Tag Archives: arctic

The Ice Bear: A Beast for the Ages – Guest Blog by Michael Engelhard

I met Michael Engelhard in the Grand Canyon in 2012, when as one of our superb river guides he steered us capably through one massive rapid after another. In calmer waters our conversations took us through philosophy, anthropology, nature writing, and the importance of the wild. Michael’s naturalist expertise and characteristic deep thinking led me to want to stay in touch. He has recently published the marvelous book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, which I highly recommend: it is beautifully written and illustrated, and engagingly conveys our complex relationship with this astounding creature, the Polar Bear, gorgeous and powerful. The following guest post, in honor of World Polar Bear Day on February 27, is by Michael, whose website is at this link.

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Fig. 1. Study of a sleeping polar bear, by the English sculptor and painter John Macallan Swan, 1903. (Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

These days, no animal except perhaps the wolf divides opinions as strongly as does the polar bear, top predator and sentinel species of the Arctic. But while wolf protests are largely a North American and European phenomenon, polar bears unite conservationists—and their detractors—worldwide.

In 2008, in preparation for the presidential election, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate, the governor of Alaska, ventured to my then hometown, Fairbanks, to rally the troops. Outside the building in which she was scheduled to speak, a small mob of Democrats, radicals, tree-huggers, anti-lobbyists, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other “misfits” had assembled in a demonstration vastly outnumbered by the governor’s supporters. As governor, the “pro-life” vice-presidential candidate and self-styled “Mama grizzly” had just announced that the state of Alaska would legally challenge the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Listing it would block development and thereby endanger jobs, the worn argument went.

Regularly guiding wilderness trips in Alaska’s Arctic and feeling that my livelihood as well as my sanity depended upon the continued existence of the White Bears and their home ground, I, who normally shun crowds, had shown up with a crude homemade sign: Polar Bears want babies, too. Stop our addiction to oil! I was protesting recurring attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the area with the highest concentration of polar bear dens in Alaska, to drilling. From the top of my sign a plush polar bear toy dangled, as if in effigy. Though wary of anthropomorphizing animals, I was not above playing that card.

'Arctic Rising' in London

Fig. 2. Greenpeace activist at London’s Horse Guards. The bear’s shape and behavior make it particularly suited for impersonations as part of political “theater.” (Courtesy of Elizabeth Dalziel/Greenpeace.)

As we were marching and chanting, I checked the responses of passersby. A rattletrap truck driving down Airport Way caught my eye. The driver, a stereotypical crusty Alaskan, showed me the finger. Unbeknownst to him, his passenger—a curly haired, grandmotherly Native woman, perhaps his spouse—gave me a big, cheery thumbs-up.

The incident framed opposing worldviews within a single snapshot but did not surprise me. My home state has long been contested ground, and the bear a cartoonish, incendiary character. Already in 1867, when Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russia, the Republican press mocked the new territory as “[President] Johnson’s polar bear garden”—where little else grows.

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Fig. 3. This cartoon from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper lampooned the purchase of Alaska 150 years ago. The sign reads “A present to [Secretary of the Interior] Bill Seward & Co. by the inhabitants of Walrussia,” and polar bears carry an ice bloc to cool the congressional majority that ratified the treaty.

The White Bear looms large in human history and not just because of its size. In part, our fascination with it springs from the charisma all large predators share: their quickness, intensity, and acuity, magnified by their strength. It is the idea of their unfettered existence, their calm in the crucial moments, that attract us. We see ourselves in them. “Their courage is in their breast, their resolution in their head,” the anonymous scribe of the thirteenth-century Aberdeen Liber de bestiarum natura explained. “They are called ‘beasts’ from the force with which they rage . . . They are called ‘wild’ because they enjoy their natural liberty and are borne along by their desires. They are free of will, and wander here and there, and where their instinct takes them, there they are borne.” Unlike us, polar bears are not very gregarious. Neither am I, and that, as well as their nomadism partly explains why they so appeal to me.

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Fig. 4. Nomad of the sea ice and tundra. Norwegian postcard, 1915. (Collection of Michael Engelhard.)

Deeply held preconceptions keep us from seeing the true nature of some animals. The polar bear is a prime example. Over the past eight thousand years, we have regarded it as food, toy, pet, trophy, status symbol, commodity, man-eating monster, spirit familiar, circus act, zoo superstar, and political cause célèbre. We have feared, venerated, locked up, coveted, butchered, sold, pitied, and emulated this large carnivore. It has left few emotions unstirred. Where the bears’ negative image prevailed, as so often, a perceived competition for resources or a threat to our dominion were the cause.

Bears, and in particular polar bears, might not dwell in our neighborhoods but they do live in the collective consciousness. I have turned to this creature as other, in the words of ecologist-philosopher Paul Shepard, “in a world where otherness of all kinds is in danger, and in which otherness is essential to the discovery of the true self.”

Far from being intertwined exclusively with its Arctic indigenous neighbors, the polar bear has lately assumed iconic status in the dominant culture. With the wholesale domestication or destruction of wildness that marks industrial civilization, the polar bear has become a focus of our self-awareness, contentious as no other animal is. Its ascent from food to coveted curiosity to pampered celebrity may seem incremental, inconsequential even, but it speaks volumes about our relations with nature. Transferring polar bears—or their body parts or representations—into highly charged cultural contexts, we share in their essence and employ them for our own purposes.

In the wake of its first importation into Europe, the bear triggered scientific curiosity and inspired artworks and nationalistic myth building; it enlivened heraldic devices and Shakespeare’s plays; in naval paintings, it defined the self-image of a nation. On the eve of industrial revolution, Britain turned bear slaying into a symbol of manhood and expansionist drives. With the waning of Arctic exploration, the bear’s economic and even symbolic importance diminished. It was relegated to advertising, trophy hunting, or popular culture until, starting in the 1980s, conservationists promoted it as both an indicator of environmental degradation and also a symbol of hope. (Ironically, oil companies co-funded some of that period’s polar bear research, fulfilling government stipulations.) Where wildness is threatened the bear has been elevated. Its revived economic clout boosts films, fundraising campaigns, eco-merchandise sales, and high-end wildlife tourism.

My biggest surprise in my research has been the longevity of attitudes involving the polar bear, which is particularly striking in fast-changing countries such as ours. The bear is sometimes still a sexual predator or a “stud;” it still is protector, is killer, is idol; it can still serve as the embodiment of a nation, as figurehead for a group of people.

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Fig. 5. Greenland’s coat of arms, showing the bear with its left forepaw raised, as it is thought to be left-handed, according to Eskimo lore. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

In gathering the stories and myths, the ideas and perceptions of many societies—including our own—I’ve sought to highlight the interplay of external and internal landscapes and the bear’s place in both. For the lore and awe it inspires, for the diversity and the sheer life force it adds to the world, I hope that the Great White Bear will continue to prowl both our internal and external landscapes for millennia to come.

 

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. He lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.

The Original Elves

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

 

The stiff Icelandic wind picked up as we made our way across the lava plain at Hellnar. As the day turned into late afternoon, dark clouds gathered beyond the rocky cliffs. In the boulders’ lengthening shadows, I could almost make out the huldufólk—elves, the “hidden people”—that most Icelanders secretly believe in. In this raw country, the huldufólk will let you know if you’re on their rocky turf as you try to build a road or other human construction; they’ll break your equipment or otherwise harass you until you come to your senses and change your plans.

Elvish Icelandic topography

Elvish Icelandic topography

Valdimar Hafstein, Professor of Folklore and Ethnology at the University of Iceland, says that in this land, “elves represent nature in the heart of culture; the places attributed to them are wilderness in the midst of cultivation. These places – rocks, hills, ponds – are taboo, they must not be fished in, messed with, moved or mowed; they must not, that is to say, be brought into culture.”

Indeed, Iceland feels like a land where natural magic pervades human settlement. It’s a land of rainbows, land of waterfalls, land of light and mist.

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

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Land of light and mist: sunset at Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

In Iceland, the earth literally splits to show what is hidden elsewhere in the world. The jagged rocks that tore our boots as we walked were born of inner fire, of the slow dance of plate tectonics. East of our hike, the majestic valley at Thingvellir (Þingvellir, as the Icelanders write it) runs north-south through Iceland’s center. Its serene lakes and narrow clefts mark the boundary between two massive tectonic plates that are sailing slowly apart, allowing hot magma to well up from the earth’s interior. When the deep molten flow emerges from the rift, it cools to form the basaltic rock underpinning our trek.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, central Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Iceland is the only place where the Mid-Atlantic Rift comes to the surface; usually it’s deep underwater. This makes Iceland a rare large landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—so it’s a sought-after waystation for migratory birds. Most of them had left for gentler winter climates by the time we arrived, but still we encountered Eurasian Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Gulls, Redwings, Redshanks, and other new-to-me species.

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To catch our breath and warm up before we began the last leg of our coastal hike, we stopped at Hellnar’s Prímus Kaffi. Enjoying exquisite hot chocolate and hearty soup, we saw yet again that Icelanders clearly have their priorities straight:

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“We Just Have Each Other.”

Refreshed, we resumed our hike over the rough terrain. We were aiming toward Londrangar, whose volcanic spire looked like a Valkyrie’s Valhalla.

Londrangar, Iceland

Londrangar, Iceland

On rocky crags jutting out of the stormy sea, Greater Black-backed Gulls noisily claimed dominion. Common Eiders paddled through the waters below while cormorants flapped heavily above them. As usual, I was the last along the trail, slowing to photograph this unique landscape.

Suddenly I saw Jess and Rob start to wave frantically at me while putting a finger to their lips for silence. Moving as quietly as I could toward them, I saw why they were excited: a stunning Arctic Fox, virtually hidden among the boulders, chewing on the last remains of a gull. When he stood up, I could see  his thick brown fur, made to withstand the winter here near the Arctic Circle, and his penetrating yellow eyes  sharp with intelligence.

Arctic Fox with "fangs" of gull feathers

Arctic Fox with “fangs” of gull feathers

We froze in place, riveted by this rare encounter. Arctic Foxes aren’t endangered, but they’re smart at blending into the landscape, so we were lucky to spot one. Most photos I’ve seen of Arctic Foxes show them as white, with dark brown eyes, so I felt even more fortunate to spot a “blue-morph” individual. You can probably guess that the white version is better adapted to disappear against the snow and ice at the higher elevations of inland Iceland.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6c/Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg/512px-Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg

Photo credit: USFWS/Keith Morehouse. ]CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But here on the coast, where the climate is milder—meaning the temperature only goes down to around 20°F—this fox’s darker color will let him blend with the boulders, helping him sneak up on prey.

Arctic Fox on the prowl

Arctic Fox on the prowl

He can make a good living here on the coast because he thrives on seabirds and marine invertebrates. And that also means he’s likely to deal well with climate change: he’s a generalist in a robust, resilient habitat. His home provides abundant resources and will keep providing even when other habitats become more difficult. Other Arctic Foxes in less isolated northern places, like Russia and Scandinavia, may have a tougher time as animals from more temperate places move into their warming homes, competing with the Arctic Foxes for prey.

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As Iceland’s only native land mammal, the Arctic Fox is Icelanders’ closest local natural relative. Might these sturdy creatures of lava and lichen be the original elves of Iceland, hidden from human perception, living in crannies and crags alongside people’s less earthen homes, with ancient wisdom in their shining eyes?

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Wherever we live, the landscape is replete with secret elven spirits. My Pacific Northwest beaches hide hermits, my forests hold birds who disappear—literally—into the woodwork, and high-altitude shrubs in the Cascades Mountains host hungry grasshoppers.

Your home’s land has its spirits as well, alive and thriving beyond or beneath human perception. But as far as I can tell, most of our local elves, unlike the huldufólk of Iceland, aren’t able to turn away bulldozers, reroute roads, or set climate policy. That’s where we come in, defending nature in the heart of culture, as Hafstein put it: being their voices as we learn to dwell with foxes and other elves, honoring homes of all forms, preserving some wilderness in the midst of cultivation on our changing planet. The elves need us, because after all

We Just Have Each Other.