The Haw River Paddler — September 2017
“Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it will turn out.” Vaclav Havel
Are We Engineering the Extinction of Our Own Species
Article Appearing in the September 2017 edition of the Chatham County Line newspaper
For the past 29 years I have been spending part or all of my summers teaching and guiding in Alaska. When not teaching, guiding and preparing for or cleaning up after trips, I take time to read books about Alaska and books written by Alaskans. I do this because it helps me understand how we humans, both in Alaska and in North Carolina, are affecting the life support system I call Nature. I suppose you could say I am searching for the silver bullet to understand why I feel our civilization is marching toward extinction and if there is something we can do to change what appears to be our destiny.
Two authors and three books increased my understanding this summer. The first book, written by Eva Saulitis, is entitled “Into Great Silence”. The author studied transient killer whales before, during and after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound. You find out early in the book that she is recovering from breast cancer, and unfortunately she later died after the book was published. Her specialty was understanding killer whale communication. She points out that there are three types of killer whales. Resident killer whales eat salmon. Transient killer whales eat other mammals like seals, sea lions and porpoise. Sea going killer whales eat sharks. Killer whales tend to hunt in pods so communication in resident and sea going killer whales is very vocal. Being very quiet is key to the success of transient killer whales so that they do not alarm their prey. What you learn from reading the book is that all of the offspring in a pod of killer whales stay with and learn from the mother whale which is the dominant factor in a killer whale’s life. If she dies before the young whales learn from her, the pod eventually goes extinct even though the young whales may grow to be adults. This is exactly what is happening today in Prince William Sound. Adult transient killer whale offspring cannot find places to prey on seals and sea lions because they never learned the location from their mother who eventually died from exposure to the oil during and after the oil spill. Imagine, extinction in this case is because of the lack of communication among a population of transient killer whales, not because of insufficient food. The seal and sea lion haul outs are there. The transient adult killer whales just don’t know where they are. Is there a parallel story among people and cultures? Of course there is.
Seth Kantner is the other Alaskan author I referred to earlier. His two books are entitled “Shopping for Porcupine: A Life in Arctic Alaska” and “Swallowed by the Great Land: and Other Dispatches from Alaska’s Frontier”. The author was born and raised along the banks of the Kobuk River in northwestern Alaska. His life began with his mother, father and older brother in a sod house built into the side of a hill many miles from the nearest village. From a very early age, he learned to track, hunt and trap animals. He learned everything he could about which body parts to eat and what he could do with the bones and skins. A keen observer of Nature, he came to an early understanding of how the land related to the animals and on what aspects of Nature he could always depend. It was not uncommon for him to go out into minus forty degree weather for days without the comforts and safety of modern-day clothing. He learned a lot from his father, but even more from elder indigenous people who had lived in other remote areas of Alaska. From time to time they would stop at his sod home to find shelter during a snow storm. Now over 45 years of age, the author spends a lot of time photographing and writing about a time that no longer exists even in the most remote parts of Alaska. Things began to change when three things happened. Snow machines made dog teams obsolete, so you could get farther into the wilderness, but have to depend on fossil fuels rather than animal power to get you there. High powered weapons made hunting too easy, so you could kill more animals than you really needed. Modern-day clothing, transportation and electronics take the risk out of trophy hunting which puts subsistence living at a disadvantage because the overall population of animals is reduced.
We talk a lot these days about living a sustainable lifestyle, but really have no clue as to what that really means. There is no physical risk involved when we trade paper money to buy food or acquire goods. Seth Kantner had to endure subzero temperatures and the risk of being attacked by a pack of wolves or bears in order to feed his family. Instead, as we avoid risks to get what we want, a little of our spirit dies and we are not even aware of it just like the adult transient killer whales are not aware of a place to find food. Have we lost our ability to experience and communicate about what is really important in life, and by doing so, insure our demise?