From the bookshelf: Printed plea for ANWR skirts the issues

Posted: Thursday, February 03, 2005


  "Caribou Rising," by Rick Bass

"Caribou Rising," by Rick Bass

Caribou Rising: Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwichin Culture, and the

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

By Rick Bass

Sierra Club Books

$19.95 (hard cover)

This could be the year Congress authorizes oil exploration on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge coastal plain. Meanwhile, controversy on the subject rages.

Drilling proponents claim presumptive ANWR oil is a critical part of the nation's energy needs. Opponents claim development would destroy one of the nation's last true wildernesses, the Porcupine caribou herd and the culture of the Gwich'in Athabascans who depend upon them.

Rick Bass, a well-known writer on outdoor and environmental subjects, adds "Caribou Rising" to the ongoing debate. Unfortunately, this disappointing book shows signs of too much recycling — it brings nothing new to the discussion.

With Bass's track record as an outspoken environmentalist and publication by the Sierra Club, it is no surprise that the book opposes drilling on the coastal plain. What is a surprise is its superficiality.

The author weaves together the narrative of a six-day visit to Arctic Village with information and opinions about the drilling debate. During the visit, he interviewed several Gwich'in representatives about the role of caribou in their lives and the villagers' ongoing battle to block drilling on the herd's calving grounds. On the last two days, he traveled up the Chandalar River with several local men on a hunting trip.

Bass, a former petroleum geologist from Montana with 18 books to his name, writes with the zeal of a man on a mission.

"Each year I become more ashamed of and mortified by my government, and by the widening disparity between the people's will and the secret practices, secret allegiances, of big business and government: but not so ashamed and mortified that I will give up and step away, or become inactive," he writes.

He is eloquent, but trends in the country leave him bitter and angry. At times he even descends to name calling. He calls the nation's energy program "beyond flawed" and fulminates against George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Frank Murkowski and Don Young. Ted Stevens, oddly, is not mentioned.

Comments by his village hosts are more straightforward and compelling. He interviews people who have spoken out on the matter, such as Sarah James, who has testified before Congress. Often, their anxiety about the future comes out in telling ways, part and parcel of casual conversation.

Charlie Swaney, who takes Bass up the river, is one of many who make such comments. "For 20,000 years, the caribou have helped our people," he says. "Now it is our chance to help the caribou."

The entire book is based upon the twin premises that drilling the coastal plain will destroy the Porcupine caribou herd and that destroying the herd will lead to the demise of the Gwich'in. The author refers to how the loss of the buffalo hurt the Plains Indians, and he challenges industry claims that the Central Arctic herd around Prudhoe Bay is thriving alongside development. He touches on many aspects of the controversy but presents scant information to back up his assertions.

The footnotes at the book's end show that he recycled information from other environmentalists such as the National Resources Defense Council. When he tosses off statements such as describing the Alaska Permanent Fund dividend checks as generally running around $2,000 a year, he is perpetuating myths and losing credibility in Alaska.

This sloppiness is a shame, because it undermines what could be strong arguments, such as the assertion that increasing automotive gas-mileage requirements would save far more oil than ANWR could ever produce.

The book feels padded, as if it were expanded from a magazine piece. Even with its short length, Bass finds plenty of room for pondering the spiritual calling of hunting, spinning fantasies about the life philosophies of his taciturn Native companions and rhapsodizing about the grand scenery.

"The sun is strafing through a reef of mountaintop clouds, painting the whole valley in goldstruck columns of autumn haze, and the tundra below is blood red and bright green, and the many braids of the big gravelly river, second only to the Yukon in this part of the world, glint and sparkle and look intensely alive; as if the river is a creature, and this valley its home, its habitat," he writes.

He finds poetry in the landscape and writes with power. He is especially effective when he captures nuances of light on the landscape, the altered sense of time and historical scope. But sometimes his soaring prose feels more stream-of-consciousness than crafted.

He repeats the same images: braids, mosaics and rivers. Rivers of oil, rivers of time, rivers of caribou.

The entire book carries the taint of fly-by journalism. Perhaps the Sierra Club asked the author to go Alaska for a week and write a book about ANWR to come out before the November election.

Bass criticizes politicians who have never seen the arctic coastal plain or have merely flown over it. But in this book he never actually gets to the refuge himself, relying totally on less than a week south of the Brooks Range for his expertise on the region, its biology and its indigenous culture.

It is ironic that during his time on the land, the caribou, stars of the show, failed to appear.

Bass is preaching to the choir with this polemic, and drilling opponents may find inspiration in his fiery prose. But for anyone looking for a solid, well-thought-out discussion of the drilling controversy, "Caribou Rising" is a letdown.

Bass can be a fine writer, but in this case he has added more heat than light to an already hot topic.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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