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Know the West

The Anthropocene: Our self-inflicted wound

On getting past fear and toward a philosophy more useful.


I was a little dubious when HCN’s then managing editor, Brian Calvert, asked — after six months on the job — if he could go to Spain for a couple of weeks. My doubts grew when he told me he wanted to join a group of post-industrial environmentalists learning to address the grief created by the planet’s ecological collapse.

“It’s part of the Dark Mountain project,” he said.

“Maybe you just need a vacation on a beach somewhere,” I responded.

But after learning more about Dark Mountain and its place in a long line of conservation thought, and — more importantly — after securing Brian’s commitment to turn the experience into a feature-length essay, I relented. His story is now in your hands, and I hope it not only helps you get to know our new editor-in-chief, who grew up in Pinedale, Wyoming, and has traveled widely abroad, but also stimulates some deep thinking about the greatest challenge of our time: How can humankind navigate through this self-inflicted wound of an era — the Anthropocene?

As Brian notes, the answer is unclear, not only because of the darkening realities of our changing climate, fueled by relentless population growth, but also because of the psychological toll such forces take on us every day, whether we recognize it or not. The daily barrage of bad news, magnified by addictive social media, is enough to cause low-grade anxiety and sadness in even the most centered of us.

Brian’s essay, which revolves around the influential, yet relatively unknown, California poet Robinson Jeffers, explicitly asks the questions that have lurked in the background of High Country News since 1970: What is our relationship to the natural world? And how can we be of service to it, and to each other?

Humanity’s complicated relationship with the natural world is also explored in this issue’s second feature. Anchorage-based writer Julia O’Malley tells the story of a 16-year-old boy from the Siberian Yupik village of Gambell on St. Lawrence Island on the northwest edge of Alaska, who recently killed a bowhead whale. He was greatly honored by his fellow villagers for providing needed food and upholding a 2,000-year-old hunting tradition, only to be attacked as a “murderer” on Facebook by a pod of anti-whaling activists.

Executive Director and Publisher Paul Larmer
Brooke Warren/High Country News

Both features raise a similar question: In our deep-seated desire to “save the planet,” how do we get beyond the fearful, anxious tribalism that seems to be a fixture of the modern temperament? Part of the answer Brian found in the mountains of Spain, and in the rich leavings of Robinson Jeffers, is to be more present with the eternal mysteries that surround us still, from our backyard gardens to our shrinking glaciers to a bittersweet whale hunt. We all have a role in the unfolding drama of our world; the part we choose to play is what matters the most.