The aquamarine of the imagination

Part 14, still floeing, still flowing.

6 July

There are several things I wanted to write about but keep forgetting, so, I’ll see how this goes – the ice push: the ice push impressed me. It is remarkable, this jumble of gargantuan building blocks and slabs of ice, this pile of debris that made up a flat, level surface across miles of open water. Flat and level in the mind’s eye, at a distance. Now this surface is splintered into millions of crystalline shards, for it is crystalline. And, as the days wear on since its arrival on the north side, the piles of sand and gravel it moved, the short-lived scars gouged in the beach, and the sounds it displaced are evident. After the rain, the blocks are somewhat diminished but only somewhat. After the day of southwest wind, the blocks are darkened by the flying sand and grit embedded in their windward surfaces. Still, they line the island like a row of guards, watching, blocking views beyond their shoulders. If I climb on top of them, I can see the quantity of ocean ice diminished. There is more open water and fewer slabs of ice; floes drift by at a distance. There is less crunched, loose slurry of ice and water. Long-tailed ducks raft on the floe edges. Guillemots and loons dive among the blocks and at the front of the push. Terns hover and dive, hover and dive.

Through all of this, the one thing I see repeatedly is that mysterious, surreal, ethereal color. The aquamarine of the imagination. Surely there is no real color like this. It is so intense it almost glows and, when seen in deep crevices, blocks all in a pile with a deep hole and light between them, it fairly jumps out of the blocks and into the air around you. This color-light is backlit by a sky so gray it is almost violet, that bruised color of dark clouds on bright but sunless days. It makes for an incredible waking dream of time and motion through those colors and textures.

There is an extraordinary and unknown quality of distance here. I’m sure someone can explain it, but not I. Things seem to move in space and relative distance depending on their angle and the light. I noticed it many times with the tents. They stand out so vividly because of their shape and color in an otherwise flat and colorless landscape. But somehow they also move in space, appearing further or closer than they are looking across the island with binocs; everything is out of proportion. Things that are 20’ or 30’ apart seem right on top of each other, and things side by side seem miles apart. I don’t know what that distortion is, but it is eerie and a bit unsettling in a way that I can’t explain. It’s not like climbing a mountain and, seeing the peak through the trees, realizing how far up and away it is. Rather, it’s a feeling that things are not what they appear and I can’t be sure whether moving toward that object will actually bring it closer.

Looking down the island to the east on a rare clear day I can easily see the barge, yet when I walked there I couldn’t see it for a long way, and I walked a very long way before I came to it. Some days it is as if it were right up tight to the tundra patch though it is always a little out of reach from it, too.

Today, early this morning when the sun was out and the air unusually clear and not yet warm enough to create heat waves, I looked across the lagoon to the south and could see the bluffs and cabins and tundra there, six miles away, as if they were just down the beach. Even the ice push’s huge pile of dark blocks were as clear as if they were right outside the tent door. I can see now how George said you could see caribou and people walking on the bluffs; you couldn’t miss them like that.

Sometimes a gull will sit on an ice block or floe or a far spit of land. Seeing it from the island, it seems so enormous and white that it must be a polar bear. But then I raise the binocs, and this giant white creature turns into a gull. It isn’t just wishful thinking; there is some greater distortion happening. It is impossible to explain.

The mirages, too, are impossible to explain. Sometimes it seems that the world is ringed with a wall of ice hundreds of feet high. It is only an illusion, the heat waves creating a mirror image above the horizon. It is remarkable because, at many miles distance, you can see what is at the edge of the horizon clearly. Some days this mirage takes in Barrow, and 25 miles away, I can see buildings in Barrow. They become inverted on the margin of the sky. I wonder how this effect will play out now that the ice is out. Today I noticed that floes seemed to be reflecting, miraging, in the north. They are double in size.­­­

I’m starting to feel like I’m on the dating game with Dave and the varied cast of characters that wander through his shop. It is a great break from my own company. There is always a pile of people filtering through; Dave introduces us before he goes off to work for a bit. Then he returns to round things out. Today we went through two guys from MSN – as he introduced the second one I told him I felt like I was on the dating game – Dave said all four guys in the shop that morning were eligible bachelors. I said they should visit – but they had to bring my mail.

I finished reading Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. I think I will take as my motto the title Banner from the North Georgia Gazette, a weekly paper printed by the crew of an overwintering ship in Winter Harbor (Perry’s crew the HMS Hecla and HMS Griper 1819 [?]): “per freta hactenus negata.” Meaning to have negotiated a strait the very existence of which has been denied. “…it also suggests a continuing movement through unknown waters. It is, simultaneously, an expression of fear and of accomplishment, the cusp on which human life finds its richest expression.”

I know this will blow my self-importance out of proportion, and my travails can hardly be compared with the sufferings that nineteenth-century Arctic explorers endured. Nonetheless, I somehow feel that I have negotiated a strait whose existence has been denied. Regardless of what the rest of the world does, I will continue to move through unknown waters, through fear and on to accomplishment.

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