Liquid mercury

Part 12, in which the Arctic poppies show their mettle, the snow bunting chicks emerge, and a polar bear leaves its mark.

27 June

Although my alarm went off at 2200, I didn’t get out of bed until almost 0100. The wind was so ferocious that I was more than content to stay in my cozy bag and snooze.

The radio antenna came down in the wind, and I spent almost an hour trying to rebuild it before I was able to connect well enough to radio Barrow. Dave and George (a.k.a. Delta Romeo and Golf Delta – I am Tango Echo). I barely ventured out at all. One census trip and the nest/egg check that was it. I sorted bands, created a hit list for birds to catch and band, read Arctic Dreams, and re-read my latest mail.

It is nice that after these four weeks my mind is clear of so much of the garbage I harbored. I don’t think with anger anymore. I can live with that. It is always easier for me to feel this way when I am on a journey or an adventure and more difficult for me to accept what is when I am juggling the things of everyday life. Perhaps that is a lesson for me. Believe the things of everyday life are unnecessary and find a place where there is no need to follow them. Find a way to live and work without that. Perhaps a space and time where I can write, but what would I write and where would that space and time be? Something I need to think on over the next month of solitude.

28 June

When my alarm went off I could tell the wind had slackened since yesterday (25–30 mph w/gusts up to 35) but it was raining. It rained all morning – until about 0630 – 34 º and raining. My favorite weather. I went around the colony a few times, though I couldn’t see anything, the binocs were fogged and wet all the time. Everything was soggy and covered in sand.

I did nest check– got to the west side of 73 and found a giant pile of bear scat. Went back to the tent and got the gun, finished my rounds, and went for a walk on the tundra. No bears. But the birds were jittery. They were in constant motion, and I had only a handful of Birds on the Nest (BON) for the whole colony, everyone else scattered at my approach or shifted out of my way when I reached in for eggs. They knew something was up. I couldn’t find any tracks, the scat had been on loose gravel where no prints would hold, and although I went down to the beach, there was nothing. Bummer.

I’m reading Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams and just read the polar bear chapter this morning, so I was ready. Oh well, maybe next week.

The Arctic poppies started blooming. The first was out the other day. Beautiful, delicate, pale yellow. I thought of it struggling to stay upright in that miserable wind yesterday. It’s no wonder they stay so low to the ground and incredible that they ever grow more than a few inches high. The fuzzy, oblong buds are expanding and beginning to crack along their perforated seams, slowly they turn their faces to the sun and bask in the few brief minutes of summer at its height. Lucky me.

29 June

It was about 28º and freezing fog this morning (welcome to summer!). Brutally cold for man and beast. The poppies were most amazing, these diminutive creatures trying valiantly to show themselves. Each hung heavily with frost and ice crystals on their west-facing sides; the buds heavy and weary of the cold. One or two flowers were turning to face the fog-enshrouded sun. Brrrrrrr. Brrrrrrr. Egad. How anthropomorphic.

It was much too cold to band birds or do anything else. I kept moving, walking up the beach and around the tundra. I stood up the Bowhead whale jawbone on the beach and tried to take my picture with it. Pretty goofy.

When I was walking this morning, I sat (I know that’s a contradiction) on a piece of driftwood and looked out at the ice, the pools, the fog, the enveloped sun. I turned my face to the light, closed my eyes and just was. There were no sounds but the wind and the very gentle lapping of the water that is just a few feet wide on the north shore. The long-tailed ducks and Baird’s sandpipers ended their dances, and their eternal aaqhaaliks (not in that order) and it was silent. It is the first time I can remember that I was utterly content. I had nowhere I wanted to be but there. I wanted no companionship but my own. I needed nothing of the physical world. I just was. No shoulds, musts, or wills. Pure physical existence. What a joy. How many people in this world experience such a thing? There are no objects of desire for me and no place better than here. Finally. How long can this last?

30 June

Two good birds today – Steller’s Eiders and Spectacled Eiders. Gorgeous birds. The night was mild (it’s all relative) and now that I’m almost ready for sleep it is beautiful, clear, and sunny, lots of low puffy clouds and a southerly breeze. I checked on a snow bunting nest today; it was full of chicks with gaping mouths. Very cute buggers – I’ll check again tomorrow. George says they seem to spend no time in the nest at all.

The eggs keep rolling in on the Guillemot front, and I continue to check, measure and weigh. I’ve been hooping birds off the nests and was relatively successful today. I hate taking feathers. It just hurts. Poor guys. I feel like the hated kid at summer camp; everyone suffers when I appear, and they all want me to go away. But that’s not what I wanted to write.

There is almost no tide on the Arctic Ocean. It is more atmospheric than lunar, and it is interesting to see how sometimes the water is very shallow and far off the beach edge. Like today, I crossed probably 20 feet of slimy gravel to the shallow water, and the pond south of camp is a pond. Some days, when the water rises, it becomes part of the bay. The water level is probably only a foot or two different, but it is noticeable. I hoped to wash socks and underwear today, but the water is too low to do it. I guess I could do in Pasta Pond, but it seems like too much work – not to mention frozen, raw hands.

The air is clear and the sky blue, low puffy clouds move north, and high wispy cirrus seem stable. The light sparkling on the water is remarkable. A million points of light all independent and yet so numerous they almost all run together. At the same time, there is a light fog rising off the wet mud flats along the beach edge where the water receded and a light gray fog-smoke slowly rising off the tundra. Altogether a most spectacular day. This morning the north moat was frozen over again –thick enough that a stone I threw didn’t break the surface, but several hours later the water was clear and ruffled in the wind. The meltwater pools on the ice to the north are growing larger, stretching slowly out to sea. The dark, charcoal gray of the distant ice is evening out and is less pronouncedly distinct from the shore-fast ice. It seems that summer is moving on and the water is slowly becoming water once again.

It is funny to look out across the Bay of Jaws, which has been open for a week or more already, across the south sandbar with a barrel as a landmark and once more to ice beyond. The layering of water, land, ice, land (Ketchikan bluffs), and the sky seems almost too well planned, too evenly distributed between solid, liquid, and the ethereal and eternal sky.

This morning when the sun was hiding in the fog, and the air was still, the entire bay lay like a sheet of liquid mercury, reflective, alive. The land and sky and water all merged and became one and distinct at the same time.



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