Critical Norths: Space, Nature, Theory

Reviewed by Erica Watson

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University of Alaska Press  |  2017  |  ISBN:9781602233201   |  300 pages


Critical Norths: Space, Nature, Theory, edited by Sarah J. Ray and Kevin MaierTheory is most useful when it intertwines with real life. This is when it does what it is meant to: clarifying lived experience rather than obscuring it. Good theory writing blurs the lines between academic reading and your day job inbox, between a paper you skimmed once and a phone call from a friend last night. Theory should flow in and out of real conversations and experiences and offer a handhold, not a stumbling block.

Critical Norths: Space, Nature, Theory, a timely and topical collection of academic essays edited by Sarah Jaquette Ray and Kevin Maier, succeeds at entering into the flow of questions, politics, and contradictions surrounding the North. The collection attempts to “challenge the notion of the north as a vanishing frontier, an isolated wilderness, a beautiful landscape redolent with wildlife, a space of rugged individualism, or a place of infinite resources.” The contributing scholars investigate the narratives that have shaped colonizers’ understandings of the region, including, perhaps most notably in our immediate political reality, narratives surrounding resource extraction and infrastructure—the inevitable fate of a vanishing frontier, and present the North as inhabited, Indigenous, and global.  

The editors explain the nuance of their chosen title, Critical Norths, by speaking to this notion of almost cyclical urgency in a region defined by pluralities and contradictions: “While the plural Norths insists on the diversity of perspectives on what counts as northern, we also use the term critical here to signal urgency about these notions of the North, as the North increasingly becomes the canary in the coal mine of climate change.” The ideas in these essays are not intended for quiet pondering, but for immediate integration into our work, whether creative, political, or industrial.

Which is not to say I couldn’t put it down; they are academic essays, after all. I put it down frequently, sometimes for weeks at a time. I started the book in summer, when, in the north, the days seem endless and flow into each other. It was the summer of Tillerson and Zinke in Alaska, the summer of undone environmental protections and streamlined permitting. Though published in spring of 2017, some of Critical Norths’ facts are already outdated, a testament to the sense of temporal whiplash of life and writing in the north. Discussing the transnational nature of Alaska/Canada mining issues, the authors stated that the “United States Environmental Protection Agency will likely have the last say on Pebble,” the massive mine proposed in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed, but “the United States has little regulatory say on Canadian projects, despite the fact that many of the affected watersheds terminate in U.S. territory.” This was before Trump-appointed EPA administrator Scott Pruitt settled with Pebble’s CEO to withdraw the previous administration’s veto of the project; so much for the EPA. Canada’s regulatory processes, meanwhile, have started to look pretty solid.

Summer ended, fall began, and on a night after Alaska’s governor had signed vague deals with China to sell North Slope liquefied natural gas (LNG) transported on a yet-to-be-built pipeline but before the Senate had voted to include removing protections against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge from the GOP tax bill, a friend called. He’s a poet working as a janitor for the oil companies, and from a lounge in company housing on the Slope, described the weirdness of the industry’s assumption of never-ending progress: the compression stations built for the unfunded LNG pipeline, the impenetrable darkness of abandoned drill sites, the sense of ever-impending something among the workers. I described that day’s reading, Janike Kampevold Larsen and Peter Hammersam’s “Landscapes on Hold,” which describes cultural responses to industrial speculation in Norwegian-Russian Barents coastal communities.   

I read excerpts to my friend about these landscapes on hold, and the artistic responses: community potlucks held at art installations overlooking the nearby LNG plant, “serving as a multilayered comment on the industrial appropriation of arctic and subarctic lands,” or painting a quote from Moby Dick on an abandoned building: “It’s not down on any map. True places never are.”

My friend takes this very literally, reminds me of the multi-gated nature of Prudhoe Bay: journalists can barely get in, let alone anyone with an agenda to “comment upon” or “question the narrative.” He describes the excess of natural gas (the gas to be exported to Asia via the vaunted future pipeline), the infrastructure already built in waiting for the completion of the unfunded project, the fact that the lights always stay on in the communal areas so the excess is burned. “I just wish there was someone you could ask questions about, well, asking questions,” he sighs.

Earlier that morning, he’d sent a picture of an abandoned well site. “You can tell it’s abandoned because the lights are off.” The literalism haunts me, and the artistic potential seems limitless . . . if only we could get in. My friend says he’ll quit soon. I don’t blame him.

On the other end of the messaging spectrum, my day job includes a lot of polar bear imagery, including, recently, the now-viral starving bear clawing its sad way across the tundra. Emails from DC organizers include phrases like “polar bear uprising,” and a coworker and I mock the arguably outdated theatrics: why dress humans up in polyester bear suits outside the White House when humans dressed as humans are just as impacted by climate change but don’t look ridiculous, or so easily overheat? Why perpetuate the further cartoon-ization of an animal whose reputation is already plagued by absurdity? Despite my eye-rolling, the polar bear has indeed become, as Kurtis Boyer writes in “Saving the Polar Bear and Other Objects,” “the poster child of climate change,” as if “some animals…have more existence value than others.”

Several other contributors examine the role of the polar bear—ecological, political, and imaginative—in the North(s). Allison K. Athens, in “The ‘Bear Who Began It’ and the Metaphorics of Climate Change” offers compelling counter-narratives to the romanticized, elegiac images of starving bears in need of saving, and the erasure that such focus on a keystone predator does to the social and ecological realities of a place.  Athens draws from scholar and activist Subhankar Banerjee’s work about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as a model for becoming “ravens instead of ghosts”: adaptive, creative, sneaky, and ever-changing, rather than destined to social and/or ecological extinction, as both polar bears and northern people are often portrayed.

Margot Higgins’ “Prospecting for Buried Narratives in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve” looks at National Park Service storytelling approaches rather than literature, but reaches a similar conclusion: “By paying more attention to the interaction of local and national narratives, a new space for imagining alternative narratives might evolve.” Higgins explores how the dominant narrative of the nation’s largest national park has focused largely on the mining era between 1900 and 1938, with very little acknowledgement of the millennia preceding the colonial boom and bust era, or the transitional years that followed as the National Park Service established itself as a major player in the region. By examining local relationships among Native and non-Native inhabitants of the region, this essay demonstrates how the National Park Service—despite well-meaning and often well-executed efforts by individuals within the agency—“reinforce(s) national myths and identities for the sake of tourism;” it is still a national park, despite local realities, with an often nationalistic agenda.

As a resident of another national park gateway community, coupled with my lifelong relationship with the agency, Higgins’ points hit home; specifically, Denali National Park. In this smaller but more recognizable park, the same historical era, the same colonial influx of miners, hunters, and conservationists, is reinforced as the dominant narrative, placing an almost Disney-esque importance on some historical figures over others.

At a recent event, descendants of the hunter credited as the park’s “father” ceremoniously donated the hunting rifle their relative had used to park officials, and the act was repeated for different audiences throughout the year.  A friend who works as the NPS museum curator was tasked with the handling of the gun. She’s a Native woman from the Lower 48, one of few people of color on staff, and her role at the second gun donation event was to hand the rifle over to a row of smiling gray-haired white men representing various parties whose stake in the Denali region dates back about as far as the gun, which they informed us symbolized that history and their intertwined relationships. There was a slight smirk on her face as she did it. Passing me as she stepped off the stage, she whispered, “Please write about that.”

I haven’t known what to say about it. It was an awkward act of fetishization. It was ironic. It was slightly funny and an understated narrative anachronism. But maybe the key into that moment is in Higgins’ statement that  “a history of conquest cannot be easily transferred into an enterprise of historic and ecological preservation.” While the NPS might celebrate its partnership with, say, the Boone & Crockett Club in celebrating a wealthy white man’s hunting legacy, it is still part of the nationalist mission which, as of 2017, includes removing long-fought for protections from Native homelands, ignoring the political and social complexities within and between communities, and selectively amplifying those Native voices who best serve the nationalist industrial project. But as Higgins says, “Understanding how people make sense of their interactions with the nonhuman environment and with one another, by paying greater attention to the interaction of park narratives, might allow for more effectual, just, and more widely accepted policy and management interventions to be made.”

Critical Norths offers a way forward driven by more questions than answers, and northern landscapes populated not (only) defined by starving polar bears or caribou calves on wobbly legs. but (also) by Donna Haraway’s boundary-crossing cyborgs, Raven’s  creative prowess, the transnational north-bound monster of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and other Anthropocenic place-making artists. There is a cacophony of human languages, birds, and industrial noise. It contradicts itself constantly. It is surprisingly muddy, and there is water where there should be land and vice versa.

And it is familiar, and true, and in need of attention.



Erica WatsonErica Watson lives and writes on the boundary of Denali National Park, Alaska. She earned her MFA from the University of Alaska Anchorage’s low-residency program in 2014, and her work has appeared most recently in Pilgrimage JournalThe Arctic Institute, and Edible Alaska. For more of her writing visit her website at

Header photo by Noel_Bauza courtesy Pixabay.

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