North Pole: Nature and Culture
Michael Bravo, Reaktion Books, 256 pages, 2019. $24.95
“There is no time at the North Pole,” Robert Peary wrote in 1906, while still obsessively seeking to be the first man to stand atop the world, “there are no meridians, or rather all the meridians of the globe are gathered in one point, so that there is no starting point for time as we estimate it here.”
It’s an idea running throughout “North Pole: Nature and Culture,” by Cambridge University professor Michael Bravo. “Spatially, when standing at the North Pole, every direction faces south. Temporally, the North Pole is timeless and has to this day no allocated longitude or time zone,” he tells us, adding, “Emperors and philosophers through the centuries have recognized the North Pole’s special significance as a point that defines global time, but is not itself subject to it.”
How humanity — well, primarily European humanity — has grappled with the notion of a place on the planet beyond time and measure is the theme Bravo takes up in this fascinating and almost magical book. Drawing on history, mythology, science, spiritualism, and an abundance of historic illustrations and maps, he approaches the Pole from multiple directions, discovering new meanings and opening new possibilities with each northward advance.
And approach is the proper word here. As Bravo explains in his chapter on the 19th century northern journeys dispatched by the British Admiralty, the Northwest Passage was a route to be discovered. The location of the Pole was already known. It was a known unknown that could only be attained, but for what purpose?
Bravo opens his book with a discussion of the Pole’s role in navigation. But before heading for Europe, he begins with the Inuit, the people who lived closest to it, and thus who, ironically, could not use the Pole Star to determine their location because it lies almost directly overhead. Instead they looked south and knew intimately the constellations on the horizons while finding their way from the constantly moving sea ice back to the coasts during the long darkness of polar winter. Residents of the Arctic, they had no concept of north.
For Europeans, however, navigation was impossible without a fixed point, and that was the Pole Star, the star that stands in the night sky most directly above the North Pole — it’s presently Polaris, although it shifts over the millennia, and in a mere 12,000 years or so, it will be Vega. The Roman mathematician, astronomer, and geographer Ptolemy drew his famously accurate map using this “celestial pole” as the primary reference point.
This idea of a celestial pole had deep roots in Europe, and survived well into the modern era, when exploration of the globe restored the North Pole to its position of primary importance, a power strengthened by the navigationally critical magnetic pole, which held further mysteries. As theologists, philosophers, explorers, and mapmakers debated what might lie at the planet’s very top, a picture emerged rooted in mythology, astrology and biblical literalism.
Owing to the Pole’s proximity to the Pole Star, it was theorized that the North Pole was the true location of Eden. This led to all manner of misbeliefs, chief among them the notion that the impenetrable polar ice that ships encountered when traveling north encircled an open Polar Sea of warm water. At its center sat land where, if one reached it, one could almost touch heaven. The British Admiralty sent ships in search of pathways through the ice that would lead to this mythic sea, an objective scoffed at by unlettered whalers who spent their lives in waters along the edge of the sea ice and knew better.
Far more ominous was the belief that if Eden lay at the Pole, then life emerged from it, and this made Nordic Europeans the first people. It was mostly a form of fancy until the hypothesis helped fuel the rise of Naziism and its reverence for a master race. Who knew the North Pole, merely by being there, frozen and desolate, would play a role in the desolating of Europe and Africa?
The concept of a celestial pole, that a direct connection between heaven and Earth existed at the North Pole, led to a useful innovation as well. In our post-Apollo age we take for granted pictures of the Earth as seen from space. Yet the idea that such a perspective could be had did not formally exist until the 16th century. Stars were something one looked toward, not from. Then Peter Apian, a mathematician and cosmographer from Saxony, published his “Cosmographicus liber” which included in its illustrations a picture of the globe as seen from above. A God’s-eye view over the North Pole. This way of seeing the world helped reinforce Europe’s sense of dominance. The continent stretched toward the celestial pole, after all.
Late in the book, Bravo turns to Robert Peary’s efforts at attaining the Pole. Steeped in mythology, Peary viewed himself as one of the world’s great men and his odyssey as the fulfillment of human yearnings. He probably lied about reaching the Pole. But then, lacking GPS systems, finding the precise location was impossible, something even Peary later admitted.
Still, a Rubicon had been crossed, and the mystery of the Pole went with it. But the famed polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson suggested that credit should return to the Inuit. Europeans had reached the prize, but only residents of the Arctic knew how to navigate it. This claim was quickly undone, however, as modern technology made the Pole accessible by airplane, submarine and well-provisioned expedition. One of the last unpeopled places on Earth became a destination point for military interests and tourists alike.
All this and more we learn about the North Pole from Bravo, a place that, he writes, is “defined in its purest form as simply a location in relation to celestial measurements, and yet hardly a place at all, even a non-place.”
From nothing, everything. Or so it seems when reading this short but exceptionally intriguing book.