Before Climate Change, a Dynamic Arctic

THE ARCTIC IS a picture of a windy nothing, a freezing whiteness in the popular imagination. It symbolizes purity too, and with the coming of climate change, its page becomes sullied by modernity’s scrawl — an alphabet of doom.
So when Bathsheba Demuth, who traveled to the Yukon at age 18 to learn to train sled dogs, becomes our guide to the Bering Strait and the lands it divides, it’s a chance to expand our imaginings. In her new book, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, we taste the perspective of someone who’s personally experienced the Arctic as an enfolding abundance, a dynamic system occupied by humans and fluctuating populations of animals.
Some of what the book brings to our attention are natural processes that Demuth, now a professor at Brown University, has presumably observed firsthand, and describes in lyrical terms. Listen to the reindeer: “A moving herd sounds gently percussive, the tendons in each hoof slipping over the bone with a click.” But most are historical — that is to say, human — events to which Demuth turns a naturalist’s eye and a scholar’s rigor.
The project of Floating Coast is to survey human doings, on land and at sea, on both sides of the Bering Strait from the mid-19th to the late 20th century. This is a book about the Arctic that mentions climate change only in passing. Its focus lands instead on industries specific to the region: whaling, reindeer herding, gold mining, walrus hunting. Demuth lays bare these industries’ devastating impact on ecosystems, and (using the term “foreigners” to mean Americans, Russians, and Soviets, and “Beringians” to denote Yupik, Iñupiaq, and Chukchi people) she reveals the messy relationships, marked by profound loss, those industries drove among human groups.
Scenes often boil down to exchanges of energy: “All fur wealth began with fox labor: the long day trotting on the ice, the balletic headfirst leap into a drift at the sound of a vole.” Energy connects vole to fox to valuable fur, always transforming. It connects the human realm to rest of the earth; Demuth insists that we are not, despite our illusions to the contrary, separate from nature or exempt from its limitations. In observing human activities like a scientist would track fox behavior, Demuth suggests that our concepts (capitalism and socialism, for example) are in a sense natural forces, like the weather or pathogens. Their influence rises and falls.
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The Arctic has seen more than one mode of human action, but always, Demuth writes, people have been “but one subject among many acting in Beringia.” A key point of her thesis is that nonhuman beings have agency, and that at no point has the Arctic environment been static. Nonetheless, since the dawn of commercial whaling in the Bering Strait, foreigners there have enacted “the reduction of an ecological space, in all its complexity, to a source of commodities.” When Captain Thomas Roys and his crew killed a bowhead whale in 1848, near what’s now called Big Diomede Island, they brought thousands of barrels of whale oil onto their ship and introduced a new, extractive mindset to Arctic waters. The next year, 50 ships arrived.
They were drawn by the bowheads’ slow movements and large bodies, yielding three times as much oil as the average sperm whale and generous quantities of baleen, used to manufacture hundreds of products from umbrellas to tongue scrapers. Over the next decades, Yankee whalers would slaughter tens of thousands of bowheads, valuing the animals, as Demuth writes, only “in present death. There was no entry in the accounting ledger for future cetacean lives.” Having sailed in from faraway New England, whalers noted the whales’ intelligence but failed to imagine whale society — the songs, for example, that change every year and are passed from animal to animal.
Nor did the hunters account for the role that whale hunting played in Beringian life, a tight weave of skilled tradition, spiritual practice, and social order. The hunt anchored survival and served as the occasion for poetic ritual: “The Tikiġaġmiut nation in Tikiġaq offered the bowhead skull fresh water before rolling it to the sea, where its soul could journey home and transform, again, into a whale.”
In the early 20th century, technology — not environmental conscience — took the pressure off the bowhead population. Petroleum replaced blubber; spring steel supplanted bone and baleen. At their lowest ebb, bowheads numbered only about 3,000. Today, Demuth reports, their numbers are growing. The whales’ story is the first of several in Floating Coast to trace an arc of near-extinction at the hands of industry, then an 11th-hour reprieve.
Walruses came next, and this time, American hunting prompted a response from imperial Russia, which feared American influence on the Russian Chukchi Peninsula. Meanwhile, the American government sought, in the late 19th century, to modernize indigenous people in Alaska whose livelihood had been stripped by overhunting — using suspect circular logic, bureaucrats bet that “commerce would fill the absences commerce itself had made.” Even as the United States attempted legal and economic enclosure on the eastern side of the strait, agents of the Russian state — with socialism beginning to rumble in faraway Russian cities — observed starvation among Chukchi and Yupik on the western side.
The need to prevent animal extinction and human suffering eventually prompted both Americans and Soviets to place legal limits on walrus hunting. “Both used foxes and walruses as the economic base by which they would transform Beringians into Americans or Soviets,” she writes. Oversight of walrus hunting and fox farming was a mechanism for civilizing people assumed, by foreigners, to exist outside of time.
This is a complex story, seesawing back and forth across the strait. It’s enlivened by sometimes cinematic detail: an indigenous hunter carrying snow soaked with seal blood back to his village to make soup; or the arrest of a Chukchi shaman by Soviet police; or American soldiers, stationed in Alaska during World War II, shooting walrus from airplanes.
If the two governments managed to prevent total annihilation of the walrus herds, they also — each in its own way — forced the conversion of Beringian people. Like Native Americans further south, natives in Alaska were required to send their children to government boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their own languages. In the Soviet Union, Chukchi people were told to move from their traditional yarangas (tents) to modern apartment buildings.
The erasure of cultures extended to US game laws that cast indigenous hunters as “profligate and uncivilized,” outlawing subsistence killing in the name of Theodore Roosevelt–style conservation. Nonetheless, “hunters walked the ice, past the three-mile limit of national jurisdiction, to hunt, and they sold illegal ivory in the back alleys of Nome,” writes Demuth. Caught in an invasive economic system, Yupik and Iñupiaq people looked for ways to merge their own understanding of walruses — as beings that must be ceremonially honored before and after killing, beings that could transform into humans and back again — with the new realities of the market.
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As Demuth’s story marches on, the socialist and capitalist states involved begin to seem more and more unhinged. The Soviets with their five-year plans believed they could grow reindeer herds infinitely, with no upper limits at all — “vanquishing the very idea of a maximum.” The Americans tried to “preserve” a reindeer-herding culture in Alaska that had never existed in the first place.
Both American and Soviet governments refused to see that reindeer herds naturally experience wild swings in numbers, and declared war on wolf packs, one of several causes of those shifts. “A pack is one check in an arrangement never quite settled on the tundra,” Demuth writes. Yet in Alaska, Iñupiat were offered a bounty to shoot wolves they traditionally regarded as ancestors, while the Soviets declared a goal of total wolf extermination.
Floating Coast circles back to the story of whaling in its last section, and here Demuth is at her most powerful. After the American whaling industry fizzled out, whales enjoyed a few peaceful decades before Norwegian and Soviet whalers arrived in the Bering Sea with powerful new ships. This time, the prime product was margarine made from whale oil. In the late 1920s, another rush began.
The need to protect whales through regulation was an international topic as early as 1931, but it would take more than four decades, and more near-misses with extinction, before whales were safe again from hunting. In the interval, the Soviets again made kill quotas their moral compass, their vision stopping, as Demuth writes, “at the water’s surface, at the line between people and the animals they stripped of a future.” And if Soviet whalers behaved brutally — Demuth describes nursing whale calves trying to follow their dead mothers, still lactating, onto ships — Western technocrats were equally chilly in how they viewed whales as nothing more than resources for human use.
“There is not a history yet that puts in human terms the cetacean experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this great annihilation of generations of whale minds,” writes Demuth. The moral force of these words builds on the careful naturalist’s writing that came earlier — “[T]hey joined with small groups of other bowheads, the lead whale leaving a trail of exhaled bubbles to guide her followers.” As with any particular environment, knowledge of such details can only lend weight to the knowledge of their loss.
Though most of us don’t know the Arctic intimately and never will, we think of it when we ponder climate change. The shrinking world of ice is a symbol of crisis. This is horrifying partly because we mistakenly assume the Arctic had always been the same — an eternal anti-Eden — until global carbon emissions began to rot it from the inside out.
Clearly, Demuth — having physically dwelled in the place and deeply pondered its history — knows otherwise. Over and over again she tells us that the Arctic has never been static. In terms of natural processes, she is convincing. She helps us see the ongoing changes, as in this passage about how climate cycles affect reindeer herds:
In hot summers, caribou refuse to eat, their flanks tormented by a raging flush of insects. Cows’ bodies are stressed beyond the ability to bear calves. Wolves find easy prey. […] But then, over the course of a cool decade, the caribou population surges. Migratory territories expand as fat calves mature and roam. In places, herds eat lichens and shrub down to bare earth — already, a damper on new births.
Demuth wants us to know that human history in the Bering Strait has been equally dynamic, full of struggle and negotiation, that the people she calls “Beringians” are anything but a timeless monolith. Indeed, to flesh out Beringian history would be key to complicating the default narrative in which humans sully wilderness. Charles C. Mann’s 1491 comes to mind, with its rich portrait of sophistication, conquest, and roiling change in the pre-Columbian Americas.
But Demuth’s treatment of indigenous accounts is a bit too sparse to accomplish something similar. She often uses a sort of cold open technique to introduce Beringian characters. One section begins, “The summers when Makaiqtaq was a child were spent playing around the half-underground sod houses at Singiq.” It goes on to tell the story of how Makaiqtaq — “known as Thomas Barr to the government” — became the private owner of a reindeer herd. He pops up several more times throughout the chapter, always suddenly and at different points in history.
The man and his biography deserve our attention, yet Demuth makes his story hard to follow, presenting it with clinical remove. Unfamiliar place names, given without context, do little to anchor us in the text (it would be helpful to know, without flipping to a map page, that Singiq is on the northern coast of Alaska’s Seward Peninsula). Overly condensed prose prevents us from sensing indigenous life or history deeply enough to change our minds about it.
Floating Coast ends up functioning as an account of capitalist and socialist intrusion into a balanced world — a linear narrative of decline — so the almost unspoken fact of climate change becomes the latest tragedy the reader can insert for herself, just another in a long line of modern blunders. Ultimately the book seems to confirm what we already believe, that harmony existed until we arrived, and that the changes imposed on indigenous people have all but wiped out whatever wisdom their lifeways might have offered.
This is a missed opportunity. For several generations now we have clung to, and been repulsed by, the narrative of invasive humanity. Indigenous peoples have been seen as part of the nature that modern societies have plundered. A kind of defeatedness attends this story line — the last thing we need now. Instead, we have to develop more flexible and hopeful understandings.
In looking to Demuth to enrich my own view of the Arctic, I find myself wishing for more of her own experience there, written in the poetic language of which she’s clearly capable. At the age when some kids head off to college, she went to a Gwitchin village in the Yukon. Perhaps the impact of her time there could help guide the rest of us toward a broader view of the history she recounts.
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Erika Howsare is a poet and journalist who lives in Virginia and blogs at erikahowsare.com. Her second book, How Is Travel a Folded Form?, was published in 2018 by Saddle Road Press.
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