Environment/Nature

Guess the product

#7, I believe, in the series.

The summer of 2000 I spent on an island in the Arctic Ocean studying seabirds.

Largely alone for the summer and left to my own devices, I watched the fog and the birds, did my work, read, wrote, and enjoyed the world unfolding its Arctic magic.

Fast forward to 2018. This fall I am participating in a science and art residency called The Arctic Circle taking place in Svalbard, Norway. The intent for my time In Svalbard is to weave together the stories of previous time in the Arctic as a biologist, this new adventure in a different Arctic scene and season as a writer and photographer, and the ongoing changes in our global landscape.

The following is an excerpt from my 2000 journal. I’ve been on Cooper Island only a short time and the Black Guillemots, the object of my summer study, have not yet returned to their breeding grounds. My camp consists of three dome tents, one for me to sleep in, one to cook in – good to keep food and sleeping people apart in polar bear turf – a storage/guest quarters tent, and a radio antenna that intermittently works when the fiberglass pole holding it is not blown over.

4 June

It’s been a week. I’ve been here one week. There seems to be an absolute lack of sun. A few days at a time, fine, but a week? It’s light 24 hours a day and still no sun. How can that be? Permanent dense cloud cover. I wake each morning, open the tent and hope that something will have happened to clear the skies. But, no, it is as black and gray and cold as it was the day before. The horizon is as flat and gray as it was the day before.

The WC sparrow has been singing all morning, starting at about 2 am. Poor little guy. I think he is off course and wonder if a mate will ever appear for him. The male snow bunting continues to elude me. Each time I set up the camera or get it all ready and, he is in my sights, I wait for just the right scene, just turn this way, look up another second, and he’s gone and, I’ve still not gotten a photo.

Snow flurries are moving through again. There have been squalls off and on all day. It’s nice. Not warm, but nice.

5 June

It was dead calm and as gray as could be again when I awoke this morning. I decided to find more nest sites while there was no wind so off I went. I watched the sky and the clouds. There was a bit of snow in the air – enough to accumulate on the sand. As I wandered from site to site, I realized the horizon was drawing in and, the world was looking a little foggy, visibility down to about 100 yards. Being hungry, I headed back to eat and watched the world close in on me. I’ve been reading and eating and, then this bright, strange light seemed to appear in the northern sky. What? The sun? Could it be? It exists after all! Sure enough! I stuck my head out the door, fog all around, visibility 200 yards. Blue sky overhead and by gods, the sun on the edge of the fog. WooHoo!

I radioed with Dave at the research facility this morning. He had me play Guess the Product – he reads the ingredient list from food packages to me and, I have to guess what the item is. First ingredients this morning: corn syrup solids (egad!), partially hydrogenated oil… it turned out to be (I didn’t figure it out) coffeemate!? Starting with processed sugar and hydrogenated oil. Yuk. If I correctly identify the product, it gets sent to me on the next boat. I asked if I guess a product I truly wanted would I get that instead? Always scheming, but, alas, he said, “No.” Oh well.

The white-crowned sparrow sings on.

The coolest couple of things happened this afternoon. The fog was clearing out. The blue sky and sun were winning the day. I could hardly just sit in the tent. I collected up my stuff and set off up the north beach heading east. The fat, lazy seal who lies out there was indeed there. I stopped to see if it was just one as the profile seemed different. Satisfied that it was the same, I turned to continue my walk and saw motion above me. There was a rough-legged hawk (of course my first thought was Gyrfalcon – always optimistic) about 20’ up and 20’ in front of me, just hanging there. He rode the wind past me and turned to look down at me and then rolled away on his wingtip and floated out over the ice. He was glorious; all the patterning was sharp and precise. One primary feather was missing from the right wing, but otherwise, all the color and texture was perfect. As I watched him go way out, I marveled at what else could happen today. I watched the seal again. With the binocs to my eyes, a shadow passed right in front of me and at the edges of the glasses. Pulling binocs away, I looked to see who was blocking the sun’s path. This time immediately above me was a short-eared owl. It seemed startled by my sudden movement and turned body, wings, and head to look right into my face from 15’ away and just above me. Then it too wheeled away on a wingtip, and I watched it go a long time. I had only walked about 20’ again when it came back at shoulder height, 10’ from me, dipped and tucked in front of me and rode along the air on the edge of the beach. Wow. What marvelous things these creatures of the air. How I envy them.

I continued my stroll along the beach edge, watching the owl stay ahead of me, perch, land on the ground, ride the air. I can see the snow sublimating, like heat waves shimmering over a prairie, the moisture rises, distorts, creates new illusionary worlds, mirages in this land of snow and ice.

I walked and watched as the fog came in from the south and east, enveloping the island, the pressure ice, the owl. I turned back toward the tents, distant blobs on the horizon but visible, in time to see them engulfed by fog from the south and west. The world was closing in around me, taking the few identifiable objects on the island and obscuring them. Of course, as rapidly as they disappeared, they reappeared. The fog rolling across the island on its way north, over the pressure ridges, over the ice pack, across the sea, and on.

Now, sitting in front of the tent, the air is cold, the breeze brisk, the sun strong. My sparrow friend alternates between singing and feeding. The buntings fly in and out. A different short-eared owl flew over the camp to check things out. I do hope the little sparrow doesn’t become owl food. I would miss him. Perhaps his unrequited love will drive him to such despondency he will throw himself at the owl hoping to end it all. How melodramatic and anthropomorphic, but a fine tale, nonetheless.

It is peaceful, calm, glorious. The sky everywhere but straight north is as blue as is imaginable and then some. I have been sitting and thinking and sitting and waiting and writing and working and thinking. Nowhere to go, all day to get there, and no one to check up on me. Life is good.

The little sparrow and I take turns making music. He sings for a while and then flits off to feed or preen, and I play, well, try to play, my flute. When I get frustrated and quit, he calls again. We respect each other’s singing needs. He, of course, has a lovely voice and sweet song. I squeak.

Join me this fall on The Road not Taken Enough when I go to Svalbard on an Arctic Circle residency Artistry in the Arctic.

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