During the holiday break, I spent a couple of hours with Sarah Palin. More exactly, I spent a couple of hours with her television documentary, Sarah Palin’s Alaska. I came away with really mixed feelings about the underlying message in the show, and have been trying to figure out how to write about it, separate from my visceral disagreement with her politics.
So let me give this a try.
The underlying premise of the show is that folks in Alaska are living in closer to everyday contact with the natural world and with traditional ways of living in that world. Physically, they are tested and hardened by it, sometimes come into violent conflict with it, but ultimately taught and sustained by it. Intellectually, they see simple and obvious ways that the world works, based on eternal rules and relationships. Morally, they believe in their own exceptionalism, free the blindness caused by civilization and by sophistry.
Kate Gosselin and her family are invited onto a camping trip with the Palins, learning about this world. She learns to have courage (and a gun), to be prepared (and to bring raingear), to open her mind (and learn from her kids) about the reality of life. Ultimately, Kate just gets cold and wet, collects up her brood, and quits, boarding the plane home to warm, dry civilization. Sarah laments that people just can’t see the beauty or understand the meaning of a simple life away on a riverbank.
I do agree that we lose something when we cut ourselves off from the natural world. When we immerse into a wilderness experience it is invigorating and cleansing. There are, without question, false complexities that we fill our minds with every day that keep us from doing our best and appreciating the things around us. That is why I go on vacation and why contact with river runners and bush pilots is so refreshing.
The folks in Sarah’s Alaska are comfortable in the wilderness because they stand on the shoulders of centuries of hard civilizing work to get them there: the plane, the bus, the gun, the tents, the gore-tex, the prepared foods.
The settlement and preservation of these lands are a result of political will, compromise among competing interests, courage and vision among the people who’s beliefs they rudely dismiss.
Many of us do share their reverence for the natural world and a belief in human exceptionalism, but also see our responsibility for stewardship of the natural spaces and wildlife and believe in creating a heritage for future generations.
I find myself feeling ambivalent as a result: both agreeing and disagreeing with the premise. There are things we have forgotten because we stopped living simply and close to the land. But in returning to the land, we shouldn’t forget how and why we became civilized.