Ep. 9. Floating Coast with Bathsheba Demuth

Mill Valley Public Library interviews Bathsheba Demuth

Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait by Bathsheba Demuth is the best book I’ve read in the last year but before raving about it, I want to share a story.

One morning when I was living in Alaska I woke up with the song ‘Celia of the Seals’ by Donovon in my head. I remember drinking coffee in bed while listening to the song over & over that morning. The song was inspired by Celia Hammond, a 1960s supermodel that often appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine and often in fur coats. Hammond, while still a model, became an animal rights activist and protested fur for fashion. Donovon’s song, in short, is a protest song against clubbing baby seals to death. Later that morning I ran into a friend at an arts & craft fair, who showed me the sealskin pillow she had just purchased for her husband as a birthday gift. Out of my own amusement of the coincidence, I responded by sharing with her that I had just listened to Donovon’s song on repeat. The contrast between purchasing seal products and song protesting seal products seemed to generate some brief awkwardness between us and she quickly introduced me to the Alaskan Native artist that made the pillow as if to say, ‘See, it’s okay’ and then asked him, ‘You didn’t club the seal, did you?’ to which he said it had been shot and then most humbly added, ‘Poor seal.’ I’ll come back to this after I rave about the book.

My own experience and interest in Alaska no doubt provided some bias in my appreciation of Demuth’s book but despite that, it still stands as an amazing piece of work. It is more than an environmental history of a place but uses a single place to capture so many other substantial global implications about humanity, civilization and the ‘nonhuman world’ to use the author’s words. For me to say the place itself, the Bering Strait, is objectively unique might be subjective but I’ll say it all the same. The strait’s narrow point separates two continents just south of the Arctic Circle with fifty miles of salt water that turns to ice in winter, and is home to walrus, whale and seal in the seas and wolves, caribou and fox on land. Ravens observe them all from the sky. It is also home to indiginous people that have lived in the region for thousands of years. The span of history Demuth focuses on is the last 200 hundred years, which includes the time before foreign whaling ships arrived but in short order covers the Soviet and American (IE communist and capitalist) pillaging that impacted the natural environment and all lifeforms that call Beringia home. The book is beautifully framed with recognition that the lifespan of a bowhead whale has observed all of this history.

The geographical place is as alluring as its inhabitants and history but what makes this book so special is Demuth’s exceptional writing craft and storytelling. The stories of the non-human world are categorized in five sections (sea, shore, land, underground, and ocean) that flow as seamless as the rising and falling tide. Demuth exquisitely describes the value of walrus, not only in the capitalist or communist sense of value, but primarily the natural value of walrus: their tusks stir nutrients from the seafloor that release nitrogen into the water that allows photosynthetic organisms to bloom – and the bloom feeds squid, clam, small fish and tube worm. Without walrus, the ecosystem falls apart. The same is true of every other animal species that call the Bering Strait home, as well as the people that depend on them.

Demuth’s words are equally elegant as powerful – the line I quote in the interview, ‘Death made invisible by those who consume it’ is just one phrase of many that profoundly, by virtue of being blunt, express and reinforce the destruction to Beringia by foreigners –  ‘Knowledge of the whales was eradicated from the consumed products’ or that yankees ‘Took ivory and pelts in exchange for alcohol and starvation’ paint the reality of the damage done. More than gut-punch phrases, Demuth can capture complexities in a single sentence: ‘At the end of the 19th century federal policy toward native people conflated christianity with civilization, civilization with progress, and progress with productive growth, which came from individuals taking raw nature and working it into valuable things sold for profit.’ Literary references in the final pages of the book (‘Springs were silent. The population was a bomb.’) followed by one more gut-punch phrase (‘Pollutants filled streams and bloodstreams’) prompted me to request an interview to be based on a single page from the book.

By the time of the interview I had abandoned my plan to base the interview on a single page and struggled to find the right way to approach my questions because, as I shared with Demuth, her book left no question unanswered and covered everything a reader such as myself could hope for. In fact, the edited episode consists of two interviews spliced together because I felt I missed my mark during the first interview. I’m ethically bound to share that I also took liberty and replaced an original question with an overdubbed one, which brings me back to my story about Donovon and sealskin. 

For many years before I woke up that morning in Alaska with ‘Celia of the Seals’ in my head, I identified with the views of the singer as it was pretty easy to oppose the concept of clubbing seals. But my time in Alaska changed that opinion and not because I briefly met a man that had shot a seal and made a pillow with its skin. I learned and observed first-hand three points from Demuth’s book: 1. people that have lived in that region sustainably for thousands of years are dependent on the resources available and 2. foreign imposition, be it capitalism or communism, forced a demand on the supplies and 3. consumers of the supplies are more to blame for the death of the seals than the person that clubbed (or shot) the seal. 

The question I overdubbed was not about ‘Celia of the Seals’ but rather a different song by Donovon – ‘The Universal Soldier’ in which the singer casts blame on all soldiers in all wars for their complicity in their acts of violence. It’s a logical argument – if there are no soldiers, then the leaders can’t send anyone to battle. I asked Demuth if the same view applied to the whalers with harpoons in hand or the miners destroying the land and polluting the water in search of gold but in the final edit removed my framing of the question about Donovon. I don’t mean to suggest that I now approve of clubbing baby seals but just that it is more complicated than universal condemnation. The executioner shouldn’t be judged when the jury is wearing fur. Or something like that – I’m not as good of a writer as Demuth. A documentary film called The Angry Inuk exemplifies the complexities of modern sealskin products. When indigenous people that have lived sustainably for thousands of years on natural resources in their environment have a capitalist system imposed on them, how else can they make an income in this new system without capitalizing on what is available to them? 

I no longer share Donovon’s views of either song and while I’m being critical of him, I’ll add a few more words of commentary to further rip him and say his songs are only pleasant to my ears because of his producers that helped arrange the songs. But before either of Donovon’s songs came to mind in the context of Floating Coast, I started thinking of a different song as soon as I began reading the book, which is Dem Bones by James Weldon Johnson. Because the head bone is connected to the neck bone and the neck bone is connected to the shoulder bone and the shoulder bone is connected to the back bone. In Floating Coast, Demuth beautifully hits home how each form of life in the Bering Strait is connected to all other forms of life. Any disruption or destruction to the balance affects everyone and everything. The Bering Strait provides an easy example to see this truth but the same is true of every ecosystem.