Polar dance: born of the north wind.
This book is a large, attractive volume, replete with hundreds of fine colour photographs, well produced on good-quality paper. The large format announces to the reader that this could well be a further addition to the "coffee table genre" of big publications with minimal text and pretty images. However, while the authors would be unwise to deny a certain kinship with that much-disparaged genre, there is much to distinguish and recommend this production.
This is not an academic text, and it would be invidious to judge it by such exacting criteria. That said, it is important to recognize what this book is, rather than what it is not. It is overwhelmingly a popular book intended to serve a wide audience of nonspecialists who seek an introduction to the polar bear, its habits, and its environment.
The excellent photography of Thomas D. Mangelsen is accompanied by a "story" courtesy of Fred Bruemmer, and there is a certain degree of correlation between images and text. Although the dust jacket announces the text to be a "story," Bruemmer, an Arctic veteran of some 35 years, offers a species of fiction grounded in facts and details, a "story based on ... many years of observation [and] scientific knowledge" (p. 13).
Bruemmer's omniscient narrative is actually three narratives that complement one another, producing an integrated overview. One of the story's strands focuses on the peregrinations of a polar bear mother and her two cubs, while another follows the life of a mature adult male and the arctic fox who accompanies him. These elements are embedded in a further, framing narrative that concentrates on Arctic history and natural history, as well as providing geological, anthropological, archaeological, and ethnographic background material. During the course of his fiction, Bruemmer takes the reader through a full-year cycle in the lives of his subjects. This scheme provides Mangelsen ample opportunity for some visually stunning portrayals of the seasons, while the reader learns the yearly patterns of polar bear behaviour.
The book is easygoing (and certainly easy on the eye), informative, and accessible, with many passages and images relating to other Arctic animals. Bruemmer's effortless style is clearly the product of an intimate knowledge not only of the polar bear, but also of the Arctic generally. Where he really scores highly is in his ability to underpin his fiction with accurate detail. For example, he uses exact Inuit terms, subtly and succinctly revealing their meanings to the reader without the need for stodgy explanations, or recourse to endless glossaries.
The story is a fitting accompaniment to the striking visuals. Images range from approximately 35 mm contact print size to double-page spreads of about 18 x 56 cm. The photographs themselves represent a mere fraction of the 85 000 images of polar bears and other Arctic wildlife from which they were chosen. These range in scale from vast Arctic land- and seascapes to detailed close-ups of flora and fauna. Their subject matter is similarly broad, and pictures of Canada geese, arctic foxes, snowy owls, willow ptarmigan, snow geese, and arctic ground squirrels (to name but a few) are found among the expected pictures of polar bears. In addition, the text provides a handy index to the photographs, enabling beginners to identify the names of animals and birds.
Not surprisingly, in a book of this kind, Tom Mangelsen' s imagery largely eschews depictions of nature "red in tooth and claw." Frank Craighhead's Foreword is right to stress the "mood" rather than the realism of the work: "You can be sure that Tom's bear images and other arctic photographs ... accurately portray the mood of the polar bear and its world" (p. 11). Indeed, there is no disputing that Mangelsen's images (as one would expect from a BBC "Wildlife Photographer of the Year") are technically excellent, unusual, and perhaps better seen than described.
Polar Dance is a monumental work and an impressive achievement. That it is neither a serious academic work nor a work of science makes it something of a breath of fresh air. For the novice general reader, it provides a rich, attractive introduction to the polar bear and its Arctic environment. Even the hardboiled polar specialist would have to be very hardboiled not to enjoy the images in this book. It is a text to be dipped into, pored over, and revisited many times.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 1, 1999|
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