Bringing the Wilderness Home

Caribou are the marrow of life in northern Yukon. In the caribou migration we found searing lessons about birth and death, survival, and the fragility and fortitude of nature. – Teresa Earle

Most of us will never get to walk along Herschel Island’s shore, or dare to climb Mount Logan, “long the quarry of the world’s mountaineering elite.”

And though many have seen the Porcupine caribou streaming along winter ridges in Dempster Country, the rangifers’ calving grounds along the Beaufort Sea are seen by few humans.

Out of reach and out of sight, the Yukon’s pristine, unpolluted spaces are important to the overall health of the territory’s ecosystems.

One way to grasp this imaginatively – and we need to connect knowledge and imagination in our complex discussions about land use – is through beauty and visual richness.

Enter Yukon: a wilder place. Teresa Earle and Fritz Mueller, the wife-and-husband team long established as a top-drawer writing and photography duo, are about to launch a new photography book about the territory’s wide spaces. It’s a celebration of geographies that affect us even if we will never get to touch and see them for ourselves.

Earle and Mueller have deepened their understanding of the territory’s wild spaces over the years by working on projects that bring them to extreme locations.

Earle, for example, was the first freelance writer to be invited to the grizzly-watching operation on the Fishing Branch River, which runs through the helicopter-access-only Ni’iinlii Njik Territorial Park.

That was in 2008, the same year Mueller, originally trained as a biologist, joined former research colleagues on a trip to Herschel Island to photograph part of their activities as they studied effects of climate change on the area.

And those are only two examples from dozens of remote, physically demanding jobs the pair has taken on, either separately or together, over more than 20 years.

The result is a book that is luscious, breathtaking and informative.

Mueller’s images are seductive, and Earle’s clear, poetic writing creates links between awe and understanding.

The book’s architecture links moments from very different parts of the Yukon together by considering rhythms of time and season, structured as chapters called “Light”, “Patterns”, “Flows” and “Systems”.

“Flows”, for example, starts with an easily understood summary of northern Yukon’s geological history, narrating how the ice-free landscape of Beringia supported life during the Pleistocene Epoch.

She then describes forces of wind, temperature and moving continental plates that turn the St. Elias Mountains, in the now, into one of the most extreme climates in the world.

In other places, Earle adds personal notes that reflect the two humans exploring wilderness together.

The couple worked on the book for more than 10 years. The summer Earle was pregnant with their twins, Mueller kept his lens work closer to home. A surprising photograph of two frogs perched on moss beside a twinflower appears near the beginning of the collection, adding an intimate note.

Moving the lens back to broader topics, Yukon: a wilder place comes out at a time when conservation questions are pressing.

We are asking ourselves, all over the world, what can, should or could be done with the last few wild places that exist.

The more densely populated our urban centres become, and the more resources our urban and rural lifestyles demand, the harder it is to look at big spaces and deeply understand that they aren’t empty. They’re complex, functioning systems we depend on.

Locally, conservation is a hot topic as the recent election saw heated debate about the Yukon government’s position on the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s final land use recommendations.

In other parts of Canada, the Skeena Watershed is a pressure point for conflicts between conservation and development. Ongoing debates about the proposed mega-quarry north of Orangeville, Ontario, show that a priority as vital as clean drinking water isn’t automatically included in business plans. And so on.

Yukon: a wilder place was imagined before these pressure points became so heated, and the book will remain gorgeous after policies are written up, whatever political decisions are made.

But the book also takes a definite position on conservation as a priority we need to face together.

“Yukoners are united by a fierce attachment to this landscape,” Earle writes.

“The conflagrant question of how and where to develop the land ignites debate and has been known to fracture friendships, families and entire communities. But it’s no wonder tempers run hot about the land. There’s a lot on the line.”

After, and between, the bouts of hard thinking and challenging discussions, the beauty of Mueller’s photographs are there to refresh and inspire.

Meg Walker is a writer and visual artist living in Dawson City.

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