NORTH POLE – NATURE AND CULTURE

Reviewed by: R. G. Melly

North Pole – Nature and Culture is the latest addition in the wide-ranging Earth Series of books which seek to trace the historical significance and cultural history of natural phenomenon.  The author, Michael Bravo, is an academic with impressive credentials, and his deep interest in the topic and his research background are both evident in this detailed study of the subject matter. The book is not an exposition on the physical nature of the North Pole, nor does it provide detailed descriptions of the various attempts to reach it; rather, it seeks to set the North Pole in the context of early conceptions as to its significance and the mythology and misconceptions around it, along with the experiences and views of the first explorers.  The final chapters touch on the changes in the public’s perceptions of the North Pole brought about by the technological and political changes of the twentieth century and the increased understanding of climate change.

The North Pole is undoubtedly an enigma: a place with no time zone; “a place where north and south and east and west blend into one”; and a place where no visa is required for a visit!  The opening chapter explores the significance of the North Pole star to the Inuit and to the ancient Greeks, despite their very different perspectives, whilst the next chapters expand upon the development of polar projections and the understanding of the multiplicity of poles, linked with the increasing understanding of magnetism, time and the imperatives of sea travel.

The North Pole undoubtedly retained an allure for our recent forebears which perhaps lasted until the technical advances of the twentieth century made the task of reaching the Pole, at least by air, almost routine.  Early explorers wove a story of heroic classical mythology around their endeavours, no doubt to attract funding for their adventures.  It was not, however, until Robert Peary’s expedition of 1909 that an individual can claim actually to have reached the Pole – although even then the challenge of operating instruments at high latitudes and the general unreliability of observations and measurements meant that the claim had some doubt attached!  Latterly, however, the North Pole has succumbed to airships, nuclear submarines, transpolar commercial air routes – and it now even hosts a Marathon, attracting hardy runners and dreamers coming together in a spirit of international cooperation and mutual support.

Michael Bravo has produced a wide-ranging and erudite study which I rather suspect will not appeal greatly to the average NR reader, although should perhaps be of interest to the fraternity of navigators.  Notwithstanding some annoying typos, the book is nevertheless well produced with a pleasing number of colour and black and white images.  It also contains a comprehensive index, bibliography and reference section, surely a good place to start for anyone with a nascent interest in this timeless subject.