The Arctic prism: Where history diffracts

Meditations on Arctic ecology, past and future, in relation to Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast and the British Museum’s Arctic exhibition.

Writer: Sacha Fouquay O’Donnell
Editor: Dan Jacobson
Artist: Louisa Norton

Memories are passed down, across time, across spaces. We transmit against the backdrop of loss. Yet as much as the second law of thermodynamics tells that order is a momentaneous anomaly within the ever-more disordered universe, scribal overarching civilisations are gazing at the potential of their own hell: biodiversity crashing, temperatures soaring, migrants fleeing: chaos multiplies, losses certain.

We are betrayed by our unsustainability. In the face of extinction, we must look at our environment and our relationship within historical and spatial contexts. Circumpolar cultures have, too, faced many losses. Although weakened by colonial purges, they still adapt and have done so for 30,000 years. Contemporary Iñupiaq poet Joan Kane tells us how she writes against her culture becoming the province of anthropology. We too should be more active in fighting loss and it is within the burgeoning works on Arctic cultures, histories, and ecologies, that novel environmental ethics and historical geometries are to be reflected upon.

One of these works is Bathsheba Demuth’s book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. The author asks how “capitalism, and the attempt to escape it through socialism, function when seen not just as human endeavours but ecological ones”. Ideologies are viewed not only through sailors’ logbooks and indigenous dwellers but also through the eyes of whales, deers, walruses and foxes. 

The Arctic is a prism, onto which history diffracts. As Yankees and Soviets struggled, Demuth argues, in subduing the unwelcoming beringian lands that formerly connected Eurasia to America, succeeding equated to a demonstration of the potency and primacy of the respective political ideology. Yet, in this arms-race, misconceptions of the polar world crystallised to illuminate anthropogenic mischieves. 

Blind to population cycles and their fine-tuned and clock-like equilibria, socialist and capitalist sought to bend periodical trends and adjust it to teleological visions: the former assigned by Moscow, the latter by demand. What telos? It was material in kind, and in Beringia, besides minerals, it was a morbid body. 

The Arctic colonial machine ingested not only whales but walruses, foxes and caribou if not humans. To settle onto barren lands Russian and Americans needed energy; whales became fuels to power the socialist or capitalist endeavour. Caribou, on the other hand, through herding were viewed as a means to civilise and tame ‘locals’. To the incomers’ eyes, life’s value only materialised when dead, a problem still discussed by economists today

Concurrently, Nature is as irrespectful of demand; fox populations can plummet in a few months. Grey whales on the contrary are long-lived yet both ideologies contracted their population from 50,000 to 3,000 individuals in the 1920s. In Stalin’s words, “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic”. Death counts hide the severity and immorality of these environmental massacres. Horror penetrates our porous cerebrum and as depicted by Bathesba Demuth, at play is our alienation caused by our illusion that a hermetic membrane separates us from the environment.  

The rupture of this membrane is harrowing. Thus, as a Soviet whaler wades through the milk and blood of a butchered mother grey whale, he confesses in the logbook “If whales could scream out in pain like people, we would have all gone mad”. Yet cetaceans do not scream and nevertheless the cycle was perturbed, the ecosystem faltered, Arctic people died of hunger. Man went mad, indeed.

Today, foreign dominion is less assertive. Yet, two centuries of extraction and interaction has not left the Arctic and its dwellers unspoilt. Indigenous cultures were deemed heretical, ‘pre-historic’. Currently, their grounds are marred as climate change turns the permafrost into slush. But a younger generation of Yupik or Sami are speaking loudly, and their voices are being echoed. You might hear these at the British Museum’s timely exhibition, Arctic: Culture and Climate.

The Native experience occupies a central role within the museum’s display. Their experience and knowledge of the polar world is akin to the Rosetta stone: a translation guide for navigating changing climates. Understanding how Arctic people have survived for more than 30,000 years, coped with many variations and how they fare today on ice-less shores, is vital.

Comprehending Arctic cultures means appreciating animism as a force. Animals, central to Arctic cosmology, are sentient beingsthey have agencyand judge whether the hunter is worthy of their flesh. Conversely, the hunter and his family will be as respectful and innovative with the surrendered material if they are to be recompensed by the cycle. Remarkable displays include a seal-gut-skin parka; bags assembled from duck feet; and intricate baskets, by Iñupiaq Marvin Peter, made of baleen, bird quills, and walrus ivory. All these unlikely plush yet practical artefacts originated in leftovers. 

The interrelationship between animals and circumpolar culture is that of continuity. Indeed, if respected, organisms are only ‘borrowed from an environment to which they will return’. Linear telos is truly foreign therefore, as it does not have any ecological basis. Circular geometries like that of Inuit are exhaustive; they acknowledge man’s place in a changing world. 

Incidents such as the COVID-19 pandemic have made it clear we are all interlinked, biologically in front of a virus, physically with international transport. The 2020s are said to become less globalised and more virtual. Yet our interconnectedness must not be shunned if we are to fight climate change.  

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