Douglas Brinkley on saving the Alaska wilderness, "The Quiet World"

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 21, 2011; 10:27 AM


Saving Alaska's Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960

By Douglas Brinkley

Harper. 576 pp. $29.99

Douglas Brinkley calls this history of Alaskan conservation (the second volume of his projected Wilderness Cycle) "The Quiet World," but the book itself is anything but quiet. Like someone who stands too close and keeps grabbing you by the elbow at a party, "The Quiet World" brims over with information and insight, passion and insistence - and some carelessness. In fact, it's a bit like Alaska itself: large, formidable, raw and ultimately unforgettable.

As Brinkley reminds us early on, Alaska is a land of wonderful verbiage - a place where glaciers "calve" (shed hunks of ice), where the countryside is "the bush," where you can visit Misty Fiords and Gates of the Arctic, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes and the Island of the Standing Stone. It's also a place where state parks can be more spectacular than many a national park in the lower 48; where a visitor determined to see a grizzly bear in the wild will not go away empty-eyed; where the Northern Lights make frequent and sumptuous appearances; where light-starved winter days and elongated summer nights can mess with your mind.

For Brinkley and his heroes, however, Alaska is above all a place to be defended. Late in the book, something that he says about two of his favorite characters, biologist Olaus Murie and his wife, Mardy, could apply equally well to virtually every fired-up conservationist and soul-stirring pristine area in the book: "To the Muries, the land forming the Arctic Alaska refuge was the most majestic panorama of wilderness in North America. It presented life in consummate ecological harmony." From John Muir to Ansel Adams to William O. Douglas to Peter Matthiessen, Brinkley follows the torch of advocacy as its bearers try to wake up the public to Alaska's grandeur so that it can be saved from ruinous development.

Even when he covers well-known controversies, Brinkley's forceful storytelling can add new insights. Take, for example, ex-president Teddy Roosevelt's disappointment in his successor, William Howard Taft. Taft was more conservative than Roosevelt across-the-board, but Brinkley believes that there was a crystallizing issue: Taft's support of efforts to open up pristine public land in Alaska to mining and logging syndicates. Although Roosevelt never visited Alaska, he'd taken steps to block such incursions before leaving office. The resulting feud split the Republican Party, prompting Roosevelt to run for president in 1912 on the Progressive ticket and leading to the election of a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.

More obscure figures also make dramatic appearances. One of them is Charles Sheldon, a suave Easterner whose studies of birds and mammals taught him that life is so hard in Alaska that some species require what Brinkley calls "huge tracts of habitat" to survive. An anecdote from Sheldon's college days at Yale in the 1880s gives you an idea of how strong-willed he could be. After a traveling salesman had visited Sheldon's dorm room, "Sheldon noticed that his flute had been stolen. . . . Immediately he turned detective. For a long day he visited all of New Haven's and New York's pawnshops, hoping to find his flute. His determination paid off. At one of the Manhattan shops, Sheldon stumbled on the petty thief, the flute sticking out of his suit coat pocket. Without hesitation, Sheldon, like a linebacker, tackled him to the ground. He then made a citizen's arrest. The salesman went to jail and Sheldon returned to Yale with his treasured instrument."

Walt Disney, of course, is hardly obscure, but Brinkley elucidates a little-known aspect of his career: conservationist. Disney's nature documentaries educated the public, and his private advocacy influenced a fellow-Republican, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Speaking of Ike, Brinkley has a canny explanation for why what is now called the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created during the last days of the Eisenhower administration in 1960, despite near-unanimous opposition from Alaska's politicians. A year earlier, Ike had doubted that Alaska was ready for statehood when he reluctantly signed its statehood proclamation. For that reason, Brinkley theorizes, he was not unwilling to set the future course for what was, after all, federal land within Alaska's boundaries, regardless of what the new state's senators and congressman might say.

Readers staunchly in favor of development may want to skip "The Quiet World." It doesn't even purport to give their side equal time. In Brinkley's telling, environmentalists are always white-hatted, and Alaska's native peoples are on their side. Sometimes, the book will try anyone's patience, as when twice in the same paragraph we are told that the Yukon Delta is "the size of South Carolina." The writing can run to cliches ("end of story," traveling through swamps is "no picnic"), and there are some obscure references: "Roosevelt rejected the kind of get-rich-schemes that the novelist Knut Hamsun had condemned." Could we have a hint as to what those Norwegian plots might have been?

But if, like me, you enjoy reading bracing accounts of conservation battles won against great odds by impassioned activists, writers and artists, you should find "The Quiet World" engrossing despite its faults.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.

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