Yesterday, a reader sent me the following message. “Many people of faith believe its a sin to abuse God's creatures. The Iditarod is cruel to dogs.” I am posting this message for all to see, because I do not wish to whitewash anything: the Bible, mythology, the human soul, love and family, or dog sled racing. But I do wish to add one word to it. The Iditarod is not cruel to dogs as a general, axiomatic, for-all principle. That’s the logic of standardized testing. The Iditarod is cruel to some dogs. The vast majority of the dogs do fine. They love to run. If they get tired or sore, they get a free ride home. Their mushers adore them in ways we would all wish to be adored. I have met many of the Iditarod racers and their teams. For the most part, they are a wondrous lot of folks and the dogs are spectacular, a fully realized bunch whose ability to size me up on the spot amazes me. They remind me of the wisdom of the holy ones, who also have an unsettling way of seeing. Still, despite every effort, and these are gargantuan, despite rules of the race designed to make it as humane as any track event, despite teams of people working with each musher, and mushers have a larger support staff than even the most emotionally unstable figure skater, things happen. People fall asleep or lose their way. Dogs sicken and die.
When her beloved Siberian husky lead dog “Snickers” died of a gastric ulcer near Grayling this year, Karen Ramstead packed up her sled, left the race and went home to grieve with her family. The outpouring of love and support that followed her sad journey back to Canada overwhelmed her. The most indefatigable worker for the love of sled dogs, Susan Butcher, the champion who was legendary for her kindness and the mystical bonds she forged with her dogs, lost two of them when a moose charged her team in the woods. Things happen, but when taken as a whole, the stories of kindness far, far outnumber the stories of cruelty.
But were the Iditarod a safe field of hopping bunnies, policed by a border patrol to keep all danger out, I could not love it. I would not be God’s sled dog if I mushed with my Lord through the flower strewn paths of a perfect world. At this moment, my safety and security is being bought at the cost of countless lives. Beautiful young people are dying in the desert, their souls coarsened by fear, calloused by killing, and shattered by destruction because my nation cannot come to terms with its own darkness. Millions of people languish in prisons so that I can live in the illusion that I am safe. Billions of people live in poverty so that I can enjoy a buffet of distracting consumer goods and manufactured experiences. When a sled dog dies on the trail, I feel all of this. I face my own smallness in the face of so much that I think I am powerless to change. And I hear God calling me from the burning bush of my heart.
Alaska is real. Although parts of it stink with development, there is still land there that lives and breathes and has not been choked under pavement and poisoned with automobiles. I love Alaska because she has both the capacity to love me and to kill me. The One Earth Lent is not only about conservation, about buying green light bulbs manufactured in a China choking in its own coal fired pollution and working round the clock so that it, too, can guzzle petroleum like champagne. The One Earth Lent is about the Earth itself, about living faithfully in an imperfect world, about looking with open eyes at the Earth who loves us and whom we repay not with gratitude but with looting.
I would no more ban the Iditarod any more than I would outlaw marriage because there is spousal abuse. I would no more ban the Iditarod than I would ban the Bible because there is violence in its pages. I would no more ban the Iditarod than I would keep the Israelites in Egypt because it would be stressful for them to journey to their Promised Land.
You must not take
Love as synonym with approval.
For approval is only about you, while love is wide enough
To encompass what you are not. Love knows death.
And a land this wide
Sometimes thwarts you.
To hear the land and the weather speak
Is also to accept their silence.
The grisaille of a receding tide,
The construction site, urgent for the summer is short.
You rise and fall with the mountains
And there is ample space to wonder.