Real Wealth

Tourist: Say, Ranger, these mountains you got here … they worth anything?

Ranger: They give life to the glaciers that sculpt this bay. They’re also important to the indigenous Tlingit, whose heritage is born of this place.

Tourist: No, no. I’m talking about minerals and mining. I’m talking about real wealth.

Ranger: So am I.

This conversation is reputed to have happened some time recently at Glacier Bay in Alaska. See the above photo. And the Tlingit – you may have guessed – are the first nation people who own the land and are owned by it.

There’s a stark clash of cultures here. Perhaps we can imagine our very own Gina czarina Rinehart, in conversation with, say, Bob’s your uncle Brown. That’s assuming they’d ever be found in the same room together.

The mention of glaciers sets me drooling. I have never been to Alaska, but I have seen glaciers in New Zealand and in Antarctica. Those experiences were memorable. Of all the large scale miracles of nature to which we may if fortunate be exposed, and confining ourselves for the sake of argument strictly to the inanimate ones – soaring alpine peaks, vertiginous coastal cliff faces, tranquil lakes dissolving into distant horizons, the very ocean itself in its immensity and with all its attendant hazards – of all these miracles, glaciers thrill me the most.

Stand at the business end of a glacier, look at what is before you, and take it in. You are like an ant in its presence. Each cubic metre of ice weighs a tonne give or take. So how many tonnes of ice do you see there, impelled by relentless gravity, bearing down on you like a killer avalanche? Thankfully moving ever so slowly, dare I say at glacial speed? Not as many tonnes, perhaps, as there are grains of sand on a beach, or stars in the sky, but a frightful number just the same.

But let’s have done with calculations. Let’s just stand there and feel in our bones the mind-blowing magnitude of the stresses and strains experienced by the fabric of the surrounding terrain. Feel the ravishment of the glacial bed. Feel the torture that the weight of ice applies to mother earth herself. Feel awe in our bones, as we – spared for the time being – are made aware of our own insignificance in the presence of things vastly more powerful. Nature can and will be both beautiful and violent at the same instant.

This is an awareness that can stay with us for the remainder of life. Who’s life? Yours and mine.

Can you ever put a dollar value on such an experience? Is this not real wealth?