An Arctic reckoning

Sverker Sörlin, a professor in the Division of History of Science, Technology and Environment at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, lauds a history of Beringia, as he reviews Floating Coast: An environmental history of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth, published by W. W. Norton in 2019.

In Floating Coast, Bathsheba Demuth embeds Legraaghaq’s story among others, human and environmental, at this rapidly changing front. Like many environmental historians facing human impacts on the Earth-system scale, Demuth has moved away from the idea that nature and humans must have separate histories, articulated by UK philosopher R. G. Collingwood in the 1930s. She spent formative years in Beringia, encountering at first hand what it meant to live close to migratory animals.

Travelling on dog sledges and listening to the trill and honk of seasonal sandhill cranes, she realized she herself was a migrant in a landscape with people, animals and materials always in motion, noting that “settlement, here, was a colonial figment”. She learnt that Beringia was home to more than 60 Indigenous nations in 3 larger groups: Inupiat, Chukchi and Yupik. These are the Beringians of Demuth’s narrative, in contrast to “foreigners” who come and go with the economic tides.

Her narrative starts at sea in 1848, with fleets from New England sparking industrial whaling, their harvests soon vastly exceeding local ones but fluctuating year on year. She moves on to the “floating coast”, the zone of constant friction between sea ice and shoreline, where Arctic foxes and walruses thrive. Yet the phrase has a double meaning: this mix of land and ocean is also an “incorporeal social realm”. Generations past, Indigenous spiritual practices included shape-shifting rituals in which shamans and hunters moved in and out of incarnations as whales, walruses or polar bears.

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