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A history that roams with the whales

In The New York Review of Books, Sophie Pinkham reviews Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: 

Though Floating Coast is billed as an environmental history, it could also be described as a meditation on a biosphere. Demuth includes lavish descriptions of the landscape she has been admiring since she first visited as a teenager, but relatively little in the way of straightforward political or economic history. She is interested in animals—particularly whales—and Floating Coast is, to a great extent, history from the vantage point of the sea; political treaties and trade agreements, monarchs and presidents flash by on the periphery, as if seen from far away. Though centered on the Bering Strait, the book roams with the creatures whose history she documents, following whaling fleets as far as Japan and Hawaii.

  In Beringia, Pinkham writes,

Demuth has found an almost perfect case study through which to compare capitalist and Soviet approaches to the exploitation of natural resources. She finds that from the Arctic vantage point, the results were remarkably similar: ecological devastation and the immiseration of indigenous communities. Intent on maximizing “production,” neither system conceived of a moment at which economic growth was no longer possible or desirable. This left them equally ill equipped to situate human economies and societies within the limits of ecosystems that operate primarily on a cyclical rather than a linear model. The limits that Americans and Soviets discovered in Beringia—the slow reproductive cycles of whales and walruses, the delicate balance of wolves and caribou—are vivid examples of the natural boundaries that confine all human endeavors. The twentieth century imagined progress as liberation from material constraints, but to ignore these constraints is to court disaster. The harms caused by the heedless consumption of whales were a preview of the much larger dangers of the consumption of fossil fuels.

Wingless wanderers

I hate public speaking, even if the speaking is down a phone line from my house to a studio, so when I’m asked to talk about my work I usually say no, on the grounds that I have a face for radio and a voice for print. There are subjects, though, on which you can’t just file the article and then retreat to the study; subjects on which you must do the talking as well as the writing. Climate change is one of them. 

  That’s why, though I bottled out of one interview, I have agreed to four over the past fortnight, to talk about why I’ve stopped flying to work. (You can find the latest on the podcast of the Nine til Noon Show hosted by Greg Hughes on the Irish station Highland Radio: it was on Wednesday’s show, and our conversation begins at -0:40:32.)

  At the end of August I wrote a piece to try to get a few things clear in my own head: what did I think about climate change, about the contribution flying was making to it, and about the contribution I was making as a travel writer by encouraging other people to burn more oil at a time when we should all be burning less? Writing the piece was also a way of explaining to my wife why I had turned down a trip to New York on which (if we’d paid her air fare), she might have joined me. I decided, and my wife agreed, that I should stop doing jobs that entail flying. It’s easier for me to make that decision than it is for younger writers: I’m 61, I still need to pay bills, but I no longer have a mortgage and my children are grown-ups.

  At the start of September, I offered that piece to The Daily Telegraph, where, it turned out, the digital editor on the travel desk, Oliver Smith, had been asking himself the same questions. Olly has decided to limit himself to one return flight a year, and, in a forceful piece that went online on September 11, he explained why. That piece was initially behind a paywall, but it isn’t now, so please read it. 

  My own piece went online on October 3 on the Telegraph Travel site, and appeared in print a couple of days later. Among those who responded to it via Twitter was the writer Paul Miles, who said: “I stopped flying 10 yrs ago. Tricky as my niche was tropical islands. No longer. My early non-flying trips often involved ferry from UK to Scandinavia (Bergen, Esbjerg) but they’ve ceased now. It’s time to reinstate those crossings!” 

  This week, Gavin Haines, another travel writer (who, like me, used to be on the Telegraph staff and then went freelance, though he’s only 35), published a piece on the website of the campaign Flight Free UK, explaining why he had promised to avoid all flying in 2020. Please read that, and consider joining the campaign. I joined it myself yesterday, and my wife is going to sign up too. We have family commitments that will probably necessitate a return flight in 2021, but otherwise we’re aiming to be wingless wanderers.*

  At a meeting in London this week, members of the Association of Independent Tour Operators briefed journalists on what’s new in their programmes for the coming year. Later, before presentations of awards for travel writing, the association’s chairman, Derek Moore, addressed the gathering. He said his members needed to encourage their customers to fly less and stay longer, and should be looking forward to a boom in rail travel.

  Is the travel trade waking up? I hope so. Not before time. But then I’ve been shamefully dozy myself. Besides the articles mentioned above, I’d urge you to read one by Nicholas Crane, geographer, television presenter and a past president of the Royal Geographical Society. He decided as long ago as the mid-1990s, having studied the science, that he should do everything he could to avoid using aircraft. In a piece in 2006, 13 years ago, he was arguing: “There isn’t any option but to give up all non-essential flying.” I would have read that piece closely; I must have done: I was an editor on the desk that published it. Now, I’m finally heeding it.

*Update I see from a piece in The Guardian today (October 19) by Andy Pietrasik, the travel editor, that the writer Dixe Wills is another non-flyer. Pietrasik says that his team recognises “the need to help tackle the climate emergency by reducing the number of flights we all take”.

Short list for Banff prize

The category winners in the Banff Mountain Book Competition (see earlier post), which will all be in contention for the grand prize, were announced last week.  Prizes will be presented on October 31, at an event featuring contributions from the mountaineers Sharon Wood and Reinhold Messner.

The real Texas

What comes to mind when you hear the word “Texas?” Cattle ranchers, cowboys and Comanches, big hats and “the oil bidness”, maybe. What about slavery? Annette Gordon-Reed, reviewing five recent books about the state, including Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas, prompts a rethink.

Ciaran Carson’s Belfast

If you’re visiting Northern Ireland, your background reading should include the work of Ciaran Carson, who died today of cancer at the age of 70. He was a wonderful chronicler of what he called “the ongoing, fractious epic that is Belfast”.

  He grew up in the Catholic Falls Road area and, as Patricia Craig puts it in her obituary for The Guardian, “went on to transfigure his native city, and transfix his readers, with a rich accumulation of poems, metafictions and other unclassifiable prose works”.

  I’d long loved the work, and was lucky enough to meet the man when I wrote a piece about a new literary tour of Belfast in 2006 (can it really be that long ago?). I’d brought with me two paperbacks that I wanted him to sign: a poetry collection, The Ballad of HMS Belfast, and The Star Factory, which is partly autobiography and partly biography of Belfast. I muttered something about how they were only paperbacks, and he lifted, signed and then handed to me a hardback of The Star Factory. “Take that with you as well,” he said.

Why I’m trying to give up taking the plane to work

I’ve written an article — which Telegraph Travel has decided is worth publishing — on why I’m trying to stop taking the plane to work. But I’m shamefully late in following the example of one Nicholas Crane, who’s been doing everything possible since the mid-1990s to avoid using aircraft. In a piece he wrote 13 years ago, he urged the rest of us to do likewise. “There isn’t any option,” he declared, “but to give up all non-essential flying.”

Place and setting on a warming planet

Two weeks before the global climate strike, the New York Public Library held its first  “Live from the NYPL” session of the season, a conversation between two writers who have grappled with climate change in fiction and fact. They are Amitav Ghosh, whose latest novel, Gun Island (John Murray), brings together California wildfires, Venetian-lagoon tornadoes and myth and coincidence; and Nathaniel Rich, whose most recent book, Losing Earth: The Decade We Could Have Stopped Climate Change (Picador), began as a piece for the magazine of The New York Times.

  On the video below, their conversation begins about 14 minutes in. Just before the half-hour mark, they turn to the question of place and setting, and Ghosh says that it’s impossible, in our world, to tackle it as a 19th-century novelist would have done. 

  “For one thing, the settings have completely changed. The populations have changed, the geographies have changed. And most of all, we live at a time when, really, it’s not just people moving; we also know that entire ecosystems are moving. And we know most of all that all these changes are happening because of extended global impact. So any attempt that we have today to approach these issues has to dispense with the 19th-century idea of the setting. 

  “I really feel that John Steinbeck was the great climate novelist avant la lettreThe Grapes of Wrath, the first chapter of it, is just such a magnificent riff on climate… if today you had to be Steinbeck writing about the same sort of phenomenon — and in a way I am writing about the same kind of phenomenon — you couldn’t do it using the Oklahoma dialect, as Steinbeck did. You would have to use Spanish.

  “So already, then, you see this deep fracture entering into our literary universe. How do you deal with this… what we might call an Anthropocene of language, which is not the stable, monolingual reality of the past?”

Travel and place at the festivals

Forthcoming festivals with events featuring writing on travel and place include the following:

Appledore Book Festival (September 20-28) 
Raynor Winn returns to the festival to talk about how the 630-mile walk she and her husband made along the South West Coast Path, recounted in The Salt Path, has influenced their lives since; Mike Thomson, the BBC world affairs correspondent, tells the extraordinary story of Syria’s Secret Library, which flourished underground in the town of Darayya during the civil war; Robin Hanbury-Tenison, who made the first crossings of South America from east to west and north to south, talks about the 40 pioneers he has brought together in The Great Explorers; and Nicholas Crane, author most recently of You Are Here: A brief guide to the world, argues that the study of geography has never been more important than it is now.

Jersey Festival of Words (September 25-29)
Contributors include the round-the-world sailor Robin Knox-Johnston, whose autobiography is Running Free; Raynor Winn (see above); the photographer Martin Toft, who in Te Ahi Kā — The Fires of Occupation explores the relationships between an ancestral river and indigenous people in New Zealand;  Bram Wanrooij, a former Jersey resident and author of Displaced, on Europe and the global refugee crisis; and Professor Alex Rogers, who recently served as a scientific consultant on the BBC’s Blue Planet II series, and has written In The Deep: The Hidden Wonders of Our Ocean and How We Can Protect Them.

Marlborough Literature Festival (September 26-29)
Contributors include Adam Weymouth, whose Kings of the Yukon was recently long-listed in the 2019 Banff Mountain Book Competition; Monisha Rajesh, who went Around the World in 80 Trainsand Raynor Winn, whose The Salt Path has been chosen for the Big Town Read, in which book groups discuss the selected title before having a chance to question the author.

Ilkley Literature Festival (October 4-20)
Mike Thomson (see Appledore Book Festival) talks about Syria’s Secret Library; Laurence Rose, who likes to explore “the joints between nature, culture and conservation”, talks about The Long Spring, an account of a series of journeys he undertook in 2016 to track the arrival of spring from North Africa to Arctic Norway; Ben Aitken, who went to Poland to see what the Poles who came to the UK had left behind, introduces his debut, A Chip Shop in Poznan; Richard King talks about The Lark Ascending, in which he  explores connections between music and the British landscape; David Barrie, author of Incredible Journeys, tells how animals great and small find their way; and Lara Maiklem, who has been Mudlarking on the Thames for more than 15 years, explains what her finds reveal about London and its lost ways of life.

Bewdley Festival (October 11-20)
Speakers include  the television presenter Kate Humble, whose most recent book is Thinking on My Feet: The small joy of putting one foot in front of another; the travel writer Lois Pryce, talking about her Revolutionary Ride on a motorcyle across Iran; and the naturalist and broadcaster Brett Westwood, with a session billed “Into the woods”.

Marozzi talk on ‘Islamic Empires’

Justin Marozzi will be talking about his new book, Islamic Empires, at Daunt Books’ Marylebone branch in London next Wednesday, September 18.

Broad view of the Bering Strait

Bathsheba Demuth’s Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait (WW Norton), which Robert Macfarlane recommended when I interviewed him earlier this year, was reviewed at the weekend in The New York Times by the novelist Julia Phillips (author of the bestselling Disappearing Earth):

The first people to enter the Americas came through Beringia, the stretch of land and sea between what is now Russia and Alaska. That may have been 20,000 years ago. By foot, by boat, they traveled, hunted and built communities. Some of them moved south. Within a few millenniums, people had settled everywhere from the Arctic Circle down to Patagonia. All the places on this continent we know — the cities, the villages, the spot where this newspaper is printed — follow this movement out of the Bering Strait. To study that place is to know a whole hemisphere’s history.

It’s also key for understanding the present. Movement in the Bering Strait continues. In “Floating Coast,” Bathsheba Demuth, an environmental historian at Brown University, tracks the last two centuries of motion between northeastern Russia and northwestern America.

  It is, Phillips says, sometimes a challenging book, but a rich, well-researched and rewarding one.

It keeps under readers’ feet the vastness of Demuth’s expertise, as solid as a land bridge. She has made it her life’s work to learn about Beringia. In relaying her knowledge, she provides a vision not only of where we on this continent came from but where we are headed. We study the Bering Strait to learn what the future holds.