A lyrical, deeply learned ecological history of the region where Asia and North America meet.
The peoples of Beringia are many, writes Demuth (Environmental History/Brown Univ.), but ultimately, they divide into Natives—the Iñupiaq, Chukchi, Yupik, and so on—and foreigners, who number everyone else. Those foreigners—Russians, British explorers, and Yankee whalers—fundamentally altered the environment of the region in a fairly short time. If, as the author notes, Natives and foreigners alike went in search of whales as a source of sustenance, they did so with different ideas of what to do with their prize. Apparently influenced by students of Howard Odum, Demuth writes of energy flows across the region. “To be alive,” she writes, “is to take a place in a chain of conversions.” The seas surrounding the Bering Straits are among the most productive ecosystems on the planet, and “human life in Beringia was shaped, in part, by the ways energy moved over the land and through the sea.” Many of those ways were purely extractive, as energy sources, from ambergris to oil, were located and taken away, a process against which Native people and some foreigners militated. One of Demuth’s great contributions is her exploration of the radical history of labor in the remote regions, a history soon supplanted by corporate capitalism on one shore and the gulag on the other, even as new arrivals concentrated their efforts on “liberating energy.” Now, she writes, a new chapter in Beringian history is being composed with climate change, a transformation that led one elder to observe that “foreigners had brought the end of a world to his people a century ago." The far north has inspired a remarkable body of literature, highlighted, in recent years, by Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and Lawrence Millman’s At the End of the World. Demuth’s book, based on years of field research and comprehensive study, easily takes its place alongside them.
A superb book, essential reading for students of the once-and-future Arctic.