February 27 again is International Polar Bear Day — but let’s not forget that our actions (or omissions) affect wild species, habitats, and our planet’s climate every day of the year. Some nutshell reviews of polar bear books can be found here. My Arctic roundup includes a biological overview, a graphic novel, a travelogue, a pictorial anthology, and a children’s book.
I will read from and sign my two most recent books, American Wild and Ice Bear, at the Northern Alaska Environmental Center in Fairbanks (830 College Road), on February 24, from 5:30 to 7:30 PM. The presentation will also include a brief slide show, “Beast of Many Faces.”
With the political change in Washington, Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski has initiated legislation to open the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd and important for denning polar bears—to drilling. This is her ninth attempt to despoil an incomparable place that belongs to all Americans. Please help to protect it by signing this petition.
I am very pleased that today, Alaska’s leading news source, the Alaska Dispatch News (ADN), featured reviews of my two new books Ice Bear and American Wild. It is not often that we authors publish two titles in one season and that both are equally well received. Thanks to the media that still showcase fine writing while they could use the space for more lucrative ads instead.
Polar Bears International just posted an author Q & A about Ice Bear with a kind and generous introduction by polar bear expert (of thirty years experience) Dr. Andrew Derocher. In light of recent warming trends at the North Pole — 26 degrees F above average — and political developments (a dumbing-down of science as in the Bush years just in the offing), the plight of wildlife worldwide needs to be addressed. As I’ve written elsewhere, shamelessly plagiarizing from David Petersen’s Writing Naturally, “While I could live without writing, I could never live without the things I write about.” This, ironically, becomes more true the older I get.
The November 8 election result foreshadows the most drastic reversal in U.S. politics since Roosevelt’s New Deal — unfortunately, in the wrong direction—and will reverberate throughout the world. Even before the last votes had been counted, a prominent Alaska Republican announced that the party would again try to open the 1002 Area of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. Please read my essay about why the American people should resist this attempt.
I just returned from Kaktovik, the Inupiaq-Eskimo village on Alaska’s Beaufort Sea coast, where I researched the booming eco-tourism scene of polar bear viewing — the new Churchill, Manitoba and Mecca of polar bear photographers. My impressions of watching the White Bear (and the guides and the people who watch it) will appear in Alaska magazine or in the Canadian Hakai Magazine. The weather was phenomenal, and the famous “bone pile” (the carcasses of butchered bowhead whales) was busy with up to 25 polar bears at a time. I stayed with my friend, the Native polar bear guide and boat captain Robert Thompson, and it was great seeing him again.
I will be signing copies of my new book American Wild and also introduce Ice Bear, my cultural history of the polar bear, on Friday, October 7th from 5-7 pm at the Fairbanks Art Association’s Bear Gallery. This First Friday event will be part of the opening of the 64th Parallel exhibit, and a watercolor artist will be present as well.
The highlight of a two-week backpacking trip in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which I guided and from which I just returned, were thousands of caribous from the Porcupine Herd that streamed past our camp on two consecutive days. They were the vanguard of the annual fall migration, during which the herd congregates near the tree line for the rut. We were first alerted to their presence by grunts from the lead animals. Emerging from our tents, we watched in awe as the brown tide flooded the hillside, pulled south by millennia-old urges. After my return home, my Arctic Wild boss kindly gave me a copy of We Are the Arctic, a beautifully done collection of testimonies and pleas by artists, Alaska Natives, biologists, and activists, to preserve the caribou calving grounds — the famous 1002 Area of the Arctic coastal plain — as a wilderness area. Congress is currently reviewing the proposal, and the book includes form letters to the president that readers can mail in support of wilderness designation. The book (distributed also to members of Congress) is published in Mountaineers Books’ lavishly illustrated Braided River series and at ten bucks, a bargain. Write to your representative and help preserve the refuge, this amazing world heritage, for future generations of people and caribous (and of bears, wolverines, wolves, eagles, plovers, etc.). An article I wrote for the 50th anniversary of the refuge in 2010 can be found in this website’s Other Writings.
In a thought-provoking piece in The Guardian about the benefits (or abominations) of zoos, Philip Hoare (author of The Whale: In Search of the Giants of the Sea and The Sea Inside) mentions my forthcoming book Ice Bear, particularly the story of Knut, the celebrated German zoo cub (who first escaped being euthanized and later drowned from a seizure in front of visitors) and the suicide by polar bear of Karoline Wolf, a German servant girl, at the Frankfurt zoo in 1891. Is the zoo an obsolete institution, about to become extinct? And how can urbanites encounter real wildlife? Research by Stephen Kellert, a student of the eminent E.O. Wilson (originator if the Biophilia Hypothesis), has shown that contrary to common belief, zoo visits do not help in seeing these Others as equals but rather confirm many people’s view of themselves as the crown jewel of creation. Likewise, encounters with captive animals do not necessarily instill the desire to preserve their wild kin.
I am just now tackling a new book project about another big hairy beast that lives in an extreme environment: the yak or “grunting ox.” My portrait of the Himalayan super-bovine and its relationship with humans will appear in the English publisher Reaktion Books’ Animal Series. Each of these eighty titles showcases one type of critter (snake, walrus, albatross, etc. —usually a genus or family) and is nicely illustrated and affordable. Check one out for little known facts and the history of your favorite animal.
Minding Nature, the journal of the Center for Humans & Nature, just published an excerpt from my forthcoming book Ice Bear. This excerpt, “The Life and Death of a Superstar,” looks at Knut, the world’s most famous polar bear, and the hold it still has on people’s imagination. The “cute factor” of cubs was a big factor in this.
The Anchorage Museum is continuing its incredible Polar Lab Projects — a series of artistic, cultural, political, and scientific exhibits, programs, and performances that center on “a North that is pivotal to the world—not a frontier, but a horizon.” A group show at the museum in May — “View from Up Here: The Arctic at the Center of the World” — will include work by the Icelandic and English artists Bryndis Snaebjørnsdottir (literally: “Daughter of a Snow Bear”) and Mark Wilson, as well as by the Tlingit-Aleut Nicholas Galanin, which also appears in my forthcoming book, Ice Bear.