(Or What The Animal Kingdom Has Sacrificed For Humanity)
It was at the cusp of when the imbalance of human induced climate change was beginning to be noticed in the central high-Arctic. The previous summer had seen temperatures rising near 70 degrees Fahrenheit, surpassing those 2,000 miles south of our location in Resolute Bay. This unusual heat had been blown in by fierce winds that created a chaotic jumble of pack ice around all the shorelines of the islands of the Arctic archipalago. Now it was the spring of the following year, when the long winter night was finally seeing the sun rise over the horizon, after a four month absence. With daylight came slowly warming temperatures across the frozen expanse of the Arctic Ocean's environs, much of it still covered by perennial ice. We set out with an Inuit friend about to join up with his relatives, who were in the process of guiding a doctor from Minnesota on a polar bear hunt. He had paid a $15,000 license fee just to shoot and kill one of these magnificent animals. (Through a current safari outfitter, the costs go from nearly $40,000 - $50,000.) Needless to say, the idea turned our stomachs. With the use of snowmobiles, the hunted bears in such an arrangement could be chased, sometimes for hours, until they dropped from exhaustion. Then the non-indigenous "trophy hunter" could pick them off without any effort whatsover, and later brag about the virile manliness of having achieved such a feat, to his southern latitude audiences. The skinning would be left up to the guides. For the Inuit, it was a non-traditional means of supplementing a meagre income; for the wealthy guest hunters, it seemed to be mostly an exercise in vanity.
In any case, we did find our other friends who were part of the hunting party. During early spring, the sun would pass below the horizon, so we set up our tent in order to get some rest while it was dark. Or at least we tried. The old ice we were camped on was much more compressed and hardened than the newly formed yearly sheet that melted and froze after one seasonal cycle. As a result of its density, this ice was so hard that it could blunt a sharpened axe blade when attemping to chop through it. And it retained cold much more effectively, such that sleeping on it was extremely difficult - even fully dressed and insulated... Before turning in, we had made arrangements to reconnect with our friends at their permanent camp - in a day or two, once the polar bear hunt had been finished. There were four small family huts built along the shores of Back Bay on Prince of Wales Island. Their only instructions were, "Just follow the shoreline; it's not very far." By the time we awoke from our shivery slumber, the entire party had packed up and gone. It was mid-morning and we found ourselves alone, in the middle of tens of thousands of square miles of pristine wilderness, with only our snowmobile, komatik sled that we had built, and a jumbled frozen Northwest Passage before us. We re-packed all our gear into the windowed box that was securely tied to the sled. Painted fluorescent red, it could be spotted from miles away in the middle of that vast whiteness. We had food, tent, arctic sleeping bag, a fire bell, snow knife, a 45 gallon drum partially filled with jet diesel fuel, a kerosene heater, and five gallons of gasoline for the snowmobile.
By mid-day we were about a mile from the northwest shoreline of Prince of Wales as we headed south. But being that close to shore put us in the middle of a small mountain range of house sized ice chunks that followed the contour of the land. The pack ice had been tossed up during the intense winds that blew through the previous year. As a result the snowmobile and the thousand pound sled it was dragging, constantly kept getting stuck in the nearly invisible corridors of the frozen maze. It's sometimes very difficult to give adequate recognition and reverence to one's beloved, but without her, this and so many other previous and subsequent journeys never would have been possible. On this expedition she had made all our clothing, from snowsuits to boots to gloves, ornamented them with fine art beadwork that was miraculous to behold, and was an equal partner in everything. (She was a painter, illustrator, mathematician, geometer, a brilliant poet and writer, stained glass artist, gourmet chef, astrologer, tarot card reader, mystic and countless other things.) Only five feet three in height and weighing less than a hundred and fifteen pounds, she lifted and dislodged that extremely heavy sled numerous times, as we struggled through the jarring, chaotic ice and snow. By mid-afternoon, we had decided on a new strategy. We were getting tired and hungry from all the energy we'd expended battling the ice. Thinking we must be getting very close by now, we decided to unhook the sled from the snowmobile and make a run for the camp.
The gas guage read over 3/4 full, so it was thought that we couldn't possibly need that much to reach the little settlement and return to the komatik - once we'd gotten some rest. And of course our friends would be returning to meet us in a day or two. We tied the arctic sleeping bag over the front of the snowmobile and took a tupperware container with a piece of baked pan bread and smoked Hungarian sausage in it. With C hugging my waist, we drove off toward the coastline of the island. It's almost laughable to attempt describing the purity and clarity of the light and air there. The light etched the crystalline ice, snow and occasional rocky outcrop as if it were in a vacuum, with tiny suspended diamond-like ice crystals dancing and flashing in the air around us. There was no pollution, and even though the frigid air could sometimes hurt the lungs, the intrinsic vitality of it also revtalized ones's cells and being. This primordial beauty had existed here before there were any greedily grasping homo sapiens to falsely lay claim to these ancient domains. Despite the buzzing noise of our vehicle's engine, the towering silence and stillness enveloped everything, extending back to its source in the immeasurable space between stars and galaxies. The magnificent solitude revealed not only our infinitesimal scale but highlighted our living presence in it. It was as if the cosmos had focused its attention into creating these tiny animate forms so that their consciousness could be conscious of the source of this all-encompassing attention.
Once on land, we soon found other snowmobile tracks going in the direction we assumed led to the camp. Instead of the up and down crashing we had been experiencing all day in the middle of the pack, we now experienced the smooth rolling of the snow covered coastline as it wound around its many inlets. To our right, the terrain rose into cliffs and hills. The track went on and on for hours - and still no sign of a settlement. The crescent moon came up ahead of us as the sun dipped toward the horizon. In the fading twilight we began to feel some uneasiness as the vehicle's headlight continued to follow the tracks in the snow. Our fuel guage was now past the halfway mark from when we had left the sled, and we no longer had enough gas to return to it. As darkness closed all around, the narrow trail became more and more difficult to see. After another half hour, it became apparent that we didn't know where we were and that under these circumstances, we were not likely to reach our destination. With this recognition came the realization and simultaneous action that there was nothing else we could. I released the throttle and the snowmobile came to an immediate stop. We knew that we were lost and isolated in a totally unknown landscape. Yet isn't this what we really wished for? To be in the primordial wilderness of the inknown unknown, together Alone - All One. There was no panic or negative emotion. Without thinking, I got up and started walking out of the small depression the snowmobile was parked in, toward the shore.
As I topped the small, snow covered hillock, my heart literally jumped for joy at what I saw. Illuminated in the ambient light of moon and stars was a small arctic fox. It's left hind leg was caught in a leg trap. It had tried to paw its way out of the cruel, painful confinement, and in doing so had created a magic circle around itself. It frantically rushed away to escape when it saw me but the trap did not give. Almost with a feeling of elation, I immediately walked back to C, who was still sitting on the snowmobile and said, "We have some work to do." We didn't have any tools for opening the trap. We knew our friends had put it there, but the animal would soon weaken and die a slow, most miserable death. By some miraculous controlled coincidence, I had stopped exactly where a fellow living creature desperately needed our help... There was no question that we had to set it free. Looking under the hood of the snowmobile, I removed the only thing that might suffice as a tool; the somewhat curved, metal drive-belt cover. It was less than three feet long but it could be used to push down the center spring in order to open the jaws of the trap. I certainly didn't wish to use only my boot in doing so, being concerned that the cornered animal might turn around and attack me in order to defend itself. Using a gentle and friendly tone of voice, we approached the trap. Seeing two towering figures, and sensing that it would be killed, this little animal, no larger than a house cat, let out a deep, gutteral growl, more akin to a lion than a fox. It was a primal sound whose presence came from the dawn of animal life. As I attempted to push down the spring, the fox scrambled to get away, and then turned and bit the metal cover several times. Not liking that, it retreated to the edge of the circle. I managed to open the jaws so that its leg could have been pulled out, but the linb was probably too numb for the fox to notice that it was free. I had to let it close again. On the next occasion that the trap was sprung, our furry white friend with a little black nose, pulled away, and walking on three feet, sat down on its haunches, just outside the circle its struggles had generated. It sat there motionless, looking at us. Once we knew the fox was free and safe, we turned to address our own situation.
Even though it was spring, the temperature at night still dropped below -30. A wind was also beginning to blow. One of the things most people don't realize is that the arctic wind chill is what contributes most to freezing and death. It can penterate through the smallest stitching holes and other openings, freezing fingers, toes and soft tissue without warning. We had to get out of the wind but there was no shelter anywhere. We had only our sleeping bag, the tupperware container and the metal drive-belt cover. Without having ever encountered such a situation or its consequences, I knew exactly what to do. Both of us, began digging down into the snow, me with the cover and C with the container. Within half an hour, we had managed to excavate a six foot long, four foot wide and three foot deep hole - just large enough in which to lay our double bag. We were in the domain of the largest alpha predators, polar bears, not to mention arctic wolves. I pulled the snowmobile crossways across the top of our snowy grave so that our heads and torsos would be covered. Only our legs stuck out beyond our motorized covering. We pulled and tightened the sleeping bag's drawstring over our heads, and we attempted to shiver and shake ourselves to sleep in our frozen cubicle. The night passed slowly with little rest afforded to us. Just when we were beginning to fall into a warm and comforting drowsiness, the sun hit our eyes and we awoke to a brilliantly blinding white snowscape with an equally brilliant clear blue sky. As stunning as all this was, we received an even greater shock as soon as we emerged from our burrow.
Sitting in exactly the same place we had left it the night before - was the fox! It had not moved! It was still resting on its haunches and looking at us, without blinking. Its presence was surreal and sublime. It contradicted all the programming about survival being the paramount impulse of life. It didn't make any sense. It didn't need to be there, but it was. Looking into its face and eyes, something wordless, primordial and real was recognized. It was almost painful yet so profoundly direct. The fox knew we could have killed it - it recognized that. Yet it also knew that we had saved its life. It could have run away as soon as it was free - nay, that would be what an injured and frightened animal is expected to do. That would be logical. But survival of the fittest, most ruthless predator isn't what was transmitted so eloquently by this motionless and present fox being. It had to do with an intelligence that was and is conscious. A conscious intelligence that our homind mind calls conscience - but of a far clearer, more primal order. In that being interchange, the fox made it perfectly clear to me that it understood we had saved it from death. But it also understood that we needed help, that we needed protecting. So it did the only thing that it could do. It stood guard and watched over us for an entire night and morning. Until we awoke and we were seen to be all right. And then it took off. The recognition of this insight was profound but simultaneously a deep sense of remorse was felt. It was the recognition of how much all animals had sacrificed for humanity. It was almost as if this fox was the presiding representative of every living animal and creature that our own species had come into contact and interacted with. All the ancient memories of the lives we had taken, either by force, cunning, stupidity or greed, were laid out in an instant. A singular realization pierced like a laser to the core of my being, revealing all our hubris-filled, remorseless justifications of our supposed right to destroy the existences of so many life-forms, so that we alone could dominate and over-run the earth; in the process, fouling its waters, poisoning its soil, heating its atmosphere, trashing its space, and even disrupting the quality of its light.
And yet, despite all the horrific history our kind had perpetrated on animals everywhere, a history of violence and extinction that is imprinted into the very cellular memory of their organisms, this one small emissary, a fox trapped and doomed to die at our hands, still recognized that it had been given life instead of death. But not only did it recognize that we had helped it escape that fate, it also sensed that we humans also needed help. WE (as a species) were the ones who needed help, WE were the ones who needed reminding. And somehow, quite inexplicable to the mechanically repeated rationalizations of not as intelligent as they imagine themselves to be hominids, this little fox irrefutably demonstrated what Primal Conscience IS. It gave us its undivided attention and presence, and thus its protection from random disruption. Many indigenous people recognize the magical powers of animals, but nowadays very few are privileged to be in the presence of such real magic. It isn't flashy nor sentimental - just direct being to being communion. And so our friend and essence teacher, The Fox, transmitted not only the reality that animals recognize kindness and have conscience, but that survival is NOT the underlying basis of existence - it is that Life Cares For Life; it is the very root of Love and Compassion. It is a lesson and teaching that I am in no way worthy of, but in utter humility, gratitude and reverence I bow down to my Teacher, The Fox... and pass it on to you.
(After parting with The Fox, we were able to make our way back to our komatik, still couldn't find the camp after another day of searching - until we finally did on the third day - and immediately got caught in a nine day long blizzard that dumped over eight feet of snow... And being cut off from all human contact, we were presumed dead, although not to the sled dogs that kept us company for the duration... But that's another story altogether...)