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.

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!

Wind (Pole Stars At Noon)

(Contains Graphic Imagery)

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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.

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Learning Winter: November in Arctic Bay

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We sat around a table in a little mountain cabin, warming up. The exposed skin around my eyes had been frozen, brittle when we arrived, painful to squeeze my eyes shut against the sting of ice-coated lashes. Here there was fire, laughter, bright blue walls that at a certain time of day must blend precisely with the vast landscape of Victor Bay outside the window. The entire cabin, down to the last detail – windows, flooring, matching curtain rods – had been found and salvaged from the dump. You would never have known, in this cozy, peaceful space, seals by the doorway and skidoos parked outside, everything sparkling intensely when you moved, as if alive, doused in a deep layer of glittering frost. Water was heated and passed around; I downed cup after cup of hot coffee, hot chocolate. I felt the heat sink down, down into my body, bringing it back to life. My discarded clothes grew into a mountain on the floor. I think people probably laughed at how much I was wearing; I couldn’t understand, but I wanted to. I listened to the women speak, watched their eyes light up, the soft tones of Inuktitut and huge smiles and calm gestures out the window.  I watched them attentively, guessing, piecing together the tiny bit I could understand.

Joe turned to me.

“She is saying that last night she saw a falling star. A giant one, bright orange, streaking slowly through the sky, with a huge tail after it, like a comet. It was right out there.”

The women smiled at his translation, turned to me for a moment. Then they looked out the window. I thought about what it must be to stand there under that vault of stars, in the silence of this place, and bear witness. I thought about how much I still do not understand.

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It has been three weeks now, and more and more it is difficult to find time to sit at the computer. It is strange; a different kind of busyness. Gone are the days of rampant achieving, doing, completing – frantically ticking boxes off my pages of daily to-do lists. Instead, the events in the in-between, the living, the getting the thing to happen, find you and sweep you away, fill the hours. Although sometimes, in the world where I came from, we might say I am not doing a lot – days here are full, rich, and memorable, a lot of time spent just being with people. Small things seem momentous. There is not even time to write it all down. At night sometimes I whisper the events into an audio recorder so I won’t forget. Even then I am surprised at how long it takes me to explain it all. You could never explain it all.

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It is getting colder, inevitably, and rapidly darker. I am, hopefully, getting used to it. It no longer seems strange to get dressed to leave the house bundled to the point of waddling; yesterday I pulled out my best, warmest down jacket and thought, quite matter-of-factly, hmm, this would be great for springtime! (Again, an immense thanks to Clare for the parka I am still borrowing). It is getting colder, but I am learning how to dress, how to deal, and how to accept it. Anyone can stay warm enough if they are moving; what gets me is hours on the snowmobile at high speeds, or a whole day on a dogsled, sitting still. But unlike heat, my nemesis, there is always something you can do. You can bring hot fluids with you in a thermos. You can hop off the dogsled and run alongside it until you are out of breath and panting, fling yourself back on. You can buy skidoo goggles at the grocery store. There are ways.

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Many things have happened. I have continued to accompany Joe to Nanisivik by skidoo; one time we stopped briefly at some people’s cabins, which was amazing. I hope to go back. We looked for polar bears, but never found any – just tracks. We went to the site of a summer camping place with the remains of old sod houses at the base of the mountains. I was a bridesmaid in Sheba and Joe’s wedding, an immense honor and remarkable experience. We all played bingo every Friday night. I played one night of floor hockey with the girl’s team here, and was so bruised afterward I could hardly move for days, but I will probably go again. Recently, I went dogsledding with a man who has a dog team here, out there all day in the silence, telling stories and drinking tea and waiting for him while he attempted to hunt a seal. The seal didn’t come, but he tried, and I got to witness. I learned so much that day. I learn so much all the time, just existing.

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Time to go outside, to make the most of the dwindling daylight! It will break twenty below zero this week – got to get out there before that number is doubled.