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.
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For a while, it was delicious to hold the experiences close, to let them go unpublished and unshared in the great flow of time, day in and day out.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is December 27th and a headache pounds through my skull, dull pain spreading down my neck and throughout my body. Hearing, moving, as if underwater, trudging through something slow and invisible and painful. Sick. I lie awake at night and sleep through the days. Outside the afternoon is glowing softly, at least the horizon. A faint pale orange.
The days are growing again. The elders say that it’s brighter now than it used to be. That the sun has shifted. It’s the universe, says Clare. Of course it’s always changing, but not at our level. Yet still the elders say that. Everybody says that.
A new year is coming, I feel it in the air, the excitement, the anticipation of it. You could say that there is no difference, that it is only time continuing its unstoppable and indifferent course, but to me it is magic, a new beginning, full of promise and mystery. Outside my window as I write, someone sets off a single firework, pink and green, that explodes joyously above the dark ground. Nothing more.
I have begun reflecting upon the year that has newly passed – almost, at this point, completely. It is almost unfathomable how much has transpired, how profoundly my entire life has changed in the course of only 365 days.
I remember the New Year, when oddly enough, I was also sick. In a cabin in Alaska with family and friends and Tor Edvin and champagne and jambalaya and I had long long hair that froze white in cold weather and frayed at the ends and together we all stood at the base of a mountain in a huge gregarious crowd and watched a parade of skiers wind their way down from the summit carrying luminous blood-red torches. I felt my elation tinge with fear as they loomed behind trees, growing ominously closer, as if the apocalypse itself neared our snowy village, descending from the sky. Yet there was only celebration, and my illness, not so dissimilar from today. I wondered if anyone else felt the fear, too. We took pictures. The entire town was glare ice.
I remember January and February as fairly solitary, full of a fierce determination to make something incredible out of the bleak Alaskan winter that rained, rained, rained. Conditions were terrible but I have perhaps never been more focused. That is what I remember. Everything about the photographs. Taking one last portrait of Tor Edvin in the setting sun and driving him to the airport. No tears this time. See you soon. Then my sketches of photographs, my dreams of them. Reading. Running. Wondering if the bears would give up their hibernation. Trying to ski with not-enough snow. Adventures with my grandfather; returning to the military base where he was first stationed before Alaska was even a state. Walking with him on the frozen lake, shiny and reflecting the pink sky. My first car crash, how it felt to be home alone after that, for so many days. How driving became the most terrifying thing in the world, until it wasn’t anymore.
Always that determination, that building sense of something monumental, approaching unseen. A vibrant, electric energy you feel with every fiber of your being. I returned to school and it burst, and I was scanning negatives and writing letters and applying for jobs, and there was falling snow and miraculous sunshine and the feeling of everything in its place, moving fast, a swift river, a whirlwind of light. I went for walks in the mornings before anyone else was awake and trees began to blossom with heavy pink flowers that dropped their petals into the streets. The photographs, it turned out, were good.
I remember springtime, when everything changed. I felt aligned with every cosmic force in the universe. My thesis exhibition became a reality and I slept desperately at every opportunity – on the ferry, on the floor, on the bench, in a chair. I cut off most of my hair. And then the day before my final critique – was it the morning of? – the email. I burst into tears of joy. I couldn’t believe it.
I am delighted to inform you that you have been selected for a 2014-2015 Fulbright U.S. Student Award to Canada. Everything was going to change.
I remember May, when things fell into place. I bought a plane ticket to Norway and was hired for my dream job, aboard a ship. I finished college. I turned twenty-four. I moved out of my apartment. I graduated from an extraordinarily difficult university and went to Maine and slept madly and plunged into lakes.
Then there was the summer, early June, returning. I remember wild road trips with Nic through Alaska, planting flags on his land and hauling salmon out of rivers with nets. Sleeping desperately in parked cars and cooking quesadillas in the open trunk. Reid getting married, the intermingling of Spanish and English and laughter and happiness, and all the old acquaintances saying, you’re doing what, now? As if they did not believe it possible. Taking photographs. Visiting Reid in a house on a a mountaintop with dogs running around at our feet. Leaving for Norway and flying over the pole, a pole that would become more familiar than I dared dream possible.
June and July. Summer, golden summer, summer on fire – after a frigid midsummer dancing with Tor Edvin, with Eva, with everyone else, on a fog-enshrouded mountain. Northern Norway hot beyond measure under its relentless sun, and how we moved dreamlike through its dayless haze. Weeks of stressful, meticulous fundraising work intermingled with total utopia. The ocean. The mountains. Lofoten, Vesterålen. Fishing, swimming, running, driving, laughing and drinking in the magic of it all. Snorkeling at midnight, barefoot in the streets. Sun like you’ve never even dreamed it. Bathing in the sea.
I left Norway on the first day that night even returned as a memory. Copenhagen, Greenland. A steep learning curve: Arctic everything. Drive boats, learn birds, animals, history, culture, language, teach photography, meet people, learn, learn, learn. How sleep felt during that time: a miracle, desperate. Cold rain and cold wind and rough seas; the first time hooking a zodiac to a hook as rollers threw the boat, threw me, everything up and down and dangerous. Someone pulling me into their boat – I have faith in you. That moment sticking in my mind; a thousand other moments, the closest encounters you could dream with white whales, with hundreds of thousands of birds moving around you in whirling sheets. Seeing polar bears. Speaking Danish, seeing Baffin Island for the first time. All these things and a thousand, thousand more. Perhaps it is still too fresh, all of it. My mother appearing in Resolute. Sea ice. Bears. Arctic Bay. A place to live.
September and October, living in a new place, enjoying city life. My parents visiting. Tor Edvin visiting. Wild dances barefoot on beaches and disappearing into the waves. Scanning, meeting, riding bicycles and piecing things together, drinking coffee, eating kale. Feeling departure imminent. Beginning to write.
And now this. Baffin Island. Arctic Bay. Deep cold and time moving slower; learning and photographing and existing within something different than what I have known, before. Feeling where it overlaps and where it doesn’t. Listening to Inuktitut, playing with small children, traveling by skidoo and dogsled and purchasing the most expensive groceries in the world. Learning to sew. Accompanying men who build igloos and harvest the most nourishing food in all the world from this frozen land and sea. Playing the most inventive games imaginable with the entire town. Stars wheeling above. Making photographs, photographs that could never ever capture it, but that try. Photographs that try as hard as anyone has tried before.
Waking up this morning, and through sickness, thinking: I believe in photography.
And so a new year draws closer. I will turn twenty-five: a quarter century. I am in disbelief at how far I have traveled, what I have seen, all that has happened, within the tiny framework of one individual year. What lies beyond this time, this Arctic world, is impossible to say. There are ideas, sure, but if there is anything I know to be true, it is that it is futile work to plan too far in advance. Things change so rapidly, we can never know. We can only plunge forward with our optimism, our ideals and ideas and dreams, and all the confidence we can muster. Into something unprecedented, something unknown. What you’re looking for is looking for you.
(Contains Graphic Imagery)
A Wednesday, December: The First Day of Stormy Weather
I awake too early. I awake too early on a couch in a house with a polar bear skin on the wall, in a sleeping bag that has been with me as long as I can remember. I awake too early to the sound of something moving around the outside of the building, hitting, scraping. Timidly I stumble to my feet, move the curtains from the window.
Wind. Telephone lines bouncing, tarps whipping, a river of airborne snow snaking down the street like a slithering, ephemeral mirage. There is no glow today, no faint tinge of twilight painting the outlines of the mountains. Only darkness, only indigo. I put on my parka, the one Tootalik made me, with a surprise ruff of luxuriant silver fox fur when I had been expecting dog. It is impervious to the elements. It is dark blue, like everything else.
Outside the blowing snow pulls me in its current, drawing me forward under the glow of the streetlights. I say the word aloud: December. I think that the sound the ‘c’ makes gives the word a magical edge, like an incantation, or a myth. The darkest month. The darkest day races towards us. I break from the snow-river’s drift, into the shadows. I think that without our presence, without our artificial illumination, no one would see this, and no one would know. Perhaps this visual phenomenon would not even exist, in December. It would just be, the Arctic, as it is, and those who traveled it by night-vision or starlight would draw pictures in their minds of how the wind moved, based upon the way it blistered their faces and tore at their clothing; on the patterns that emerged at something that could scarcely be called daybreak.
Yes, the darkest day races towards us. The darkness saps your energy and erases time; days blur, as in summer. I have often found myself restless, anxious for the outdoors, but today finds me contemplating the meaning of the word “hibernation,” startled at the strength of my desires to eat too much and sleep for eternity. Instead I run a few precious inches of hot water into a bathtub, lay on my back and stare at the yellow glow of the shower curtain (pattern: flowers). I think, I am so tired. It is probably because of the wind. But maybe, it is because of the seal.
With humor, I recall a lyrical artist statement I once wrote: When I dream, I dream of cold wind, I had begun. Hah! What little I knew of cold, then. Welcome to the world of forty-below-zero, of ice-encrusted door interiors, of painful frost burns covering your palms from the forgetful grasp of a doorknob. My fingers crack and bleed, hurriedly sewing myself sealskin mittens. Seals are life; they are everything. Sitting in circles we share ulus and gulp seal broth and slices of raw meat. Only then can you see the veins in your hands thickening, strengthening, and feel the heat pushing out into your extremities. You feel relief. You feel how badly your body wants the seal. You will feel unspeakable gratitude as you haul its sleek and blubbery body onto the ice. You will be reminded that beneath us in this vastness is a rich and thriving ocean, teeming with life, and only the trained among us, listening for the gentle exhale at a seal’s breathing hole, sense its presence. Yet it is always there. The cold brings for us a thin and fleeting boundary between worlds which we skim everyday, yet never cross except at our own dire peril. You eat the seal and they say, you will not sleep, tonight.
It is December. At first there was a star at noon, a single gleaming point in the sky that hung with all the weight and magnitude of the sun, suspended. When your eyes found it in the periwinkle sky, they couldn’t let it go again. It pressed the world silent under its weight. It moved me more than I can speak of. The first time I saw it I said aloud: There are stars at noon. The sky is dark. The sky is so dark, the pole stars can be seen at noon. These are words from the I Ching. This I know. And here we are.