Thursday, November 10, 2011

Review: Arctic Autumn by Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne's current writing project is a four-part series of books based on seasons in North America. The first was Prairie Spring, a book I have not read. The second, Bayshore Summer, a book I reviewed last fall, was set in Cumberland County, New Jersey, where Dunne currently lives. In the third volume, published this fall, Dunne turns his attention northward in Arctic Autumn: A Journey to Season's Edge.

The "autumn" of the book's title is not autumn as readers in a temperate climate might conceive it. At northerly latitudes, the warm season is short and summer is fleeting. By the end of June, when summer in the temperate zone is just getting started, Arctic-breeding shorebirds are already starting to migrate south. Thus Dunne begins his narrative at the summer solstice in June and continues through to November, when polar bears near Churchill, Manitoba, begin moving from their dens on land out onto sea ice, where they will spend the winter hunting. The Arctic is so vast that it is impossible to cover all of it in one book. Instead, the chapters are vignettes, each taking place at a different site in a different part of summer.

While the book is nonfiction, it is told as a first-person narrative, almost like a travel diary. Pete Dunne and his wife, Linda, travel to different parts of the Arctic to experience the season for themselves. Some locations are visited with tour groups, like Bylot Island in Nunavut. Others are explored with smaller groups, like a caribou hunting trip Dunne took with a guide and one other person. The material in each chapter is based on their interactions with the natural world of the Arctic and with the people there. Chapters include dialogue with residents of the Arctic or people who lead tours there. Dunne interweaves his own experience of the places he visits with their natural history.

The impact of humans on the Arctic is never far from Dunne's narrative. Ecotourism has an impact, of course, since animals alter their behavior when they know they are being watched, plus there is the pollution created by flying hundreds or thousands of miles to visit the Arctic. (Its effects are not all bad, though, as ecotourism contributes to local economies and may provide an economic incentive for conservation.) Native residents also have an impact, though theirs is small.

Dunne is more concerned with the large-scale changes wrought by modern technology and energy use. Climate change is gradually reducing the area covered by sea ice and making survival more difficult for polar bears and other animals that depend on sea ice for part or all of their life cycle. It will surely affect other wildlife as well by changing when food becomes available or reducing permafrost. A second major impact is oil exploration. In the U.S., whether to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling has been a contentious political issue for the past decade. In places where drilling is allowed, like in the areas of the National Petroleum Reserve adjacent to Teshekpuk Lake Special Area, habitat is cleared to make way for infrastructure, and the site is often fouled by toxic chemicals. Beyond those obvious effects, there is a more subtle one. The pipelines, buildings, radar towers, and vehicles become inviting perches or nest sites for predatory birds, and the waste produced by human habitation attracts opportunistic scavengers. These scavengers would just as soon eat eggs and nestlings as other foods. The presence of these and other predators associated with human infrastructure puts additional pressure on the waterbirds and songbirds that breed in the Arctic. A third impact that Dunne discusses is hunting, both the small-scale sustainable hunting that Dunne and others practice and the large-scale market hunting that decimated the polar bear population in the 20th century prior to the signing of the Oslo Agreement in 1973.

Arctic Autumn showcases Pete Dunne's writing at its best. The narrative is engaging, occasionally humorous, and informative. At several points, I found myself wanting to visit the places Dunne describes, especially during the chapter about a canoe trip he and his wife took with two other naturalists down the John River in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The book is illustrated with Linda Dunne's photography – black and white photographs for the chapter headings and several plates of color photographs in the middle of the book. Readers interested in the Arctic and fans of Pete Dunne's writing should enjoy this book.

This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.