Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth - review by Rose George

Rose George

In the Realm of the Walrus

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait


W W Norton 416pp £19.99

For an area that is hard to reach and exceedingly difficult to thrive in, Beringia is rather busy. Beringia is the name given to the sea and coasts that surround the Bering Strait. The coasts currently belong to Russia and the USA. They used to belong to no one really, although they were inhabited on the Alaskan side by the Iñupiat and Yupik, and on the Russian by the Yupik and Chukchi, peoples who live in such harsh landscapes that they wouldn’t presume to own them but instead must make accommodation with them. Until outsiders arrived, as Bathsheba Demuth learned from her time living in Canada with a ‘Gwitchin musher’ (a dog trainer), your first task in any given situation ‘generally required learning how not to die’. In Beringia, where some of the sea turns to precarious solid in the winter, you can be swept away by a floe, or capsized by a walrus. You can freeze or drown or starve. Of course, then, it makes sense to tame the wildness with beliefs and behaviours, to throw lassos of words and hopes onto the pitiless ocean and tundra. Demuth, an environmental historian at Brown University, has reaped rich and fascinating material from the oral history of the indigenous Beringians recorded by ethnographers. Theirs is an existence dependent on balance. In their world, a hunt is justified by necessity, but the killing must be acknowledged. There are ceremonies to thank bowhead whales and walruses for giving themselves up to become food, shelter and fuel.

The vegetarian in me shrugs at this. Whether you thank the whale or not, it is still dead. But although all humans in this story engage in hunting, not all engage in plunder. That is left to the interlopers on both sides of the Strait, who arrived, in the

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