Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Spitsbergen Journals 2

Please read the first installment of travel journal entries here.

Isfjord, underway
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.

St. Jonsfjorden
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
June 18
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.

June 19

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.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Spitsbergen Journals 1

Between June 14 and July 2 I participated in The Arctic Circle's expeditionary residency, an arts-and-science-driven voyage on a barkentine sailing ship up the west/northwest coast of Svalbard, Norway. During this trip I absorbed the landscape (sea, mountains, ice, river, sky) and worked on my novel-in-progress, which is largely set in Svalbard. Here is the first installment of selected journal entries that I made during the trip.

Oslo, Norway
June 13

I’ve been up for 27 hours. Two planes, two trains, two buses and a whole lot of first-day-in-a-new-city flailing. Special train or regular? Why doesn’t my credit card work in the ticket machine? Am I on the right bus? No! Yes! But no matter, I got to see the Viking ships. Millenium-old oak carved with serpent heads, spirals, knots. So much grace in the craftsmanship. Metal puzzles, remnants of woven tapestries, bridles, jewelry. And to think that this most beautiful ship, filled with riches, was the burial place for a Viking noblewoman (perhaps a shield maiden). The actual burial chamber was there in the museum too, a peak-topped tiny cabin of charred wood, reconstructed post pyre. I wonder if the oils from her earthly husk infused those old beams and if she haunts this place. Wood, copper, iron, stone. Woven sails, ships full of men each sitting on his own sea chest as a bench. Moving silently through fjords to the open seas. Rambling now just to savor this day. Turning toward the sea, welcome the allies and ghosts of this journey. Rest in it, the woven shawl, the braided rope, the metal and stone baubles.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
June 15

I am here. Shale and snow patch. Barnacle geese, Svalbard reindeer, snow bunting, glaucous gull. One small moss campion cushion glimpsed while walking back to New Town. Passed a tipi full of people blasting the Jackson 5. So many children here, playing outside in snowsuits. There is an Arctic Nature Guide school here…be still my heart. Random coal buckets and mining infrastructure scattered across town, and an old boarded-up mine high on the mountainside, hanging over this place like a ghost. The landscape something out of myth – citadels, battlements, precipitous heights. Rivers of shale flowing down and turning to moss and then the sea. All of it beneath a thick overcast.

Longyearbyen, Svalbard
June 16

Last night I hiked to the abandoned mine. Up scree that changed from brown to red to a soft black sand that must be coal. Above the mine little auks gave me a true welcome to this place: their ominous, insane laughter mocked the human presence here. My eye constantly travels up to these stone faces above me. I try to read the expressions in pinnacle and crag. Many-faceted meaning many faced. You can search those stone faces all you want, all you can handle for as long as you can stand the mystery of unanswered questions. Inside the mine, treacherous going. Would hate to break a leg before the trip really begins. I inched inside for just long enough to sense jagged icicles and missing floorboards. Broken equipment, graffiti in many languages. I’ll stay out in the perpetual daylight instead. It’s 1 am. Time to head down to the valley and see what else is stirring.

Isfjord, underway
June 17

Yesterday we boarded the good ship Antigua, which is a square-rigged barkentine and part of the Dutch Tall Ship Fleet. I was met by three spectacular female wilderness guides: Theres, Sara and Ã…shild. Purple sandpipers, northern fulmars, a puffin and arctic terns. Standing at the rail, my heart full to bursting. My cohort is amazing. Already conversations about ethereal Norwegian doppelganger spirits who slip between different dimensions of reality, chapter 42 of Moby Dick, ravens. Everywhere I step I trip over inspiration. The sea at first bordered on emerald and then shifted to a strange, white-cast blue. As if the color intends to be friendly and yet within the white opacity you sense only death.
Break open preconception. Toss habitual modes overboard. How can I take a cue from these improvisers, my companions? Some of them shipped supplies that did not arrive in time for our departure. Some counted on a trip to the Longyearbyen hardware store but it was closed. Mia rolling her tarpaper down the mountain. Amanda collecting vintage ropes and spinning paper to rope like some patron saint of seafarers. I hold my story, The Gyre, in my cupped palms. It is time to lose my knowledge and move the book forward into new territory. Listen: where is it?

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Grumant, Spitsbergen, Svalbard, the Sea

Tomorrow I fly to Oslo and the day after that to Longyearbyen, Svalbard. From there, along with my cohort of writers, artists and scientists, I will board the barkentine schooner Antigua for a 15-day-long sailing voyage up the west coast of Spitsbergen, the archipelago's largest island, and perhaps even east along the island's northern coast. In my mind I've been hearing the archipelago's many names repeated like an echo: Grumant, used by the Russian Pomors; Spitsbergen, given by the Dutch navigator Willem Barents; and Svalbard, the late-period Viking name given by Norway once it won sovereignty in 1920. Grumant: Green Land. Spitsbergen: Sharp Peaks. Svalbard: Cold Edge. Green Land. Sharp Peaks. Cold Edge. Lichen, moss. Pinnacles, citadel ranges. Ice, ocean, and the senses sharpened by polar wind and joy.

Tomorrow I shed my usual rhythms of work and family and go north into perpetual daylight - the peculiar, transforming midnight sun - which will light the way into my next book, whose heart is already in Svalbard. This journey hasn't yet even begun but I can feel its richness. I am leaning into it, hoping to open myself fully to whatever unfolds. Arctic fox, dryad, skua. Walrus. Ice bear. Moss campion. Bearded seal, beluga, guillemot. Lichen. Stones, ice. The sea illuminated by slanted light.

My aim is to stand at the rail with my eyes open for many hours per day. To walk the beaches and tundra ledges of Svalbard and invite the place to percolate into my being. To connect with others over meals and in the wild. To bask and explore, inquire and receive this place. My hope is that all of this feeds my soul in a way that provokes creative work and play and for me that means The Gyre. May it be so, and at the same time may my preconceptions fall away.

I will not have access to the Internet while I am journeying in Svalbard. After I return on July 2, I will post journal entries and photographs of the trip.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Next Big Thing

"The Next Big Thing" is a viral self-interview sent through the ether chain-letter-style by writers, to spotlight new or forthcoming projects. My friend, poet Mira Rosenthal, tagged me for the interview; you can read Mira's interview here.

What is the working title of the book?
The Gyre

Where did the idea come from for the book?
The compost heap of my subconscious, I suppose. More specifically, the idea was born the moment I stepped off of a Beaver bush plane into the peculiar, unforgettable light of an arctic summer. For two weeks I rafted down the Canning River in northern Alaska. We watched foxes, owls, bears, and even saw a wolf make its way across the vast tundralands. By the end of the trip I had no words to express the way that landscape had changed me, and I took that as a writerly challenge. At that point, even though I had not yet developed the story elements that would become The Gyre, I knew I would write a book whose heart is in the far north. I wrote a little bit about that trip to Alaska here and here.

What genre does your book fall under?
Literary fiction set in a version of the past (which is not really past).

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Hmm, I’m going to skip this one. I don’t want to provide a replacement for the wonderful work of a reader’s imagination at play with a writer’s intention.

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?
Three wildly different people ride their ambition (both worldly and spiritual) north to Spitsbergen, where they become sun crazed in summer, enchanted by the aurora in winter, and altogether enmeshed by the strange layers of folklore present even in the most remote, arctic archipelago.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
About three years.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?
I am motivated by a desire to contribute to a literature of the arctic that does not center around themes of exploration.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?
There’s an ax fight!

Also, I made a video about The Gyre as part of a Kickstarter fundraising campaign to raise money for an amazing research and writing residency I’ll be doing this summer. Check it out!

You can contribute to the project here.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Hopefully represented by my current agent.

My tagged writers for next week

The wonderful poet Caroline Goodwin, who also looks northward — to Alaska — in some of her work.

Exuberance is Beauty: William Blake and the Brooks Range

When I sat down to write a few words about my journey to the Brooks Range in Alaska, I stared at the blank screen for a ridiculous amount of time. Finally, a random memory lodged itself in my mind. I couldn’t shake it, so in a writerly leap of faith this account of Alaska’s remotest region begins ten years ago on a crowded London subway.
            I was studying literature. Specifically, I was on my way home from a pub crawl, when I pulled out a copy of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It was a halfhearted attempt to prepare for class, but as I read the poem I felt as if a beloved friend had just slid into the seat next to me: How do you know but ev’ry bird that cuts the airy way, is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five? Across a span of 300 years, this voice articulated ecstatic wonder toward the world: The howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are all portions of eternity too great for the eye of man. Blake’s exultation appealed to something essential inside my own heart. Exuberance is Beauty! said he, and I agreed.
The following week, I turned in a paper on the subject of Blake, but when the professor handed it back to me he had a blatant expression of scorn on his face: “Chalk up another one for Blake. That’s the sad thing about Blake fans: they all think they’re the only one.” I was crushed by this dismissal. Apparently my identification with Blake was a tired cliché.
            I sense the legacy of this incident in moments when I hesitate to speak freely and deeply about what moves me. And here’s where the Alaskan wilderness comes in:  When we travel in a wild landscape, our "normal" ways of thinking are quickly replaced by a soul-scouring rapture that will clarify our understanding of human nature as well as the environment around us. My journey in Alaska was filled with this rapture and exuberance. I believe we humans are in great need of these sensations, and it is out of a sense of urgency that I describe my experience here.
            We had flown in from all corners of the country for an eleven-day trip on the Canning River. We were eight people in two rafts, all wearing binoculars. During sunlit nights, we sat on tundra ridges watching semi-palmated plover and short-eared owls. Infinitely changing angles of light took our breath away, and we had run out of words to express our amazement at where we were. Observing a wolf, we wondered what we humans thought we were doing on the planet.
On the ninth day we spotted a bird’s nest from the river. High on a cliff face, the nest was massive and disheveled and held three gyrfalcon chicks: two sleeping, one tottering around the periphery. They were huge bumbling things, fuzzy gray with blue-tinted old man’s faces. The tottering one settled down and regarded us with one eye open. The two sleepers awoke, and all of us by the river gasped as the chicks bumped each other and nearly knocked the totterer out of the nest. We worried when one of them choked on the stringy remnants of a meal. They stretched their winglets. They cried out for food. They fell asleep, leaning precariously near the edge of the only world they knew. We rooted for them with all our might. We were a line of comrades in rain pants and goofy smiles: two teachers, a man who led African safaris, a metal sculptor from New York City, a retired lawyer and two guides who were as excited as we were. Our world became the world of the chicks, creatures that would eventually fly over tundra and snow, over that part of the map we call "refuge" and the part we call "petroleum reserve."
            Who are we if we cannot protect what is fragile? What have we become if we do not speak out for the things that ignite our rapture and evoke our love? We will live in that hell we create when we know what is right yet we go on living as if we do not. He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence, says Blake, and I agree.
My cynical professor had it exactly backwards: it is not sad, but amazing that Blake’s words (not to mention experiences of the wild) empower us with passion. Our rapture is a compass by which to direct our energies. By following this instrument, we will steer ourselves back to a life in which we do what is closest to our nature: we love and delight in each nest of chicks as if they were our own blood. We protect their home as if our own children lived there.