by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain
Currently holding the place in humanity’s imagination as the most iconic species endangered by climate change, polar bears terrify and fascinate us. In Michael Engelhard’s Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon (University of Washington Press, 2017), the history of human-polar bear interactions is recounted, from Japanese, Native American, and European folk tales to bears in captivity in zoos and circuses. The book itself is beautiful and haunting, with images on almost every page: drawings and figurines of polar bears from different cultures and times, photographs of the bears in zoos and the wild, images from hunts and scientific excursions, advertisements for furs, and political cartoons. Engelhard weaves together his own stories from Arctic treks with legends, historical and biological data, and archetypal themes, all presented in a narrative style that keeps the reader engaged.
Due to Whole Terrain’s upcoming focus on the theme About Time, Engelhard’s book stands out as an interesting way to explore that theme in the interaction between climate change and human history. At home in both the sea and on land, Engelhard points out that polar bears stand as an intermediary between nature and culture in Native mythology, between the world of the spirit and the physical world. They also hold archetypal space as both “super-male” and maternal protector. They symbolize strength, even violence, as well as fragility and vulnerability, unable to adapt and survive in territories other than the frozen spaces to which they are so well adapted. While others books have been written about polar bears as a species, Engelhard’s work explores polar bears as a cultural icon, and in so doing, he recognizes that the polar bear is, in many ways, a symbol for how we view ourselves. As we follow the traces of the polar bear in Indigenous stories from around the world, hunting and trapping for furs and to relieve our collective fear of the wild, and into our modern understanding of the polar bear as “Eco Ambassador,” might we learn something about ourselves as a species that will help us address the environmental realities facing us in our present time?
To learn more about Ice Bear and its connections to our theme of About Time, we invited Michael Engelhard to answer a few questions for Whole Terrain readers.
Whole Terrain: How did you become interested in polar bears—interested enough to write this in-depth look at the cultural history of the species?
Michael Engelhard: As a wilderness guide in Arctic Alaska I’ve encountered dozens of bears over the years, in various situations, but these were exclusively grizzly bears. My first sighting of a polar bear in the wild was an unusual one. I was guiding a rafting trip on the Canning River—the western boundary of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—and the bear we saw, a quarter mile away, was thirty miles from the coast, the farthest inland sighting ever recorded in that region. It was as if that first personal experience with the animal made it more real. Until then, it had largely existed for me as an abstraction, a symbol. The motivation to research and write Ice Bear sprang from the fact that no book exclusively about the cultural history of this species existed; and it is so freighted with meanings and symbolism we’ve ascribed to it over the millennia. The more I learned about our conflicted relationship with the animal, the more I felt drawn into the subject (to the degree that it was hard to stop research and to begin writing).
WT: As you did this research, what is one thing that surprised you?
ME: It’s hard to choose, but I enjoyed learning about a scheme to train polar bears to pull Amundsen’s sleds to the pole. It involved the German circus entrepreneur and animal trader Carl Hagenbeck, who also revolutionized zoo design. Also interesting to me was the early medieval commerce in Greenlandic polar bear cubs, which Norse settlers traded to European royalty for their menageries. But even before European accounts mentioned them, they cropped up in Japanese chronicles! Overall, I was surprised at the consistency of themes—polar bears as “super-males,” as protectors, and similar—across cultures and times.
WT: How would you say that polar bears experience time, or what is it “about time” for in the history of human-polar bear interaction?
ME: This answer is so obvious as to be almost embarrassing. It’s about time we acknowledged our role as tenants of Planet Earth and members of the community of life forms, about time that we acted responsibly. Polar bears, in their exposed, highly specialized existence in regions that felt the brunt of climate change first and most severely, have justifiably become a flagship species for political action. In 2008, they were listed as threatened on the endangered species list, the first ever to be listed for future impacts from climate change, which seemed to be an important first step. However, Alaska politicians fought the listing, seeking to reverse it, and under the current administration, things again look bleak. We are about to back out of the Paris climate agreement, and the endangered species act and other environmental protections are being watered down or undone. As the latest example, Pacific walrus, which are closely tied to polar bears ecologically, are pretty much doomed as the Trump administration refuses to list them as endangered.
WT: What do you hope your book inspires in readers?
ME: Besides learning about and enjoying facets of the fascinating history we share with polar bears, I hope readers will begin to think about our relations with other species and with non-human life forms in general. I hope they can realize the difficulty of looking at any of these without preconceived notions and biases. The polar bear is just a single page in life’s ledger and inherently not more interesting or worthy of life or our protection than the naked mole rat or any other species. Perhaps, by seeing these “Others” as they truly are, by respecting their own ways and agendas, we can find the courage to help guarantee their continued existence.
Bio: Michael Engelhard is the author of two essay collections, Where the Rain Children Sleep and American Wild, and the editor of four anthologies, including Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North. His writing has appeared in Sierra, Outside, National Wildlife, the San Francisco Chronicle, High Country News, and other publications. Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, he has participated in fieldwork north of the Arctic Circle. He now guides wilderness trips in Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, his favorite places in the world. Moving frequently, he has lived in Nome, at the southern limit of the White Bear’s range, but these days calls Fairbanks his home.