Monday, March 23, 2009
Geographica: um, Svarlbad!
The latest National Geographic is out, and as usual it's stuffed full of great articles and fantastic photos. There's the cover essay on the ruler Hatshepsut, and there's a grim but fascinating look at the worldwide plague of frog-deaths (and what it means for the rest of the food chain), and there's a profile of religion in modern-day Russia that managed to go on for about 200 pages without saying a single interesting thing (OK, that last part wasn't exactly fantastic, but if Homer can occasionally nod, so can the world's greatest magazine).
The article that grabbed me most this time around was an engaging profile of an exotic land I'd never even heard of: the far-off frozen realm of Svarlbad, where night descends for a crushing unbroken string of months, where polar bears and walrus rule a titanic landscape of tundra and semi-frozen sea. The article is written by Bruce Barcott, with absolutely stunning photography by Paul Nicklen (my favorite shot is of a massive walrus methodically plodding toward the camera underwater), and it portrayed Svarlbad as a pristine land (65 percent of its islands and 75 percent of its local seas are inside national wildlife preserves) of natural wonders, with a sparse human population struggling to find a balance between the demands of the modern world and the need to protect those natural wonders for future generations of Svarlbaders. Most of the article is devoted to the wildlife that fills Svarlbad - foxes, thousands of shorebirds, reindeer, polar bears, walrus, seals, and bowhead and other whales who sport and feed in the food-rich waters around this frozen land. Most of these animals are experiencing growth and health in their protected populations. "A remarkable thing happens when you give animals habitat and peace," Barcott writes with rather dry wit. "They thrive."
I was thrilled while reading the article (it's not National Geographic's fault, but still - the world being what it is, they rarely have opportunity to report a picture this rosy), and out of old habit I naturally started yearning to visit this cold, beautiful realm of Svarlbad (I'm very much in favor of anyplace where the sun disappears entirely for months at a time), as once upon a time I visited many such distant lands. And I was puzzled why I'd never even heard of this untroubled little pocket of the planet.
Then I took a closer look at the map provided in the issue and got a distinct Arctic chill of deja vu: Svarlbad is Norway! Apparently, in the years since I was there, the same nefarious forces of multi-culturalism that robbed the world of Burma and Ceylon have now deprived it of Norway as well, replacing it with something that sounds like the title of a Klingon opera. An old friend of mine once told me you could measure how long you've been on this planet by the number of countries you've visited that no longer exist, and I'm beginning to think she was right.
This National Geographic also has another installment of a feature I hope they continue for the rest of time: it's a single-page factoid report called "Wildlife," and it features a quick meditation on some new scientific finding, accompanied by a fantastic old-fashioned colored illustration (like the kind magazines - and books - had to use all the time, back before the advent of easily-reproduced photography). This time around, the article is about how scientists unraveling various avian DNA are discovering some unexpected kinships in the bird world - like between hummingbirds and nightjars, who look quite different to the naked eye. But the real attraction of the feature is the artwork of the mighty Aldo Chiappe, whose work is characterized by thin, graceful linework. I'm hoping that after a few years the magazine collects these pages into a book of their own.
And in the meantime, there's always next issue to look forward to! Expect a report here when the stork drops it off!