A gritty tale of a grim landscape
By Hampton Sides
June 3, 2011
The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle, by Sara Wheeler; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 315 pp.; $26
Throughout the 1800s, Europe and the United States were gripped by Arctic Fever. It is hard for us to comprehend today how profoundly the industrial nations of the world, locked in competition, needed to scratch this particular exploratory itch. There was national and personal glory to win up there, and riddles of geography to solve. Many practical considerations were floated as justifications for pursuing the Polar Grail—landmasses that might be claimed, minerals seized, shipping routes found. But the northering impulse had chiefly to do with the pure desire to win records and to go where no human had been before. “Man will not be content with a mystery unexplored,” observed a New York Times editorial in July 1879. He “will not rest with a perpetual interrogation point at the end of the earth’s axis, whose query he cannot answer.”
In recent years, interest in the Arctic has quickened once again. This has much to do with climate change, of course. Battalions of scientists now make routine junkets to the Arctic in hopes of assessing the planet’s future by peering into its past. As the ice has receded, mining conglomerates and petroleum companies covet the top of the world as never before. In maritime courts, several polar nations have attempted to enlarge the legal definition of their continental shelves—following a “use-it-or-lose-it” strategy in the race for precious metals and hydrocarbons. In 2007 a Russian expedition sent a submarine more than two miles below the icecap to plant a Russian flag in the bedrock of the North Pole.
Once again, we seem to be gripped by Arctic Fever.
It was at the onset of this contentious new era that the acclaimed British travel writer Sara Wheeler ventured into the Arctic to take stock of things. From Siberia to Greenland, from Prudhoe Bay to Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, Wheeler spared no expense and shirked no hardship to experience life in some of the most inaccessible deep freezes of the world. Over several years, she gamely hopscotched across what she calls “the collar of lands” that lie above 66 degrees north. In Canada’s Nunavut, she was pursued by a peckish polar bear. In the Barents Sea, she crunched through the floes on a Russian icebreaker. In Lapland, she traveled with traditional Sámi (who, Wheeler mentions in passing, used to castrate reindeer with their teeth). Along the way, she took up residence in various Arctic research stations, living with atmospheric scientists who ponder the mysteries of climate change.
The result of her far-flung journeys, The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle, is a clear-eyed and extremely gritty work of modern travelogue. Though she experiences moments of epiphany and landscapes of intense beauty, her Arctic is hardly a romantic place. In her telling, the Northland is a mostly soulless realm of nuclear waste, processed junk food, and gulag ghosts, a place of scurvy, syphilis, obesity, alcoholism, and madness. It is a frozen archipelago whose tribal peoples live very much betwixt and between cultures, dwelling in “prefabricated housing in invented villages” and swilling vanilla extract with such regularity that it has become a controlled substance.
Wheeler’s take on the Arctic is mostly “a grim story,” she admits. But, she hastens to note, “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.’” It is, for her, a sad truth that humankind’s worst traits often appear magnified in the planet’s cold, neglected attic.
A recurrent theme in The Magnetic North is a phenomenon Wheeler calls “The Arctic Paradox”: the most contaminated people and animals on earth are the ones who live farthest from the polluters. A variety of factors (long-range shipments by air, prevailing wind and ocean currents, and river outflow) have resulted in the Arctic functioning as a sink for POPs—persistent organic pollutants. These “villainous molecules” work their way up the food chain and “bioaccumulate” in the tissues of marine mammals, so that Arctic seal and whale blubber now contain alarmingly high concentrations of such pesticides and industrial toxins as DDT and PCB. These, inevitably, have insinuated themselves into human populations, resulting in abnormally high rates of cancer, immunological maladies, and other disorders. According to Wheeler, a leading health expert in the 1990s reported that many Greenlanders were so toxic that they “qualified as hazardous waste.”
Wheeler’s cumulative travels and inquiries leave her with no doubt that global warming is happening—and happening quite dramatically—but she is refreshingly free of political cant. While the scientists she falls in with agree on the fact of climate change, they seem to agree on little else. The most salient question—the precise extent to which “anthropogenic activity” is the primary culprit—appears to be up for grabs. “I found it reassuring,” Wheeler concludes, “when a scientist said he wasn’t sure.” That said, her assessment, and that of most of the climatologists she follows, is dire. Writes Wheeler: “I do not think one could stay long in the Arctic without concluding that the present way of the world is unsustainable and that many chickens will race home to roost in the lifetime of our children, if not in our own. Like the Viking chieftains, we in the developed world might find that we have merely bought ourselves the luxury of being the last to starve.”
What keeps Wheeler’s narrative from descending into pure bleakness is the quality of her observations, which are prismatic, wry, and often wise. In the Arctic, she says, “There are no answers, only stories and irreducible
difficulties.” At times Wheeler’s writerly exuberance in describing landscape and weather gets her into trouble—“periwinkle sky” . . . “the tintinnabulation of a swift-flowing brook” . . . “the valedictory amethyst of sunset”—but such purple moments are rare. Wheeler richly seasons her narrative with bons mots of fable, history, literature, and science. It is evident that she has read widely and deeply in Arcticana—from Chekhov to Solzhenitsyn, from Jack London to Jon Krakauer.
There are tales aplenty here of what Wheeler likes to call “frozen beards” and “shoe-eaters”: the 19th- and early 20th-century explorers who endured every calamity to reach the pole. In this rogue’s gallery of narcissists and gloryhounds, only the great Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen comes across as halfway sensible and sane. Wheeler gives Admiral Robert Peary no quarter, calling him “a tall, tireless showman addicted to fame” and “probably the most unpleasant man in the annals of polar exploration.” Wheeler notes that Peary’s North Pole claims were probably specious, but no matter. “The Arctic attracts fiction to its facts until the two are indistinguishable,” Wheeler writes, “and the Peary legend lives on, just as he planned.”
In places, The Magnetic North has a cobbled-together feel—the perhaps inevitable result of many journeys taken over multiple years to many disparate lands—journeys that, in some cases, began as travel-writing assignments for newspapers and magazines. Because she rarely lingers very long with any one character, or in any one place, Wheeler has trouble finding and sustaining a natural rhythm. On the other hand, the fractal nature of the narrative mirrors the fragmented cultures she examines, and over time one gets a strong sense of a region whose consciousness is as shattered as its geography.
In the end, we may ignore the Arctic only at our peril, Wheeler suggests. It is, she writes, “the real world in all its degradation and beauty, and it is intimately connected to us—to our future, our crises, and our dreams.” Wheeler finds an abiding spirit in the Frozen North that she comes to admire. Centuries of hardship, abuse, and neglect have forged a resilience and stoicism that astonishes her everywhere she goes in the Arctic. Whether in Greenland, Lapland, or the most brutal precincts of Siberia, people “plucked new life out of death, as they always had.” As one anthropologist tells Wheeler, quoting Hemingway: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
Hampton Sides is the author of the narrative histories Ghost Soldiers, Blood and Thunder, and Hellhound on His Trail. He is now at work on a book about an early American attempt on the North Pole set in the 1880s.
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