Updated: Jun 23, 2020
What can be said about a majestic journey on a catamaran boat into the Kenai Fjords? Was it the black bear, so black as to have a bluish sheen, alone out on a rocky beach, walking slowly, meandering, looking perhaps for traces of the salmon that had been there weeks before? Or the bright white head of the bald eagle, a massive creature sitting on a far high branch on a far high rocky mountain? Was it the unexpected sighting of mountain goats from a boat on the water, large white creatures on the steepest ledges high above us on rocky islands, gazing out easily at the sky and the open sea? Was it the rusty-red harbor seals floating in the Bearing Strait among bits of ice at the edge of a glacier, as comfortable as if they were sunning on a beach? Or the many luminous rainbows that emerged from the day
of sunlight and rain? Was it the mirror-blue water of Resurrection Bay, the slate blue of glacier waters that echoed the land and the mountains and the white of the 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 and they told us that the entire place had been formed by glaciers. This place 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. These were things I'd heard before, but realized I simply did not understand. Why did the glacier move? I found myself asking Jean. Lucky me, I have my own sixth-grade teacher at the ready, who has answers to many basic science questions at her fingertips. Why do the glaciers move? is something a sixth-grader might ask. In truth, I do not remember her answer. Something about the glaciers melting over millennia. I probably nodded, but my brow was still a little furrowed.
But as of yesterday, I got it. I got it because of what I heard. Captain Steve brought our boat with about 50 people very close to a glacier, on the Bearing Strait and part the massive Harding Icefield that covers 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. My heart stopped almost; it was wondrous. A woman next to me sucked in her breath, and said she didn't know if we'd see anything like that, her voice full-throated. As it happened, we saw the ice calving several times as we stayed moored near the massive glacier. There was something familiar, but the experience was at essence foreign, and new. The falling ice rumbles from within. It groans and thunders, and moves. What we saw was whole bits of ice falling, but what we heard was a living thing being its living self. To hear that sound was to hear the earth.
On the boat I had gazed at the glaciers and thought about the fact that we are losing them. I looked at them and pondered that certain parts of the northern seas will be ice-free all winter in just a few years, far sooner than scientists predicted even in the nineties. That humans are planning all sorts of convenient and profitable trade routes because of this. That those boats will all be carrying things made of and energized by the oily remains of fossils and extant minerals extracted mercilessly and tirelessly from the earth. As are, I realize, most of the implements of my own life, including this iPad and keyboard. That, as Barry Lopez puts it in his classic book Arctic Dreams, humans have created tools and technologies that have stopped ordinary evolutionary limits on our growth-and this means that we have become the choosers of our destiny, and also that of the earth itself. Humans have become a planetary evolutionary force. Thus this glacier is receding, as are all glaciers everywhere on earth. Because of us.
Another rumble, another crash. Like thunder before lightening, it 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 10,000 years ago. In natural cycles, ice forms and then recedes over long eons on our watery earth. About 10,000 years ago, when the most recent ice age ended, land appeared, and, as they melted, great glaciers heaved and moaned in ways I can hardly imagine. They melted and slowly broke apart with great and overwhelming force. The noise would have been deafening at times. A wild roar, massive, dense and with force beyond the strength of granite.
Captain Steve explained that a glacier grows because after the great snows of a northern winter, some snow never melts. That dense weight of that snow compacts even further the already-compact ice. Under the massive weight of all the ice, glaciers become incredibly dense, as more snow is added to its weight. 10,000 years ago, when the temperature warmed, great sheets of this most dense material broke apart and fell into waters. They dug scoured out great valleys of stone, earth and granite, pushing these lighter materials along their path.
We were standing in our boat at the foot of distant cousins of those glaciers, like the 200 last sea otters-thought to be extinct-who were found in the 1940's off the Monterey Bay. The rare and important glaciers 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 keeping the sweet spot of the last 5,000 years, when the planet has been so well-suited to human life.
They are melting at incredible rates because humans have collectively pumped greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which warm the earth. As the climate becomes several degrees warmer, glaciers will melt at faster rates, and we will be living in a very different place--that is, if we are living at all. The melted glaciers will literally raise up the seas, and flood islands and shorelines where once there were seaside settlements and towns. It will dry out some landscapes, bringing more wildfires with warmer temperatures, and an odd and persistent combination world-wide of flooding and terrible heat and drought. Humans will have made permanent changes in the very essence of the planet.
Perhaps this is why I came here: to hear the living earth, and to look at these things up close. As we drove back up from Seward to Girdwood just as the evening sun was setting, the sky cleared like a wild message from the divine, the earth aglow, rivers, glaciers mountains all around. The 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'd been to Alaska once, many years ago. I wanted you to see this, she said as we drove our little car and our little lives through wild, big majesty. I looked around as I drove, everywhere, everywhere, blue white beauty.
Insight doesn't create change, a friend of mind who works with alcoholics and addicts once told me. Startled, I asked, "Then, what does?" "Action," she said. Action creates change. She had seen this again and again in the hard-won lives of those who had been able to transform themselves and their habits, and those who had not. Those who had not were not without insight. They I understood their predicament. That alone was not enough. It is the mysterious thing that brings someone to take that small step, go to the meeting, write something on a paper. Later I saw this as my nervous system healed. It was in my actions that I slowly moved myself, very slowly, into a different way of seeing and healing. None of this was quick, heroic, or epic. Each action was small. We like to think of action as heroic and mighty. But in truth it is small, often invisible, daily, incremental, tiresome, tedious, boring. But it is consistent; it becomes habit, practice, and these things make the self.
As we watch our human world, my friend's insight about what makes change proves true. We know all about the melting of the arctic ice and the earth. We have been told many times. What creates change? 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. I do not know how all of this 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 and have survived. And then, hope and 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 ancestors at Newgrange left the carved stones for us. Those stones tell us that they saw the mystery, just as we do now. They 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 overweaning, magical, mystical, one of the densest forces on earth. It, too, can move mountains.