Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire


Set in locales ranging from the British Columbian wilderness to the jungles of the Amazon to the polar ice of the Arctic Circle, Shadows in the Sun is a testament to a world where spirits still stalk the land and seize the human heart. Though distilled from travels in widely separated parts of the world, Shadows in the Sun is fundamentally about landscape and character, the wisdom of lives drawn directly from the land, the hunger of those who seek to rediscover such ...
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Shadows in the Sun: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire

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Set in locales ranging from the British Columbian wilderness to the jungles of the Amazon to the polar ice of the Arctic Circle, Shadows in the Sun is a testament to a world where spirits still stalk the land and seize the human heart. Though distilled from travels in widely separated parts of the world, Shadows in the Sun is fundamentally about landscape and character, the wisdom of lives drawn directly from the land, the hunger of those who seek to rediscover such understanding, and the consequences of failure.
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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
The wonders of the diversity of various cultures and their relationship to their landscapeþfrom the high Arctic and the northern forests to the swamps of the Orinocoþare hunted, gathered, and honestly appreciated here by the peripatetic Davis (One River, 1996). Davis is a sojourner in remote places. He tarries, hoping to get a taste of the intimate, deep reverence for the home place that indigenous people experience by staying put, to sample some of the mythopoetic associations and enigmatic happenings that spring like gifts from the land for those who sit still long enough to witness. Here he recounts a dozen journeys, some in search of ethnobotanicals, some to expose himself to the poetics of a particular patch of ground, others to get a psychic education, as when he accompanies the Haitian Vodouns in their pilgrimage to sacred places, both terrestrial and ethereal. There is a good profile of Bruno Manser, a Swiss who went to live among Sarawak's Penan and joined them in their fight against the pillagers (many of them governmental) of their forest, thus becoming "a fugitive straddling the cusp of cultures." That same place, the shear zone, is inhabited by hamans, and Davis has been disturbed and fascinated in many of his travels by these men and women operating outside our familiar calculus of explanation. And as an ethnobotanist, he is drawn to the human potential unleashed by profoundly altered statesþfirewalking, slowing heartbeats to near imperceptible levelsþand the psychotropics that serve as launch pads. One such hallucinogen comes from a monstrous toad that secretes a drug from glands on its head; it seems very handy for a quick slurp, but it turns outthat you have to toke the toad to get the best buzz. Davis's lovely, cubist, rich landscape portraits are also topographies of the spirit, conveying a sense of place, but perhaps even more, the music of place.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781559633543
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/1998
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 302
  • Product dimensions: 5.84 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Wade Davis holds degrees in anthropology and biology, and received his Ph.D. in ethnobotany, from Harvard University. He spent over three years in the Amazon and Andes as a plant explorer, and later went to Haiti to investigate folk preparations implicated in the creation of zombies. The Haiti assignment led to his writing The Serpent and the Rainbow (Simon and Schuster, 1986), an international bestseller that was later released as a feature motion picture. He has published more than 90 scientific and popular articles on subjects ranging from Haitian vodoun and Amazonian myth and religion to the global biodiversity crisis, the traditional use of psychotropic drugs, and the ethnobotany of South American Indians. Among his other books are Nomads of the Dawn (Pomegranate Press, 1995), Passage of Darkness (University of North Carolina Press, 1988) and One River (Simon and Schuster, 1996).

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Read an Excerpt

Angelita was not happy to learn that I intended to visit the Laguna Negra. Her concern was not that my presence might violate the sanctity of the lakes. She just didn't want the responsibility of explaining my disappearance to the police. What possible protection did I carry? What would keep me from becoming encantada, enchanted by the wind songs and turned into stone? The very thought of exposing oneself without the guidance of a maestro appalled her. I showed her my seguro, the small bottle of herbs and red perfume that her father-in-law had given me the morning after the ceremony. She was not impressed. Neither was Jorge Eduardo. But after a brief argument, he at least offered to go, provided I did not expect him to enter the lake. I agreed, and the two of us headed off.
The trail from Angelita's house at Talaneo passed for an hour over the open grasslands and through a series of moist fens and marshes before coming down on a small alpine lake, jet black and sunk in a depression at the base of a rocky escarpment. Clouds moved low over the water. The wind was picking up, and rain blew in great gusts over the lake. It was very cold, our clothes were wet, and the ground underfoot was sodden. Jorge Eduardo wrapped himself in a magenta poncho and sought shelter in the lee of a large boulder. I moved closer to the lakeshore. To please Angelita I held my seguro in my hand, but felt rather silly doing so. The lake in its solitude seemed utterly ordinary. The shoreline covered by brown tuits of ichu grass, the stones luminescent with lichens. Patches of Polylepis running up the creeks that drained into the far shore. The mountain spurs soaring above. Gentians, madders, violets, and heathers here below. In between the windswept surface of a simple lake.
The water was freezing. I tried to imagine pilgrims from the jungle and coast approaching such a place, stripping to their underwear, and standing in the cold drizzle as the maestro poured perfume and alcohol into the palms of their hands. A long invocation, the potion inhaled through the nose, their movement into the water, the ritual tossing into the lake of silver coins and sweet limes sprinkled with sugar. Plump matrons and young children, shaking with cold, drying off with damp rags, waiting for the blessing of the maestro before getting back into wet clothes. A spray of white powder. A cleansing with the maestro's swords. A ritual purification with amulets. A madman kneeling alone by the water, perhaps in the very spot where I stood, blowing sweet wine and perfume over the lagoon. The maestro ending the ceremony by again invoking the power of the lake, calling its protection down upon the patients, and blessing each one with a final libation, an herbal tincture poured from his seguro, and made from the plants that grew at his feet.
There was a yell, and I turned to see Jorge Eduardo, exposed amid the tussocks, waving for me to get away from the shore. I walked over and found him huddled behind the boulder. He said it was time to leave. I told him to wait a few more minutes, then returned to the lake, stripped off my clothes, and entered the water, for no other reason than to wash. It was very cold, and I was soon back on shore, shivering in the wind. Jorge Eduardo was horrified that I had entered the waters without proper protection, and I tried to make it up to him by walking directly back to Talaneo, not pausing in the rain to collect any plants. I recognized the gulf that lay between us. For me the Laguna Negra was a mountain lake. For him it was a repository of spiritual power of a decidedly ambivalent nature. Neither one of us was more correct than the other. We just came from different worlds.
pegapega mixed with honey was a strong remedy for respiratory ailments. A decoction of chagapa morada in aguardiente was taken specifically for yellow fever. For more general treatment of fever, they used its cousin chagapa roja, a different species of the same genus. There were scores of such medicines, employed in various combinations.
But for Angelita the boundary between the material world and that of the spirit was imprecise. A delicate member of the rush family, hierba de dominacion, the "herb of domination," lay a shroud of protection over the living, insulating the forces of white magic from the power of evil. Other plants of the lakes were employed magically as admixtures to San Pedro. The most important of these was hornamo, a powerful purgative taken when the power of the cactus ran wild and brought turmoil to the dreams of the pilgrim. There were dozens of plants known by this name, each with a specific epithet--the purple hornamo, the white form, the hornamo of the horse, the hornamo of the fox. All, it turned out, were species of Valeriana, a natural sedative. Taken in excessive dosage they bring on hallucinations and blind spasms of excitation. -->
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Table of Contents

Introduction 3
Hunters of the Northern Ice 9
Dreams of a Jade Forest 29
The White Darkness 49
The Clouded Leopard 65
Passion in the Desert 93
The Forests of Amazonia 104
White Blood of the Forest 123
The Art of Shamanic Healing 142
Plants of the Gods 155
Cactus of the Four Winds 169
Smoking Toad 203
Breaking Trail 239
In the Shadow of Red Cedar 248
The End of the Wild 271
Index 281
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First Chapter

Chapter One

Hunters of the Northern Ice

                     Olayuk Narqitarvik is a hunter. As a boy of twelve, he killed a polar bear at close quarters, thrusting a harpoon into its soft underbelly as it lunged toward him. That same year he took his first whale. In winter darkness, when temperatures fall so low that breath cracks in the wind, he leaves his family each day to follow the leads in the new ice and kneel motionless, for hours at a time, over the breathing holes of ringed seals. The slightest shift in weight will reveal his presence; in perfect stillness he squats, knowing full well that as he hunts he is hunted. Polar bear tracks run away from every hole. If a seal does not appear, Olayuk may roll over, mimicking the creature to try to attract a bear so that predator may be reduced to prey.

    Ipeelie Koonoo is Olayuk's stepfather, second husband to his mother. Revered as an elder, he too is a hunter. When he killed his first bear at nine, with a harpoon made for him the night before by a favorite uncle, he could not stop smiling. His first seal was taken when he was still too small to lift it from the ice. But he knew that the animal had chosen to die, betrayed by its thirst for fresh water. So he followed his uncle's teachings and dripped fresh water into its mouth to placate its spirit. If animals are not properly treated, they will not allow themselves to be taken. But if they are not hunted, the Inuit believe, they will suffer, and their numbers will decrease. Thus the hunt is a reflection of balance, a measure of the interdependence of all life in the Arctic, a polar desert cloaked in darkness nine months of the year and bathed in intense luminosity for the short weeks of upinngaaq, the summer season of renewal and rebirth.

    Simon Qamanirq is both artist and hunter, the youngest of the three men, nephew of Oyaluk's wife, Martha, the matriarch of the extended family. On his accordion, he plays Scottish reels adapted from those of ancient mariners and whalers, and with his firm hands turns soapstone into exquisite figurines of animals, all depicted so powerfully that they seem to move within the stone. "You can't be a carver," he explains, "if you are not a hunter." For some time, Simon lived down south, attended vocational school and played drums in an Inuit rock-and-roll band named "The Harpoons." But he grew tired of the confused ways of people whose "heads were full of a thousand words." So he returned north. "I got nothing more interesting than hunting," he says. "Down in Canada I'm always cold. My body needs blood. Even their meat has no blood."

    Three men, three generations of Inuit hunters. Seeking caribou on the open tundra during the cold months of fall, taking narwhal from the ice in July, they replicate through movement a seasonal round that recalls a distant time when all our ancestors were nomads. In living by the hunt they remain apart, utterly different. Every idea and thought, every notion of culture and society, every impulse, belief, and gesture reflects the consciousness of a people who have not succumbed to the cult of the seed. Ideas that we take for granted--private ownership of objects and land, laws and institutions that place one person above another in a hierarchy of power--are not just exotic to the Inuit, they are anathema. If implemented, they would doom a way of life. This is something the Inuit know. "We hunt," Olayuk explains, "because we are hunters."

    For most of the year these men and their families live in the small community of Arctic Bay, a fiercely self-sufficient and independent clan, survivors of a century that has seen untold hardships unleashed upon their people. But for a brief time in June, in the fortnight leading up to the solstice, they make camp on a gravel beach at Cape Crauford, on the western shore of Admiralty Inlet, the largest fjord on Earth, a vast inland sea that cleaves the northern shore of Baffin Island 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. There, beneath the dark cliffs of the Brodeur Peninsula, on a promontory overlooking Lancaster Sound, the richest body of water in the Arctic, they invite outsiders into their world.

The journey north begins before dawn in Ottawa and ends nine hours later on the seasonal ice off the shore of Olayuk's camp. It is a five-hour flight just to the weather station and settlement of Resolute Bay, the highest point in the Arctic serviced by commercial jets, where we switch from a 727 to a deHavilland Twin Otter. North of Resolute lie another 1,000 miles of Canada. It is a place, the pilot remarks, where Canada could hide Britain and the English would never find it.

    We fly across Barrow Strait, then over Lancaster Sound. From the air the ice fuses with the snow-covered land. Ringed seals appear as dark specks on the ice. There are no polar bears to be seen, only their silent tracks wandering from seal hole to seal hole. At the mouth of Prince Regent Inlet, east of Somerset Island, the ice gives way abruptly to the black sea. Beyond the floe edge, scores of white beluga whales move gracefully through the water. A small mesalike island rises out of the sea. The plane banks steeply past the soaring cliffs, and in its wake tens of thousands of birds lift into the air. The Prince Leopold sanctuary is just thirty miles square, but on it nest nearly 200,000 pairs of migratory birds: thick-billed murres, northern fulmars, and black-legged kittiwakes. Baffin Island lies ahead, and within minutes the plane roars over the beach at Cape Crauford, turns into the wind, and lands on skis on a smooth stretch of ice half a mile offshore.

    In the brilliant sunlight we stand about, nineteen strangers drawn together by the promise of the journey. As an anthropologist, I want to take a firsthand look at ecotourism in action. The leader of the expedition is Johnny Mikes, outfitter and legendary river guide from British Columbia. It was Mikes who first encouraged Olayuk's family to establish a guiding operation. On a warm day in September 1989, while on a kayaking expedition in Admiralty Inlet, Mikes stumbled upon a bay where hundreds of narwhals were feeding in the shallows. On the shore was an Inuit encampment, with narwhals hauled up on the beach. Olayuk's brother Moses had just killed a bearded seal, and in the bloodstained waters Greenland sharks lingered. Mikes had never seen the raw edge of nature so exposed. As he spent time with the Inuit, he came to understand that for them blood on snow is not a sign of death but an affirmation of life. It was something he thought others should experience. And then Moses introduced him to Olayuk, and Olayuk told him about the floe edge and the ice in June.

There are places and moments on Earth where natural phenomena occur of such stunning magnitude and beauty that they shatter all notions of a world of human scale. It is such an event that draws Olayuk and his family to their June camp at Cape Crauford.

    Every winter in the Arctic, virtually all of the sea between the islands of the Canadian archipelago lies frozen, a single horizon of ice that joins the polar ice cap and eventually covers six million square miles, twice the area of the United States. As temperatures drop to as low as minus 70 degrees Fahrenheit, of marine mammals only the ringed seals remain, dependent on breathing holes scratched through the ice. Polar bears survive by stalking the seals throughout the long Arctic night. Other marine mammals--belugas, bowhead whales, walrus, and narwhals--head out through Lancaster Sound to the open waters of Baffin Bay and Davis Strait, between Canada and Greenland. Only small populations overwinter, surviving in rare pockets of open water kept ice-free by the action of winds and currents.

    In spring the animals return, wave upon wave, hovering against the retreating ice edge. The winter population of 100,000 mammals soars in the summer to 17 million. Foraging in the rich waters, they await a chance to disperse to feeding grounds scattered throughout the Arctic. In the long hours of the midnight sun, brown algae bloom beneath the ice, billions of shrimp and amphipods flourish, and millions of arctic cod thrive upon the zooplankton. A quarter of a million harp, bearded, and ring seals feed on the fish, as do thousands of belugas and narwhals. They, in turn, fall prey to roving pods of killer whales. A third of the belugas in North America gather here, and three of every four narwhals on Earth.

    By June, the waters of Lancaster Sound are free of ice. But those of Admiralty Inlet, thirty miles wide at the mouth, remain frozen. From the camp at Cape Crauford, using snowmobiles and sleds, it is possible to travel along the floe edge, where the ice meets the sea, and listen as the breath of whales mingles with the wind.

Snowmobiles and a dozen Inuit kids descend on the plane. An old Inuk man motions us to split up and pile our gear and ourselves onto one of the sleds, which he calls qamatiks. He speaks no English, and the soft sounds of Inuktitut, the Inuit language, delight and astonish.

    The camp is a line of canvas outfitter tents, arrayed in military precision along the high shore. At one end is the cook tent, at the other the guides' tents. The foreshore is a clutter of sleds and snowmobiles. Tethered on the ice are three dog teams. They yelp and howl, and the air is pungent with the scent of seal meat and excrement. One of the young Inuit, Olayuk's son Eric, explains his preference for snowmobiles: "They are fast, they don't eat meat, and they don't stink."

    We divide ourselves up two to a tent and stretch our bedrolls on caribou hides on the ground. Johnny Mikes then distributes insulated boots and bright orange survival suits. They are awkward and stiff, but essential. Chances of survival in Arctic waters plummet after a minute of exposure. In the cook tent we are introduced to the Inuit--Olayuk, Ipeelie, Simon, Olayuk's brother-in-law Abraham, and, most important of all, Olayuk's wife Martha and her older sister, Koonoo Muckpaloo, who run the kitchen. Both are beautiful women, especially Martha, whose face is radiant and kind, quick to laugh. Someone asks Olayuk how many children they have. He looks pensive and begins to count on his fingers. "Ten," he concludes. Martha elbows him and spits out a quick phrase. Olayuk looks sheepish. "Eleven," he adds.

    Over a dinner of narwhal soup, bannock, arctic char, and caribou, I learn that Olayuk and Martha were the first of their generation to marry for love. They planned to elope and were willing to court death by setting off over the ice, when finally the families agreed to the match. They are still in love. One sees it in their every gesture, Martha carefully drawing a comb through his thin beard, Olayuk gently nestling her hand in his. Martha is asked whether it bothers her to be cooking dinner at such a late hour. "I am used to it," she responds; "my husband is a hunter." Olayuk is asked how many seals a polar bear kills in a week. "That depends," he explains, "on how good a hunter he is."

There is no night and no morning, only the ceaseless sun. At some point we sleep, with blinders and earplugs. The camp never rests. Winter is for sleep, and the summers are ephemeral. We wake and head off in five sleds, traveling south up Admiralty Inlet to get around a body of water before returning north to reach the edge of the floe. The ice by the shore is a tangle of pressure ridges, but farther on it becomes smooth, glasslike. The spartan landscape rolls on, empty and desolate, and all one can think of is survival. On the horizon, islands, ice, and sky meld one into the other, and the black sea is a dim mirage.

    A dense fog descends, muffling the roar of the engines as the snowmobiles drag us, three or four to a sled, over the ice. The drivers push on, watching for patterns in the ice, small ridges of hard snow that run parallel to the prevailing winds and reveal where you are. When clouds obscure the sun, Simon explains, the Inuit study the reflection of the ice on the underside of low clouds. Open water appears black, the sea ice white, and ground covered in snow and traces of open tundra appears darker than the sea, but lighter than snowless land. Upon the clouds lies a map of the land. Not one of our guides can remember ever having been lost.

    A pair of ringed seals are killed to feed the dogs back at camp, and moments later we reach the edge of the floe. Olayuk peers out over the water, sensing the wind in his face. It's from the north, which is good. Should a fissure appear in the ice behind us, a southerly wind could push our entire party out to sea, without our knowing it. Just two weeks before, a party of schoolchildren and teachers had misread a lead in the ice and were set adrift on an ice floe. It was a new moon, with high tides and gale force winds that prevented rescue. For eight days they drifted, reaching all the way to Baffin Bay before finally being saved by military helicopters. There was no panic. The elders prepared food and kept the children calm with stories.

    The only sign of life at the edge of the ice is a cackle of glaucous and Thayer gulls, fighting over the carcass of a narwhal killed by a hunter. One of the guides slits open the narwhal's stomach and examines the contents--chitonous beaks of squids and octopus, the carapaces of crustaceans, the ear bones and eye lenses of fish. The ligaments running the length of the back are salvaged for rope. The deep red meat is too rich to be eaten. The skin and blubber, a delicacy eaten raw, has already been harvested.

    Suddenly, a shout from the floe edge. I look up to see the marbled backs of four female narwhals barely crest the surface before slipping once again into the dark sea. As we wait, hoping the animals will return, Mikes asks Olayuk to say a few words about his life. A thin, somewhat reluctant account follows. Clearly, Olayuk finds the moment awkward. Later Abraham, university educated and remarkable in his ability to move freely between worlds, explains Olayuk's reticence. "In your culture, the goal is to excel and stand out, flaunting your excellence in public. Here, the greater your skills, the more you want to fade into the background. You must never reveal what you know, for knowledge is power. If you step forward, you show yourself to your enemies. In the old days it might be a shaman who waited outside a camp and watched before casting spells on the strongest man. This is something the whites have never understood. The only time you can reveal your stories is when you no longer have the power. In old age."

    The next evening we encounter a polar bear and give chase on the ice. After long hours of searching in vain for wildlife, the drivers are eager to get as close as possible to the animal. The bear is run ragged. No one objects. For a brief moment, each client succumbs to the thrill of the hunt. "If you think that was fun," Abraham later told the one vegetarian on the trip, "you ought to try it with a tag," that is, a hunting permit.

    When asked who had first seen the bear, Abraham replied, "Simon did. Well, actually, it was Olayuk, and Simon saw it in his eyes. Oyaluk said nothing."

There are ancient graves above the camp, stone mounds erected centuries ago. The bones from those that have been breached lie covered in lichen and moss. Around the grave site is a circle of life--purple gentians and dwarf willows, small plant communities established long ago on the rich nutrients of the dead. A ring of flowers around an eider's nest, a seedling growing out of the droppings of a gull, lichen slowly eating away at rock, an inch of soil taking a century to accumulate. One marvels at the art of survival. Bears hunting seals, foxes following the bears and feeding on excrement. Inuit cutting open animal stomachs, feeding on clam siphons found in walrus, lichens and plants concentrated in the gut of caribou, mother's milk in the belly of a baby seal, a delicacy much loved by the elders. Meat taken in August is stored in skins and bladders, cached in rock cairns where it ferments to the consistency and taste of blue cheese to be eaten in winter.

    Beyond the graves, half a mile from the shore, the land rises to a high escarpment 1,500 feet or more above the sea. An hour of scrambling on steep scree takes me to the ridge and a promontory overlooking all of Lancaster Sound. The sense of isolation and wonder is overwhelming. Gravel terraces on the shore reveal the beach lines of ancient seas. Icebergs calved from the glaciers of Devon Island, and the sea ice covering the mouth of the inlet, are awash in soft pastels--pinks, turquoise, and opal. On the underside of distant clouds are streaks of dazzling brightness. Every horizon shimmers with mirages. Low islands seem towering cliffs, ice floes appear as crystal spires. The land seduces with its strange beauty. In the entire annals of European exploration, few places were sought with more passion, few destinations were the cause of more tragedy and pain.

    The Northwest Passage, which begins at the mouth of Lancaster Sound, was always less a route than an elusive dream. Hopes of fame and riches drove those who sought it, and certain death found the many who came ill prepared for the Arctic night. By 1631 the voyages of Martin Frobisher, John Davis, William Baffin, and Luke Foxe had made clear that no practical commercial sea route to the Orient existed south of the Arctic Circle. Incredibly, by the early nineteenth century these journeys had passed into the realm of myth and the discoveries had become suspect. Brilliant feats of navigation and cartography were supplanted by fantasies of a northern polar sea, ice-free water at the top of the world.

    The real impetus for seeking the Northwest Passage was provided by Napoleon. In the wake of his defeat, the British navy reduced its conscripted force from 140,000 to 19,000. But it was unthinkable in class-conscious England to lay off a single officer. Thus by 1818 there was one officer for every three seamen. The only way for advancement was to accomplish some stunning feat of exploration. And so they sailed for the Arctic. Edward Parry and John Ross's was the first of dozens of expeditions to be flung against the ice, each met by Inuit who spoke to the ships as if they were gods. The entire endeavor, spanning the better part of half a century and culminating in the search for John Franklin and his gallant crew, was colored by a single theme: Those who ignored the example of the Inuit perished, whereas those who mimicked their ways not only survived but accomplished unparalleled fears of endurance and exploration.

    The British mostly failed. They wore tight woolens, which turned sweat to ice. The Inuit wore caribou skins, loose, with one layer of hair toward the body, another turned out to the wind. The British slept in cloth bags, which froze stiff with ice. The Inuit used the heat of one another's naked bodies on sleeping platforms of ice covered with caribou hides, in snow houses that could be assembled in an hour. The British ate salt pork and, to prevent scurvy, carried lime juice in glass jars that broke with the first frost. The Inuit ate narwhal skin and the contents of caribou guts, both astonishingly rich in vitamin C. Most disastrous of all, the British scorned the use of dogs. They preferred to harness their young men in leather and force them to haul ridiculously heavy sleds made of iron and oak. When the last of Franklin's men died, at Starvation Cove on the Adelaide Peninsula, their sledge alone weighed 650 pounds. On it was an 800-pound boat loaded with silver dinner plates, cigar cases, a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield--in short, everything deemed essential for a gentle traveler of the Victorian age. All of this they had planned to haul hundreds of miles overland in the hope of reaching some remote trading post in the endless boreal forests of Canada. Like so many of their kind, they died, as one explorer remarked, because they brought their environment with them. They were unwilling to adapt to another.

At one end of camp is a recently erected wooden cross marking the grave of a woman who died delivering a child in the midst of winter. Asked about her fate, Olayuk responds, "She decided to have a baby." This lack of sentiment confused and horrified the early British explorers. To them, the Inuit were brutal and callous, utterly devoid of human kindness. How else to explain a language that had no words for "hello," or "good-bye," or "thank you"? Or a people who would abandon an elder to die, or allow the body of the newly dead to be dug up and gnawed by dogs? What the English failed to grasp was that in the Arctic no other attitude was possible.' The Inuit, a people of patience and resilience, laughed in the face of starvation and confronted tragedy with a fatalistic indifference because they had no choice. Death and privation were everyday events. In our camp is an old woman who remembers the last time her people were forced to eat human flesh. It occurred in the late 1930s, during a season when "the world became silent." All of the animals were gone. So one of her extended family designated himself to die, and he was killed. "Someone must survive," she said, "and someone must die." After the event, the women in the group cut off their long braids, a symbol for all others that they had been obliged to sacrifice their kin.

    Fear of going native, of succumbing to such impulses, blinded the British to the genius of the Inuit. In dismissing them as savages, they failed to grasp that there could be no better measure of intelligence than the ability to thrive in the Arctic with a technology limited to what could be made with ivory and bone, antler, soapstone, slate, animal skins, and bits of driftwood that were as precious as gold. The Inuit did not endure the cold; they took advantage of it. Three Arctic char placed end to end, wrapped and frozen in hide, the bottom greased by the stomach contents of a caribou and coated with a thin film of ice, became the runner of a sled. A sled could be made from the carcass of a caribou, a knife from human excrement. There is a well-known account of an old man who refused to move into a settlement. Over the objections of his family, he made plans to stay on the ice. To stop him, they took away all of his tools. So in the midst of a winter gale, he stepped out of their igloo, defecated, and honed the feces into a frozen blade, which he sharpened with a spray of saliva. With the knife he killed a dog. Using its rib cage as a sled and its hide to harness another dog, he disappeared into the darkness.

    Sitting with Ipeelie by his tent early one morning, I thought about the Inuit's-ability to adapt. His gear was scattered about, some of it draped over the cross of the young mother who had died. He was cleaning the motor of his snowmobile with the feather of an ivory gull. Earlier that day on the ice his clutch had failed, and he had needed to drill a hole in a piece of steel he intended to use as a replacement. Placing the metal on the ice, bracing it with his feet, he took his rifle and casually blew a circle in the steel.

Gradually and effortlessly we work toward a nocturnal schedule, when the light is soft and the animals more active. Out on the ice by late afternoon, long pounding runs in the sleds across the edge of the floe, midnight by amber sea cliffs on the far side of the inlet, where northern fulmars nest by the tens of thousands. Breakfast at noon, dinner at four in the morning, a few hours of sleep in between. There is a hallucinatory quality to the endless sun. All notions of a diurnal cycle of light and darkness fade away, and everyone is cast adrift from time. By the third morning, not one of my companions is certain of the date, and estimates of the hour vary to an astonishing degree.

    The wildlife sightings are far fewer than expected. In the first seven days of a nine-day sojourn on the ice, we see birds and ringed seals by the score, but only one other polar bear, four narwhals, one bearded seal, and a fleeting glimpse of walrus and belugas. The numbers are there, but the landscape is so vast that it absorbs the multitudes. The other clients don't seem to object. A psychiatrist from Seattle speaks of the land in religious terms and is content to sit on his collapsible seat for hours at a time, glassing the sea for birds. Others are brash and irritating and find it impossible to be quiet, a trait that makes them appear willfully dense. At one point, during a discussion of Inuit clothing, Martha passes around a dark seal-skin boot with a beautiful design of an eagle sewn into the hide. One especially garrulous woman examines the stitching and asks, "How do you find fur with such an interesting pattern on it?" Later in the evening, talk passes to all the places she has been--an impressive list that includes the Amazon, the Galapagos, Nepal, Antarctica, and now the Arctic. When she mentions Borneo, a place I know well, I ask what she did there. After a confused moment, she says, "I don't really remember. But it was all very interesting."

    Such conversation is discouraging and gives the impression of travel reduced to commodity, with the experience mattering less than the credential of having been somewhere. By the economics of our times, anyone can purchase instant passage to virtually any place on the planet. Ecotourism has become a cover for a form of tourism that simply increases the penetration of the hinterland. But have any of us earned the right to be there? Whatever the shortcomings of the early explorers, they gave something of themselves and paid a real price for their experiences.

    One night I escaped the camp shortly after midnight and returned to the mountain ridge, where I walked for several hours. Gazing out over the Sound, I thought of what the early explorers had endured. One who stands out is Frederick Cook, an American physician and explorer who tried to reach the North Pole. In 1908, lost in the barrens, he and two companions walked 500 miles, living on meat scraped from the carcasses of their dogs. When forced to winter on the northern shore of Devon Island, a mere 100 miles from our camp at Cape Crauford, he had only four rounds of ammunition left for his rifle, half a sled, a torn silk tent, and the tattered clothes on his back. For five months of darkness they lived in a shallow cave hollowed by hand from the earth. With tools carved from bone, they killed what they could, using blubber to fire torches to thrust into the jaws of the bears who stalked them. At the first sign of light in February, they made their escape. Living on rotten seal meat and gnawing the skin of their boots, they walked some 300 miles across the frozen wastes of Baffin Bay to rescue in Greenland.

    Another astonishing story of survival is the ordeal of the Danish explorer Peter Freuchen. In 1923, while on expedition on the west coast of Baffin Island, Freuchen became separated from his party in a blinding blizzard. Seeking shelter, he dug a shallow trench in the snow and pulled his sled over the top. Exhausted, he collapsed in sleep. On waking, he had no feeling in his left foot. When he tried to move, he found that his sled was frozen above him. He considered sacrificing one of his hands, deliberately allowing it to freeze in order to use it as a spade. But he feared it would break too easily. Instead, he chewed on a piece of bearskin, which froze hard as iron. Using this as a tool, he managed to scrape a small opening in the snow. He stuck out his head, and the moisture around his mouth froze his face fast to the metal runner of the sled. He tore it away, leaving a mass of hair and blood. Breaking free at last, he crawled deliriously through the storm, and by chance was saved by an Inuit hunting party, when his foot thawed, gangrene set in, and the flesh around his toes fell away until the bones protruded. The Inuk shaman treating him wanted to remove the toes with his teeth to prevent dark spirits from entering the body. Freuchen chose instead to knock them off himself with a hammer.

Someone has brought a copy of New Age Journal on the trip. In it is an advertisement for postcards featuring the faces of endangered species, prominent among them the harp seal. There are five million harp seals in the eastern Arctic, and their numbers have never been higher in this century. There are seven million ringed seals, and it is upon this species that the Inuit have traditionally relied. When in 1983 the Europeans banned the import of sealskins, they did not distinguish one species from the other, and Inuit families on Baffin Island saw their per capita annual income drop from $16,000 to nothing. Simon asks, "How can they love a seal more than a human being?"

    One evening, after a long day on the ice, there is a demonstration of dogsled-mushing. Everyone is to have a ride. Though the sound of runners passing over ice and snow is sublime, the event is a fiasco. Harnesses become tangled, dogs bellow and snarl at their drivers, riders are left behind on their duffs as sleds dash off in all directions. It is a far cry from the days when a dogsled musher, with a quick snap of the whip, would cut off the tip of a stubborn dog's ear and bring the team into line. On the way back to camp, some of the clients grumble about "loss of tradition." One asks Abraham if the people ever wear their traditional clothes. Abraham gestures to the modern coat on his back. "Yes," he says pointedly, "I wear my parka all the time."

    For the Inuit, the first fundamental break with their past occurred in the early years of this century. Along with European diseases that left only one in ten alive came missionaries whose primary goal was the destruction of the power and authority of the shaman, the cultural pivot, the heart of the Inuit relationship to the universe. The missionaries discouraged even the use of traditional names, songs, and the language itself. The last avowed shaman in Olayuk's community of Arctic Bay died in 1964.

    By then the seduction of modern trade goods had drawn many of the people away from the land. As Inuit concentrated in communities, encouraged by Canadian authorities to relocate, new problems arose. In the late 1950s, the wife of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable was mauled and killed by a sled dog. Thereafter all dogs had to be tethered outside the settlements. Any dog found without a vaccination certificate for rabies was summarily shot. A distemper outbreak rationalized wholesale slaughter. In exchange, the RCMP offered snowmobiles. The first arrived in Baffin in 1962. No technology since the introduction of the rifle did more to transform Inuit life.

    In 1955 the decision was made to screen all Inuit for tuberculosis. Medical teams accompanied by RCMP constables dropped by helicopter into every nomadic encampment, whisking away every man, woman, and child for a compulsory x-ray examination on a hospital ship named the C.D. Howe. Anyone who showed signs of the disease was held forcibly on board and sent south to sanitaria in Montreal or Winnipeg. One out of five Inuit suffered such a fate. Although the intentions of the medical authorities were good, the consequences for those ripped from their families were devastating.

    Other initiatives were less benign, even in conception. As recently as the 1950s, the Canadian government felt compelled to bolster its claims in the North American Arctic by actively promoting settlement. Inuit were moved to uninhabited islands. Others found work constructing the DEW (Distant Early Warning) LINE and other Cold War installations. Family allowance payments were provided but made contingent on the children's attending school. Nomadic camps disappeared as parents moved into communities to be with their youngsters. Along with the schools came nursing stations, churches, and welfare. The government conducted a census, identified each Inuk by number, issued identification tags, and ultimately conducted Operation Surname, a bizarre effort to assign last names to individuals who had never had them. More than a few Inuit dogs were recorded as Canadian citizens.

    After half a century of profound change, what, indeed, is tradition? How can we expect a people not to adapt? The Inuit language is alive. The men are still hunters. They use snares, make snow houses, know the power of medicinal herbs. They also own boats, snowmobiles, television sets, and satellite phones. Some drink, some attend church. As anthropologist Hugh Brody points out, what must be defended is not the traditional as opposed to the modern, but, rather, the right of a free indigenous people to choose the components of their lives.

    Canada has at long last recognized this challenge by negotiating an astonishing land-claims settlement with the Inuit of the eastern Arctic. On April 1, 1999, an Inuit homeland known as Nunavut will be carved out of the Northwest Territories. Including all of Baffin Island and stretching from Manitoba to Ellesmere Island, with a population of just 26,000, the area will be almost as large as Alaska and California combined. In addition to annual payments of $840 million over fourteen years to fund start-up costs and infrastucture and to replace current federal benefits, the Inuit will receive direct title to 136,000 square miles, an area larger than New Mexico. Within Nunavut, all political control will effectively be ceded to a new government completely staffed and administered by Inuit. It is arguably the most remarkable experiment in native self-government anywhere to be found.

    In the meantime, like any other people, the Inuit will grow and change. The threat to their culture is not the delight that Olayuk's young daughters show as they turn up their Walkman and blast their ears with the latest rock and roll, but rather the underwater noise from ships' engines and propellers that chase away the narwhal, or the plans to grant a score of oil- and gas-drilling permits in the mouth of Lancaster Sound. Or the global spread of contaminants that raise the levels of industrial toxins in the milk of Inuit mothers five times above those of white women further south. Or Ipeelie's lament that the weather has become wilder and the sun hotter each year, so that for the first time Inuit are suffering from skin ailments caused by the sky. These are things that do threaten the Inuit, just as they threaten us.


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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2014


    "right back at ya" she picked up the rabbit and the voles and started off back to camp

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2014


    He nods then follows her back into camp.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2001

    Delightful Tales of Travel

    This is a wonderful book. Wade Davis paints pictures with words of many exotic locals around the world. He even shows some hesitancy in the posibility that he is contaminating the very places he so loves by being there. A very good read. One that reminded me of many of my best travels, and what it is like to get to see the side of another culture below the surface; the part that shares our humanity, but is not a mirror image of our own culture. I definitely recommend this book.

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