Polar bear politics is a bitterly contested fact of life in the extreme north. Further south, it also divides opinion as a symbol of global warming angst or apathy, a creature thought of as either the ultimate killer or the ultimate environmental victim. One clear thing in the controversy is that the future for the bear looks bleak. A study published last year in Arctic Science of Canada’s most southerly population of polar bears found that the warming climate and decline in sea ice has reduced the hunting time available to them by thirty days, leading to a decrease in body weight and condition. Another study estimates a decline of 30 percent in the next thirty years. All of this raises a pertinent question: what purpose does a cultural history of a vanishing animal serve?
Michael Engelhard’s Ice Bear doesn’t attempt to answer that but offers a stirring riposte to all that will be lost if the polar bear becomes extinct. The cultural history of the polar bear is also the history of polar exploration and exploitation, which includes the history of the indigenous cultures and their knowledge and appreciation of the subtleties of a creature, lost on Westerners. Resting alongside the hunters and explorers is an astute analysis of the polar bear as marketing opportunity and sexual metaphor, as well as its troubling history of appearing as a performer in circus acts. In its mere 288 pages, Ice Bear travels widely across intellectual terrain.
The book begins and ends with experience. Engelhard starts with an account of his own surprise first experience with a polar bear while working as a wilderness guide in Alaska. He and his group “agreed it had been a highlight of their outdoor lives.” It is an early high point in the prose, encapsulating the thrill and awe of the animal in controlled, precise writing. It segues seamlessly into the appeal of the bear. The final chapter covers the trickier appeal: the movement from hunting to eco-tourism in the far north, and the lure of the trophy, whether that is a taxidermy skin or a digital photograph. His analysis is thorough: literary, philosophical, ecological, and economic in its considerations. His prose style is clear and eloquent, able at marshalling all of these different strands without being fussy, dense, or reliant on cliché. The use of the word “Icon” in the subtitle is jarringly lazy but one of very few such instances in the prose.
Engelhard uses solid literary underpinnings to help him navigate this ground: Barry Lopez, Aldo Leopold, and John Berger all embellish the narrative and sharpen the argument. It is an Ellen Meloy quotation, used early on, that really illuminates the book: “Each time I look into the eye of an animal, one as ‘wild’ as I can find in its own element . . . I find myself staring into a mirror of my own imagination.” For Ice Bear is also a book about the human imagination. Fear surfaces frequently in early and modern encounters, something Engelhard puts down to “our decreased contact with the animal on its home ground. . . . We simply have lost the skills for combating large predators, which we now face almost exclusively on-screen or at zoos.”
Imagination replaces experience. The juxtaposition of both is another strength of the book: the polar bear in the Danish royal coat of arms raises its right paw in the heraldic tradition, whereas in Greenland’s coat of arms the polar bear raises its left, in deference to the indigenous belief that polar bears are left-handed. I wondered if, in the light of movements for Greenlandic independence, there is a potential political significance to this? Instead, Engelhard drily informs the reader that no scientific evidence exists for handedness in any bear.
Between the periods of fear in the imagination—and almost concurrent to the rise of polar bear performing acts in zoos—was the bear as sexual metaphor. Nature as a symbol of male potency is an over-worn trope, but perhaps rarely have bears been so integrated into a time and period as the polar bear was in the early twentieth century. In Engelhard’s chapter on this subject he guides us sensitively around the dubious boundary between titillation and bestiality. More innocently he balances out a discussion of pin-ups posing on polar bear rugs with a few instances in folklore of the polar bear as a feminist agent—including one who saved a woman from an abusive husband.
One of the most interesting passages in the book involves Knut, Berlin Zoo’s famous polar bear cub that “illuminates our troubled and troubling relations with nature.” Knut was born in captivity and raised in the public eye; his extraordinary popularity with the German public enabled an industry of Knut memorabilia to spring up alongside his image being co-opted into environmental awareness campaigns. In Engelhard’s phrase, “this bear out of its element had been promoted to eco-ambassador, representative of an endangered place.” Yet while this most post-modern of bears had been foisted into a role of money-spinning activist, he was not, it is argued, the most successful at it. Public interest was in Knut the bear, not in the international year of the polar bear. One of the strengths of Engelhard’s writing is not shying away from connecting the relevance of an individual bear with our current ecological malaise.
It is the contemporary relevance of the subject that elevates Ice Bear above the usual cultural history narratives. Although it is undoubtedly a first-class reference work and a fascinating read, it is also a testament to what will be lost if we can’t kick the carbon habit. As it makes clear, dire facts and warnings haven’t worked. The polar bear as symbol for the climate crisis and melting polar ice hasn’t worked—through fatigue or celebrity. Ice Bear offers something different: a broader and deeper way of thinking about polar bears, and thus, the arctic. And if that doesn’t work—if the ice keeps melting—I can’t think of a finer monument to the polar bear than this book.