Published: December 2007 Frozen Ground
Otherworldly beautiful, the lands of perpetually frozen earth reveal the delicate rhythms of the planet. But will permafrost stay permanent?
Essay by Barry Lopez
National Geographic Contributing Writer

Earth's lunar satellite, the moon, is an alien and remote though still compelling landscape known to us all. We imagine it from our front lawns and our apartment windows as a place of absence. No wind, nor any blade of grass for a breeze to stir. No people. No cascading brook or animal track. But unearthly beautiful all the same. On a clear night, with a pair of ten-power binoculars, the craters and highlands, the depressions and seas, appear so vividly etched, the pattern of their shadow and light so captivating, that the geography can induce a sensation of joy. The beauty of such a moment is hard to explain. It's as if beauty were not actually in the thing itself—the basalt plain, the crater—but lay instead with the viewer's capacity to appreciate that object. When a portion of the moon resolves itself sharply through the binoculars' prisms, when it comes alive to a viewer's eyes, he or she can experience a kind of euphoria, which the moon alone cannot explain. It is, for some, the thrill of being fully alive.

The world is beautiful, in many unfathomable ways. In our hurrying, though, we frequently miss what is beautiful around us, in the same way that we forget from time to time what we want our lives to mean. Just to stay afloat in the modern world, many of us reluctantly choose detachment from the constant stimulus. We even turn away from beauty, as if it were another thing we had had too much of.

Gazing at these images, I think of our habits of detachment. More than any other region of the planet, the Arctic has responded in starkly visible ways to global climate change. It is here, if you will, that a canary is singing faintly in a mine shaft. To make pictures of these places—this is my presumption—I imagine the photographer had to have been thinking about us in some way, about how we are going to fare. The images are not merely beautiful, an exoticness to admire, but an invitation to reattach ourselves to the Earth, specifically to a place that has now grown oddly poignant.

Like the moon, these landscapes appear alien and remote, exquisite but vaguely threatening. We're an integral part of them, however. The pingos and polygons, the rock circles and beaded streams, all are part of us in a way the lunar highlands and seas are not. Or, to be specific again, what's happening on the Mackenzie River Delta in Canada this spring bears more on the fate of our families than whatever might be happening in the lunar valley of Taurus-Littrow during the same weeks. 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. My guess would be that someone someday will trace the roots of modern human loneliness to a loss of intimacy with place, to our many breaks with the physical Earth. We are not out there much anymore. Even when we are, we are often too quick to take things in. A member of the group who insists on lingering is "holding everyone else up." I think about this kind of detachment from the physical world frequently, because human beings, generally, seem to long for a specific place, a certain geography that gives them a sense of well-being.

When I was traveling regularly in the Arctic, I routinely asked Yupik, Inupiat, and Inuit how they characterized people from the civilization of which I was a part. "Lonely" was a response I heard with discomfiting frequency. The cure for loneliness, I have come to understand, is not more socializing. It's achieving and maintaining close friendships. The trust that characterizes that kind of friendship allows one to be vulnerable, to discuss problems that resist a solution, for example, without having to risk being judged or dismissed. I bring this up because the desire I experience most keenly, when I travel in landscapes like the ones made so evocative here, is for intimacy. I have learned that I will not experience the exhilaration intimacy brings unless I become vulnerable to the place, unless I come to a landscape without judgments, unless I trust that the place is indifferent to me. The practice I strive for when I travel is to meet the land as if it were a person. To encounter it as if it were as deep in its meaning as human personality. I wait for it to speak. And wait. And wait.

The moon is beautiful, but I do not live on the moon. The Earth everywhere, even in places where people never or seldom live, is thought to be beautiful, and throughout human history, people of very different persuasions have behaved as if the Earth everywhere were speaking to them. Until now. Now, many more people prefer to believe the Earth is mute, that it has no intrinsic worth. Its worth, they say, lies with its utility. Or with its conventional beauty, its scenery.

It's with thoughts like these that a kind of detachment begins to take hold.

When I look at these photographs, I feel a twinge of misgiving. Disintegration of this frozen habitat is now occurring around the world. A silent warning. We can enter the images here though, even if we have never had the experience of being in the Arctic. The photographs say the Earth is profound and revealing, but in these opening years of the 21st century the nature of the Earth's beauty is changing.

The photographs are asking, What do you think? Years from now, they ask, what will it mean to live in earthly beauty?