Fate of Alaska's wilderness an ongoing battleground

Book Review: "The Quiet World: Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960," by Douglas Brinkley. Harper, $29.99


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The patron saint of historian Douglas Brinkley's engaging new book is 19th-century naturalist and writer John Muir, but this 499-page chronicle of the American conservation movement and the 80-year battle to establish the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge features a cast of environmentalists worthy of a Cecil B. DeMille movie.

And what a cast it is:

The rough and tumble outdoorsman Teddy Roosevelt; the landscape painter Rockwell Kent; the nature photographer Ansel Adams; the Alaskan bush pilot Ginny Wood; the unlikely preservationist president, Dwight D. Eisenhower; the movie mogul, Walt Disney; and the groundbreaking scientist, Rachel Carson.

And what story wouldn't be enlivened by characters with names such as Sea Otter Jones and Musk-Ox Matthiessen?

"The Quiet World" opens with an invocation to Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and the first staunch advocate of protecting wild Alaska from the depredations of gold and, later, oil rushes. He wrote about Alaska with a prayer-like reverence:

"In God's wildness lies the hope of the world, the great fresh unlighted, unredeemed wilderness. That galling harness of civilization drops off, and the wounds heal ere we are aware."

Mr. Brinkley is quick to point out the irony of a wildlife refuge conceived of and lobbied for in large part by men who enjoyed nothing more than shooting of the animals they wanted to protect.

On a stroll through a park on Long Island, the young Teddy Roosevelt, on a break from his studies at Harvard, came across the unlikeliest of birds perched in a tree above him: a snowy owl down from the Arctic.

The amateur ornithologist observed the pure white bird of prey's "otherworldly anatomical features, marveling at its biological ingenuity," the author claims. "For a few moments Roosevelt must have held his breath, determined not to break the tranquility, mesmerized by this living testimony of migration. Then, without further hesitation, he raised his shotgun and killed the snowy owl."

The preservation of the Alaskan wilderness was abetted by future U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, who worked in 1957 for the Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton on the establishment of the 8.9 million-acre Arctic NWR.

Ironically, when Mr. Stevens died in a plane crash in 2009, he was memorialized by Arctic Power, a group dedicated to opening the Arctic NWR to drilling, as "the staunchest advocate for (oil) exploration" of the past half century.

Mr. Brinkley is mostly a dispassionate storyteller, though his bias shows through at times when he drops words such as "fortunately" or "luckily" when he's describing a conservationist victory.

"To set the record straight," he points out, "in the late 1950s Carson was taking care of her sick mother, helping to raise an orphaned five-year-old nephew, and combating a duodenal ulcer."

The historian's admiration for Carson and all the other environmental heroes in "The Quiet World" is obvious.

At book's end Mr. Brinkley discusses the skills environmentalists must acquire to succeed -- patience and doggedness -- because environmental fights are never completely won. An administration in Washington sympathetic to the environment may well be followed by one just as antagonistic, eliminating wilderness protection by the stroke of a pen.


Bill Eichenberger is a critic in Columbus, Ohio, who writes the BookSerf blog at www.thebookserf.blogspot.com .


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