mordicai caeli (mordicai) wrote,
mordicai caeli

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Abandoned fleets, rotting in the ice. (14)

The Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle by Sara Wheeler.

Bears in black armor,
clash below the flying witch.
Above, the balloon.

I really like books about ice. I tend to think that is synonymous with Antarctica, but that isn't true in practice-- I like Arctic tales as well. Sara Wheeler, from the sound of it, has been bitten by the same bug. I haven't read Terra Incognita or her biography of Cherry-Garrard, but now I want to, & I think that is a testament both to her writing & to The Ice. Wheeler even dips into the tale of Greenland's Vikings-- a touchy subject with me, since I have some somewhat well formed opinions of my own (14, 168). See, the very last academic paper I ever wrote was on the culture conflict between the Inuit & the Norse settlers on Greenland-- I called them Skraelings & Dog-Faced people. Then a year later, Jared Diamond came out with Collapse, with a big chunk of it devoted to the Greenland failure...& citing the same sources as me! Well, to be fair it was because his primary source was the professor of the class I was in, but still. I feel territorial. Wheeler makes up for it by having a chapter about Svarlbard, which I knew nothing about except that the panserbjørn lived there in His Dark Materials

Part of what makes Magnetic North so compelling are the liberally sprinkled quotes from historical sources. They really anchor the book-- narrative non-fiction can become overly personal, but the appeal to other figures-- explorers, scientists, natives & the like-- anchor it in a sort of timeless expanse that suits the subject. She has Apsley Cherry-Garrard saying "Exploration is the physical expression of the intellectual passion" (155). Good old Cherry-- now would be a bad time to confess that I've never actually read The Worst Journey in the World, huh? Later she quotes him saying "Polar exploration is at once the cleanest & most isolated wayof having a bad time which has been devised" (245). That really sums up the horror & the appeal, all at once. Makes sense that twenty-something Mordicai was obsessed with the idea of Antarctica. Gino Watkins, in a news paper column about Greenland's position between the New World & the Old refers to "the iniquity of Mercator", a bugbear I've railed against myself (158).

She has some good quotes herself-- she calls the growth of the Arctic poppy, & by extension all Arctic life "biological haiku," for instance (13). I quite liked that. She says of the Russian pogroms against Chukchi & other Arctic natives that "dead shamans were not to be reborn" (44). Cold blooded; that hit a nerve. & Lamaseries! I didn't know that was the plural of a monastery of lamas (52). I thought of Chikako when I found out that cheechako is the Alaskan slang for tenderfoot. Maybe my favorite from a historical figure is when the editor for the Chicago Record-Herald telegraphed Walter Wellman "BUILD AN AIRSHIP AND WITH IT GO FIND THE NORTH POLE" one of the all time great crazy orders from a random stranger (190). Or when, after being stranded, living off walrus & bear meat, & sharing a sleeping bag for a whole winter, Fridtjof Nansen said to Hjalmar Johansen "Why don't we start addressing one another in the familiar du form now?" Hilarious (243). & get a load of Nansen; that dude is basically a cross between a Sting as Feyd-Rautha & Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday.

Tags: books, haiku, wheeler

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