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Every day was Earth Day for Isobel

In the UK, the somewhat eccentric ritual of ‘changing the clocks,’ began in 1916, when it was thought that lighter evenings would encourage people to preserve fuel, providing more resources for the war effort. The Americans adopted the idea too, but though the original reasoning was the same, it has now come to be associated with changing seasons - spring forward, fall backwards.

Isobel would have been 27 years old when daylight savings time was introduced. Already a fan of the natural world, she was embarking on studies in business and marketing with a focus on agriculture at Studley Horticultural College in Warwickshire. Little did she know she would go on to be one of the few people in the world to witness arctic spring (known in Inuit communities as upirngasaq).

It’s estimated that about 4 million people currently live in this northernmost region of Earth. The Arctic, defined as the area within a line of latitude about 66.5° north of the Equator, covers approximately 14.5 million square km (5.5 million square miles), making it slightly larger than its southern counterpart Antarctica. It’s generally thought of as the northern parts of Scandinavia, Russia, Canada, Greenland, Iceland and the U.S. state of Alaska. This was Isobel’s adopted second home, a mostly uncharted world of ice and snow, where she could be free of societal expectations.

Arctic spring begins in mid March. After a long winter of near perpetual darkness, the sun reappears and by June there are no nights. Archaeologists and anthropologists believe that this region has been inhabited for around twenty thousand years despite its harsh living conditions. Indigenous people saw the returning light as a signal that they’d soon be swapping snow houses for summer sealskin tents. Lucky Isobel got to experience both dwellings and it’s frequently documented that living like a local brought her personal fulfilment and professional respect.

From Lyrics From Greenland, Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Published by Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow 1935

The Inuit language doesn’t have a word for ‘nature’, perhaps because they consider themselves to be part of it. The Western world thinking of nature as something to be conquered, exploited or more benignly used for recreation are all foreign concepts to native peoples and while much of Isobel’s exploration was lauded for bravery in facing the harsh climate and terrain, Isobel’s own thinking was more in line with the locals. She wasn’t striving against the elements as a challenge, but rather embracing nature and her part in it.

Where earlier explorers had planted flags to lay a claim, Isobel learned the languages, customs and culture. She travelled by dog sleigh, on foot and via any boat that would take her. She recorded her travels in photographs, film, botany samples, poetry and writing. The everyday ebb and flow of life in response to the seasons gave her a unique view of what it means to live in nature. From seal hunting to softening the skins for clothing, she embraced the techniques, patterns and stitches handed down through generations. Isobel learned so she could teach, bringing the stories of her adventures to a hungry home audience. The Arctic soothed her soul but in turn encouraged the waiting world to see how much it had to offer and why it should be treasured.

Earth Day was first celebrated on April 22nd, 1970 (the year before Greenpeace was founded) to demonstrate support for environmental protection. By then Isobel was 81 years old and just leaving her post as Vice President of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, (a role she began in 1958). As the seventies unfolded, interest moved from the natural world to space (as the final frontier). The Arctic and perhaps the world in general would have seemed unfamiliar to her, especially as the first satellite measurements of summer sea ice began to show climate change. September ice extent is now thought to be declining at a rate of 13% per decade and the most recent Nature Climate Change study predicts that the ice floating on the surface of the Arctic Ocean could disappear entirely by 2035, a mere 110 years since Isobel first embarked on her travels there.

While records of her trips taught us so much and many of the plant samples she returned are still providing insight today, it seems we’ve failed to learn. Isobel wanted to preserve the Arctic by showing it as a place to be revered rather than feared. The history she created in that region is now a great place to find solace from its uncertain future.

From Lyrics From Greenland, Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Published by Blackie & Son Ltd, Glasgow 1935


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The North Star Explorer

Learn more about Isobel’s passion for the natural world, her experience of travelling to remote places and her encounters expressed through art and creative writing.

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