By 1851, the bowhead whales, it seems, had unionized.
To the Iñupiaq, Yupik, and Chukchi people who lived on the land flanking the Bering Strait, the whales were beings with souls who granted their deaths to worthy hunters — not to the wasteful or greedy — and subsistence hunting along the coast killed a hundred or so a year. To the American open-sea vessels that swarmed the waters in the 19th century, the whales were products, killed in the thousands every year for oil and baleen to feed the endless commercial appetites back home.
Bowheads, which can live close to 200 years in the wild, took it personally. By 1851, the empty-handed ships were sending startling reports of whales newly alert to the sound of boats — and of whales that had altered their regular routes and developed strategies for evading hunters and disappearing under ice: "few," said the reports, "and wild."
For Bathsheba Demuth, author of Floating Coast, this is no coincidence. The professor of environmental history at Brown and longtime student of the Arctic writes in her new book that whales have culture, and so communications are, in part, decisions; their group action, "at the surface observed by commercial hunters, became one of choosing not to die for the market."
Natural is inextricable from politics. People are inextricable from nature. The Arctic is inextricable from everything.
Floating Coast is subtitled An Environmental History of the Bering Strait -- and Demuth's book certainly is that. The author's historical and environmental research is painstaking; coastal villages, whaling boats, Russian prisons, and American mining camps all come alive with detail. But the Arctic is measured by echoes and dramatic shifts — in seasons, in animals, in people and their politics — and the triumph of this book is how carefully Demuth pulls seemingly disparate threads together into a net of actions and consequences from which neither the whales, nor the Yupik, nor our children can escape. Nothing happens easily, and so no history is easily told: "The earth here is always telling more than one story, from more than one time."
It can make for brutal reading. Nature is unsparing up North; so much hinges on so very little, for ecosystems both animal and human. But crueler is the social and political history of Beringia, a place that straddles two nations whose respective mechanisms of state swallowed the sovereignty of its indigenous people in the name of progress — legislating them out of their lifestyles even as corporations and oligarchs moved in to strip whatever resources they may have had. Politics shifted to separate nature from people as a mechanism to answer to the market; it was "a line that allowed for the idea that people and whales were fundamentally separate beings, that whales had no country."
Demuth deftly cycles back through space and time, from whales to walrus, gold miners to conservationists, tracks that could seem parallel but all slowly pull together under lyrical, measured writing. (She's a dab hand at using the quiet remove to deliver a crushing aside, as when discussing the mass slaughter of walrus and the ways they adapted, or didn't, to commercial hunters from two nations: "The crack of gunshots did not even startle the walrus sentinels. It sounded like fracturing sea ice.")
Given that July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth, and the record-setting melts earlier this month, it's hard to view Floating Coast as anything but a eulogy. But though Demuth accepts the crushing losses — to cultures and to the natural world — this is not a story about giving up hope. It is a deeply studied, deeply felt book that lays out a devastating but complex history of change, notes what faces us now, and dares us to imagine better.
The bowheads learned to fight the inevitable; so, if we try, can we.
Genevieve Valentine's latest novel is Icon.