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Playing catch with Californian rolling the truth downhill to Alaskans

Craig Medred
NPS photo

Nothing quite makes a day in the north like starting it off with some existential Alaska bullshit courtesy of a New York Times headline blaring: "Humans and Nature: Can the Gulf Be Bridged?'' In the first place, the headline had to be written by a scientific illiterate because humans are nature. Humans are bipedal mammals. They are not robots or machines.

Granted, some in that oh-so-smart world beyond Alaska might not like what humans do to their environment just as some here in Alaska do not like what wolves do to their environment. Anyone who has been paying attention will notice that there has been a long-running socio-political war in the 49th state over the issue of wolf control. All it is about is killing wolves so more moose, caribou and Dall sheep survive, because hungry wolves have this nasty habit of altering the environment in which they live.

"Wolves and Nature: Can the Gulf Be Bridged?''

Animals -- all animals -- by their very existence alter the "nature'' (or environment) that surrounds us all. Cows and cattle, sheep and hogs, chickens and turkeys are, as your read this, seriously altering the nature of the Gulf of Mexico -- and not in a good way. There is now a “dead zone” of at least 8,000 square miles in the Gulf near where the Mississippi River enters. The area has been poisoned by runoff from the river, and a big chunk of that runoff is linked to these animals.

Embedding in the forest 

Agriculture (fertilizer and livestock manure) accounts for 65 percent of the nitrogen dumped into the Gulf; soil erosion and ground-water discharge make up 24 percent while wastewater treatment systems chip in about 10 percent, according to SeaWeb.org. Animals have to crap. So do people.

Over the decades, this country has gotten progressively better at handling the human crap, but we're not doing as well with the animal crap – or, for that matter, the fertilizer that has enabled agriculture to keep pace with the global population boom in one of the more amazing human feats of our lifetime. All of which brings this back to the nonsense in the New York Times written by some visitor to Alaska headed back to her home in California.

"I chose to study dying forests linked to climate change. The research questions themselves require me to embed deep in the forests themselves and then in the homes of people who have known them. I chose a project that requires me to cultivate connection to place and people," wrote Lauren E. Oakes.

Oh yeah, "embed deep in the forest themselves,'' or more simply put: How I Spent My Summer Vacation in Alaska by Lauren E. Oakes, doctoral candidate at the Stanford School of Earth Sciences.

God, I love when smart people roll the truth back uphill to us here in the 49th state.

'Unusual' killer whales?

A scientist who happens to live at the top of the world in Barrow -- if you look at a map of North America, it's the farthest tip of land in the Arctic Ocean -- and I were emailing about this the other day. A bunch of visiting scientists had just discovered the "unusual'' number of killer whales in the Arctic, according to the Associated Press. Craig George, who has spent his adult life studying the Arctic environment from his home in Barrow, doesn't consider the whales unusual at all.

As George told the AP, every summer Native Alaskan seal hunters see orcas (that's the politically correct term for these animals; it's a Native word that means "killer whale"), but the animals are rarely spotted by the aerial surveys of visiting scientists. The reason, he noted, is that there are hundreds of hunters and few aerial surveys. This did not deter the AP from the conclusion the whales were unusual.

All of which led the Barrow scientist and I to ponder a philosophical question: If killer whales are seen only by Alaska Native seal hunters, do the whales really exist?

Of course, they do. But you couldn't tell by how the AP reported the whale story, because the AP -- like Oakes and a good deal of the lamestream media -- has some perception of Alaska as this wild, far-off place where science has yet to discover how things work. Residents are somehow different from people elsewhere. Oakes goes on and on in her essay about grieving the dying cedars of the Alaska coast, and how tough it must be for people. I won't bore you with the repetitive details, but suffice to say it's all about the inevitable and difficult reality of change, which she apparently thinks exists only because of what man does.

Sad to say, change exists because change is life.

Change is a wonderful thing when you embrace it, too. Change is an adventure, an exploration, a journey to a new frontier be it physical or intellectual.

Change is a nightmare when it is imposed upon you. Change can be debilitating when you get laid off from work or come down with cancer or your house burns down or the natural world around you goes through one of its many cycles -- or you simply get into worrying about the nature of change itself.

Homocentric nonsense

"Just over a decade ago, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen suggested that we are living in the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which humans are drastically altering the planet,'' Oakes writes. "It’s the idea that humans have become the primary force for change on the earth. A glacier might have acted as the dominant force for change thousands of years ago, but now it’s our actions as a society – from the local to global scale – and our patterns of land use change that take the lead."

Spare me. This is homocentric nonsense. This is the disconnected crap that comes from people who "embed'' themselves in Alaska for the summer and then go home to places with human comforts that make it easy to underestimate the force of nature because, in some places, man has been able to control so many of them.

Earth to Oakes: Pay attention. One good quake and your little California paradise could slide into the ocean.

The age in which we are living today is the age in which humans under-estimate the power of Nature because they have been so successful manipulating nature in itty-bitty ways. There is, as everyone knows, a raging debate in much of the civilized world at this very moment about "climate change.'' There are a lot of good scientists who believe the carbon dioxide we add to the environment might have changed the thin shield of atmosphere that surrounds this planet. They have some good arguments. But not one of those scientists would dismiss the contributions of nature to the world carbon cycle influencing the atmosphere.

Alaska is different

We are bit players in this game, our carbon emissions a tiny fraction of those of the oceans and the vegetation on land. We may be important bit players, like the guy who comes off the bench to win a basketball game. But we are still bit players.

If you live in Alaska -- instead of just come to visit -- this might be the first thing you really learn. Life here is challenging because man doesn't have everything under control. Even in Anchorage, where man has things more under control than elsewhere in the vast wilderness that is the 49th state, man doesn't have things all that under control. Wind, as everyone saw last week, can be a constant reminder that nature is the dominate force on this planet. So can rain and cold -- not to mention those long summer days and long winter nights.  When you get down to the reality of life, we are just animals trying to make a go of it.

The farther you get from the urban safety of Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, the clearer this becomes. It is the reason why people (rural Alaskans among them) often migrate to urban safety.

"In a week’s time," Oakes writes, "I’ll soon find myself navigating six-lane highways, filtering background noise from the flood of people chattering and walking concrete paths between eucalyptus groves and brick buildings."

Why? Because it such a noisy, crowed urban hell? No. Because she likes it there. Because she has obviously decided that whatever the tradeoffs in her own life, she'd rather live there than here. Because Alaska can be a tough place to live, a tough place to make a living, a tough place to struggle against nature as humans have for about 10,000 years.

There are reasons Oakes isn't doing her doctoral work at Alaska Pacific University or the University of Alaska Fairbanks, a world-leader in research on Arctic and sub-Arctic issues. Temperatures drop to 50 degrees below zero in Fairbanks in the winter, for God’s sake. Who in their right mind wants to endure that? Better to trek north from Stanford in the summer for that Alaska experience.

Alaska is a great place to visit when the sun is bright and warm, the vegetation thick and green, and the salmon packing the rivers.

"It is a strange clash of two seemingly separate worlds,'' Oakes write. "Yet somehow, I know that seeing Alaska and California as connected will allow me to make sense of all these numbers and stories.''

Yeah, right. She sees nothing.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com