Two Books on Travels within the New North
Ibegan reads “Ice Walker” in horror. How could this story, whose main character is a female polar bear, avoid anthropomorphism and emotion? Will it develop into an agony of melting ice and destroying habitats?
No need to worry. Within a few pages I was greeted by a fascinating exploration of ice and snow, from the perspective of a predatory peak that adapted particularly to one of the harshest environments in the world. In a deceptively simple prose, poetic but accurate, James Rafan invites us into the world of the Dwarf – short for Nanurjuk, meaning “the teddy bear” in Inuktitut – as he hunts for a seal in Hudson Bay in the Canadian Arctic.
By James Raffan
Simon & Schuster Canada, 161 pages, $ 18
The hidden life of ice
Marco Tedesco with Alberto Flores d’Arcais
The Experiment, 153 pages, $ 19.95
The story begins on a cold day in February, when Nanu is 7 years old and weighs 500 kilos. It is minus-37 degrees Celsius (or minus -35 degrees Fahrenheit) on the vast expanse of ice. At this temperature, it is said, human flesh freezes within minutes. However, the blood flowing through the veins and arteries of the dwarf’s massive legs remains at around + 37 degrees Celsius. Her legs are not only adapted to the temperature difference, but also leave signals, through her skin glands, to potential mates, announcing that Nanu “is healthy and the season is coming”. The drama begins.
The ice is “talkative” at this time of year, Mr. Rafan tells us, grinding and crushing, moving by winds and currents. Nanou can feel the vibrations of the ice through these amazing legs and hear them with her ears. These senses also help Nanu chase prey, but when it comes to seal tracking, nothing beats the excellent sense of smell.
In a breath hole of the seal, Nanou calms her breath, swirls back to her fur and waits, completely motionless. “And then, in an explosion of energy, cold air and throwing snow, it rises and collapses, piercing the new snow and the vaulted dome of the nest on the unsuspecting adult seal.” She soon hits the bottles she has to maintain herself for next year as she gives birth and raises children.
By the end of the hunting season, Nanu weighs 700 pounds and must find a safe haven, 45 miles inland. In late December, two months after creating an ice mat for herself in the tundra, she stands in the dark and throws two tiny blinds, deaf and toothless. For the next six months, its high-fat milk enhances their growth. Nanou, meanwhile, has not eaten since the hunt and will not have her next substantial meal until the trio are out on the ice.
Mr. Raffan, a Canadian adventurer and prolific writer whose previous books include “Circling the Midnight Sun: Culture and Change in the Invisible Arctic,” has been visiting the North regularly for four decades, learning how wildlife survives and coexists. and the various indigenous peoples. She has divided Nanu’s story into nine chapters, each of which follows a stage in her life. With quiet confidence, he builds the agony of Nanu’s reproductive cycle in an environment that is well acquainted with instinct and memory.
Incorporated in the momentum of survival and motherhood are the extraordinary events of polar bear physiology – Nanu’s metabolism during inactivation, the changing composition of her milk, her sense of direction as she returns to the water. There is nothing dry about presenting information – so far the reader supports Nanu’s success. Nor does Walt Disney smell. When one of her young is attacked by a whale pod, the details are vivid and haunting. But Nanou and the second cube continue. They will travel hundreds of miles together before the child is fully bred and goes his own way.
“The drip, drop, drop of melting pressure ridges can also be the tick, the tick, the tick of accelerating time in a rapidly changing world,” Raffan wrote. Climate change is part of Nanu’s story because her habitat is changing faster than she can remember in her genes. There are new dangers – oil spills, non-Inuit hunters, high levels of pollution. As global temperatures have risen, the sea ice that Nanou and her youngsters need to fish and seal has receded, forcing them to wait longer on land each year. The relationship of bears with their two-legged neighbors has changed.
If and when polar bears disappear (there are about 25,000 in the world today), some human civilizations will also disappear. This short book captures the grandeur of “bearness”, as Mr. Raffan calls the living partnership of humans and bears on the ice, and the tragic disruptions that climate change will bring to this partnership. As I absorbed the harsh facts of Nanou’s accelerating crisis, I found her story moving deeply, as Mr. Rafan brought me into a deep familiarity with this wonderful creature.
Marco Tedesco is an “ice scholar” who, like Mr. Raffan, is fascinated by the dazzling landscapes of the North. Italian professor of research at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University is studying the impact of climate change on Greenland’s huge ice sheet. However, “The Hidden Life of Ice” is far from a depressing, heavy load through the melt water. Mr. Tedesco and his co-author, Alberto Flores d’Arcais, want to convey to non-expert readers the extraordinary beauty and power of icy soil and to convey the enthusiasm and importance of scientific research. Their argument, translated from Italian by Denise Muir, is reinforced by stunning images of turquoise skies and blue snowshoes.
Mr. Tedesco begins by describing the struggle at dawn to pull several layers of wool or synthetic clothing (“Cottonless!”) Into a 5-foot-tall tent without waking up his tent. “I crawl on my knees, I was pulled on the waterproof carpet outside the door and I was sitting. . . I’m already tired. He sinks into a chair and is imbued with a pleasant sense of peace and tranquility. “The passage of time, as we usually think or experience it, makes no sense here.” We are in geological time. In the center of this polar land, ice can be up to 2 miles thick and gradually dilute as it flows into the ocean, “like a river of iridescent lava.”
“The Hidden Life of Ice” follows a research team of five people for one day during a mission. Mr. Tedesco combines daily routines, survival challenges, Inuit mythology, his personal history and conducting research and discoveries. There are clear descriptions of the experiments that were conducted, scattered with reflections on the importance of staying open-minded as a scientist, and left with narratives of Arctic exploration. It is a disarming approach to the otherwise demanding world of glasology and the impact of the Big Data revolution on scientific research. Readers share the researchers’ lunch with cheese sandwiches and instant soup as we learn about the strange microorganisms that live in icy holes in the ice, and the 3,000 obsolete satellites circling above us that are simply space.
It is a big day – and an endless one in this latitude, where in summer the sun never sets. After he and his colleagues ate dinner and packed the sensitive scientific equipment, Mr. Tedesco is tired but still “wired by the events of the day.” He swallows the Scottish and examines the issue recorded in the subtitle of this lyric book: “Missions from a world that is disappearing”.
Greenland is losing ice and the pace at which this is happening is accelerating. As the ice cap melts, global sea levels will rise, endangering many coastal cities around the world. Mr. Tedesco maintains the sense of wonder: the “interaction between the various forces of nature. . . is one of the things I find most fascinating about the world. “But this interaction will have dire consequences.
“The Hidden Life of Ice” is a brilliant short book that attracts the average reader through the elegance of his prose and his eager exploration of a changing world.
-Lady. Gray is the author of 11 non-fiction books, including Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike.
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