A Sabbath of Place: Preserving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Article excerpt

A Sabbath of Place: Preserving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Paul Wapner is associate professor and director of the environmental policy program at American University. His most recent publication is Principled World Politics: The Challenge of Normative International Relations (Roman and Littlefield, 2000).

We are used to thinking of the Sabbath as a time. It is a moment in the week when we stop doing all the things we do and just be. The Torah tells us to do no work on the Sabbath and to keep it holy. We pause from all our efforts to create and change the world, and simply appreciate the way things are. The Sabbath, as such, is a type of withdrawal. It is a moment, a hiatus, in the otherwise endless stream of acting in the world. It is a time to refrain from laboring and, to use Heidegger's awkward phrase, to let "Being be."

What if the Sabbath could be not only a time but also a place? What if the Sabbath could be not simply a pause in our day-to-day lives but also a space on the planet devoid of our presence and even our crossings? What if there could be places on earth un-etched with human design, un-marked by the human footprint, untouched by our efforts to create and change the world? What if there could be a Sabbath of place, where we withhold our labors and let the other-than-humans just be?

The idea is not so farfetched. The practice of shemitah, where farmers let their fields rest every seven years, aims to bring the concept of Sabbath to the earth. Shemitah means to drop; it refers to the practice of letting fruit, vegetables, and stalks fall to the ground, unpicked and unutilized by people. Crops go uncultivated for a year; the soil finds rejuvenation; the land becomes a place from which humans withdraw. Shemitah is a time when humans let the land rest and take a break from its productivity. It represents one form of a Sabbath of place.

We can imagine another kind. Instead of giving the earth a year off, we can choose to withhold our labor from the land permanently and create special places to harbor the gift of the Sabbath. We can decide to cordon off part of the land to let the extra-human world express and experience itself free from constant human presence and intervention. This idea is also not so farfetched. In many ways, officially designated wilderness areas and wildlife refuges are "land-Sabbaths." According to the 1964 Wilderness Act, wilderness areas are places where, "the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor and does not remain." Refuges are similarly protected areas designated specifically for protecting wildlife and habitat in perpetuity. In both cases, the idea is to demarcate places where the nonhuman world is supposed to reign supreme, places where other beings live out their lives free from extensive human interference.

It makes some sense to think about a Sabbath of place in the current controversy over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). ANWR is the crown jewel of the National Wildlife Refuge System. It protects 19 million acres of land from development and permanent human presence. According to the Department of Interior's official website, ANWR is "among the most complete, pristine and undisturbed ecosystems on earth." It is often referred to as America's Serengeti. The Refuge is home to numerous plants and animals, including polar bears, whales, snow geese, and wolves, who have lived in the region for eons. The spring migration of 129,000 porcupine caribou across the Refuge to birthing places in the northern coastal plain is supposed to be one of the grandest displays on earth of nature's dynamic patterns. It has been taking place, uninterrupted, since at least the last ice age.

The Bush Administration wants to drill for oil in the northern coastal plain of ANWR. …