- Derek Hayes (Author)
Historical Atlas of the Arctic. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Eric Wilson (Author)
The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination. Palgrave Macmillan (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Rick Ranson (Author)
Working North: DEW Line to Drill Ship. NeWest Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Graeme Wynn
Home to humans for some ten thousand years, the Arctic, says Hayes in the Introduction to his atlas, remained “a huge blank” on maps of the Western tradition until the end of the medieval period, “supporting nothing but theories as to what was there.” The three books reviewed here calibrate — in very different ways — the drawing back of this implied veil of ignorance and contribute — in varying degrees — to understanding the thrall in which this harsh and beautiful, mysterious and elemental, fascinating and forbidding territory has held the western imagination. In this, one is tempted to say that they represent only the tip of an iceberg. The last decade has seen a great surge in interest in and publications on “the north.” Readers of this journal will probably be most familiar with Sherrill Grace’s Canada and the Idea of North but other examples abound and when the compass of interest is expanded to include both polar regions the outpouring seems remarkable. In the four years or so before midsummer 2001, the New York Times reviewed at least 22 new books that engaged polar subjects; in the six years after 1990 it noted only four. This pattern leads Eric Wilson to wonder whether the fashion for polar meditations might have had something to do with millennial disquiet, and to suggest that ice, the manifestation of “annihilation and restoration, horror and joy” shares many of the paradoxes that mark western visions of apocalypse.
This is an intriguing thought, and Wilson uses it as a springboard to offer a learned, and to my mind accomplished and highly original, exploration of the ways in which leading figures of the Romantic movement were influenced by contemporary scientific understanding in their representations of ice. The breadth and sureness of his grasp is impressive. Here crystallographers, glaciologists and explorers are brought into conversation with poets, essayists and novelists. In tracing his spiritual history of ice (or, more accurately, in considering “Western representations of frozen shapes,” Wilson focuses on what he terms exoteric and esoteric ways of seeing. The former focuses on “external surfaces, understandable visibilities, and social orders,” and generally regards ice as a coldness to overcome, as a raw material for use, or as a substance subject to physical laws. The latter contemplates “internal depths, invisible mysteries and individual experiences.” It is the mode of hermetic dreamers and Romantic visionaries.
Until the turn of the nineteenth century, westerners tended to regard ice exoterically. But as scientists from Humphrey Davy through James Hutton to de Saussure and Agassiz began to see ice as “a vehicle and revelation of vital energy,” so creative artists imbued with a Romantic sensibility translated their data into “literary dreams” and looked at ice esoterically. At whatever scale it is considered – and crystals, glaciers and polar icecaps, the three forms in which frozen phenomena have persistently figured in the western imagination, provide the basic structure of this book – ice appears “as a unique manifestation of the principle of life” in Wilson’s analysis of Romantic writing. Thus it was the fierce and forbidding Antarctic that led Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, the slayer of the albatross, to see the cosmos anew and to recognize that “He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.” So, in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” glaciers “are no longer mere agents of death but revelations of the universal mind.” And so too the reticulated pattern of the crystalline morning ice on Walden Pond becomes “an interesting subject for contemplation” that reveals “nature’s simplicity, [and ]nature’s extravagance” and serves Thoreau’s “crystallographic epistemology” as he endeavours to “find in everything what he perceives in the Pond.” Here, Wilson points to “a neglected hermeneutic context” for reading the work of the Romantics, and argues in sum, that their works established ice as “a site of esoteric redemption” in the Western tradition.
It is a long way, indeed, from Coleridge, Shelley, and Thoreau to Ranson. Working North is a memoir. Its author worked as a welder at DEW Line stations and on oil-drilling ships and construction sites in the 1980s. He pities southerners who have “never seen an Arctic Sun skipping along the earth…turning the land a warm purple,” and mentions the Franklin expedition obliquely in a story about his time at the DEW Line site on Jenny Lind Island. But the north of this book is really a back for stories about the author and his fellow workers. Someone once said that members of the working class gossip about people, that the middle classes talk about things, and that the upper classes discuss ideas. I have never been comfortable with such essentialism. But Ranson’s text is notably light on ideas and history. It does provide some insight into the conditions and culture of work in the north late in the twentieth century: the boredom, the isolation, the racism, the danger, the hardness of the labour, and the crudity and violence of the almost-entirely-male “society” found in these settings, are all revealed
Maps, I suppose, are middle class conversation pieces: they are about things (or places) claimed and owned; they are (to borrow a phrase from Bruno Latour) “immutable mobiles”; and they are, often, attractive and interesting to look at. All of these qualities are displayed in Derek Hayes’ compilation of Arctic maps. This is really a book about the exploration of the Arctic, and mostly of the Canadian Arctic at that. It might be regarded as an accessible alternative to the limited-edition collection of maps compiled by B. Stuart-Stubbs and C. Verner under the title The Northpart of North America (Toronto: Academic Press) in 1979. The maps (and associated sketches and diagrams) produced by generations of explorers and promoters, are the focus – and joy – of Hayes’ Atlas. Hayes has assembled a wide range of these materials, organized them effectively and provided texts that helpfully contextualize the well-reproduced visual matter. Students of cartography as an expression of social power, or social theorists interested in the deconstruction of such texts will find this atlas less than satisfying, but its purposes are not theirs, and it should be accepted on its own terms. This is a book to dip into. Useful as a reference tool, it also has the capacity to inform and intrigue almost at random. Although the DEW Line does not appear in these pages, there is much else to whet the appetite of those with even a passing interest in Arctic realms, from “Lost Colonies and Found Whales” to treatments of Cook’s probing of the ice to Franklin’s disappearance and “Peary’s Push for the Pole” as well as maps showing explorations of “the Arctic by Air,” and treating the roles of “Science, Sonar and Satellites” in the north. There is enough here, perhaps, both to dismiss thoughts of “immortal Hyperboreans” and to re-enchant the Arctic. No mean feat.
The environmental historian John Sandlos wrote, recently (see Environmental History, 2001), of the ways in which southern imaginations conceptualized the Canadian north variously as wilderness, as a resource factory and as an essential element of the national identity. In this account, the North – the Arctic – was constructed, in the latter case, as a purifying, morally righteous and demanding space that imparted a particular distinctiveness to Canadians. The “great north and its living whiteness, its loneliness and replenishment, its resignation and release, its call and answer,” ran as a unifying thread through diverse Canadian experiences. This has some merit. But it is a relatively well-worked vein. Perhaps it is time to consider, once again and afresh, the place of the Arctic/ the north/ ice, in the Canadian imagination, and to do so armed with the broadly interdisciplinary and trans-national insights and arguments offered and suggested by these three books, and others that have engaged northern, ice-bound realms in various ways in recent years.
- Ready, Aim (Carefully), Fire by Sally Chivers
Books reviewed: Moving Targets: Writing with Intent 1982-2004 by Margaret Atwood
- L'historienne condition by Maxime Prévost
Books reviewed: Historien et citoyen: Navigations au long cours by Yvan Lamonde
- Geography Lessons by Leslie Monkman
Books reviewed: Land Sliding: Imagining Space, Presence, and Power in Canadian Writing by W. H. New
- Challenging Boundaries by Allan Weiss
Books reviewed: The View from Tamischeira by Richard Cumyn, A Johnny Novel by Robert Richard, and A Promise of Salt by Lorie Miseck
- Theory and Practice by Malcolm Page
Books reviewed: Space and the Geographies of Theatre: Vol. 9 of Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English by Michael McKinnie and Environmental and Site-Specific Theatre: Vol. 8 of Critical Perspectives on Canadian Theatre in English by Andrew Houston
MLA: Wynn, Graeme. Ice Bound. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 23 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #187 (Winter 2005), Littérature francophone hors-Québec / Francophone Writing Outside Quebec. (pg. 137 - 139)
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