As you may know, in October 2018, I spent three weeks in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard as a member of The Arctic Circle, an annual expeditionary residency program. Sailing from the town of Longyearbyen on the three-masted Barquentine ship, Antigua, we explored the coast and fjords, the light, textures, sounds, and landscapes, following the western edge of Spitsbergen, the largest and only permanently populated island of the archipelago, to the south and to the north and back again to Longyearbyen. In between, we motored; we sailed, putting up and pulling down sails; we ate and laughed; we heard stories of our shipmates, the residents, and the crew; we explored on foot, in the Zodiac, in the ship; we saw reindeer and seals, a handful of birds, polar bear tracks and snow angels; we heard glaciers; we watched the sun revolve around the horizon morning to night and again; we saw the aurora; it snowed, it rained, it was cold, windy, foggy, and raw; it was sunny, blue, and gorgeous; the water was calm and it was not; and day by day, we lost daylight as we revolved our way closer to the Polar Night and winter. And day by day, we lost, in the smallest modern human-pampered-on-a-ship way, what it meant to be separate from the landscape.
There is a lot to tell in this tale. And there is a lot that I cannot express, neither through words nor in my photographs. I kept a journal, of course, but it is perfunctory. I was too enthralled and engaged with the place and the people, too overloaded with the intensity of the space. My introverted anti-social self was in way over my head. Finding calm headspace to reflect and express the experience did not happen for me on board. And writing onshore in the cold and wet, well, many of you know my handwriting. In the months (!) since I meandered in and out of my photos, racing through them initially to share what may be of interest to the rest of the residents and crew, I bogged down when it came time to express the meat of the place in my images.
Via email, I lamented to my sweet friend Linda that I was not keeping up with my blog, ideas were percolating but I was reluctant to put them on paper or into the ether. Her response, “my sense is that you saw too much, know too much and hurt too much. Your slowness in letting it out is, I believe, more kind to us who think it’s going to hurt us too much.”
My lazier self says, yes, I am being kind. My practical self knows not where to begin or how to convey the mesmerizing passage of time and light in a place known for cold and dark. And, as this place passes from our memory in the years of melting ahead, I will mourn, as with all things, not for its passing but for my loss. For our loss. For all those who will not know it and who will wonder at its very existence. Like the miles-long herds of bison and the days-long flights of passenger pigeons, the Arctic is fading.
I don’t believe that we alone are entirely to blame, the planet has long worked in its own mysterious ways, but in no way have we helped. Exploiting everything we could for centuries, erasing landscapes for coal and oil, eliminating people and their ways of life, executing populations of fish and animals for our endless, grinding consumption, we certainly carry the brunt of the shame.
And so, I start the only place I can, with my experience and impressions. Like the Cooper Island series previously posted here, over the coming months I will share my journal, photos, and thoughts. I hope you’ll tag along.