I’ve recently been thinking about the unexpected connections between the weather
news and Howard Norman’s book In Fond Remembrance of Me. Norman worked in Churchill, Manitoba collecting Inuit folklore during the mid-1970s but from the start everything went wrong. As soon as he arrived in northern Manitoba in 1977 he learned that a Japanese linguist and Arctic expert, Helen Tanizaki, was interviewing the same Inuit elder. While she was willing to collaborate, their informant loved Helen but could not stand Norman. The befuddled Norman also soon realized that his informant was also making up much of the folklore that he was documenting. These tales centered upon a cycle of stories in which Noah drifted into Hudson Bay, where the ice trapped the ark during the winter. In all these stories Noah encountered Inuit peoples, who would paddle their kayaks out to the ark to understand why both he and this remarkable boat was there. In every case these people would make a request –a piece of wood to burn or perhaps some animals to eat- to which Noah would always answer “No!” This denial would be incomprehensible to the Inuit. After all, Noah had many animals- why shouldn’t he share the giraffes with them? The result was always a disaster for Noah, who might witness his family deserting him so that his wife could marry a better hunter, or his animals dying in the dark of winter. In the end, Noah was usually left on the ice to be rescued by the Inuit. In the spring Noah would leave the Inuit to walk south, from where –as so often in folklore- he “was never seen again.”
I’ve been thinking of these tales in the context of recent news on global warming. In the United States hundreds of high temperature records have been broken in the last few weeks, where the West has experienced a terrible heat wave. In Canada, the city of Calgary first saw extreme flooding then record heat. And a recent article by Jeff Goodell in Rolling Stone has described a future in which sea level rise will almost certainly swamp not only Miami but also most of South Florida. The beautiful hedges, graceful walks and sandy beaches that I love so much in Southern Florida likely exist no more except in memory before the end of the century. As the article’s title suggests, Miami will be a new Atlantis.
While no environment lasts forever, its amazing to think of the changes that children alive now will see in their lifetime, with not just cities –Venice, Miami and New Orleans- disappearing, but also large parts of some states. Hurricane Sandy’s impact in New York and New Jersey is only a foreshadowing. In the near future, our environment will be fundamentally altered on a global scale. The Arctic Ocean will soon be ice free in the summers, while the ice cap on Greenland will continue to melt. The world inherited by Inuit children in the Canadian North, or American children in Southern Florida, will be one of dynamic and rapid change.
It is true that this has happened before. The people who once lived in Beringia, between what is now Alaska and Russia, or Doggerland, between what is now Britain and Scandinavia, also saw the land disappear beneath the waves. But in the case of those peoples the changes took place over generations. Ancient peoples also lived in hunter-gatherer cultures with a low population density, so that mass migration was readily possible. And the temperatures that the Earth will soon reach will only have precedent in terms of geologic time. If were are fortunate, and the methane release from the permafrost does not lead to runaway global warming, how will people understand this new world?
Myths represent the most fundamental aspect of a culture’s belief system, through which a people express their core values and fears. Perhaps the most ubiquitous myths on the planet, whether in the epic of Gilgamesh or the oral traditions of North American indigenous peoples, are those of the flood. These tales may have reflected humanities’ experiences with the flooding of vast sections of the earth’s surface at the end of the last Ice Age. While folklore and myths might appear to be unchanging, they always evolve through time, as each generation adapts stories to reflect their experiences. What stories and myths will people create to understand the extreme transformations that our world will undergo this century, and the floods that will inundate many coastlines? And in a hundred years, will the Inuit stories told around Hudson Bay, Canada, still have Noah’s Ark trapped in the ice?
Update: if you are interested in Indigenous myth and Canada, see my new book, Dangerous Spirits: the Windigo in Myth and History. The print version of the book is now available in Canada. The book is also available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play Books, Nook, Kobo and iBooks. The print launch for the United States is set for April 2015.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University