Friday, 26 February 2010


A friend asked if I was enjoying wide horizons here. I can only echo Thoreau: 'my horizon is never quite at my elbows'. The mutability of the light and the weather in the Arctic tease gullible disciples of space and time mercilessly.

Yesterday evening I was at a party (the hunters had just caught a whale) where a boy was playing with an extending tape measure as if it was a yo-yo. The dizzying swiftness with which the centimetres drew back into their roll reminded me of how the horizon comes and goes. Yesterday morning it was unsafe to leave the house because of a blinding blizzard, but by sunset I could see to the farthest reaches of the sea - and further, to an illusory space where fata morgana and rainbows were dancing.

Sunset over the children's playground

Last week, work turned into a perverse game played with the weather. I was writing about ice. One night a storm blew away all the pack ice that I'd been observing the day before. When I woke to the sound of lapping water I began to write about the ice's poignant absence. The next morning I found that a blistering frost had covered the sea again ...

And then there's the icebergs, which each day drift slightly further south and crumble a little more into the water. Usually these changes are scarcely perceptible, just enough to suggest, disquietingly, that icebergs might be living things with minds of their own. This magic lantern show of mountains continually delights and distracts me. I developed a affection for one majestic specimen, which looked like the Taj Mahal, but one night it drifted right away and never came back.

Amongst such unpredictability there are moments of sudden intoxication, when I realise that the ice I'm standing on could very easily plummet into the sea. Snow is equally specious: an apparently even drift may cover a chasm, and for me, not having seen the land beneath in summer, one footstep can lead a long way – as I found to my cost when exploring the cemetery.

Recent arrivals in the cemetery

The one dependable quality of the snow in Upernavik is its continuous presence. I've always regarded snow with advance nostalgia for its imminent departure. But here it remains, crusted and stubborn. Snowdrifts realign the roads. Old men pay their dues by shovelling the wooden steps that run up and down the steep hillside, which incongrously remind me of sunny Pennsylvanian boardwalks. Of course, summer will come even to Upernavik eventually.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Found Poem No. 8: Would you like spice with that?

A few weeks ago I grumbled to the poet Ruth Valentine about the lack of cumin seeds in Upernavik. The prospect of cooking soup without them was bleak, and no food supplies were sheduled to arrive by boat until the spring. Life is tough in the Arctic!

Ruth Valentine is a woman of action. A few weeks later, a mysterious parcel arrived by helicopter, and was handed over reverently by the postman. I opened it to find not only cumin, but enough spices to create a whole series of dishes. Seal korma, whale a la mode, and, since there is star anise, I might even manage a watery halibut bouillabaisse. Ruth also pointed out that I could add cardamom pods to my kaffe, should I feel inclined. When I run out of material for poems, I plan to begin work on the first English guide to Greenland's gastronomy.

I love the way Ruth packaged up the spices, with neatly-written labels - found poem ... or artist's book? The jury is out on that issue, but meanwhile the contents diminish.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

The empty museum

If you were sailing north, the first you would see of this island is the museum, its wooden walls painted blood red, on a promontory overlooking Baffin Bay. It can be difficult to spot, and some days it's completely under snow or obscured in mist.

The interior of the museum is also elusive. From England I found it hard to tell - from the website and a vague briefing - what the museum stood for. I arrived full of questions. How long has it been here? Who uses it? When I asked about the museum's function, people smiled at me as though I was slightly foolish, and began to tell me about Upernavik itself. I felt like a dog barking up the wrong tree, or perhaps a husky howling at the wrong hunter.

The building appeared strangely empty at first. It comprises several galleries, displaying a modest number of artefacts used by the island's earliest settlers: an old barometer and a ship's log book in one gallery, and in another, a tiny cabinet containing infinitesimal archaeological finds – a broken clay pipe stem, a rusted harpoon head. To my disappointment, and probably discredit, I couldn't get excited about these ancient remains. Rather than the numinous and powerful grave goods I had expected, they seemed to be just small, lost, broken things. Was I looking at a significant exhibition, or just a gathering of objects that hadn’t anywhere else to go? Never mind, I thought. There's always the icebergs.

As the days went by, I gave up my feverish questioning, and immediately - of course - everything began to fall into place.

Imagine walking round Joan Soane's Museum with a blindfold on. How could someone adequately describe those convex mirrored ceilings to you? The labyrinths of plundered plaster ruins? Approaching Upernavik Museum with a European mindset is equally unproductive. What might be experienced is completely obscured by an ingrained expectation of visual stimulus, a hunger for intellectual explanation or for a poetic conceit. The Inuit survived through waiting, watching, and listening, and to some degree these skills must be used to interpret the artefacts that survived along with them.

In acclimatising to Greenland, I have learnt never to expect a straight answer, or to demand a definite appointment. I have trained my eyes to see many colours in the snow, and to focus when watching the shifting dance of the Aurora Borealis. I have allowed myself time to be entertained, not by the flight of one raven across the bay, but by the story that unfurls in the moments elapsing between the flight of one raven and the next. With this oblique form of looking I began to notice presences in the empty building.

Upernavik does not need a grand institution with invigilators in branded t-shirts, Corinthian columns and a mission statement. There is a very thin and permeable wall between past and present everywhere on the island. Although the community has adapted to modernity, the objects that are desiccated and displayed in European collections are still proudly worn and used here. The legends are still cached in the memories of the islanders. It is not surprising that when you ask about the museum, people talk of Upernavik. Trying to define the purpose of a museum in such an environment is as complicated as trying to place the soul in human physiognomy.

At midday the museum's white walls reflect the first sunlight of spring, as does the ice outside. The ice is melting, that's for sure. But I hope that the museum walls will stay empty and reflective for as long as possible, and that the traditional life of the Upernavik islanders will not be condemned to the past.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Understanding Umwelt

There's a word to describe the way each species perceives the environment around it, a potent mix of sensory perception and personal history that makes an island look very different to a human and a raven. Umwelt. There are as many Umwelten as there are lifeforms. The concept, developed by the scientist Jakob von Uexküll in the early twentieth century, suggests we cannot write objectively about ‘the environment’.

Umwelt explains my presence as a temporary observer on this island, and my subjective response to its people and the landscape. As well as distinctions between species, there are also differences in environmental perception between different peoples. My sense of scale and climate was developed in a temperate region. This means I fall over a lot on the slippery ground, causing much hilarity in the village. On another level, my sensitivity to ice will never be as ingrained as that of the fisherman who steps across the floes every day to catch halibut, a job that must rank among the most dangerous in the world. His understanding of the ice is a means of self-preservation. For me, the benefits (poetic composition) are less vital.

So the working title for the poems I’m writing in Upernavik has become ‘Umwelt’. It reminds me that I am a single observer, poorly qualified to make sweeping judgements about the beautiful landscape, the history of colonialism, and the battles between global industry and indigenous life.

Before coming to Upernavik I read a good deal of poetry inspired by enthnography (I mean by ethnographic science – there’s a case for arguing that all poets are enthnographers, with their deep investigation of object and ritual). Particularly memorable was Tom Lowenstein’s Ancestors and Species. I’ve also long admired Robert Bringhurst’s translations from Haida. Both writers are experts in their subject, which is woven into their life as well as into their work. My knowledge, on the other hand, is cobbled together in a magpie manner, with an eye for sparkle and synchronicity.

A danger of writing about a very different culture is that one gets so lost in the novelty of another’s Umwelt. The poetry – like holiday photographs – relies on the exotic flavour of the subject matter, rather than anything inherently interesting or well-expressed. This literary tourism focuses on facts and names and anecdote – and the numinous quality which characterises a good poem is not caught on the negative.

To avoid complacency, I’m writing in a form that I would not have been able to use had it not been for another colonial history. The pantoum is a derived from the pantun, a Malay verse form that was introduced to Europe by the French (via Victor Hugo) in the nineteenth century. A strongly repetitive and circituitous series of interwoven quatrains, the pantoum has since been employed sparingly by other poets: perhaps the greatest tour de force I’ve read is Ashbery’s Hotel Lautréamont. The fact that I can bring a Malaysian form to bear on this cold climate surprises me almost as much as the fact that I am here myself.

Friday, 12 February 2010

How to say 'I Love You' in Greenlandic

The oldest book in the library at Upernavik Museum is from the series Meddelelser om Grønland, a Greenlandic-English dictionary printed in Copenhagen in 1927. During the 1920s the orthography of the language was still being debated and the idea of anchoring words on paper had been practiced for less than 100 years. (While Kallilusit has retained the Roman alphabet, some related Inuit languages have opted for the Inuktituk syllabary (titirausiq nutaaq) adapted from Cree). The dictionary is not infallible; there are contemporary corrections in a beautiful italic hand. So, for example, akiatsianga, which is officially defined (rather awkwardly) as ‘take hold (of it) together with me’ becomes ‘carry me, please’.

Most of the words in the opening pages – those beginning with ‘a’ – concern writing. Agdlak means ‘stripe, spot or pattern’ and the words that grow from this root refer to an act of mark-marking, such as adlagpoq (‘writes’) and adlapalaarpa (‘draws a design’). Since I have been intrigued by the links between poetry and shamanism (there are fewer Greenlandic poets than might be expected, as the angakok’s role covers all acts of inspiration and interpretation), I wondered whether it might be more than co-incidence that the word listed directly before that for writing, describes the shamanic act of rubbing stones together (agiut). But perhaps I should be careful of making these tenuous connections, since the word before that, aggaitsoq, is (i) one who sleeps in his clothes (ii) a stockfish. And surely one wouldn’t want to imply that either poets or shamans might be prone to a slight pong.

The dictionary is a testament to Greenlandic culture, with its highly specific words for harpoon shafts and specific cuts of meat, on which Upernavik Museum holds much material. However, the dictionary is not so useful on daily communication in the twenty-first century. I’ve just downloaded a dictionary in spreadsheet form from Oqaasileriffik, the Greenlandic Language Secretariat, but this is likewise distinguished by never having in it the word in which Beathe, the Museum Director, and I need.

So today Beathe has been teaching me ‘important words’, i.e. those I will need during my time in Upernavik. ‘I love you’, she said. ‘Asavakkit. This is the most important!’ she added, and smiled. Although the chances of me needing to say ‘I love you’ are slim, I agreed, love is important. Over coffee, we spent some time trying to establish whether love only exists as a verb in Greenlandic or whether there is a noun too. ‘As in “God is love”’, I say, wishing these fine distinctions were easier to explain. After a while, we give up, and look at the icebergs. I realise I don’t know the word for ‘iceberg’ yet, but some objects are so far beyond language that the words don’t matter.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

TRACEY ROWLEDGE: Arctic Drawings

I'd like to invite you to visit London/Nuuk where I'm posting features on artists who have created work in response to the Arctic environment. The latest participant, Tracey Rowledge, has allowed me to feature some of the drawings she made (in collaboration with the sea) while on a Cape Farewell expedition to Disko Bay. We had a long chat about icebergs, mark-making, climate change ... and her latest desk job.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Atuagagdliutit – Colourful News

The history of printing in Greenland is short: the printing press was only introduced by the Danish in the nineteenth century.

One of the earliest publications was Atuagagdliutit, a newspaper established by Dr Hans Rink in 1861. Rink, a distinguished Danish geographer, was concerned about the vulnerable status of Greenlandic culture under Danish rule. Atuagagdliutit was edited by a Greenlander, Rasmus Bertelsen, and attempted to give Greenlanders responsibility for developing an independent cultural awareness. News of Australian gold mines and Danish foreign policy was interspersed with the tales of the Arabian nights, dare-devil hunting exploits, and Inuit legends.

Since many ‘readers’ were illiterate, the newspaper prioritised illustration. It numbers among the world’s earliest illustrated newspapers, and the very first to feature colour images. While there are some lively wood cuts, lithographs predominate, at first hand-coloured and later printed in colour. Some illustrations were provided by the tireless printer, Lars Møller, who also edited the paper from 1874 until 1921. Many more images were created by Aron of Kangeq, an artist held in great esteem in Greenland, and sadly little known elsewhere.

With its mix of news and whimsy, Atuagagdliutit is perhaps most akin in spirit to the contemporary blog. While the illustrations are astonishing, the production alone should be considered a huge achievement. The printing office was ill-equipped and atmospheric conditions made the processes even more complex than were usual in the period. Ink behaves temperamentally in cold conditions. The printing required dampened paper, but in winter the water in the paper would freeze. In addition, the translation of official texts from Danish to Greenlandic caused challenges as Greenlandic, with its highly specialised vocabulary, had few terms to express the complexities of Danish government and European fashion. Even the paper’s title is a neologism meaning ‘distributed reading matter’ or ‘free newspaper’.

Despite these challenges Atuagagdliutit was issued monthly, although only distributed once a year to the most distant settlements. Copies were passed around until they fell apart, illustrations were torn out and used to decorate homes, and the text pages were frequently used as plugs in muzzle loading guns. The anthropologist Frederica de Laguna’s account of her experiences in Umannaq in the 1920s may give another clue to the destination of many of these artfully printed pages:

‘The W.C. was the usual type of wooden outhouse… for toilet paper, there were some numbers of a Greenland magazine. I snitched a few pages. It was printed in Eskimo, and contained a poem, news from the east coast, two historical articles, and one about Nero and Agrippina (how funny it was to see these Roman names with Eskimo prefixes and suffixes) …’

Very few examples of this extraordinary publication survive.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Sugar Snow - Tire sur la Neige

'Explore your own higher latitudes with shiploads of preserved meats to support you, if they be necessary;
and pile the empty cans sky-high for a sign.'

Thoreau, Walden

I’ve been asked to provide some children’s workshops during my residency at Upernavik Museum. As I’m exploring the traces humans leave on the environment, I thought it would be fun to draw on the snow, and what better way to do this than with maple syrup? (Fans of Helen Chadwick, look away now, for fear of bathos). I was inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder, a Wisconsin author whose Little House in the Big Woods contains evocative descriptions of living off the land, including making maple syrup and sugar snow.

Boiling maple syrup poured on snow hardens instantly. It can be eaten spooned straight up from the fresh snow, or lifted free in fragile toffee shapes. Gastronomes suggest a chewing a gherkin to offset the sweetness.

Since there are no trees in Greenland, and certainly no sugar maple (Acer saccharum), I was ruminating on how to get my hands on the sweet goods to entertain Upernavik’s children. Happily, the Quebec Business Development Attaché came to my aid, and thanks to the enormous good will of the Federation of Quebec Maple Syrup Producers, gallons of golden syrup arrived post haste at the museum. The tins with their cheery images of Canadian homesteads were somewhat battered after a journey with Greenland Air, and had suffered further by being pulled down the icy hill in a sack behind the postman’s sledge. However, not a drop of syrup was lost.

Initial experiments suggest the art of drawing with maple syrup cannot be mastered overnight, but the results are delicious. Never has language been so enticing or transient as these words written in the snow. In this climate, sugar dissolves faster than snow melts. The workshop is planned to co-incide with the celebration of the coming of spring on February 6th, which marks the first sighting of the sun above the horizon this year. Watch this space for a gallery of the results!

The Right Tools

I’ve come north equipped with pencils and pens, an assortment of notebooks from many kind friends, and - at the other extreme - a laptop. Between scribbling and typing, I have almost everything I need to work. I could pretend petulance about the frugal internet access, but in truth the isolation is welcome.

So I was amused to read Frederica de Laguna’s account of her sea voyage to Upernavik in 1929 as a young anthropology student accompanying Therkel Mathiassen on the first archaeological survey of Greenland. The excursion has more than a slight flavour of Swallows and Amazons about it, as when ‘Freddy’ describes trying to translate Mathiassen’s article ‘The Question of the Origin of Eskimo Culture’ for American Anthropologist during a heavy swell:

Mathiassen dictates to me, and holds down the typewriter with one hand. The rolling of the ship has made the machine seasick. If it is set crosswise to the roll, every time the boat heaves over, the carriage flies up and shifts into capitals. If the machine is set parallel to the rolling, the carriage sometimes has to go up so steep a hill that it balks. So I have to wait until the ship is leaning over to starboard and then type furiously to make up for lost time, before she begins to swing over onto her other side. And with one hand I grab the typewriter and the edge of the table. It has been interesting work.