First of all Pytheas, Pytheas of Greece.
He was everything that you’d expect from an ancient Greek person. Toga laurel wreath, all of that.
Everywhere he went he discovered things.
He discovered the Baltic.
He discovered amber.
He discovered the British Isles and everyone living there. People who painted their faces blue and who traded in tin and who had not yet discovered themselves. When his boat made landfall, Pytheas, the British people said, discovered them. And then, when he left the British Isles, sailing north, he continued discovering things.
The midnight sun, for example.
The relationship between the moon and the tides.
He discovered Thule.
Thule, he said, was the paradise at the top of the world. The people there lived on millet. The land had the consistency of jellyfish. “Neither land, properly speaking, nor air nor sea,” he said, “but a mixture of these things like a marine lung.”
Marine lungs being what they called jellyfish back then.
Today, of course, we know there is no Thule. Thule might have been Iceland, Greenland, or the Faroe Islands.
Who knows, really, what it might have been.
Next up were the Irish.
Significant because the inhabitants of the British Isles are the most prodigious of all the arctic explorers.
The next most being North Americans.
The next most after them being the Danes, the Swedes, and the Norwegians.
The Irish went to Iceland.
Got on a boat and followed a flock of geese.
FLOKI OF THE RAVENS
Also went to Iceland because of birds.
His sobriquet—of the ravens—because of his having sailed with three ravens that he released when his boat went out past the Outer Hebrides. The first of which circled the boat and, not finding land, landed again on the mast.
Also, the second.
The third raven flew northwest and Floki followed.
They arrived, eventually, at Iceland.
Which he called Snowland because of the snow.
He spent one bad winter there.
Bad because he ate the ravens, his pets.
Also bad because of the monks. Monks and Norsemen being mortal enemies. There was lots of killing between them. Mostly killing by Floki but also, too, killing by the monks who were not entirely pacifists. Which is why, today, we don’t know much about either having lived on Iceland. There’s nothing left of Floki and little of the monks except for some Irish place names.
Toponyms for places like the island of Papey, after what the monks called themselves, the Papar.
The island where puffins go to mate.
INGOLF THE ICELANDER
For a long time that’s how it went.
People went to Iceland.
For example, in addition to the monks, Floki’s daughter, who one day while riding a horse, fell off and into a creek, and drowned. And so another reason why Floki’s winter was a bad one. But then there was Ingolf. Ingolf the Norseman who, because of having raped and pillaged in Norway, was fleeing the Norwegian king.
The king chasing Ingolf.
Ingolf chasing a door.
Because that’s what Norsemen did back then. When they got into trouble they’d toss a door into the ocean and follow it. The Norse gods would guide the door to safety. Their having a favorable disposition towards doors.
The gods took Ingolf’s door to Iceland and so with it Ingolf. But because of Iceland’s being Iceland it wasn’t such a safe place. Because of, among other things, the ice. And everything that the ice signifies.
Such as starvation.
Such as loneliness.
Such as eternal punishment of the soul. The ice, according to Dante, signifying the ninth and deepest layer of hell, its being furthest away from God’s warmth. But where else could Ingolf, not a Christian anyway, go to?
Behind him was the king of Norway.
And plus all of the angry Norwegians.
So on Iceland, on the southwest shore, on the ice, Ingolf took his boat apart and with boat parts (minus one door) built a hut.
And over time more huts.
Because of the princess who Ingolf stole from the king of Norway, the king’s daughter, Ingolf’s wife, who bore his children.
The children needing huts.
And then huts for the children’s children.
And so on.
And so the founding of Reykjavik.
The Cove of Smoke.
OTHER ARCTICS (LITERAL)
The arctic where the devil lives, for example, according to Isaiah, in a house of fire on top of a mountain of ice.
The arctic with the dragon from which all evil comes. Whose smoke it was that Ezekiel saw in his vision of God. The smoke, Ezekiel said, that was coming from the north from out of the dragon’s nose and mouth.
The arctic where the Wisu live. That tribe of people who came, sometimes, down to Bulgaria and killed the Bulgarians’ crops. Their very presence, it’s said, having been enough to turn water to ice.
And so the arctic about which I’m primarily speaking.
The inhospitable arctic.
The encroaching arctic.
OTHER ARCTICS (FIGURATIVE)
The enticing arctic.
The arctic, for example, towards which the Bulgarians would spend three months traveling in order to trade with the Wisu, the very same people who’d have, some months earlier, come down and wreaked havoc on their crops. When the Bulgarians arrived they’d leave their dogcarts in the arctic, on the border, overnight, and then return in the morning to find that, sometimes, the Wisu had left them goods to exchange.
Dragons’ teeth, for example.
Whale fat packed in straw.
Other times, though, they’d find that the Wisu had killed their dogs and left them nothing. They took it as a sign of displeasure, perhaps.
Or perhaps not.
The Bulgarians, obviously, not being the best at figuring out signs. But it was a sign, they agreed, certainly, of something.
Dogs’ blood being so visible for so many miles out on the ice.
Everyone you’d expect, but also others you might not.
Arabs, for example.
Such as the writer Shams ad-did Abû Abdallâh Muhammad ad-Dimashqi. And the geographer, Zakariya al-Qazwini, who was Persian, not Arab. But still.
What struck both of them about the arctic, most of all, was the cold.
And the emptiness.
The writer, ad-Dimashqi, said that it was emptiness like.
Like a thousand bee stings.
Like a lion’s roar.
Cold, ad-Dimashqi said, just as others have said both before and after him, that was inversely proportionate to the heat put out by the fires of hell.
But in the arctic, for the people who live there, hell and fires are not such easy ideas to understand. The natives thinking that a hot eternity doesn’t sound like such a bad thing.
Because what’s so bad about a fire that never goes out?
Not that this has ever stopped anyone, missionaries in particular, from going north and trying to teach them differently.
For example, and especially, Isaac O. Stringer, the Canadian Bishop who wanted to teach the arctic Inuits about hot hell and Jesus Christ. He who became better known as the Bishop who ate his boots because of one day, after trying and failing to convert the Inuits to Anglicanism, his walking home and being caught in a surprise snowstorm.
Snow coming down like surprise!
Not that it was a surprise, not really, not to the Inuits who actually lived there, because in the arctic, in reality, snowing is what it does.
Then, of course, there was the Bishop’s getting lost.
The food situation.
His having run out.
From the Bishop’s journal, October twenty-first:
Breakfast of sealskin boots, soles and tops broiled and toasted.
Soles better than tops.
In the historical sense, boots are a popular source of food for people who have nothing else. For men, in particular. For sad men most of all.
The saddest boot-eater probably being John Franklin.
Not that it’s a contest.
Not that anyone’s keeping count.
Franklin who was better known as Sir John Franklin of the Queen’s Royal Navy, his having been knighted for surviving a bad winter up in the arctic. Sir Boot-Eater to those who knew (everyone) what he’d done.
On arctic expeditions food is always the first thing to run out.
The second is common decency.
The third is the rule of law.
So Franklin, in the arctic, lost on the ice, cooked his boots. He wrote a letter to his wife, indecent because of the things he said they’d do together when he returned to London, the types of food they’d eat in bed. Then he killed a guy, a member of his own expedition, whom he suspected of hoarding food.
The sound of the killing attracted polar bears, which Franklin also shot with his rifle. The polar bear meat, in addition to boot leather, being what kept him alive for so many months.
Not that it mattered in the end: his boot-eating, being rescued, or anything else. Because by the time Franklin returned home, his wife, Sweet Jane, had already left him.
She’d run away to Tasmania with a scientist, Franklin’s friend.
The scientist, she said, was the only man who could make her swoon.
Then Franklin went on another arctic expedition, this time looking for the Northwest Passage.
The expedition that everyone calls ill-fated.
The way all of its people mysteriously disappeared.
Usually a bad idea but sometimes not.
For a long time in Europe and North America, when an expedition disappeared, it was de rigeuer to send out a second.
And then, when the second disappeared, to send out a third.
For a while, in fact, the arctic was crowded with expeditions getting lost looking for lost expeditions, rescuers rescuing rescuers.
And sometimes one rescuer, who was cooking his boots, writing a letter to his love, would hear a gunshot or smell smoke and find another rescuer, also cooking his boots, also writing a letter, just a mile or two away, through the fog and across the ice.
What happened to Fridtjof Nansen, for example.
Nansen the Norwegian who was trying to reach the North Pole first by boat and then by dogsled, his boat having been crushed by the ice.
Nansen who got caught out on the ice by the winter.
Who shot his dogs for food.
Who built a kayak and tried to paddle back home.
But then the walrus attack.
The walrus attacking Nansen’s kayak.
Nansen who shot the walrus and ate it and, while repairing his kayak, heard dog barks and voices in the distance.
And then the appearance of Frederick Jackson.
Jackson who’d been sent to look for Nansen. Who’d also gotten lost and had been wandering around the arctic all winter on the ice.
JACKSON: I’m glad to see you.
NANSEN: Thank you, I also.
JACKSON: Have you seen a ship here?
NANSEN: No, my ship is not here.
JACKSON: Aren’t you Nansen?
NANSEN: Yes, I am.
JACKSON: By Jove, I’m glad to see you.
REASONS FOR GOING
Financial reasons, mostly.
The Northwest Passage.
The North Pole.
But also, of course, fame and posterity.
The desire to be known.
After Nansen’s attempt, there was Andrée’s.
Andrée the Swede with the hydrogen balloon. The balloon that was ninety-seven feet tall, weighed a ton and a half, and was assembled in Paris.
That was made of gray and brown varnished silk.
The idea was to fly the balloon to the pole, land and take pictures. To go above the ice, not over or across it. The ice’s shifting, its impermanence, its very iciness being the thing that kills.
But when they found him, many years later, frozen and buried in the ice on White Island, his head separated from the body and his bones picked over, it was a clear reminder that ice isn’t the only thing.
Polar bears kill.
So does reckless optimism.
Among Andrée’s things were a black three-piece suit and a top hat. And in his journal was his plan, upon reaching the pole, to continue flying the balloon to San Francisco, which he estimated to be the closest major city. When he landed he’d put on the suit and walk into the heart of it.
The people would greet him with a parade.
And so I think the main reason for going.
Not for literal parades, per se, though also, kind of for literal parades (because, you know, who doesn’t want a parade), but for the recognition of having gone somewhere. Parades being thrown to celebrate the end of an absence. Their being a way of saying welcome back.
And so the reason why I’m leaving Los Angeles. Why I’m going to Spitsbergen and then to the arctic.
So when I return you can say I’ve missed you.
By Jove, you can say, it’s good to see you.
Until next time we’re angry at each other and the arctic starts pulling. When we’re feeling taken-for-granted and overfamiliar and sexually deprived.
That wild white loneliness. Our going north into it being a reminder of what we have here together.
That necessary arctic.
The arctic that precipitates tickertape and the thawing of our hearts.