Deep Dive

A Brown University Professor’s new book digs into one of the last frontiers

Posted

At the age of 18, East Side resident Bathsheba Demuth left her hometown of Decorah, Iowa to embark on an unexpected life-altering journey: traveling to the Arctic.

What was supposed to be a limited stay before she headed off on other adventures during a gap year – the year between high school and college that some students take as an opportunity to travel – turned into a two-year odyssey that changed the course of Bathsheba’s life.

“The first thing I experienced was homesickness and disorientation,” Bathsheba recalls. Staying with a host family in Old Crowe, a remote area 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle in the Yukon Peninsula, she got an apprenticeship as a sled dog trainer, hunted caribou, and learned to thrive in the
feral landscape.

After two years in the tundra, she headed to Brown for undergrad (where she is now a Professor of Environmental History). It was a stint in the Peace Corps in the Soviet Union that reconnected her to the Arctic. When she returned to the US, she embarked on a doctorate in history at Berkeley, focusing on the environment. Her dissertation became the root of her new book Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait.

Floating Coast touches on the history of the region through the dueling economic interests in the Bering Strait – capitalism and communism. What they both got wrong, she argues, is that neither system accounted for the living, breathing ecosystem that refused to be tamed. “The Arctic is
completely dependent on trends in the climate,” she explains. “People can’t manage the ecology.”

“I’d always been taught that the world is a human realm and a non-human realm,” she continues. “My time in the Arctic collapsed those differences.”

Because the Arctic is such an extreme environment, the effects of climate change – which have accelerated – stand out in stark relief. “The Arctic is living a version of the future that’s just starting to become a reality here.”

Hear Bathsheba Demuth in a conversation about Floating Coast with Pulitzer Finalist and fellow East Side resident Elizabeth Rush on November 15 at Twenty Stories.