In the three weeks I’ve been on the North Slope, spring has come. When I arrived, this drive south from Deadhorse to the research station was through a wilderness of white. While I was at Toolik, the geese migrated through. They floated in half-thawed tundra ponds, then moved on north. Now they are here, on the vast, flat coastal plain that slopes imperceptibly northward to the Arctic Ocean.
The land is no longer white. There is still snow, in dirty gray patches, and ice on the Sagavanirktok River. The abruptly-revealed brown vegetation has scarcely started its sprint towards summer green. The brushy willows are barely budding, and there are only a few patches of flowers.
Overhead, the sky is gray, and the wind is cold, but to the geese it’s the Promised Land.
Wack, who is quite an ornithologist, points out raptors, owls, tundra swans. Occasionally there is a puff of white feathers among the gray twigs, crime scene of where a ptarmigan met its end back during the winter. But everywhere are the geese. They step, in twos and threes, between the tundra bushes. The birds carry shreds of wet vegetation, swinging from their beaks. Nesting material. All across the tundra, the geese are nesting.
Mile after mile, as we traverse the gravel highway, the geese are out there. Thousands, maybe millions. From an aerial perspective, they would seem endless.
Then an ecological perspective overlays. All the geese are doing exactly the same thing. Building nests. Eating grass. The same thing, multiplied a million times. I think of other species. The willows. The caribou. As species, they all do the same thing. Then I think of humans.
As soon as even a few humans get together, like an ice age hunting camp, they start to do different things. One is better at flintknapping. One is better at stitching the hides. So humans join together in groups, which can do more than the individuals alone.
The hide stitcher frees up the flintknapper to become even better at that job. There is a place for broken humans. A clan member who is blind can still chew the hides, to make them soft for mukluks. Thus, can free up the clan.
We admire animals. Each one is whole and complete. It must be. A broken goose is soon no more. But, as other humans are taking up the slack for us, each of us is incomplete. Broken, if you will. As individuals, that’s not very admirable. But together, it makes us more.
Other species specialize a little. When geese are flying in a “V”, the one at the head of the “V” tends to be a more experienced bird. But that’s about as far as it goes. Individual willow bushes are either male or female, so pollen or seeds. But that’s about it.
Social insects organize to a considerable degree, but it’s hardwired. They don’t come up with new things to do, only on evolutionary time scales. Geese fly in the “V”. They never try squares, or pentagrams.
On the other hand, humans are continually coming up with different things to do. Piling rocks on top of each other. Digging in the ground and sowing seeds. By and by, the things that work free up enough time that some humans can get by doing utterly bizarre things, like analyzing mortgage-backed security derivatives. And, well, running research stations.
I think of how far this can go. This human innovation and specialization. I thought of it one time I went to the Portland bear bar, The Eagle.
That night it was advertised there were “dancers”. Well, they weren’t really dancing. There was a sheet of plywood laid down atop the pool table, and the two guys were up on that. They were standing, stepping sort of back and forth, side to side, keeping rhythm a little with their arms. I guess that’s about all they dared risk, or the plywood might go flying.
The two of them did look fine. They were big and muscular and hairy, just what the clientele liked. I don’t recall patrons coming up and tucking dollar bill tips in the dancers’ jockstraps, but it was that kind of scene.
I thought, how could you explain such a thing to any other species?
I daydream: On the long drive north to the airport in Deadhorse, we stop for a pee-break along the highway. We fan out across the tundra. I shoulder in amongst the taller willow bushes for some privacy.
Up ahead, what’s that? The branches thin, and I see a little clearing. Quietly, I crouch and peer inside. Two fine ganders are standing on a tussock, stepping back and forth on their big webbed feet. Around them, in the shadows of the brush, is an appreciative gaggle of other ganders. As I watch, one in the crowd occasionally tosses a tuft of edible grass towards the first two. These bob their necks in acknowledgement but for now leave the morsels lay. They flutter their wings a bit, as if for balance. They keep on stepping, back and forth, side to side, on their big webbed feet.