Lessons From a Young Land: Alaska

The belief that science and faith are compatible, mutually supporting areas of study and thought is a vital part of how we approach everything that we see in life. In August 2003, my wife and I took our first vacation in three years and spent 10 days traveling in the southeastern coastal areas of Alaska. You take a trip like this to "get away from it all," but it is important to always be ready to learn and to see new things that can teach you new lessons about everything in life. The southeast corner of Alaska is a land of rain and oceans, teeming with life and with a varied collection of climates. It is not especially cold as the Japanese current brings warm water from equatorial areas to the coast of Alaska, but it is very wet with places like Ketchikan getting as much as 13 feet of rain every year. As you travel in this area you see things that you do not see anywhere else, because the land is young. What we mean by that is that it has not been too many years since there was no living thing in this area and all that existed was bare rock which was itself in a molten condition not long ago. There is not much soil in Alaska because there has been no time to make soil. Anywhere you dig you are likely to hit bare rock very shortly after starting a hole. Vegetation cannot send roots down through many layers of soil and organic material to bring nutrients to the plant.

One obvious point of interest to those who study the creation is the fact that when the earth was just created, a very similar problem existed. One minute after God created the earth, what do you think it looked like? Genesis 1:1 just tells us that God created the shanyhim and the erets--the heaven and the earth. The Bible does not tell us the methods that God used, nor does it tell us what the earth looked like. Some would maintain that it looked as it does today, with forests and lakes with water lilies and oceans with massive kelp beds. The assumption here is that God's miraculous creation of the earth automatically implies an earth that was functioning as a miraculous entity--not a created functional system.

The problem with this belief system is that there would be no way for the earth to continue to sustain all of its organisms because the systems themselves had not been integrated and were not functioning. God would not only have to create the earth and create the systems, but He would have to continually "tinker" with the systems to keep them working. Obviously this is something that God can do, but the reason the problem exists is that human theology and tradition have forced a restriction on God. The other problem is that this religious assumption places God in the role of deceiving and misleading man. When you look at a top soil layer in the Midwest, you do not see a sterile layer of organic loam. The method by which soils are produced is well understood by those who work in agriculture, and there are hundreds of soils which are almost totally identified by the way in which they were formed. Most of us are at least aware of composters, and know something about acidic, basic, alkaline, sandy, clay and other kinds of soils. If we have five feet of topsoil in an area, and we can identify 100 different layers in that five feet by the way in which the soils were produced, we have to maintain that God zapped all of these different layers of soil into existence in a way that He knew man would misinterpret. That is not the nature of God! God does not mislead man. If man is misled it is by his own stupidity, arrogance, stubbornness, or human traditions.

On August 24, 2003, I stood on the bow of a boat called the Spirit of Discovery as we inched our way to within 100 yards of a glacier called Sawyer Glacier. Towering cliffs rose nearly 3,000 feet on both sides of us reminding me of Yosemite Valley in California. The rocks here, like in Yosemite, are made up of granite--a volcanic rock full of the crystals of various minerals as the rock cooled from a molten condition. The glacier in front of me towered some 250 feet above us, and periodically massive chunks of ice broke off the glacier and fell into the ocean with a huge roar. From the ice that made up the glacier came a beautiful dark blue color. This is always seen in glacial ice due to the enormous pressure that is put on the ice by the weight of the snow above it, turning it into a plastic form of ice not seen under normal conditions. The area around us was barren, made up of granite scraped and gouged by the ice as it flowed for years through this glacial valley.

Looking slightly to my right I saw lichens clinging to the rock walls. These basic plant forms work with bacteria to produce organic material that will support ferns and some evergreens. Because Sawyer Glacier had retreated up this valley just a few years ago there had been no time for gymnosperms to get started in the area near the glacier, but if you looked a mile or so back down the fjord we had been traveling through you could see these plants starting to become established in areas that the glacier left perhaps 100 years ago. Because this glacier has been in this valley until very recently, there are no plants such as oak trees in the immediate area. These will establish themselves years from now, but not in my lifetime. This process of establishing plants in a certain order is called succession and is one of the better understood areas of botany. It is dependent upon the soil these plants need to have to survive which the plants themselves help to develop. Lichens and mosses, working with bacteria, produce basic soils in which ferns and conifers can grow. Conifers, ferns, horse tail, etc., produce soil layers that can sustain oaks, maples, and other advanced plants. What is fascinating to me is that the Biblical account of creation tells us the very same thing. In Genesis 1:11-12 we are told that a succession of plants was produced. The Hebrew words used are deshe meaning grasses, eseb meaning seed without a case and peri meaning seed with a case (flowering tree). Alaska gives us a chance to see this process in action. Recently glaciated valleys will never have oak trees, apple trees, maple trees, etc., in near proximity to the glacier. The biblical sequence tells us what will happen and our understanding of the way that areas become covered with plants tells us why.

Another thing we get to see in Alaska is the problem of nutrients. Living things all need nutrients to grow. When Jesus taught the parable of the seeds in Matthew 13, He told something that everyone at that time knew to be true. Seeds thrown on the rock will not grow because they have no soil. Seeds thrown where there is too little soil will sprout, but if the soil is thin they will not survive. In order for seeds to grow there has to be adequate nutrients for the plants. The listeners of Jesus would have no problem understanding God's word having to fall where there are suitable conditions in order for it to benefit those who hear it. How do you provide nutrients in a place where there is no soil? Even the most basic of plants have to have some way of getting the minerals and chemicals needed for life, and this would have also been true in the ancient earth.

In Alaska, this problem is solved by the migrations of salmon. The land in Alaska is barren, but the sea holds a reservoir of chemical and biological nutrients which can sustain a large animal population if there is a way to transfer the nutrients from the water to the land. Salmon accumulate massive amounts of these materials and then swim up the fresh water rivers hundreds of miles to the headwaters of the streams. After laying their eggs to assure that there will be more salmon in the future, the salmon die. As you travel in Alaska in the fall you will see literally thousands of salmon lying along the edges of rivers and streams all over the state. If the system ended there, it would do no good to the plants unless they were in the rivers, and no plant could withstand the force and varied water volumes of Alaskan seasons. What happens is that there are birds and animals which transport the dead salmon from the waters to the land. Eagles pick up the salmon and carry them far into the woods. Bears drag hundreds of salmon into the bush, and both of these fish eaters eat large amounts and excrete the nutrients. It is the salmon and their carriers which allow life to exist on the land in Alaska.

The picture that we have painted here is very oversimplified. In the ecology of Alaska there are literally hundreds of animals and insects working to sustain the environment--beaver, whales, otters, seals, gulls, terns, sea lions, vultures, ravens, halibut, rockfish, foxes, lynx, shrimp, polar bears, owls, and even mosquitos just to name a few. It is a thrill to see how beautifully this complex system works. It is also exciting to see how much man is beginning to understand about it, and how much the ancient peoples (who lived here before the white man arrived) comprehended about the design of the system.

If science and faith are viewed as complementary symbiotic areas of study, a visit to a place like Alaska can build your faith and amaze you as you see the wisdom, patience, and planning of God. Making God a mystic force that functions irrationally and capriciously not only throws stumbling blocks at honest, seeking, open people, but it reduces God to the level of a comic strip super hero instead of the patient working Spirit that we see in the cosmos all around us--unlimited in space, time, patience, wisdom, understanding, power, mercy, peacefulness, and love. --John N. Clayton

--John N. Clayton

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