It is 8.30am, the official sunrise at 78˚ degrees northern latitude. But it has been light for nearly two hours. This far into the Arctic circle, in late February, the sun lingers just beneath the horizon, its rays reflected by snow-capped ridges and low clouds. A long, unhurried dawn. The polar night finished just over a week ago and the light has been growing by 20 minutes a day. Another week, and the first rays of sun will finally reach Longyearbyen, nestled in the valley by a fjord on the main island of the Spitsbergen archipelago. The festival of the return of the sun, Soldagen, will be celebrated with abandon. Within two months, the polar night becomes the polar day. We have come to Spitsbergen in time to see the dawn grow.
Many things are officially northernmost in Longyearbyen: northernmost swimming pool, northernmost school, northernmost post-office. It is the northernmost settlement in the world with a normal family life. Only seasonally manned settlements or scientific stations lie further up towards the North Pole. The various definitions of the Arctic – 66.5 degrees latitude, tree-line, 10 ˚ July isothermal line – you name it, the archipelago of Spitsbergen, or Svalbard in Norwegian, fits with a wide margin.
Every day we drive 80-100km on snowmobiles through the high tundra. The meteorological conditions seem to change every few kilometers. The weather of the Northern hemisphere is born here in the Arctic. Those several days we spend on the island, the temperature holds -25 and lower; with the windchill, it is -35. Winter really gets going in mid-February on Spitsbergen; the true cold comes with the return of light. It also becomes colder as the day progresses, contrary to what we are used to in milder climes. My fingers numb as soon as they are uncovered. I take very few photos and the only video I manage is eight seconds long, my phone perpetually in slow motion, semi-paralysed by the cold, too. I breath in fast and my nostrils stick; I blink, and it is hard to part my eyelashes again.
We drive through thin milky fog, which comes in tattered shrouds, and the mountainous landscape becomes a tentative charcoal sketch. There are no outlines, only suggestions, in colour gradations from oatmeal to dark brown. Then the fog suddenly thickens, the wind rises. Gusts of snow are being driven into our faces with gale force and we are blinded by the blizzard. It is impossible to differentiate between the earth and the air anymore, the white-out is total. We are flying through clouds. The only visible orientation is a little red dot ahead, the rear light of the snowmobile I am following. My whole existence in that moment concentrates on that little red light.
Later, we drive through very clear air, so clear it has a supernatural feel about it. Distances blur, things appear closer than they are, sounds carry over with eerie ease. We drive through stillness that is not in juxtaposition to movement but pre-dates it. It is a stillness beyond all stillness. Majestic silence lies beyond the revving of the snowmobiles’ engines, screeching of the frozen snow under our feet and human voices. No one is allowed to go out of town alone, without a gun, so we travel in a group the whole time. But when we do catch a moment of silence, it is indescribable. It is a silence that is not in a dynamic relationship with sound, just like the stillness that is not an absence of movement or a reciprocity of activity. They are both pure, absolute and limitless.
There is no “white noise” – no chirping of birds, no buzzing of insects, no rustling of leaves, no cracking of twigs. It is a white desert, where instead of sand, ice particles sparkle in the sun. The wind blows and I feel it around my eyes, through a narrow slit in the balaclava, while nothing else moves. There is nothing TO move. There are no trees to bend, no grass to sway, no leaves to rustle, no feathers to ruffle. The world of glaciers, barren rock, boulders, scree, and moraines stands in cold petrification around us.
My husband misses the trees most. I agree, it is a strange landscape without. Trees do exist here though – four kinds of willow and a polar birch. It is just that neither rises higher than 15 cm above ground. In the summer, bell-heather is a hallmark, apparently, as is the white Arctic cotton-grass, saxifrage, and Spitsbergen’s own poppy. Moss and lichen, of course, too. For now, all is hiding under the frozen snow.
Every so often, we do catch glimpses of movement. Gracefully moving shapes, in hues of the landscape – white with muted greys, beiges and browns, – the Arctic reindeer. In towns, they come up to you, eyes huge and mournful. Their long and heavy winter fur, hanging in frayed curtains from their sides, makes them seem short and plump, like sheep. The Arctic reindeer have developed separately from their mainland brethren in the last 10,000 years and inhabit a narrow strip between 76˚ and 80˚ northern latitudes. They only live up to 10 years. The deer grind away their teeth against stones while grazing in the tundra and die not due to the scarcity of food but of starvation, unable to eat anymore. Nature itself has taken up the role of their predator.
We approach a wide fjord that hasn’t completely frozen over. A swift movement, white on white – an Arctic fox is flying across the road, desperate to get out of our way. Little clouds of mist rise from the water in concentric circles, echoing the pattern of the waves below, as if each wave has brought its own misty friend to the party. In the water, amidst ice floes that cover the fjord like a rumpled blanket, a black spot is popping up and down – a curious seal. A polar bear may not be far away. We slowly back out towards the parked snowmobiles. Our guides carry guns, it’s the law. One of them says: “This is to protect the bear from you”. They would shoot in the air first.
We stop by a ghostly boat, apparently frozen near the coast and abandoned a hundred years ago. My husband picks up a pair of huge antlers lying next to it. The reindeer shed and grow new ones every year.
It is midday, and the sun is rolling slowly along the horizon. We picnic by a glacier. Huge glassy sheets of burnished blue ice stream down between the ridges. Snow hangs in meringue cornices from its edges. Mountains, steep and rugged, their crests and crevices trimmed with white, stand like sentinels along the glacier’s path. Eating here feels like sacrilege, but anyway the soup is cool before it reaches my mouth and a piece of cheese crumbles in my hand.
As the sun dips below the horizon, the outlines of the icy landscape sharpen and the colours acquire a glowing depth. The landscape is a picture of serenity, shadowed in subtle tones of lavender, violet, lilac, lobelia – strange as it is to evoke the names of flowers in this barren desert. Just like the dawn, the bright twilight stretches for hours, pouring in its purple-blue luminosity over the ridges, pooling in cracks and crevices, flooding the valley. The new moon in the enormous sky looks very near.
It is a titanic landscape, but hostile or ominous it is not. An antithesis to apocalypse, it is a world on the brink of creation, dreaming itself into birth.
I find it hard to leave this intoxicating place. The Arctic gets under people’s skin. There is something in this profound immobile wilderness through which one can gain hope of coming into themselves, of intimating the nature of deity.