The Danish ethnologist Knud Rasmussen
once spent a sleepless winter night conversing with an Eskimo
named Ugpik. Rasmussen was the first white man Ugpik had met
who spoke his language, and Ugpik was eager to learn all he could
of European customs. In return he related to Rasmussen his own
beliefs. "His philosophy of life", wrote Rasmussen,
"was to the effect that we human beings know so very little
of life and its controlling forces that we have an imperative
duty, not only to ourselves but also to those we hold dear, to
live as carefully as possible; that is why we are furnished with
all the amulets that can assist us through the difficulties of
life, and that is why we must bear in mind all the demands made
upon us by the taboo rules.
The carefulness with which Rasmussen's
companion approached his world is the indigenous approach to
the Arctic, time-tested and true. A long history has proved it
compatible with the Brooks Range and North Slope provinces. Our
own approach is the opposite and should give us pause.
The tundra ecosystem at the top
of the world is the most fragile we know. A single caterpillar
tractor, driven once across the tundra plain, can leave a track
that deepens with time, becomes a ditch, and lasts for centuries.
Consequences radiate disruptively from the ditch's eroding sides
like cracks in ice or ripples in a pond. This tundra fragileness
sometimes seems like a fabulous fragileness, like Achilles' heel
or Sampson's hair. There is a fatal aura about it. We should
see the warning, and be warned, just as those two almost invulnerable
ancients should have been. Perhaps the tundra will be the loose
thread from which the world unravels. Perhaps the end won't come
at the hands of some mad colonel who pushes a button, as we most
often imagine, but at the hands of a lonely and drunken tractor
driver who embarks on a long, straight drive across the tundra
into the Arctic twilight.