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Country Gentleman: Epidemic disaster versus balance with nature

C.W. Nicol is seen investigating the Arctic region, in this photo provided by the C.W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust.

The most treasured object in my study is an old Inuit lamp. The spellings of Inuit words have changed greatly over the last 60 years, but I learned the name as "KUDLU" (Quoo dloo).

The lamp was carved from black soapstone and is shaped like a giant section of a peeled orange. Along the straight edge is a groove, in which a wick of arctic cotton or some other summer tundra plant would have been evenly spread. Below the wick is a shallow bowl for strips of seal, walrus or whale blubber. The flame would gently render the oil giving a clear yellow luminescence.

These lamps are now used for ceremonial purposes, but for millennia in the arctic, without the "Kudlu" lamp human life would have been impossible. When surface water all froze and the long arctic winter began, without marine mammal oil there would have been no light, no warmth, and no heat to melt ice or snow to make water, tea or broth.

Women would keep the lamp burning and men would hunt. By the time I first went into the Canadian arctic in the late 1950s the soapstone lamp had been largely replaced by "Primus" or "Coleman" kerosene lamps and stoves. Even so, the "Kudlu" still preserved a place of honor and the older folk preferred its gentle light and heat.

In 1966 and 1967 I was employed by the Arctic Biological Station of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, doing fieldwork into the rapidly changing ways that the role of marine mammals fulfilled Inuit life. Our research was on Baffin Island, that great long island west of Greenland. I was traveling in and out of the small towns of Pangnirtung (pop, circa 1500) through the rugged fjords and myriad islands of Cumberland Sound.

All around the Sound were small "outpost" hunting camps usually with five to seven hunters and their families to each camp. Together with my Inuit guide we traveled from camp to camp, hunting, taking samples and observations as we traveled. Inuit hunters and elders were an invaluable sower of knowledge and information.

This was a time of change. The Canadian government was urging the outpost camp folk to come and settle in Pangnirtung, where children could go to school and where there would be small wooden prefabricated houses, heated by fuel oil and with electricity provided by the Pangnirtung town diesel generators.

Since the coming of the white men, and especially the whalers, epidemics of influenza and other diseases had ravaged the Inuit, while an introduction of Southern dogs as "pets" had decimated the Inuit husky dogs with distemper.

In 1966, by the time I went into Baffin Island, several of the outpost camps were now deserted. Dr. Arthur Mansfield, my boss in Montreal, had asked me to look around the old camp sites to check for old walrus and narwhal skulls whose skulls would have been discarded after tusks had been removed.

Although my Inuit guide was usually full of stories of old camps, there was one camp that he refused to take me to. At the end of the summer I insisted that I had to check the site and that he could stay with our 22-foot freighter canoe and not step ashore if he didn't want to. The campsite was in a sheltered inlet, with a wide, muddy tidal beach, ideal for gathering the long-necked clans that both Inuit and walrus loved. The site had been deserted for decades, ever since the influenza had wiped them out.

On the raised gravel beach, old winter "tupik" tents had all collapsed, the debris left where it lay. On the shoreline was a row of mummified and skeletonized human bodies, in flimsy coffins of broken boards and pieces of plywood, a heart-wrenching, sad, pathetic sight.

I found a broken Kudlu lamp in the ruins. One end had been cracked off, yet still the lamp had been too precious to throw away, so the two pieces of soapstone had been drilled along the broken edge then lashed together so tightly with seal line that the oil did not leak. When I found the broken lamp the seal lashings had rotted away.

Carrying the two broken pieces out to the shoreline I laid them at the head of the little coffin and said a little prayer before making my way across the mud flats to where my guide was waiting.

"Did you take anything from the camp?" he asked.

"No," I answered.

"Hunters got sick. Everybody died while waiting for them to come home."

Then he revved up the outboard engine and we headed back to Pangnirtung.

As I was packing gear ready to head south a young Inuit man and a teenage girl came with their grandmother to visit me. They handed me a heavy bundle, wrapped in an old flour sack.

"My grandmother says you should take this," said the young man. "It belonged to our old family."

"Don't need it anymore," said the girl.

Grandmother just smiled, putting the bundle into my arms.

We shared tea and stories.

Now I am in Japan, rising in the morning to more alarming news about the coronavirus epidemic spreading out from China. My heart goes out to everybody and my memories go back to a deserted outpost camp in the Canadian Arctic.

From what little information gathered from the media it would seem that the coronavirus originated in wild animals brought cruelly and artificially into a modern city.

Every living thing in this planet is connected. Why can we humans not strive for balance and more respect for the rest of life?

("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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