Of Glaciers and Love – Alaska #4

11/05/2014

Sunday, September 21, 2014    Seward

As I woke this morning in the darkened room, the Alaska skyline of wooded hills, great mountains, arctic-blue waters and snow-capped peaks filled my inner sight.  We have been in Alaska two weeks; it shows how deeply we are born and made of our daily environment.  We are, literally, made of what we eat with our senses as well as the food we give our bodies.   Alaska has already begun to determine something of the interior of my mind.

Out in the lobby with my tea, I breathe deeply, and contemplate that tomorrow will be our last day here. I will miss this land deeply; still, I told Jean last night that I feel ready.  I think this is because yesterday we did the last large event of our time here: we went out on a catamaran boat among the glaciers of Kenai Fjords.

What can be said of this magnificent day?  Was it the fjords themselves, long narrow inlets of glacier melt surrounded by rocky cliffs, mountains and glaciers? Was it the black bear, so black as to have a bluish sheen, alone out on a rocky beach looking perhaps for salmon that were recently here in abundance?  Or the bright white head of the bald eagle, a massive creature perched on a far high branch on a far high rocky cliff, with her mate nearby?  Was it the mountain goats we saw from our boat, ancient white creatures up on the steepest ledges, gazing out at the sky and the open sea?  Or the rusty-red harbor seals in the Bearing Strait, floating among bits of glacier ice as comfortably as if they were sunning on a beach?  Or the many luminous rainbows during the day of sun and rain?  Was it the calm sheen of Resurrection Bay, slate blue waters mirroring the mountains and glaciers like a double-painting?  Or was it the glaciers themselves, the great white beings, the pure majesty and honor of seeing them?

It was all of it-and it was the glaciers.  The glaciers!  When we first arrived in Denali, they told us that the entire place had been formed by glaciers, that it had all once been ice and that the mountains and valleys were formed when the might of glaciers receded, shifted and pushed and formed the earth. And I had looked around in wonder.  These were things I’d heard before, but realized I simply did not understand.  Why did the glaciers move? I found myself asking. Lucky me, I have my own sixth-grade teacher at the ready, who has answers to many basic science questions at her fingertips.  In truth, I do not remember Jean’s answer.  Probably something about the earth warming and the glaciers melting over millennia.  I nodded, but my brow was still a little furrowed.

But as of yesterday, I got it. I got it because of what I heard.  The captain brought our small boat close to Aialik Glacier, part the massive Harding Icefield covering miles of Alaska. And I saw something that I’ve only seen on film: great shards of ice breaking off from a glacier and falling into the sea.  A woman next to me sucked in her breath, whispering in a thick voice that she didn’t know if we’d see anything like that.  In fact we saw the ice calving several times.  It was akin to seeing the Northern Lights.  There was something familiar–most of us had seen something like that on film–but the experience was at essence foreign, and new. The falling ice rumbled from within.  It groaned and thundered, and moved.  What we saw was whole pieces of ice falling. But what we heard was a living thing being its living self.  To hear that sound was to hear the earth.

Another rumble, another crash.  On the boat, like thunder before lightening, the ice calving was heard first, and then seen.  The glacier groaned from deep within.  We stood by in our little boat and looked up at its massive shape. All of these glaciers are remnants of the great sheets of ice that covered about one-third of the planet until 12,000 years ago. Glaciers are created when more snow falls than melts in one year.  Under the massive weight of more and more snow, glacier ice becomes incredibly dense. When the last Ice Age ended and the earth warmed, much of the ice covering all of Alaska and the Northern Hemisphere began to melt.  Great sheets of this most dense glacial ice began to shift and move, and over several thousand years they scoured out huge, magnificent valleys of stone, earth, clay and granite.  The glaciers simply picked up and pushed these lighter materials along their path.  They heaved and moaned in ways we can hardly imagine.  The noise and strength would have been deafening at times. A wild roar, massive, dense and with force beyond the strength of granite.

On the boat I gazed at the glaciers and realized we were standing at the foot of distant cousins of some of the most ancient ice on earth, remnants of the last Ice Age.  Like tribes of indigenous peoples remaining in wild and inaccessible places, these rare glaciers and ice fields remain to tell us what once was.  They show us the majesty and personality of our earth.  And, as scientists tell us, their existence is a key part of maintaining the “sweet spot” temperature of the last 10,000 years–temperatures which have been so well-suited to human life.  But, as scientists also tell us–along with our own eyes–the glaciers are now melting at astonishing rates. Currently 90% of the earth’s glaciers are in retreat.  Some glaciers have retreated ten full miles in just two years — equivalent to the entire amount of retreat of the previous century.

Since we have long known the reasons, it is almost unnecessary to say them here.  But I am here, and it is all around me. The earth is currently heating up-but not in the long cycles of the past, cycles that used to be called glacial to suggest their very length.  The earth is now warming frighteningly fast–as in the span of a single human lifetime. This is because humans have re-shaped the face of the earth, cutting down the native forests and living and working in ways which extract and burn massive amounts of fossil fuels-all if which contribute to soot, dust and greenhouse gases being trapped in the earth’s atmosphere and causing extreme increases in temperature. As the earth becomes warmer and the glaciers continue melting, we will soon be living in a very different weather system. The melting glaciers will fill the oceans and raise up the seas, causing floods in islands and towns where there are now ocean-front settlements. The warmer earth climate will also dry out some landscapes, causing more wildfires and rugged heat.  Thus there will be an odd and persistent combination of world-wide of flooding and storm events, along with terrible heat and drought.

Looking at the magnificent glaciers I pondered the fact that parts of the northern seas will soon be ice-free all winter, far sooner than scientists predicted even in the 1990’s.  Humans are now planning all sorts of convenient and profitable trade routes because of this.  Those shipping boats will carry products made of the oily remains of fossils and extant minerals extracted tirelessly from the earth.  As are, I realize, most of the implements of my own life, including this iPad and new keyboard. Teachers and scientists point out that humanity has reached a place where we have created tools and technologies that have stopped ordinary evolutionary limits on our growth. This means that we have become the choosers of our destiny–and also that of the earth itself.

This is simply beyond the heart’s comprehension. Still, it is so obvious here in Alaska that no words are adequate.  To compare any of these glaciers, stunning as they are now, to the great and massive beings they were in photographs just ten years ago, is to feel shock permeate one’s body.

A friend who has worked with addicts for many years told me once that knowledge and insight do not create change.  Then what does create change? I asked. Action, she said.  Action creates change.  She had seen this again and again. Those who had not been able to free themselves from addiction were not without insight, she said.  Many understood exactly their situation. But that alone was not enough.  It is a mysterious thing that brings someone to take that action, whatever it is, towards personal healing and change.  For me, among many things, that action was my daily walk–often an uneventful twenty minute ritual. For someone else, it might be to go to a meeting.  To write something.  To walk at the ocean.  Yoga.  Tai chi.  Meditation.  Connect with another person. The possible healing actions are endless. In my own recovery during my long walk in the underworld when trauma and grief overwhelmed my nervous system, I saw that it was in my actions that I slowly moved myself, very slowly, into a different way of seeing and healing.  None of these actions were quick, heroic or epic.  Each action was small.  We like to think of action as great and mighty, and sometimes it is.  But in truth many healing actions towards lasting change are small, often invisible, daily, incremental, tiresome, tedious, boring.  But it is consistent; it becomes habit, it becomes practice, and these things make the self.

As we watch our human world, my friend’s insight about what makes change seems frighteningly true.  We know about the loss of the glaciers, the melting of the arctic ice and the frightening warming of the earth.  We have been told many times. But what creates change?  What can heal us? Action.  It is this I take home with me now, like the inner rumble of the glacier.  Action, it says to me.  It is what we do.  It is what I do.  Personal action can sometimes feel paltry within the overwhelming movements of epochs and glaciers.  But action–our bodies, hearts and lives–is what we have.  More and more, leaders say that the idea that there is one answer, one kind of action to take, is simply not true.  The answer to living meaningfully and staying awake during this moment is and will continue to arise out of millions of individual lives, communities and landscapes, depending upon what each is experiencing and facing. There are infinite numbers of actions and movements all across the planet. These actions are local, intimate, political, communal, interior and exterior, daily, both immediate and long-term.

We drove from Seward to Girdwood yesterday after our day on the Kenai Fjords just as the evening sun was setting.  The sky cleared like a message from the divine, the earth simply glowed.  There were rivers, glaciers, mountains all around.  Horizontal light infused an already glowing glacier and revealed it to be a pearl, a blue-white living thing.  Jean said that this was what she wanted for me.  She’s been to Alaska once.  I wanted you to see this, she said as we drove our little car and our little lives through wild, big majesty. Everywhere, everywhere, blue white beauty.

I do not know how witnessing the glaciers will speak to me, change me, and act upon me in the coming months and years.  Only that action, movement, devotion to life moment by moment, provides some key.

What will we leave our descendants?  The possibility, first of all, that they exist–that they have survived.  And then, evidence somehow that we listened, cared, acted, and in our quintessentially human way, made Beauty.  May we, may I, make Beauty.  May we find ways to leave something behind for them, the way our ancient ancestors at Newgrange in Ireland left the carved megalithic stones for us.  Those stones tell us that they saw the mystery, 5,000 years ago, just as we do now.  That they lived and marveled and made Beauty.  I don’t imagine I will make a megalithic stone mound that will live for eons.  But together, perhaps, we can build something that will tell them of our Love.  Which is overwhelming, magical, mystical, one of the densest forces on earth.  It, too, can move mountains.

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