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In the Beautiful, Threatened North

Subhankar Banerjee
Subhankar Banerjee: Caribou on Sand, from his Oil and the Geese series (Teshekpuk Lake wetland, Alaska), 62 x 70 inches, 2006

Like deserts, frozen places offer timelessness. When I was traveling in northeastern Siberia some years ago I saw gulag camps that had closed down in the 1950s, after Stalin’s death. The watchtowers, the barracks, the barbed wire, the fence lines where the guard dogs used to run—all had survived in amazingly good shape in their almost-year-round deep freeze. While working in Newfoundland on a story about icebergs, I learned that core samples of ice from Greenland’s glaciers, the source of many icebergs, provide scientists with data on global climates and atmospheres going back more than a hundred thousand years. Bubbles in glacial ice from two millennia ago contain lead residues from the forges of ancient Greece and Rome.

The Arctic takes you back to old-time basics, like Vulcan’s anvil and the foundation blocks of the world. In Chukotka, across the Bering Strait from Alaska, I climbed a hill and met a view of rock, sea, and sky that was, for all practical purposes, eternal. For the first time ever I had a sense of what it was to stand on a planet. That the Arctic environment is so basic and its timeline so long suggests the direness of the possibilities as the climate warms. The mess we’re making of the earth may last, as Bill McKibben put it in a recent essay, until “deep in geological time.”*

Among the wonders to appear in the changing Arctic in recent years is the India-born photographer and activist Subhankar Banerjee. Coming from Kolkata (Calcutta), where the average mean temperature is 80.4 degrees Fahrenheit, Banerjee has dedicated himself to recording and working for the preservation of Arctic places. It is safe to say that he has been colder than most people from his native country have occasion to be. In Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point, an anthology of writings by thirty-seven authors that he has compiled and linked with his commentary, pieces of autobiography sometimes jump out: for example, that he started traveling in Alaska only about a decade ago, and that he became a US citizen after his Arctic photographs raised so much controversy in Senate debates in 2003 that he feared he might be deported.

In a short time he has amassed impressive authority on his subject. With an Inupiat companion he stayed in a tent in a blizzard that lasted almost a month at a wind chill of 110 degrees below zero on the coast of the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), and a photo he took of a polar bear in that vicinity has become, he writes, “one of the most published photographs in the history of the medium of photography.” In Arctic Voices, long-term issues of global importance—the exploitation of wild places for fossil fuels, and whether we’re determined to ride out our energy binge to the grim end—are made immediate and vivid by the enthusiasm of this unexpected man.

Most of the pieces in the anthology are about Alaska, and many involve the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. (In fact, Banerjee says that he had originally intended the book to cover only Arctic Alaska.) Because of his decision to include some essays about other Arctic areas—about migratory birds and narwhals in Canada, reindeer herders in Siberia, pollution in Norway and Greenland, and aluminum factories in Iceland—he can’t supply a map that would show everything. A detailed map of Alaska, at least, would have been helpful; I found myself following along as best I could with my Rand McNally road atlas.

The selections he has chosen vary from scientific accounts to memoirs to literary narratives to statements presented before government committees. More than one contributor tells us that the Arctic has warmed at twice the global average over the last hundred years, that methane gas is twenty-five times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, that drilling operations on Alaska’s North Slope produce twice the nitrogen oxides emitted by the city of Washington, D.C., and that Point Hope, an Inupiat village on the Chukchi Sea, is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America.

Over and over people in this book say that cleaning up oil spills in Arctic conditions is extremely difficult or impossible and that the healing of Arctic environments after they’ve been damaged takes a huge amount of time. It’s discouraging that those against drilling and coal mining in the Arctic must constantly restate such truths. Clearly, the willful deafness on the opposing side is intense. A scrapped Atomic Energy Commission plan from the late 1950s that would have used nuclear explosions to blast a new harbor about thirty miles from Point Hope comes in for derision from many contributors, and keeps being mentioned as a symbol of how heedless and ignorant outsiders have been about Arctic Alaska.

Climate change is only starting to become a practical problem for the big population centers of the lower forty-eight states, but it has been that in Alaska for a long time. Native villages with sea frontage are eroding and must be moved. As one writer points out, no national or international agency exists to assist people who must move because of climate change. Tall new brush and saplings spring up on the tundra where they hadn’t grown before. The season during which it’s possible to drive on ice roads has shortened from 204 days to 124, and cache-pit freezers dug generations ago must be cleaned out because they’re melting.

Alaskan hunters must now go farther out in the sea to hunt because the ice is receding, and that puts them in more danger. The direct effects of pollution hit people and animals harder in the Arctic, too. Airborne pollutants emitted in the mid-regions of the planet swirl north (that’s why you can find lead from the forges of Rome in Greenland), collect in organisms, and continue up the food chain. In an excerpt Banerjee includes from a book called Silent Snow: The Slow Poisoning of the Arctic, the environmental journalist Marla Cone writes, “The Inuit living in northern Greenland, near the North Pole, contain the highest concentrations of chemical contaminants found in humans anywhere on earth.”

The plot of Arctic Voices, weaving its way through most of the pieces, is the battle between the pro- and anti-development forces; and the leading villains, unsurprisingly, are the oil companies. British Petroleum, chief among them, comes off as almost comical in its chronic-offender awfulness. In a report titled “Broken Promises: The Reality of Big Oil in America’s Arctic,” Pamela Miller, a wildlife biologist and conservationist, lists BP’s many fines and penalties in Alaska for offenses like oil spills and violations of the Clean Water Act. Its 2006 crude oil spill caused by pipeline corrosion—poor maintenance—was the largest ever on the North Slope up to that time.

Of course that spill was nothing compared to the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Those who followed the Gulf spill may remember BP’s plan for protecting the walruses of the Gulf; that particular piece of boilerplate, tossed accidentally into BP’s contingency plans, came originally from the company’s Alaska promises. The fines BP accumulated in Alaska were spare change compared to the $4.5 billion fine—the largest ever assessed against any company—that it received for the Gulf spill in 2012, after this book came out.

Always eager for more drilling, pro-development officials like Gale Norton, secretary of the interior under George W. Bush, called the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge “a flat white nothingness,” and Ted Stevens, then senator from Alaska, said that ANWR was “a barren wasteland.” Such reductionism is what Banerjee’s book tries to fight. Arguing against seismic testing for oil and gas in waters where bowhead whales migrate, Robert Thompson, an Inupiaq hunter and conservationist, writes that the whales are so sensitive to sounds that “something as quiet as a heavy footfall will scare them off.” Banerjee has seen a whale brought ashore, and attended two whaling feasts. The book has a lot about whales. It notes that paddling home with a killed whale in tow can take as long as sixteen hours, and that hot sauce is “an essential accompaniment to pickled muktuk” (whale blubber).

In an excerpt from his classic Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez describes flying over two bowheads that “made a single movement together, a slow, rolling turn and graceful glide, like figure skaters pushing off, these fifty-ton leviathans.” The pilot tells Lopez that the migrating whales are waiting for the ice ahead of them to open up, and that he once saw “nearly three hundred bowheads waiting calmly like this…some on their backs, some with their chins resting on the ice.”

That kind of description makes Banerjee’s book a pleasure, apart from its praiseworthy advocacy. Here, for example, in an excerpt from a book called Being Caribou, by Karsten Heuer, a wolf is stalking a caribou herd:

The wolf didn’t hurry into the chase. Careful not to look right at the caribou, it angled toward them, its late-evening shadow contracting and expanding like a dark spirit as it padded across the snowdrifts.

Heuer and his wife, Leanne Allison, actually walked for five months and a thousand miles with migrating caribou in 2003.

Another selection is from John McPhee’s Coming into the Country, which Banerjee rightly calls “a masterpiece of American literature.” McPhee is traveling downriver in a canoe: “The Yukon, like any number of Alaska rivers, is opaque with pulverized rock, glacial powder. In a canoe in such a river, you can hear the grains of mountains like sandpaper on the hull.” Along the bank he observes a grizzly bear:

He picked up a salmon, roughly ten pounds of fish, and, holding it with one paw, he began to whirl it around his head…. With his claws embedded near the tail, he whirled the salmon and then tossed it high, end over end. As it fell, he scooped it up and slung it around his head again, lariat salmon…. The fish flopped to the ground. The bear turned away, bored. He began to move upstream by the edge of the river. Behind his big head his hump projected. His brown fur rippled like a field under wind.

Some of the best pieces in the book are by Alaska natives, like Velma Wallis, a Gwich’in from Fort Yukon, whose essay recalls the changes in the village’s life. In her girlhood her parents worried most about their children during ice-out time on the Yukon, when “the ice would cascade by like ferocious yawning monsters, and the whole of Fort Yukon would be hypnotized by this event.” Later, when television arrived in the village, she writes,

I bought right into it, and watched television like there was no tomorrow. It was with the same intenseness that we used to watch the ice floes go by, and we could not turn our eyes away…. I noticed that our way of communicating with each other as Gwich’in and neighbors was changing. No longer were children listening to Elders tell stories…. We were acting more like television characters…. J.J., from the show Good Times, was like a brother to me.
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    “Which Side Are You On?,” Orion, November–December 2012. 

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