email a friend iconprinter friendly iconFrozen Ground
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I don't know whether you have ever had the good fortune, even the desire, to fly close over the Earth's coldscapes or to wander in Svalbard, Iceland, the Canadian Arctic, Siberia, or Alaska—some of the places where permafrost is slowly disintegrating, sea-ice cover thinning and shrinking, where glaciers are retreating. I had that unquenchable desire once, and when I look at these scenes, I feel a longing akin to the longing one sometimes feels for the landscapes of childhood, from that time before the world noticed you and you began to feel its weight in your life. I recall the exuberance with which I used to camp on vast expanses of wet tundra, despite the inconvenience of mosquitoes, the difficulty of finding a patch of high ground. Depending on where my companions and I were, tundra grizzly, caribou, or wolves might turn up. I had no aerial perspective, but the view from the ground was equally breathtaking—land rolling outward to all 360° of the horizon, sunlight flickering ceaselessly on a river and on tundra ponds, cotton grass seed heads swaying under the wind, gleaming swatches of red bearberry, punctuated by the green of moss campion and purple blossoms of saxifrage. Overhead, a flock of 7,000 old-squaws or 500 pintails going somewhere fast, and the feathers floating down. Or maybe no birds at all. Maybe the mandible of a fox, suddenly, right where I'd thrown down my ground cloth.

And then there was the next day, when we'd fish once more for char and climb that pingo on the horizon and paddle on and farther on, because it was so unbrokenly beautiful. It was untrammeled; it appeared never to have been occupied. There were no ruins, no fences, no flags, no roads. Nothing had been erected. It spoke to something primordial in us and abiding.

We would come on fresh tracks or scat and then glass the land all around. Where were they? The residency of animals was obvious here, but they were not visible. We paddled on, always trusting, in the days before GPS, we were not lost.

And all the time it was "we." Not for safety alone, or the ordinary benefits of companionship, but to be able to share enthusiasm for a countryside that never had to resolve itself into words to be appreciated. Increasing the intensity of one's private relationship to a place like this worked at the same time to increase the intensity of one's human relationships. For us, the land, utter monotony to some, was so full of eternity it was scary. It hummed with endurance. It radiated completeness. And for a few weeks we were a part of it, the mysterious rock circles, the perfect repetition of polygons, the labyrinths of water bodies so continuously discontinuous they could not be discretely named. We could hardly find the definitive edge of anything.

I miss those days. I have since passed other days in remote quarters of the Earth—the Tanami Desert in Australia, the Queen Maud Mountains in Antarctica, the upper Boro River in Botswana—but I feel an affection for Arctic landscapes I feel for no other place outside my homescape in western Oregon. I have often wondered whether it was because the brutality of winter in those regions was never far from my thoughts when I was traveling in the brief bounty of sunlight and warm air called "the high-latitude boreal summer." Could it have been the contrast between these two seasons that broke something open in me once, that allowed me to feel tenderness toward a part of the Earth I did not in any way possess?

Over several decades of travel, I have often met people who were profoundly intimate with the places in which they lived. Usually they were hunters, hunter-gatherers, subsistence farmers, or pastoralists, people who had to know precisely where they were, physically, all the particulars of it, if they were going to keep their preferred way of life intact. In conversation, I found the fine points they were attuned to fascinating, but more so the pattern of their knowledge, their skill at arranging myriad details in a pattern that could be recognized, remembered, and put to use. It is exhilarating to encounter knowledge this intimate. Most of us in the modern world have nothing to compare with it, except a working knowledge of the infrastructure of our own highly technical civilization. To see and appreciate, to be immersed for a lifetime in patterns that are not of your own making, that is a different order of things.
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