The Bering Strait is probably best known these days for the 50-mile thin stretch of Pacific Ocean that separates Russia from the United States. But it is also one of the most ecologically abundant waters in the world, attracting whales and seabirds from around the world. As well as people who come to hunt these creatures. Which is what led to a great collision of cultures, European and native, in the 1840s, and where this enlightening, thorough and sobering book begins.
Written by environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth, Floating Coast begins when whalers first discovered the bowhead population, a whale species that was easy (initially) to hunt and seemingly limitless in numbers. As more whaling ships arrived, the indigenous populations (the Iñupiat and Yupik in Alaska and the Yupik and Chukchi in Russia) realized that their livelihoods were quickly becoming, like the whales themselves, endangered.
A bowhead whale can live 200 years, which is both awe-inspiring and tragic. Because in the course of just one generation, they were hunted nearly to extinction. As early as the 1880s people warned that they were at risk, but the whaling continued for another seventy years.
A bowhead is highly intelligent, social and is, in many ways, a keystone species of the ocean. But to the whalers, a bowhead whale represented little more than 200 barrels of oil. Demuth writes:
A whale for the men on the Citizen had no soul or country. But a whale had value. If reduced to oil and baleen and shipped to New England, bowheads were commodities, natural objects just one sale away from currency.
The natives also killed bowheads, but sparingly (40-60 a year) and for food and supplies only. In the late 1840s, whalers were taking thousands of whales a year from the waters. But the numbers soon began to plummet, partly because the bowheads learned how to evade the whalers. But whalers did not leave all at once. Some turned their eyes to the walruses, even though it could take 250 walruses to equal one bowhead in oil production.
The natives saw their food sources disappear in rapid succession and, in desperation, some began working on the whaling ships. Natives who had long viewed whales and walruses as relatives were suddenly forced to view them as commodities. And consumers around the world saw only commodities. As Demuth writes:
Far from Beringia, walruses were a minuscule part of imagining a prosperous, mechanized future: as fan belts on power looms or grease in factory cogs, or as the luggage for a train journey from San Francisco to New York or the tip of a billiard cue. Consumers saw no death in their ivory buttons, unaware of the former creature that helped enrich its ocean and might have expired defending its young. The buttons were just one more sign of new wonders for purchase, of rising plenty. In Beringia, the tide pulled the other way, exposing a bare shoreline.
The author focuses not just on the Alaskan side of the strait, but also the Russian side. What makes this book particularly fascinating are the parallel stories of emerging ideologies on either side of the strait: socialism and capitalism. Time and again we witness beauracritc socialist hubris fail against the realities of frontier natives who have their own (far more practical) ways of living. And on the Western shores, American gold seekers arrived and quickly deciminated the land and rivers before returning home broke and broken.
In the end, neither ideology did anything to prevent the demise of the landscape and the native people and the animals they lived among: more than two million whales, countless walruses, foxes and caribou.
And now, just as a number of species find themselves granted some degree of legal protection, another threat looms: climate change.
Demuth does not take issue with the fishing of salmon or the hunting of caribou (a serious blind spot given that these activities are no less extractive than any other). But the whales occupy a special place in her writing, and the writing is worth repeating here:
There is not a history yet that puts in human terms the cetacean experience of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this great annihilation of generations of whale minds: minds that listened as their seas grew quiet, watched as their clans shrank, fled as their families were consumed year after year in the adrenal chase, the strike, the final gouting blood. Perhaps the whales, in their songs and clicks, teach this past; perhaps they tell each other that the peculiar and terrifying work of humans is to compose a world without whales.
This is not a feel-good book, because these stories have no happy endings. But they are stories that need to be read and shared. So that we can work together to protect the lands and waters and animals from the next wave of idealogues — because these people are still at it.
Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait
By Bathsheba Demuth
Author of the novels The Tourist Trail and Where Oceans Hide Their Dead. Co-founder of Ashland Creek Press and editor of Writing for Animals (also now a writing program).