Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Necessities of Life

The story is a familiar one, certainly to Inuit who were living on the land in the 1950's: a diagnosis of tuberculosis, followed by transport to a southern hospital, treatment that sometimes lasted for years, and then -- if one survived -- an abrupt return home. The medical system of the time was utterly insensible to the cultural and emotional trauma of this treatment, which has come back to haunt many who underwent it.  Alootook Ipellie was one, as a child, and so was Natar Ungalaaq's grandfather, as he describes in this radio interview.  It's been depicted in film before, most memorably in Vincent Ward's brilliant Map of the Human Heart, whose main character, Avik, is sent south in the 1930's, an era in which antibiotics for TB were unknown, and the treatments were accordingly longer, more painful, and less successful.  The approach of director Benoît Pilon here is less melodramatic, as befits his own background as a documentary filmmaker; we see the story unfold through the eyes of Tivii (Ungalaaq) is straightforward order, without adornment; the tone is both bleak and beautiful.  Ungalaaq's expressive face and voice are the stars of this film, for which he won the Canadian Genie award for Best Actor in 2009.  We also see, though only for a short time, something of the life of the Inuit during the time just before the move to forced settlements, when a name was less important than a number (you can see the "Eskimo Tag" Tivii is wearing in the still above).  There's also testimony to the saving power of story, when lost in an environment where nothing seems familiar.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Ipellie's Dreams and Nightmares

The image at left is a drawing by Inuit artist and writer Alootook Ipellie (1951-2007), and is entitled "Self-Portrait: Inverse Ten Commandments." In the story accompanying the drawing, Ipellie dreams of himself as Satanasee (Inuktitut for Satan), and in his dreams each of his fingers becomes an "inverse commandment," coming to life with a face a a mouth filled with sharp little teeth that tear at his flesh. It's an apt if somewhat grotesque metaphor for the current spiritual condition of people of Ipellie's generation; they must live in two worlds -- the old shamanistic one with its built-in fear and fatalism, or the new Christian one that circumscribes and limits their spiritual development with rules and ideas that are foreign to traditional Inuit culture. Ipellie, who struggled with both the rejection of his work by supposed "connoisseurs" of Inuit art and the modern northern blight of alcoholism, only made it to the age of 56 before he died of a heart attack.

Isuma productions has dramatized the onset of Christianity, showing both its attractions and its coercive elements, in episode of its Nunavut series, Avaja. The priest offers his Inuit neighbors gifts of tobacco, attaching the promise that when they hear the bell, they must come to the church. He preaches a sermon about "Mosesesee" and the Burning Bush (a tough sell for people who have never seen a bush), and they seem to comply with his wishes, singing along loudly with every hymn. Nevertheless, it's clear that one reason they chose to attend was the anxiety of not being impolite, and (perhaps) the fear of offending the new God and his ministers. For Inuit who were there to witness this development, there has always been a sense of doubleness, of living between and yet within two worlds.

The division of modern Inuit between those who, like Ipellie, can recall the onset of western culture and forced settlements, and the generations after, is further complicated by religious divisions. Zacharaias Kunuk has spoken about the hatred between Protestants and Catholics in Iglooklik; one missionary from each faith converted half the town, and Kunuk compared the hostile border through the middle of the settlement to the Green Line in Beruit, which separated Muslims from Christians; he recalled children throwing stones at one another across this sectarian border. Evangelical denominations have had particular growth in the past few decades, and when Inuit politician Tagak Curley (whom we've met in the John Walker film) adpoted the campaign slogan "Jesus is Lord over Nunavut," he counted on evangelicals for their support (he lost, narrowly).

Unfortunately, Ipellie's most brilliant and lasting work, the collection, Arctic Dreams and Nightmares, is out of print and getting harder and harder to find. Fortunately, there's an article about him, Kimberly McMahon-Coleman's "Dreaming an Identity Across Two Cultures: The Works of Alootook Ipellie," which discusses his work at length, and includes many of the drawings -- you can read and download it here for free. I've also made one story, "When God Sings the Blues," available here via the blog.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Nanook of the North

Nanook of the North has been hailed as the first and greatest documentary film, and although I would not necessarily agree with either claim (it's certainly not the first, in any case). But yes, Nanook rewrote the book for documentary film, and it did so by taking a number of pages out of the history of dramatic film.

Robert Flaherty had actually compiled two different sets of footage in the Arctic in the years before Nanook, and had at first intended to use this material to make his film. And yet, although this material clearly showed the "actual" Arctic, it did so piecemeal, and without any strong central narrative. When the working print caught fire and was destroyed (early nitrite film stock was highly flammable), Flaherty decided on a whole new plan. Instead of simply pointing his camera at things that were actually happening, he decided to "cast" specific Inuit as members of an imaginary family, and then deliberately create a narrative which not only included the "incidents" he'd earlier filmed, but extended the story through a complete dramatic arc, much as would a feature film. The idea was revolutionary, but still he needed backers to provide the resources.

He found a willing sponsor in Revillon Frères, a fur concern which operated a series of trading posts; the "friendly trader" in the early scenes is from one of these. The company simply asked that they be portrayed in a positive light, a seemingly small request, but one which nevertheless does affect the film's objectivity. Flaherty also wished to depict Inuit life from the era before the adoption of modern weapons such as rifles; thus, although one of the main reasons the Inuit traded with the white man was to obtain guns and ammunition, this was not shown, and "Nanook" hunts only with a spear. He
even persuaded them to conduct a walrus hunt with traditional weapons, something the local Inuit had not done for more than a generation, and which they were reluctant at first to re-enact. As Inuit writer Alootook Ipellie pointed out, it would be as though someone came to modern Toronto to ask the locals to show how everyone lived in the 1800's!

And of course Nanook himself, his wife Nyla "the smiling one," and the rest of the family depicted by Flaherty were in fact actors, Inuit playing an Inuit family. Nanook was portrayed by Allakariallak, whom Flaherty chose for his patience and rugged appearance; Nyla was played by a young Inuk woman, Maggie Nujarlutuk, who was, actually Flaherty's common-law wife at the time the film was made, and one of the babies shown may have been their child, Joseph (or Josephie; the Inuit added an -ie or -ee to many western names). Like many other explorers and travelers before him, including Peary and Henson, Flaherty left his child behind when he headed back south to take up a career as a filmmaker. Josephie Flaherty was, as fate would have it, one of the Ungava Inuit who was to be forcibly relocated to Resolute and Grise Fiord in the 1950's in a misguided attempt to strengthen Canadian sovereignty in the North. This group, known as the "High Arctic Exiles," finally received a financial settlement offer from the federal Canadian government a few years ago, but no apology was made then, or has been made since.

And to be fair, Flaherty could not necessarily have anticipated the worldwide response to his film. Although Revillon Frères thought of it more or less as a promotional venture and did not even expect to recover their costs, Nanook was picked up for distribution by Pathé, given a New York premiere and went on to be one of the most successful films of 1922. Flaherty was given a contract by Paramount, and headed off for Samoa to make a film about the native people there; this second film took three years to make, and was not as successful as Nanook, although it was in reference to this film that the word "documentary" was coined (such films had previously been known as "actualities"). Flaherty was next paired with W.S. Van Dyke to make another south seas film, but they had a falling out (Van Dyke was later to make 1933's "Eskimo," the first big-budget, big-screen northern epic of the sound era). After parting ways with Van Dyke, Flaherty was sent to work with German visionary F.W. Murnau to work on a film called "Tabu," but they too soon had a falling out. Flaherty next moved to Britain, and worked on some shorter films as well as "Man of Aran," which was set in the remote Aran islands. He then went to work for producer Alexander Korda on a film set in India, to be titled "Elephant Boy," and yet again was fired from the project. Back in the U.S., he worked on several more documentaries, but problems with financing and distribution meant that few of them were ever seen in his lifetime.

One of the stories that Flaherty liked to tell was how Allakariallak, less than two years after Nanook was filmed, had starved to death in the frozen wilderness that was his home. The press loved this story, and it's still frequently repeated today. But it's not true; according to testimony from his son and other family members, Allakariallak died from "white man's disease" -- probably tuberculosis -- at home with his family. He may well have been exposed to it during the time he worked with Flaherty on Nanook.

NB: If you're planning to watch part of all of Nanook online, the best link is this one. You may also be interested to see "Flaherty and Film," a brief feature which includes a lengthy interview with Flaherty's widow.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Inuit Meet the Explorers

For the explorers to meet the Inuit is one thing; for the Inuit to meet the "explorers" is quite another. What can it mean to be "discovered"? And how should one act in the presence of strangers whose clothes seem ragged and poor, but whose wealth -- reckoned up in the form of wood, metal, and manufactured items such as sewing needles and metal knives -- is so vast that it almost destroys the entire Inuit notion of economy? They come to you, starving, dying, frostbitten, gums blackened with scurvy -- and yet even their last few possessions make them rich beyond belief. It's little wonder that, eight or more generations later, these men appear more frequently as demons than as human creatures.

Dorothy Eber has worked collecting Inuit oral history for more than forty years; in 1971, she collaborated with the Inuit artist/writer Pitseolak Ashoona on Pictures Out of my Life, one of the very first published books by an Inuk. In 1996, she published When the Whalers Were Up North, an oral history of the contact and collaboration between Inuit and the crews of whaling vessels in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As with all such histories, the vividness of memory, even at a distance of more than a century, is striking.

In all these books, you also see something of the modern life of these Inuit elders and their families. In the late 1950's, most Inuit were forced into permanent settlements, although the older people sometimes returned to camp on the land from time to time. Since there were so many people with identical names, Inuit were first issued numbers printed on dog tags, and later obliged to take last names as part of "Project Surname." The children and grandchildren of these Inuit grew up without much sense of what life out on the land was like, and traditional foods -- seal, walrus, and caribou meat, whale blubber (muktuk) and birds' eggs gave way to more standard southern fare, including canned, frozen, and fried foods. In the 1990's, satellite televisions started to become common, and the Internet arrived in the North; at one point there were more computers per capita in Nunavut than anywhere else in Canada.

And amazingly, throughout all these changes, the Inuit oral tradition continued to thrive, although at times details were lost, or different stories condensed into one. The deaths of the last elders who came of age out on the land meant that the fullest versions of many of these stories were lost, and stories about stories took their place. Ms. Eber's work has preserved what are, alas, very likely the last few versions of stories from these traditions, where the visits of explorers such as Ross, Franklin, and Amundsen are recalled almost as if they had happened yesterday.

These stories challenge us to see our ancestors and ourselves as we were seen by others: strangers, ill-equipped for survival but wealthy with scarce commodities; lost, searching for others who were lost before them, and unable to communicate clearly. Again and again, the Inuit did what they could to help these strangers: they provided food, hunted, and traded with them. And yet it seemed these strange people did not know how to live! The Inuit sometimes made fun of these odd people who yelled at one another and were very concerned about who was the boss (the Isumutaq, 'one who speaks for others'). And, to be fair, they made fun of themselves as well; after chopping a hole in one of the white people's big umiaks in order to get at the things inside, they laughed ruefully when, once the ice thawed, the ship sank to the bottom, taking all the things with it.

These tales carry both hints of the distant past, and the imprint of Inuit culture in the twenty-first century, with all its challenges. What do we hear when we hear these stories today?

Monday, July 11, 2016

Arctic Ghost Ship

Over the years, there  have been a number of documentaries that have covered some aspect of the Franklin expedition: the NOVA/ ITN Factual Arctic Passage (2005) in which I participated, as well as John Walker's Passage (2008), John Murray's Finding Franklin (2009), and Mill Creek's The Northwest Passage: The Last Great Frontier (2014) -- but whatever their good or bad qualities, every one of these documentaries lacked something that Franklin's Lost Ships alone provides: one of Franklin's ships.

The discovery of Franklin's own flagship, HMS "Erebus" in September of 2014 has already changed everything. The mystery of the expedition's failure has by no means been "solved," as some claim, but a vital piece of evidence, missing for more than one hundred and sixty years, is now before us; even as I write this, divers from Parks Canada and the Canadian military are undertaking a series of ice dives on the vessel. What secrets it has yet to disclose may only be guessed.

And so, we have a new documentary, Franklin's Lost Ships, which aired in Canada in April of 2015 as an episode of the CBC's series The Nature of Things. I was fortunate to be able to do some historical work behind the scenes, working with the team at Lion TV in the UK, which co-produced the program with Canada's  90th Parallel. I don't appear on camera, which is quite fine by me; having done so for NOVA, I've certainly had my moment in the (Arctic) sun, and am happy to make way for others. My friends Huw Lewis-Jones and Dave Woodman acquit themselves quite well, as do John Geiger, Ken McGoogan and forensic anthropologist Anne Keenleyside (who here completes a sort of Franklin trifecta, having also appeared in both the NOVA and John Murray films).

So how was the story told differently this time? From my own experiences with these documentaries, I've learned just how hard it is to squeeze everything important into an hour, and how many people and how much effort goes into any documentary of this kind. The ITN/NOVA team had more than three years to do their work; Lion TV/90th Parallel had only seven months. The result, given the timeframe, is quite marvelous; despite the occasional glitches that, despite all care, tend to creep into any project of this scope and urgency, we have here a fresh telling of a tale that's never been able to be fully told before -- because this is a story which concludes with the actual discovery of Franklin's ship.

It's hard to imagine how this documentary could have stirred controversy, but given the atmosphere in Canadian politics at the time, hard to imagine how it could have avoided it. The discovery of "Erebus" was the result of a years-long commitment to -- some would say obsession with -- the Franklin mystery on the part of then-prime-minister Stephen Harper. Harper, a conservative who had long angered liberals in Canada, angered them more by steering funds to this pet project while slashing monies for other Parks Canada work, as well as national libraries and museums. And, historical interest aside, there was a political reason for Harper's enthusiasm: the question of Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.

Here in the US, we don't really have such issues, but in Canada -- a relatively young nation, whose northernmost Arctic territory was only acquired from the British government in the 1880's -- the question of its authority over this vast territory has often been a source of anxiety. The Northwest Passage, "for which" (as Canadian songster Stan Rogers put it) "so many died," is completely surrounded by Canadian territory, but due to certain provisions in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, could be viewed as an "international strait," open to vessels of any nation. Canada has historically insisted that it was "territorial waters," and during the Harper years, even staged live-fire interdiction exercises at the eastern entrance to the Passage.

Which bring us back 'round to Franklin: Harper felt that his ships, since they were sent to explore the region by the British government, to which Canadian sovereignty was the successor, would help secure Canada's claim to the Passage. He even secured a memorandum of agreement with the UK that the ships would belong to Canada if found! Not everyone agreed with this interpretation of the ship's value, but it had the effect of politicizing the historical value of the search. Added to all that, one of the sponsors of the 2014 search that found "Erebus" was Jim Balsillie, former CEO of BlackBerry, who funded it via his Arctic Research Foundation -- injecting an element of private monies into the already-clouded waters of the search's public mission.

The news of the finding of "Erebus" electrified the world, but it also brought controversy thanks to these issues. One reporter in particilar -- Paul Watson of the Toronto Star, who was aboard one of the vessels in the search flotilla -- believed that both Parks Canada's marine archaeologists as well as Mr. Balsillie, had received insufficient credit for their world on this discovery. After "Arctic Ghost Ship" aired, Mr. Balsillie wronte an angry letter to the Canadian environment minister, Leona Aglukkak, asking why his work, the vessel he'd provided, and the Parks divers were given, in his view, insufficient credit in the documentary. Meanwhile, Mr. Watson quit his job at the Toronto Star when they refused to run his story on these issues (it was later published by the Canadian branch of BuzzFeed).

It's my view that the doc does indeed give ample credit, though this is made a little clearer in the UK and US edits than it was in the original Canadian version. No one could watch any version, though, and be in doubt that it was Ryan Harris and his fellow Parks Canada archaeologists who made the find. And in any case, since those heady days, the Harper government was resoundingly voted out, and the new Trudeau government has shown no sign of lessening its support for continuing work on "Erebus." One likes to hope that professional archaeologists can do their jobs -- which require, among other things, extraordinary patience -- happily outside of any political spotlight. So far, so good!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Arctic Passage

A documentary film has an aura of fact. After all, our friend the Narrator wouldn’t mislead us – or would he? Ever since documentary films began in the 1890’s, when they were called “actuality” films, this has been a vexed question. Thomas Edison’s film company, for instance, knew that there was tremendous demand for footage of the Second Boer War (1899-1902). The cost, and risk, of sending cameramen and equipment to the battlefield was prohibitive; it was far more cost-effective to stage battles in New Jersey with hired actors and costumes. Thus was begun the noble tradition of re-creating scenes that the camera had missed, one which has enjoyed a resurgence of late. When it came to the Arctic, much the same rule applied; despite the successes of pioneers such as Frank Hurley, whose footage of Shackleton’s expedition electrified audiences, the big studios usually found it far more economical to send a camera crew to the Sierras and use the snow and mountains there as their backdrop. With Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty reversed that trend, but as we'll see in a couple of weeks, he managed to open a whole new can of muktuk.

Of course that was 1922 – and here we are in 2016. Surely we’ve come a long way from the “Nanook” era. And yet, in many ways, these same practices persist today. To explain, I’ll tell you a little about my work on the documentary, “Search for the Northwest Passage,” which aired in the UK, and in the US under the title “Arctic Passage.” I’d worked as a consultant on the film for more than a year before it finally got the “green light” for production. As a co-production between Britain’s ITN TV and WGBH/NOVA, this was to be a big-budget affair, as documentaries go these days. The producers sent an advance crew to Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, to scout locations and lay plans; back in London, scripts were prepared for the historical recreations. The scenes on board Franklin’s ships would be shot at Greenwich aboard the venerable Cutty Sark; these would be followed by a day at sea for exteriors using a replica ship. The scenes with Lady Franklin and Sir John were completed in London, and those playing Crozier, Fitzjames, and the rest were flown to the Arctic for location work. What remained was to line up the “talking heads” – the on-camera experts – and interweave their footage with the re-creations. I was lucky to be one of just two of these “heads” who would be filmed on location.

It was a strange business. As soon as we arrived in Gjoa Haven, the first order of business was to film my “arrival” – another plane was filmed landing, and we did several shots of me getting off this plane and "heading" to the hotel. After about the fourth take of this sequence, I turned to the director of photography, Harald Paalgard, and remarked “there sure is a lot of fiction in these documentaries.” He laughed. “It’s all fiction,” he declared. What he meant, of course, was that it’s all about the story. If some expert is to arrive at a remote location to conduct research, he or she must be shown arriving; the viewer will want and need this thread in order to accept the overall truth of the film. The small “fiction” of the staged arrival was in the service of the larger truth of the overall story.

By the time we got to Gjoa Haven, most of the dramatic actors had gone home. The only remaining scenes at that point were with local Inuit, who played their own ancestors. A call had been put out to any adult men and women who possessed caribou-skin outfits and could speak Inuktitut; a wage of $100 a day was offered. Quite a few showed up, and the best were set to work, speaking to the “explorers” from within an igloo the townspeople had built on the town’s “beach” (odd to call anything a beach in twenty-below zero weather!). After a week in Gjoa, it was off to Resolute, and to Beechey Island, that mythical centerpiece of the Franklin saga. There, we did numerous shots of me riding on a snow machine piloted by the crew’s guide and safety officer, polar veteran Paul Landry. I wondered why, given that we’d chartered a helicopter to Beechey, but when I saw the film I had to agree that a 30-mile trek across the ice in a skidoo was far more dramatic than 10 minutes in a chopper.

Unlike the dramatic actors, I didn’t have a script. Instead, I had “talking points” – themes, facts, and observations, many of which I’d submitted myself, which the producers had sorted out in terms of where and how they wanted them placed. It was awkward at times, since I had to improvise my lines from these points, but had to make sure I did not add any asides or wander from the key points. We were shooting on 16mm film, so every moment meant money; it wasn’t until the second or third day that I really grew used to the arrangement; there is something in a scholar’s disposition that resists absolutes. and cautions against conjectures.

Once all the footage was shot, then comes the next phase of truth-telling – editing. It’s not uncommon to have a hundred hours of footage for a single hour of finished film, so a great deal can happen at this stage, for better or for worse. Even though all the shots have been pre-planned to fit the puzzle, there are dozens of slight variations to every piece, and just the right ones must be chosen. At this stage, I was called upon to re-record some of my comments, and add others that could be used as voiceovers for existing footage; this gave the producers the flexibility they needed. Like the rest of the cast, of course, I had no idea exactly what choices were being made, I could only guess what was in the stew from the ingredients I’d added myself, or seen filmed. It wasn’t in fact until nearly six months later when I received a videocassette of the UK version in the mail that I had the least idea how it had all come out.

And yet were still further changes in store – the US producers decided to re-write the script, and re-shoot a series of additional interviews with me – and of course they made quite a few different choices in the editing room. The result, though equally satisfying, made me once more conscious of the intricacies -- and vagaries -- of filmmaking. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Exploration and Sacrifice

The French writer Georges Bataille spent the last years of his life on his great but little-known work The Accursed Share.  In this book, Bataille argued that sacrifice or “expenditure” was the one absolute necessity of all human civilizations.  Whatever energy cannot be used in growth, Bataille argued, “must be lost without profit; it must be spent, willingly or not, gloriously or catastrophically.”  In his view, war, human sacrifice among the Maya, or the Northwest Coast potlatch – were all forms of sacrifice essential to their respective societies. This idea sounds strange to us today, who have come to believe that, whatever its occasional caprices, capitalism – which demands that all profit be plowed back into maintenance and growth – is the best way for a society, and indeed for the world, to thrive.  And yet, for most of our history, even the wealthiest and most successful civilizations have given sacrifice a sacred status.  We still do so today – for war only – but our awareness of this is muddied by our mixed feelings about the terrors of modern warfare, along with the belief, cultivated by some leaders today, that a modern and “professional” army can wage war successfully without undue sacrifice -- but of course, it can't.

Though we mark the soldier's sacrfice annually on Memorial Day, we're unaccustomed to thinking about exploration as a form of sacrifice. And yet, in a profound sense, it is. We're reminded of that sacrifice at times such as the loss of the space shuttles Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003), but even when space exploration is accomplished, as it is more often today, with unmanned missions such as the NASA's JUNO, there is a monetary sacrifice involved -- in JUNO's case, roughly 1.1 billion dollars, not counting the use of existing infrastructure (NASA's command post, various radiotelescopes, and the sixty or so employees involved in the project). If we define sacrifice as 'expenditure without hope of recompense,' then we have to consider NASA's budget (much shrunken over the past decades, but still running $20 billion a year), and indeed the entire US military budget, currently running near $700 billion. It may be a worthy expenditure, of course -- but money that is put into military hardware returns no funds on the investment. As President Eisenhower once put it, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

But are there not some things worth the sacrifice? Certainly there are, and when the direction of that sacrifice is a peaceful one, there's every reason to celebrate it. In our science-fictional universes, such as the Star Trek franchise, we imagine a world in which explorers will "boldly go where no one has gone before" -- but in our present-day world, manned exploration -- whether of outer space, the deep oceans, or the frozen zone -- is often hampered by the unwillingness of governments to take the risk. But this could, and perhaps should, change. After all, it's a tradition that, as President Reagan noted in his Challenger speech, stretches back to the days of explorers in their wooden ships:
On this day 390 years ago, the great explorer Sir Francis Drake died aboard ship off the coast of Panama. In his lifetime the great frontiers were the oceans, and an historian later said, "He lived by the sea, died on it, and was buried in it." Well, today we can say of the Challenger crew: Their dedication was, like Drake's, complete. The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and "slipped the surly bonds of earth" to "touch the face of God."

See additional links here.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Into the Wild

It's become a new site of pilgrimage over the years since Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild first told the story of Chris McCandless, a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp -- the abandoned Fairbanks City bus, #142, that stands a in a clearing a couple hundred feet off the legendary Stampede Trail, a track first blazed by a miner to his claim back in the 1930s. If airfare to Fairbanks and a ride to the trailhead aren't on your calendar, or in your budget, you can even see it on Google Earth, where it's marked "Stampede Trail Magic Bus," a name which invokes another, mobile bus, a.k.a. "Furthur," aboard which Ken Kesey, Wavy Gravy, and others of the Merry Pranksters embarked upon trips of another kind in the 1960's. This bus had been towed (along with another now gone) to the site as temporary shelter for workers years before, and had been fitted with box-spring beds and a stove; when the work was done, the bus was abandoned.

It now has a granite plaque, placed by his family, marking the bus as the end of the trail for McCandless. When his body was found there by moose hunters in September of 1992, his family had not known his whereabouts or even heard from him, for more than two years. A young man full of promise, an A-student with a degree from a top college, no student loans, and a $25,000 start up savings from his parents, he seemed like a young man who had it made. And yet, before he departed on his curious quest, he'd given all that money to charity, burned the cash in his wallet and (soon after) abandoned his car. Changing his name to Alexander Supertramp, he traveled by hitch-hiking, crashing on couches, and working -- apparently hard and well -- at a series of farm jobs. He made friends everywhere he went, and yet at the end, he didn't want anyone to go with him. Krakauer, a journalist for Outside Magazine, was hired to do a story, which he did (it appeared in 1993), but he was still unsatisfied. Tracking down more of McCandless's friends -- some of whom contacted him after seeing the article in the magazine, helped fill out the picture, while Alex's few leavings -- postcards to friends, notes scribbled in the margins of books, and such -- offered the bare outlines of a journey.

Into the Wild, the resulting book, was a huge bestseller, and in 2007 was adapted as a film by Sean Penn. And yet, despite the book's immense popularity, readers have remained divided: for some, McCandless is a true hero, a voyager of the spirit whose restless trek symbolizes everything great about the human desire to explore the world -- while for others, including quite a few Alaskans, he's just one of the apparently endless stream of inexperienced, foolish, and just plain stupid people who head out into the wilderness without the knowledge, skills, or materials essential to surviving. The debate is not an entirely new one; as Krakauer observes, a similar argument has long raged over Arctic expeditions such as that of Sir John Franklin, which -- though sanctioned by the British Empire and provided with what was though the best equipment -- canned food, two enormous ships, flour, buscuit, and rum -- proved unable to survive in the harsh Arctic climate, even though, a few miles from the stranded ice-bound vessels, Inuit families were enjoying a rich meal of seal meat and muktuk, and bouncing healthy babies on their knees in their snug igloos.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Welcome to Arctic Encounters

Welcome to the course blog for our Summer 2016 course, English 261: Arctic Encounters. Since this is a hybrid course, with roughly half of our activities taking place online, this  page will serve as the central stepping-off point for our virtual excursions into the Frozen North -- there are links here to all our class readings, viewings, and listenings, along with other academic resources.  But the most important part of this site, though, is the blog itself. Each week, I'll post an item about the readings or viewings for the class, and everyone will have an opportunity to respond and post their own views. I encourage an informal style here -- no need to niggle over grammar, spelling, or formalities -- this should be the place for wide-ranging discussions, open exchange of ideas, and questions of all kinds. It's fine to respond to other students' postings as well -- I encourage you to think of these postings as part of an ongoing conversation, rather than isolated islands of thought.

There are few places left on earth where simply going there seems extraordinary – but but a trip north of the Arctic Circle still seems to signify the experience of something astonishing. This course takes up the history of human exploration and interaction in the Arctic, from the early days of the nineteenth century to the present, with a focus on contact between European and American explorers and the Eskimo, or Inuit as they are more properly known today. We'll read first-hand accounts and view documentaries that recount these histories, both from the Western and the Inuit side of the story. It's a region of the world that's growing in significance, as global warming heats up more than ice; in recent years, Canada, Russia, and Denmark have all staked out new claims to the frozen zone. The future of climate change, human cultural change, and increasingly scarce natural resources may lie, not in the West or the East -- but in the North.