Adventurer Bruce Parry talks to Lyn Hughes about travelling in the Arctic for his new BBC TV series and book – and why he’s been abstaining from everything for a year
Lyn Hughes:So, this is a bit of a contrast to your last series, Amazon. Is there a natural habitat that you feel at home in?
Bruce Parry: Not the Arctic! I’ve chosen to live in the Mediterranean [on the island of Ibiza]! That’s where civilisation started. That’s my preferred habitat.
LH: Are you able to adapt to more or less any environment?
BP: There are physiological changes between races that enable some people to inhabit parts of the world better than others. It’s more important learning how to stitch in the Arctic than anything else… and to hunt. But I think that, yeah, we can all pretty much live where we want.
I must admit the prospect of going to the Arctic for the whole summer didn’t excite me massively. I think there are important stories to be told, and this is a really important part of the world at this stage in history, but I can’t say I was jumping up and down to go to the Arctic.
In fact having done that Scott polar thing [the 2006 series Blizzard: Race To The Pole] through Greenland I remember saying I’d never go back to Greenland. But of course as soon as I got there I was absolutely bowled over by the beauty and serenity and the wonderful people. It’s the most extraordinary place on the planet and I loved it.
LH: In the book of the series, you’ve written in your acknowledgements: ‘Partly to a new friend, the Arctic, and humbly admitting that my words have not always been complimentary but having finally got to know you’. It sounds like you went through a massive change in perspective.
BP: I don’t like the cold. I’m lazy, I like to take my top off and lie in the sun. But, you look for the beauty wherever you are. It’s harder in London that it is in the Arctic!
LH: You mentioned the previous Greenland trip, in which you recreated Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole. Of course you didn’t have decent clothing for that trip…
BP: The clothes weren’t too bad – but my mindset wasn’t right for that Scott trip. We’d just finished doing a bunch of Tribe episodes where I was so heavily stimulated by one culture after another. Like most of us, I was addicted to stimulation, to distractions, to having things to think about.
And then, going to Greenland, there was nothing at all. I went a little bit mad because I desperately wanted some stimulation and it wasn’t there. It was white as far as the eye could see. And I found that really hard.
LH: You do seem to have gone through quite a change in the last couple of years.
BP: Yes, definitely. Between Amazon and this I’ve changed loads. I took time out because I’d been so inundated with all those experiences. It just didn’t feel right to me, to just go and do a fun programme somewhere. They were such, such important experiences; I was very privileged to have them. And I needed to assimilate them, compartmentalise and dwell on them a little.
While I was doing Tribe and Amazon, I thought I could just about explain away everything I experienced from a Western perspective. I’d seen shamans do various things, tribal rituals and what-have-you, and I would just see it as a metaphor.
But then a couple of things didn’t quite fit, and I needed to explore more – so that’s why I took time out. I read about the neurology and the toxicity of the chemicals. I read about quantum field theory, about altered states functions, all sorts of different stuff.
I was trying to explain what was going on with some of these experiences, but some things just couldn’t be explained. The best that science had to offer still didn’t explain fully what I felt like. And so, during those two years off, I spent some time learning to meditate, and I went off and did some shamanic rituals in different parts of the world.
Then for over a year now, I’ve put myself through a period of abstinence as well, which is another part of my journey – not having sex, not having any alcohol or stimulant drugs. It is all part of the same process of analysis that I’ve started during this time off. So I’ve totally changed my perspective on some of those earlier experiences I had.
LH: Have you found yourself empathising more with indigenous people as a result?
BP: While previously I had just written off many of these rituals with a scientific reductionist perspective, now I realise they weren’t just metaphorical or poetic – these people were telling me things that actually make sense. That’s been the biggest change: a reprogramming of my mind and the way I see things.
So now when I go and hang out with indigenous people, and they tell me about certain things, I listen in a different way, and now I’m like “Yeah, I get that”. And I can ask questions related to it, and that opens them up a lot, they’re like “Yeah, this guy is with us”.
LH: Are there examples of that in the Arctic series?
BP: I go to Siberia in the first programme, to spend time with the Sakha horse people and Eveny reindeer herders. Their shamanic tradition was killed off by Stalin, but they still live in the spirit world.
But they’re also aware of the outside world, and they’re aware that people look down on anyone thinking that, for example, mountains can speak – so they’re very reticent in talking about it.
So, I’m there with them and I say, “Oh, I believe you place your tents this way because it faces the spirits,” and they’re like, “No, no, that’s backwards thinking, we wouldn’t be like that.”
And I’m like, “That’s funny, because I thought the mountain spoke to me on the way here”.
And you find them saying, “Well yes, of course, the mountains talk to us”. And so, by being softer to that perspective, suddenly a whole new world opened up to me, which had never really happened in Tribe.
LH: How did the series come about anyway?
BP: We thought the Arctic was the next place that everyone was talking about. If the Amazon was a metaphor for climate change and political corruption, the Arctic is the reality. This is the place that is changing as a result of the things that are happening in the Amazon.
And it was bold, because it’s a hard place to make television. We had half the money we had in the Amazon and everything’s just so much more expensive there, so that was a really big and difficult thing. And it’s not as exotic, it’s not as vibrant, there are not so many dangers. So it’s a very different kind of programme: perhaps not as exciting as Amazon, but I think it’s as important.
LH: Do you mean it’s not as dramatic?
BP: Not as visually dynamic – televisually. Obviously, that’s shooting myself in the foot saying that, but I don’t care! I do think though it’s as important. I encourage people to watch it because I think there’s really important stuff in there. But it’s not me sticking my penis inside out!
LH: Was it different to how you expected it?
BP: Yeah, it’s so varied, so unexpected. For example, the middle of Siberia is 35°C hot in the middle of summer – and that’s in the Arctic Circle. And the human issues are far acuter than I had expected too. I’d read a lot about the plight of the indigenous people in North America, Canada and Alaska, but it was impossible to prepare for the stories and the feelings I got when I was there: they are still very recent living memory.
Terrible atrocities! I got stories of forced assimilation: people were telling me how they were abused, physically, mentally, sexually at school, and how it’s affecting their whole culture. This is now a whole society of people who don’t even speak their own language; who don’t know about their ancestry because when they should have been at home learning about their clothing, how to hunt and trap whatever, they were learning about totally different stuff.
Then they were sent back to their communities. There’s no wonder there’s alcoholism; no wonder these people are massively unemployed and disillusioned.
I’ve come across that sort of thing before, but because it’s in the Arctic it’s one of the last places that it happened. Traditionally they’d believe the land was alive and they were connected to it, but now they’re not. Now they believe god is a man, and that makes it easier for them to sell their land. And that really hit me the hardest.
LH: Clearly there were lots of serious moments, but what was your happiest moment, the most magical?
BP: Anytime when I was in big vistas. The meditative me could really feel it. The feeling was so explosive in my heart. It was so “My god, I feel so humble; how could I be so lucky to be here?”
Bruce Parry’s 5-part Arctic series is on BBC 2, Sundays at 9pm, from 2 January 2011.