closer look: sara’s view from magnetic north

a world on top

getting down to the business at hand
so much these new books have to say
starting where three little maids left off

OK, not much little or maid-like here
sara’s epic winds eastward around the circle
starting & ending in russian siberia

best in your own words sara
as they strike home w/ such force
your TIPS ABOUT ICEBERGS one fine intro ( excerpted . . . )

The Arctic has been the locus of Armageddon two generations in a row now. It was the front line of the Cold War, with both sides pouring money into long-range nuclear bomber installations and lone figures crouching on floes straining to hear enemy subs ( or was that a ringed seal scratching its back? ). Nuclear holocaust, then apocalyptic climate change: something about the region attracts millennial anxiety. I picked up a scent among the Lappish reindeer and pursued it through the journeys described here. What does the Arctic tell us about our past? What does it reveal of the future?

. . . THE MAGNETIC NORTH  describes the semi-inhabited fringes of the Arctic: the transition zone. ” It’s not about polar bears, ” says Mary Simon, head of the Tapiriit Kanatami, which represents Canada’s forty-five thousand Inuit. ” It’s about people. “

Although the beauties and intractable problems of the contemporary Arctic framed my journeys, I could not ignore generations of explorers. Like the scientists who succeeded them, they went north to unlock secrets. Their adventures frequently descended into a tragic farce of shoe-eating ( when they ran out of food ) and poetic death, but still, heroic individual struggle is a theme of this book.

. . . I hit on the idea for a structure for my upcoming voyage. I would make a circular, counterclockwise journey – Siberia to Alaska to Canada to Greenland to Spitsbergen to Lapland and back to Russia, to the White Sea. The ends would not quite meet up. This would be a series of small journeys spread over two years, each planned to shed some dim light on the enigmas of the Arctic. Russia was a natural starting point, as it has more Arctic territory than any other country – five thousand miles of coastline that unspools from Europe to the Pacific, and a wilderness of tundra in which everything has evolved in response to cold.

. . . Twenty-six different ethnic peoples have herded and fished the Russian Arctic for centuries, yet they are invisible in most versions of the national past – unlike the dashing horsemen of the southern steppe or the turbanned anglers of Lake Baikal.

. . . Pollution, plunder, the gleeful killings of the Norse sagas – the Arctic is not a white Garden of Eden. All kinds of degradations crop up in the Inuit past: these pages contain a story of the deliberate, slow starvation of an orphan. And there is epic cruelty in the North.   ( Nevertheless ) . . . there was something indefinably redemptive folded up in the layers of Arctic mystery. Explorers, scientists, rogue writers – we were all on its tail.

In Ittoqqortoormiit, a municipality the size of Great Britain with a population of 562, a girl in Wrangler jeans and Nike sneakers drinks Coca-Cola with her sealskin-clad grandmother. Uncluttered polar landscapes reveal differences lost in the south. Semi-subsistence marine-mammal hunters still harpoon walrus in northwest Greenland, and if the solitary Inuit no longer stands motionless over a seal hole for twenty-four hours at a stretch, his father did.                    (   Compare the Comanche taming bison on the Plains. He is as remote as Odin. )  Above all else, the stripped-down Arctic exposes the way each country has treated its indigenous peoples. Every nation devastates native cultures, even if it doesn’t actually kill everyone off. Russians did it with bureaucracy, Americans with money, Canadians ( in the end ) with kindness. Swedes and Finns did it with chainsaws that chopped down forests. And everyone did it with booze and syphilis. Acculturation is a theme of  THE MAGNETIC NORTH.  It is a grim story, but I was not looking for a pretty picture. I was looking, in the words of T. S. Eliot, ” to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory. “

. . . Both polar regions appeal to something visceral in the spirit, especially in an era when we have lost contact with the natural world. But in the Arctic, unlike its southern counterpart, there is a figure at the center of the picture. The Arctic is an image of the real world in all its degradation and beauty, and it is intimately connected to us – to our future, our crises, and our dreams. John Davis, the most sympathetic of Elizabethan navigators and a pioneering scientist in an era before science was partitioned off from everyday life, called the Arctic ” the place of greatest dignitie. ” As soon as I read that phrase, Davis entered my select group of polar heroes. I love the pared-down existence of polar lands and the grace of their peoples under pressure. 

the pared down existence of polar lands and the grace of their peoples under pressure . . .   you bring us along with such grace and forcefulness yourself, sara. I for one am not the same after accompanying you on your brave two-year round-about atop our world.

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