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New history compares the two sides of the Bering Strait and the waters between

  • Author: Nancy Lord
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: October 21, 2019
  • Published October 19, 2019

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait

“Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait,” by Bathsheba Demuth

By Bathsheba Demuth. W. W. Norton & Company, 2019. 416 pages. $27.95.

As a teenager, Bathsheba Demuth lived for a time with a Gwich’in family, apprenticed to a dog musher. That experience in the Arctic, she says in her prologue, taught her two main things. First, to pay attention; in doing so, one learns that the world is not what we make of it, but that it in fact makes us. Second, that, while human ideas shape our surroundings, people are also shaped by their relationships with the world. She asks, what is the nature of history when nature is part of what makes history?

In subsequent experiences visiting and living in Beringia — the lands and waters in and around the Bering Strait, in both Alaska and Russia — Demuth has explored the human history and political systems that have shaped and been shaped by the physical environment. Now an environmental historian at Brown University, she has brought together her research and arguments in what is touted as the first-ever comprehensive history of Beringia.

While most of the history here is recounted from earlier sources, what is new is Demuth’s context and approach. Her view of history is one that surrounds the twin concepts of energy and enclosure. Energy is what the land and water hold, as well as what humans bring to it and extract from it. Enclosure has to do with control and ownership. She writes, “Organizing energy and enclosure — the disposition of power and property — is the essence of politics.”

In particular, Demuth compares and contrasts the capitalism and individualism of the “last frontier” in Alaska to the communism and state control of Chukotka in the Soviet Union/Russia. She shows how the political systems on the two facing continents were influenced by similar environmental conditions while directing or allowing different human responses.

The other fresh aspect of “Floating Coast” is the author’s expansive definition of history to include oral and traditional knowledge of the indigenous peoples of Beringia — the Inupiat and Yupik on the Alaska side and the Yupik and Chukchi on the Russian side.

Demuth focuses primarily on a few key members of the natural world that have been exploited in the last two hundred years. Whales get the most attention. Walruses, foxes and reindeer are also central to the larger story. With each, we’re presented with the dual views of how humans have influenced other species, and how those species and their world have influenced human activity and thought. Gold, another driving force, makes up another section of the book. The time in consideration runs from 1848 — when New England whalers first reached the Bering Strait and discovered a bonanza of bowhead whales — to 1990, with some references to the present.

A scholarly work, with extensive notes, “Floating Coast” is sufficiently narrative to attract and hold lay readers simply interested in good stories about people and their lives in the north. For the environmentally concerned, there are plenty of lessons about how humans have lived in balance with nature and, conversely, have exploited it to our peril.

The story of commercial whaling has been well-told before, but Demuth gives it a fresh appearance with her emphasis on the limited location, multiple cultures involved and ecosystem ramifications. Before the advent of commercial whaling, whales are thought to have consumed half of the primary production of Beringia’s seas. The whaling era in Alaska was over within a few years, when colder weather resulted in more Arctic ice and thousands of bowheads had been killed, transforming their energy into oil for light and heat far from the Bering Strait. With bowheads hard to find, whalers turned to walrus, decimating those herds. The Native people who relied on both whales and walrus for food faced starvation. The entire marine system was altered in ways that are still not understood.

Perhaps a less well-known story concerns reindeer. Reindeer and caribou are the same species — Rangifer tarandus. Reindeer were domesticated in Asia, where they were herded and used for transportation by nomadic people. Caribou are wary wild animals in Alaska, where they migrate long distances. Sheldon Jackson, Alaska’s first commissioner of education, in 1893 transferred reindeer from one side of the strait to the other, with the idea that Inupiat people could make the land on the Seward Peninsula (which had few or no caribou at the time) productive while becoming “civilized, wealth-producing American citizens.” (The quote is Jackson’s.)

However, Inupiat were not Chukchi, and domestic reindeer were not wary caribou. Between the disinclination of Alaska’s people to become herders and the vulnerability of reindeer to wolves and the attentions of caribou they eventually encountered, the experiment was not a success. Those on both sides of the strait learned that Rangifer are difficult to manage or “enclose,” as they respond to weather, food, predators and other aspects of their environments.

The story of gold offers perhaps the greatest contrast between the two political systems. In Russia, it was common criminals and political dissenters who were sent to the gulags where they were worked, often to death, in mines. In Alaska, “gold fever” brought independent miners to the Seward Peninsula and an ensuing frenzy in which lawlessness and greed prevailed. Eventually both systems evolved — from the gulags to mechanized mining that attracted workers with high government pay and benefits and from gold panners working creeks and beaches to corporate mining on a large scale. Demuth contrasts the two national myths: “Chukotka as real, existing socialism, Alaska as the last frontier.”

The author returns to the whaling story near the end, reminding us that the Soviets continued factory whaling, often lying about their take, long after other nations had stopped. Demuth argues that Soviet production plans were responsible for the aggressive whaling, while market forces and an “enlightenment” that live whales might be more valuable than dead ones characterized the American side. She mentions but doesn’t go deeply into the battle to allow indigenous people on both sides to continue subsistence whaling.

The Arctic is in constant change, Demuth has emphasized. Some of that change is driven by people, some by nature itself, some by interactions between the two. Now that polar ice is disappearing, she asks in her epilogue whether what we can learn from Beringia might “reshape ideas everywhere in the twenty-first century.”