THE WHITE SILENCE OF THE FAR NORTH
When I began work on I AM COYOTE, Justin Randolph, a good friend and former classmate, was deep into the formation of the Wildlands Collective. Wildlands is a travel cooperative that connects individuals with extraordinary wilderness travel experiences. Over the past year, Justin crisscrossed the globe rooting out remarkable wilderness areas, locales where, in the words of Emerson, “we find nature to be the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance.” Of all his excursions, the journey to Arctic Scandinavia proved one of the most magical and awe-inspiring. He describes this solitary, arresting region like this:
The above picture was taken at midnight this past April on the island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard arctic archipelago. At 79 degrees of latitude at this time of the year, the sun, though low in the sky, will refuse to set tonight. I’ve spent the last six weeks traveling throughout some of the most remote and wild parts of Arctic Scandinavia — Iceland’s abandoned Horstrandir peninsula, the desolate and dramatic Lofoten Islands, the jagged Lyngen Alps of Norway — leading a group of adventurous travelers on roads and paths less traveled as part of a San Francisco-based travel cooperative I recently founded (Wildlands Collective), and I’ve come to Svalbard on a scouting mission in hopes of bringing other lovers of wild places to the far north.
Tonight is my last in this spectacular part of the world — on this trip at least — and in proper dramatic fashion, I’ve left behind the Scandinavian comfort of Svalbard’s sole town for the night and set out towards the alpenglow blooming on Longyearbyen’s horizon. Before setting off, I spoke with an old salt at the local tavern about my need for one final arctic adventure. While he had arrived in Longyearbyen years ago in pursuit of the archipelago’s prolific cod resources, the island had cast its spell on him — a spell that still endures decades yet. Though his explorer’s days were now behind him, and he no longer ventured out into the barren beyond, his wistful gaze out the pub’s window still spoke of a youthful and wild heart. His reflective silence said all I needed to hear. Wanderlust runs deep in these parts, for both Svalbard’s visitors as well as its inhabitants.
I carry with me a shotgun around my back, a flare gun on my hip, and a serrated knife bound around my leg. This is the High Arctic, and while its landscapes can be exceptionally tranquil in their vastness, this is polar bear country, and under the land’s piercing serenity, the seeds of Jack London’s harsh White Silence nonetheless can be found. More bears wander the isle than people, and it is they who ardently sit atop Svalbard’s food chain. Never-mind that I see nothing more ominous than the softly drifting snow and hear only the sound of distant arctic wrens in search of food, driven by the waxing daylight and the promise of life. The bears’ presence, among the endless expanse of white, permeates the landscape in words unspoken. Wild animals that are proud owners of their own domain and destiny are powerful beings to be surrounded by, and from which to learn.
The immensity of Svalbard’s landscape is lonely yet grand, simple but wholesome: endless expanses of white, punctuated by deep, coal-enriched pockets of black, set aflame by an ever-changing blend of soft, low-light hues — oranges, pinks, purples, and blues. Mountains beyond mountains lead me onward, in disappearing parallel lines, absent any signs of humanity’s manicured touch or the taint from technocracy. I’ve found Stegner’s ‘geography of hope,’ and it has cast its transformative and transcendent spell on me. In spite of the land’s unrelenting harshness, I feel a peculiar sense of being at home, a geographic déjà vu. The tonic of nostalgia and summit fever — brought on by such extreme northern wanderings — compels my journey onward, through the arctic summer night, along another exploration into the beyond, on the northern frontier of our planet. Before departing these lands, I must feel its wild heart a bit deeper. My Elysium lays out there, in the soft half-light of the low-hung sun.
Even with the endless light, the cold bites heavily, and a stiff northern gust off the Arctic Ocean makes itself known. Removing my gloves and skis, I stop to take a picture and a further gaze, to breath in the silence and the vast expanse a bit deeper. Without the stiff uphill pace, and, now facing the elements, my clothes become insufficient to heed off the cold, and a primordial panic creeps through my body. I become — if only for a brief yet harrowing moment — the doomed protagonist in “To Build a Fire,” laughing, crying, and cursing at my own insignificance and helplessness.
I keep walking, and the moment passes. I think how the cold is supposed to reduce the excitability of molecules and cellular motion. Yet, why does the arctic often have the opposite effect of sedation? Like a husky excited by the pinch of frost on its fur, the arctic awakens life, passion, and a primordial vitality. Its essence provides sustenance to the soul. The source of energy I’ve tapped into is pure, is sacred, and not to be forsaken. A deep, guttural, primordial howl rises from within. Yes, I too am Coyote.
The words of Whitman ring true: “A rugged land. Come, my friends, ’tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off and smite the sounding furrows, for my purpose holds, to sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all western stars. I inhale great draughts of space…I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.”
I wonder what wildlands and treasures beg to be unearthed beyond the saw-toothed ridges that disappear softly into arctic fog? What do the poetic musings from Arcadia whisper in my ear? In the relative calm of the midnight sun, the moment is ripe for contemplation as to why these desolate lands possess such power.
Many say that the world is bereft of empty spaces, of the wild that it once was so dominated by. That we as a society have lost our connection to nature and wilderness out of a geographic imperative, that wild places simply don’t exist in the way they once did do to our population’s expanse and hunger for resources. That our modern needs and social constructs derive greater utility from the onward march of the bulldozer than the wild silence. That we have tamed nature, and put it in its rightful place, and that with unsullied wilderness in broad decline, only a myth of wilderness remains. How misguided such thoughts. How callous, foolish, and arrogant.
While we have indeed insulted much of the wild we were once afforded, I beg to object. There are lands that still mystify the imagination within our gaze. If in doubt, simply head north for a start — to the far north, to the arctic north — where raw, untrodden lands words can’t convey still cast their spell, and the wild’s siren call refuses to be tamed. The great irony that you will find, is that with eyes newly-opened, you will recognize that the wild still exists in our own backyards, just beyond our modern paradigms, albeit in a more modest form, in not so faraway places.
I need these lands. We need these lands. We all depend on them. We are a wild species, and as such, we’ve yet to breed out our metaphysical attachment to and spiritual connection with the wild — whether we are conscious of it or not, and independent of the evolution of our industrial march. If and when we do, it will likely be our tower of Babel, our Frankenstein, and our final act of arrogance, for we will be losing a powerful mystic vein in us all that is deeply human and which we’ve yet to replace or find a substitute for within our modern constructs. The seeds of the wild that we gathered over millennia of interdependence with the natural world are still deep within us. There is something primordial still lurking in our cells under a veneer of civilization. We have not lost our lust for wild nature, though our surroundings and circumstances have changed. We ignore such a fact at our own peril, and risk not only the long-term survival of our species, but also our own sanity, happiness, fulfillment, and sense of meaning in the world. As Stegner so properly put it: “Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment. We need wilderness preserved —as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds — because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The remainder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it — important, that is, simply as an idea.” Or as Mallory said in reference to the notion of exploration, which he found through mountaineering: “if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live.”
A trip to the wilds of Svalbard is, at its most basic, a simple reminder of such.
Technology has undoubtedly provided us with incredible gifts — gifts that we should celebrate and pay homage to. I live in San Francisco the vast majority of the year, at the epicenter of our current technological revolution, and I have a front row seat to witness some of the wonders of modern technology and human ingenuity, from biotechnology to innovations in communication and information technology. But let’s not lose sight of what’s real. Let’s not let the shiny objects of modernity distract us from our most basic elemental truths. Surely a world in which the wilderness becomes merely an abstract concept that only to be experienced through static images and the anecdotes of others is a fool’s paradise. The wilderness and the raw feeling of exploration on a grand scale can never be distilled within an app or even the grandest of Artificial Intelligence creations.
While romanticizing the wild has its own dangers and misgivings, the mere notion that we can apply a principal of worth to our lives independent of the currency of commerce and exploitative considerations is profoundly powerful, enriching, and refreshing in our materially driven culture. I know with certainty that the truest forms of meaning and fulfillment can only come from direct experience, and I’m confident that our retreat within ourselves as a species — whereby we are increasingly living our lives vicariously through the prism of our technological devices and neglecting the wild world beyond — is certainly destroying something special, something priceless. As Stegner so appropriately declared, decades ago: “We need to demonstrate our acceptance of the natural world, including ourselves. We need the spiritual refreshment that being natural can produce. Where the fun houses, bulldozers, and the pavement of our civilization and its often vulgar commercialism and technological myopic cloud are shut out.”
I don’t want to live in a world bereft of a deep connection to nature and one that’s spiritually impotent. I don’t want my kids to be raised into such a world. Rather, I desire to follow Thoreau, to live intentionally, and to front only the fundamental facts of life. “To live deeply and suck out all the marrow of life, to put to rout all that is not life, to cut a board swath and shave close, to drive it into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms. If it proves to be mean, why then get the whole and genuine meanness of it, or if sublime, know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it. Be it life or death, we crave only reality…let us hear the rattle in our throats and feel cold in the extremities.”
Reality? While desolate wild places like Svalbard seem altogether foreign and irrelevant to our daily lives, perhaps the greatest paradox which I’ve yet to come across involves the fact that these places are perhaps as ‘real’ as we are likely to get. I’ll continue to seek them out, long may they live — vast areas of terrain where we have no idea what lies beyond the horizon, where we are compelled to understand the landscape on nature’s delicate yet beautiful terms. I’ll breathe in their rawness, their ruggedness, their boundlessness. Come, friend, exploration into the untrodden wilds awaits.
Learn more about the Wildlands Collective at http://www.wildlandscollective.com/