Karsten Heuer, Being Caribou

Decision made: Karsten Heuer's Being Caribou: Five Months on Foot with an Arctic Herd is one of the texts I'll be using in January 2011 for my literature/environment class. We'll be focusing on what can be termed the "environmental gaze," pondering the assorted ways humans have developed of looking at the world, so Heuer's multiple perspectives here of the Arctic, the Porcupine caribou herd, and individual caribou will give us lots to think about.

More than that, though, Being Caribou is a beautiful book. As other readers have noted, there's plenty of logistical detail, sure, and plenty of facts to learn from it, but it takes a rare book to live up to its chapter epigraphs from Rilke:
There's a lightness in things. Only we people move forever burdened,
pressing ourselves onto everything, obsessed by weight.
How strange and devouring our ways must seem
to those for whom life is enough.
While there are numerous ways to characterize the book, the most frequent is to emphasize the logistics and intent of the mission undertaken by Heuer and Leanne Allison: fifteen-hundred kilometres on foot in five months, supported by fully a dozen food drops by airplane, in pursuit of migrating caribou, in an attempt to understand and communicate the ecological significance of the threatened lands of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in order to prevent oil and gas development there. Activism and natural history both float my boat, so I'd encourage anyone with those interests to read this book.

More interesting to others will be Heuer's charting of his own move from relying on his scientific background, toward something more akin to spirituality. Being Caribou ends up a long way from new-age mysticism, don't worry about that, but his perceptions of Being shift significantly through this experience of fatigue, repetitive movement, persistent quiet, isolation, and intimate companionship with Leanne, with the place, and with the animals.

And possibly most interesting to me, at least this time through the book, is the shift from inarticulacy to a voice, with the accompanying anxiety about whether the developing voice will find ears to hear it. At book's opening, Heuer gives up trying to explain what he's seeing as thousands of caribou surge past his Yukon cabin, holding up a cell phone up to the passing herd whose enveloping presence fails as disembodied sound. By book's end, Heuer's finding the different voices he needs to speak with the Gwich'in, with politicians in Washington DC, and inside his own head -- none of them easily found, none of them unconscious, but all of them valuable.

If this interests you in any way, you might want to watch the movie on the project's official website (courtesy of the National Film Board). It's a different experience, and actually Leanne Allison's movie tells something of a different story, but well worth your time.

And if you're REALLY interested, you should definitely watch him discuss the book and movie (and some other projects, too) in his appearance at ASLE 2009 at the University of Victoria. (Click the "Karsten Heuer" link.) More than one person told me that it was a real highlight for them, a number of them American visitors who had never heard of him or the project before arriving.


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