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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Adventures Above the Arctic Circle

Air Date: Week of


In her new book, The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle, Sara Wheeler visits every country with land north of 66 degrees latitude. Wheeler tells Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood of her adventures and how bureaucracy and new technology are changing indigenous people's lives.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. There’s one place on earth where all roads lead south - not that there are many roads within the Arctic Circle. Yet author Sara Wheeler took a trip there and chronicles her journey in her new book, "The Magnetic North, Notes from the Arctic Circle".

Wheeler traveled in every country with territory at the top of the world, and talked with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood about her adventures.

CURWOOD: I think one of the most moving parts of your book is about the indigenous people who live there. You wrote, Every nation devastates native cultures, even if it doesn’t actually kill everyone off. The Russians did it with bureaucracy, Americans with money, Canadians with kindness, Swedes and Fins did it with chainsaws that chop down forests, and everybody did it with booze and syphilis.

WHEELER: Yeah, it’s a grim picture.

CURWOOD: I wonder if you’d start this discussion at the beginning of your trip and talk about what you found in Russia.

Sara Wheeler’s new book, The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle. (Photo: Amit Lennon)

WHEELER: There’s 27 different indigenous groups in polar Russia alone - most of them are traditionally reindeer hunters, some are marine mammal hunters. Once the Soviet-ization began, there’s no place for nomads. So the Soviets just sent people up there to bring those people, those natives into submission. Which meant bringing them into the cash economy and making them sedentary.
Well, it’s all very well bringing people into a cash economy, but how are they going to earn their cash? So there’s this thing that’s played itself out with no jobs, no employment, nothing to do, no meaning, and you can see a big vacuum is created, and into that has moved alcohol and drugs.

CURWOOD: But you see a lot of that today, I bet in every one of the polar countries you went to you, you saw it - and even in a place as enlightened and socially conscious as, say, Denmark and Greenland.

WHEELER: Yes, and let’s take the case of Canada - the whole dietary issue. Canadians have tied themselves into knots, first of all, in the bad old days, telling people, Stop eating all of that rubbish, you’ve got to eat nice things like us - burgers and chips and pizzas and all the rest of it, and get all of our health problems.
And then, in more enlightened times, health officials went back up and said, No, we’ve got it all wrong, it’s good to eat whale and walrus if you’re an indigenous person. Then the zeitgeist changed again, everyone said, We need to save the whales, so the health officials went back up and said, You know we said it wasn’t okay and then it was, well now it’s not again. And so it goes.

CURWOOD: And, don’t forget the bit about the PCB’s.

WHEELER: The PCB’s is possibly the most horrific of all the horrific arctic toxin stories. PCB’s were banned a long time ago in all the developed countries - they’re really, really ghastly things that used to be in flame-retardants and so on - we’re talking about in the 70s they were banned. And they got into the marine food chain, and throughout the processes of bioaccumulation, and biomagnification, as they move up through the food chain, they get bigger and more powerful, and more ghastly.

Sara Wheeler looks out on the Arctic Ocean (Photo: Amit Lennon)

And so scientists are finding, and there’s proper data on this, they’re finding in polar bear cubs, an incredibly high level of PCB contamination at birth. And, of course, the polar people who still eat the country food, as they call it, become the most contaminated of all. And the Canadians have had to really try and help their indigenous people learn not to breast-feed. It’s an example of the arctic paradox - by which the people who live furthest away from contaminants are the ones most affected by them.

CURWOOD: It’s a little bit heavy now, this discussion, Sara Wheeler. Let’s talk about how indigenous people have changed their habits in northern parts of Scandinavia - you write about ancient reindeer herding, and this present day reindeer herding.

WHEELER: Yeah, I had a fantastic time reindeer herding with the Sami, the Laps in Northern Sweden, a long way north of the arctic circle - wonderful people. And what they do is, they bring the reindeer down from the mountain pastures at the end of summer and take them back up at the end of winter, and so twice a year, and it all happens in one day, you have these enormous rivers of reindeer pounding their hooves, pounding on the ice and being driven by these Laps, and of course they’re tremendously skilled at it.

Reindeer supply food, milk and clothing for the Sami people.(Photo: Amit Lennon)

They do use snowmobiles - it’s a marvelous combination of traditional and technological - and they castrate some of the reindeer, and they no longer do it with their teeth, they now do it with…that was the traditional way…

CURWOOD: Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a second. How did they used to castrate…

WHEELER: The traditional way, of course, was the teeth because one didn’t have metal tools and so on, and the male Sami herder, would castrate his reindeer, those would be the ones they were keeping as beasts of burden, so all those are castrated then as now. Anyway so, I was there, and I had just had a baby. I had my baby with me doing all the things that I’d watched the Lap women do with their babies - I became a world-expert at nursing at minus 30…

CURWOOD: How do you do that? Do you have any advice for anyone who might try it?

WHELLER: I do, yeah, if you’re thinking of doing that - you stuff tinfoil down your shirt because it reflects the heat back- handy tip of the day.

CURWOOD: I’m wondering if you could read from that part of the book:

Land north of 66 degrees latitude (inside the black ring) is considered the Arctic Circle. (Anthropolis Arctic Maps)

WHEELER: Certainly, yeah. This is the part where my baby, Reggie, and I, went to have supper in a traditional Sami lávvu which is a sort of wigwam made of skins.

"When Reggie and I arrived for the evening, a pair of draft reindeer were scooping snow outside with their front hooves, burying their noses into the mushy ground beneath, and whistling softly as they exhaled.

Inside, we lounged on pelts, as Pittja" - that was my host - "Pittja's herding assistant Anders rolled out flatbread and the fire hissed to life, catching first on resin in the birch bark, then crackling over pine and juniper. Pittja had cooked up a máles the Sami meal prepared at slaughter time, and it bubbled with ominously pungent eructations in a cauldron lashed to a lateral rod between tent poles.

A máles consists of almost every part of a reindeer, boiled in the same pot. Liver, tongue, bone, and steak with its hump of canary yellow fat. Even the hooves are boiled, Pittja announced, handing their green birch skewer with which to poach marrow from bone. We ate the dish with lingonberry relish, black pudding and a paté made with blood and oatmeal. Breastfeeding makes one hungry enough for anything, except, perhaps boiled hoof.

Though, fortunately, one was one called upon to put that to the test. I could see the flickering ion stream of the northern lights through the roof opening. Anders offered a chunk of cooked reindeer fat on a plate, For the baby, he said. He’s not weaned yet, I said, I know, he said, that’s what we wean them with".

The Sami people both herd and ride reindeer. (Photo: Amit Lennon)

CURWOOD: (Laughs.)

WHEELER: I had a great time with those guys - they were so friendly and so, sort of, dignified in the way that they were integrating. I saw a lot of transitioning, you can’t look at polar peoples and go back to some sort of idyllic age of a bloke sitting over a hole in the ice with his fishing rod - you know, we’re never going to go back there. It’s all a process of transition. I mean, in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, I saw pinned on a washing line, some seal ribs curing to dry next to a little toddler’s batman suit. And that image to me exemplified the transition of the polar regions.

CURWOOD: Sara Wheeler’s book is called: “The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle.” Thanks for taking us on your travels, Sara

WHEELER: Thanks for having me

GELLERMAN: Author Sara Wheeler spoke with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.



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