Saturday, 6 March 2010
Where in the world
At the museum, Beathe is processing applications for the 2012 residency. She's received bewildered enquiries. How do I travel to Upernavik? Should I fly to Iceland or Norway first? This bemusement is understandable. On Google Earth the museum appears to be floating in the middle of Baffin Bay, and the truth is not far off. Very few travel websites make allowance for Greenland in their search engines, let alone this small northern community.
To appease Beathe's frustration we concoct some fantastical replies, describing air routes from Europe via Sydney and Moscow, or journeys which entail taking a flight to Toronto but parachuting from the plane over Greenland. The truth of the matter - a three-day, five-flight ordeal in increasingly perilous craft - might appear equally implausible to most sensible travellers.
One person's north is someone else's south, and to Beathe, who has no desire to travel beyond Upernavik, Thule is still 'Ultime Thule' but also Qannaq, the nearest town up the coast. We may be sitting in the most northern museum in the world, but we are at the centre of our own universe, with a horizon of 360 degrees. I find it as hard to justify to Beathe the cultural and practical reasons for Europeans' confusion, as to pinpoint my own emotions at being so far beyond everything I know, yet still behaving in a relatively rational manner, drinking coffee and doodling. The exotic seems strangest in proximity to normality.
The Arctic carries an exaggerated sense of the exotic, since it has been represented in explorers' narratives from antiquity until the present as the ends of the earth. I try not to fall into this trap, but on my journey here, my amazement completely outweighed my terror as 'twin otter' planes flew low over vast tracts of uninhabited whiteness. I arrived in smaller and smaller airports, the names of the town cut with a jigsaw out of plywood and painted in bright colours. The times, and sometimes the days, of the flights were uncertain, and often I felt as powerless as a toy traveller in the bedroom of a child who had abandoned his games and gone to tea.
I found myself writing sonnets about the foibles of geography. For this uncertainty is expressed not only in the emotions of travellers, but also in the choices earth scientists have to make. There are ongoing debates about where to draw the southern boundary to the Arctic Circle (and whether it should be a real 'circle' of latitude or a wiggly line). Inevitably these have become even more complex as the climate changes. Also, there are several Poles in the Arctic, including the Geomagnetic North Pole and the Pole of Inaccessiblity (now obsolete). The North Pole was decided on as the 'proper' Pole, but even so it is not fixed. It wafts about the Arctic region through a variable known as the Chandler Circle. I'm quite that relieved finding it was not in my itinerary.