Many books on the environment come with an aggressive agenda of some kind, be that preventing habitat loss, putting a halt to pesticide use or railing against the iniquities of climate change. Important though they are, such books tend to deconstruct their subject in an effort to prove a point. Arctic Sanctuary, however, comes with no such agenda. All authors Jeff Jones and Laurie Hoyle want to do is to bring the Arctic wilderness to life through exquisite photography. And in that, they certainly succeed.
Jones and Hoyle focus on Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a 78,000 square-kilometre region that is bordered by Canada to the east and the Beaufort Sea to the north. Within this region are several different ‘ecozones’ - an immense collection of different habitats. Such zones include the Coast (including river deltas, wetlands, and lagoons); Tundra (the treeless terrain from the coast to the Brooks Range); Mountains; Taiga (the transitional zone from towards the boreal forest); and the Boreal Forest itself, at the southern end of the refuge.
Jones’ photographs are remarkable portraits of a whole range of eco-systems: the sweeping vista of a valley is thrown into beautifully stark relief against the cloudscape; the light within a valley highlights unusual and surprising colours; the solitary tracks of a wolverine somehow become a gently melancholic composition. Hoyle’s prose-poem descriptions provide wonderful characterisation of the many landscapes and species, and more often than not, the essays contemplate how to engage with such a place: ‘The Arctic Refuge lies gleaming, a multifaceted jewel refracting summer’s angled light from each surface in every hue. Save for those who have inhabited it, the Arctic remains largely beyond our reach. It is a blank space on the maps of our minds, buried beneath our continuousness but from those wellsprings within that bubble up briefly in dreams, the Arctic both haunts and inspires us. It’s wilderness shadows us through our brightly lit lives, its siren song one of silence in a crowded, noisy world.’
Prose and photography combined provide an emotional evocation of the landscape. The various ecozones are covered in detail, shining light on the many different locales and providing a sense of wonder more often associated with television documentaries. This turns out to be an excellent way to show how, for example, the seasonal ice melt will change a particular habitat, or even to explain how incessant winds manage to sculpt the snow into irregular patterns called sastrugi. Such descriptions transcend time, too, to show the wilderness on a historical and geological scale.
Towards the end of the book a theme develops within the few essays: the reader is constantly (and very subtly) challenged to consider their views on what makes a wilderness, and what its value is to humans as well as the fauna and flora that dwells there. Not only that, but our relationship with nature - and our own sense of disconnection from such wild places - is brought into question. Arctic Sanctuary is more than just a catalogue of a vast and complex wilderness. By leaving out the forceful agenda, by presenting the refuge for what it is, its easy to develop a personal connection, as if you are there discovering such places for the first time. The book’s conclusion is very brief - a paragraph and no more. We have seen what the Arctic is and can be; we have seen the sheer scale of it, the sense of wonder, and the mind-boggling variations of habitats. By establishing the Arctic Refuge, Jones and Hoyle say, we entered into a covenant, and ‘we are capable of affirming the power of wilderness by continuing to save it.’ If we do that, we become part of something greater.
That last, simple thought is what you’re left with. The authors have few other motivations other than to present the Arctic as it is - a natural wonder - yet at the same time they drive home a powerful message. It is this that makes Arctic Sanctuary more than just a coffee table tome.
Arctic Sanctuary: Images of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge by Jeff Jones and Laurie Hoyle (£35.50, University of Chicago Press) is available from Amazon
Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs at markcnewton.com, or you can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/MarkCN
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