Book Review: Karsten Heuer’s Being Caribou (2005)

I participated in this month’s #climatebookclub. The August 2019 featured nonfiction book was “Being Caribou” by Karsten Heuer. I found (maybe surprisingly) similarities between my interests in Northern Cod in the Northwest Atlantic and Heuer’s interests in caribou in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Caribou depend on the arctic coastal plains in a way that’s comparable to how cod depend on the Grand Banks. If we want to protect these species, then we also must protect the unique geographies that sustain them. But then, these areas share the additional commonality (and threat) of being prime real estate for oil development.

“Whether to open the refuge to drilling was a classic development-versus-conservation dilemma,” Heuer writes (p8), “. . . Six months’ worth of oil versus 27,000 years of [caribou] migration. The culture of about 4,000 Gwich’in versus the financial benefits to a handful of company executives and shareholders. Millions of mammals and birds versus billions of barrels of oil.”

We’ve already made this trade off in the Northwest Atlantic. Oil development continues. And oil spills happen—too frequently, it seems; and the ramifications of which are too often downplayed. Why are we willing to ignore the threats posed by seismic activity, drilling and oil spills to the fish and the fishery that created this fishing nation? Why don’t people riot in the streets to demand better regulations? Does anyone think oil and gas can deliver the cultural influence to the province the fishery has?

This book also spoke to how the science on caribou migration is imperfect. The same goes for fisheries science. Studying wild creatures in their natural habitats will always be imperfect. And that’s not only ok, but expected. “We’re celebrating why and when and where animals move instead of celebrating the mystery. We’re forgetting about the freedom! Science has its strengths. . . but it also has its problems. Our computer models imply we understand what’s too complex to know, and yet we spend huge amounts of time and money trying to nail down what can’t be quantified or defined” (P108).

In the same way, fisheries models abound and, without question, the science is better than it ever has been before. We now know with greater clarity what contributed to the demise of northern cod (hint: overfishing is a major factor). But we cannot depend entirely on what the scientific models report for our conservation efforts. We need policy and practice changes to rely on best-available evidence to inform decisions that support the recovery of northern cod. There’s hope on the horizon that the revised Federal Fisheries Act will entail specifications for the recovery of the cod stock, but we must wait to see if legislation informs action. It’s been a long-time coming, but I’m hopeful.

Meanwhile, when it comes to weighing best-available science, we must not forget our own common sense. Take oil development – can we sensibly rely on oil companies to gauge the full environmental impacts of its activities on its natural surroundings? When drilling rigs arrive, their primary data source is watching their own gauges and dials, Heuer writes, not caribou antlers and birds’ nests in the arctic tundra. In the same way, the rigs off of Newfoundland and Labrador are not measuring the impacts on plankton and fish species in the Atlantic Ocean. It’s not their primary concern. Instead, common sense tells us that the primary motivation for oil development is best captured by rubbing a thumb and finger together: monetary gain. But at what cost?

Back to caribou and Heuer’s beautiful description of the herd. As a wolf lunges toward the herd, he writes: “the entire mountain of animals moved in unison, erupting in a wave of flashing, spinning bodies like a turning, choreographed dance. What had been a still mass of animals suddenly became a single, fleeing organism, and it veered left then right as it surged upward, pulsing silver and black like a school of darting fish” (P46). The herd is so powerful, and yet, so fragile. The could be any species.

Most of us will never visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or the Grand Banks. We live in a world and at a time when our relationship with nature and the land is forever changing (we simply don’t spend the time outdoors we once did). At the same time, oil development and other economically motivated projects, as Heuer writes, are uncoupling humans with their natural surroundings. So how do we communicate the implications of doing nothing to a citizenry who isn’t there to see trees falling in the forest (or, even take the burning of the Amazon right now)? How can we impress upon citizens that these refuges, these unique geographies, they are ours to protect – even if we can’t see them? feel them? And if not by us, then by who?

Karsten Heuer’s “Being Caribou” is a call to action. The title is too. It’s not just the caribou threatened. It’s all of us. What kind of future do we want for our own children?

I’ll close with this quote by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (whom Heuer cites throughout his book from Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus): 

Be. And, at the same time, know what it is not to be. 

That emptiness inside you allows you to vibrate

In resonance with your world. Use it for once.

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