endangered in these parts. We put up two "bat houses" to encourage population growth. Below, there's a picture of a bat that watched us eat dinner by clinging to the window screen.

We planted our crops in straw bales because David's soil is still too poor for a proper garden to grow. In time, it will be revitalized with mulch, fertilizer, and compost.

What we can't get from the garden, we get from a local farmers market. Once a month, David drives into town to get what we can't get from the market like cheese, pasta, and rice.

Inspired by the film No Impact Man, we decided to stop using toilet paper, which kills trees and takes far longer to break down than human waste in his septic tank. On my hiking excursions, I've used leaves, sticks and rocks, so using a piece of cloth is no great sacrifice for me. This will, however, most certainly not be a custom I carry with me to Duke because carrying stinky rags with me on top of the van smells that have saturated into my skin would certainly ostracize me even more from the student body.

One reason to attempt to live sustainably is to limit your impact on the environment. Our food industry is floating on a sea of oil. We drive to the supermarket to buy food that has been shipped there from the ends of the earth, using up costly fossil fuels in the process. Organic farming or buying locally reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

But this is only half the reason why organic farming intrigues me. When in school, it's easy for me to recognize just how incomplete my life is. When almost all of my time is spent in libraries and my nose in books, it's only natural that I begin to feel desires for the fundamental ingredients of a happy life that are clearly missing from my day-to-day existence. For me, those desires—among others—are for physical labor and the outdoors.

One of my favorite pastimes this summer has been sitting on the porch and admiring my day's labor. I love feeling tired, and fulfilled after a hard day's work. I love wolfishly devouring the food I've planted in great quantities. Most of all, I love lifting heavy things, getting my clothes drenched in sweat, and being covered from head to toe in dirt.

Too much time spent on the computer last semester gave me my first nasty case of Carpel tunnel. My palms turn soft and delicate; my fingers, aristocratic. That's my biggest gripe with my lifestyle at school: there's a huge imbalance between seclusion and society, work and leisure, security and independence, work of the mind and work of the body. I could work sixteen hours straight on some meaningful essay or article, and go to bed not feeling half as fulfilled with my day's labor as I would on a day that I'd planted trees for an hour.

What is the best way to live is a question I continually ponder. I certainly don't have it all figured out, but after each endeavor and after each experience, I feel I'm slowly getting there. Just to throw a few numbers out there... I think this formula might best suit me spread out over the course of a given year: 5 weeks of hard physical labor (chopping wood, building fence, lifting heavy things), 35 weeks of light labor (maintaining garden, tending animals) and 12 weeks of ultra-light labor (cooking, cleaning).

My mind turns soft when my body does, so I view hard physical labor as less a pain and more an essential need. I like to bleed a little everyday. Maybe scrape my arm against a blackberry bush, or slice open a tender callus. I prefer tough, desensitized hands; the sort of hands terrible for love-making; hands—armed with jagged-edged calluses—that are so rough they'd leave white lines of scraped skin cells on a woman like barbed-wire scars on a cow.

When you're working for yourself and living minimally, my experience tells me that work no longer feels like work. And no longer does your work life feel separate from your personal life; rather, they become intimately entwined. And the pace and seclusion of abbey life gives its monks time for meditation, art, books, and the enjoyment of simple things: watching the chickens scratch, looking at the stars at night, listening to the wind blow in the trees.

Of course, monk life is not without drawbacks. On my few excursions into town, I found that some of my social skills had atrophied considerably. When I bumped into people, I was overly self-conscious, even nervous.

Over the course of the summer, I've probably seen less than a dozen cars pass David's home. Sometimes David will casually remark that the "neighbors are out walking." I pretend not to be excited, but within seconds my palms are plastered to the window pane like a suction-cupped Garfield. I take in the views of their each stride with as much wonder and delight as if we'd spotted an alien starship carving crop circles in the field out yonder.

To get out more, I'd occasionally take runs down sleepy country roads to the Dan River. David loves apple pie, so when I spotted someone who has an apple tree I stopped to try to talk her into giving me some.

"Dems dare some mighty fine apples you got," I said, admiring her tree. Why I suddenly started speaking in a caricatured southern dialect both baffled and worried me.

The woman looked at me curiously but kindly. "Well, thank you," she said.

"Lord a'mercy, I reckon that they'd make a mighty fine pie. Any chance I could buy a few off you." Lord a' mercy? Why the fuck are you speaking this way? This isn't even how southern people talk.

"These apples ain't mine. Let me ask Genie if you can have some." She looked over to the double wide and yelled "GENIE!!" A naked black toddler stumbled out, followed by Genie—a large white woman with straggly brown hair.

"This man here wants to buy some apples from us."

"I's jus lookin at dem mighty fine apples of yurs them-air yonder. I feels like I ain't had sump'n teet so good as apple pie since Sherman marched through Savannah." By this time, I wanted to forget about the apples and get away. The women looked at each other confused.

"Well, they ain't ready yet," Genie said. "But you can come back in a couple weeks when they're ripe. Are you out runnin? Do you want a glass of water?"

"Oh no missus. I sure don' wanna kick up a ruckus. I hafta get going anyway," I said, starting to run away.

"Well you can pick the apples whenever you want. Sure you don't want any water? It's awfully hot out."

"I do declare," I said, now in mid-stride.

I made my way to the Dan. It was a Monday afternoon and I had the river all to myself. Below is my first and—don't worry—last poem that will grace the pages of this blog.

I’m sittin nipple-high in the Dan
Ain’t got no schedule. Ain’t got no plan
Got nowhere to go. Got nowhere to be soon
Just thought I’d sit in the Dan this Monday afternoon

On the bridge ahead, one guy’s watchin me
He’s wearin an orange hardhat I can see
Wonder what he’s thinking of me just sittin there
Without any worry, without any care

Maybe he’s thinkin, as he takes his breather
that I got no job. No woman, no money neither
And he can prolly tell that I got no 401(k), nor any insurance plan
but that’s just fine, cause it ain’t me lookin at him sittin in the Dan

(Thanks go to David for a few of the photos, and of course for letting me stay with him.)

Friday, August 20, 2010

Rule of Thumb #12: Trust

Days 25-28. June 8-11, 2007. Aurora, Colorado to Niagara Falls, New York. (1,757 miles)

“Keep your hands where I can see them!” the cop screeched. “Put them on the hood of your van!”

Tom and I stood side by side with our palms flat against the hood of his massive white Chevy. I’d seen scenes like this played out hundreds of times in movies, so I spread my legs as wide as I could, as if struggling to do a split.

Tom—a Korean-born, American-adopted, 29-year-old cook—had picked me up that morning in Aurora, Colorado. I knew an old friend just outside of Denver so I stayed at his place for a day, vegging out, watching films, and updating my journal. I found Tom on Craigslist where he put up an ad looking for passengers to help pay for gas on his road trip from his home in Oregon to the east coast.

Around the time we drove through Lincoln, Nebraska it was getting dark so we decided to get off the I-80 in hopes of finding a quiet place to park and set up camp for the night.

On a sleepy country road we happened upon an abandoned school next to what looked like a thousand-mile-long square of cornfield illuminated by the moon. The stars sparkled and crickets strung us a steady electric hum. We cracked open a few PBRs and boiled ramen noodles on our stoves for dinner.

It was a fairly idyllic scene until we were interrupted by a dark figure who advanced toward us with a flashlight. We called out “Hi there!,” but he turned off his light and shuffled away in the opposite direction. Tom and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and continued enjoying our meals. Fifteen minutes later, another man bearing a flashlight emerged from the cornfield.

“How many of you are there?” the man growled in the dark.

“Just us,” Tom said casually.

“How many of you are there?” he repeated. He came close enough so that we could see he was a policeman.


“Is there anybody else?”

“No just us,” we both said, each, now, with voices quavering.

“Keep your hands where I can see them! Put them on the hood of the van,” demanded the cop, who sounded far more frightened than we did.

“What are you guys doing?” he said, oscillating his light from side to side.

“Camping, I guess,” I said.

“Do you have anything… You know… illegal?”


“Can I see your IDs?”

“My wallet is inside in the center console in the van,” Tom said.

“Can I go in and search your van?”

“Yeah, sure, I don’t care,” Tom said.

“YES OR NO!?” the cop roared, clearly dissatisfied with Tom’s word choice.

“Sure, I don’t care. I mean, Yes!” Tom sputtered nervously.

The cop proceeded to scour the van for anything, you know, illegal. I was still pressed against the hood, my groin beginning to feel the strain. After he got done looking in the van, he dipped his hand deep into my back pocket, giving my ass a deep tissue massage as he struggled to fish out my wallet.

“This is private property,” the cop said. “You can’t be here. Why do you think it’s okay to be here?”

“We didn’t know,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Well you can’t be here. People get pretty heated in these parts. You guys just wait here. I’m going to see if anything was stolen.” He ambled over to the abandoned school that, from what we could tell, only contained a scattering of wooden chairs draped in spider webs.

Seeing that the chairs were still in place strewn across the floor, the cop let us go and gave us directions to Mahoney State Park, where we parked for the night, electing not to pay the required camping fee on our way out the next morning.

Tom was headed to Grand Rapids, Michigan to see a friend from a Bible camp he used to work at. For the whole next day we play acted our dialogue with the cop.

“Okay, I want to be the cop this time,” I’d tell Tom. By the time I got to “YES OR NO!?” I’d be giggling uncontrollably.

While Tom snoozed in the passenger seat, I popped in a Neil Young CD mix that Natalia had made for me. We were cruising along Iowa’s Highway 30—one of the prettiest roads I’ve ever been on. Tom and I had—it seemed—wandered into a Norman Rockwell painting. The modest country homes looked as if they’d just received a fresh coating of paint the week before. The fields were neat and trim, with lines of rich black soil in between the crop rows. Curvy, parallel arcs of corn stood strong and erect.

Tom was smart and funny and we got along. And like on almost all my other rides, we ended up sharing intimate details of our lives. I told him about my Natalia conundrum: how I thought I’d found the “one,” yet didn’t have the slightest urge to settle down. He told me about the depression he’d suffered from for years, related to his adoption. He even admitted that he’d even tried to take his life.

Tom was a Bible “literalist” meaning that he takes everything the Bible says literally. “Even Noah’s Arc?” I asked. “What about Adam and Eve?” I asked him these questions politely, but deep down I couldn’t help but question the sanity of someone who believes it’s possible to live inside a fish for three days. He wasn’t pushy with his beliefs and I didn’t force the issue, so we managed to dodge what could have been a bond-breaking religious row.

After having my first (and last) White Castle burger experience in Illinois, we parked for the night on a patch of grass near Lake Michigan. Tom slept on the bed in the back and I wormed into my sleeping bag on the van floor in front of the middle pilot chairs. In the morning, we could see the towers of Chicago in the distance.

We arrived at his friend Michelle’s parents’ home in Grand Rapids in the late afternoon of our third day together. Their home sat nicely in an affluent, upper-middle class suburban neighborhood. The family ordered us a pizza and we recounted the scene with the Nebraskan cop much to everyone’s delight. Michelle said we could sleep there tonight.

The family looked a little too perfect. The father wore slacks, and tucked in a polo that had a little alligator stitched onto the breast. The mother wore a yellow sundress. Michelle’s brother—get this—parted his hair. Hedgerows were expertly trimmed and the home was immaculately clean. Their coffee table was so polished I could clearly see my three day’s worth of stubble.

Maybe they really were perfect. But it all just seemed so strange to me because I come from a family in which males are considered “overdressed” if they're wearing something more than a six-year-old pair of briefs; and a home where things are “clean” even when a tumbleweed of golden retriever sheddings bounce from one end of the kitchen to the other.

After supper we went down into their refurbished basement where Michelle and her brother popped in the film “Bruce Almighty.” Halfway through, her father came down the stairs. I saw Michelle look at him frightfully and I wondered what was about to happen.

Tom saw what I saw, too, so all eyes were on the father who sat down on the sofa and nervously rubbed his hands from his thighs to his knees.

“So,” the father said, looking at me and Tom, “have you guys been sleeping in your van at night?”

Tom said that we had been.

“Well,” the father started. “I’m not really comfortable with two guys sleeping here with Michelle and her mom.”

“That’s fine,” Tom jumped in, eager to get started on ‘damage control.’ “We totally understand.”

“Me and Michelle’s mother talked, and we’re not very comfortable with two guys in the house. I thought you guys all knew each other better. I’m sorry. I hope you can see it from my perspective.”

And so, we were kicked out of the house. I’m not sure what did it. Maybe it was the fact that I was a hitchhiker. Or that Tom and I had only known each other for two days. Or perhaps the mother was taken aback when she caught me swiping my finger on her mantel piece in search of a morsel of dust.

Tom and I went back to the van. I derided the father, but Tom was more forgiving. No one appeared to trust us, but Tom trusted me enough to let me sleep in his van, and drive it half the time. In fact, we got along so well that he decided to take a detour to Niagara Falls so he could see the Falls for the first time and to drop me off at my home.

On our fourth and final day together, we opted to take a shortcut through Ontario, Canada, but Canada wouldn’t let us in because Tom didn’t have his registration or passport, and because there was something on his record about peeing on a police car in a drunken stupor five years before.

Instead of going through Canada, we drove through Detroit, a city that—between the mile-long lines of contiguous graffiti and pavement so cracked it looks like it rains anvils in Michigan—makes the roads of Buffalo (my equally depressed hometown) seem like the sort of place where floating angels welcome road-tripping visitors with harpsichords.

Then we briefly passed through Ohio and Pennsylvania en route to New York.

I knew that, at this point, with a few hours of daylight left, I was finally going to make it home. I hadn’t seen my friends or family in over a year. While I had lived away from home before, I’d never been gone for more than a couple months at a time.

As I drew closer, I became more and more excited. I was ready for my journey to end. I was, however, a little anxious about telling my mom about how I traveled home.

At a gas station in Pennsylvania, I cooked up my last Mountain House meal on my backpacking stove. A gruff-looking middle-aged clerk rushed out to ask what I was doing.

“Just boiling water.”

“Whew…” he said, greatly relieved, his hands on his hips. “I thought you were lighting a bomb or something. You never know these days.”

For the last year I’d been almost completely out of touch with the news, but I thought I surely would have heard something about terrorists targeting Sonocos and Exxons in rural America. Oh, the paranoia. Over the course of my journey, I’d learned that paranoia had swept across our once wild and courageous and free country as if some giant cropduster had flown over in sown fear into the bellies of every man, woman, and child.

Almost every ride would tell me something along the lines of: “You know, you shouldn’t be hitching in this day and age. It ain’t how it used to be. Nope. Times are different now.” They’d look wistfully out the window, imagining a different time—some time long ago when the world was supposedly a safer, kinder, nicer place.

By the time this journey was winding down, I’d come to a very different conclusion—a conclusion that I still wholeheartedly believe.

The Nebraskan cop, Michelle’s father, and this gas station clerk live in a world where people fear before they trust. It’s a world where people are afraid to go for walks at night. Where parents don’t let their kids wander through their neighborhood. Where young men and women don’t think about embarking on adventures for fear of all the terribleness out there.

I’d seen a different world. One that is full of beauty and wonder and adventure. A world where people are welcomed with open arms into open homes. It's a world where we see the best in people instead of seeing the worst. A world where even a cynic can come to love and feel pride for his country and countrymen.

This world, of course, is not devoid of danger, but it’s not crawling with marauding hordes of rapists, child molesters, and face-masked henchmen as many seem to believe it to be.

As Tom drove us through my rural-suburban hometown of Wheatfield, the streets that I’d driven a thousand times before seemed different now; they carried a strange air of “newness” to them. Yet, they looked exactly the same.

We arrived at my home late; around 10:30 pm. I knew my dad was probably out working the night shift and I predicted that my mom had fallen asleep in her bed with the TV on. Tom parked the van and I walked into the house (unlocked as it always is) and up the stairs to my parents’ room.

I anticipated a dramatic embrace. “Ken!” I figured my mom would exclaim. “My baby boy. You’re home!” She’d leap out of bed, give me a hug and kiss me on the cheek.

I went into her room and woke her up.

“Mom, I’m home. It’s Ken,” I whispered.

She lifted the covers and moved her feet to the floor without saying a word.

I remember how, under my bedroom door, she used to slide newspaper clippings about how to get on the fast track to become a biomedical engineer, or some career or other that didn’t befit my interests or education in the slightest. I remember how, when I told her I was moving up to Alaska again, she exclaimed, “Oh, no you’re not.”

She was looking facedown at the rug, probably piecing her thoughts together, trying to figure out what I'd been up to again. So it was fitting that her first words were “Ken, why do you do this to me?” which she uttered (rhetorically) before staggering to her feet and giving me a hug.

“How did you get here?” she asked.

“Uh… well a guy named Tom gave me a ride.”

It was late and I didn’t want to further excite her by revealing how I’d gotten across the continent. I led Tom to the couch in the living room where he’d sleep for the night. I stretched my limbs to the corners of my water bed underneath the Super Mario fan whose revolutions had whirred me to sleep many a night before.

I thought about how much I’d seen and how far I’d come. I’d fired a Tommy Gun in a gravel yard in Alaska. I’d seen 30 black bears one day in British Columbia. I crossed the border of two great nations. I’d slept in a Mormon church. I’d seen mountains and lakes and rivers and wavy green plains. I’d been in vehicles with ex-cons, drunks, addicts, hunters, truckers, immigrants, carnies, retirees, doomers, and a 300-pound Yukon woman. And I’d seen and said goodbye to my beautiful and loving girlfriend.

I’d spent the last month traveling across 5,500 miles of our great continent. From Coldfoot to Niagara Falls; from my new life back to my old one.

I think it’s true that—as the proverb goes—that it’s not as much about the destination as it is the journey; and that upon arriving at your destination—depending on your expectations—one might feel disappointment; that it may seem anticlimactic.

As my lids closed, I’m sure I was smiling because I knew, right then and there, that my journey was far from over. No, no, no. This… this was just the beginning.



The next morning my dad took us out for breakfast, I took Tom to the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls, and then we shook hands and said goodbye, making promises to stay in touch, which we never held ourselves to.

That afternoon my aunt came over and I recounted my journey to her and my mom at the kitchen table. They were visibly upset, yet seemed entranced with the tale. While my mother didn’t appreciate being lied to, she did acknowledge that she would have been worried sick otherwise.

Natalia and I kept our long-distanced relationship together for the summer, but we had a cordial separation in the fall.

I suppose I haven’t said anything about why I was traveling home. In just two weeks I would embark on a 60-day canoe voyage across Ontario, Canada. I and three others would live as the 18th Century voyageurs, paddling birch bark canoes and using gear and clothes that were “period correct.” But that is, I’m afraid, another story that will have to be told another day.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Dear Gates of the Arctic

[The Gates of the Arctic National Park—the park that I worked for the previous two summers—is thinking about installing four permanent weather monitoring stations. This is the revised version of a letter that I recently sent to park administrators.]

To the Gates of the Arctic administration:

I am writing this letter to express my opposition to the placement of weather monitoring stations in the Gates of the Arctic National Park. I have read the June 2010 “Environmental Assessment of the Climate Monitoring Program” in which the national parks, preserves and monuments involved have detailed the proposed plans and have considered, what they perceive to be, the stations’ potential drawbacks. The Assessment aptly describes and duly considers the impact the four stations may have on vegetation, soundscape, etc., but I feel it has left the stations’ most serious drawbacks unacknowledged. Explaining what I believe those drawbacks are will be the focus of my letter.

The stations will be—to my knowledge—the first permanent structures that Gates administration erects in the park. Why this historic event wasn’t mentioned in even a footnote in a 106-page document was surprising to say the least. Perhaps the authors of the Assessment saw little reason to point this out because park employees, after all, daily interact with the park in ways that are barely “primitive,” and hardly in accord with primeval wilderness. The author might point out that the park owns and maintains several cabins, or that it uses planes to transport rangers and conduct aerial surveys on an almost daily basis at certain times of the year. In other words, erecting stations in the park may be “no big deal” because we’ve already used the land in ways that are antithetical to wilderness. Thus—the argument goes—because the park has never really been “pure” or entirely “wild,” Gates administration should not trouble themselves with questions of purity and wildness whenever important work needs to be done. I disagree if this line of reasoning is being used. I feel that the difference between maintaining a fifty-year-old cabin (that was built with crude tools well before the inception of the park) and erecting a permanent structure is so huge that the two types of “usage” are hardly comparable. I should add that planes, however intrusive and annoying-to-the-ear as they may be, are necessary so long as the park faces threats that its rangers and scientists must confront. Plus, a plane flying over and landing in the park—there one moment and gone the next—is a completely different type of intrusion than a hunk of metal deliberately placed by park managers that will sully pristine vistas forever.

But I am not as concerned with the loss of aesthetic purity (an unsightly weather station on an otherwise untrammeled mountaintop), as much as I am concerned about the loss of “purity in policy.” The stations break tradition not only with how previous administrations managed the park, but the decision to erect a structure is also a clear rupture with the ideals on which the park was founded. While I believe that the stations’ physical impact will be minor, the decision to install them is an enormous change in tradition, policy, mission and values. It’s a decision that strays from the park’s long-held policy to remove signs of human habitation; not to bring in its own.

The park—since its inception—seems to have managed itself by managing less—a principle, says environmental historian Roderick Nash, upon which “hangs the fate of everything the wilderness preservation movement has tried to achieve.” The stations and other actions taken by administration lead me to believe that we are too quick to act when the park and the animals and plants therein would—in many ways—be better off left alone.

Again, I understand that the stations’ physical impact will be minimal, and that the data the stations gather may benefit the the country and the planet; yet I feel that the stations will have a negative impact in ways that cannot be measured. The negative impact that I speak of is far more difficult to measure than, say, a station’s impact on nearby vegetation or the harm a helicopter does to a soundscape. The consequences I speak of have to do with changes in perception, imagination and reputation. While I understand how difficult it may be to gauge these consequences, I’m still somewhat baffled that the Assessment failed to even passively mention these. In fact, I think it bears mentioning that the Assessment seems to lack the faintest trace of humanity. It appears to have been conceived—not in the mind of a human being—but by a robot from some sleepy cubicle in a windowless government office incapable of imagining what’s really at stake. I understand that the Assessment is protocol and is how things are “normally done,” but the dry, calculated language of the Assessment—full of facts, figures tables and maps—is, to me, representative of how Gates administration perceives the park. The Gates, to them, is anything but “sacred.” Rather, the park exists for visitor enjoyment, scientific exploration, and as a resource for hunters and local subsistence communities. Its value is measured by things that can only be quantified. From both the language of the Assessment and my personal experiences with Gates administration, the park, I believe, is rarely thought of as anything other than a “resource” by the people who manage it. The great conservationist thinkers—Thoreau, Muir, Abbey, and Bob Marshall included—did not think of wildlands or parks as “resources.” They thought of them as sacred places that ought not be decorated with the furnishings of civilization. The stations, I realize, may not cause much “aesthetic damage,” but their presence will alter the park in the imaginations of the citizens who own it. Just as if we were to touch up a historic work of art or revise a phrase in a nation’s founding document, while the artwork or document may not thereafter look any different, by imposing our vision—ever so slightly—on a work of genius, the park, like them, will begin to shed the air of a sacred object.

Arctic explorer and conservationist, Bob Marshall, said, “For me…the most important passion of life is the overpowering desire to escape periodically from the clutches of a mechanistic civilization. The enjoyment of solitude, complete independence, and the beauty of undefiled panoramas is absolutely essential to happiness.” I cannot fathom how the stations are in accord with the values—values that men like Marshall and women like Mardy Murie championed—on which the park was founded. If the administration strays too far from the park that the founders envisioned, I worry the image and reputation of the Gates will not only be put at stake, but the park will soon be at the mercy of future and potentially intrusive scientific endeavors, enhanced visitor accommodations, and our “mechanistic civilization” that creeps in and corrodes the park’s wilderness character.

Anyone who’s been to the Gates and to the parks in the lower-48 knows that the Gates is a park unlike any other. The parks in the lower-48 have roads, facilities, and trails. They’re oftentimes overrun with visitors. Forest fires do not reign free; they’re prescribed. Predatory animals are sometimes tranquilized and moved when in the vicinity of prey species with vulnerable populations. The Gates, however—as the Assessment points out—is “acknowledged as the premier Wilderness park in the national park system.” An 8.5 million acre stretch of wild land with animals living and dying with no human interference is practically unheard of these days. Gates administration should remind themselves that they’re noble protectors of one of last great stretches of wildland on earth, and that they should—because of the park’s unique status as the “premier Wilderness park”—govern itself differently. Administration should not justify that it’s okay to erect weather stations because all or most other parks have stations. Other parks, rather, should look to the Gates to see how the “premier wilderness park” acts.

I think the decision to place weather stations should be weighed with the Park Service (and the world) as a whole in mind. With so many parks over-developed and over-administered, shouldn’t we do everything we can to keep just one park as wild as it can conceivably be? Shouldn’t we play by rules that are different from other parks? Shouldn’t we be highly adverse and skeptical of suggestions that may tarnish the park’s wilderness character in the slightest? We can do everything in our power to keep the Gates the way it’s been for millennia, or we can ever-so-slowly but ever-so-surely evolve as other parks have evolved: like them, we can—with each passing year—accumulate more facilities, technology, roads, and trails; we can drift further and further away from the founders’ ideals to accommodate mass utilization; we can stop thinking of the park as a place that is sacred and more a giant playground, science lab, or game preserve in which scientists, rangers, hunters, and the public exploit rather than visit.

I believe the scientists involved in the plans have good intentions and honorable goals. Their research, in many ways, I’m sure, helps the whole of the park staff protect the park. So I feel that most any proposed scientific project that directly or indirectly helps protect the park ought to be welcomed and encouraged by park administration. I’m opposed to the installation of the weather monitoring stations, however, largely because I cannot fathom how the stations will help protect the park. Surely climate change statistics will help us achieve a better understanding of global warming and surely the statistics will help us come to determinations about how climate change may be affecting the park’s animals and vegetation. But how will the park actually benefit from the data? Surely we cannot install cooling systems over all 8.5 million acres of the park to keep the permafrost from melting. Nor can we—or should we—manipulate animal migration routes which climate change may disturb, as the Assessment points out. Perhaps the data, though, will help legislators craft a bill to combat climate change. This would be a worthy endeavor, yet I highly doubt missing data from the Gates would inhibit the passage of such a bill. Because I fail to see how the stations can help the Gates, I can’t help but deem that the proposal is in direct conflict with the Wilderness Act because the stations do not appear to be “necessary to meet minimum requirements for the administration of the area for the purpose of this Act.” But I do not wish to dwell on legal concerns. The stations, to me, are not about a breach of law, but a breach of values.

Perhaps the most important duty for Gates administration is not just to preserve the wild, but to preserve our idea of what a wild place is. Wilderness philosopher, Jack Turner, says, “Looking at photographs of arches or pictographs, reading a guide book, examining maps, receiving instructions on where to go, where to camp, what to expect, how to act—and being watched over the entire time by a cadre of rangers—is now the normal mode of experience. Most people know no other.” Our idea of wilderness is no longer, as Mardy Murie says, “empty of technology and full of life,” nor a sanctuary where, Bob Marshall says, people come “to rest from the endless chain of mechanization and artificiality which bounds their lives.” Nowadays, our idea of a wild place includes the roads, facilities, guard rails and ambitious management plans that visitors see everywhere in national parks—our “wild places.” The threat of forgetting what’s wild is a real threat. Because people have grown accustomed to “wild places” that have been diluted, declawed, and defanged into national parks, few will ever know what a wild place really looks and feels like. And because few know what a wild place looks or feels like, few will know that a wild place is worth protecting. Turner says that “Intimacy with the fake will not save the real… It is more likely to produce a desire for more fakes.” Unless we vigilantly maintain the Gates’s wilderness character, our country will lose not only one of its last wild places, but also the knowledge and sensations that can only be taught and provoked by “undefiled panoramas” in untrammeled wilderness.

Think of how easily things are forgotten. Think of our skies 150 years ago. From end to end it was sometimes darkened by billion-strong flocks of passenger pigeons. Some say there could have been as many as five billion in North America. But in just a century we overtook their habitats and hunted every last one to extinction. Or think of how it was once common to take in the view of a million stars from almost any porch in America on almost any night. Now, because the great majority of our population lives within a short distance of a smog-producing, light-polluted metropolitan center, only a select few get to nightly see the splendor of Orion’s Belt stretched across the sky. Skies without stars and great flocks of birds have become the norm. And because people today do not know that they’ve been deprived of pleasures enjoyed by past generations, few complain or wish to do anything about it. Soon, we will not know what a wild place should look like just as many don’t know what a clean, healthy, and vibrant sky should look like. And soon, even our “wild” places will bear the signs of an omnipresent government and the contrivances crafted by the ambitious hand of man. And it will all be considered normal.

I am opposed to the stations largely because of my personal experiences in parks of the lower-48—once beautiful places that have fallen from their state of grace—and my many outings in the Gates of the Arctic as a civilian and ranger. My first visit to the Gates was in June of 2005 when I worked at the truck stop in Coldfoot. My first real hike was in the Gates when I climbed a mountain just west of Wiseman. On that trip I saw no sign of human impact. I spotted just one plane. I came across a band of Dall sheep ewes that looked at me as if they’d never before seen a human. That hike profoundly changed my life. Not only did I come down from that mountain a different man, but it fostered in me a deep respect for pure, untrammeled wilderness—enough so that I would, over the years, dedicate my time and energies to restoring and protecting wild places. Over the next five years, I’d live in the arctic seasonally, including two summers as a backcountry ranger for the Gates in 2008 and 2009. Over those years, I developed a sort of “intimacy” with some of the arctic’s rivers, mountains, and animals and—with that—a fear of the forces that threaten to defile their otherwise undisturbed existence.

At Marion Creek—where the Coldfoot rangers live—in just a couple years I saw the trail to the Marion Creek waterfall turned into a bulldozer-wide mud-road blazed by gold miners. At the truck stop at Coldfoot, I’d see pick-up truck after pick-up truck come through with their beds loaded with carcasses and antlers of the caribou that they “hunted” from the driver-side window. While the mining and the killing occurred outside the park, it’s a fitting reminder of how vulnerable even one of hardiest landscapes on earth is when it’s at the mercy of entrepreneurial forces.

Unlike my hiking trip that first summer in ‘05, I spent two 8-day-long patrols on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River last summer where I observed more than 50 planes on each patrol. And I heard an equally troubling amount of planes on the Alatna and Kobuk rivers. It’s difficult to feel what Bob Marshall felt—what people yearn to feel in places like the Gates—when you’re continually reminded of the “mechanization and artificiality” of civilization screaming overhead. Many of those planes, I was later told, were likely manned by Park Service staff doing sheep surveys. On another occasion, after casually telling park administration about a wolf that had curiously (but not aggressively) followed me and my partner down a rarely-visited river valley, we got email inquiries within a week from a park administrator wondering whether it should be shot (albeit with rubber bullets). The Gates faces many threats, and among them, I believe, are its sometimes overly-ambitious, trigger-happy protectors. While we have legitimate reason to worry about climate change disturbing our park, I think we have just as much reason to be concerned about our own relationship with it.

A business or a foundation might best function when ambitious and action-minded people are pulling the levers, but a park should be managed by thoughtful, deliberative men and women who not only understand the intangible values of the park, but who—most importantly—love the park as they might love a person, a country, or a home. I feel the plants and animals should be considered the park’s real owners, and we, just visitors who dare not meddle in work only suited for deities.

In just a few of years I have seen considerable change in the park and in the arctic, and I worry that the stations will be the first of many future incursions. Any casual observer of history knows the Gates will someday be at the mercy of encroaching human settlements, hot-headed mineral and resource robbers, and invasive technologies. I feel the Gates ought to have a pure and principled policy and tradition in place to best repel the advances of a mercilessly exploitative and avaricious civilization that will be at the park’s doorstep sooner than later.

The Gates, to me, is a holy place; and holy places, I believe, should not be subjected to intrusive scientific endeavors, commercial exploitation, guard rails, signs, weather stations and—most importantly—compromise. The Gates should be protected and treasured as a sanctuary; and its spotless splendor kept out of reach from the oily touch of man.

Let’s keep it wild,

Ken Ilgunas