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One of the most unexpected aspects of my Yukon adventure was the very different ‘feel’ of country where humanity’s technological imprint is an unpaved road with no dwellings or other roads for over 100 miles – and for many hundreds of miles to the side. I had never been in such a place before, though I had experienced hints while in parts of Alaska far less remote. We saw more grizzlies walking on the roadside than we saw people. In fact, we saw no people other than an occasional passing car or truck. And we saw one very big very unafraid grizzly. Some travelers we met saw more grizzlies, but I doubt any saw more people.
To give a sense of the Yukon’s size, it is almost 20,000 square miles larger than California, but whereas California has nearly 34 million people the Yukon has just over 30,000, and 2/3 live in the town of Whitehorse. All of its territory is classified as either subarctic or arctic.
Returning to California, even to the relatively rural area of a home in the Sonoma County countryside, is proving to be jarring.
Land like the northern Yukon has a distinct presence, and my traveling companion, who has spent decades in serious shamanic practice, and I both fell in love with it. The far north really is unique and some of the people we met had given up nearly everything we take for granted to immerse themselves there for life. It is as if the Yukon region is an energetic whole with no serious man made disruptions, and any place within it carries a taste of that whole. Human concerns appear superficial and crabbed while immersed within that field of awareness.
Of course neither of us would have lasted long in that place if we were abandoned there. Nor would we have felt the same were we exposed to the incessant mosquitoes of the summer or the almost unbelievable cold of the winter without adequate preparation. Hiking alone was risky because in many cases if you didn’t come back no one was likely to go looking for you. I had picked the fall to be there – fewer bugs, lots of color, and hopefully the northern lights. The first two factors worked out perfectly, but since we were there before the equinox, it was still light enough to take pictures at the Arctic Circle without a flash at 10:30 at night. The lights will have to wait, though we did learn they were out at 3 am one night. We were both asleep.
We were in a paradoxical position, enjoying the wonders of nature largely untouched by human beings but dependent on modern technology to do so.
Traditional people have lived in this land for millennia, but while sometimes times were good with the proper knowledge and support, at other times things could be very rough. I am reminded of a story related by Richard Nelson in his Make Prayers to the Raven: when asked by a young Indian whether things had been better before the arrival of the white man, an old Koyukon elder replied “You never had to eat ptarmigan droppings in the spring.”
It’s a tough land and its magic is intimately related with that toughness. Its magic brings peace, soaring beauty, and a greater sense of the relative transitoriness of human concerns, but at the same time it can kill you without taking any heed.
For modern Pagans such as ourselves there is a paradox here. Our ability to enjoy, and more than enjoy, this country is dependent on our being insulated from direct contact with all of its features.
Here I think is the central puzzle we as NeoPagans are perhaps uniquely able among modern Americans to understand and hopefully if not solve, at least ameliorate. The land is intrinsically valuable in its own terms, and we have to use it and defend ourselves from some of its impact. But so very often our style of using the land, especially when done by corporate bureaucracies, degrades and impoverishes this place that fulfills us in other ways.
As is so often the case regarding these kinds of issues, another Indian captures the attitude I think it is a Pagan responsibility to inject as well as we can into the core of our society. Scott Momaday writes
“You say I use the land and I say that is true. It is not the final truth. The first truth and the final truth is that I love the land and I see that it is beautiful. I delight in it. I am alive in it.”