Jonathan Waterman’s Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge goes beyond a surface-level meshing of nature and travel writing to deliver a narrative that is as clean and complex as the Alaskan wilderness he traverses. Seeking to balance his own deep attachment to the landscape that makes up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge with an understanding of the oil needs and hopes that threaten it, Waterman has written a book that acknowledges the role of petroleum in Alaska’s economy while showing the depth and beauty of life that would be lost if the Refuge is given over to energy needs.
Waterman begins his journey chasing an enormous and elusive caribou herd by kayak. From Ivvavik National Park in Canada he paddles to the bordering Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the most bitterly fought-over slabs of landscape in American history.
“I took a few deep breaths. The Beaufort Sea glowed impossibly black and the beach lacked surf, shells, or seaweed. … I had long stared into and across this frozen water, which didn’t show the blue shimmer of most oceans. It felt more tannin lake than Arctic Ocean because the ice pack, two dozen miles north, quelled wave action. I paddled onward, rudely rippling the perfect black mirror, defying nature’s best-laid plans.” This is one of the few passages where Waterman demonstrates his talent for observation and description of the natural world. His twenty-year relationship with the territory seems to have given him an ability to speak its language, infused with an appreciation for the geologic slowness of time and the soul-quietude that wilderness immersion brings.
While Waterman can’t help acknowledging his desire that the Refuge remain intact and unspoilt, he does give its oil potential fair play. It’s clear he’s researched his petroleum geology: “[I]f the geothermal heat of the earth deep below my feet has remained at a tea drinker’s comfort — 90 to 190 degrees — for the last million years, drillers might find oil. Several degrees hotter or colder — enough to burn or cool your lips — and drillers might hit a vein of gas. Let it suffice to say that the tea-drinking temperature, or ‘petroleum window,’ is uncommon.”
But if Waterman is fair to the oil industry throughout his book, it’s also true that it can’t escape a simple fact: “Whether the coastal plain’s ancient sea yields six or sixteen billion barrels of oil, or none at all, it’s not disputed that the United States consumes seven billion barrels of oil a year.” He leaves the reder to answer the question on their own — is two years’ worth of possible crude worth the permanent loss of future generations to have experiences like the following: “We beelined back to the kayak. Crowberry, diapensia, and heather wafted past our noses in an acerbic riot of fermentation. The blood-red earth crunched beneath our feet, giving its own last dessicated yelp before the snows. … But it was the howling that got to us. The three-noted dirge and instructional lament was sung over and over again, saying (we imagined), ‘come away, come away, come away.’ Althought the usual reaction to hearing a wolf howl had always sounded trite to me, I learned that it was true: The hair does rise up on the back of your neck.”
The balance of modern needs pushing the boundaries of wilderness would be enough to make this excellently-written book a must-read for anyone interested in either issue. But Waterman has added another layer to the controversy. He’s included the stories and histories of the singular couple who comprised the original movement to get the Refuge set aside as a wilderness area (its status as a wildlife refuge has kept it hanging in the balance between wilderness designation or petroleum reserve for nearly 30 years). The life and work of wildlife biologist Olaus Murie and his wife Mardy are enough for books of their own. In Where Mountains Are Nameless, it forces the reader to see the Refuge in the context of decades of wildlife research and generations of true connection with the Alaskan landscape. As Waterman learns more about the Refuge, he visits with Mardy Murie to better understand her initial desire to rescue it from energy development.
Whether the Refuge is ever developed or ever receives the coveted ‘wilderness’ designation, Waterman’s book will stand as a defining portrait of one of the world’s most complex and unknown landscapes. Thanks to Waterman, even those who will never travel to it can practically walk the tundra and breathe the clear air of the nameless mountains.
“Here, above the Arctic Circle, in the northeast corner of Alaska, the summer rivers are sheeted with blue aufeis and the air clicks with insects. Petite grizzlies and large white bears prowl either side of the coast. Gaunt-ribbed wolves bay toward the heavens. And the hooves of a vast caribou herd shake the tundra.
“Go there. If you dare.”