Writing Westward Podcast Episode 028
Although the history of Alaska and the Arctic are thoroughly "Western" in so many of their themes, they are often too far off the map for those studying or living in the American West of the lower-48 to pay attention to. Dr. Bathsheba Demuth, Assistant Professor at Brown University in the Department of History and the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, offers a resounding statement of why we should be paying closer attention.
Her debut monograph, Floating Coast: An Environmental History of the Bering Strait was published by WW Norton in 2019. It is a rate book, exceeding all academic standards for rigor and research, but also written with a grace rarely seen in the academy. Bathsheba Demuth's personal connections to the Arctic come through in her writing with a sense of passion and empathy for its lands, waters, wildlife, and peoples. As an environmental historian she specializes in the lands and waters of the North American and Russian Arctic. She doesn't just write about the Arctic, but has lived there, spending two formative years in the Yukon between high school and college, running sled dogs and engaging in the all the activities needed to survive in the taiga forests and tundra of the far north.
In Floating Coast, Demuth traces centuries of environmental history along both sides of the Bering Strait. Moving from Indigenous and outsider Russian, American, and others' interactions with whales, walruses, artic foxes, reindeer and caribou, and mineral resources, Demuth narrates both sides of the strait independently and in comparison as competing capitalist and social economic systems approached the region, its wildlife, and its peoples differently. She asks "what Beringia made of capitalism and socialism" and how both system "function when seen not just as human endeavors but ecological ones" (9, 11).
Popular and academic organizations have praised Floating Coast in rare fashion. Nature named it a Top 10 book for 2019, NPR, Library Journal, Barnes & Noble, and Kirkus Review named it a best book of 2019, and it was a New York Times "Editor's Choice" pick for the year as well. On the academic side, Floating Cost won the 2020 George Perkins Marsh Prize from the American Society for Environmental History for the best book in environmental history, the 2020 Hal K. Rothman Book Prize for the best book in western environmental history and the W. Turrentine Jackson Book Prize for best first book from the Western History Association, the 2020 Eric Zencey Prize in Ecological Economics from the University of Vermont Foundation, the 2020 Julia Warde Howe prize in nonfiction from the Boston Authors Club, the 2020 William Mills Prize as the best non-fiction Polar book from the Polar Libraries Colloquy, and was a finalist for the Pushkin House Russian Book Prize, an honorable mention for the Rachel Carson Book Prize, and longlisted for the Cundill History Prize.
I join with these many organizations in offering my praise of Demuth's work and encourage all to find a warm blanket, cozy chair, and give it a long thoughtful read.
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- Host and Producer Brenden W. Rensink is Associate Director of the Redd Center, an Associate Professor of History at BYU, General Editor of the Intermountain Histories project, and author of the 2018 book Native but Foreign: Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in the North American Borderlands.
- Podcast Music was written and recorded by local Provo composer by Micah Dahl Anderson.
- Episodes are recorded via Skype or in person and amateurishly engineered and produced by Professor Rensink.
- To submit a book to be considered for a podcast episode, email firstname.lastname@example.org.