Girdling the Earth: The Puck Starts Here!

That memorable puck, Robin Goodfellow, as reported by one William Shakespeare, promised to “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes”. Since we may assume from his location, apparently near Athens, Greece, at around 38° north latitude, his distance would be about 30,000 km, for a speed of 45,000 kms/hour, which is a pretty good clip. If he moved further north, however, to 55°, say, he could girdle at a more leisurely pace, around 34,500 kms/hour, and the further north he went the slower he could go, until he arrived at the North Pole where he could girdle the earth in no time at all, literally, no matter how fast or slowly he went. This matter is of more than academic interest, since in Canada the velocity of pucks consumes a significant share of the national attention span.

Fifty-five degrees north latitude (“the Fifty-Five”) is a mystic line, at least in the minds of one Canadian government agency, which has given us a map of what it calls the North Circumpolar Region, defined by that latitude. Since this line cuts the area of Canada more or less in half, it constitutes a Significant Canadian Latitude, one of several, some of the others being 45° (part of the southern boundary of Québec and also, interestingly, approximately the median latitude of the Canadian population: 45.7° according to one estimate), 49° (the southern boundary of almost all of western Canada), and 60° (the southern boundary of the northern Territories).

If we girdle the Earth along the Fifty-Five and take in everything to the north of it, we find ourselves passing through an interesting array of countries, parts of countries, or territories attached to countries. Moving from Canada easterly:

We recognize that some controversies could arise from our choices of who is in or out. Why is Belarus left out, for example? It could be in, of course, because the Fifty-Five does cross it, although not nearly bisecting. The same rationale applies to England, even more strongly. Why are Denmark, Lithuania, even perhaps Latvia and Estonia in, since they would not normally be considered “northern” countries? We include them because they are north of the line, and face the Baltic Sea, the bulk of which lies north of it, as do Sweden and Finland, which are certainly northern, although they do not touch the arctic seas as most of the others do. But the crucial criterion for our purposes is the line of the Fifty-Five. We wish to understand what it means to live in Earth’s North Circumpolar Cap, or to have it within your jurisdiction. We wish to be true to the axioms of Pluralism, one of which says that elements should not be excluded simply because they do not conform to some predetermined set of assumptions. We have defined the geographic area of our interest, and then we will find out what the patterns are, and if they emerge as diverse, then so be it. The Cap is the Cap, the “nordicity” of its elements merely one of their features, although for some it will have vital even defining importance.

People sometimes accuse others, or themselves, of “not being able to see the forest for the trees”. We hold this blindness to be impossible. The forest is the trees, and all creatures great and small living under and in them, or feeding on or using them, either directly or indirectly. You can’t see the forest without looking at the trees, and all these other denizens. As we engage with the North Circumpolar Cap, and everything else we engage with, we are going to start by looking at the trees, because they are most conspicuous, and through them to comprehend the forest. Who are the people of Northern Earth, and how do they live? What lands and waters surround them, and just how frozen are they? What conditions do they face? What do they hold in common besides latitude, these hardy people, and how do they differ? What stories would they tell each other if they ever got together? “Where are you from? What’s it like there? How did you or your ancestors get there? How do you live? What have you learned? What do you still not know?”

We have a preliminary list of “settlements”, using the term broadly, from 55° north latitude on up, and it tells us there are about 800 of them. We have already discovered that the list is not complete. The furthest north is about 82.5°(Alert, closely followed by Nord at 81.7°; these are the only ones north of 80, although no doubt when we start looking around in detail we will discover some no longer inhabited), yielding (with a few gaps at the top) about 25 inhabited “girdles” of one degree each, averaging some 30-plus inhabited place names per girdle. Girdling down from the North Pole we first strike land on Kaffeklubben Island, at about 83.66°. That’s where we’ll start. Nobody lives there, but it appears the island has been explored, and by Canadians too! We’ll find out more about that, along with the rest of the 82nd Girdle, and report back.

As we girdle the Earth twenty-five or thirty times, or however many times we do, we will adopt the convention that we start at 141° west longitude, an obvious choice for Canadians, and work our way around widdershins.

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