Lessons of Sustainability From Maine to Greenland

William Fitzhugh

William Fitzhugh, head of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution, speaking at Bowdoin

An anthropologist specializing in the Arctic and a photographer from Maine recently visited Bowdoin to talk abut their travels through the Maritime Far Northeast.

For nearly 40 years, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History archaeologist William Fitzhugh and photographer Wilfred Richard have been exploring, researching and documenting this northern region. Their photographs and personal essays are collected in a new book, Maine to Greenland: Exploring the Maritime Far Northeast, published by the Smithsonian Institution Press.

Fitzhugh

William Fitzhugh

Maine traditionally has been a jumping off point for travelers to the north, including for Bowdoin alumnus and famed explorer Robert Peary. The itineraries of Fitzhugh and Richard have taken them from Maine through the Canadian Maritimes, Newfoundland, northern Quebec, Labrador, Baffin and Ellesmere islands, and Greenland.

Fitzhugh and Richard said the theme of Maine to Greenland is a “rediscovery of place and culture.” The climate has for 10,000 years influenced cultures in the Northeast Atlantic, and to survive, local people have adapted to, rather than transformed, their environments. Many of the communities here live lightly on the land, and both Fitzhugh and Richard in the book implore the rest of the world, which has generally overlooked this region, to pay more attention to this area’s sustainable practices.

Richard

Wilfred Richard

Today, the warming climate is causing many changes in the far north. It is becoming a crossroads as the Northwest Passage opens up as a major shipping lane. Energy issues, too, have become more pressing as more companies seek oil and minerals below the Arctic Ocean.

Climate is also influencing the redistribution of animals. The area is host to reindeer, moose, whales, polar bears, walruses, seals, great auks, and more. And along the coast, towns are threatened by erosion as sea level rises.

“We were looking for answers that could be applied to our rapacious consumption of the earth’s most precious resources,” write Richard and Fitzhugh. They find them in the “small-scale societies” that typify the region, which they hope can be “sources of inspiration for new ways of adapting,” writes Thomas Urquhart in a recent Portland Press Herald review of the book.

Fitzhugh is the head of the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian Institution, and his work as an archaeologist and anthropologist has focused on the cultural and environmental history of Labrador and southern Quebec, the evolution of maritime cultures, contact between native populations and Europeans, and the origins of reindeer herding.

Richard is a geographer, photographer, registered Maine Guide, and research fellow at the Ummannaq Polar Institute in Greenland.

Their talk at Bowdoin was sponsored by the Arctic Museum.

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