The latest from Lawrence Millman offers a collection of anecdotes from the north

“The Last Speaker of Bear: My Encounters in the North”

By Lawrence Millman; Trinity University Press, 2022; 192 pages; $18.95.

Lawrence Millman, the author of 18 previous books and a frequent contributor to magazines, has spent his entire life exploring and writing about the North. His latest booklet consists of short vignettes or anecdotes about his contacts with northern, largely indigenous people and the places he visited.

As Millman explains in his foreword, he began writing a memoir that looked back on his life, only to find that what he was creating was not a story, but remembered episodes that wouldn’t fall into chronology. He has divided these into sections that he calls “Encounters with Indigenous People,” “Encounters with Flora, Fauna, and Food,” “Encounters with Remote Places,” and “Other Encounters.” Taken together, the short pieces – usually only a few pages long – form the stones of a kind of mosaic.

Millman traveled extensively in the sparsely populated – manned – north, and his vignettes similarly travel the length from Canada to Iceland and Greenland, Spitsbergen in northern Norway, Siberia and Russia’s Wrangel Island to Alaska. Much of his travel and research involved collecting indigenous ‘lore’, while at other times he engaged in expeditions to historic sites associated with early western explorers and whalers. Sometimes he seemed simply out for the joy of reaching the top of a mountain or the lake at the bottom of a crater. Sometimes he just traveled more often with guides or friends. He played football with boys in Greenland – where they liked to kick him – and ate ptarmigan droppings, competed against a musk ox in Canada and took a walk through Iceland’s oldest forest.

Alaska-specific bits include one about losing his boots in an Anchorage hotel and going shopping for replacement boots with his friend Ted Mala, the now-retired Alaska Native physician. The point of the story seems to be about survival strategies of northern indigenous peoples. Another, titled “A Northern Holocaust,” is about a visit to Refuge Rock near Kodiak Island, the site where the Alutiiq people were killed by Russians in 1784 and a place he found “haunted.”

The title story, with its suggestion of bear language, promises more than it delivers. It’s mainly about Millman’s weather problems getting to a village in northern Labrador where he’d heard there was an elderly “spoke bear.” When he finally arrived, he learned that the eldest had died the day before. He asked another man if he could speak some “words” of bears and was instead told about the respect hunters paid to bears, called them “Grandfather” and hung their skulls in trees for protection. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Millman that “talking bear” may not literally mean using a language of bear words, but understanding kinship.

So many of Millman’s vignettes act as teasers – they outline a situation or circumstance that suggests intriguing cultural or environmental issues, but then closes all too quickly, often with a pronounced conclusion that the reader has already obscured from the story itself. Since most of the “encounters” presented here took place 30 or 40 years ago, he missed a great opportunity to think about them from a distance – as one would in a real memoir. Instead, with few exceptions, we get moments frozen in time. These certainly offer their own pleasures and relevance, but seem “small” compared to what they could have become.

Time has also changed the way outsiders are expected to interact with and portray indigenous cultures. While Millman certainly spent a great deal of time with northern peoples and seems to have had good relationships with individuals, his vignettes don’t always express the respect we might expect today. In these pieces, he chases stories, knocks on doors, and asks about shamanic practices, and doesn’t always seem sensitive or nuanced about cultural differences. He questions supernatural beliefs and cringes at a poor man’s offer of old donuts, even though he prides himself on eating other native foods. He talks about sticking a knife in a cairn to turn the skull so he could see his teeth.

Although Millman is clearly a person of many talents, including knowledge of fungi, the subject of his book “Fungipedia”, his formal degrees are in English and he does not appear to have been trained in ethnography. His practice of collecting traditional Indigenous stories, included in several of his earlier books, seems to have been driven by personal curiosity. Here a reader may surmise that his informants sometimes made up stories to amuse themselves at his expense. In one vignette, when he investigates the use of psychotropic mushrooms in Siberia, his informants tell him to follow the tradition of baring his bare ass to the moon before swallowing them. When he does this, the men burst out laughing and admit they were joking.

Millman does mention a few times the effects of climate change, which were already visible in the north decades ago. In one piece, on caribou, he says that when the snow melted earlier in the spring, the mosquitoes hatched before the calves were born and female caribou were so busy trying to avoid the insects that they left their newborns starve. In another story, he tells of a cruise ship’s path being blocked by icebergs increasingly shed by melting glaciers. He has less to say about weather and climate effects on the lives of northern people.

“The Last Speaker of Bear” will appeal to readers who enjoy short stories, fans of Millman in general, and those who find encouragement for their own adventures in physical travel or additional reading about northern places, their history, and their lives. cultures. Some readers may prefer Millman’s earlier, fuller books. His 1990 classic Last Places: A Journey in the North traces the route of Vikings through the North 10 centuries ago. “At the End of the World: A True Story of Murder in the Arctic,” was reviewed in these pages in 2017.

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