Monday, February 28, 2011

Sara Wheeler’s The Magnetic North

I’ve found it difficult to approach writing about this book, and not because I hated it. What Sara Wheeler does well, she does very well. Much of her descriptive language, particularly about Alaska, is fresh and lyrical. Her sense of outrage and melancholy about melting icecaps and warming seas is contagious. This is a book that will doubtless have an effect on perceptions of the Arctic, its fragile environment and its threatened species. The notices have been uniformly glowing and reviewers have also noted Wheeler’s humor and ability to summarize scientific research with panache.

I don’t disagree with those reviews insofar as they concern Wheeler’s humor and literary style. But my own impression of The Magnetic North, which grew steadily as I read, is that Wheeler might better have stuck to what she does well, which is travel writing and delightful potted biographies of polar explorers, rather than taking on issues of the people who live in the circumpolar zone all year round. Wheeler is fine when it comes to describing scientists who hunker into labs and barracks for months out of the year. In scenes reminiscent of those at McMurdo in Antarctica (Terra Incognita), she gives amusing portraits of the men and women of the Arctic programs sponsored by the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. She clearly feels at home in often cramped quarters and trying conditions.

She’s less adept at describing the lives of people who live full-time above the Arctic Circle, some of them indigenous, others not. Her time with them is brief, accidental, or purchased (some are hired guides). She tends to rely on writings about indigenous people rather than investigating their own writing about themselves. Consequently her attitude often comes across as condescending and pitying. To me it smacks far too much of the colonialism that she decries so often.

Arriving in Iqaluit, her first experience of the Canadian Arctic, en route to a geological station, she writes “They should have called it Fattytown, not Iqaluit. Obesity was a sad symbol of cultural collision. It represented exile, metaphorically speaking. Cut off from a traditional diet of marine foodstuffs and berries, people had ballooned into grotesque parodies of the white man. Canadians had tried hard to put things right, but they couldn’t turn the clock back.”

Leaving aside the obvious point that Inuit are also Canadians, this is an offensive way to characterize an entire populace and unfair, too. Obesity is on the rise in every Western Country. In fact, England has the highest obesity rates in Europe and the West Midlands is judged to be the most obese place in the EU, according to a study reported in December, 2010 in the Independent.  

Are the overweight people of the West Midlands “grotesque parodies of the white man?” Would Wheeler not take some flack in her native England for characterizing Birmingham as Fattytown?

This is a particularly egregious example of fly-in/fly-out travel writing––generalized observations about the exotic laced with ignorance disguised as wit. Elsewhere in The Magnetic North, the native peoples are more remarkable for their absence. In the same chapter on the Canadian Arctic, we hear a great deal about the film Nanook of the North and Farley Mowat’s books, but little about the still-continuing culture, art-making, and spirituality of the Inuit and the strength and resilience of many communities. Noah, a “bear monitor,” employed with the Canada-Nunavut Geoscience Office, is one of the few natives with a voice. To him is given a few pages that hint at what Wheeler missed. He says, “I feel we at least have a voice now, and some political power, so we can express our position.” Noah is a blogger on the site Igloo Talk. This is a rare mention of agency on the part of indigenous peoples in the Arctic, and welcome.

A great weakness in Wheeler’s book is her puzzling lack of attention to the scientific and cultural work that indigenous people of all the circumpolar countries are doing, separately and together in multicountry organizations, to document and respond to climate change. Obviously climate change affects the entire globe and it’s reasonable that scientific organizations based in the U.S. and U.K. are up in the Arctic taking salinity measurements and monitoring the meltdown of Greenland. The developed world is responsible for this climate crisis after all. But Wheeler shows little or no interest in recording what native peoples are doing, as scientists, researchers, and politicians. She doesn’t mention the many exhibits, books, and conferences that take place among Arctic peoples and the coalitions and sharing of knowledge across state boundaries.

Here I want to mention at least one resource about indigenous people and climate change in the Arctic, the Snowchange project, based in Finland. Here’s a description of the work they do, from their website. 

Snowchange is a not-for-profit independent cooperative organisation with headquarters in Finland. The international community network of Snowchange spans all eight Arctic states. Most of the member communities and families are from the various Arctic Indigenous Nations and other subsistence communities.

Our work involves working with the various Northern areas and peoples on the topics of ecological, especially climatic and weather changes from the scientific and traditional knowledge point of view. In addition to the community documentation Snowchange as well works to advance local Indigenous knowledge in the global context and advance decolonisation of the North in the face of rapid changes.

The scientific priority of Snowchange is currently in the following areas of the North:
- The Saami territories of Finland, Russia, Sweden and Norway
- Republic of Sakha-Yakutia, Murmansk and Republic of Karelia in Russian Federation
- Savo, North Karelia and Kainuu, Finland
- Iceland and Faroe Islands
- British Columbia, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, Canada
- Alaska, USA

In addition to the operations in all Arctic countries (United States / Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland and Faroe Islands (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russian Federation) Snowchange has partners in Bolivia, Nepal, Ghana and New Zealand.

I have one of the Snowchange Project’s books, from 2004, sent me by its editor, Elina Helander, a Sámi reindeer owner and a scientist at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland. Snowscapes, Dreamscapes is almost 600 pages long and includes voices from North America, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Greenland, Fennoscandia, and many parts of Russia. In addition to research articles, there are photographs, poems, artworks. It is out of print, sadly. For those who would wish to know more about the people of the Arctic, it is the kind of work we need more of.

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