These past few weeks have been overflowing with special experiences in Utah’s natural landscape. On Sunday, it was a dreamlike sunrise at the salt flats, where I walked, step by step towards the sun, upon an immense expanse which resembled my imaginations of Arctic tundra but crackled like a split geode.
The salt crystals reflected the dreamy pink sky. It was otherworldly, but it was our world — a shimmering sheet of salt, with beauty, with purpose. A gift.
The week before, I ran the Brighton lakes. Wildflowers speckled the hillsides, welcoming me happily to their space. They gave their beauty and their pollen generously, understanding that reciprocity between them and bees, animals and each other, would enable them to spread their seeds and grow. I promised not to take more than I needed, and to give something in return.
My body and spirit felt strong as I bounded up hills. I was at peace, sitting at the shores of lakes and dipping my cupped hand into the cool water. I mindfully pressed my fingers through the surface tension, aware of this thin border between the aquatic and terrestrial spheres. Small frogs bounded frequently between buried and exposed stones, birds dove beneath the surface to catch fish, and algae nestled sometimes on the shore, sometimes on the lake floor.
What creatures bridge these barriers between land and water? Which creatures blur the lines between plant and animal? Who around us shows us new definitions of being, of identity, of living in synergistic connection with this world?
Then, I woke up to some happy news: “Trump Administration Finalizes Plan to Open Arctic Refuge to Drilling” Ahh, good morning world. It’s nice to know that my contribution to oil consumption is encouraging our government to gorge the pristine Arctic landscape with metal rigs.
So, I head off on a run. Something to get my angry energy released.
After an hour, I return back, calmer. But a short run, however cathartic it may be, is not enough to make me feel good about moving forward with my day and ignoring the ongoing exploitation of this green planet. In fact, my communion with an ancient oak and richly colored butterflies, juxtaposed with lazily discarded plastic candy wrappers and the suffocating smell of exhaust, instills in me a sense of urgency.
This natural world gives and gives, berries and warmth and water. Why is it that we are always taking, more and more and more? We rape the earth, like she is ours to exploit. Like the creatures here are dead, like we owe them nothing, and they owe us everything. Where does our greed end, and where does our commitment to reciprocity begin?
The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is home to caribou, wolves and multiple species of bear. Located in the northeast corner of Alaska, it is the largest wildlife refuge in the United States of America and is home to Gwich’in and Iñupiat communities. According to Cultural Survival, an organization advocating the rights of indigenous peoples, “the Gwich’in call the area ‘Iizhik Gwatsan Gwandaii Goodlit,’ which translates to ‘The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.’”
Scaring away caribou herds does not just hurt the caribou; it hurts the entire ecosystem, and it threatens the ways of life of Gwich’in communities. Before we suggest these communities change their lifestyles to meet modern, Western standards, perhaps we should consider that their values may differ. In our valuing economic profit, we are taking from these people what is sacred to them. This land does more than support the physical survival of these people; it is the soil of the culture, of their community.
Certainly, some Alaska natives welcome the oil, hoping it might boost the economy of the area. However, it is unlikely that this would bring many jobs. And the destruction of the environment looms large — too large, too horrific, for most.
The Wilderness Society summarizes the threats as follows: “Oil development would bring roads, airstrips, heavy machinery, noise and pollution. This would damage the refuge’s fragile tundra ecosystem and disrupt age-old migration and denning patterns for caribou, polar bears and other animals. It would also contribute to the climate crisis with more oil production in a time when it is not needed and we should be thinking of alternative approaches to fuel our lives and our economy.”
Our relentless taking reminds me of Thich Naht Han’s commentary on environmental sustainability. “We have to look deeply to see how we grow our food,” he wrote, “so we can eat in ways that preserve our collective well-being, minimize our suffering and the suffering of other species, and allow the earth to continue to be a source of life for all of us. If, while we eat, we destroy living beings or the environment, we are eating the flesh of our own sons and daughters. We need to look deeply together and discuss how to eat, what to eat, and what to resist.”
This extends to oil, clothing, and waste as well. Has our greed grown too monstrous? Do we consider that we are taking food, as well as the joys of clean oceans and clear skies, from our children? And what of taking life from the caribou?
Perhaps, to do our part in this reciprocal relationship with our planet, we could start by picking up trash, better planning our meals so as to reduce food waste, and considering the environmental impact of our fish suppliers. We could research the effects of various policies on the environment and contact our Congresspeople. (Here is a running list of Trump-administration environmental policies compiled by the New York Times; forewarning, it is rather devastating).
When bees collect pollen, they don’t consume it all, but spread it to other flowers. Trees absorb nutrients from the soil, but they clean the water. Nature teaches us that reciprocity enables us to flourish. We’ve taken so much. We take so much. What will we give back?
Emily Ostler, Salt Lake City, is a master’s student at Harvard Divinity School.