Yet it is my malady, not Siberia’s, that rules conversations and headlines. I am too hot because of a persistent case of COVID-19, what its sufferers have begun calling “long COVID.” Mine is one case among millions, a pace of infection that, like distant wildfires, will roar into fall. So perhaps it is no wonder that, from America, Eurasia’s heat feels like an abstraction. Siberia and its inhabitants are far; much suffering is close. How do we take in the ruptures of a burning world when our own bodies are alight?
My body has been alight for months now. From within this illness, I have come to think that Siberia and I endure more than a coincidence in temperature. Our fevers are stoked by related patterns of economic production, patterns both relatively new and seemingly inevitable. And my corporeal fire says something about how a continental fire can go unseen, offering a lesson in the implications of duration: how as a condition lingers, its origins or significance grow harder to see. Long COVID and climate change are alike in this: live ill for long enough, and the absence of health threatens to become normal.
Two summers ago, I was in Russia, on a comma of rocky Bering Sea beach called Napkum Spit. It was August, the turquoise water free of ice and full of spotted seals. Far off, a gray whale spouted, its breath tracking a shimmering mist against the horizon.
North and south from this place, Indigenous kin and culture are nourished by hunts of grey and bowhead whales. For Yupik and Chukchi, peoples whose ancestors have lived along the Bering Sea for thousands of years, whales’ flesh is food, their beings woven into the necessities and ceremonies of daily life. I was on Napkum Spit because of a different kind of whaling. My work as a historian had led me to the logbooks of the New England fleet, which began killing Bering Sea cetaceans in the 1840s. These sailors hunted whales for oil and baleen, to light homes and brace corsets where I now live, in Rhode Island, and all along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. I wanted to see what marks remained in this whaling ground.
I expected something tangible, even monumental. In 50 years, the Yankee fleet killed tens of thousands of whales. Around that loss, the Bering Sea ecosystem transformed, likely feeding more squid and fish in the ecological spaces once home to bowheads and grays. But these species were inaccessible to Yupik and Chukchi. By the 1880s, famine claimed families, then whole villages, many also suffering from epidemic diseases transported north by wooden ships.
Had I lived in Rhode Island then, I would have lit whale-oil lamps at dusk, with baleen cinching my ribs, and seen nothing of that suffering. A hundred and twenty years later, to one recently arrived on Napkum Spit from New England, the traces of commercial whaling were imperceptible still. There were no hulking shipwrecks, or graves, or mounds of whale skulls, only that single whale spout on the horizon. The memorial to market killing is absence. The Yankee fleet ceased harrowing the waters off Siberia by 1900, yet bowhead and gray-whale populations are still shy of their former plenty. The only Bering Sea I have ever seen, the only one I can experience, would have seemed eerily bereft in 1840.