Once upon a time there was a world of great beauty here in the High Arctic. I was part of that world.
Let me describe it for you, though you’ll likely not believe me. For what’s been lost is unimaginable. And sheer description? Oh, how does one describe the indescribable? The hues of the last glacier? Epic blues—turquoise, cerulean, cobalt, sapphire, indigo—striating the brilliant white folds of snow-covered ice, itself so much like the weathered skin of a wizened human face? Nests of needle ice so clear they disappear against the pellucid cover of pristine snow? The scale—your insignificance against time itself, eternity? The language of a sudden calving—the thunder of ice dissevering into water . . . the whisper of crystalline powder rising, pluming, cascading . . . the consequent shush and huff of a great wave enveloping the sea?
What called to you in the glaciers’ disintegration and you didn’t hear, didn’t listen?
Now it’s too late for anything but conjuring a lost world.
So, like the embryonic wave forming in a calving’s aftermath, I begin again: Once upon a time there was a world of great beauty here in the High Arctic.
From a cave in my belly an iceberg shears, cartwheels, bursts up from the black water into a mist of ice vapor and snow cloud. Kittiwakes, unsettled from their bergs by the tumult of sea and sky, whirl and glide, their collective cries like those of a chorus of newborn babies. As the ice-smoke clears, these opportunistic birds hover, dive underwater into the cloud of rust-colored plankton stirred up in the turbulent echo of my loss.
For millennia past, I was a massive ice mesa, polar desert hiding ridges of basalt rock and fossils millions of years old. Patterned with meltwater channels, I stretched from Arctic Ocean to Barents Sea. In summer, those straits wound south until they tumbled in waterfalls weeping over my stolid face. Joined to me north and south, east and west were valley glaciers hugged by jagged rock—Bråsvellbreen and Etonbreen, Duvebreen and Leighbreen, Worsleybreen, Fonndalsbreen, Schweigaardenbreen. I carved their valleys, poured parts of myself into their clefts. I thought of these glaciers as my arms and legs. They were long ago swept into the sea.
What holds me here, tenuously, is bedrock. Yet still I slide forward, thrust bit by bit into dark waters . . .
. . . but slowly, too slowly to catch my lost child.
All that’s in my power is to watch that broken piece of me, my daughter, drift away as the kittiwakes resettle on her, migrant berg. The last of her is a speck on the horizon, then she’s vanished forever, at the mercy of currents that stream south and west. Shedding as she moves. Spinning as her center of gravity shifts with her inevitable thawing in warmer southern oceans. She will, someday soon, become one with the water into which she was born. How strange to know I’ll outlive her as I’ve outlived all my children!
When I was young, I relished the snaking riverlets coursing across my plain, spilling over my face in ribbons that froze into a tapestry of delicate, inverted spires that chimed in unison whenever the wind played across their spines. I cherished the hidden streams that flowed below me, lifting me up and carrying me forward into the bay. Floating almost weightless, I envisioned being released at last from bedrock’s grip and launched into the boundless waters that lay before me. I thought of myself—monstrous and free—a ship of ice scouring the seas.
Yes, I was young, my thoughts naïve, not yet formed by bearing witness to geological epochs. I can almost forgive what’s happened when I think of you humans, in eternity’s time mere fledglings grasping at the worms of infantile convictions regarding your own permanence against Earth’s immortality. As you fade from the planet, fresh life emerges, a new and truer Eden . . . enough!
Learning to be alone, as I have, requires a certain detachment. Perhaps that’s affected my sympathies toward you.
Epochs passed. I began to see my error. Summer meltponds absorbed too much sunlight, grew to dark lakes and soaked up more. Moulins opened, sucked the water from my surface in ever-expanding whirlpools. And those once-cherished waterfalls? They lashed my face, catacombed my body, slashed deep abysses. I was dying. Caverns enclosed the nothing I was becoming.
As I aged, I welcomed the howling gales, storms that tiered snow or sleet over me to momentarily salve my wounds. I welcomed the days of endless winter night, the full moon irradiating my blue-white terrain with avenues of light, stars winking on and off as cirrus clouds scrolled the sky. I welcomed the aurora borealis, that wavery kaleidoscoping, torches held aloft by your dead blazing across the heavens. I welcomed the cold light of star-born objects.
I welcomed the cold itself that arrested, for a time at least, my diminishment.
I was at peace.
Truth is, now I’m weary. Now I dream of giving birth to myself all at once, a colossal shearing sending me once and for all south to join my children. Instead, I calve and dissolve little by little into the sea. Toward my own ending.
We had names. A litany of the dead I sing to myself:
Thwaites, Pine, Haynes,
I could go on. Forgive me. The rhythm is off. My voice is out of tune.
Though pinned to these mountains, this bedrock, I’ve seen extraordinary things.
I’ve seen marvels at sea. Long ago, a Viking longship with an ornate dragon carved into its prow stalled in the bay as the wind died and the fearsome, blood-red sail slackened. No doubt that dragonship had lost its way for it was the first and last of its kind I observed in my long life. The pilot and his crew readied the oars, first to starboard then to port. The oarsmen lined up, sitting tight one to another. At the pilot’s signal, “Allr róa,” the men drew their oars once in unison. Again the pilot called out, “Æn róa,” and another prodigious heave of the oars followed. Silence ensued as the crew—as if contained in one great body—plied their oars with no more direction from the pilot. Picking up speed, the longship sailed past, moving almost soundlessly but for the susurrus of paddles pulled in unison.
Much later, a whaling ship suddenly beset by ice was caught and crushed to driftwood but for its mast, which impaled itself in the mud and stones beneath the water. For hundreds of years, that mast, like a hand signaling to no one save me, jutted from the sea. It’s there still, though only the stub of its finger rises above the water. The rest lies buried deep in sludge and scree.
I’ve seen marvels in the air as well. A hot-air balloon once skimmed the waters to the north of me, distant and dangerously low. Aboard, three men leaned over the basket that carried them, threw down a metal buoy. The ocean swallowed it as fire breathed up inside the balloon’s great bubble. The three men rose, raised their fists in the air, sailed beyond the horizon. What became of them? I once overheard two hunters claim that their bodies were discovered decades later, frozen on Kvitøya, an island to the east, not far from here.
It seems but a moment in time after those jubilant, doomed men sailed above me that a stricken airship drifted southwestward across the bay. Its envelope was intact, but there was a gaping hole in the keel where the gondola had torn away. A man clung to one of the metal ribs protruding from the open wound, his legs paddling back and forth as if he were swimming through sky. Then he slipped (or perhaps he let go), plummeted through the air and plunged into the water, the last of him consumed by pancake ice and sea.
And even on my barren plateau, where dead things outnumber the living, where no human ever settled, I’ve seen marvels. One spring, two men drove a team of huskies over my ragged plain. They were cartographers, here to map each crevice and crevasse, each fjord, bay, island. I heard them speak of an underground lake that lay deep inside me, rimmed by a curtain of icicles glinting in shades of green and blue. They’d marked it, though today it’s merged with the waters that run beneath me.
I admired those men for their courage, their respect for the land. But more remarkable was how they cared for their huskies, sometimes at their own peril. Here’s what I witnessed one evening after the men had spent the day mapping a cluster of small islands dotting the bay. They’d sledged over to those islands and back, across broken floes and ice hummocks. Both men and dogs were exhausted, hungry. But, as if providence shined down upon them, a seal lay sleeping on a floe near shore. The men stalked, shot, and flayed the seal. Distracted by their labor, they didn’t notice that the floe had broken, and four of the dogs were trapped as it drifted away. One of the men—tethered to a rope held fast by the other—dove into the frigid water. Alas, the rope was too short, and the dogs floated out of sight.
That night, the men mourned the huskies even as they realized their own survival was threatened by that loss.
But providence again intervened. In the night, the floe crashed into my cliff-face, and the huskies clambered up the slope. Their howling woke the men. The one who’d braved the water the previous evening climbed up the steep incline to rescue the dogs.
I try to recall their courage when my thoughts of you—lost like those huskies—run dark. These were explorers who thought nature was greater than man, who lived in a time when it was so.
Wooly mammoths and polar bears, right whales and narwhals—indulge me in another litany.
Once upon a time, herds of long-haired mammoths lumbered across my vast white plain, so numerous they eclipsed the landscape. Their feet weighed heavily upon my spine, but I bore them well. Likewise the polar bears. Mothers cavorting with their cubs, tobogganing down my slopes, tossing ice into the air as toys for their children. The bears were patient predators, waiting at a floe’s edge for a seal to appear, bloodying the ice with one swift swipe of their paws. But, unlike you, they killed only to survive.
I won’t describe the slaughter of right whales whose bones still line the beaches of this archipelago. I choose to remember those leviathans as they breached, arced into sunlight, paused in midair . . . and then their flukes rising high above the water as they dove back into the sea. I prefer to remember the bulls bellowing lustily to their prospective mates, the cows singing back, their calves swimming round them, clicking tongues and clapping flippers in play.
More heartbreaking—the narwhal. Some thought narwhals the stuff of fairy tales, ephemeral as unicorns. Today they are, but then . . .
There was a time when narwhals littered the sea. I watched men kill them simply for their tusks. They’d saw and wrench those beautiful, helical masterpieces from the narwhals’ snouts, cut away a strip or two of blubber, leave the mutilated bodies to sink in the bay. I understood humans’ covetous longing to possess those tusks. Who’s to say whether I, animated by blood and bone, might have risked my life to possess such an extraordinary prize?
Voices carried over water, and laughter pierced the foggy gloom of that senseless harvest—the conversations now of ghosts. The bounty, as I discerned over years of listening, was to give these tusks to royalty as a well-rewarded trophy to be displayed behind glass in a “cabinet of curiosities.” No doubt these tusks yet gather dust in those cabinets far away from here, reminders of what’s left of this noble species. All I have is a vivid memory of one mother narwhal who took refuge in the keel of an ice cave at my base, gave birth to a son. Expelled in a rush of blood, the calf found purchase and suckled, the cow’s pink-white milk clouding the water. Then the mother whistled, the baby followed, leapt up on her back, and rode her away as far as I could see. That memory is stored in my own cabinet of curiosities.
The mountain faces—scabrous with guano, bearded with pale green moss—remind me of the trunks and forepaws of the ancient mammoths. Those shaggy beasts have been extinct for a very long time. I can’t tell you why they vanished. The earth changes, yes, who knows? Sometimes not only through the fault of humans.
It was the same with the polar bears. Didn’t you notice their wasting as the ice they depended on dissipated into water? The bears, too, are gone, and the explorers seeking glory and finding only death, and the cartographers mapping this icescape, and the Vikings plundering new worlds, everything that breathed life into this godforsaken place . . . all figments of the figments of your imagination.
I told you what was happening.
Didn’t my warnings make sense? The thunder caused by huge fissures within me? The crash of ice boulders as they smashed onto jumbled hummocks and zigzag crevasses below? The gurgle of liquescing landscape that gave up, one by one, the quiet bodies of your fearless dead, those intrepid souls who charted this once-pristine Eden?
You watched me from your cruise ships, your three-masted barquentines, your rubber Zodiacs. You were careful. Your guides raised three fingers against my towering cliffs. Three fingers to keep you far enough away so that your puny boats wouldn’t be swamped by the waves my calvings rendered. I’d seen it happen on the stony beaches flanking my edges. The scoundrel wave unleashed. Unwary beachcombers, outrun by a silent swell, swept away and drowned. I can’t say I mourned their loss.
I was naked ice, and you were the voyeurs.
All you wanted, waited for, was that one gloriously plump polar bear, that one blue whale breaching. that one immense ice-shatter—caught in photos you could take home to your friends. Your two-dimensional representations that always, always failed to capture what was truly important. You couldn’t contain your excitement at framing each photo to prove that, yes, you’d seen that bear, that whale, that calving. After all, wasn’t that the reason you’d come to the Arctic? To prove you’d been this close to those elusive wonders?
So you snapped those pictures, not bothering to take the lens away from your eye for a single moment to contemplate what you were seeing. I’ve noticed that of you humans—the experience of the sublime diminished—no wasted—in a moment of witness once removed.
Now I’m a slip of the tongue and you don’t come here anymore. Or maybe, just maybe, you too are finally gone.
Sometimes I would rest, and my voice would fade to long, soft breaths as tiny avalanches bathed my skin. These were trickles, tickling my face and quickly dying away. Did you hear my feathery laughter?
Yet others, torrents of raging powder, surged over my frozen tongue, raising my voice to thunder.
Thunder—surely you heard that.
This whole world once whistled. Hummed. Whispered. Murmured. Whimpered.
This world once sang.
Summers lengthened as temperatures rose. Miles inland, newly exposed rock baked in the sun, absorbing its rays, sun and heated stone thinning me from above. Ever-warmer gulf currents threaded north, slithered under my belly, pried me away from the bedrock to which I’d clung for thousands of years. More and more frequently, pieces of me shattered and were swallowed by fissures that suddenly opened and closed like mouths of a many-headed sea serpent.
I would not call these shatterings children. So much smaller than those earlier calvings, and yet, I was diminished by deformity.
And I noticed then, as I melted and thinned, I receded ever faster. I was pure motion, like those lost children, like those moulins gyring down to hidden underworlds, like those waves that followed me and swamped everything.
My name, you ask? My name is Austfonna, the weeping lady.
I say farewell for now. But soon, soon, if eons are a guide, we’ll reawaken to new sounds. Murmuring sea. Whip-crack of water freezing. Sigh of ice as it builds layer upon layer.
Glaciers re-forming, rising again, one by one.
And you? You will still be gone.