Please read the first installment of travel journal entries here.
June 17 continued
Standing at the rail, my eyes compulsively travel the parabolic upsweep of these great, coastal mountains, and come to rest only in their heights. Now, like in Longyearbyen, I perceive that something invaluable lies in these crags. Not just an awesome beauty, but something else. Something invaluable to me personally. Is this just how I experience wonder in this moment of my life? As a seeking more powerful than any I can recall? I try to ease myself back into a place of less wanting. Back to Emerson’s eyeball: I am nothing. I see all. I keep thinking of those Mayan architects, their temples designed so that we humans would be humbled before the gods, climbing up and up hundreds of narrow, steep steps, basically on all fours, to meet the ascended deities. The upward and inward draft of our breath in the face of the truly sublime — there is something of that here in the Spitsbergen ranges that makes me reflect on the humility of the devout. A good thing, too, since my Arkady Afanas’ev, in the pages of the book, considers himself something of a holy man. At first his faith is an answer unto itself. But of course that paradigm crumbles.
Goose feathers tangled in a kelp holdfast. Paper-thin leaves of shale splayed like a hand of cards. A seal carcass eroded by stream flow. Two pairs plus one of common eiders. A trapper’s utilitarian hut seen as a monument to the simple fact of human survival up here. And such delicacy, too: a purple sandpiper picking its way through the shallows, and the logarithmic spiral of a tiny, rose-colored snail shell. Rosettes of lichen, pincushions of moss. Purple saxifrage. All in this place of places, which we now explore. A terrible wonderland of ice, stone and sea.
Kongsfjord / Kongsbreen
My first glacier. The deepest aqua blue ice is the oldest, the most compressed, the de-oxygenated. This blue, frozen crystalline medium is a jewel of our earth. The face of the glacier bears so many textures, words certainly fall short. But I recall the names given to different types of marbles and they seem somewhat fitting for these calved chunks of glacier ice that drift away from the glacier with the tide: the swirl, the cat’s eye, the aggie (named for an agate’s concentric rings), the purie, the mica, and the dragonfly. Looking at glacier ice, I can think of a few more: the galaxy, the sno-cone, the sparkler. I imagine white onyx. Each piece of floating ice is a sculptural marvel: grand pianos making their sideways way through the water. Cups following their translucent saucers. Miniature mountain ranges and the upturned hulls of ice ships. And as this ice drifted by it emitted the popping sound of many fingers snapping.
Five beluga whales visited our middle distance today. Their backs were creamier by far than the ice that surrounded them. In fact their banana-like color was warmer than almost anything I’ve seen today. In all their diving and surfacing I never saw their faces.
Sometimes even a porthole-full of this landscape overwhelms. But the continuous joy and daylight make up for it.
“The long tradition of hunting on the arctic seas resulted in the formation of whole family dynasties engaged in this work. Practical skills and psychological strength were passed on from generation to generation. Possession of these skills was highly appreciated in Russia at this time, and members of such families quite often found jobs in the merchant fleet and in the navy.”
–Jasinski, “The Russian Hunters on Svalbard” 1989.
No doubt that E. Starostin, patron saint of the Pomor hunters in my book, came from such a family. It is said that he spent 37 years in Spitsbergen without once going back to mainland Russia.
The main prey of the hunters was walrus (tusks, skins, fat); beluga and all species of seal; on land, reindeer (meat, hides), fox (fur), and eider (down and eggs). They brought prefabricated wooden huts with them from the mainland. They also built huts out of driftwood. The front door would be on the leeward side, and a vestibule followed, for food and storage. The one dwelling room was living room, kitchen, bedroom, and workshop. The Pomors made stone or brick ovens (unlike the Norwegians who used metal ovens). The floors of Pomor huts were usually made from the wooden planks of ships. They often built slate foundations. The Pomors shot ice bears through specially constructed slots in hut windows. They lured them close with meat. A scurvy-proof diet would consist of fresh, raw meat, blood and fish; barrels of soured milk, cloudberries, starka. They brewed potions from pine cones and needles. They ate the local scurvy grass. Out of the 20 graves at Russekeila, near Kapp Starostin on the southern edge of the entrance to Isfjord, only one skeleton showed symptoms of scurvy.
My Starostin’s hut has whale bones for rafters and walrus skull sconces.
Here in Magdalenefjord, the beach is made of larger, more rounded stones than I’ve yet seen. Granitic, in shades of gray from TV static to whale back. An ocean of stones, and between them fine sand, very soft to the touch. I wasn’t expecting that. And on this peninsula lie the bones of 130 whalers. How did they fall? Accidents at sea, injuries while processing whale blubber? Fighting each other? And was this their heart’s most beloved place? I imagine them having no allegiance but to Spitsbergen. Or perhaps they lay here out of necessity and nothing more. In the ground here, where the blubber ovens used to stand, the presence of the whales is still felt: intense green and yellow moss shows where the whale oil permeated the ground. Even after so many centuries (because the ground thaws for only a few weeks every year) those nutrients feed the earth. And the black upright crust that seems to be part of the oven-ruin is actually petrified whale oil that holds the shape of the old copper cauldron.
I hear little auks here and their voices disconcert me. Strange, how I dwell in two different Spitsbergens: the one of my imagination, of course, from which I’ve written a draft of the book already, and now this real one, with these Magdalene mountains rising up in their green moss capes, and flocks of seabirds traversing the heights. The sum of this view reminds me somehow of tropical highlands – Peru, maybe – and I expect an ancient temple city to emerge from this fog.
And the transmutation of observation into fiction takes time. Gentle, now. I believe I am frightened of how beautiful and strange Spitsbergen is. Frightened and excited by the ways my imagination created this place in a good way…in a way that works…even before I came here. Frightened, in hindsight, that I had the gall to start the book, not having yet been here. In the end, of course, wonder and gratitude prevail.