Wednesday, February 06, 2008

BOOKS | The Ends of the Earth

The Ends of the Earth
Edited by Elizabeth Kolbert and Francis Spufford

I couldn't resist it; the moment I found it on the library shelves, it HAD to be borrowed and read.

The Ends of the Earth collects Arctic and Antarctic related writings from a variety of writers, many of them known names in the field: Ernest Shackleton, Robert Falcon Scott, Knud Rasmussen, Barry Lopez, Gretel Ehrlich, Diane Ackerman – and get this – H.P. Lovecraft. Elizabeth Kolbert selects and introduces the Arctic writings, Francis Spufford is responsible for the Antarctic writings.

I started with the Arctic writings; the North Pole is the top of the world, and I eat my ice-cream on the cone straight from the top. In the introduction, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote of her own fascination with the Arctic – and how almost all of the selections are by "outsiders to the region – explorers, adventurers, anthropologist, novelists."

The predominance of non-natives reflects the fact that Arctic people have, traditionally, transmitted their narratives orally, and also the fact that those who have been drawn to the area have, to an astonishing degree, felt compelled to record their impressions.

This anthology is inspired by the 2007-2008 International Polar Year (IPY), which will last until March 2009 to accommodate the researched in Antarctica. This is the 4th IPY – with a difference: this current IPY will focus on the pending disappearance of its subject, as a result of global warming. Temperatures have increased by about 6 degrees on average around the globe, but in the Arctic, the temperature has risen about twice as high.

Over the years, Kolbert has made several trips to the Arctic to report on how the region is changing. Most of the trips were made in the company of scientists, but she also spoke to many native people on the changes.

An Inuit hunter named John Keogak, who lives on Banks land, in the Inuvik Region of Canada's Northwest Territories, told me that he and his fellow-hunters had started to notice that the climate was changing in the mid-1980s. Then a few yars ago, people on the island began to see robins, a bird for which the Inuit in his region have no word.

The image of robins in the Arctic is a pretty one, but here they herald the arrival of something unnamed.

The arrival of robins in the Arctic reminds me of something in The Wild Places. It is about the climate changes, and how life – in this instance, the beechwoods – adapt, migrate.

The beech will be among the first tree species to die out in southern Britain if the climate continues to warm. Studies of beechwoods show that big old beeches are already beginning to lose their vigour long before their usual time, and trees of fifty years' growth are showing decline more usually associated with trees three times that age. Unlike the elm, however, the beech will not vanish; it will migrate. Beechwoods will follow the isotherms, searching for the cooler land, as the snow hares did after the Pleistocene. The beeches will fnd fresh habitats and ranges in the newly warmed north. Not the death of a species, then, but its displacement. The loss would still be great, though, and it could happen in my lifetime: the beechwood might die before my eyes.

The world is changing. Birds and trees are migrating, adapting to the changes on the planet.


Carl V. Anderson said...

Ooooo...H.P. Lovecraft! It is snowing here today so that would be the perfect collection to be holed up with!

darkorpheus said...

Carl Snow! It's raining over here instead. I think I prefer the snow to the rain.

Stefanie said...

Those books look wonderful. It's hard to imagine robins showing up in the Arctic. And the trees, I feel so bad about the trees.

darkorpheus said...

Stefanie My first reaction to the robin was: "So pretty!" Then on second thoughts, I realise it wasn't a good thing. Odd, that in this context, the robin heralds something disturbing. Spring in the Arctic.