April 4, 2005 Vol. 37 Issue. 6

Book Review

Caribou Rising
Defending the Porcupine Herd, Gwich-'in Culture, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Rick Bass
164 Pages, Hardcover, $19.95, Sierra Club Books 2004

Showdown over the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and its people
by Gary Wockner

Oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge seems to be the current showdown issue for the environmental movement. Now, some of the movement’s top gunslinging writers, including Rick Bass, are stepping forward in defense of the refuge and its inhabitants.

In his latest book, Caribou Rising, Bass shreds the argument for oil development while paying homage to one of the last indigenous cultures in North America, the Gwich-’in Indians who survive on the Refuge’s caribou herd. With his distinctive spirit — and with stinging attacks — Bass takes on Alaskan Gov. Frank Murkowski, R, President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the waffling U.S. Senate.

Readers will find two elements in Caribou Rising that mark an important step in Bass’s writing: first, the focus on people, and second, his return to the topic of oil, after years of focus on Montana’s Yaak Valley. As Bass pays a short visit to Arctic Village, a Gwich-’in town displaying all the turmoil and splendor of American Indian life, he struggles to describe and defend its inhabitants and their complex relationship with the wild Arctic. Unlike many of his and the environmental movement’s past books, Caribou Risingis mostly about standing up for the people and their right to a traditional lifestyle.

When Bass takes on the oil barons seeking to open the refuge to drilling, he knows what he is up against: Bass was once an oilman himself. What better defender of the refuge than a man who knows firsthand the mindset and rationalizations of those who want to exploit it?

Caribou Rising is not meant to be a smooth, refined literary achievement. This short book reads more like a war correspondent’s field journal: fast-moving, pungent, but with heart and soul laid bare. Bass is sending us quips and quotes from the front lines of an environmental war, and we all benefit from his dispatches.