Sara Wheeler loves cold places. More than a decade ago, she published her classic travel book, Terra Incognita, about the vast, empty continent of Antarctica, which changed the way many people saw the place. But for years, she says, she avoided writing about the Arctic because it seemed too compromised. Now, however, she’s taken on the subject, and in Magnetic North: Notes from the Arctic Circle (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), she wrestles with a place more populous, more complex, and more troubled than its southern counterpart.
Among other locales, Wheeler travels to the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, the far reaches of Greenland and Canada’s Baffin Island, and the Solovetsky Islands, home to a 15th-century Russian Orthodox monastery used by the Soviets as a brutal gulag in the 1920s and ’30s. She focuses on what scientists who study the Arctic are concluding about pollution and climate change and, in a parallel narrative, on the histories of writers and explorers who have ventured to these frozen lands.
The picture that emerges is one of a region in the midst of unprecedented change, of countries vying over vast untapped mineral wealth, and of people, many of them indigenous, struggling to hold onto their traditional cultures.
This is the story of a place that looms in our collective imagination as a harsh land where people go to test themselves – and where now, the entire planet is being tested. But Wheeler finds that there are still some spots where one can feel an “overwhelming yet deeply reassuring sense of one’s smallness and unimportance in the thunderous hugeness of the Arctic Divide.”