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Explorer/Author Tries New Realm : Psychotherapist Turns From Arctic Cold to Inner Worlds

April 03, 1987|SIOBHAN MORRISSEY | The Washington Post

Evelyn Stefansson Nef, 72, was an Arctic researcher and explorer who, at age 63, became a full-time psychotherapist.

From 1941 until her husband died in 1962, she was the wife of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the explorer who helped change the image of the polar regions from a forbidding and lifeless wasteland to a place in which man could live fruitfully. As such, she was pulled into his world of discovery of the Earth's final frontier--the Arctic.

During this time, she had access to all the latest findings as well as lively conversation with innumerable scientists and explorers upon their return from the far North.

She traveled extensively around the Arctic Circle, gathering information for her books, "Within the Circle," "Here Is the Far North," and "Here Is Alaska."

These days she spends much of her time exploring, as a psychotherapist, another realm--the far reaches of the mind.

She is now married to historian John Nef and lives in a Washington, D.C., town-house that contains a huge garden mural made and presented to the Nefs by their friend, Marc Chagall.

Question: Do you attribute your youthful appearance to the all-meat diet that your late husband, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, favored?

Answer: Partly, because I don't permit myself to get fat. I also exercise vigorously three times a week. Primitive Eskimos living on an all-meat diet were never obese. That was one reason that later in life, Stefansson returned to what he called the "Eskimo diet" of meat and fish and water. No vegetables, no carbohydrates. He'd been overweight, and he found it difficult to lose weight. He would lose weight and then gain it back again. So he went back on that diet, and of course I joined him.

Q: Was there any medical research done on the all-meat diet?

A: Yes. The first time outside the Arctic that Stefansson went on a meat diet, it was at Bellevue Hospital in New York. According to the dietetic thinking at that time, you would die if you went on an all-meat diet.

Stefansson knew the Eskimos were thriving on it, but the doctors threw up their hands in horror. They were sure that he was going to get scurvy because they couldn't find any Vitamin C in meat. Yet Stefansson had cured three cases of scurvy by feeding fresh meat to some of his men on an expedition.

Q: In your book, "Within the Circle," you expressed surprise that many people have a variety of misconceptions about the Arctic region.

A: Lots of people still think of it as the "frozen" north, it never gets warm, six months darkness and six months light--which is only partly true. There's more daylight than darkness. People talk about the polar ice cap as though there was a solid mass of ice over the Polar Sea, which is in fact a liquid ocean with a thin covering like an eggshell of moving ice. It's constantly in motion.

People don't know that sea ice is salt and glacier ice is fresh and and that sea ice will freshen in time.

Q: Were there any specific bits of wisdom that (Stefansson) proposed that were not followed through?

A: He proposed having many scientific stations floating around in the Polar Sea, giving us information about the polar ice and about the weather and about the life below. He thought that we should cultivate some of the Arctic animals in the lower regions, such as the musk ox. Musk oxen don't need barns, and you could cultivate them for the marvelous cashmere-like wool that they produced.

His main thesis was not to fight the Arctic, but to make friends with it. Instead of fighting the cold, learn how to protect yourself. Eskimos could be comfortable in the extreme temperatures, in their primitive houses. The white man often came with very cumbersome and ineffective clothing.

I remember during World War II, our soldiers in the Arctic would waddle, carrying 40 or 50 pounds of Arctic gear. The Eskimo had about a 6-pound suit. They could sit motionless at 50 below and fish in perfect comfort, while our soldiers would get frostbite and immersion foot and all sorts of things.

The quartermaster corps would "improve" upon his opinions--put a zipper on an Eskimo-designed coat, something which wiped out the whole principle of how the Eskimos handled clothing. Metal (is) a good conductor of the cold and the zipper would get stuck in very cold weather.

Q: What will happen to the Innuit (Eskimo) when the Arctic becomes industrialized? Will they end up on reservations like the Indians of the Western United States?

A: I don't think so. The Eskimos are much more extroverted, and adaptable. We bring the dangers to them. In the beginning, disease--you might say germ warfare--like measles, whooping cough. Tuberculosis killed off great numbers of Eskimos. The first measles epidemic killed one in four people in the Arctic.

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