In Beringia

“We polar whales are a quiet inoffensive race, desirous of life and peace… I write on behalf of my butchered and dying species. I appeal to the friends of the whole race of whales. Must we be murdered in cold blood? Must our race become extinct?” An editorial in The Friend, October 15, 1850. This Honolulu-based paper was a temperance publication aimed at sailors.

I found this plaintive call in Bathsheba Demuth’s fine book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait. The cetaceanophile editorial fell on ears stopped up with the desire for wealth and, further down the line, wages. Bowhead whalers reduced the population of this large and slowly maturing whale substantially before the markets for them crashed. Balaena mysticetus are the longest-lived mammals, reaching an astonishing two centuries in age. But they were killed and flensed all the same. Until kerosene made whale oil redundant and thin strips of rubberized spring steel replaced baleen in umbrellas and corsets. Demuth marks 1908 as the year a baleen harvester couldn’t sell his once highly demanded stock, which had also been used also in the making of whips, caps, hats, suspenders, canes, fishing rods, diving rods, tongue scrapers, pen holders, paper folders and cutters (“bone knives”), shoe horns….

But step back for an instant. By the 1880s, whalers knew their prey had become elusive, but they credited that to the intelligence of the whales themselves. That was true, to an extent. The whales did learn to avoid the killing machines, which took young and old, nursing mothers and children, and to move further north. But the reason there were fewer whales was much simpler than the canniness of the prey: it was because the industry was killing thousands of them every year. Humans will delude themselves in all sorts of ways to avoid their culpability.

After it became unprofitable to kill bowheads, the walruses were next. When they were tapped out, the foxes. Demuth chronicles the flows of energy in Beringia, where fifty miles separate the Eurasian landmass from the North American. In ice ages past, with the water locked up, this has been a continuous highway of species from microorganism to plant to mammal. Reindeer on one side and caribou on the other are still the same species, but then so are the humans.

This is a well-written book whose sentences flow like the ocean currents. The extractive economy of the market and the plan of the state capitalists of the USSR were disasters for the the region. They introduced starvation, disease, and alcoholism to the indigenous peoples. (The Soviets, meanwhile, whaled until the late 1970s, lying all the while about the extent of their harvests.)

The corset-wearer and the button-wearer (buttons from walrus tusks), like the sugar-eater in the era of slavery, and like the Amazon-orderer today, know — or pretend to know — nothing of where the thing they desire comes from. What it really costs communities and individuals, habitats and environments. What its toll is on the future.

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