it is true, what people will tell you about the light in the arctic, and it is also true about the color of the ice. the light will compel you to reach deep into your SAT-vocabulary bag of tricks, even though by the time you get around to trying to write the light you will have long since realized there is not a language in your knowing capable of naming what it is that you have seen. pellucid, you will write; pellucid, lambent, languid, metallic, fuck, and then you will draw a line through your vocabulary list, and put down your notebook and keep looking at the light instead.
i spent two and a half weeks of last month on an artist residency sailing up the western coastline of spitsbergen, the largest island in the unincorporated archipelago of svalbard, which is administered by norway and is about halfway between the mainland and the north pole. i brought john mccannon's History of the Arctic, and Frankenstein, and Neverworld Wake, and Cruising Utopia. i didn't read any of them; i didn't read anything at all, hardly, for two weeks. i couldn't, which is a thing that has not happened to me in the entirety of my conscious life, since my parents read me to sleep every night as a small child, since i taught myself to read alone when i was four years old. i read bits of things: captain walton's description of the creature moving alone and silent across the pack ice. the plant and animal and geology parts of rolf stange's book on svalbard, copies of which lay about the ship, and which is very very good if you ever go to svalbard or if you just want to read someone with an extraordinary love for and knowledge of the arctic and an extraordinarily dry sense of humor tell you about plants and animals and places and rocks and ice and people and history. i read a little josé muñoz on queer time. i read the section of History of the Arctic about the effects of the cold war on the arctic, about nuclear testing in the arctic, about the US air force, in 1956, feeding radioactive tablets to 102 inupiat and athabascan people to track thyroid function, telling them the pills were for their health, and then i put that book away. i had to go to the bathroom and wait to see if i was going to puke after writing that sentence just now so i likely won't pick it up again for a while. the marisha pessl i didn't even open, not until the plane ride back to new york from oslo, days after i'd come back from the ship. (it's clunkier than her other two books but has some cool ideas. if you were wondering.)
i want to tell you about the arctic but i don't even know how to tell myself about the arctic. i will be thinking about what happened to me in the arctic for a long time and for a time that doesn't have words. i felt, in the arctic, every day, the thing beyond feeling that i felt last year watching the solar eclipse, i felt that every single day, sometimes more than once, and i will tell you right now that is a lot of feeling, especially for someone who has spent the two years since the election trying to drink herself into the absolute absence of any kind of feeling at all, especially for someone who had forgotten, in that time, that she was ever a person who particularly wanted to be alive and having feelings in the first place.
i could say the arctic broke something open in me or the arctic taught me important lessons or the arctic reminded me fully that i am a person who feels joy and those things are true but not all of it. the word i am thinking of is annealed: to make something both softer and stronger through the application of specific environmental conditions. the word i am thinking of is cicatrize: to heal through the formation of scars. the word i am thinking of is unsurrender. the word i am thinking of, of course, is love.
the arctic is a complicated place to go; the arctic is a complicated place to be human. you can think, looking at a glacier (o how language is also lack: looking at a glacier, as if that in any way explains the feeling of being in a body facing a glacier, of the pale sun on your face and the cracking of the ice and your heart annihilated by a thing that is so far past beauty as to be unnameable) i cannot believe i am looking at this glacier and also no one should be able to look at this glacier at the same time. i am thinking, now, of the word sacred. of walking across beach after beach seething with plastic, of understanding how many things we were able to see only because the ice is no longer where it should be, of muddy footprints across a ten-thousand-year-old glacier, of oranges--oranges!--in the grocery store in longyearbyen, six dollars each, of eating nutella crepes and guacamole and lemon cake a few hundred miles from the north pole, of how much jet fuel the plane i took to the arctic burned. i would go back in a heartbeat. i would rather be there now. it would be better if no one ever went there at all.
i think about how much that trip cost, a truly terrifying amount of money, terrifying, and how the sailing crew, four people, made less money collectively in those two weeks than a single artist paid to be there, and how hard it is to find out who exactly is the one getting rich. it's someone in the netherlands, that's as far as i've gotten. i think about how nearly all of the artists were white. i think about how it felt to pick garbage off the beaches--from shipping and fishing boats, mainly, who cut fishing nets loose when they're clotted with the bodies of dolphins and the other valueless dead, who throw overboard detergent bottles and toothbrushes and shoes and buckets and helmets and beer cans and juice boxes and that webbed plastic strapping that comes on pallets and, and, and--and how much of the plastic had broken down so thoroughly that it crumbled to dust in your fingers like some hellish confetti but still between the fishing nets--strung, some of them, with antlers and skulls and other pieces of animals caught in them and drowned or starved--and rope and plastic strapping and detergent bottles and buckets and shoes and helmets and and and we put hundreds of pounds of garbage in the white reinforced bags the government of svalbard provides for this purpose. and then, back in dock, the crew had to take it all off again themselves in the handful of hours they had to turn the boat over for the next batch of tourists. i don't know where the garbage goes after that; that's not an easy thing to find out, either.
i think about how when i was nineteen years old i fell, rather badly and nearly fatally, climbing a pass in the olympics, and how that fall broke some deep faith i had had until then in myself, and how it shaped the way i saw my own body, my ability to be in the wild, my competence and resilience and strength, and how i have been terrified of those kinds of ascents and descents ever since. i'm a terrible climber, i have said, for two decades now. on the eighth day of the residency we anchored off phippsøya, and the sky was radiant blue and cloudless, and there is no evening when the sun never sets, and so after dinner we landed again and went on an impromptu summit of phippsøya. a steep merciless hike, scrambling up and up and up for a long time, and then! the rooftop of the whole world, the archipelago spilling out below us snowy and flawless, the shining blue of the sea, cloud-shadow moving flicker-quick across the pale beach far below. eating cookies and looking at infinity. and then back down again, this time impossibly steep snow-slope, that same kind of place that has haunted me for twenty years, and i leapt down it, half-skipping, sure-footed and bright with joy, and i thought i am not that person anymore and i haven't been for a long time. i thought, this is what it feels like to be strong. i thought, i have been stronger than i knew for years.
on the next-to-last night as we anchored at dahlbreen i read to the artists from the beginning of Frankenstein, when captain walton writes his sister what he believes the arctic to be. like so many other white explorers, white colonizers, projecting their own image onto a surface they imagine to be blank only because it is made out of ice. and yet. this is also how it feels, reading mary shelley in the main cabin of a tallship, the snap and boom of the glacier beyond the portholes, the light pouring in, the thunk-thunk-thunk of the anchor dropping. knowing you will go out on deck again to find some other wonder so beautiful, so massive and outside any comprehensible human scale you can barely manage to see it:
I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight. There, Margaret, the sun is for ever visible, its broad disk just skirting the horizon and diffusing a perpetual splendour. There—for with your leave, my sister, I will put some trust in preceding navigators—there snow and frost are banished; and, sailing over a calm sea, we may be wafted to a land surpassing in wonders and in beauty every region hitherto discovered on the habitable globe. Its productions and features may be without example, as the phenomena of the heavenly bodies undoubtedly are in those undiscovered solitudes. What may not be expected in a country of eternal light?
when i was done my friend emma came up to me and said close your eyes and let me take you outside and i said okay, and i did. she led me across the deck and up the narrow stairway to the bow and held my hand, my eyes still closed, and she read to me that glorious passage from rebecca solnit on the color blue,
For many years, I have been moved by the blue at the far edge of what can be seen, that color of horizons, of remote mountain ranges, of anything far away. The color of that distance is the color of an emotion, the color of solitude and of desire, the color of there seen from here, the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go.
and when she told me to open my eyes, in front of me was all of it, everywhere, that sadness, that distance and desire, that faith, that color. that place i thought i could never go. that place i had been all along, waiting for the future in the country of eternal light.