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15 august 2015

One of the strongest themes in John Miller and Louise Miller's Walrus has more to do with humans than walruses.

We often think of non-industrial people (in addition to their perceived cultural and intellectual weaknesses) as being technologically weak. Native Arctic peoples ran around for centuries making boats and tents out of walrus skin, while peoples the "South," as Miller & Miller call them, were inventing much better things out of materials like metal and plastic.

Yet of course we of the South (or West, or whatever privileged direction you'd care to adopt) would not last long in sub-zero temperatures with only walruses to sustain us. Devising walrus-based solutions to not freezing your rear end off is really a pretty amazing technological achievement. Part of our disdain for "natives" is simply that they don't do things the way we'd do them. Well, our circumstances are different. But intellectually speaking, they are us. The same genius we've expressed via dynamos and digital computers and fracking, they've exerted on making rope out of braided strips of walrus hide.

The walrus may seem a sleeping partner – actually, a dead one – in such an arrangement. But Miller & Miller are as interested in live walruses as in walrus raw materials. They establish the walrus as an enigmatic, orphaned taxon. Despite their enormous size, walruses feed fairly low on the food chain. They are uniquely adapted to picking molluscs up off the ocean floor and sucking them out of their shells. As a result, native humans of the Arctic have a favorite dish: the stomach contents of a freshly-killed walrus. "The stomach juices serve as a tantalizing sour dressing" to the oysters and clams, as one observer puts it (50): in other words, ready-to-eat walrus-made seviche.

John Lennon's walrus appears here, to start and end the book. (The walrus may or may not have been Paul.) Lewis Carroll's does too, and his friend the Carpenter. I was also happy to see Wally and Chumley, associates respectively of Woody the Woodpecker and Tennessee Tuxedo.

Walruses are not currently endangered, at least in the Pacific. Or to be more precise, they're not believed to be endangered because not enough is known to the contrary to say for sure. Herds of thousands, even tens of thousands of Pacific walruses continue to cavort in the Bering sea and the southern reaches of the Arctic Ocean. Since hunting them is now banned, nobody's had an interest in getting close enough to see exactly how many tens of thousands. Atlantic populations, though smaller, are also protected and seem stable. We only know for sure that their range is greatly reduced from just a few hundred years ago.

Miller & Miller aren't romantic about the sustainable-hunting ethos of Northern peoples. Arctic people killed as many walruses as they could, but hand weapons will only get you so far. Supposedly sustainable indigenous hunting sometimes, nowadays, seems to turn into quick conversion of as much ivory as possible into souvenirs.

Nevertheless, hunting by indigenous peoples was as nothing to the wholesale slaughter of walruses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, facilitated by steamships and high-powered rifles. A huge percentage of the take was lost (sunk before recovery), and much else was wasted (walruses being shot for their ivory alone and left to rot). Fortunately developed nations came to their senses before the walrus went the way of the bison or passenger pigeon. Habitat destruction combined with direct take, of course, to decimate the American bison. Walrus are luckier in that their habitat – floating ice floes – isn't something we covet.

But Miller & Miller end with a caveat: global warming is melting walrus habitat without any direct or deliberate intervention of ours. They may move north to escape it, but what if (as some predict) the Arctic is free of ice within 20 years? Our lifestyles have a very long reach.

Miller, John, and Louise Miller. Walrus. London: Reaktion, 2014.