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.

--KENNETH BROWER


[Photograph: Wibur Mills; Sheenjek Valley, August]