There is another side to Alaska that I sort of knowingly excluded from my description of the whale that day on the solstice. And that’s a system that I was, in my own way, a part of — tourism.
It was not just me on the bay that day seeing the humpback. It was me and the ten other people in our water taxi. And the hundred people beyond that in the tour boat. And, you know, the 5,000 other people beyond that on the cruise ship. Granted we weren’t all looking at the same whale (in fact ours didn’t start breaching until we were the only boat around), but you get the picture.
So why did I exclude this side? I think because of ego. Because we as humans often operate from this intense, individualistic place that tells us we are special. This becomes particularly pronounced as a tourist: you want to find what’s unique. You want to experience what no one else has. I wanted to be Hemingway’s old man alone on a skiff with the great fish swimming.
But I wasn’t. I really felt at odds with this reality throughout my time in Alaska. And it got me thinking a lot about how we humans interact with a wild place.
Take Denali National Park for instance. It is an extraordinary place when you are inside it but the entrance to it is a complete swirling mob of people and Disneyland-esque commercialism. And this consumerism does make its way inside. I saw it most in what I’ll call check-list behavior: “Have I seen a bear? Check. Caribou? Check. Dall sheep? Check.” It was common to hear people go through these lists (and complaints when something wasn’t checked). And then they’d want to hear yours.
I was, still am, really conflicted about these conversations. Recently I’ve picked up Bill McKibben’s Pieces from An Active Life and am starting to realize why.
In his essay “Human Restoration,” he talks about the consumption of nature. The check-lists we make, the stories we come back with, the photos we accumulate — they all are really about us. We go out to sea to consume the whale. We go into the park to consume the bear. “It’s consuming, literally, the time and the attention and the wildness of another creature for some little jolt in return,” says McKibben.
Does this mean we shouldn’t have national parks? Does this mean that ecotourism is inherently bad? Does this mean that that overweight cruise line passenger shouldn’t come to Alaska? Does this mean I shouldn’t take and share photos?
I’d say no — because all these things have the power to teach. The change that needs to happen is in our orientation to the wild places we go into. We have to go into them with an openness that will allow them change us. “Contact with the natural world is…potentially powerful enough to break through the endless jamming static of our culture and open us to other, wider possibilities,” says McKibben.
I think it’s also about letting the wild be bigger than us — to let it live like it has for millions and millions of years outside of our ego. A whale jumped five times on the solstice. And it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t for you, my reader. It just was.
A final quote that I think gets it best:
(I found this gem recently in a picture book called “Alaska: The Great Land” sitting on my Grandma’s shelf with a letter stuck inside from my aunt Susie dated September 1981 when she apparently worked at a salmon cannery on Kodiak Island.)
“…the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the sense we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren; they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of earth.” — Henry Beston, The Outermost House