Journeying to the high Arctic, to the land of the polar bear where blizzards and snowstorms are only matched by four months of darkness, August Cyr finds the strength to start again.
Another year and the world returns to darkness. Up here, in this snowed over desert high in the Arctic. Up here, where I have sought solace amongst the mountains.
If you can.
It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
The light. A depth and colour so inviting. A green that moves snake-like one minute, an angel stepping down sky-stairs the next. It constantly weaves and shimmers, like a curtain, or fingers upon piano keys. And they aren’t just green. They are blue, white, pink. And combinations. Like so much of the natural world, photos cannot quite capture the truth of the Aurora Borealis. Not because the colours are a poor rendition necessarily, but because the static image can never convey the profound connection one feels with the space, and with the darkness, and with the light that comes from seeing the waves move.
But it isn’t just the northern lights that brought me here. To the island. Spitsbergen. Longyearbyen.
At 78 degrees North, Svalbard is one of the most remote outposts left in the world. This town on the island of Spitsbergen, the largest island of the archipelago of Svalbard, is where I spent a year of my life. An Aussie in the Arctic. Up with the trappers and hunters and miners, people from another time, another place, who no longer fit elsewhere.
Drifters. People who’ve become unstuck, and sort of move on the currents of air and wind. Until they find themselves up here, near the North Pole. With the raw, the vital. Up here where the landscape sucks you in, bonds with you, and leaves you feeling a little bereft when you are not with her anymore.
They say it’s the light, that draws and captures. There is something about the light and the spaces in the light that you cannot quite see-the minute you try to stare at them they disappear. The yellow pixels in the low-riding sun drench early morning mist. Blind you. But hidden in the space between the light they are there. The dragons. I can see them sometimes flying on a cloudy day. You can just make out the golden edge of a wing as it dips and weaves between the cumuli, cheekily hoping that humans confuse it for a trick of the sun’s dance.
A land of intensity and intense opposites, extremes of light and dark, Svalbard is a land like none other. During the winter months of November to February it is dark all the time. During summer – May to August – it is light all the time. And the two sets of two months in between – September to October and March to April – the sun and moon do a violent yet peaceful dance and change shifts.
Despite the extremes, nothing is done in a hurry here and nothing can be done in a hurry. Nature is violent. Nature is in control. And you must submit to her forces. When the snow comes in blizzards, you cannot change it. When the sun makes slush of the snow tracks out of town and you risk falling through the ice crust, there’s nought you can do.
The city – this city of the Arctic – has become a glowing ember. An apparition. A ghostly ebullience of red and yellow light, floating in inky black above the world. There is no solidity here, no path, no concrete matter. All seems phantasm. A place outside time.
Patches of snow reflect the warmth of the lights but otherwise a deeply embedded night encases the town. It is the time for all manner of creatures to wander about undetected. A time for gifts to be deposited without the faintest notion of when and where it happened. They say Santa lives in the abandoned mine. The children place their Christmas wish lists in the letter box at the bottom of the hill, from where you can see the faintly lit entrance.
The little forlorn Christmas tree sent up from Tromsølooks less despairing than desperate. A tree with a heart who stands there, in the middle of the town square, as tall as it can overladen with Christmas lights and burdened by a cold arctic that only a tree with more clothing could stand. But nevertheless there it stands, in the middle of the town square, tall as it can as if saying, “I’m here. I can do it. I can be the Christmas tree. I am cold. I am little. I am forgotten. But I will still stand here for you for Christmas.”What does this sentiment, this personification of the little tree say about me? About my state of mind? Something peculiar at least, imagining the slender being with half-grimace-half-smile, stoically tolerating what ought not to be naturally tolerated for its species.
One year I have been here, by fortune, or mistake. I had come looking for myself. After the end of my marriage, the end of my career, I had walked away from it all, from the unhappiness. Lost amid the flurries of the world, I had wandered off track, all the way to the Arctic.
When I first arrived I felt like the snow drift wandering across the roads up here. The whole 40 kilometres of it. Always drifting, always across the same well ridden road, the pattern inexplicable, hidden. I believe I came up here to find the Moirai, my weavers of fate, and they are here. I can feel them, but I do not know which way to look. At once they seem on my right and on my left, above me and under my feet, behind me and in front. The wheel they spin is forever moving-so perhaps they are in all of these positions, or none of them, or always moving through at such a pace that I cannot catch them. Or perhaps I am just out of time, at odds with the machinery. It feels this way.
But no matter the direction, one must eventually move.
Christmas one year ago
I knew I was severely depressed. From the failed marriage, failed career and a life without friends. I realised too late the monster that had dug its claws into my back, through my ribcage and fixed itself steadfastly to my soul, but I had no idea what to do about it. Amidst the world of academic dispensation and stuffiness I had fallen into a deep coma and then around Christmas nearly fell out of the window of my flat. I had disappeared amidst the grey turrets and stone, locked in a self-made prison.
So I ran.
To the high north.
But I was running from myself. From my past.
“You cannot outrun the past”, I had heard the wind say.
I responded,“I can try”.
But I could not outrun the past.
I sought to repress it instead. And while my memory packed the curse of forgetfulness in its subconscious struggle to find meaning to the images of the past, I endeavoured to remain present, to consider the curse a blessing.
So I stayed on this island of night. I breathed. I smiled. Every day. And I walked amid the snow flurries, amongst the mountains, the half-light, the half-dark, half awake and half asleep. And the island embraced me.
Now this island, despite its vastness and snow that moves in rapid winds across the flats and off the tops of the mountains, doesn’t overwhelm any more. I was always a little afraid of her. I’m not now. She is what she is and we are comfortable in the way we are.
My time here closes. The island tells me.
I suppose I knew the end was coming before I knew. Several weeks have passed since I had my last tarot reading. Part of the incendiary weirdness of the island is that it was up here, almost as far away from Australia as you might possibly get, that I found a woman who might provide a guide and friend for my path forward. Or perhaps it is the lasting sign that I am finally following the right course, that I am listening.
“How about we do your reading?”, Joss had suggested, “We haven’t done one for you in a while.” I agreed. She unwrapped the cards from the double silk scarves that hold them. I shuffled until I felt the urge to stop, concentrating on nothing in particular other than transmitting my energy to the cards. I lay them down. She dealt.
I believe the cards can clarify what we already know. That is, the cards can help us come to accept our path and those decisions we know must be made. It is a tool of sight because it allows us to realise our own intuition.
I remember the reading.
Ten of Swords. Knight of Wands. (Mind blocked by creativity.) Five of cups. Devil. (Love is the cover for the real reason.) Lovers. The High Priestess. (Love is the past. The future lies within my subconscious, possibly something I am forgetting.) Death. (How others see me – that’s uplifting! No, really it’s about closure.) Seven of Swords. Ace of Pentacles. Judgment. (Where I am heading.)
For anyone who knows tarot, the spread has a spectacularly obvious central them:
the death of a cycle and the birth of something new. A year ago, amongst the mountains and valleys of Svalbard, I had begun again.
A new beginning looms on the horizon
Through the darkness the mountains rise. On days where the clouds linger, they become spectres, their peaks sometimes cut off and drifting in layers of plume. Although it is dark and cloudy I know, far above, there is yet clear sky.
Almost every day I have walked. Concentrated on simply being, really trying to absorb everything that is around me. Trying to capture the sounds, the sights, the sensations. Allow the island to press on me, weigh on me, permeate my being and sink in through the skin. And in this way she –the island –has been my healer. I never feel alone when I’m walking in her landscape, as though she wraps me in her arms, gives me a cuddle. I begin to recognise the person in the mirror-someone I knew, someone I remember from a time before. I take deep breaths of sweet nothing, watch the moon and stars, and stare off up the winding valley to the distant mountains, those mountains that always call, those mountains that are like a drug. Every minute you are not in them, you stare off into them, or think about them, longing to be there, in them. It is Mother Nature’s great love affair with us. And up here, you feel it. You feel her. Even when you leave you cannot escape-not once you’ve been caught; not once you’re in love.
And I am in love. I know it now.
The island is a love affair of the most acute kind. A love affair with the mountains, the tundra, the animals, but mostly it is a love affair with the light, the dark, the shadows, the seasons. I’m not sure that I’m ready to leave, that I’m ready to let the love go-the love of this land-that I’m ready to find new love in a new land.
Not sure that I can let even this present become past, but I must leave the past where it belongs – in the past. If I let the memories inhabit my present, I will forget to live.
On this island I have fallen out of love, fallen in love, been pulled close and pushed away. Now I feel on the verge again of falling in love, but this time with myself, the most important person in my world. I cannot remain attached. Not to the people. Not to the memories. Not to the perceptions.
I find my way to that familiar glacier that has been frozen in its onward march towards the town. Today I decided to cross it. I am alone; though I am never really alone. Niorun – Norse Goddess, diviner of dreams whose home will always be mine – is smiling at me. “It is time”, She says.
“Do you think I will make it?” I look across the snow and see, beyond the ice drift and chilled wind, a southern sun.
“Yes”, She replies, “I think so. But remember to walk as lightly as you can. My caverns stop near that boulder and after that, if you break through the crust, you will fall.”
I shudder at the thought of plunging to nothing.
But I persevere and make it across, just as I will find a way to a new life in my old home down south.
Suddenly I am no longer afraid
A quarter of a degree left. Clink. The mechanics of the clock of Time adjust slightly and fall into place.
Time reclaims me. She picks me up and readies herself to move, with me, onward.
My last day.
Along the snowed-over road towards the fjord, the first ice sheets covering the water have broken up, discarded blocks on the snow. Between the sky and the still waters, the white-covered land, despite its many peaks, cracks and crevices, seems to recede into the horizon, a floating land between cloud and water. And in the space between me and the horizon I find freedom, breath, and the energy to move on, to begin searching again.
I walk the length of the town, forage once more among the shelves of books in the farthest north art gallery. Lost amongst the many pages, I find a book entitled Ghost Ship. I pick it up, turn its old cover in my hand, breathe in the unaired pages, open the front cover. Just because. But wait. There’s a personal note, handwritten and taking up the whole page. “To the Admiral. A man of ships and adventures. A great traveller.”It is from the author, who sent it from Cape Town to the Arctic. This book –this story –is a great traveller too. I have uncovered a mystery, a hidden story about a story. A mystery, just by opening a page. Enough to start my imagination. And I realise that this is what the island has done for me –it has let me imagine again. Open a new page.
Out on this mountain, beyond the city limits, the angels dance once again in the heavens, cascading down the rim of this sky-bowl. I know: this is my send-off party. She is telling me to leave. My time has come to stop dreaming and start again –push forward –because one must, eventually, move ahead. No good comes of dwelling on the shadows of the past.
The above is an adapted extract from August Cyr’s memoir, (with permission) Searching for Snow Trolls.
August Cyr has previously published in OutsideIn Travel and Literary Magazine. Her writing explores folklore in modern life.
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