On trust, truth, integrity, and neighborliness in Alaska and America today.
When I first arrived in Glacier Bay, the bush pilot landed his single-engine plane on a dirt airstrip, looked over his shoulder, grinned, and said to me and three other park rangers, “Welcome to Alaska. You can turn your watches back 100 years.”
I remember it all: Bear tracks the size of pie plates. Whales that swam into my dreams. Wolverines that crossed icefields. Glaciers that flowed from tall mountains all the way down to the sea. Smoked wild salmon that melted in my mouth. Neighbors who waved every time they drove by, or stopped in the middle of the road to talk. Bumper stickers that said, “I’d rather live here than have a career.” Moose that ate our garden peas because, well… what do we expect? We planted them in their home.
Who doesn’t want to go back into the past, at least for a little while?
That was 40 years ago. North Slope crude back then was just beginning to flow through the 800-mile-long Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline from Prudhoe Bay to Valdez. How clever we were, and how wrong to mistake our cleverness for wisdom.
Today, we the people of the world, addicted to our comforts and pursuits of more, burn so much oil and coal that we send 2.4 million pounds of carbon dioxide into the air every second of every day. The past four years have been the hottest years ever recorded. The oceans are acidifying. And the Arctic is on fire.
“Mighty warm out,” I said to my neighbor John down on the dock. Our little town was experiencing a string of record-setting temperatures. The rainforest was so dry that the moss crinkled underfoot. The day before, I had felt a warm wind off a glacier, and read about 22 dead whales washed up on Alaska’s shores, and I knew, to the core of my being, that we were in trouble. Alaska was in trouble. America was in trouble.
“Yep,” John replied as he stood in the unrelenting heat, looking out over the water. “You probably think it’s climate change.”
I asked if off-hand he happened to know how many parts per million carbon dioxide were in the atmosphere just then? Carbon dioxide being an odorless, invisible greenhouse gas.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” he said. “Those numbers are always changing.”
“Yep, they’re always going up.”
“Exactly,” he said as he walked away. “They’re always changing. You can’t trust them.”
Trust. I’ve thought a lot about it lately. Trust and truth. Honesty and integrity. Hope versus fear. Right versus wrong. How do you reason somebody out of a position he didn’t reason himself into. The answer, near as I can tell, is not by science, as essential, remarkable, and unbiased as science is. The answer is through story, the core of who we are and have always been.
It’s what we’re made of: stardust and stories. We are all descended from a long line of storytellers, people with a shared imagination, a common mythology that held us together and gave us a common purpose. I didn’t begin this letter with an Olympian pronouncement. I began with a story. And here you are, still reading.
Think about it. All learning used to be through direct experience—don’t touch that again, it has thorns—or through story, the wisdom we learned from our elders. One thousand years ago, no Tlingit, Koyukon, or Eskimo elder ever said to his granddaughter, “Snuggle up here next to me and let me tell you some bedtime statistics.” It’s not who we are. Yes, statistics are ingenuous, and of great value in our modern society. But for the most part, they don’t change minds. Not calcified minds, anyway.
Stories, on the other hand…
Not until his students were in their seventh and final year did Aristotle teach them persuasion theory—pathos, ethos, logos—and the art of changing minds. And even then, he said, the best among you will find it nearly impossible. Still, we must try.
Think of Jesus and the power of the parable. Of Bob Dylan’s best songs, how they tell a story. Think about singing somebody into a new notion rather than lecturing them into it. Think about poetry, art, and haiku.
Then, like a great chef, add your final ingredients, compassion and science. And what does the best science tell us today? That to preserve our bountiful, beautiful planet we must cut our carbon emissions in half by 2030, and end them altogether by 2050. This will cost trillions of dollars. And will, if we are inventive and wise, springboard us into the Clean Energy Revolution.
Impossible? “It always seems impossible,” Nelson Mandela said, “until it is done.” After spending 27 years in prison, he became president of a new South Africa. Poet Mary Oliver echoed him when she wrote, “Keep a little room in your heart for the unimaginable.”
I remind young people all the time that golden opportunities mask themselves as insurmountable obstacles. Go out there and tell stories, trust science. Gain strength from the past, but do not fear the future. Look hard into it, and work to change it; make it the best it can be.
We live today in an oligarchy, not a democracy; an America rife with political bribery and medieval thinking. But also an America filled with people who care. The task before us is clear.
The last time I drove past John on the road, I waved and he waved back. The next time I hope we stop—maybe for a moose crossing the road—and we get a chance to talk. I’ll start with a story.
Kim Heacox is the author of more than a dozen books, including the 2005 Glacier Bay memoir, The Only Kayak, a finalist for the PEN Western Writers Literary Award, the 2014 biography, John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire, that was featured on NPR’s Living on Earth, and the 2015 novel, Jimmy Bluefeather, the only work of fiction in 20 years to win the National Outdoor Book Award. He also writes opinion-editorials in defense of the natural world for The Guardian, Washington Post, and Anchorage Daily News, and has authored five books for the National Geographic Society. He lives in Gustavus, Alaska, at the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park, where he and his wife Melanie are founding the John Muir Alaska Leadership School.
Header photo by Tony Campbell, courtesy Shutterstock.