From Floating Coast to the Sea of Grass

One of my favorite books of the past couple years is Bathsheba Demuth’s award-winning Floating Coast, so I was pleased to see that the author is part of this season’s speaker series at KU’s Hall Center for the Humanities. I was similarly pleased to have the opportunity to interview her. Alas, her appearance in Lawrence on October 27 will be virtual.

Bathsheba Demuth is Professor of Environmental History at Brown University, specializing in the Russian and North American Arctic. 

What attracted you to the North so strongly that you moved from Iowa to the Yukon?

When I hit college-application age, I didn't have a sense of what I wanted to study or do at university -- and didn't want to spend the dollars or time if I didn't know why I was there. I was also really interested in writing and photography, and wanted to see more of the world as a way to think about the kinds of words and images I wanted to make. So I took a gap year—or as it turned out, gap years—with the goal of traveling. The first place I went was the Yukon, and I never made it to the next place on my itinerary, because I so fell in love with the north.  

Did you know from the start that you would be a historian and writer? When in your timeline of exploration did you decide to write Floating Coast?

I have always loved to write, and in many ways became a historian in order to write.  But it wasn't a particularly linear path. After living in the Arctic I did make my way to college, and remained interested in writing -- and took the kinds of questions that are now at the core of my research, about the relationships between people's ideas, with me. I took history courses as an undergrad, and loved the discipline, but didn't think about becoming a historian then.

It was when I served as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduating from college that I started to think about how to write and think about the north historically. I served in Moldova, formerly part of the Soviet Union, and living with the remnants of the Soviet Union made me think about the contrasting ways capitalist and socialist countries have tried to colonize the Arctic. Or maybe not contrasting, as I found out! It was as a PhD student that the full idea for Floating Coast emerged, as I was starting archival research as a graduate student. And it would be two more years before I knew the story included whales even! Historical research can take quite a while. 

Why would Floating Coast be of interest to, for example, a reader in Kansas?

The book actually starts with a bird that's probably familiar to many folks in Kansas - the sandhill crane! They're a big part of Bering Strait summers, but spend part of the year right here. Which goes to show how connected the Arctic is to where you live. Floating Coast explores other kinds of connections too, going back to the nineteenth century, particularly looking at how modern economies, both the American-style capitalist kind and the Soviet-style socialist sort, went to the far north to extract energy long before oil, in ways that connect Kansas and other places to the Bering Strait.

If you want to know about a very long-lived whale, or how social walruses are, or that reindeer can sleepwalk, those stories are all intertwined with the big historical and ideological movements of the twentieth century. So come to see how Kansas and the Bering Strait are connected, stay to maybe think differently about what history is made of!

I love how you start Floating Coast, and sections within it, with animals, rivers, weather, etc. Not, as you've said elsewhere, with heroes. It really makes for enthralling reading. How did that intention come about?

With this book I wanted to try and show readers—not inform them, but give them a glimpse—of what being in the Arctic has always felt like to me, a place where my human self is secondary or tertiary to the world of living things and earth around. And I hoped to show how those living things and ecological contexts shaped what people did, rather than just the other way around. Putting sea ice or a whale first reorients the rest of the story to come, I hope. 

What might be called the use of the north from the 18th century onward in many ways parallels the use of the Plains -- the mining of whales and gold echoes the mining of bison and soil. Indeed, whale oil likely lubricated the same east-coast industrial gears that bison-leather belts turned.
From your experience, do you think benign use is possible in the modern world?

Part of what I hope comes across in Floating Coast is that the radical changes to ecology in the 18th and 19th centuries are not a given of how societies must function, but come out of very specific understandings of what an economy is, and who is important, and what parts of the world can be exploited. The plains buffalo and north Pacific walrus are linked by US colonialism and a capitalist economy. But those ways of arranging social and ecological life are not fundamental to human nature.

 Which means yes, more benign is possible. 

I wonder if you know where you are (virtually) while presenting at the University of Kansas: the long-time home of one of the founders of the field of Environmental History, Donald Worster. While your styles and areas of focus are different, one commonality with Professor Worster struck me while reading your book: the inclusion of economics.

It's a big part of Floating Coast, as you mention above, but what makes your book so appealing is the way you blend familiar economics with the rather different perspectives found in the writings of, for example, Barry Lopez, Richard Nelson, and Lewis Hyde. Capitalism and socialism and a more vernacular local economy are present in Beringia.
What approaches might we see in the Environmental History of the future?

This is a great question, although historians are always loath to predict the future! I hope to see more environmental historians interested in bringing their scholarship to a broad audience, since I think there's a real interest and need for the kind of narratives we are trained to tell. I also think historians will soon be writing about the early experiences of climate change—not just the idea of it, but the lived feelings and outcomes. I also think the field is making a really exciting turn toward thinking seriously about, and with theories of, environmental justice. 

Your book cites pages and pages of sources. Can you name some books that inspired you and helped you in your writing? What are you reading now?

Oh how to keep this list reasonable! In terms of works I read over and over when drafting Floating Coast, Moby Dick was always at hand, and the works of Barry Lopez, and everything by Inupiaq poet Joan Naviyuk Kane. What I'm reading now is too much, as usual. Migrations, a gorgeous novel by Charlotte McConaghy, and a not-yet-published book by the environmental historian Gregg Mitman called Empire of Rubber: Firestone’s Scramble for Land and Power that's excellent, and the collection Life in Space by Siberian poet Galina Rymbu.

Bathsheba Demuth will be speaking at 7:30 on October 27th. For more information and to register for her virtual presentation, see the KU calendar.

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