Monday, 5 December 2011

Northern Lights

At this time of year, just around the beginning of December, when it's bitter cold outside and dark mid-afternoon and fairy lights are going up and all thoughts turn Christmassy, I go into full Arctic mode. That is, my thoughts turn towards the polar realms, those great white vistas of snow and ice and imagination. (Especially now that I've come back up North home for the holidays; as I write this the sky is throwing down ferocious hailstones and is charcoal-grey, ominously storm-cloudy. We're getting closer and closer to North Pole weather than continental Europe every year...)

Well I like nothing better at this time of year than to curl up by the fire reading about the Arctic and Antarctic, imagining snowstorms and icebergs and blue oceans and ice-shelves engulfing those brave enough to step foot on these forbidding destinations. The inherent mystery, wildness and beauty of the Poles intrigues me no end.

You know that question - 'if there was one place in the world you could go (all practicalities aside) where would it be?', well I have my answer right here: Antarctica.  Without question. What I wouldn't give to sail (or fly or trek) to the South Pole. To gaze upon the endless and varied whites and blues of the landscape, the snow-capped peaks and valleys, and marvel at its stillness and silence, its pristine beauty.

How truly amazing when you think about it.  There's nowhere else like it on earth. (The Arctic is made up mostly of ocean, frozen for one half of the year). Antarctica, on the other hand is so fabulously unique in that it is a continent made entirely of ice and snow - a continent - three times bigger than Australia, and totally uninhabited except for some hardy penguins. Nothing else (polar bears are indigenous to the North Pole readers). Imagine. Imagine the quietness. If Earth wanted to whisper something to us, would it not be there, a tendril of misted breath, a wisdom preserved forever in ice for us to contemplate?  

My fascination with the ice caps first began with images of the Antarctic. It's hard to explain, but I was transfixed by its isolation and beauty, its sheer whiteness and wildness. It was like nothing I'd ever seen before. Majestically mysterious and hauntingly beautiful. Forbidding as well as fantastic. And I related to it somehow. And it was that somehow that moved me enough to seek out more on this enchanting place.

And so I read countless stories of all the great explorers. What in God's name propelled them to tackle such a forbidding and dangerous place where death waited to rear its sharp teeth?  Bravery, heroism and the strength of the human spirit were all at the hearts of these narratives. Exploration wasn't just for fame and glory it was for something more insatiable: a testing of the spirit, of faith and belief. How do you survive when all the odds are stacked against you alone in the ice-fields, with no provisions, no heat, no hope? Spirit carried all those great men in feats of true heroism. What mattered wasn't defeat or success; it was 'the response of the spirit.' These moving narratives of polar exploration never fail to strike a chord within all of us - the idea of a spiritual quest and the triumph of endurance and the human spirit over hardship and hopelessness. Nowhere was this theory put more to the test than in polar exploration. 'To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.' (Ulysses - Alfred Lord Tennyson)

But there was more to it than that. That somehow again, sparkling from the ice crystals. One of the greatest Antarctic explorers, Ernest Shackleton, said 'we all have our own White South.' And he was referring to the space of the imagination, that terra incognito where only some of us are brave enough to go, the inner journey we must complete at some stage or another, testing our mettle over fear. I found this book by travel journalist Sara Wheeler 'Terra Incognito: Travels in Antarctica'* and read more on the history of exploration in the continent, but also on the idea of the metaphor of Antarctica. What it meant to those explorers of old and what it means to those today - the science teams and adventure junkies that gravitate towards it indeed as the magnetic point of their existences.

The characters that emerge from the book have all one thing in common: their love of the White South and their commitment to it. Everyone that has gone there has fallen under its spell. One modern day explorer, Robert Swan, who walked to both Poles comments in the book that 'going to either is like watching a child's magic slate wipe away your life as you knew it.' For others it's the perspective the great white land offers, the harmony and the soul-searching solitude, a place to get your bearings. Is it because it represents 'everything beyond man's little world' as the author puts it? Somewhere where the world is seen anew and afresh, and the great grand spectacle of existence unveiled.

And then there's the Arctic of course. The dark North, lit by titanium white bergs like bared teeth in black ocean and the greening spectacle of the Northern Lights. Land of the midnight sun and polar bears and Santa Claus. I watched a documentary once where the presenter was aboard an ice-breaker ship to the North Pole, and the sheer volume of ice everywhere, was breath-taking, like another world. Admittedly, not as intriguing to me as the South Pole (the North Pole is inhabited, and maybe seems closer in a lot of ways), but still a place of mystery and beauty.

Especially when it comes to  the Northern Lights. That great magic display of colours lighting winter skies. Although they are scientific in principle, they are purely magic in manifestation and meaning. They are one of the things I would love to see at some stage in my life. It would be like watching a magic show. The Aurora have meant many things to many people throughout the centuries, with earlier peoples seeing them as signs from dead ancestors. Me, I see them as emblems of belief. Proof of miraculous beauty in the midst of seemingly hopeless darkness. Like Santa for grown-ups.

But perhaps the most intriguing feature of these lands is their beguiling beauty alongside their deathly harshness. One juxtaposed to the other. The beauty in the apparent barrenness,  bleakness, simplicity. Death amidst life's most spectacular scenes. And a space for strength to shine through and break hardship into heroism. Where the great beyond beckons in all its staggering glory and presence. The sublime.

I could go on all day but I'll stop here. The fire is dwindling, and I want to get back to the Eskimos and reindeer in my current read about the North Pole before the last embers go out. And from my cosy perch there,  daydream of packing off to the icy realms, ready to explore the unknown territory of the earth's ends and simultaneously, set off on an inner journey towards the magnetic pole of the unexplored inner landscape...

-enjoy the Arctic spell while it lasts, I am!

~ Siobhán.

More Books of Interest:
'The Worst Journey in the World' - Cherry-Apsley Garrard
'The Magnetic North' - Sara Wheeler
'Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage' - Alfred Lansing

And a poem celebrating the heroism of the exploration age, relating to the sacrifice Captain Oates made as part of the Scott expedition -  'at the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime...'  

'Antarctica'- Derek Mahon

I am just going outside and may be some time.’
The others nod, pretending not to know.
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time –

In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow,
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go:
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

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