Seasons Of Life And Oil

by Alma A. Hromic

June 9, 2003


You've probably never heard of Subhankar Banerjee.

At least, you probably wouldn't have heard about him until the faecal matter hit the rotating blades concerning his latest book. If you haven't heard of the book, it's called Seasons of life and land; it's about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and it began to get in the way of the folks who don't believe that anything has been put on this Earth for any other reason except to be exploited unto death.

I'll give you a hint. You only need one word.


During House debates on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling proposals, pro-drilling Congressmen and Senators, like Alaska's own Senator Frank Murkowski, have waved pieces of blank white copier paper swearing that this -- i.e., the featureless blank paper -- is exactly what the wilderness looks like, and in fact is. Just nothingness. Millions and millions of deliciously profitable acres sitting on a potential black-gold mine.

But unless little green men (read: environmentalists) have been sneaking around in very, very sub-zero temperatures wearing snowshoes designed to look like the tracks of ptarmigan and moose, the story is very different.

The coastal plain of the National Wildlife Refuge, a fragile and unbelievably beautiful ecosystem and landscape, is far from being a lifeless white desert of ice and snow. This is where the polar bears have their cubs. This is where the caribou come to calve, after epic migrations which have earned this place the name of "American Serengeti." This is where ptarmigan, loons, half a dozen species of falcons and any number of other birds come to have their young every springtime. This is where the snow geese come to feed in the short arctic summer, putting in the fat reserves for their massive migrations -- this is where, in fact, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds come every summer, from every continent on this planet, from as far away as the Andes and the south of India. This is where grizzlies roam, and arctic foxes, and wolverines.

This is, also, the place where two ancient human cultures -- the Athabascan Indians and the Inuit of the polar circle -- have lived for ten thousand years, surviving on the bounty of the caribou and the passing whales. These are people who understand this country to the depths of its soul, and who have come to terms with it, and who give thanks at the conclusion of every successful hunt to the Creator for providing the sustenance and to the animal just slain for offering itself to the people. It's an ancient culture, sometimes harsh (it has to be, it grew up in one of the harshest environments on Earth) but always organic, belonging to the mountain and the tundra and the taiga and the frozen braided rivers of the far north. Their tracks, too, crisscross the "empty" plains. But the only nod to their existence that the powers that be have apparently given is an appalling statement by one American Congressman that the Athabascans "...aren't even American." They are Canadian, apparently, and as such have no right to oppose the rape of their land which the Congress wishes to see perpetrated.

As Subhankar Banerjee put it at a recent presentation I attended, "I wonder who was there first, the Athabascans or the Congressman."

Which brings us back to Banerjee, and his book.

There is something about this man's work that makes the hair rise on the back of one's neck. You are looking at a man with a vision, and it shows in his face. It was this vision that made him politely but persistently follow a dream until its culmination in the shape of this book -- a life achievement, if ever there was one. It was recognized as such by one of the premier institutions in America, the Smithsonian. An exhibition based on the book, and the photographs from the book, was put together at the Smithsonian, an exhibition on which the museum and the book's author and his publishers cooperated closely -- it was to be a landmark event, built around walls and walls of photos with exhaustive natural history captions, slated for the prime exhibition area of the museum.

But then something happened.

That something was that Senator Barbara Boxer stood up in the House with this book in her hand, and invited her colleagues to read it before passing legislation allowing drilling in the Arctic.

Suddenly the Smithsonian pulled up the red carpet.

The exhibition was not a political one, nor did it have an agenda -- its captions described the contents of the photographs, such as a badly endangered bird and its habitat. But even this was suddenly deemed too much. The captions were slashed to a bald one-line identification of the photo's subject; the exhibition was abruptly moved from the prime spot to a distant basement. There was even pressure, according to Banerjee, to cancel the show altogether -- that didn't quite happen but as far as the Smithsonian is concerned the exhibition ceased to exist. On the museum's website and on notice boards in the museum itself the Arctic Wildlife Refuge exhibition does not even appear. In the museum's halls boxes piled against walls blocked access to Banerjee's photographs -- photographic evidence of this was forwarded to sympathetic members of the House. Moreover, the Smithsonian contacted the book's publisher and demanded that the name of the Smithsonian be removed from all editions of the book forthwith, on pains of legal action, even.

It shouldn't be surprising, at that; the current administration has direct, solid, well-documented links with a number of oil interests and thus has a vested interest in pursuing the drilling option and opening up the area for exploration of its oil reserves. Information on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge has been quietly but consistently blocked, buried, sidelined on public forums. But if the intent of the powers that be was to make Banerjee's book, and his disturbing, powerful images, quietly disappear, that intent has backfired -- the controversy has been carried by national newspapers and news magazines like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, The Los Angeles Times and Newsweek -- not to speak of NBC and of course the Internet. More people know about this book now than would ever have been reached by the Smithsonian's exhibition.

Just to be clear, the book that the Smithsonian wishes to disassociate itself from is one which bears some of the following quotes:

"It would be a grand triumph for America if we can preserve the Arctic Refuge in its pure, untrammeled state. To leave this extraordinary land would be the greatest gift we could pass on to future generations." -- Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States of America

"America has a moral obligation to keep [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge] intact for future generations." -- Edward O. Wilson, Professor, Harvard University; two-time Pulitzer Prize winner

"We must strive to the bitter end to save this unique wilderness for future generations." -- Jane Goodall

But, apparently, if there is oil somewhere then there cannot be even a hint of the inconvenient existence of ptarmigan or polar bears or caribou or the human cultures which these sustain. Nothing exists except that blank white piece of paper -- nothing, that is, until the glorious stain of oil doesn't start seeping onto the white page.

I purchased a copy of Banerjee's book at his presentation. He inscribed it for me. The inscription says, "Please join me in preserving this magnificent place."

I intend to do just that, and I am beginning right here, right now. I invite you to do the same. A good place to start is here:


Elsewhere on that website, under "Gallery," you will find some of Banerjee's exquisite images. Tell others about these. Open people's eyes.

Do not allow the sheer greed, or the lust for wealth and power of a privileged few, to continue to wreak havoc with the heritage that belongs to all the world. Let us not allow our world to be made into a desert before our own eyes. At the very least, let us not cry "We did not know."

Banerjee, Subhankar: Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of life and land, The Mountaineers Books, Seattle 2003; ISBN: 089 8864380.

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Alma Hromic on Swans (with bio).

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Published June 9, 2003
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