Friday, February 25, 2005

Being Caribou 

Last night we took a break from house hunting in our soon-to-be-adoptive country to watch the documentary, "Being Caribou," with several hundred other residents of Nelson, BC. The film chronicles a Canadian couple's 6-month trek through the northwest Yukon and into the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, following the annual migration of 125,000 caribou to their calving grounds on a narrow strip of shoreline above the Arctic Circle. The film is impressive on several levels, not least of which is the inspirational idealism of the couple, Leanne Allison and Karsten Heuer, who set out on this quest with a single camera, a 6-week course in documentary filmmaking, and a singleminded determination to show the world what is at stake if the Refuge is opened up to oil drilling.

Speaking for myself at least, it's one thing to read about the magnificence of this place, which the oil industry wants to defile, but entirely another to see it, listen to it, and vicariously feel it. This is not a romantic portrait of Nature as maternal Gaia; the weather is often brutal, the ordeal the caribou endure to complete their cycle of life grim. When not being picked off by grizzly bears, the caribou face having their calves literally plucked from them by golden eagles, losing them by accident (a calf separated from its mother is doomed; at one point one such lost calf approaches Heuer in the tragic hope that he might be his), or in a final indignity, literally being bitten to death by mosquitoes and botflies.

Yet the drama of this millennia-old story and the backdrop against which it takes place still takes one's breath away. That we would yet again be poised to pawn yet another piece of our patrimony for 6-months' worth of driving to Wal-Mart is profoundly depressing; watching "Being Caribou" evokes the photos of Native Americans by the Asahel Curtis, in that both are really elegies for a life on the verge of vanishing forever.

There is still room for action. The Canadian government has already passed legislation protecting the caribou migration, but without protection of their calving grounds in Alaska, the caribou are dangerously at risk. Bush is apparently backing us into drilling in the ANWR by putting a revenue line item in this year's budget that will, if passed, create leverage for formalizing drilling there. Activists are trying to build grassroots opposition to this move through community meetings and organized letter writing culminating March 12, when a vote is expected. You can read more here. Copies of "Being Caribou" are also available here.

Early on the film shows a clip of Bush hypocritically encouraging "folks" to go to the Refuge and "see it for themselves", counting on citizens to open up another beer and watch "Friends" instead. Two idealistic activists, however, called his bluff. Although few of us have the determination or the means to do what Allison and Karsten did, we can still call his bluff too.

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