Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon

In Book Reviews, Climate Change, Conservation, Endangered Species, Nonfiction, Oceans by John Yunker

In Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon author Michael Engelhard has crafted a richly illustrated, authoritative and eye-opening testament to our evolving and often tragic relationship with the polar bear.

Chapters take us chronologically through history, documenting how natives related to animal and honored it, even after its death. When European explorers discovered the bear, it met with a significantly less-honored fate. Bears were seen a prized gifts for royalty; Henry III kept a polar bear in the Tower of London. Today, no self-respecting zoo would consider its collection complete without a polar bear or two. Knut, the famous resident of Berlin’s Zoo who drowned one day, is given his own chapter at the beginning of the book, posing critical questions about why this bear meant to so much to so many (particularly when the bear’s native habitat is under such duress).

From native mythology to modern-day “doom” tourism, the book does an excellent job of viewing the species through the eyes of many different cultures during many different time periods. The polar bear occupies territories that include Canada, Russia, Greenland, Norway, Iceland and the US. And every country is guilty in having killed vast numbers of bears over the years. The author estimates that between the 1700s and 1969  roughly 150,000 polar bears were killed in the Eurasian Arctic. And thousands are still hunted today (some out of native tradition and some strictly for sport). A hunting license can be had for about $30,000.

Included are numerous full-color illustrations, paintings and photographs. The images alone justify owning this book. Engelhard notes that “every animal painting is also a self-portrait.” This is particularly true with the polar bear, in which so many paintings portray the animal as some horrific beast and every human who kills one as some superhero. The truth is that the vast majority of polar bears that have been killed were drawn by their astute noses to baited traps where hunters with high-powered rifles await, many never leaving the safety of their ships.

One theme Engelhard returns to again and again is the extent to which we project our emotions and cultural baggage onto this animal, how this animal that was once widely feared is now viewed in tragic terms, the “poster child” of climate change. Engelhard points out how sanitized our portrayal of the polar bear in culture has become. We don’t see polar bears with dirty fur (which results from their time on land) and zoos use chemicals to ensure that the bear’s fur remains white and free of discoloration from algae. We want our polar bears to be white as snow, despite the messy reality.

Engelhard shares a photo of an emaciated polar bear in the wild, something you don’t usually see in popular culture,  and it’s not something you’ll soon forget.

This book is, in the end, less about the polar bear than about us. And that in itself makes it an important addition to environmental literature.

 

Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon

University of Washington Press