Untrammeled Edges

by Bridget Lyons Issue: Spring/Summer 2021

On the dark side of the cul-de-sac lay Dr. Wagman’s Woods. His ten-acre parcel of second- or third-growth deciduous forest was one of the only undeveloped plots in Allendale, an undistinguished commuter hamlet twenty miles northwest of New York City. Beneath the summer canopy of mature oak, maple, and beech trees lay an understory thick with brambles and dense with saplings. For a curious Jersey girl hemmed in by split-level houses, it was an unexplored wilderness sitting just beyond the storm drain we used as home plate in our nightly kickball games. I could have accessed it through an opening in the stone wall that separated Dr. Wagman’s land from ours, but passing through that portal was forbidden, according to my parents, and I was a rule-following child.  

In Germanic fairy tale fashion, Dr. Wagman’s Woods remained a shrouded mystery at the edge of my suburban reality. And, true to the fairy tale form, Dr. Wagman had earned a reputation for being a surly, child-hating hermit. As a result, we kids were too scared to venture down the path that led into his property—a path that had only one purpose: newspaper retrieval. As a result of some zoning quirk, Dr. Wagman’s house was not accessed from our street but rather from a much busier thoroughfare about a half-mile away, making his driveway quite long by suburban standards. Rather than trudge that distance every morning, Dr. Wagman had made an arrangement with The Bergen Record’s delivery service. His blue-bagged bundle was hurled in the general direction of the rock wall opening at the end of Valley Road.  

Despite the fact that he walked out to get his newspaper nearly every morning, I only spotted Dr. Wagman eight or ten times in the fourteen years I lived next to his patch of woods.  When I did see him, his appearance conformed to my expectations; he was skinny and gray-haired, and he wore horn-rimmed glasses and tailored khaki pants that I thought befit his occupation (according to my parents, he was a cardiologist). His face seemed fixed in a perpetual scowl, and it was this expression that flashed across my mind whenever I contemplated trespassing,—which I did, on a regular basis. I suppose that the potential of untouched acreage is tempting to just about any child, but, to me, it was particularly tantalizing. After all, I had already built multiple interpretive trails (complete with illustrated, photocopied pamphlets for my dozens of anticipated visitors) within the confines of our nondescript postage-stamp backyard. The unexplored, forbidden land over the wall beckoned to me. And, at the same time, it provided an odd sense of security. In 1970’s and ’80’s New Jersey, my surroundings were one-quarter wild. I liked knowing that.

 

The White Mountains of New Hampshire became the go-to wilderness for a slightly older me. As an eighteen-year-old, I found myself out of my element in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I fled the urban academic jungle every weekend that I could, in hopes of climbing up to the clarity I discovered above the tree line. So, when it came time to develop a summer plan, I decided to spend ninety days camping in the largest wilderness zone I’d heard about: Alaska. During an expedition that transformed me from a suburban bookworm into an adventurous mountain girl, we hiked across the trail-less tundra of the Talkeetna Mountains, climbed unnamed glaciated peaks in the Alaska Range, and paddled the recently oil-slicked waters of the Prince William Sound. The year was 1989, and we were traveling in the literal wake of the Exxon Valdez.  

In the course of my three months in our fiftieth state, I became obsessed with the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a vast tract of untrammeled land that, as we traveled, lay always to our north. Everyone I met spoke with awe about this territory up beyond the Arctic Circle, one that encompassed thousands of roadless miles and served as a home to myriad herds of caribou, three species of bear, and the iconic musk ox—the creature whose resonant Inukitut name, “umingmak,” lodged itself into my brain.  

At the time, there was much discussion about “the 1002 area,” a 1.5- million-acre tract of sweeping coastal plain within the 19- million-acre refuge. The 1980 law that established the refuge’s borders banned resource extraction throughout most of the territory. However, Section 1002 of the decree left the destiny of one particular area—the one with the highest potential for oil reserves, now called the 1002 area—to future decision makers. Those future decision makers have since used the parcel as a political football numerous times, adding it to and subtracting it from various legislative agendas over the years. In March of 1989, two months before I flew to Alaska with a backpack full of new camping gear, it was looking likely that Congress would pass a bill permitting drilling in the 1002 lands. Then the Exxon Valdez spill happened. The same tragic accident that caused me to witness clean-up crews in hazmat suits spraying down beaches and birds in the Prince William Sound that summer also stopped all discussion of resource extraction in the Arctic Refuge for quite a few years.  

When I returned to the east coast that fall, I wrote research papers about the ongoing threats to this mystical parcel of tundra, even though I’d never set foot in it. I penned letters to my representatives exhorting them to kill any proposed drilling legislation for once and for all, advocating that the 1002 lands be added to the existing Arctic Refuge wilderness acreage.  Although I wasn’t sure why, I needed that unknown land to exist.

 

Sometime in the mid-1990’s, during a Christmas visit to New Jersey, Dr. Wagman’s planned retirement and relocation to Florida came up in conversation. My father mentioned that he and my mother had once considered buying the adjacent parcel of forest to perpetuate our family’s continued cul-de-sac existence. But, by the time Dr. Wagman had put his land up for sale, both my brother and I had moved out of the house, and the local real estate market had hit yet another unsustainable height. My parents decided that preserving the scrubby patch of woods next door wasn’t worth the money.

I didn’t think this change in ownership would affect my reality in any way, given that I only visited Valley Road for two or three days per year, when I used my parents’ house as a pit stop en route to adventures in South America or Southeast Asia. I’d stopped following rules by then and become a full-time wilderness guide. I was introducing young adults to parts of the world where humans are only temporary visitors—the kinds of places I’d imagined and read about in my childhood bedroom while looking out over the wall into Dr. Wagman’s Woods. I’d gone to work for the same outfit that had run my Alaskan expedition, although, ironically, I rarely led trips in Alaska. I’d fallen under the spell of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains and Utah’s Wild and Scenic desert rivers, so I was spending most of my field time in the Rockies. It was the late ’90’s and early ’00’s then, and talk of oil and gas exploration in the Arctic had subsided. Clinton vetoed legislation that would have allowed drilling (although he passed up an opportunity to declare the Arctic Refuge a National Monument, a designation that would have permanently protected the area), and, while George W. advocated exploratory drilling in the 1002 lands, the House and Senate of his era shut him down. I followed these issues from a distance, and I made some half-hearted efforts to convince my employer to send me to the Arctic to work a trip up there. The closest I ever got was an excursion on the Sheenjek River, a tributary of the Yukon—the mighty waterway which flows west across the width of Alaska to the Bering Sea. From the float plane ride in, I got a long look at the seemingly infinite expanse of the Arctic Refuge to the north. It seemed whole and huge and wild, sitting there on the fringe of my visual field. All I really needed was to know it was there.

 

While I can’t remember the year of that first drive down the new-and-not-at-all-improved Valley Road, I can clearly replay a mental movie of it. During the forty-minute trip from Newark Airport to my childhood home, my father had had ample opportunity to warn me about the neighborhood’s changes. But, if he said something, I didn’t hear it. We came to the top of Hillside Avenue, made a left onto Valley Road, and passed the four or five houses before ours, just like I’d done multiple times a day for most of my childhood. But, on that particular ride, I wasn’t just noticing a new street tree or a new color of trim on the Hwang’s house. I was suddenly looking at a completely unfamiliar landscape. The cul-de-sac was gone. Not only were there no woods, there was no curb, and there was no kickball home plate storm drain. My parents did not live at the end of a street anymore; they lived in the middle of one, and beyond their driveway now sat seven new houses, each bigger than the next.  

“You like our ‘Hampton Inns’?” my father asked. They had the tacky facades of those hotel chain structures, along with the pretentious features of our old town’s new rich: circular driveways. Each of these dramatic entry points was rimmed with Italian masonry and marked with little electric lanterns. My breath caught somewhere in the base of my throat. It had finally happened. The unknown had been bulldozed, and in its place stood all the trappings of suburbia—down to the in-ground, travertine tile swimming pools and ornate metal fences. “How could you let this happen?” I wanted to shout at my father. But I didn’t. 

 

In November of 2017, the 1002 lands were opened to drilling as a result of legislation that was tucked into Trump’s tax reform bill. By mandating two rounds of lease sales in the Arctic Refuge, each at 400,000 acres, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act appeared to quietly put an end to a debate that had been going on for my entire adult life. 

Fortunately, experts continued to express uncertainty about the quality and quantity of oil reserves lying under the 1002 lands. The coastal plain may hold 10 billion barrels of oil, which would be the equivalent of about one percent of global oil production—but this is a projection. Further testing is needed to determine how much oil is there and whether or not it can be extracted in a cost-effective manner. Since oil and gas companies have more reliable wells elsewhere, and a glut of Arctic oil could drive prices even lower than they have been, the exploratory process moved slowly over the last few years. This time around, it moved slowly enough that the political sea change brought it to a halt once again. For now, anyway. The day before leaving office, Trump announced that he had finalized nine ten-year oil and gas leases in the Arctic Refuge. Less than twenty-four hours later, newly-elected President Biden issued an executive order that addressed multiple environmental concerns, including these leases. The order places a moratorium on coastal plain oil and gas exploration until “a new, comprehensive analysis of [its] potential environmental impacts” can be performed.

One of the most significant of these impacts would be to “one of the world’s great wildlife resources,” as Interior Secretary Fred Seaton described it when, in 1960, he created a Federally Protected Area with a stroke of his pen. Conservationists, as well as politicians such as Jimmy Carter and Morris Udall in the 1970’s and Barack Obama and John McCain more recently, have consistently cited the importance of the Arctic Refuge’s 250 animal species in their pleas to leave the 1002 area alone. Oil and gas exploration would irreversibly alter the migration and calving patterns of the hundred thousand or so caribou that inhabit the coastal plain. This, in turn, would impact the local Native Alaskans who rely on these ungulates as their primary food source. In addition to affecting the human beings and animals of the region, wells would also disrupt the fragile tundra ecosystem in which they live. And wells do not exist in isolation. Industrial sprawl—which includes the airports, pipelines, roads, and buildings required to support those wells—comes as part of the package, wreaking additional havoc. Of course, there’s the ongoing possibility of oil spills as well, and, despite our technological progress, these disasters seem to keep happening.  

And then there’s the idea of this last, vast open space being scarred by our need for more and more petroleum—an idea which makes me feel anger, guilt, shame, and sadness all at once.  We have come to dominate so many global processes in our modern era; we move species from continent to continent, rearrange geologic features, unearth ancient minerals, and alter water chemistry. It’s easy to believe we’re completely in charge—a position that smacks of hubris and carries enormous responsibility. I want there to be a few places left where we do not run the show. If that’s even possible anymore.

 

I never walked through Dr. Wagman’s woods. When I heard it was about to be sold, I should have flown back to New Jersey and stepped through the opening in the wall. I would have been in my twenties then; no one would have stopped me. But I didn’t, and I will never know what that piece of land looked like. For years, regret at my missed opportunity ate away at me.

I did visit the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, though. A couple of years ago, I was awarded an artist’s residency sponsored by a consortium of Alaska’s public land management agencies. They could have placed me in any one of ten or twelve different National Forests or Wildlife Refuges, but the congratulatory email I received was from an Arctic Refuge staff member. Did I want to go out on the Beaufort Sea with a team of bird biologists researching the common eider, a migratory duck whose life cycle might be threatened by climate change and resource extraction? Could I write about and photograph the team’s intentions and procedures? And, would I be able to handle the wet, cold, and miserable conditions that arctic boating held in store for the rare visitors to this corner of the world? Yes, yes, and yes.

My flight to Kaktovikc, the town from which most people access the refuge, stopped first at the airfield in Deadhorse, Alaska. There are only twenty-five official residents of this town, but there can be up to 3000 people inhabiting it at any given time, all working in Prudhoe Bay, the largest oil field in North America. It’s comprised of about 200,000 acres of tundra—a size roughly equivalent to New York City’s five boroughs. From my window seat, I had been following the path of the silver tube that is the Alaskan pipeline as it played hide-and-seek under the cloudy sky between Fairbanks and Deadhorse. Despite the omnipresence of this feat of human engineering, I was not at all prepared for what I saw on approach to the landing strip: hundreds of square ponds pockmarking the land, along with rectangular windowless buildings and tall towers emitting eerie flickering flames. “It’s Mordor,” I said to the empty seat next to me, thinking of Tolkien’s mythological hell—one I’d always envisioned as a rigidly linear landscape like the one below me. Up until that moment of the flight, every non-human feature I’d gazed down upon had been curved. I had observed the gentle undulations of the foothills and the cylindrical borders of the mountain snowfields. The edges of every lake and pond were rounded, and the banks of the mighty Yukon river rippled like the surface of the water itself.  The boundaries of the clouds—if they could even be called boundaries—were subtle and softened, and even the high peaks of the Brooks Range lacked sharp angles. In contrast, the oil well ponds were perfectly square. The towers paralleled each other in ruler-straight lines. The buildings had the sharp edges of Lego cubes, and the roads that connected them were as precise as a carpenter’s chalk line. The harsh outlines of Valley Road’s Hampton Inns flashed into my mind.

This is not the fate of the Arctic Refuge lands—not yet, anyway. The final leg of my flight had us soaring above a largely untouched landscape; it was only on approach to the tiny landing strip that Kaktovik’s smattering of buildings, dirt roads, and moored boats came into sight. And, during our team’s week of dodging icebergs in a power boat, surveying nesting sites on sand spits, and camping on gray pebble beaches, the only evidence of humanity we witnessed was an Inuit hunting party, a Northwest Passage sailing expedition, and a deteriorating structure that was once part of our nation’s Distant Early Warning defense line. We traveled in fear of polar bears, camped in fear of grizzlies, and walked in fear of throngs of mosquitos. My visit was characterized by long stretches of cold, wet misery punctuated by moments of jaw-dropping beauty. It was often surprising, sometimes fun, and only rarely comfortable. It was always wild, however.  

“Was it everything you dreamed?” a friend asked me when I returned to the lower forty-eight. Her question made me think. I had, of course, dreamed of this foreign land for my whole adult life. In some ways, it looked and felt the way I expected it to, and in many other ways, it caught me off guard. But, in truth, when I thought about the Arctic Refuge, I hadn’t ever dreamed of details like the warmth of the fading light on the peaks of the Brooks Range or the incessant screeching of glaucous gulls flying above their nests. I’d simply thought about the vastness, the remoteness, the uncertainty, and the deep, dark, fairy-tale-forest quality that had always intrigued me. Most of all, I’d thought about the fact that so few human beings bore witness to the wildness of this place. I was one of those now, one of those who, by simply being there, chipped away at that very wildness. We’d burned thousands of gallons of gas cruising around in our inflatable boats that week—not to mention the amount of fuel that had been consumed on the ten total flights that got me there and back. We’d scared nesting mother ducks off their nests for science. We’d kept caribou and bears out of the area with our noise. Did I really need to personally experience this place?


I regret not having done something to save Dr. Wagman’s Woods—something like talking to him about conservation easements or approaching the local open space consortium about the parcel’s impending development. But, I no longer beat myself about not having crossed the wall. When I think about Valley Road now, I see myself in my darkened bedroom peering through the venetian blinds, my gaze fixed on the two rock mounds that delineate the forest opening, illuminated by the light of the cul-de-sac’s streetlamp. That act of looking and wondering made me who I am: a domesticated creature who craves the wild. I needed an untrammeled edge for my curiosity to bump into. I needed forbidden woods for my imagination to roam in. And, I needed unknown terrain to keep me humble and just a little bit afraid. Who would I be if I’d explored every corner of the planet? Who will we all be if Homo sapiens are the dominating force in every landscape? Are we already?



Bridget Lyons

Bridget A. Lyons is a writer and editor living in Santa Cruz, CA. A graduate of Harvard University, she holds an MFA from Northern Arizona University and has had previous lives as a middle school teacher, wilderness guide, yoga instructor, energy bar maker, and graphic designer. Bridget is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and her essay “Owlgazing” was named a Best American Essays Notable Essay for 2019. Her work has appeared in Crazyhorse, Catamaran, Atticus Review, Hawk and Handsaw, and other journals. More about her can be found at bridgetalyons.com.