the Goshen College Bulletin | Alumni magazine since 1956
R. Glendon Brunk

Yearning for identity, discovering life

By Rachel Lapp, director of public relations

In Yearning Wild: Exploring the Last Frontier and the Landscape of the Heart, GC alumnus R. Glendon Brunk uncovers layers of identity in a compelling philosophical memoir that, in chronicling an individual journey, calls also for a societal awakening to the “infinite interconnectedness” of all things.

Snapshot – a mental picture – of a dark-haired young man coiled with energy, leaving the office of then-Academic Dean Atlee Beechy after three restless semesters at Goshen College. It is the height of the Vietnam War, and, in another untaken photo, the young man is soon articulating his pacifist beliefs to an Elkhart County draft board in hopes of earning conscientious objector status.

Known to most then as Richard “Dick” Brunk, Glendon Brunk remembers that young man’s draft board experience as isolated. “I saw other Mennonite and Amish young men passively accepting their pacifism. I could not understand that. In my mind, it should have been a fire in them – something they would willingly die for,” he said. “There should have been more than religious lockstep; there should have been conviction behind it. I searched for that conviction. My father said this is what I should do, but I had to decide that it was really what I believed for myself.”

Brunk’s honest memoir chronicles his quest to do just that – to travel far from the familiar territory of his upbringing to claim his life for himself.

Now an environmental activist and faculty member at Prescott College, Brunk recently published a memoir, Yearning Wild: Exploring the Last Frontier and the Landscape of the Heart (Invisible Cities Press, Montpelier, Vt., 2002). Moving beyond surface snapshots to examine his rite of passage into manhood, he describes a quest of “coming into alignment with the soul’s calling” while examining issues of family, faith, culture, calling, gender, politics and environmental justice.

Brunk’s search for what he wanted for his own life, how and where to live, began when his family attended a Goshen College event one night – a slide show presented by an Alaskan couple narrating a year-long canoe trip on the Yukon River. This frontier vista was compelling, even at the age of 12, to him.

“Growing up,” he said, describing his youthful rebellion, “I heard mixed messages from the church – we were to live outside of society, but we were only allowed to think differently to a point, and then we were supposed to think the way we were supposed to think.”

He describes moving from job to job – from mental hospital aide to forest fire fighter to log cabin builder to caribou hunter to world champion sled dog racer to oil pipeline worker to wildlife biologist to environmental activist – and in the process, learning to survive subzero temperatures and live off the land. What emerges is not, however, a professional vitae, but a portrait of an American man whose journey in self-realization involves discovering the interconnectedness of humanity and the environment. Brunk’s engaging story opens personal and cultural wounds, but, rather than evoking despair, calls for love.

Interior and exterior landscapes

Following several years of 1W service in Denver, Colo., Brunk settled in to the harsh Alaska climate. He embraced a lifestyle completely different than that of his upbringing, uncompromising in a quest to try new things: hunting, building log homes, land squatting, sled dog racing. Then emerged an intersection and parallel between his life and that of Alaska’s oil pipeline boom, when Brunk began to realize the irony in his own use of the land against the backdrop of commercial and political efforts to tame wild country in the name of economic interests.

“So many things we do in life,” he writes, “are justified by dual rationalizations of inevitability and economics.” He began to see his own place in a larger pattern of rather random consumption, from helping build the first oil pipeline on Alaska’s North Slope to hunting caribou, bear, moose, sheep and more.

Describing a hunting expedition into then-pristine wilderness, Brunk describes the tension in Yearning Wild, “Today, I’m well aware of the paradox of my own special privilege of entering that country when I did. … I must take some responsibility for being part of the place’s demise.”

Realizations come slowly, Brunk shows us:
“But something was turning in me. The twinge of regret that had always followed killing had grown larger. … I had never given much thought to the circle of life and death, to the collection of sacrifices and suffering that accompany survival. I just followed my passions, whatever the cost, wherever they took me. But my passion for hunting had brought me to a moment of reckoning. The act of killing had become fraught with emotion. A voice deep inside me was demanding to be heard. Change, though, for the most part comes slowly; I could not know then what the voice was asking. All I could do was go on and discover that it would get louder and more insistent, and other events would coalesce into a fist that would eventually pummel my life into consciousness.”

Also important to Brunk’s journey of the landscape and the heart was his relationship with sled dog racing, which began several years after he and his wife moved to Fairbanks. Something about the sport and competition appealed to his need to explore When his marriage dissolved, separating Brunk from his daughter, he threw himself even further into the consuming sport, keeping and training more than 70 dogs at a time, committing “all of his waking hours to the sport” and eventually achieving a world championship title.

But after winning the world championship of sprint racing in 1980, he sold his dogs and took up the traveler’s life, living in Hawaii for a year, and visiting New Zealand, Australia, Africa, Central America, the South Seas, Europe and North America. It was during this restless and seeking time that Brunk began to feel the possibility of a different life than one driven by random choices; he began to sense another path, one that recognizes “evidence of our interconnectedness.” And in interpreting inklings of inter-relatedness and cosmic order, he also began to discern what choices he might make toward change. A profound passion emerged from all he had experienced in his wild yearning for protecting the Arctic National Wildlife refuge and sharing his compelling story.

A quest for alignment
At Prescott College, Brunk teaches creative writing and environmental studies, including courses such as “Nature’s Voice,” “Reading and Writing About Natural History,” “Environmental Ethics” and a series of classes that travel to Alaska to explore natural history and environmental issues there. Humans are facing the largest issue to be encountered, Brunk said – environmental collapse, which incorporates not just concern for unhealthy habitats and extinct species but also social, economic, cultural and political issues. Humanity is called to begin to imagine another story for ourselves.

“With my own students, I spend time trying to find rays of hope for them because the more they learn, the more despair comes. What keeps us from caring and acting? Passivity and denial gets in the way. A great disappointment to me is Christians who are not willing to be stewards of the planet because of the risks to their careers, lifestyles, economic safety, or some sense that their reward will be in the future in heaven, that in the meantime they have no responsibility for doing their best to create heaven here on earth,” said Brunk.

He encourages his students to take some action – “the best antidote for despair.” He said, “You don’t have to save the world. You just have to follow your heart and find the one thing you can do really well and do it. If you do it well and with a soulful connection, then somehow the world will be a better place. I encourage my students to live honestly, to follow what you are called to do even if that leads you to some pretty odd places.”

Brunk writes in Yearning Wild that “We are defined by stories, ways we believe ourselves and our institutions to be.” In writing the story of discovering and rediscovering his place in the interconnectedness of the world, he prompts readers to take risks, even making mistakes, toward growth – a process that cannot be captured by a single snapshot.
An engaging and heartfelt memoir, Brunk prompts mindfulness and transformation in cultural, societal, faith and personal beliefs about taking responsibility for our part in the interconnectedness of God’s creation.

Yearning Wild is available at major bookstores and online retailers in hardcover and paperback.

Top of page