Timely tome talks ANWR
Post Independent Staff
Missouri Heights author Jonathan Waterman couldn’t ask for more serendipitous timing for the release of his new book on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But what may be good for his book sales doesn’t bode well for Waterman and others who want to protect the refuge. In late April, both houses of Congress gave preliminary approval to open it to oil development.
Waterman hadn’t expected such imminent legislative action when he began working on “Where Mountains Are Nameless: Passion and Politics in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
“I had no idea we were going to come so close to seeing the refuge opened” to drilling, he said.
Now, he hopes his new book might help stop Congress from giving final approval to its plans.
In the process, he also hopes to give readers an on-the-ground feel for the refuge based on his frequent travels there, and to introduce them to Olaus and Mardy Murie, the couple whose love of this coastal environment and its wildlife led to its designation as a refuge.
“Where Mountains Are Nameless” is far different from the book Waterman set out to write, and its publication comes much later than he originally had planned.
“I had a great deal of difficulty writing the book,” Waterman said.
He spent on a year on a draft and had to throw it away, he said. Waterman turned instead to completing his last book, “Arctic Crossing,” about his mostly solo 2,200-mile kayak and ski trip along the Northwest Passage, and the native people he met along the way.
Waterman said the trouble with his first attempt at a book on the refuge was that he couldn’t rein in his strong feelings.
“I was so angry that the powers that be would have us rape and pillage places like this, and the anger of mine was just coming out on every page,” he said.
Waterman thinks his revised version will hold more sway with people who haven’t made up their minds, and are turned off by radical environmentalists.
“If they hear a more moderate position on this, I think they’d be inclined to see how important it is to save the place,” Waterman said.
In his second attempt at writing the book, Waterman tried to focus more on the refuge itself, celebrating the place in the narrative while addressing the politics mostly in footnotes.
In rewriting the book, Waterman returned to his journals of his Arctic travels, and strove to shed light on the wildlife, the land itself, and the sensory experiences ” “the feel and smell of the place,” he said.
Waterman, a former guide on Denali, has traveled 18 times above the Arctic Circle. His experiences and interest in the Far North have provided the base for a career during which he has authored nine books, in addition to writing for magazines and occasionally lecturing at universities and other venues. He received fellowships from the Colorado Council on the Arts in 2003 and the National Endowment for the Arts in 2004.
As he worked on his latest project, he came to a realization: “It occurred to me that there was nothing like the refuge,” Waterman said.
Nothing else on the roof of North America offers what the refuge does, he concluded. Through “maybe just an accident of geography,” he said, it brings mountains and sea close together, making for remarkable scenery and an incredibly rich volume and variety of wildlife, from mammals such as bear, wolf and caribou, to dozens of migratory birds.
Waterman fears for the future of the refuge’s animals in part because he witnessed firsthand the ravaging effects on wildlife of the 1989 oil spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound.
In striving to avoid getting on a soapbox about the refuge, Waterman devotes much of his book to the Muries, a couple whose actions on behalf of the region over the decades spoke louder than any activist’s words do now.
Olaus Murie was a government biologist. His wife joined him in spending much time in the refuge in the years before it was officially a refuge. Enduring its hardships while studying caribou, they developed a love affair with a place that complemented their love for each other.
Olaus later directed the Wilderness Society and spearheaded the creation of the refuge. His wife continued to advocate on behalf of conservation for 40 years after his death, until she passed away in 2003 at the Murie Ranch near the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. By chance, Waterman was at the ranch the day she died.
He had long been enthralled by the Muries’ lives, and had wanted to write a biography on them, but publishers weren’t interested, Waterman said. In writing about the refuge, Waterman was able to pay homage to two people he believes embody the spirit of the place.
“It was their kind of reverent nature worship that created it to begin with. If you can understand what they’re about you can understand what’s precious about the refuge,” he said.
“I just never heard of anything like it, not only the work that they did but their romance together. It did move me greatly,” he said.
Passions run high on all sides when it comes to the refuge. Waterman said he was turned down by countless publishers in New York City before finding a willing partner in W.W. Norton, an independent publishing house. He believes some other publishers rejected him because of corporate ownership that in some cases might have ties to the oil industry.
The publishers apparently wouldn’t touch a book with a pro-refuge slant, “as if it’s poison or something,” Waterman said.
He believes debate over the refuge should be encouraged, not squelched.
“I think it’s patriotic to figure out what’s a natural treasure and what should be saved for eternity,” he said.
Waterman sees a parallel in the current debate over whether to allow natural gas drilling on top of the Roan Plateau near Rifle.
“It is the same tug-of-war of minds and resources ” what do we want to save and what’s worth going after. When it starts going on in your own backyard then you want to think about places more sacred and sacrosanct,” Waterman said.
Waterman so believes in protecting the refuge that he is sending the book to some members of Congress, and plans to travel this summer to make appearances in states represented by moderate Republicans who are undecided on the issue.
He hopes readers of his book might write their elected leaders as well.
Waterman didn’t necessarily write the book with the intent of trying to get more people to see this much-debated place for themselves. Despite all that makes the refuge special from a conservation standpoint, “I don’t think that many people would enjoy it,” he said.
He described it as cold and foggy on the coast, and mosquito-laden.
“A lot of my adventure buddies wouldn’t have any interest in going there … the suffering factor is really high there,” he said.
“… I think it’s better just that the public knows a place like that exists.”
Contact Dennis Webb: 945-8515, ext. 516
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