By William E. Glassley, Ph.D.
Guest Columnist
Davis, CA, USA

The changes imposed by humanity on Earth’s surface cannot be ignored. The destruction of coral reefs, the rampant extinctions of plant and animal species, expanding ocean pollution, landscapes mutilated by resource extraction, the global reduction of drinkable water, persistently rising sea level are but a few of the consequences of unrestrained consumption by an ever-expanding population. The struggle to find strategies upon which international cooperation can be based to address these issues is flailing. What we know and love of the natural world is being destroyed. Sorrow permeates virtually every society as we witness what we perceive to be the scarring of the planet.

Grassroots movements have taken hold which seek an ethically informed relationship with the planet, striving to achieve an ecologically sound and scientifically based sustainable existence. Such efforts are laudable  they fill a crucial niche in the leadership void left by the political paralysis that stymies effective international action. But a fundamental reality that should be foremost in the perception of all who pursue such goals is often insufficiently acknowledged:

It is not Earth that is scarred as a consequence of our actions on the planet, it is ourselves.

When one steps into the untamed world and experiences Nature’s incessant evolution, it becomes clear that this reality should be the underlying paradigm guiding our actions. Over the four-and-a-half billion-year history of this planet, mountain ranges have risen and eroded away, seas have dried up, species have died off – nothing is permanent, change is the norm. Some of these transformations have played out over eons, as with the formation and destruction of mountain systems, others have been near-instantaneous cataclysms, as was the meteor impact that obliterated the dinosaurs. None of these events caused the planet to mourn. Rather, each moment became an opportunity for the artistry inherent in natural processes to form a new expression of what wild could mean.

I came to understand this reality a few summers ago when I was conducting scientific research in the wilderness terrain of West Greenland, a landscape that has become an iconic example of the human impact on Earth.

William Glassley - West Greenland

I was standing on a ridge bordering Arfersiorfyk Fjord, a thousand feet above a river valley to the north, the ice sheet a few miles to the east. The crevassed ice front was blackened by sediment left on the surface as the ice melted away. Gushing from the base of the ice cap were streams browned by their silty load. They coalesced into a broad reach of braided strands, glistening in the valley below. The river meandered for a few miles to the west, thickly viscous with its sediment, until it reached a small fjord. A muddy delta extended into the chilled waters, providing a surface where the river of molecules and particles mixed with the sea, becoming a thing from a past memory.

Meandering stream draining into the head of Maligiaq Fjord 

The ridge I was on was a simple sculpture, carved by ice thousands of years ago. But over time the ice melted away, gifting back to sunlight the bedrock foundation, transforming into river and sand and outwash delta. This was the flow of process the world effortlessly expresses.

In that open wildness, I stood in awed silence, overwhelmed by the wonders so openly offered. Everything in me craved connection with that moments’ creation. It was a place of beauty into which I had blessedly wandered. As I surveyed the stunning scene surrounding me a confused mix of serenity and desperation slowly welled up. A desire to breathe deeply in that meditative realm calmly abided with an electric anticipation that excited every cell in my body. Each part of me begged to be freed into that wildness, to dissolve any separation between self and place, as though such a state of being should be the essence of existence.

Ice front and melt water stream - Akugdlinguit Kugssuat valley

In that wildness boundaries do not exist. Horizons are imagined edges beyond which things persist and more waits to be seen. The world took on a richness and depth that exceeded anything I had known. The billion-year past, and all of its physical entities – waves, algae, lizards and fish, poetry, bird cries and all that our curiosity has uncovered – simply became prelude to an infinity of future creations. I felt as though that beautiful terrain nonchalantly offered an imagined hand to guide an evolving acquaintance. It was a dreamscape, something only vaguely comprehended, and yet more concrete than city sidewalks and urban chatter.

I also understood that the view upon which I gazed was a vanishing scene. The brown-fringed ice, the sediment-choked rivers, the silt-laden fjords were greatly exaggerated versions of their prior selves, unintentionally manipulated by the impacts of human activities thousands of miles away. This was the butterfly effect made manifest. That landscape is now the product of natural processes perturbed by the self-indulgent ignorance of the human species. Although I stood in silence, the hum of distant economies vibrated beyond the horizon. 

Muds and brooks along the crevassed and silt-mantled ice front at Qasigiatsiait

Humanity is now an integral part of that unfolding flow of process, the landscape I viewed an emphatic statement of that fact. What I saw was simply one expression of how human-affected climate change modifies the course of processes in the world.

The scene I was fortunate to view on that ridge crest in Greenland was simply one more instance of Nature’s depth. Retreating ice and mud-filled rivers are a response to the interplay of Nature’s spontaneously evolving self, affected by our pollution of the atmosphere. But they are disturbing only because I brought to them naïve expectations. Had I not known the dynamics playing out in front of me, I would have embraced the scene with the deepest sense of Nature’s boundless beauty.

I stood on that ridge as a representative of a species destroying its own habitat, making it less suitable for the engineered world it had constructed. Cities are flooding as the ice melts. Storms and droughts, agricultural devastation and mass migrations are self-imposed consequences of an ignorance fostered by hubris. We are surprised by the effects of our actions only because of the depth of our ignorance of the world. We have assumed we had dominion over the land and its creatures, when in fact we are marginally significant in the face of the power of just a single hurricane – implicit in the tides is the meagerness of our possibilities.

It is now more important than ever that we grasp the fact that our naiveté distorts our emotions. Wilderness is not simply scenery and adventure – it is the artistry of unyielding process. Immersion in it, deconstructing that which separates us from it, is the content of life’s deepest path. Whatever things on this planet our actions destroy, Earth will resurrect in new forms and resilient beauty. It is the spirit of humanity that suffers with each loss.



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William E. Glassley, Ph.D., is a geologist at the University of California, Davis, and an emeritus researcher at Aarhus University, Denmark, focusing on the evolution of continents and the processes that energize them. He is the author of over seventy research articles and a textbook on geothermal energy. For his lastest book, A Wilder Time, Dr. Glassley received the 2019 Burroughs Medal Award for “distinguished natural history writing.” 



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