Spring in Sweden: Friends, Forests and Photo Shows

A few weeks ago, I got on a plane to Sweden.

Things had transpired quickly. I had returned from 4.5 months in Antarctica, purchased my first car in Oslo, and driven for three days to northern Norway over terrifying winter roads and mountain passes, white-knuckled and tense. I crossed the Arctic Circle at dusk, in a snowstorm, the purple glow of twilight pressing over the empty and windswept road. I drove 1,347 kilometers alone, successfully without incident, only to discover the car couldn’t make it up the gentle slope of my driveway. I left it as it was, stuffed with belongings, and walked the last hundred meters to the house.

I arrived, and I finally had a car, which is essential given the sheer distance of the house from virtually everything else. Some weeks passed, and I attempted to settle in, and settle down, and adjust to dry land after all the months at sea. Some weeks passed, Easter came and went, and then it was time to go.

For about a year, the plan had been to exhibit my photographs at Galleri Elf in Gothenburg, co-run by my artist friend Dan Isaac Wallin, with whom I shared a house during an artist residency at Villa Lofoten a few years ago. In the meantime, I had made another friend from Gothenburg, a polar wildlife photographer named Jens. We had worked together in Antarctica, and suddenly going to Gothenburg became a reunion, a collision of art, photography, and polar travel. Here are some pictures.

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I am the kind of person who enjoys interpreting things as signs and omens. This, at the Narvik airport, was a good sign.

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Jens picked me up from the bus station, dressed appropriately in a Svalbard sweater. (If you know what it is, you know what it is). He lived on a street that translates to “Seaman’s Way,” with a family who also spent a lot of time on ships. It was refreshing to be amongst the company of people who truly understand that lifestyle – the allure, the freedom, the joy, and the challenges. They also had a wonderful cat.

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The next morning, we loaded a massive quantity of artwork onto a bus, and then onto a streetcar, trundling clumsily over the cobblestone streets of Gothenburg with a rolling suitcase full of frames. We met Dan at his art studio, and set about framing my series Polaris for the exhibition two days later.

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It’s one thing to have an assistant when preparing an exhibition – borderline essential – but having assistants who know what they’re doing makes a world of difference. With two professional photographers tackling the frames, the process was as efficient and stress-free as I have ever experienced. We were done by lunchtime.

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Upon arriving at the gallery, the first course of action was to promptly sit down and have a fika, a relaxing coffee break with baked goods and friends. Got to love Scandinavia.

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With a whole team of people there to assist, the hanging of the show went flawlessly. I had had two new, large prints made in Gothenburg, and was very happy pleased with their quality and attention to color.

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With everything hung and ready to go, and advertisements hung in the windows, it was time to relax for a day before the exhibition opened.

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The recent arrival of springtime in Sweden called for utmost enjoyment of the decent weather, and we celebrated with two barbecues in one day. After grilling an astounding quantity and variety of meat with Jens and his friend Eddie, we took Eddie’s daughters for a walk in the forest, where flowers were blooming in thick blankets over the forest floor.

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It was cold and windy when we got home, but we put on all our clothes and went back to the barbecue, because it was spring, and because we could.

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The next day, Polaris opened at Galleri Elf. There was a steady stream of visitors throughout the day, including a handful of folks who also work in the Polar Regions! Worlds collide! The show looked great.

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After five hours of energetic small talk in Swedish (a language in which I was surprised to discover I am actually conversant), we thanked our friends at the gallery and left town. We drove immediately into the forest to grill more meat and drink beer with Jens’ family.

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Never did I imagine a world in which a fine-art photography opening ends with sitting around a smoky bonfire, toasting champagne and eating barbecue, and taking a sauna with three generations of a family one has only recently met. It was one of the most enjoyable opening days I can remember, full of warmth, inclusion and low-key good times. The sunset was beautiful, too.

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Then it was time to go, again, to pack bags and get on busses and planes, because time off work is scarce and you’ve got to make the most of it while you can.

Twenty-Seven

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On the morning of my twenty-seventh birthday, I awoke in an empty house in a remote fjord above the Arctic Circle where no one really lived anymore. The house, having stood there for over a hundred years, was beginning to tilt, its fences rotting, its water tasting like marsh and moss and the deepest center of the earth. Outside, a herd of reindeer grazed by the seashore, the same herd that came every year and foraged in the tundra surrounding the house. Sometimes they were asleep in the yard when I awoke, their silver bodies nestled in the dewy grass. There was a fox, too, huge and red with a tail that seemed to float behind it over the dead, brown fields.

I stepped onto the porch, and the cold, clear air was alight with tiny snowflakes, glittering in the sun, like powder. I wanted spring, and growth, and for the buds on the trees to unfurl into brilliant green foliage, but the people who knew me best laughed and said that the weather was singing me happy birthday in its own, sweet way.

I stepped into the snow, barefoot and sleepy, and realized that I was not going to live here anymore. I realized that at twenty-seven, a person needs more than the company of reindeer and magpies and gulls; that the allure of places stems often from the people we share them with. When the people are gone, they take their magic with them, and you cannot spend forever dancing circles around your memories, no matter how dear they might be. It is time, I realized, for a new chapter. Something, somewhere, is waiting, and soon it will be time to go.

For now, it was a good, quiet birthday, bright and shining with this new clarity. One of the highlights was a surprise email from a reader, who read this blog back in the days when I wrote often. I’ve gotten a number of these emails over the years, personal letters of gratitude, of inspiration, that the writing helped them see the positive things in life, or encouraged them to apply to art school, or that they miss it and wish I would continue.

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And you know? I want to write more than almost anything else. Every day that I am home, I get up and write for two or three hours – but now that project is a bigger one, a different one, and it may not be finished for years, but good things take time. All the same, I have missed this blog and the effortless way the entries fall onto the keyboard, the way it helps me process and document this beautiful life. For large parts of the year, it is hard – very, very hard – to find the mental space for things like this, but I think, maybe I will give it a try, again.

I’ve got a couple weeks here, now, to (hopefully) finish a photographic project I started a few years ago, while I’m still around. After that, it will be time to go back to the Arctic, aboard ships for the summer, amidst the ice and the midnight sun and all the animals of the sea. And after that, who knows? Time will tell.

For now, I know this: that spring above the Arctic Circle is a beautiful thing, that even in the past three weeks I’ve been away, the transition to summer light has come. When I sleep, the sky is full of the bright colors of twilight, the ocean still. In the morning the sun is already high in the sky. There is a profound tranquility and comfort in these Arctic nights that you’ll never know until you feel it yourself, and now, this season is upon us.

Return, Balance

Every time, it is striking – the return, inevitable, to what could be called “civilization.” A connected world, alive with the pling of devices, the rush of traffic, the immensities of urban populations, bewildering onslaughts of urgency, humanity, values, time. For a while, I called it “real life.” I don’t use that term anymore. What is real? Who is to determine what, if anything, is any more real or valid than anything else?

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I no longer have answers when people ask me where I live. I reply: I live here, now. Most often, now, here means on a ship, an expedition vessel, sailing the Arctic or the Antarctic, where I now work most of the year. These frozen seas, their vastness and their magnitude, the mountains and the ice, wildlife elusive or abundant – it comprises the world, most of the time. From our floating home we watch the polar seasons pass: the return of life with the melting of the sea ice, cycles of birth and growth, migration and desertion, the onset of cold. The sun, both summer and winter, skirts the horizon in its tightly wound circles, round and around again.

“You’ve been bitten,” a family friend remarked recently.

“I was bitten a long time ago”, I told him. “Some of us call it being bi-polar.”

It used to be – when all this was still so new – that returning, coming home, shocked me. Moving, anonymous, through airports and trains stations and crowded streets, I would stare in bewilderment at the civilization I found myself amongst. Advertising, consumerism, the whole structure of it seeming designed to constantly remind people of what they don’t have, how they are somehow not good enough. Left and right rushed suit-clad professionals with extra-large coffees and briefcases and beeping devices. Do you know what I have seen? I would think, feeling the experiences must be visible, I must be marked, somehow people must know. Don’t you realize that this isn’t real? Don’t you know what the earth is?

That feeling, of the astronaut’s return to a wayward and confused planet, may never go away, but it has balanced. The world will not change. Coming home is coming home in a way that does not confuse. I jump into taxis with confidence and walk streets like I’ve always been here. Smell flowers, shop for groceries. But inside you know it’s temporary, you know it’s building, you know we’re leaving again soon, the ships are provisioning now and people are packing their bags, we’re going, going, the sea is there, the animals are migrating, the ice is fracturing and starting to melt.

To travel in the Polar Regions is a gift, and to have arrived at a greater understanding of them imbues life with a richness of meaning and purpose. Yet these regions are so vastly, widely, misunderstood. Maybe you should write about them, someone said.

Maybe I should write about them.

It Has Been Some Time

Outside the rain pours. Wind thrashes the house and roars in trees, waves tear across the lake, stars grin hidden behind veils of clouds and, across the earth, ships pull into port. Coming home. Journeys ended, journeys begun. And so it is time to write, again, as it often has been and often will be.

Readers, it has been some time.

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Often these days I see my life spread out before me as an long and unknowable journey, a vast horizon, for which my bags are only just now packed, a journey which, after all these travels, has only just begun. It is not weariness. It is a calm awareness that to truly see, to experience and learn, in this life, is to eventually understand how little one can ever know about anything, and how sweet it is that we ever thought we knew in the first place.

Readers, it has been some time, but it has not been without things worth writing about. Nearly constant adventure, whether grand or subtle, has marked these months with something comparable to fury. (Perhaps, I often think, it is the subtlest adventures, quiet and unseen, that change us the most.) I will only tell you that I have lived on the sea. To traverse cold oceans, to sail the realms that most closely encircle the poles of the earth, has become a way of life.

For a while, it was delicious to hold the experiences close, to let them go unpublished and unshared in the great flow of time, day in and day out. To sit, for example, on Antarctic mountaintops and savor the knowledge that no one knows I am here, no one, and no one needs to. But the words piled up and the pages all filled. Here I sit, now, renewed, six hundred days older, ready to write.

We shall not cease from exploration, wrote TS Eliot. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time. 

And so the ships pull into port and the ships set sail again. On the other side of the world a new day has already dawned, tomorrow’s destinies already unfolding, somewhere, in the here and now. The earth turns and tides rise and fall, foliage begins to turn color towards autumn. As night falls I wash the salt from the weathered things that I own, and prepare, already, for inevitable departure.

In the Wake of Flight

Even from deep in the ship, the sound of the starting engine went straight to my bloodstream. The distant whine soared, rising, dull heartbeats of rotors pounding and pounding like thunder. My body, raised in aircraft, knew flight as freedom, light, exuberance. From its first escalating drone, the sound seized me by the heartstrings, drawing me up and out into a crystalline sky.

It was enough just to be there, to feel the wind, the force, the falter of a colleague’s stance in the face of it. It was enough to witness the precision of the pilots and their confident grins. It was enough to hear the muffled roar through headphones, to feel oneself moving calm in a sensory chaos, to recognize wonder in the eyes of those disembarking. To feel liftoff as sheets and sheets of wind; see the patterns playing on the water.

In pauses between flights, we stood in stillness, watching the machines rise as if weightless.

The day was born of a night born of a plan. Alex, and others, embarked at dusk into uncharted waters. Skies burned magenta, then blue, then the deepest black, while somewhere out there the depth sounders measured and measured. In the night I stood facing darkness, a void where the lights of the ship ended. Felt trust. Only in the sweetness of sleep were dreams broken by the crackle of the radio that signaled safe return.

The mountains, in day, loomed like silent fortresses, the Torres del Paine of a wild and unruly imagination. Clouds rose in vertical streaks from the summits, as if the mountains themselves breathed hard into the morning sky. We just stood there, looking. Took pictures. Felt awe.

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It was enough, to send the helicopters up, to be around them. It was enough to see them move over self-charted waters into an utterly uncharted sky. They glinted in sun and were gone. The air, late summer and sea salt, felt warm to the touch. It was enough, I thought, to die happy. But it was not enough for the day. The day was formed of flight itself.

From the helicopter the world fell away below, was pulled away. Away fell the ship, its mechanical hum and deep Russian chatter, its legends spanning decades, our fellow travelers, our plans, our journey. In the sky there was only now. Time was now was ended was everywhere was vibrating through the fibers of our bodies. The world fell away and you could see more and more, see our little ship, glassy green water, a fjord, a planet. Hearts spun with the rotors up and up and up.

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Mountains rolled beneath us, rose around us, a luminous world of altitude and air. They rose and fell like granite waves; or we swept over them like wind. Is this how birds know the world? Glaciers and icefalls revealed under the movement of cloud, rivers that snake and wind through valleys?

Below glittered endless wilderness. The sparse tents of visionary climbers studded a hillside; then there was only ascent, meltwater streaks gleaming on rock, the unforeseeable patterning of ice and stone, here for a minute and gone again. The pilots navigated a motionless sky, as if asking: what does it feel like to be wind, a system of currents? Over each ridge unfolded a new expanse of mountains that stretched towards every horizon.

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To look up at these mountains, to feel them suspended around you in air, was to know reverence. Between their peaks the light was falling.

In dreams still I can feel the gentle touch of a landing on deck. The muffled drone fading, drowned by elation; the crispness, vividness, as your hearing regains its strength.

In the wake of flight, in a quiet moment on the deck of a ship at anchor, you feel contentedness. Returned to earth, understanding it anew with fresh eyes, you can see as if for the first time our place in things – that the world, as it is and always has been, is enough.

This piece was inspired by a morning of scenic helicopter flights in Tasermiut Fjord, southeast Greenland, on an expedition aboard the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov in August 2016.

The Worth of a Day

January 15th, 2015

How, I wonder, does one even begin? My dear readers, it has been far too long. The past three weeks have woven hazily in and out of sickness; days upon days have piled, differentiated only by a different book, a different mood. Slightly different symptoms, pushing me down and spinning my head, ringing in my ears, confining me to a perceived lifetime of stuffy, indoor solitude. Outside the daylight grows and the temperature plummets into the -30s, and I hardly dare leave the house, should the relentless cold destroy the small victories I have painstakingly won over whatever illness is waging war against my body.

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And yet. Interspersed with these periods of bleakness have risen adventures of new heights. Connections have finally been forged that I had been looking for all along. Even inside, something has changed – the strange timidity and nervousness that plagued me in the beginning has dissipated. There is nothing to do but to plunge ahead. Today, for the first time in a week, I can taste my morning coffee. Today, I will take a photograph again.

I thought it appropriate timing to compose a summary of sorts, for those who know little of my life aside from my lyrical ramblings, Facebook statuses, and stories shared by my mother. This is a time-space utterly removed from anything in my life experience. Sometimes its pace makes me restless, when my hard-won conditioning for efficiency and achievement crops up, a foreign and anxious reminder of the world I left behind. Yet this rarely happens anymore; I have succumbed to the flow of time, and sometimes wonder if destiny sent me here in an act of salvation, to literally force any dangerous degree of busyness to a shuddering halt. How do you measure the worth of a day?

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Each day is what you make of it, but the way I think about that idea has changed. I have been a person with an alarm set for 6 AM, every minute of the day planned in a frantic jumble of multiple work commitments, school, workouts, cooking, writing, studying, still attempting to be creative and, sometimes, have friends. I would deny I was wearing myself into the ground, time and time again, and my to-do lists spiraled off the pages of my precious day planner. Each day is what you make it! I would tell myself reassuringly, comforted in the fact that I was constantly achieving the maximum possible.

The time has come to seriously reconsider that statement. What is value, really? How is worth measured? Weeks have now passed that my former self would have regarded as utter failure; a betrayal to myself and my capacities. The thought is not jarring, as it sounds. I think, perhaps, I am learning to see clearly. Real value is enjoying your life, learning new things, taking care of yourself and others, and spending time with the people you love. Listening. Seeing. Of the days I have been forced to remain in my room, very few have been losses. Every day is different. Subtle variances are richer than we care to acknowledge. While I will undoubtedly return to being a busy person with a lot to do, I hope that this period of calmness, this clarity, can somehow leave its mark.

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Okay, done reflecting. Time for an actual summary. Perhaps what I mean to say is that a lot of the things I actually do here in the Arctic don’t sound so exciting written down. It is dark outside, and cold. I sleep a lot. I play with kids, when I’m healthy. I sew things that Sheba teaches me how to make. I read books I always wished I had read – books on English language writing, polar exploration, philosophy, poetry, academic ponderings on nordicity, joyous fiction. I write. I go to the grocery store, because going to the grocery store here is inevitably a social event, and everyone knows everyone. There, I purchase expensive fruit and vegetables. I take naps. Sometimes I cook; most of the time Joe cooks and we all eat together in front of the TV with plates on our laps, on the couch or on the floor. After dinner, Sheba and Joe usually take the kids to visit a family member or a friend, and often I go. There, we sit, talk, share food, and often stare at the screens of the television and our mobile devices. The kids can play together and get their energy out. When I am healthy I try to exercise, running laps around town in the cold, past the rumbling trucks delivering drinking water to houses, billowing steam as they pass. When there is an event at the community hall, I go, and slowly I get to know people. Sometimes I go to church, although I admit I’m not particularly religious. Sometimes I watch people playing sports, or go to square-dances, or youth and elders meetings. Sometimes I meet people to photograph them. This is how the majority of the days pass.

In between periods of this existence, however, are tremendous experiences of what I call magic. I love going out on the land here more than I can possibly convey, but it has been exceedingly difficult for me to find people to take me with them. Yet now and again: magic. I feel that I live for it, here, for the few-and-far-between instances where some kindly soul, after my persistent badgering, has finally agreed: yes, you may come with me. Who would have known that I – who love animals and had never been hunting before – should find seal hunting to be the most wondrous thing in all the world?

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Perhaps it is because I am an outdoor person and connect easily with others who are, and that the majority of people who go outside in the winter here, do so because they are hunting. But there is something almost spiritual about it, in the poetic way I see things. Combing the ridges and cracks of a frozen sea, hunting the stillness for the subtle breath of something utterly invisible. Bringing life upwards, beyond this frozen border. You go out; you are engaging with the landscape, with the animals. You are breathing it in and tracing the patterns of life. You are alive.

These have been, without question, the radiant highlights of my time in Arctic Bay. I absolutely love it. I try to photograph it, and often I have to resort to digital, because what else are you going to shoot in the dark on the back of a moving skidoo or dogsled at thirty degrees below zero? At first I perceived this as a failure of some sort, on my behalf. Now I can see it is actually a miracle. That the ISOs of digital allow us to capture images that never could have existed. The best camera is the one you have with you. There will be photographs.

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In Glenn Gould’s radio piece The Idea of North, someone says that you can’t talk about the North until you’ve gotten out of it, and I think about that almost daily. Sometimes I speak on the telephone with people far away from here, who ask with breathless exhilaration how it is going, this adventure of mine, as if I were some pioneering explorer. And to be honest, I don’t know what to tell them. You’re so brave, Acacia. Brave? It may have taken courage to come here alone, initially, but now? I’m chatting with my Inuit friends on Facebook and walking to the grocery store.

These intentions are good, yet I can hear in their voices the way that the Arctic evokes these exotic ideas, this Otherness, this notion of danger or primitivism or who knows what. This exasperates me.  I’m living normal life, I tell them. Just like anywhere else. Of course people will live somewhat differently based upon culture, environment, their experiences – these are not differences worthy of judgement. I wish to live in a world where people do not other-ize each other, even subconsciously – where people can see past differences, past stereotypes, and recognize only the human qualities that tie us all together. On a large scale, this is perhaps impossible, but at least we can all do a small part to spread compassion and understanding. These are things I think about.

This Arctic world has become home to me now, and it is impossible, while still immersed in it, to evaluate what might be of interest, or educational, to readers elsewhere. In time, I will see these things, and I will write in detail of my experiences, but as of yet they remain out of reach. This is a time for me to live here, now. Time spent writing, now, is experience lost, and with that in mind I will now strive to make the very most of my last weeks. Until later!