Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Last Imaginary Place

The Arctic remains one of the few places on earth that simply to visit is viewed as a rare accomplishment. Not many of us have business that takes us north of the Arctic Circle, and it's not most peoples' idea of a summer vacation (although this past year, the Crystal Serenity luxury liner transited the Northwest Passage, the first ship of its kind to do so; the least-expensive tickets ran to $21,850 (not to mention an additional $50,000 insurance policy in case of "emergency evacuation"). More modest tours have been taking place for years (in the interests of full disclosure, I should note that I'll be working as a shipboard lecturer on one of these in August of 2017). This route, which was long so deadly and daunting that there was doubt it would ever be sailed, is fast becoming an open waterway, and -- as a result -- the source of controversies over sovereignty. Canada regards the passage as internal Canadian waters, while the International Law of the Sea classifies it -- so long as readily navigable -- as an international strait. Meanwhile, on the Russian shores of the Arctic ocean, dozens of oil and natural gas leases are being sold, and the Russian government has filed a claim for continental-shelf rights to such leases which extends from Siberia to the pole itself. The record-low sea-ice formation in the winter of 2016-2017 may bring open water to a far wide region than ever before seen -- indeed, it may lead to the appearance of an actual Open Polar Sea, a hitherto-chimerical historical myth.

Robert McGhee wants to alert us to these issues, but more than that: his key point is that this seemingly still-blank point on our mental maps has, in fact, a history of its own. Significant parts of that history were shaped by encounters -- not often friendly ones -- between Europeans (starting with the Vikings), Americans, and indigenous peoples such as the Inuit (pronounced ee-noo-eet). On the indigenous side, people were puzzled by the arrival of these strangers, who had great wealth in wood and metal but did not seem to know how to live on the land; on the European side, the encounters were marred by greed (see Martin Frobisher's quest for gold) and cultural prejudice. It was not until the nineteenth century that an ostensibly more "enlightened" exploration of the Arctic commenced; this is the era of Sir John Franklin's expedition of 1819-1822, which is fictionalized in Rudy Wiebe's A Discovery of Strangers, as well as of his final, ill-fated expedition of 1845, on which he and all 128 of his men perished. 


  1. As a whole, when looking at the chapters in "The Last Imaginary Place," generally speaking, one could look at this account about Arctic history as just a source of information. While reading the first chapter, I got a sense of what kind of people lived in the Arctic and how they survived. Before reading, I could not conceptualize how these people could adapt to such different climates than what we have today. The hunting aspect is very prominent in every lifestyle of the people who lived in the Arctic and they relied on this as their tool to survival. We start to see the Arctic way of life and how this humanizes the Ice Age and that it is not such a foreign time as we may think it was. In chapter 5, the Norse expansion into Greenland and North America to communicate with the Inuit documents native people in those areas for the first time. Times such as these ones truly define how important the Arctic Age was. These people were interacting with one another and moving into new land over the long period of 2000 years. This book thus far gives some life to people like the Inuit, whom I found very interesting to learn about. Their way of life is completely centered around the resources that they have, which is mainly animals. While hunting is not as desirable for everyone here and now in our reality, it is truly a way of life when the climate and resources are different. In some ways, I admire these Arctic people over the course of many many years and the ways in which they adapted to the world around them. Comparing to life today, our climate is more rigid in terms of change and adaptation, where as they might have experienced a huge change in climate. Things like this are what give more insight into the people that shaped the Arctic World.

  2. Before enrolling in this course, I never thought about the Arctic world as a mysterious place. I thought exactly what many others would think when they hear about the Arctic. That it’s a cold place filled with polar bears, and snow dogs, Eskimos and Igloos. The Arctic is not what we would call an ideal place to go relax and unwind. However, after reading Robert McGhee’s book The Last Imaginary Place it helped illuminate notions about the Arctic and how the reality is that still today it has yet to be fully discovered. What is most interesting to me are the tribes that live there. Their way of life is so much more different than ours. The meat they eat comes from what they can kill, I personally could never picture myself eating seal meat. Nor could I ever imagine myself wearing a suit made from a Caribou I skinned. However, I guess I understand that the Inuit had no choice, their survival depended on how well they could adapt to their environment.

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  4. The most fascinating part in learning about the Arctic for me is learning about the Inuit people. Like Nelsy, I could never imagine having to kill an animal to survive or eating seal or polar bear meat, but I would if I had to. I think it's telling to our culture and society that the Inuit people could survive and thrive under these living conditions when whole bands of explorers died trying. I watched a documentary about how the open water and pollution was negatively effecting the way the Inuit people hunt and live off the land, and so I was really happy to learn more about that from this course. I never really considered the politics in that equation, although I probably should have, but it's really scary to learn that countries are staking claim on the Arctics natural resources due to the open water making the journey easier. And wow, learning about how much it cost to travel there and that one would need a 50,000 life insurance policy is also fascinating.

  5. Though some parts of Mcghee’s The Last imaginary Place: A Human History of the Arctic World were a bit tough to get through at times due to my complete lack of interest in ever visiting a place so cold (I can hardly handle New England winters). However, I did find some parts fascinating.
    Chapters 3, 5, and 6
    I like how the environment affected the religious views of the Arctic people specifically in hunting and shamanism. I’m curious about the specific role the wolf had in some of the religions beliefs. I’m also curious about just how many inflated sealskins are needed to transport people. I had no idea that Iceland was the first literate country in northern Europe and had never heard of Eirik the Red, though I had read of Thorgeir before. The historical background given on the Inuit in chapter six really pissed me off. The nineteenth-twentieth century view on the Inuit absolutely floored me. How any “civilized” people can look at another group like that never ceases to amaze me. I am well aware that it is nothing new, people have always demonized other cultures, but you would think the fact that they could survive where so many others could not would have served as some kind of sign that the they were more then capable of “abstract ideas.” The idea that such a dangerous/wild place is found attractive on account of its ability to “test the human spirt,” and that its beauty is directly related to the absence of the familiar, is a really wonderful idea to me. I think I will use this idea of Arctic expedition for my paper on space expedition.
    Chapters 7, 8, and 11
    The most interesting thing in chapter 8 was the journal logs. Particularly the one about them believing the narwhal to be a unicorn. I enjoyed Mcghee’s explanation on the Arctic explore image coming from romanticized Victorian travel literature and the reality of the hardships faced due to poor planning and judgment. His descriptions of the smoking sea, ice-blinks, and polar pack had me curious enough to try to find a video (I wanted to hear the sound he describes on 137) but couldn’t find one. I did find a lot of ambient noise related videos, some ice breakers videos, and this one:
    I fell down the youtube hole…
    Anyway, in this video they talk about having to mentally prepare the soldiers and how they may not get visits from the outside/mainland for up to a year. I compare this with William Barents group and the Chelyuskin and find it interesting that humans are still determined to survive/militarize areas in these insane conditions.

  6. Above all else, The Last Imaginary Place opened my eyes to the reality of the Arctic. I found it interesting how McGhee makes a clear comparison of the real Arctic and the Arctic represented through culture and ideology. Personally, it gave me my first real bit of insight into the Arctic, as I had only ever known the folklore of it. I always imagined it as vast but peaceful, and somehow overlooked the harsh reality of it. Although it is a beautiful place in terms of nature, it is actually quite brutal while trying to survive in it. It is hard to imagine life in the Arctic due to the completely parallel world in which we live; it put things into perspective and made me realize just how easy my life is compared to the treacherous conditions McGhee describes. I saw this book beyond its literal description of life in the Arctic as more of a metaphor for the idea that there are so many different ways of life. McGhee’s intense depiction of the Arctic way of life is so different than the lives we live in America, and it really made me stop to think about the fact that the way of life we know is not the way of life that everybody knows. I have always been aware of the various cultures and traditions all over the world, but I believe that it is very important to be knowledgeable and understanding of these other cultures as well.