Author Zara Chowdhary sits down with Bathsheba Demuth, a professor of Environmental History at Brown University, to discuss her research process and her book, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait.
Bathsheba Demuth is a writer and environmental historian specializing in the lands and seas of the Russian and North American Arctic. Her interest in northern places and cultures began when she was 18 and moved to the village of Old Crow in the Yukon, where she trained huskies for several years. From the archive to the dog sled, she is interested in how the histories of people, ideas, and ecologies intersect. In addition to her prize-winning book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait, her writing has appeared in publications from The American Historical Review to The New Yorker and The Best American Science and Nature Writing. She is currently the Dean’s Associate Professor of History and Environment and Society at Brown University.
Zara Chowdhary is a writer and educator from India. She now lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her son and cat and teaches at the University of Wisconsin in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. She has an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University and an MA in Writing for Performance from the University of Leeds. She has worked in stage, TV and film production for over twelve years. Her writing interests range from fantasy and climate-fiction to memoir and speculative journalism. She is represented by Anjali Singh at Ayesha Pande Literary.
Zara Chowdhary: Bathsheba Demuth is an environmental historian at Brown University. She specializes in the United States and Russia and in the history of energy and past climates. She’s lived in and studied Arctic communities across Eurasia and North America, and her book, about which she is here to talk today, Floating Coast, is an environmental history of the Bering Strait.
I’d like to read out one review in particular, which really stood out to me by Amitav Ghosh. Ghosh has called Floating Coast a “historian’s Moby Dick”, a great white whale of a book that spans centuries and links landscapes, living beings, and the flux of time into a marvelously readable narrative. Here’s Bathsheba reading as one of my favorite bits from this book.
Dr. Demuth: [Reading Floating Coast excerpt] There is another kind of shore in Beringia, one in which the solid is not earth. Each winter cold hardens the sea. Molecules lose energy, transforming liquid to solid. Ice crystals form, skimming the ocean surface when the temperature drops to 28.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Wind and rising warm waters makes the crystals into suspension. As the cold deepens crystals intertwine into a greasy film again and becomes slush. Sometimes ocean swells all the slush into Lily pads of ice. Sometimes the young ice rolls over the ocean surface like an oil slick, still carrying enough brine to be elastic. Sheets of slushy ice slide and adhere to each other on the waves condensing and exuding salt into all that is frozen is fresh. A terrestrial brink floats outward over fluid water. It was these formations that Yankee ship captains feared, the slurry hardening around their hulls and turning solid and opaque. Slabs of yearling ice will build 4, 5, 6 feet thick between October and May, hundreds of miles of sea covered over by a suspended coastline.
The transitions of water from liquid to solid to liquid again set the pulse of Berinigia’s marine and coastal production. In the ice, colonies of algae shelter and briny pools, piecing together cells from the sunlight glints through. Krill graze these miniature pastures even in winter. In spring as the floating coast draws back toward land, freshwater melts off the ice, spilling krill into the sea. Algae blooms in the sun. Waves plunge minute life downward feeding clams, transparent shrimp, red armed brittle starfish, and pale and eerie king crabs on into schools of card halibut, pollock, and mackerel. Up come some of these creatures in the bills of diving ducks. Up come squid, their milky tissue caught in the mouths of bearded seals and walrus. . .
Zara Chowdhary: Hi Bathsheba, welcome to this interview with Flyway. Thank you so much for being here! Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself, and this wonderful book you’ve written?
Dr. Demuth: Hello! First of all, thank you for having me. So, this story, which is about a part of the world that I feel like most people who don’t live there don’t get up in the morning thinking about the Bering Strait, it’s pretty distant from the major sources of political power and population in the world now, but it’s a place that I have been interested in really for two decades and for very idiosyncratic reasons. I moved to a little indigenous village in the very Eastern edge of the kind of Bering Strait region when I was 18 instead of going right to college, and I spent the subsequent 2 years training sled dogs there. I mean A) I completely fell in love with the place. I hadn’t intended on staying nearly that long I thought I was going to stay for a couple of months. I also just became really fascinated by the ways in which the things that I took for granted as a as a kid from Iowa—I grew up in little town called Decorah—work quite the same way in the Arctic context. It’s a place where agriculture doesn’t happen, it’s really not a possibility. And it’s a place where even industrial life is put under a lot of pressure because the climate is so extreme. It’s also much more extreme in the sense that north of the Arctic Circle, you know by December, even by this time of year, the sun essentially isn’t rising anymore.
Zara Chowdhary: Wow, that definitely draws a picture—but tell me more about this 18-year-old kid from Decorah, Iowa who decides to go up north and survive there. I understand you’ve even had a host family who really helped you understand how to live in this region.
Dr. Demuth: Yeah, absolutely, I owe my host family such an enormous debt because you know I showed up as this 18-year-old from Iowa who knew nothing about sled dogs. I’ve grown up with pet dogs but I didn’t really know how to work with Huskies—I didn’t know anything about dog sledding, and I also didn’t know anything about living in a village of 200 people 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle, where the economy really kind of focuses on subsistence activities so salmon fishing and hunting Caribou and moose and you know gathering firewood, and all of these other activities that I didn’t really have a particularly firm grasp on. I mean, I think I say in the Introduction to the book they had to teach me how not to die in a really not hyperbolic way because I just didn’t kind of know the rules of the place. And in the process of doing that, part of what I learned were kind of very practical applied things that you do with your body in order to get through the seasons, and then part of them you know part of what I learned in particularly from my host father, Stanley, was just ways of thinking about the human relationship with the world, that we’re different than I was perhaps used to. And because I was 18 and it was—it was a non-formal, non-academic environment. They were just things I kind of absorbed and it’s actually taken me kind of going back to that experience—writing this book and researching it—to think about the fact that I was really taught a theory of history, living there, as much as, you know, how to train a sled dog team.
Zara Chowdhary: I really like that idea of learning a whole theory of history, so incidentally, and then you come back and go to school, go to grad school, and get your PhD, and write your dissertation and then decide to go back and write this book about the Bering Strait. While reading it, the thing that struck me the most is that the voice did not sound like that of an outside observer. It had this quality of being told from the inside. We always feel as readers that we’re listening to this lore and this ancient history of this land from people who aren’t custodians, but also from people who are willing to bridge language and culture and literature across these two different cultures, and I thought that was very striking about how you approached the book.
Dr. Demuth: I think I was concerned from the very beginning that this not be a history where the kind of rich ethical and cosmological and philosophical world of the Chukchi, the Inupiaq, and the Yupik—who are the people who have lived in the Bering Strait for a very, very long time—that their way of understanding the world be the first human way of understanding that you’re introduced to in the book and one that continues throughout it, and is not put on some sort of hierarchical spectrum with the ideologies of capitalism and socialism that come in later in the 19th and 20th centuries. And in part that’s because when I was living in the Arctic to begin with it was, it was so clear to me that these indigenous ways of understanding the place were still very much present, and the ways in which people related to the world around them, and so I wanted to avoid that kind of narrative of erasure that I think often happens in historical writing almost by accident, sometimes and deliberately in other cases. So that—that certainly was I think I was very conscious of throughout, and also conscious of the fact that even though I’ve spent a lot of time in this place I still am very much an outsider. You know, I don’t have thousands of years worth of generations of my family to call upon when I think about writing the place. So, in many ways it’s a reckoning with what the what the ideas that come from my own kind of intellectual background might the heritage of people that I grew up with have done in this place where there’s this other very rich, very vibrant heritage and cosmology, and way of thinking about the world. But I really wanted to try to keep those in some sort of balance or tension with each other, so that it wasn’t a story where as soon as whalers show up, you don’t hear from indigenous people anymore. Just kind of out of an accident of the narrative or out of a deliberate desire to kind of pretend that one way of living erases the other one, which at least in American history is a pretty common theme.
Zara Chowdhary: There’s also another tension in this area around Beringia. There are these new political ideologies that start to creep up into either side of the Bering Strait in the 19th and 20th centuries, and this book is essentially a mapping of political ideologies as they find a foothold in this region. But, it’s not a simple pro and con list of each ideology you’re trying to do something more complex, it’s almost this tapestry of ideologies that have existed in this region, and new ones as they come and adapt to it. How did you go about writing this complex story of capitalism and communism in this fast and extreme tundra environment?
Dr. Demuth: I think it’s something I became aware of as sort of as I was putting the research together. For this book, I spent a year doing research on the US side, basically from the National Archival Collections all the way down to being in regional places, and then did the same thing for a year in Russia, from kind of Moscow out to Chukotka. In putting those together, it became really clear to me that this was a story of contrasts between the way socialism and capitalism operate, but also, it’s a story of kind of multiplicities of these ideas as they hit the ground and kind of interact with people and interact with ecologies. So, you get very different reactions for example to the Bolsheviks on the part of Yupik folks along the coast of Chukotka, then from Chukchi reindeer herders living in the interior who are far less interested in being part of the Soviet experiment.
Zara Chowdhary: It seems like the nonhuman creatures that inhabit the Bering Strait, and these two bits of land on either side, have a mind of their own as well. You talk about the reindeer/caribou, and you say something very interesting in the book about how domesticated reindeer would often wander off with these rogue caribou that would come in and essentially steal them from reindeer farms. Tell us a little more about this story.
Dr. Demuth: Yeah, one of the really interesting things about reindeer is, so they’re the same species as caribou—they are called about reindeer in Eurasia, and Caribou in North America. In Eurasia, there have been domesticated versions of reindeer for a long time, but their domestication is you know, it’s they’re not as domesticated as like a pet dog who is you know gonna find people and seek them out usually no matter what. Reindeer you know grow up with people, they’re adapted to them, they’ll let people, you know, touch them, ride them, and milk them and do other things, but they’re also pretty contented to leave people company, and this means that when wild populations of reindeer or Caribou come on the scene, the domesticated ones are quite likely to actually just join them. They’re very social animals with each other. In the United States, where domesticated reindeer were imported into Alaska from the Siberian side of the Bering Strait, you know, there’s lots of cases of Caribou herds kind of moving into an area and the domesticated reindeer would just move off and join them because they’re herd animals and that’s what makes them happy. And then on the Russian side, the same thing, because domesticated populations of reindeer but then also these wild herds that periodically would grow really large and then kind of run into the domesticated animals and kind of sweep them up much to the frustration of anyone trying to farm them.
Zara Chowdhary: And yet deer were farmed, and whales were hunted, and walrus as were hunted, and foxes were haunted for their pelts, but the story you tell in Floating Coast is that this wasn’t new for the region—that communism and capitalism brought their own systems, but the people of Beringia already had systems in place. At times, they were also collectivist. At times they were also interested in trade and the market. They just had their own ways of doing this and I think that’s part of what makes this story so much more nuanced and complex.
Dr. Demuth: Yeah, I think that’s a really, a complicated issue because on the one hand the ways in which Yupik and Inupiaq and Chukchi folks understood the animals that they shared their world with was quite the opposite of a commodity, which is, a commodity really is something that can be exchanged for money—the kind of degradation that you take something that’s soulful and you turn it into something that’s money. And certainly, there’s lots of that happening in this book, and it happens to whales and walrus and reindeer and often to pretty ill effect for both the Soviet Union and then for the United States. The things that that come in from the outside, because of the process of commodification, that the access to new kinds of tools, new kinds of things that are used for artistic purposes like the beads that are incorporated through trade into beadwork, which is such a rich and vibrant tradition now all around the kind of circumpolar world. But you know those are not entirely negatives, right? My host father, I remember him telling me pretty early on, he’s like—he was saying, you know, he lives in kind of admiration of these generations that live without some of the tools that have come in since the 19th century, and he wasn’t nostalgic for that moment. Those were those were tough times often to be alive and you know not nostalgic for a time when it wasn’t possible to get eyeglasses or certain kinds of medicine and things like that. So, I don’t think people there have a kind of knee-jerk romantic, like if we just turn back the clock everything is perfect–it’s a much more nuanced kind of understanding that trade has always been a part of the way that people in Beringia exist, like it’s been absolutely critical to politics and social life for thousands of years. And new kinds of trade coming in from the South were not entirely negative, the issue is the scale, and also the fact that after you know after the first whalers show up in 1848, much of the wealth that’s being collected and commodified in Beringia is being sold elsewhere, so that you know the people who live there are not actually participating in—in the value generation in a real way or they’re cut off from the site where the value is really accrued in a or the commodity. That’s the thing that you can see–that’s in some ways to me kind of a global story. That, you know, capitalism is really good at extracting things from some places so that people somewhere else get to accrue the most kind of salient part of the value.
Zara Chowdhary: Yeah, and the story about extraction and modification rings throughout the book. You talk about it with each specific creature in the Bering Strait, but you also talk about it in terms of labor, in terms of how these communities were essentially broken down by this culture of modification. At one point, you even talk about how capitalism and socialism essentially did the same thing in this region when it came to commodifying the bodies of the animals and humans and the land and the water there. So, did you think that this could very easily be mirrored onto today and we could think about our present context using these stories?
Dr. Demuth: That’s a good question. I mean I think part of what I hope to do with this book is make clear the ways in which the kind of the current patterns of consumption and our current concerns over the scale at which that consumption is changing the environment and particularly around fossil fuels and the combustion of them, we’re producing large scale global environmental change—is to put those in a history where in the moment we’re living in is an accelerated extreme version of processes that have happened before. And therefore in those, we can look at ways in which people have wrestled with some of these issues previously and seen if they came up with solutions or how they did or didn’t recognize the problems in some ways like their way of thinking through the present, which historians debate whether or not that’s like a thing historians should do is be really kind of focused on the present in their interpretation of the past, and I obviously fall on one extreme of that, but I do think in this particular case, it’s helpful to ground what’s happening now in the fact that we didn’t just wake up one day this way. It’s part of a much longer process, and one that people have negotiated and fought with and contested and agreed with, and you know, tried to figure out previously, and that maybe there’s something to be learned from that.
Zara Chowdhary: When did you realize that energy was the heart of your book, and that’s the story you were telling—not fossil fuels, not steam, but the energy of the body? The energy that is the sun, the plant and the ocean, the ice, the animal—when did you know that that was what you had to capture?
Dr. Demuth: So, I didn’t know when I started the research for this that energy was going to have any role in it, and I also didn’t know that whaling was going to be remotely part of the story. What happened is I had this, you know, fairly rare, I think, Eureka moment in an archive. Most archival time is sort of like sifting through endless confusion and there’s not a lot of clarity, but I realized what I was doing the research that this kind of phenomenon about the way in which energy is produced in Arctic ecosystems, where the oceans are extraordinarily productive–they’re some of the most able to take sunlight and turn it into carbon through photosynthesis to really kind of—to abstract that concept to it’s very bare bones. They’re some of the richest and most biologically productive ecosystems on earth. Then some of that kind of richness, that kind of literal ability to make energy spreads out onto the coastlines, but by the time you get out onto the tundra it’s relatively less productive than a terrestrial place, which is why you know we’re not growing massive fields of corn in Alaska, and we are in Iowa—because you just simply can’t do it. So, I knew essentially, it’s like energy gradient with the concentration at sea going all the way out to the landscape where it’s the least dense energetically. And I knew this when I was in the archives, and I realized that the kind of story that was coming out of the sources both in Russia and United States and that the indigenous historical traditions, and from the kind of traditional, you know, bureaucratic archives, were all pointing to the fact that European interest in the Bering Strait started where the energy was most concentrated, which is with whales at sea, and then it moves out into spaces with relatively less energy over time.
So it’s a story of energy extraction long before anybody thought about internal combustion engines, which I didn’t expect and I had a bit of a panic ’cause I, at the time that I realized this, was sitting in Vladivostok and then realized that I needed to do a bunch of research at the New Bedford Whaling Museum and all these other places that had not been on my agenda initially. So that’s how energy came into the story, but it also became a way for me to talk about in some ways to talk about this theory of history that I felt myself learning even back when I was 18, which is to think about the line between human beings and the rest of the world as being much more porous and much more subject to transformation than the world that I grew up in led me to believe. And it’s really a story of kind of state shift between solid and liquid, between human and nonhuman, between animal and other kind of being all the time, and that that’s you know that’s the way that many Beringian traditions tell their own history. So in some ways, the fact that energy also moves that way and it is the thing that transforms and moves between species and between chemical states and sort of keeps ecosystems functioning as units or as communities together, became a way for me to tell that story of transformation, but in terms that came out of the intellectual tradition that that I am part of and hopefully one that’s kind of legible to that community of people now.
Zara Chowdhary: And that’s part of what you managed to do because you’re using these other traditions of history. You’re able to play with time and your book does this incredible work of using cyclical time—time is not linear in this narration anymore.
Dr. Demuth: I guess part of what I felt was that you know for Yupik historical traditions, it’s not mythology, it’s just the history. So, some of it came from my desire to put that intellectual tradition right next to the intellectual tradition of thinking about history in a Marxist sense, or of thinking about history in a kind of American narrative of progress sense. In some ways, the structure of the book might lead you to think I agree with the indigenous interpretation more in fact than those other kinds of traditions—not an accident, but that’s kind of where I land on it, but it was really out of kind of a political commitment to say this isn’t to get rid of the word mythology for thinking about this, in some sense. This is a way of telling this history and it comes with a certain set of ethical obligations toward the rest of the world. It comes with a certain set of ethical obligations toward people. It makes you imagine the future differently. It makes you imagine the present differently, and then contrast that with what happens as the United States and the Soviet visions of the present and the future and the past become part of Beringia also.
Zara Chowdhary: I’d love to know what things that you were reading. What was on your nightstand? What was your inspiration? What was in the books that kept you fed and creatively satisfied and driven while you were writing this?
Dr. Demuth: Basically, in no sequential order whatsoever, just kind of at random pieces of Moby Dick—and in part because lots of this book is about whaling, but also in part because I just kind of love Melville at a sentence level. The whole book can be kind of shaggy and who knows what’s happening but in a delightful way, so I didn’t use it as a model of the kind of narrative structure, but I found his way of talking about activities that to most of his readers would have been utterly incomprehensibly foreign, but making them very tactile and direct and sort of stick in mind. So, I read a lot of Melville. I read a lot of an Inupiaq poet named Joan Naviyuk Kane. She actually is the author of the epigraph for the whole book. She has a beautiful kind of part poetry part prose collection called A Few Lines in the Manifest, which in part is actually a kind of encounter with Moby Dick and thinking about Melville from the perspective of somebody whose family is from King Island, which is right in the Bering Strait, but just in general I find her use of language and her kind of use of lyricism to disrupt kind of “stuck ways” of thinking about this particular place, thinking about native peoples to be really inspiring and just stunning. And I read quite a bit of Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams because in many ways I felt like this was you know kind of following in that lineage. There are sets of questions that he asks in the first couple of pages of Arctic Dreams that I feel like people are still asking, and they’re still asking it of the Arctic. We’re just, you know, 25 or 30 years distant from when he wrote it and so the answers might have changed, and I’m a historian, so I approach it somewhat differently just in terms of method than he did. But he also, at a sentence level, I found him very inspiring.
One of the real advantages of doing a project that was partly in the US and partly in Russia was that you know US historiography has real strengths in thinking about the differences between, or not the differences between, but thinking about indigenous history, thinking about histories of enslavement, thinking about the ways in which the nation has been created out of these really complicated moments of power relationships, and particularly racialized power relationships. I would say Russian history in general is not good at that. It’s not a particularly theorized place, and so being trained in the US tradition was really helpful for thinking about ways in which Soviet or Russian imperial colonialism has roots in this broader European tradition. And on the same hand Russian history is very good, and particularly Soviet history, at thinking about ideology, particularly socialist ideology, as not just being an economic system, but being a way of kind of framing a whole cosmology of human life, and that is not how historians of capitalism have generally treated capitalism. So, I felt like sort of pulling the strengths of these two traditions which I have severely stereotyped here, but word was really helpful in terms of kind of bringing the best out of the field.
Zara Chowdhary: And so, are you now planning your next book? Is that something that we have to look forward to? Do have an idea what you would like to work on next?
Dr. Demuth: So, what I’m working on now is a history of the Yukon River watershed, and in large part because I lived on a tributary of the Yukon when I first moved north. And so, it really lets me go back to that part of Beringia which is actually not in this book really at all. It’s very far east, kind of north and east and then cuts down to the south of the geography that’s in this book.
I’m interested in that space, in the ways in which people have thought about rights and the ways in which they’ve given rights to people, and to sort of human rights, and then rights to non-human things, or rights for non-human things. So, thinking about—and rights in the indigenous context is not even really the correct word, it’s a different kind of concept—so part of it is looking at indigenous ways of understanding kind of the moral agency and place of nonhuman things in creating a social world. Then looking at the ways in which that gets turned into—in the British imperial and the Russian imperial context and then the Canadian nation state and American nation state worlds—rights to things like water, access to timber resources, the ways in which fish are kind of caught up in a whole set of who has rights to the fish or do the fish actually have some rights of their own, because you have to let some of the fish go if you’re going to have fish the next year, and sort of how those things get negotiated in this in this place that really has kind of layered traditions of thinking about legal personhood in various forms. And I’m about 30 seconds after that project so I don’t know very much more than that!
Zara Chowdhary: Well that’s great! That sounds wonderful and the idea that we might get to see more of this amazing part of the world that we know so little about, and especially from your perspective, is very exciting. So, good luck and thank you so much for being with us here today.