Rose George

In the Realm of the Walrus

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait


W W Norton 416pp £19.99 order from our bookshop

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 words of a Chukchi man, with ‘whiskers [that] stood out like those of the walrus’; ‘all their clothing was of iron’. Demuth’s book consists of a series of variations on two themes: invasion (of the land and the sea) and taking (of whales, Arctic foxes, walruses, caribou and gold). For Demuth, history is all about the ‘conversion of energy’ – creatures or places becoming energy for other creatures, willingly or not. Her commitment to this theory is both admirable and exhausting. Being human, she believes, ‘means taking up our place in a chain of conversions’. So ‘changing the bones of Earth’ – she means mining – ‘is a question of energy’, and ‘the movement of a river through land in Beringia is a thread of energy from the coast into the tundra’. Villagers who cannot find prey in the sea divert to land, and ‘a fox killed fifty or eighty or a hundred miles from the sea replaces absent coastal energy’.

To begin this story of energy conversions, we go whaling. Demuth’s account is familiar in many ways, except in its setting and in the canniness of the bowhead whale, the initial target of the incomers. At first bowheads learn to escape beneath ice floes, and I cheer them on. But it’s pointless: by the time blubber falls out of fashion – to be replaced by ‘fossilized sunlight’, which I take to mean oil – the population has been nearly annihilated. A careful hunt, in which the animal must die but is used in its entirety, is replaced by industrial slaughter: of whales, then foxes, then walruses, then caribou. What is lost is balance and thrift. When Iñupiat people hunted caribou, sometimes killing swimming caribou from kayaks or sending a strong man on snowshoes to run down a caribou cow, they knew that ‘the skins of fall-killed cows were best for parkas; bull hides with winter hair became beds; calfskins were soft enough for underwear’.

The book’s setting is profoundly physical, with wild beauty and merciless nature, but abstractions abound in Demuth’s writing, often accompanied by overly dense phrasing. In the early 20th century, US Congress, debating whether the starving indigenous peoples should be given aid, apparently ‘wanted the Yupik and Iñupiat to kill their own calories’. Too often, I found myself floundering in the face of sentences such as ‘sovereignty depends on walrus energy’, or ‘foreigners followed in time the concentration of energy in Beringian space, and species’, or ‘one of those times was the time of people who became walrus’, which I read again and again with the concentration of a whaler scanning icy seas for the breath of a bowhead.

Yet Demuth can also write vividly and with purity, most notably in the sketches of nature that open every chapter: ‘each male walrus has its own song, and each song lasts for days, filled with creaks, twangs, whistles, barks, and a rhythmic knocking’. Reindeer ‘feed swarms of mosquitos so massive, the insects can drain half a liter of blood in a day’. An incomer crew kills almost an entire herd of walrus, until, in the words of one observer, only ‘the little ones remain on the ice hovering around the carcasses of their mothers until death from starvation silences their moanings’.

And there are interesting ideas to hunt for: Demuth’s bicoastal vision is bewitching, because here is where two industrialised thought systems clash. Each crushes Beringia’s native creatures, just differently. The lands on the eastern side of the Strait have been scarred by top-down interventions from the American authorities, seeking to govern and control and legislate for surviving villages and demoralised, alcoholised, uprooted villagers. On the other side, the Soviet five-year plans were only a differently organised form of greed. ‘Neither capitalist time nor socialist time’, writes Demuth, ‘fit the cycles of walrus life.’

Beringia now faces the disaster of environmental devastation, as do we all. In 2013, the people of the Alaskan village of Gambell could not hunt walrus because the ice had receded so far, so they set up a PayPal site for donations for help. Yet the bowheads ‘are having fat babies, and ravens expand their range, using equipment built for oil exploration as substitutions for nesting trees’. In this place-emphatic book that contains much to be furious about, Demuth wonders only mildly about ‘the iceless shores where polar bears now meet grizzlies and between them breed strange new creatures: perhaps fit for a warmer age, perhaps unfit for any’. We should dream, she writes, of a politics that does not obsess about enclosure and is not so covetous of all types of energy. Else we will come to know what a Yupik man of Ungaziq knew in 1901, when his people went looking for walrus and found none. This time, he told a Russian ethnographer, ‘seek em, hunt em, no nothing. By and by die.’

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