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A Litter of Polar Bear Books to celebrate International Polar Bear Day

Good day all,

Just a few days ago, in light of International Polar Bear Day being just around the corner, a colleague writer, Michael Engelhard, made me an offer I couldn’t resist: publish his review of five books about polar bears on my blog. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Michael yet, but we’ve been exchanging by email for the last two years.

Michael first contacted me to ask my permission to publish a photo I took of the 2013 ordination of the new Churchill-Hudson Bay archbishop. Michael was in the research phase of his upcoming book, a cultural anthropology of the polar bear, and, as he explained, my photo “beautifully illustrated the medieval Icelandic custom of donating polar bear skins to churches, as a sign of devotion, and they were often spread in front of the altar.”

Cérémonie d'ordination. Remarquez l'ordinand qui est couché sur la peau de l'ours polaire.

Through our exchanges, Michael also informed me about a segment of Johan Adrian Jacobsen’s life that I was not aware of. For those who have been following this blog, you know that Johan Adrian was the young Norwegian hired by Carl Hagenbeck to recruit “Eskimos” for his ethnographical shows. In summer 1880, Jacobsen came to Labrador and recruited eight Inuit, among them Abraham Ulrikab, who all died in Europe, killed by smallpox. That said, did you know that Jacobsen was also tasked by Hagenbeck to help train polar bears to pull sleds on one of Roald Amundsen’s expedition? That was news to me. As Michael also explained that crazy scheme never amounted to anything.

As per Canada Post’s tracking system, my copy of Michael’s book, Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, is now in Gatineau. So, it’s just a matter of hours before it arrives on my doorstep. I’m really looking forward to dig into it and learn so much more about this icon of the Arctic and the multiple ways it has inspired, influenced, fascinated, or terrorized  humans over the centuries.

With no further ado, here is Michael’s essay.

Happy International Polar Bear Day!
France Rivet


Illustration from a German children’s book, 1928

Illustration from a German children’s book, 1928

In his out-of-print gem Bears and Men: A Gathering, the poet and novelist William Mills relates an Eskimo legend that, with sea ice shrinking and polar bears starving, feels especially poignant. In it, the raven created women and men, and plants and animals for them to eat. Then he created the polar bear, “because he felt that if he didn’t create something to make men afraid, they would destroy everything he had made to inhabit the earth.”

On International Polar Bear Day Feb. 27, let us celebrate the charismatic creature with a few books for discerning (and concerned) readers. This Arctic roundup includes a biological overview, a graphic novel, a travelogue, a pictorial anthology, and a children’s book and all are available through your local bookseller.

Polar Bears: Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior

For people curious about the lives and ecology of polar bears but intimidated by technical tomes, Andrew Derocher’s Polar Bears: A Complete Guide to Their Biology and Behavior (2012) is heaven sent. Helped by Wayne Lynch’s color photos, the eminent Canadian wildlife biologist puts the bear in its natural context, outlining its role as an apex predator — the largest carnivore on land. Chapters on polar bear evolution and Arctic marine ecosystems show that it owes much to the sea — hence its classification as a marine mammal. Drawing on fieldwork and an extensive literature, Derocher even explores arcane topics such as molting and vocalizations. Written for laypersons and with sidebars scattered throughout, Polar Bears offers just enough information to whet readers’ appetites for more.

The Giant Bear: An Inuit Folktale

In children’s books about polar bears, which are flooding the market, the animal’s protective parent-offspring bond and the cubs’ need to explore feature prominently, allowing children to identify easily with the bears. Unfortunately, the books often also humanize their infant character. More naturalistic stories incorporate biological information — and then there are retellings of Inuit myths such as The Giant Bear (2012). Fetchingly illustrated by Eva Widermann, it is based on a narration by Native storyteller Jose Angutingunrik from Nunavut. It tells of an ice-clad, monstrous bear — the nanurluk — that lives under the sea ice and stalks an old couple. Despite its gruesome subject, the book offers real insights into Arctic survival and the minds of people who’ve thrived there for millennia.

(Note from France: This book is also available in Inuktitut, in Innuinnaqtun and in French.)

The Beaufort DiariesA bedtime story for grown-ups, T. Cooper’s graphic novel (and animated short) The Beaufort Diaries (2010) follows a polar bear exiled from Alaska into “the wilds of Hollywood.” In this riff on Kotzwinkle’s satirical parable The Bear Went Over the Mountain, the protagonist also makes it big in “La-La Land,” rising to stardom and hobnobbing with a famous real-life actor who has made global warming his cause célèbre. Reaching beyond naïve anthropomorphizing, the animal’s personification in Cooper’s tale functions as once did Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s: It mirrors our own society, our own foibles.

The Last Polar BearSeattle’s Mountaineers Books is known for large-format pictorials that are much more than mere “coffee-table books.” Many of their titles focus on Arctic landscapes and wildlife (and one even contains a CD of birdsongs). These books showcase sublime photography and writing by different contributors, combined with environmental advocacy. They remind us of American heirlooms — places and life forms — that deserve our attention and protection. Photographer Steven Kazlowski’s, The Last Polar Bear (2008) contains 200 photos he took over a period of six years. Essays by luminaries such as the former anthropologist Richard Nelson, wildlife biologist Stephen C. Amstrup, and a great-grandson of “Teddy” Roosevelt paint a vivid picture of the white bear’s life ways and situation.

Never Look a Polar Bear in the EyeThe journalist, firefighter, and paramedic Zac Unger’s travelogue-cum-reportage Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye (2013) compels with details about the Churchill, Manitoba scene. Planeloads of wildlife enthusiasts seek out this “Polar Bear Capital of the World” every year, and Unger depicts them and the locals and the furry objects of their desire with humor and verve. According to him, some residents carry a shotgun when they push a baby stroller through town. Unger, his wife, and their three children moved from Oakland, California, to make Churchill their temporary home — the writer’s quest for mini-marshmallows to feed to his kids was the least of adventures in this remote, small community.

Michael Engelhard is the author of the essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean, and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon, the only book that deals exclusively with 8,000 years of human-polar bear interaction. Trained as an anthropologist, Engelhard lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.







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