Gathering Arctic Voices at the Institute, with the Woods to Inspire

Prior to arriving at the Institute as a Director’s Visitor last fall, I had heard about the Institute Woods, of which George Kennan had said:

I have lived in the proximity of these Woods for over half a century. They are a friend, a source of inspiration and restoration, andwere they to disappearitwould be like the disappearance of an old, beloved, and respected friend.

I needed a source of inspiration, as I was editing an anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point at the time. So, I made a request of Peter Goddard, then Director of the Institute, and Yve-Alain Bois, Professor in the School of Historical Studies, who had facilitated my visit:

If I am allowed, I would like to make my office in the IAS Woods rather than inside an office building where I might be given an office space. Each morning predawn I would like to walk for three hours in the Woods, and same around dusk, making it a full day of work.

Dr. Goddard responded:

It is good to hear that you are excited about the woods. You are of course free to walk there whenever you wish, but we will still allocate you a normal office!

As it turned out, I really needed a “normal office” — where I worked long hours each day to complete my work on the Arctic anthology, a compilation of thirty-nine contributions by indigenous activists, writers, conservationists, scientists, and humanities scholars, as well as photographs and drawings by sixteen artists. What follows is an excerpt from my introduction in Arctic Voices.

How do we talk about the Arctic? How do we think about the Arctic? How do we relate to the Arctic? And, why talk about the Arctic, now? These are some questions we explore, through stories, in this volume. Along the way, we talk about big animals, big migrations, big hunting, big land, big rivers, big ocean, and big sky; and also about big coal, big oil, big warming, big spills, big pollution, big legislation, and big lawsuits. And we talk about small things, too—small animals, small migrations, small hunting, small rivers, small warming, small spills, small pollution, small legislation, and small lawsuits.

In the Arctic, impacts of climate change can be seen and/or experienced everywhere. Indeed, the Arctic is warming at a rate double that of the rest of the planet. We tell many stories of climate change in Arctic Voices. At the same time, I am realizing that there is an Arctic paradox: that oil, coal, and gas, the burning of which has caused unprecedented Arctic warming, are the same nonrenewable resources whose extraction projects are expanding rapidly in the Arctic—terrestrial and offshore. There are resource wars—for oil, gas, coal, and minerals—everywhere in the Arctic—from Alaska to Siberia, with Nunavut and Greenland along the way. In Arctic Alaska, these wars have intensified since I first arrived there more than a decade ago.

You might wonder how someone with an Indian-sounding name like mine, someone from the south, comes to concern himself with all things northern. Here is how it all began. In 2000, I left my career as a scientist and was wandering aimlessly from Florida to British Columbia looking for inspiration for a photography project; I had found none when, in late October, I arrived with two friends in Churchill in subarctic Canada—a popular tourist destination. There, polar bears gather along the Hudson Bay and wait on land for the bay to freeze over. Once on ice, they hunt and eat. I took a photo of one bear eating another—not normal, I was told, but no one in town said the Arctic was getting warmer. I now read that the bears of Hudson Bay will disappear within a few decades at best, or within a decade at worst, because these days ice is forming later in autumn and melting sooner in spring, leaving the bears longer on land, where they must wait and starve. This gruesome photograph of death produced in me a desire to live in the wild, with the polar bears.

I use photography to raise awareness about the Arctic, but I never would have imagined that my photographs would be used on the U.S. Senate floor to argue against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—yet that is exactly what Senator Barbara Boxer did and won a crucial vote on March 19, 2003. Nor did I imagine that my exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution would be censored and become the topic of a Senate hearing at which Senator Richard Durbin would support my work, or that later a Senate investigation would follow. But when then Senator Ted Stevens during a May 2003 Senate debate said that President Jimmy Carter and I were giving “misinformation to the American public”—effectively calling us liars—then I did fear possible deportation, and realized that if I were to have a voice in conservation in the U.S., I must become a U.S. citizen. So I did.

Secretary of the Interior Gale A. Norton, during a March 12, 2003, congressional testimony, famously described the Arctic Refuge coastal plain as an object of conceptual art—“a flat white nothingness.” … Then, on November 5, 2005, Senator Stevens said on PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, “This is the area in wintertime. And I defy anyone to say that that is a beautiful place that has to be preserved for the future. It is a barren wasteland, frozen wasteland.”

Arctic Voices paints a very different picture—we present the Arctic neither as a frozen wasteland nor as a pristine wilderness, but, instead, simply as home for numerous species—animal and human—who either visit for a while or live there year-round.

Over the past decade, many people have asked me, “Why should I care about the Arctic?” While I still may not have the whole answer, I’ve been putting together bits and pieces in response to that question.

Indeed, around the world, the Arctic is thought to be a remote place disconnected from our daily lives. On the contrary, hundreds of millions of birds migrate to the Arctic each spring from every corner of the earth—including Yellow Wagtail from Kolkata—for nesting and rearing their young, and resting—a planetary celebration of global interconnectedness. On the other hand, caribou, whale, and fish migrate hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles, connecting numerous indigenous communities through subsistence food harvests—local and regional interconnectedness. However, deadly industrial toxins migrate to the Arctic from every part of our planet, making animals and humans of the Arctic among the most contaminated inhabitants of the earth. The breast milk of high Arctic women in some parts of Greenland and northern Canada is scientifically regarded as being as toxic as hazardous waste—a planetary tragedy of global interconnectedness. Marla Cone tells this tragic story in this volume—she calls it “Arctic Paradox.”

As you can see, the Arctic is far from being a remote place disconnected from our daily lives. Instead, we’re all connected to the northern landscape. In this volume, we tell many stories of local, regional, and global interconnectedness—both celebratory and tragic.

The Arctic, after all, is big—it is the top of our earth, the ice cap, some call it, but it is so much more, and it’s that so-much-more that this book is about. The Arctic has become our planet’s tipping point— climate change is wreaking havoc up there. Resource wars continue to spread. Industrial toxins continue to accumulate widely. But also, the voices of resistance are gathering, are getting louder and louder—and that is the story this volume presents. It is the noise and the music of all our voices bundled together.

Arctic Voices doesn’t have a linear structure; it isn’t arranged chronologically or even geographically, but rather as a web of interconnections with loosely defined themes that you may read in any order you wish. I have found plenty of things in common between essays—for example, the spectacled eiders that winter in the frozen Bering Sea, written about by Nancy Lord, also nest in the Teshekpuk Lake Wetland that Jeff Fair writes about; both writer Velma Wallis and artist Annie Pootoogook use stories and art as an outlet for healing as they both address alcoholism in their unique ways; and common words take on new meaning, for example, Seth Kantner and Matthew Gilbert put the word subsistence on its head, while Andri Snaer Magnason tells us how Alcoa hijacked the word sustainability in Iceland and Greenland. I’m sure you will find more such interconnectedness, and I surmise that you will begin to think and talk about the Arctic differently than you did before. And perhaps you’ll find an answer to the question, “Why should I care about the Arctic?”

Subhankar Banerjee, a Director’s Visitor in fall 2011, is an Indian-born American photographer, writer, and activist. Over the past decade, he has worked for the conservation of ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic and to raise awareness about indigenous human rights and climate change. He is the author of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land (Mountaineers Books, 2003), and his photographs have been exhibited in more than fifty museums. He will read from Arctic Voices (Seven Stories Press, 2012) at Labyrinth Books in Princeton on October 9. He received a 2012 Cultural Freedom Award from the Lannan Foundation.

Excerpted from Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point edited by Subhankar Banerjee © 2012, reprinted by arrangement with Seven Stories Press, New York.