Tag Archives: Ice Bear

Q&A with ‘Ice Bear’ author Michael Engelhard

The following interview originally appeared in the Smithsonian magazine newsletter and is adapted and used with permission. The product of meticulous research, Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon by Michael Engelhard traces and illuminates over 8,000 years of history between polar bears and humans. With more than 160 color illustrations, Engelhard brings into focus the powerful and elusive White Bear—and explains how and why it endures as a source of wonder, terror, and fascination.


What new angle does your book bring out about polar bears?

I am proud to say that Ice Bear is the only book available in any language that focuses entirely on the cultural aspects of polar bears—on 8,000 years of history shared between them and us.

Why have polar bears captured the human imagination?

For a number of reasons: From their physique to their behavior, they resemble us in many ways. They are big, charismatic top predators living in one of Earth’s most unforgiving environments. They are symbolic of the Arctic, one of the last frontiers of the human imagination. Lastly, we’ve long associated whiteness in animals with certain qualities: the rare, the pure, or the sacred.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about the polar bears?

That they’re ruthless “man killers.” I think they are just getting a bad rap, often getting in trouble for what only amounts to curiosity—a trait that, ironically, makes them survivors in a sparse environment. The statistics show that brown bears kill and maul more people per year than polar bears do. Of course their smaller numbers and remoteness also play a role there. Like most creatures, polar bears just want to eat, to keep living, and to protect their young.

"The bear gripped them both." Art by Adrien Marie and Barbant from "Le Docteur Ox" by Jules Verne (1874).

“The bear gripped them both.” Art by Adrien Marie and Barbant from “Le Docteur Ox” by Jules Verne (1874).

Which individual story or fact were you most surprised to uncover?

It’s hard to choose. But I enjoyed learning about a scheme to train polar bears to pull Amundsen’s sleds to the pole. It involved the German circus entrepreneur and animal trader Carl Hagenbeck, who also revolutionized zoo design. Also, the early medieval commerce in Greenlandic polar bear cubs, which Norse settlers traded to European royalty, for their menageries.

How has writing the book changed the way you see polar bears?

I only now realize the degree to which they have been instrumentalized, how we always have molded them to fit our agendas. With all the symbolic ballast and history, it is hard, perhaps even impossible, to see them objectively. That’s because hardly any other animal has been burdened more with our projections. It’s as if their whiteness and remoteness invited that.


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Photo by Melissa Guy.

Michael Engelhard works as a wilderness guide in Arctic Alaska and holds an MA in cultural anthropology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His books include Where the Rain Children Sleep: A Sacred Geography of the Colorado Plateau, the anthology Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North, and a recent essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean. His writing has also appeared in Sierra, Outside, Audubon, National Wildlife, National Parks, High Country News, and the San Francisco Chronicle.

Holiday Books from UW Press

If your family is anything like mine, the season of giving is a non-stop search for just the right book for everyone in our lives—Mom loves history! Dad loves art! Siblings love local food! Luckily University of Washington Press has you covered with a range of books that will surely appeal to everyone on your list.

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We are delighted to extend a 50% discount to our University of Washington Press community. Please use the code WHOL16 when ordering via our website or when calling customer service at 1-800-537-5487. (Please contact Rachael Levay with any questions at remann [at] uw [dot] edu.)

Feeling lucky? Enter our Holiday Book Bundle giveaway using the form at the bottom of this post for a chance to win free copies of some of our favorite holiday picks, including the ones featured here.

For the animal lover or the art lover:

Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon by Michael Engelhard combines amazing art and illustrations with a fascinating history of the polar bear. With over 170 color illustrations, Engelhard shows us the full scope of the polar bear’s appeal and ensures you’ll never think of the polar bear the same way.

For the lover of memoir or the literary type:

The Tao of Raven: An Alaska Native Memoir by Ernestine Hayes tells the poignant and lyrical story of Hayes’s return to Juneau and to her Tlingit home after many years away. Interweaving her personal history with the story of the Raven and the Box of Daylight, Hayes illuminates her frustration and anger at what still faces Alaska Natives in their own land while examining her own evolution as a writer.

For the history buff or the outdoorsman/woman:

Defending Giants: The Redwood Wars and the Transformation of American Environmental Politics by Darren Speece tells the riveting history of how the giant redwoods emerged as an icon of the struggle over environment and industry. Bill McKibben says Defending Giants “brings back to life the story of some of the most committed and capable environmentalists I’ve ever known, people who worked on a scale as epic as the forests they fought for.”

For everyone else in the Pacific Northwest:

Birds of the Pacific Northwest: A Photographic Guide by Tom Aversa, Richard Cannings, and Hal Opperman has over 900 illustrations and shows off the birds that live in our coastal rainforest, North America’s northernmost deserts, and the northern/mid-Rockies to the east.

September 2016 News, Reviews, and Events

News

Congratulations to Sylvanna M. Falcón, winner of the National Women’s Studies Association 2016 Gloria E. Anzaldúa Book Prize for Power Interrupted, selected “for its clear writing, as well as its adept integration of intersectional and transnational analyses to assess the grassroots feminist work that employs international frameworks when addressing gender and racial issues through the global stage that the UN provides.”

Reviews and Interviews

David Takami reviews Judy Bentley’s Walking Washington’s History in the Seattle Times: “Coming soon to a city near you: clusters of visitors gazing intently at a handheld object as a way to engage with their surroundings. . . . The commendable new book by Judy Bentley. . . . is an immensely appealing approach to writing history. . . . Bentley demonstrates that history is not abstruse and remote from our current experience; it is ever present—and just around the next corner.“

Christian Martin reviews the book on the Chattermarks blog from North Cascades Institute: “Bentley provides brief but engaging historical overviews. . . . There are stories in the ground beneath our feet, dashed dreams lingering in the air, as well as legacies of benevolent forethought from a not-so-distant past all around us.”


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