Saving the Arctic: the wisdom of the Inuit and the future of the North Pole

Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

“My friends see forces in and behind things which they personify as Spirits. They believe God or Supreme Beings dwell in the tangible world rather than the cathedrals of White Men. They try to influence the higher world by magical rites. One should be tolerant enough not to ridicule their beliefs. “

              Kakagun, Inuit Elder from The Incredible Eskimo 

In the second half of the 20th century, Jean Malaurie’s voice is incomparable not just as an advocate for the vast ecosystem of the Arctic and its peoples but also as a humanitarian who saw in Inuit culture a dialectic of integration between their land and its animals, between matter and spirit. Their universe offered a profound looking glass into the language of the Earth and its mysteries, both visible and invisible. His explorations in northern Greenland were as remarkable and steadfast as the journeys of his compatriot and contemporary Jacques Yves Cousteau.

He began as a geologist and geocryologist, studying scree dating back to the Ordovician 400 million years ago. He experienced more than glacial formations, icebergs and the then-seemingly invincible ice pack, but the genesis of an entirely novel order of perception in the Inuit, one uniquely allied to the very mind of the Earth and whose very foundation will determine the future of the planet. Malaurie saw in the north the axis of the world that needed to be preserved before the maddening gait of capitalist civilization. He exclaimed in the middle of the last century, that we have to be vigilant or the future of humanity will be dramatic for everyone. That drama is unfolding today. But few have had the experience and uncanny depth of conscience of living among peoples who were surrounded by subzero temperatures, who honored even the humblest bird, the whales and the polar bears and who saw amidst the extraordinary sweep of the Arctic, not just an extreme of the planet, but in essence, a key measure of the immune system of the entire world.

Malaurie lived in igloos, in -40 degree temperatures, a thinker who went far beyond the trials of the geophysical and observable, but as a diviner of invisible realities. His mind and soul became Hyperborean. He devoured and unearthed myths of a remarkable alliance between humans and animals. Inspired by the incalculable explorations of Rasmussen among the Inuit of the Arctic, in the early days of the 20th century, Malaurie’s work honored a society that had no need for money and the materialism of civilization. He wanted to not just seduce us with words and affirmations but to convince humanity of the decisive place the Inuit occupy at the forefront of the human condition. He reveled in the Apollonian mind of the extreme latitudes, in Nerrevik, the goddess of the sea, the mythology of the Inuit, their fabulous stories of human animal transformations, and hunting abilities of sheer survival that seem almost supernatural by comparison to the readily provided and processed goods that we devour in our vastly over consumptive, vulgar, and ultimately suicidal society. Malaurie was and still is a cosmonaut of the snows. 

I think of him now especially because of the melting permafrost and 100-degree weather that just assaulted 3 million acres in Siberia, roughly the size of Belgium. The carbon emissions are a time bomb to our civilization. The permafrost is melting and the methane being released is an overwhelming issue for the remainder of our earthly days.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

When America built a military base at Thule in northern Greenland in 1941, Jean saw this monstrosity as an affront to the first peoples of the North. On Jan. 2, 1968, at the height of the Cold War, a B52 bomber with four H-bombs crashed, contaminating the ground. Three bombs were pulverized. The fourth was never found and may still be contaminating the waters of the Arctic to this day. The incident reinforced Malaurie’s extraordinary concern for this millennia-old civilization. The North Pole, is his eyes, was cradle of our entire climate system.

Malaurie’s experience was born from the morbidity of WW2, the early defeat of France and then the rise of fascism and Soviet Communist Russia. From Greenland to Alaska to Siberia, he witnessed firsthand, indigenous cultures fast becoming pawns in the geopolitical struggles between Russia and America. In northern Greenland, where he had spent time, Malaurie learned about a secret landing site for B-52 bombers during the Korean War, in case the U.S. had to drop bombs on Beijing or Moscow. Greenland had been usurped, irrevocably, irremediably. The largest island on the planet would never be the same again.








Malaurie witnessed, and delved deeply into the formidable internal landscape of shamanism and a mythically charged peoples whose understanding of the world was matched by its converse, the supreme exterior spectacle of an inexhaustible horizon of ice packs and hummocks, of northern lights as well as stories of the mythic bond between human and animal life. Jean was privileged to have been touched both by a vast metaphysical vision and to have been moved in equal measure by the geologic wonders that so mesmerized him when he started his studies as a young man.

Once, he even heard a shaman mention that in observing certain details on the land, and shifting snow patterns, he could foresee changes in the climate three years in advance. It is the same civilization John Houston (whose documentary “Atausikut- Leaving None Behind” has just come out) spent time with in northern Canada who prophesied that there would be people who would change the weather. Nobody believed the shamans, three-four generations ago. How could people change the weather? Now we know. Those people are us. Now that we have been warned it is time to take action because we have absolutely no time left. There is a strong chance, in the next five years, we break the 1.5 degree of change mark the UN says we must not breach if we are to maintain the climate system.

There is in the rhythm of the waves, the sea itself, the ice, an uummaa, a heartbeat which belongs to the primal fabric in the universe which courses through the planar white vastness of the polar regions like nowhere else. It is not mere electromagnetic energy, but an energy born from the beginning of the universe, which we may sense intellectually but not sensorially. For the Inuit uummaa was a prescience about the very nature of matter, in the very language they used to address the wind, the elements, speaking to geologic realities as if they were alive, which in essence they were. This loss of an immensely deep cosmology had profound implications for Malaurie.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Some 2,000 caribou died in 2016 in Siberia when they succumbed to anthrax from a carcass that had been infected decades before. The permafrost, 1,000 feet deep in places, is thawing and a monster is being released. There are 7,000 burial grounds scattered across the Arctic and more will be created as the climate changes in the years to come. What viruses that we have never experienced will be unleashed on our population with the melting of the permafrost?

Malaurie would often speak of the poets and seers of literature with whom he was allied, although he began as a scientist. But he knew that there was a mystical component to how we acknowledged Native peoples that was as important as anything befitting an anthropologist, or physicist. He also knew that capitalism as he had seen it unfurl across the great northern latitudes would bring ruin not only to their civilization, because it had no limits and honored nothing beyond itself, but eventually to ours as well.  

Today we have reached those limits. Malaurie collected thinkers of all walks of life decades ago to start the Terre Humaine series, which would compile the planetary knowledge of the human family, bridging science and literature in an enterprise never before realized. Cousteau participated with his enormous exploration of the seas and of course Claude Levi Strauss with his delving into the aboriginal mind of the Amazon. So too did Jean Paul Sartre. But whereas Malaurie and Cousteau and Levi Strauss saw this undertaking as a privilege and a necessity to understand the primal mind, it seems the great philosopher of existentialism could not understand why so much time and effort was being devoted to preliterate, indigenous people around the world. A grave weakness many experts in science, economics, conservation and especially politics still share.

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Malaurie spoke urgently of what was needed to help salvage and understand the roots of the great gift of the Arctic to the world, people who journeyed metaphorically, metaphysically between the northern lights and the moon and whose dependence on their fellow beings was the basis of a unity that formed a sort of alliance and spiritual bond for thousands of years, millennia before so called advanced civilization launched its imperialist crusade upon the planet. Malaurie was a crusader for the invisible link that binds humanity to the soul of the planet. Terre Humaine was created as a direct result of the destruction and ignorance that fostered Nazism. In a time when dozens of human languages are being lost every year, it is a testimonial we should not take for granted.

For Malaurie the root of the Arctic was not just a platform for mining expeditions or the source of geologic wonders, but the very bedrock of the indigenous soul, in fact a very crucial foundation of humanity. Today there is more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than anytime in 15 million years. The Arctic is melting beneath our feet. The violations and rape of this inimitable region of the world is a sacrilege we cannot begin to measure and one we will all pay for dearly in the coming years.

Last year we were privileged enough to visit Scoreby Sound in Eastern Greenland, about 350 kilometers long, the longest fjord on earth with hundreds of icebergs cascading down from the central ice sheet into the sea. Each iceberg is an individual. Each has sila, a life force measured not just in tons but incarnating a presence normally reserved for the living. Each moved like the hallmark of a phantom, a bellwether to the earth’s journey. It was a reminder of the impossibly dynamic realities of our time.

We had taken our son Lysander to Svalbard 10 years ago when he was not quite 4. We did not realize how fast the ice was melting and we were in awe of the creaking of the exploration ship’s hull against the pack ice, a sound almost resembling moaning of furies howling over the ocean. We had been lucky enough to see a fogbow hovering over the ocean’s face, a magical window arching over the sea ice, a portal levitating over the Arctic Ocean. A few years later in the high Canadian Arctic, we showed that photo to John Houston’s stepfather Kananginak Pootoogook, an elder and sculptor from Cape Dorset, in Nunavut. He recognized the image as something the shamans would occasionally see. But in the old days, he added, some of them would also see a pole underneath the fogbow, like a giant metaphysical tree holding up the axis of the world. That tree is something no-one sees anymore.

Some 15 million years ago, the oceans were 20 meters higher. Who knows where our civilization will take the Earth? Will our arrogance overwhelm the life support system of the planet? Will we have leaders who see, really see what is at stake? So far, the leaders of the largest countries on Earth politically and geographically, all of them, have no vision and are running the world over a geologic death march. Civilization that created the Taj Mahal, Beethoven’s symphonies and the Sistine Chapel, will be either underwater or convulsing from chaos.

Malaurie, as a metaphysician seduced by the power of rock and the oral tradition of the northernmost people on Earth, wanted to warn us what humanity would lose if the Inuit should succumb to the plastic civilization of modern man. His is the last of his kind who saw the depths of man’s iniquity during WW2 and who fought for more than 70 years to remind us not just of the mind of the geomagnetic north, but of a compass that is directing the soul of each of us to retrieve his and her proper place on Earth. We need to heed his voice, he who urged us to listen to the cosmic song at the top of the world before the symphony of the icebergs is lost forever.

Malaurie cautioned in unequivocal language that it was not just our response to the Earth that mattered, but that Earth had a will and that she would respond to our abuse; she had a mind, and she would react to our dishonoring of her as a species. Beyond science and what we could calibrate with any measure of confidence or number, were realms of animist cognition that bowed before the life force, before which we were still children. Earth would no longer put up with our ways. She had no more patience with our kind. She was about to force us to finally awaken from our sleep. As Malaurie reminded us, the Inuit have a mission to reteach the dominant society to “breathe the regulating breath of the universe.”

It is a long way from wanting to build a nuclear base, to honoring the loons that cry in the Arctic wind. It is a long way from honoring the polar bear as a grandfather spirit, to letting 20,000 tons of oil pour in the Kara Sea as recently happened in the Siberian Arctic. Malaurie once said that if scientists did not have prescience, then they should change vocations. Because scientists, the analyzers of the world, and their computers did not have all the answers to solve the extraordinary drama unfolding on the Earth right now. When we first took our son Lysander to Greenland over 10 years ago, 50 billion tons of ice were melting into the sea every year. Last year it was 200 billion tons. How long can this last? On one day in June last year Greenland lost 2 billion tons in one day. If this melting continues Thule, Hyperborea, the North Pole, the cooling system of the world, along with the south Pole, will have its way with the cities of man.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

An Inuit elder once told Malaurie, “Take this rock, and listen. We can hear it.” What we do not hear are the sounds of oil prospectors looking for oil in the Arctic on Baffin Island that are deafening the ears of its local people, 100,000 times louder than an airplane motor. This is not just a violation of human rights; the indigenous people of the world have been made expendable. Canada quit the Kyoto protocol to limit gas emissions. Why? The noise of the machine of civilization is so inexorable that Canada’s indigenous peoples have had to move. The very peoples Malaurie insisted we listen to, because they had ears to the world, to the elements we need to survive, modern man was not born with.

What we don’t hear is the sound of tractors mowing over polar bear dens looking for the very material that is causing the world to melt. Or making so much noise that whales cannot communicate with each other anymore. Our civilization is literally carving a hole into its own brain. When London and Miami, Shanghai and dozens of other cities are underwater by the end of this century, where will their inhabitants go? When the summer ice is gone within a few years, the Earth will feel it. This, the Inuit know only too well. Nature is implacable. Do not interfere with its laws. Or else you will suffer the consequences. We will all feel it. It is time to take action and listen to the Arctic and act as if earthly civilization depended on it. It is time as Malaurie insisted to “resacralize” the Arctic.

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.