Bering Witness

Despite living in the center of the continent, and quasi-quarantined at that, we know that Siberia is burning and the arctic ice is melting. The permanence of permafrost has passed. From beneath the thawing coasts and the consequent noise of increased shipping, the whales are calling.

A few years ago, James Nestor's book Deep reminded me of my latent fascination with whales. My review provoked a lot of positive feedback, so I think the cetacean fascination is widely shared. And now, in the humid summer of Covid, the magnificent mammals surface again.

A jostling floe of books has tuned me in to their distant songs, new writers summoning clicks and choruses and the urgent murmurs of walrus, caribou, and fox. One not-so-new writer is ocean ecologist Carl Safina, whose Becoming Wild begins with the animal with the largest brain in the world, ever, the sperm whale. Theirs are about 10 times the size of ours, so it should come as no surprise that they have a complex communication system, and talk and teach and quest and learn and hunt and babysit and nap like we do (well, they nap vertically!). Thanks to writers like Carl Safina, such fabulous stories don't have to end up in children’s books.

Months ago I picked up a slim volume of fiction, a Chukchi folk tale of sorts, called When the Whales Leave, by Yuri Rytkheu. Soon after, I happened on a luminous work of nonfiction by Bathsheba Demuth that in many ways parallels it, called Floating Coast. Demuth is an environmental historian and sled dog musher who burst upon the scene last year. Like the sandhill cranes that launch her book, she is a migrant from the Plains, and focuses on the Arctic, specifically the Bering Straits and the lands on either side. Her effort won NPR's Best Book of the Year and the 2020 George Perkins Marsh Prize for best book in environmental history.

One way of describing Floating Coast is that it's a historical look at clashing cultures – including animal cultures -- and their dynamics over time in a particular place. But that sounds too dry and academic, and this book is far from that. Given the quality of writing and the subject matter of Floating Coast, several authors repeatedly surfaced as I read: Barry Lopez, of course; poet/linguist Robert Bringhurst; scholar Lewis Hyde; anthropologist Richard Nelson; Peter Matthiessen. Ms. Demuth has with her very first book joined this illustrious circle, and I dare say is as good at poetic evocations of interconnectedness as these guys are. Besides, she has nice maps and photos.

She describes a regional and natural history most of us have never heard, infused with fresh perspectives on old economic and political rivalries. "From the archive to the dog sled, I am interested in how the histories of people, ideas, places, and non-human species intersect," she explains. The Bering Strait, of course, runs between the U.S. and Russia, and the two countries' approaches to exploration and exploitation there differ as much as their approaches to politics. 

While we're in Beringia I must mention Owls of the Eastern Ice, by Jonathan Slaght. Which I admit I haven't seen yet, but it seems sure to be one for the pile: tracking and studying endangered Siberian fish owls the size of small bears? Whoo knew?

Back to the deep with another amazing new one from another amazing new writer: Fathoms by Rebecca Giggs. The connections made in the company of a beached humpback whale in just the first fifteen pages of this book completely blew me out of the water. Both exhausting and inspiring, I knew immediately I was in for a treat, unappetizing though beginning with expiring leviathans might seem. I wasn't disappointed. Like Bathsheba Demuth, Rebecca Giggs has done a prodigious amount of research, in the library and in the field, and weaves it all into a powerful book that shows "the world in the whale" in surprising ways. An early candidate for my book of the year.

There's not much better than finding new non-fiction voices that speak beautifully and powerfully. I could have devoted this review to just one of these titles and not done it justice, but this pod all suddenly swimming into view couldn't be ignored. Take a deep breath, and dive in!

-Jake Vail is an Information Services Assistant at Lawrence Public Library.

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