What in the world!

cropped essay photoWhat’s THAT in Bill Fitzhugh’s backpack?

Object 1. [far left, Horse Tooth] Electrical insulator? Ceramic kiln waster? Wrong on both counts! This is a 3000-year old horse tooth from the Mongolian steppe. I have been excavating Bronze Age Deer Stones in Mongolia for the past twelve years. One thousand deer stones—megalithic granite plinths standing for warriors—are among the most enigmatic monuments known from Central Asia. Their true age remained unknown until Smithsonian and Mongolian archaeologists discovered sacrificed horses arranged in rings around the deer stones. By radiocarbon-dating horse remains, we discovered the deer stones date to 700-1200 B.C. Horse teeth like this molar were the most reliable dating samples.

Object 2. [second from left, Swordfish Harpoon] The earliest harpoons in the world come from the Rift Valley in East Africa, date some 50-60,000 years old, and were used for catching fish. Toggling harpoons like this one can capture much larger animals, and were first invented by early maritime hunters in northern Japan about 6-7,000 years ago. They work by ‘toggling’ beneath the skin and blubber, allowing hunters to capture seals, walrus, and whales. This bronze harpoon is used by swordfish hunters along the New England coast. I bought this one in Chatham, Massachusetts. Its form copies a style of toggling harpoon used by Greenland Eskimos that was passed on to Dutch whalers in the 17th century.

Object 3. [third from left, Chinese Roof Tile] This fragment of green-glazed Chinese roof tile comes from the spoil piles of the German excavations at Kharakorum, the capitol city of the Great Mongol Empire. Kharakorum was founded in 1235 by Ogodei Khan, one of Genghis Khan’s sons, and was not finished until the 1260s. William of Rubruck, a Franciscan monk and emissary of the Pope, visited the city in 1254 and described its thirteen temples of many different religious denominations, including a Nestorian Christian church. It also had artists’ shops and the khan’s Great Palace, which Rubruck described as having a silver tree designed by the French goldsmith, Guillaume Boucher, which delivered fermented mare’s milk and four other liquors from its branches.

Object 4. [fourth from left, Inuksuk Model] Thule Eskimos and their Inuit descendents built inuksuks (“like a man”) as geographic and spiritual markers throughout the Central Canadian Arctic. Made of rough unhewn stones and assembled in the likeness of a human being, inuksuks have become the iconic motif of the Canadian Arctic and its Inuit people. Their original use is obscure, but their placement at prominent locations suggests use as geographic markers and way-finding aids. Others were erected in converging caribou drive lines to mimic humans and scare caribou into locations where they could be killed.

Object 5. [fifth from left, Iron Spike] Railroad spikes are pretty common, and their trail can be found girdling the world. Despite their ubiquity, some have more historical value than others! This spike comes from a section of Stalin’s gulag railway near Salekhard, north of the Arctic Circle at the mouth of the Ob River in Western Siberia (Russia). I collected this souvenir during an archaeological survey with Russian colleagues in the 1990s. The rail lines connect Stalin’s forced labor camps across the Russian Arctic and was built and maintained by tens of thousands of political prisoners, most of whom died in the process. Much of the steel rails and iron spikes were produced by German and American industry to aid in “developing Russia’s post-WWII economy.”

Object 6. [far right, Atlas vertebra] This small bone is the first cervical vertebra of a small seal. It is called the atlas vertebra because it articulates with the base of the skull, whose weight is borne on its two broad, wing-like flanges. The atlas has a small hole into which fits the pin-like bone extension on the upper surface of the axis vertebra, the second cervical vertebra, so-named because it allows the cranium to rotate easily right to left.

William W. Fitzhugh is a specialist in circumpolar anthropology and archaeology who has spent more than forty years studying and publishing on arctic peoples and cultures in northern Canada, Alaska, Scandinavia, and Mongolia. He is founder and Director of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and a Trustee of The Center for Circumpolar Studies.

Register now to find out more about what Bill has in his backpack at The Arctic Roadshow, from 1-5PM on Saturday, March 22, at the Hulbert Outdoor Center, Fairlee, VT.

Top of the World Exhibit

Featuring works by Ken Leslie and Bianca Perren -with Inuit prints from the collection of the Sullivan Museum at Norwich University

12 July – 01 September 2013
Opening Reception 5-7PM, Friday, 12 July

Chandler Center for the Arts
71 Main Street, Randolph, VT

Vermont artist and Johnson State College Fine Arts Professor Ken Leslie has completed more than a dozen Arctic residencies over the past 15 years, creating paintings and artist’s books about light and time, both of which take on endlessly interesting permutations in the north. Leslie’s paintings and unique book structures were created during residencies in the northern regions of Alaska, Canada’s Baffin Island, Iceland, Svalbard, Scandinavia, and – most recently – Greenland.

Having experienced the Arctic in both summer and winter, Leslie prefers the dark time: “The first thing I noticed, and loved, about the Winter Arctic is the Quiet. Snow muffles what little noise there is . . . the few roads are easy to escape; there are no trees for the wind to rustle, and the millions of summer birds have long since gone – the terns all the way to Antarctica. That Quiet is the perfect sound track for the Dark. When you hear of ‘24 hours of darkness,’ you get the idea of total, pitch black darkness. But the reality is that there are many kinds of darkness. What the Winter Arctic loses in direct sunlight, it gains in twilights – the most amazing range of rich indigos and French ultramarines and cobalts. The intensity of this blue seems greatest when there’s a cloud cover, and what little light there is reverberates back and forth between the sky above and the snow cover below. The filtered light wavelength seems to multiply in saturation, and you feel as if you’re walking through blue, not merely below it or in front of it. You breathe it in, bathe in it – become part of it.”

In speaking of his powerful watercolor “The Last Umiak,” depicting a spiritual journey by umiak, a traditional skin boat used by both Yup’ik and Inuit Eskimos, Leslie reveals, “I dreamed this last journey of that disappearing culture.” Found in coastal communities from Siberia to Greenland, the large, open umiaks were traditionally used to transport groups of people and for crews hunting walrus and whales. In the eastern Arctic, the umiaks were frequently rowed by women to transport children and family possessions and are sometimes referred to as “women’s boats.” Umiaks, still made from Bearded seal (or sometimes walrus) skins but often fitted with an outboard motor, are sill very much in use in Alaska’s northern coastal villages during the spring whaling season when the large boats are launched by whaling crews from the ice edge of the open lead in pursuit of Bowhead whales migrating along the coast.

While many of Leslie’s works are typically flat, he has pioneered working on circular constructions that allow him to paint 360° panoramas that move through space and time. While working on a particularly large drawing, Leslie realized that “if I cut a hole in the center, I could fold the work into what became my ‘doughnut accordion’ structure.” These signature creations are, indeed, doughnut-shaped, narrative paintings, many of which focus on light and the way it changes with and through the Arctic seasons. In addition to paintings, Leslie also creates one-of-akind artist’s books, which address a variety of themes, including “our place in the universe, a layman’s theory of relativity, the battle between nature and technology, and light and dark on or above the Arctic Circle,” explains Leslie.

Ken Leslie is a well-known artist who exhibits and lectures internationally. He has received numerous awards for his work, which is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Vermont Arts Council, and the American-Scandinavian Foundation. Examples of his work may also be viewed at his website.

Also on display will be the charming and evocative watercolors and etchings of CCS associate Bianca Perren, an artist and paleoecologist who has spent the past 15 years working on lakes in the Canadian High Arctic, Greenland and Svalbard investigating the nature of the changing Arctic landscape. Under the microscope and in visual art, Perren’s work focuses on exploring the environmental response to climate change, pollution, and more direct human land use. Her watercolors, often done, en plein air, in the field, often near lake coring locations, Norse sites, or falcon eyries, mark her experience of the landscape more immediately, as snapshots of a day, or a fjord, or as a memory of time on the landscape.

This will be Perren’s second exhibit in Vermont; many of you may remember her previous exhibit at River Arts, Morrisville, VT in February 2013. Perren’s work may also be viewed at her website.

Rounding out this exhibit are Inuit prints, loaned from the Sullivan Museum at Norwich University, which received the collection of prints as a gift from Dr. Robert Christie. These wonderful works were printed in the 1960s and 70s, just as the Inuit printmaking industry was becoming established in the Canadian Arctic, especially in Cape Dorset, which remains a hub for artistic activity. In the treeless Arctic, printing from woodcuts (in which a raised image is carved on a flat piece of wood) was not a practical option for printmakers; early on, the Inuit artists experimented with imported linoleum floor tiles, but they soon found the relatively soft and easily carved local greenstone to be ideally suited for creating “stonecut” prints.

Inuit artists have often used printmaking to illustrate myths and local history as well as to document traditional ways of life within the evolving cultural and social landscapes. The striking images often feature animals, which were regarded as important spiritual beings; within this worldview, local communities were not simply surviving on the wildlife resources within their environment but were living in a highly structured relationship with them.

The Chandler Center for the Arts has additional activities planned to complement the exhibit. A lecture on the topic of Northern cultures by CCS Trustee Kathleen Osgood will be offered (free of charge) at 7PM on Monday, 22 July in the Gallery, and a printmaking workshop (pre-registration and fee required) will be offered by Janet Cathey at 4:30PM on Tuesday, 30 July. For more information, please contact Beck McMeekin (802.728.6464).

The Rangifer Limit

The rise in scientific interest in the northlands, or the cold regions, or whatever else someone may choose to call them, after World War II resulted in a spate of definitions of what, exactly, constituted the polar regions. The terms ‘tundra’ and ‘taiga’ made their way into the scientific–and the popular–lexicon, and northern scholars began to appreciate that there were great similarities in the geographic and biologic features of what came to be called the Circumpolar North. (It’s worth pointing out that the Cold War was less intense in the cold regions, and cooperation between scientists in the West and the Soviet bloc persisted in all but the worst times.) Among the results of international understanding of the polar regions was the recognition that reindeer and caribou were all the same species, Rangifer tarandus, whose various populations happily interbred whenever they were given the chance, and differed among themselves only enough to allow recognition of somewhat ambiguous subspecies.

Rangifer tarandus

Photo by: Peter Nijenhuis

A good deal of the impetus to recognize, or to create, boundaries and definitions seems to have come about with the recognition that the northern tree line, or timberline, was at least a roughly similar phenomenon in various sectors of the northern polar regions, and that it could be correlated with a physical feature, the amount of summer warmth as measured at a simple meteorological station. The treeline and the 10°C July isotherm began an intimate association which persists to this day, and it forms a boundary which most people accept as the southern edge of the Arctic. The southern limit of the subArctic is more problematic; most of us know when our journey northward has brought us into the boreal forest, but we may be hard-put to explain how we know. The geographers took a page from the timberline/isotherm concept and suggested that a line including the area in which no more than four summer months displayed a mean temperature above 10°C defined the subArctic. On this basis, I once wrote a newspaper article showing that the hills of northern Vermont fell within the subArctic, since our temperature records over a number of years indicated that May and October mean temperatures fell below 10°C. That was 40 years ago, and global warming has now consigned us to the temperate regions for the forseeable future.

Other efforts to delineate the (terrestrial) polar regions and the zones within them depend on features such as the duration of snow cover. Then there are international political decisions, such as including everything above 60°North Latitude (plus, in some iterations, the Aleutian Islands, which dip southward to about the Latitude of London.) The 60 degree definition leads to incongruities such as leaving all of Labrador and most of Quebec in the South, while leaving the Faroe Islands, where there is seldom snow for Christmas, in the North, along with Bergen, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg, but not frigid Winnipeg or Churchill, Manitoba, famously home of tundra and polar bears.

I propose a simple alternative to the various definitions of the Northlands: the recent natural range of reindeer/caribou, the circumpolar, ubiquitous Rangifer tarandus. If you have, or had within historical times, Rangifer, you are in the North. I’m especially pleased with this for personal reasons. When I applied for my first hunting license in Vermont in about 1950, I was given a book of regulations which said that it was illegal to take caribou in Vermont. I suspect that caribou were always few and far between in the state, but some probably wandered over from Maine, where caribou persisted until early in the 20th Century, and were hunted into the 1890s. Now all that’s left of the caribou population south of the St. Lawrence River is a tiny and endangered colony in the Shickshock mountains of the Gaspé Peninsula.

But I contend that we are still honestly within the north, global warming notwithstanding.

Of course, there are some problems with the Rangifer definition. Caribou are good at crossing wide expanses of pack ice, and seem to, at one time, have made it to Franz Josef Land from northern Greenland, thus entering the paleoarctic or Eurasian region, and becoming reindeer in the process. But they can’t make it to isolated islands whose connection with ocean ice is more tenuous, so the Aleutians, Iceland, and the Faroes are left out. The Scottish Highlands, which lost their reindeer population in prehistoric times,  may present a difficulty, but they support a small but healthy and growing introduced population, as does Iceland. I’d say their claims to northernness were legitimate. The reindeer who provided the live models for the painted caves of central and southern France probably died out before the end of the Pleistocene, some 11,000 years ago, so there’s no compunction about leaving the Dordogne Valley well outside the North, although the France of the terminal Pleistocene certainly fell within the greatly expanded Ice Age North. Finally, there’s the issue of the Greenland Ice Cap, certainly part of the North, most of whose high and fodderless reaches are never sullied by a passing caribou.

I’m also gratified that the Rangifer definition of the North extends the boreal boundary south of Siberia into Mongolia, where reindeer are herded with what may be some of the most archaic husbandry traditions, and where wild reindeer still roam–and where they might well have encountered wild camels in days gone by. My experiences with the plants, larch forests, and permafrost of northern Mongolia, as well as the reindeer, make me feel right at home in the True North, perhaps with an added sense of the nature of the cold, arid, glacier-free steppes of Ice Age Asia, where wooly mammoths and shaggy wold horses once roamed.

by: Steven B Young