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Being chased by a grizzly bear was not something I intended for my bucket list, but a trip to the wilds of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge changed that for me.
Grizzlies hold a special fascination for me, in part because when you are in their territory you realize that you are not at the top of the food chain, which is something industrialized North Americans rarely experience. No matter what kind of gun you have (my wife and I had a 12-gauge shotgun with slugs — recommended by the locals), when you lie down to sleep inside a sheer little tent you can’t help but feel like a daintily wrapped morsel.
Before taking our monthlong, 482-km trek, we thought a lot about bears. Once there, we realized how they had become a lightning rod for a complicated mix of feelings about the wild. It was this complicated relationship with God’s creation we had set out to explore.
Growing up camping up in the Florida Panhandle, I swam with alligators, but despite being immersed in God’s natural world I always felt somehow removed from it. I hungered for a deeper intimacy, one that would uncover a true relationship with God’s creatures and the wilderness that God created. And so with that hunger for connection, my wife and I set off on our adventure to the Arctic, one of the last really wild places in North America.
The refuge spans over 19 million acres of wilderness and, as one of the most biologically productive ecosystems in the world, has been legally protected from the oil industry since 1960. In addition to being home to grizzlies, polar bears, Arctic foxes and 200 bird species, the refuge is also home to the Gwich’in people, a Native American tribe that has subsisted on the Arctic landscape for millennia.
On our first few days travelling down the Porcupine River, we were puzzled by the complete absence of wildlife. Then one day as we sat on boulders eating our lunch, a fox passed by almost close enough to touch. What was so striking was its attitude. It looked at me as if I were the curiosity, a look that I am confident a different fox would receive were it to traverse the urban or suburban areas we humans mainly inhabit. The encounter with the fox reminded me that humans are not the sole inhabitants of God’s Earth and indeed there are numerous places where wild paw prints in the dirt vastly outnumber our own.
We took to travelling on our river journey by night, which never grew completely dark. The sun lowered in the sky and then rose again, plunging us into a kaleidoscope of natural beauty and wonder. One night we heard wolves howling and we spontaneously howled back. Then to our surprise the wolves appeared along the riverbank and ran alongside us. What followed was a howling back and forth — human to canine — which served to reconnect my wife and me to the wild depths from which we all emerged. It was a brief glimpse into how the untaming of ourselves can reunite us with our created selves.
In our modern world we have become alienated from our integral relationship to the ecological systems of God’s Earth. Perhaps the physical, emotional and spiritual distance we have put between ourselves as humans and the natural world allows us to approach the wild as a place to conquer. A place we can guiltlessly raid as we extract resources such as oil and gas.
The Arctic Refuge will be opened up for drilling, according to the GOP tax bill compromise announced Dec. 20. But the price we pay for our disconnection with God’s creatures and wilderness is vast and life-threatening. Our physical bodies pay a toll as the impacts of pollution seep into our being, ravaging some of our most vulnerable communities that sit on the fence lines of our industrial society. Perhaps most profound is the spiritual price we pay as we desperately seek for what we have lost, tormented by our disconnection and isolation as a species.
With an expanded awakening to the meanings we have heretofore lost, there comes a growing sense of urgency and a call to deepen our understanding of our true place in God’s creation — moving from a place of dominance to one of stewardship and caregiving. As we begin to shift our consciousness from a view of the planet as an object to be conquered to one more akin to how the Gwich’in experience it, as “the sacred place where life begins,” only then can we find our true selves as God’s created beings.
As I fled the grizzly, the question that lingered afterward was whether we will come to see that the monsters we fear in the wild are really projections of our own grasping. Can we learn to live in right relationship with God’s creation — giving up calls for drilling in pristine and sacred places like the Arctic Refuge — and allow our children and grandchildren the beautiful experience of wilderness?
Luckily for me, in that encounter with the grizzly, when she got close enough she stopped in her tracks, perhaps recognizing me for the inferior meal I would provide. We beheld each other for a few brief but unforgettable moments, moments that allowed a glimpse of my relationship with her not as monster to man, but as God’s creature to God’s creature. Then, she turned and disappeared into one of the last vestiges of the wild, a place I pray we never dare to drill.
Martinez is senior pastor at the Desert Palm UCC in Tempe, Ariz.