A Journey Far Above the Arctic Circle

By David Rothenberg

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Bull Hill: A Series on Philosophy, Music, and More

In October, just after appearing at Terrain.org’s launch event at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, David Rothenberg went off for three weeks aboard a hundred-year-old Dutch schooner to sail around the Arctic archipelago of Spitsbergen with 14 artists on a project known as The Arctic Circle: www.thearcticcircle.org.

Some music made out of the sounds of the ship hitting ice (Ice Baby):

October 6th, Longyearbyen 78.2° N, 16°E

Last Sunday I walked the lonely streets of Tucson, city in the desert. It was a hundred and five degrees and no one else dared go out. One week later I am 78° N in the Northernmost place in the world reached by regular air service. It is 15° and snowing heavily. The white mountains have that looming arctic shape, where the base melds into the sea and the summit dissolves into cloud, with the middle stages of black on white like some giant illegible hieroglyphic. The world is like this, we are privileged to be able to leap from one climate to the next with ease. It is always much bigger than we are, and impervious in its beauty. That is the terror of the sublime.

In between I stopped to climb the marble slopes of the new Oslo Opera House, a great white building forged out on the shore of the most populous of Norway’s fjords, a spot always raw and under construction. It is meant to be the North’s answer to the great curved shell’s of Sydney’s opera, and with its white blocks of carefully hewn rock it does not disappoint. It is an artificial mountain by the shore from whose summit one can see distant real mountains, a pilgrimage site of the future, when this city will one day be beautiful.

Opera House

We are building a world that will never compete with the vastness of Arctic ice. The names of the folding coastline are unpronounceable and long, the archipelago of Svalbard is full of towering peaks and unreachable canyons hardly ever touched by human feet. It seems endlessly beyond the range of our ability to impact but it is all in danger. The bears and whales grow toxic as their food concentrates all we have dumped into the environment, we are taught to weigh sadness as we learn all this beauty is melting away.

But nature remains more than anything we can do to it. One hundred, one thousand, one million years. It is nothing in the grand scale of time. We are fourteen artists sailing on a hundred year old schooner into rough and windy seas, with as many computers, cameras, recorders, devices, none of which can capture anything of the rich majesty of the world. We are supposed to possess special eyes, ears, and vision to be able, in our own ways, to represent some fragment of this beauty to help change the way people may see. It is an impossible task, but it is the least we can do since we have come this far.

October 8th, Fourteenth of July Bay, Krossfjorden, Spitsbergen 79.2° N 12°E

We are fourteen artists, two scientists, and a crew of four sailing as close to the North Pole pack ice as we can get away with. Aboard the M/S Noorderlicht, a hundred-year old Dutch schooner, we left Longyearbyen one week ago in the Norwegian territory of Svalbard, the most northerly point in the world with regular air service, for several weeks traveling the Arctic through open sea and sheltered bays, stopping along the way to respond to the landscape in uniquely artistic ways.

Ship and Land

We have been out two nights, and already we have met a phenonemon of nature that cannot be captured in an image. The aurora borealis is a beautiful piece of natural performance art cannot be easily filmed or photographed. A time-lapse photo reveals only fuzzy colors, and a moving image cannot get enough light to capture the dynamic strangeness of it all. The Northern lights have been painted as hanging, shimmering curtains of multicolored fire, and old engravings show an imaginary fierce luminosity that wants to leap from the page into our minds. Computer enhanced contemporary images recreate the experience, but they too seem unreal, like motion-capture animation.

Rarely has a boat like this had so many hard-drives and up-to-the-minute cameras, with hundreds of images snapped and recorded, set immediately on to the great download of analysis and processing. The artists are all at work, puzzling, thinking, figuring out how to get beyond the two extremes: pure documentation, and blatant irony. “I will take a picture of me on the ice in a black suit, with flashlights on an armature illuminating my face,” says Tomas from Croatia. “It is an ego trip, I know.” A statement, a point. We don’t want to be seen as tourists, but of course we are tourists. Art tourists at the end of the world, trying to describe what will always be greater than any description.

I am afraid of voicing my own rather conservative musician views. It matters not to me what is or is not art, but what is good art or bad. Or more easily, what is better of worse. You gonna wear a black suit on the white ice? All right, tell me the better or worse ways of wearing that suit, surrounded by a crown of flashlights. Wear that suit like you mean it, not to make me laugh. It is too beautiful out here to laugh at, but I am always ready to laugh with you, not at you, or your work.

It is the aurora that makes me more than smile, but open my mouth into an astonished “O.” I have seen it many times before but it is never less beautiful or surprising than before. We can make art out of it but we cannot ever replay it. The images we snap and flash can only be the starting point. Better to think of auroras and set up one’s own arctic lights of the night, as did light installation artist Raphaele Shirley:

Light installation by Raphaele Shirley.

I remember the eighteenth century, and the notion of the sublime. That quality in nature that leaves us in awe because it is always beyond the fact of our gaze, the extent of our reach. We are as small as it is great, as we seem hardly to make any mark upon this grand arctic expanse. The sublime, said the philosophers, is not as fine as the beautiful, because it impresses us because of how giant it is, and how impossible to touch. Beauty, instead, must be something more, something we can choose to contemplate, rather than be always humbled by.

And yet this giant beauty today seems ours to pollute, to warm, to melt out of existence. We must honor those facts of nature that are greater than any ability of us to destroy, or ignore. The force of the wilderness smacks us across the face, and its grandeur must always burn, in our hearts, in our thoughts.

October 9th, Sallyhamnen, 79.7° N 11.2°E

Today I played my soprano saxophone aboard the zodiac as we motored close to the whiteblue tongue of a glacier. The scene was being filmed by Italian artist Andrea Galvani for a giant photograph he would later print at a gigantic size from an old 4 x 5 single-load film camera. “This digital image,” he says, “is like a Polaroid for me.” I was wearing his Muji raincoat because it looked much more cool than my own high-tech gear. Everything was black. The boatmen lay down on the floor of the zodiac so we wouldn’t be seen, making it look like I was out there all alone. A wire ran from my saxophone into the sea to make it look like I was playing right into the water, down to the hydrophone to broadcast my sound to any whales who might be listening below. I have done this many times before but this time, as winter approaches, there are no whales in the fjord.

DR soprano ship
David Rothenberg plays in the fjord.

The lone saxophone tones echoed off the stark mountain walls. Once I figured out the length of the reverberation I could time my phrases so a minimalist rhythm could be formed by the bouncing of the sounds off the two mountains. The echo turned time into space and made this one little instrument beat into the sides of the landscape, a golden reflection dancing off the descending light. Snow continued to fall, beginning to collect on the bell of the horn and the floor of the boat. The photographer was shouting instructions at me from the kayak as it faded away into the mist. All became soon invisible, I forgot where I was and who this music was for. A fulmar shrieked. A bear roared in the distance. He climbed into the still green water and started to swim.

October 10th, Moffen Island, 80°N, 14.5°E

From this completely flat island on the horizon we see nothing, as if we are deposited in some alien sea. It is strangely warm and moist, nothing like the endless winter one might imagine at the end of the road of darkness. Through September it is forbidden to land on this island in case breeding walruses and seabirds might be disturbed. By October the law permits us, and it is now possible to walk right up to huddled walruses and tap them on the shoulder, inject them with tranquilizers, and take a sample of something. But we’re not scientists, so we don’t do that, though we do approach close enough to feel their eyes looking right at us, squinting, trying to see something of interest. Eye of the walrus—doesn’t sound as romantic as ‘eye of the whale,’ and I don’t know how humans have been changed or touched by it.

The tiny human forms traipse across the white landscape, looking for something, as always, an idea, a creative spark, a mood borne out loneliness that might find a place in the civilized world after we return.

Heini Aho, a Finnish artist, attaches her video camera to a tripod on the white windswept plain of the Reinsdyrflya, a flat expanses surrounded by the distant white peaks beyond the Liefdefjord, or Fjord of Love. Then she poses in front of the camera and rapidly dresses and undresses herself with piles of hats, scarves, coats, gloves, and fleeces. When she’s down to a black turtleneck and balaclava she looks like some kind of arctic ninja performing some strange ritual that is not explained.

Finnish artist Heini Aho.

On the islands flat snow-covered plain are old glass bottles with clear liquid inside that hasn’t frozen. Vodka? Turpentine? We can’t smell it, we can hardly tell. There are spheres the size of soccer balls, made of plastic, metal, buoys for fishing nets. “Once I picked up one of those,” says our leader Jan, “and instead I found it was a human skull.” If you die up here no one will come to take your body out.

October 14th, sailing toward Magdalena Fjord, 79.6°N, 11°E

The bell rings on deck, that means there’s something to see. “Ayeaah,” says the captain, usually a man of few words, “seven polar bears eating an old whale carcass. I have only seen something like this a few times in all my journeys in the North.”

Every artist rushes to our cabins, grabs our latest-model cameras, and runs up on deck. The bears don’t seem interested in us, that slimy whale backbone looks so delicious. We can smell it easily a few hundred yards away, it’s probably been there for months. “Ooohhh…” someone says, “it looks like something out of a Matthew Barney film.”

Polar bear through camera lens and binoculars.

We watch the bears eating and playing for hours. It’s impossible to pull our eyes away. The raw reality of nature holds us transfixed. A couple of us remember Werner Herzog’s line in Grizzly Man, where the great director announces, coldly, “People think nature is beautiful, but I do not agree. To me it is nothing but a realm of cruelty, survival, and the relentless search for food.” With his beautiful documentaries Herzog shows that notion is just a pose, for he loves nature and has truly succeeded in revealing it in art, cutting far beyond the clichés and the preset stories of the wild we are all so used to.

Polar bears eating whale carcass.

Sure, I could tell you them all: the sea was rough, the cameras and computers were pitching to the floor. Wine glasses were breaking, milk spilled onto the floor. Waves from the sea sprayed us head to toe in the tiny zodiac as we made rough we landings on shore. The light is indescribable, the snowy peaks stretched into the distance forever. The immense loneliness zeros straight in on the sublime, where the land is great because we are so small.

I tell you those things and all of them are true. But we are artists, not tourists, so it should not be enough to be impressed by walruses and polar bears. But we all love the polar bears! Their bloody faces smile as they chew on rancid whale meat. You don’t become an artist by denying any tourist instincts. We all want to see and love the world. Just as artists in the Age of Exploration were the only ones to offer up images grand and graphic enough to show people back home what the far reaches of the globe can offer, today we must cut through a world saturated with images and stories to see if there can still be a fresh way of expressing one’s experiences on the journey, careening through the sea and back and forth from the frozen, empty land.

Oct. 18th, Ny Ålesund, Arctic Science Village

In Ny Ålesund, a former mining village that is now an international center for climate research, most of the two hundred researchers and technicians have left for the season. But at the Alfred Wegener Polar Institute, a German engineer still remains, for a whole year in this inaccessible outpost, to repeat the same experiments every day. In one he releases a large white weather balloon, each day at 1pm, which rises and drifts into the stratosphere before exploding when it gets too high, but not before transmitting essential data from its disposable radio which will never be found. Then at night he shoots a high energy laser beam straight up into the clouds, of such power that even a tiny fraction of its bright beam is diffused back through the cloud cover and can be registered by the naked eye. The beam bounces through the building inside a complex and irregular rectilinear box, down to the floor off a large telescope mirror, then straight up through a hole in the roof. The green ray heading skyward looks like it is strong enough to reach the moon.

Ny Ålesund, a former mining village, now an international center for climate research.

The German engineer speaks extremely precisely. He will not answer any questions around which he has even the slightest doubt. “Why do the stars here in the North flicker with such visible multiple spectra of color?” I ask, “shimmering from red then to green and to blue.”
“I know of what you speak,” he nods. “But I do not know enough astronomy to say anything more.”

“And what,” I point, “is that big wooden contrabass case doing next to the laser mirror, the beaten-up box that says ‘Berliner Philharmonische Orchester’ on it?”

“Oh,” he smiles. “Usually there is a instrument in there, but not right now. It is not mine.”

Oct. 19th, Barentsburg

If you think it is strange there is a Russian town on Spitsbergen, remember that this land is not exactly part of Norway. It really is a kind of no-man’s territory, not subject to any taxation, where historically a man could arrive from anywhere and stake a claim. The American Longyear founded Longyearbyen, the Russians had Pyramiden, now abandoned, and Barentsburg, still going strong. Long before climate change grabbed our attention the Arctic had tremendous strategic importance, and the Germans bombed all of it in World War II. They even had one far and remote weather station that was the final place the Nazis surrendered in September 1945.

Whereas Ny Ålesund is a curious modern science town of satellite dishes, nationalistic research buildings from nations as diverse as China, India, Germany and France, Barentsburg looks like a little slice of Siberia. You walk up to the city up hundreds of carefully constructed wooden steps, to emerge on a plateau with crumbling concrete buildings, most built in the sixties through eighties but generally looking much older. The faded grandeur of the Soviet time is out in full force, monuments everywhere you look. To the glory of the coal miner! To the arctic socialist explorer hand in hand with a polar bear! A concrete apartment building with a giant brick design of a Russian country maid.

Strangely, there are murals throughout the town (of perhaps 600 Russians, with room for about a thousand more) of green and leafy summer scenes, images of a landscape so far removed from where we now stand that it is hard to understand why anyone would want to paint them here. Is this some kind of wry Arctic joke? Or are these billboards advertising the land all the residents will sometime soon go home to?

Barentsburg, a Russian town in Norway.

The bartender at the one foreigners’ hotel smiles when I ask her, “how long have you been here?”
“My term is two years. The pay is good. But then I am getting out.”

In the middle of the night after hours of vodka in the bright fluorescent bar we are laughing in the dark, running down those perilous wood steps at top speed, slipping on rail tracks in the tunnels that lead from the mine. Around a corner we spy three coal-faced miners, returning from work. All of a sudden life here seems no longer a party, but risky, dirty work. We all go silent for a moment. But soon we start laughing again and run back to our boat.

Bar in Barentsburg.

Oct. 17th, Blomstrand halvøya, Krossfjorden

In 1910 Ernest Mansfield was convinced that this was going to be the site of the greatest marble quarry in the world, so he set up the Northern Exploration Company to cut all the stone out. He named the spot New London. Some of his machines remain right on the rails, having never even been used. The whole project fell apart, there was nothing worth taking.

The more we experience this distance the place, the less it seems it’s a wilderness. Spitsbergen is the warmest place in the Arctic, because it’s the end of the gulf stream, so much of the sea surrounding remains ice-free most of the year. Already by 1700 the Dutch had killed all the whales here, and after that came trappers, hunters, miners, still trying to extract something useful out of the landscape. What might remain most useful today is strategy—a few years ago a cable was laid all the way from Norway under the sea, bringing fast communication to the outside world. There are now hundreds of scientists stationed up here keeping track of what will happen to a warming world.

Blomstrand halvøya, Krossfjorden

The mining sputters on, the locals still hang onto it with pride. Greenpeace was up here just before we arrived demanding that the coal mines shut down. Of course they are wasteful, hopeless, destined to fail like the quarry at Blomstrand. Coal mining has no place in the Arctic, no place anywhere. If we work hard enough we’ll soon find better sources of energy: from the sun, the wind, the waves.

Is that a workable dream? Spitsbergen is full of the graves of dreams that failed. The beauty of the place is a success, it cannot be tamed. Or is that only because we cannot see deep into history?

Oct. 20th

On shore beneath a glacier the wind whips up around us, the most furious storm on the trip. It is snow, it is rain, something in between that cuts the skin. The artists are making their final gestures in the field. Heini Aho is trying to build a final fire sheltered beneath chunks of ice. Willy Somma is running all around, jumping onto icebergs, photographing herself in flight. Some of us are huddled in a snow cave, one of us, Amy Wiita, is actually swimming, in a dry suit. The wind whips up, snow is all over our faces, and we can’t believe that soon we will be going home and this whole confined world, this small group tossed together in the swaying seas to observe, to wonder, to create, will all be disbanded, and we will have to figure out how to hold onto this journey back in our usual lives of warmth and of light.

Ice fire.
Ship and snow.
David Rothenberg.
David Rothenberg’s latest books are Survival of the Beautiful and Bug Music, on insects and their million-years old music. Professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, he is currently on sabbatical in Berlin, where he has been working on the film Song from the Forest, which is scheduled to play at over a hundred film festivals and will open in theaters worldwide in the fall.

Photo of arctic landscape courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.