Sara Wheeler takes readers on a circumpolar tour
B JOHN KALBFLEISCH, FREELANCE
I was hooked on the first page of Sara Wheeler's latest book, just 10 lines in: "Lapps were the last nomadic people in Europe, and until recently they castrated reindeer . by biting off their balls."
But it is more than trivia, much more. Wheeler, whose 1996 book Terra Incognita describes her stay of seven months in Antarctica, this time goes north. Older now and more reflective - she turns 50 on Sunday, March 20 - she was attracted to the Arctic by the enigmas that invest the region today, echoing new uncertainties in her own life.
Fragmentation, she calls it. In the Arctic, there is disputed ownership of the land. There are indigenous people caught between the past and the future; in Nuuk, on Greenland's west coast, Wheeler sees a pair of nylon panties sharing a clothesline with a row of curing seal ribs. But above all, there is the poisoning of the planet and its people, whether as collateral damage from the rush to exploit natural resources, from nuclear waste casually dumped along Russia's Arctic shores or from a rapidly warming climate.
In a series of trips spread over two years, she visited lands and seas up to the Arctic Circle and beyond. In Chukotka, in northeastern Siberia, Wheeler sees "nuclear submarine carcasses lolling around like whales," and at the Zapadnaya Litsa naval base near Murmansk, radioactive waste water once was leaking out at the rate of 10 tonnes an hour. Rampant obesity afflicts Canada's Inuit, exiled from traditional marine foodstuffs and berries and now dependent on processed food from the south.
Even something as relatively benign as tourism, including Wheeler's voyage by cruise ship from Murmansk to Reykjavik, burns up "hydrocarbons by the ton" to unveil the apparently pristine wonders of nature to tourists.
Wheeler, who is English, bears comparison with discursive travel writers no less distinguished than her compatriots Patrick Leigh Fermor and the late Bruce Chatwin. The Magnetic North is an uneven book, but attractively so, smoothly mixing accounts of day-to-day events with history, science and religion.
Against her environmental gloom, the author is wonderstruck by purple saxifrage and white poppies "nourished by the last gasp of the Gulf Stream" and flourishing at 81° north, or by what poet Robert W. Service called "the silence that bludgeons you dumb."
There are explorers such as the great humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen, one of her heroes, or the ill-fated John Franklin, among those she scorns as frozen-beards and shoe-eaters. There are oddballs such as Tété-Michel Kpomassie, the Togolese who went to Greenland to live like an Inuk, or the unnamed Japanese cyclist who whizzes past Wheeler on the gravelled highway to Alaska's Prudhoe Bay, his eyes "murderous with misery."
And, perhaps most affecting, there is the Solovki monastery, just below the Arctic Circle on an island in the White Sea. According to generations of true believers, Wheeler writes, the medieval foundation "cradles the national soul" behind its walls 20 feet thick. But after the Bolshevik Revolution, the monks were thrown out and Solovki became a prison, the first in a vast network that would eventually stretch across the breadth of northern Russia.
Thousands died in the gulag, in unspeakable conditions that she nonetheless is unstinting in describing. But thousands survived, too, a testament to the endurance of the human spirit.
Now the monks have returned and, in their quiet chants and muttered prayers, "they plucked new life out of death. . It was a kind of humanity that eluded articulation, and I had sensed it everywhere in the muddled and lovable Arctic."
Wheeler would surely be the first to admit that the mysteries of the Far North will always be elusive. Perhaps it's telling that in her travels she circled the pole, approached it, but never actually reached it.
John Kalbfleisch's Second Draft column on Montreal's history appears each Saturday in The Gazette.
The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle ?By Sara Wheeler ?Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 368 pages, $29.95
Read more: http://www.montrealgazette.com/Exploring+enigmatic+arctic/4469483/story.html#ixzz1H3Jw1SJp
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