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The Far North of Experience

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Posted on Jun 13, 2013
quinn.anya (CC BY-SA 2.0)

By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

One summer some years ago, on a peninsula jutting off another peninsula off the west coast of Iceland, I lived among strangers and birds. The birds were mostly new species I got to know a little, the golden plovers plaintively dissembling in the grass to lead intruders away from their nests, the oystercatchers who flew overhead uttering unearthly oscillating cries, the coastal fulmars, skuas, and guillemots, and most particularly the arctic terns. The impeccable whiteness of their feathers, the sharpness of their scimitar wings, the fierceness of their cries, and the steepness of their dives were all enchanting.

Terns were once called sea swallows for their deeply forked tails and grace in the air, and in Latin, arctic terns were named sterna paradisaea by a pietist Danish cleric named Erik Pontoppidan, at the end of a turbulent career. It’s not clear why in 1763 he called the black-capped, white-feathered arctic terns sterna paradisaea: birds—or terns—of paradise. He could not have known about their extraordinary migration, back in the day when naturalists—and Pontoppidan himself in his book on Norway—thought swallows buried themselves in the mud in winter and hibernated, rather than imagining they and other birds flew far south to other climes.

Of all living things, arctic terns migrate farthest and live in the most light and least darkness. They fly tens of thousands of miles a year as they relocate from farthest north to farthest south. When they are not nesting, they rarely touch ground and live almost constantly in flight, like albatrosses, like their cousins the sooty terns who roam above the equatorial seas for years at a time without touching down. Theirs is a paradise of endless light and endless effort. The lives of angels must be like this.

The far north is an unearthly earth, where much of what those of us in temperate zones were told is universal is not true. Everyone walks on water, which is a solid. In winter, you can build palaces out of it, or houses out of snow. Ice is blue. Snow insulates. Water crystallizes into floating mountains that destroy whatever collides with them. Many other things turn hard as rock in the cold. Nothing decays, and so time stops for the dead, if not the living. Cold is stability and warmth can be treacherous.

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Trees dwindle; shrubs cling to the ground; and further north nothing remains of the plant kingdom but low grasses, diminutive flowers, mosses, and lichens hidden beneath the snow part of the year; and nearly every species but the reindeer and some of the summer birds is carnivorous. In winter, light can seem to shine upward from the white ground more than from the dark sky where the sun doesn’t rise or rises for an hour or two a day. And at the poles themselves, there are not 365 days per year but one long night and one long stretch of light, and the sun rises once in the spring and sets once in the fall.

Their opposite is the equator, where every day and every night of the year is exactly twelve hours long. The further north or south you go, the longer summer days and winter nights get. In Iceland, each day of spring was several minutes longer than the one before, so that in May the days went from nearly 17 to 20 hours long, and by June there is no true darkness, no night. The sun dipped low around midnight or after and there were spectacular sunsets that melted into sunrises, because the sun never went entirely away.

That summer among the terns, I lived at latitude 65, about as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska, and one degree south of the Arctic Circle. If you go farther north, to, say, the town of Longyearbyen in the Norwegian Arctic at latitude 78, which I later visited, the sun rises in late April and stays above the horizon until nearly the end of August, when sunset finally comes—a few minutes before sunrise. There, winter is a night as long as that summer day, running from the end of October until the middle of February. The twenty-four-hour cycle of day and night we think of as normal and daily comes as a rush of rapidly changing days and nights, flickering like a strobe, between the great day and the great night that each lasts 1,000 hours or more.

Long ago, I had read about the white nights of St. Petersburg in Russia, at only 59 degrees north, and I had once spent a couple of weeks in the Canadian wilderness at that latitude near midsummer, when night was just a blush of darkness that generally began and ended while I was asleep in my tent. I had always wanted to see the white nights farther north, but actually living through them was a little disorienting.

In Praise of Darkness

Sometimes during that summer when the sky was often gray but never black, I would think that a task had to be done before darkness and then realize that there would be no more darkness while I was there, and it didn’t matter so much when I rose, when I slept, when I traveled. For me day and night were time itself, and I missed the rhythm and structure they provide. I missed stars. Darkness no longer shut me in: I shut light out to sleep. It was as though I had entered a landscape that itself never slept, never dreamed, that never let up the rational alertness of daytime, the light of interrogation and analysis.

The sensuality of night had never been so clear to me, darkness descending like velvet to wrap around you and enclose you in its black cocoon, to take you to your other self and others. In darkness dreams awaken and dreamers merge, which might be how passion becomes love and how making love begets progeny of all natures and forms. Merging is dangerous, at least to the boundaries and definition of the self. Darkness is generative, and generation, biological and artistic both, requires this amorous engagement with the unknown, this entry into the realm where you do not quite know what you are doing and what will happen next.

Creation is always in the dark because you can only do the work of making by not quite knowing what you’re doing, by walking into darkness, not staying in the light. Ideas emerge from edges and shadows to arrive in the light, and though that’s where they may be seen by others, that’s not where they’re born. But darkness is a pejorative in English, and the term has often carried emotional, moral, and religious overtones as has its opposite: the children of light, snowy angels, fair maidens, and white knights. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” said the dark-skinned Martin Luther King Jr., but sometimes love is darkness; sometimes the glare is what needs to be extinguished. Turn off the lights and come to bed.

When you spend time in the desert, you come to love shadow, shade, and darkness, the respite they give to the menacing blaze of day that burns you out and dries you up. Heat is the desert as predator, just as cold is the Arctic’s biggest animal. Desert light is fierce, and at midday it flattens everything into a harsh solid, but early and late in the day, light is golden and every crevice and fold and protrusion of the landscape is thrown into the high relief of light and shadow. At those times day and night intertwine like dancers, like lovers, and shadows are as powerful a presence as the things that cast them, or more so, growing and growing until the sun disappears below the horizon and darkness spreads like water on the land.


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