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Poles in peril

The Arctic and Antarctica spell out the hard truths about the health of our planet

By David Wilson

Several years ago I found myself seated next to an off-duty pilot on a flight over Baffin Island, Nunavut. It was a sparkling clear day, and the pilot was more than happy to provide a running commentary on what we were seeing outside the window of our small plane.

Until he started narrating, the terrain below had seemed to me like a forbidding expanse of nothing. Endless rock, endless ice, no sign of life anywhere. But it quickly became clear that my affable companion was seeing a completely different place. The mountains and glaciers and fjords all had names — and judging from some of the flying stories he told, personalities too.

In conversations on the ground, I was struck again by how familiar northerners were with the impossibly vast territory they call home — speaking of far-flung settlements like Clyde River, Pond Inlet and Hall Beach as if they were just around the corner — and by how totally ignorant I was of just about everything to do with the place. A typical southerner.

I was reminded of my one and only trip to the Far North as I read Alanna Mitchell’s eloquent cover story on her recent pilgrimages to the Arctic and Antarctica. Mitchell, an award-winning science writer, observes that the Poles, more than any other region, spell out hard truths about the health of our planet.

We ignore the Poles at our peril, yet they do not fully register in our collective consciousness. We’re oriented toward the middle of the planet, where almost all the people live, not toward its extremities. The Poles are almost an afterthought, an emptiness so vast it’s unreal. We exile Santa Claus to the North Pole because we need to place the fable far beyond the reach of rational thought and uncomfortable questions. And we smile when Coca-Cola depicts cuddly polar bears and slinky penguins dancing under the stars — no matter that polar bears and penguins live at opposite ends of the Earth. It’s all ice to us.

Coming to grips with the terrifying ecological realities now playing out in the Arctic and Antarctica will mean first coming to grips with our distorted view of Creation. Churches have been very good at helping to change our ecological thinking: most of us now reject the idea that humans are the reason God created the Earth. But the work isn’t finished. The next step is to encourage an understanding of Earth where all regions are viewed as equally sacred parts of the whole. With Earth Day and the Easter weekend coinciding this year, I can’t think of a better time than right now to get the conversation going.

Alanna Mitchell’s article is accompanied by marvellous photography of the spectacular polar landscapes. The pictures are the work of photographer Lee Narraway from White Lake, Ont. To see more of Narraway’s photos and to hear more about Mitchell’s journeys to the Arctic and Antarctica, click here.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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