It was winter, but I went north. I wanted the deep and dark, and I dreamed of seeing the aurora borealis. Living in New York City, I follow an aurora forecast on Twitter, and a blog about a Baffin Island expedition. One Christmas I came close to booking flights to Iqualuit--it would have taken twenty-four hours to get there--because I longed for the polar dark. I've held on to that desire for some time. My friend Bill Pullman was playing Othello at Den Nationale Scene in Bergen, Norway. So although I had been a serious hermit for a few weeks, writing and not leaving the apartment, on February 16th I flew over to see the play. Bill is brilliant in it, uncovering dangerous truths about jealousy and solitude, and the way a specific kind of aloneness can make a person go mad. Othello's undoing and explosion are exquisitely drawn. The play is directed by Stein Winge. It is one of Bill's great performances.
I explored Bergen, the waterfront, and the National Theater itself. Ole Friele, Information Manager, arranged a backstage tour. Henrik Ibsen had once been writer-in-residence, and the theater is full of history and magic, with a gilded lobby ceiling and carved boxes.
Later Gunnar Staalesen, a lifelong resident and author of mysteries set in Bergen, gave us--Kathryn and Sam, two other friends of Bill's, had also flown in from New York--a tour of town. We walked the Bryggen quay lined with colorful wooden buildings, past the 12th century St. Mary's Church, out to the 13th century stone Bergenhus fortress near the harbor's entrance. There is nothing like being shown Bergen by one of the fathers of Nordic Noir.
A steady rain began to fall. Gunnar spoke about how the town had survived layers of war and fire, and how during World War II it had been occupied by Germans and bombed by Allied aircraft. Visiting Europe always makes me look up at the sky, where my father flew a B-24 on thirty bombing missions--Bergen was not one of them. I think about him, and how he was only twenty-three years old, and about the people on the ground, and all the ones who died. There is a kind of sorrow to these visits, solemn and graceful.
I had planned on flying straight back to New York, but during the walk to the fortress I saw a Hurtigruten ferry in the harbor, and everything changed. The ships ply the fjords in a northerly route along Norway's west coast, from Bergen to Kirkenes, transporting cars, cargo, and passengers. This might be my chance to go far-north. I called on the off-chance and snagged the last cabin on the next ferry.
It was literally the last cabin--a small single all the way aft on the starboard side of Deck 6 of the MS Finnmarken--and it would be mine as far as Tromsø. We steamed out of Bergen that night, up Norway's jagged west coast in mostly calm seas. I was stunned and transfixed by the light: the silhouette of fjord walls in daylight, stark against the sky, and at night, blocking out great black patches among blazing stars.
At night we passed tiny towns nestled in natural harbors and single houses perched on cliffs, lamps glowing warmly in the wilderness. I watched until they were out of sight, and I wondered about the people inside. Were they happy? Were they lonely, or did their inner lives and the fact of being surrounded by spectacular natural beauty provide enough solace? Did every lighted window represent someone on the Internet? Is there a place on earth to find contentment, or do people everywhere imagine peace, love, and understanding to be greater anywhere but at home? I wanted to believe in their coziness.
Late one night we pulled into Kristiansund. A woman's voice came over the loudspeaker, animated and proud, telling about the heritage of the port, how it was known for dried and salted cod, that no place in Norway had produced more. She said the ship would be docked for about thirty minutes, and if we wanted we could walk to the square to see the sculpture of the "fish girl." It was midnight, and I was in my bunk. But the emotion in the speaker's voice made me get up, and I left the ship. The statue was a few wharves away. The bronze woman stands tall and proud, holding a slab of dried cod.
I found it so moving. The fishing industry is full of danger and hardship, economic uncertainty, and deep family connections to a way of life that depends on nature. Traditionally the fish haul was prepared and spread on the rock cliffs, to be dried by wind coming off the sea, and women and children tended the klippfish drying process. The fish girl worked hard, I had no doubt.
We crossed the Arctic Circle at latitude N66.33 one night. The captain told us what time to look off the starboard side. I climbed out of my bunk and saw as we passed the Arctic Circle Monument, an illuminated tilting silver globe standing on a promontory. I felt I had arrived at something, a place I had needed to be for a long time.
The feeling continued. I was in the Arctic. This was a strange emotional homecoming to a place I'd never been. I watched the landscape grow even more austere and dramatic. I scanned for whales, but was told it was the wrong time of year, they had migrated to other feeding grounds. Around Trollfjord we passed a Snowy Owl resting on a ledge, and I saw many raptors including White-tailed Eagles, also known as Sea Eagles, circling bays and mountaintops.
My reading has long taken me north. Salamina by Rockwell Kent; fiction and essays by Joe Monninger; Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez; This Cold Heaven and The Future of Ice by Gretel Ehrlich; The View From Lazy Point by Carl Safina (especially the arctic sections); and Great Heart: the History of a Labrador Adventure by James West Davidson, are some favorites, but there are many more. To actually be so far north during February, observing the landscape I had only dreamed about, eased my heart.
The planet seems less fragile there. That's an illusion, of course. The ice caps are melting, species are endangered, overfishing is a reality, and birds are losing habitat all along their migratory paths. But to see so much empty space, open ocean and uninhabited land, gave me hope that there are still some places that humans haven't totally ruined by imposing themselves everywhere and maybe won't. Then we passed an oil rig.
Being on the ferry reminds me of hibernation, a waking dream. Everything is so beautiful and extreme out there, beyond the ship's rails. Most days were cloudy, but even on the bright days the February light was muted somehow, it didn't assault the eyes and spirit, it didn't demand that a person's mood match it. The Arctic felt safe and comforting to me, as I somehow knew it would.
That is not to say that depression drives a love of the north. But depression is an edge, and so is the Arctic, of an internal landscape and of a continent. The north is remote and rugged, and the difficulties of living there are epic. Light during the winter months is clear and rare. A person who is depressed has a similar complicated relationship with light: you know you should seek it, and you sometimes feel grateful to it when you do. But the instinct is to hide from it, to find comfort and stillness by going inward.
One night, my last on the ship, I saw the aurora borealis. It might have been my first time, although I am not 100% sure. Once in about 1989, in the Old Black Point section of Niantic, Connecticut, I saw what I swore was an aurora. My sister Maureen remembers me calling to tell her to look northwest. We saw something bright and unusual and lasting in the sky, but to this day I'm not sure. And it looked very different from what I saw from the deck of the Finnmarken.
We had had just left the town of Stamsund heading north through the fjord when the captain announced there was an aurora dead ahead. He turned off the deck lights, and the night was very dark, cold, and crystal clear as we gathered at the rail. There was no moon.
The aurora began as a white band, an elongated half-oval similar to mist, ghostly but with a distinct curve just above the horizon. Within moments it had spread high and wide, above the low mountains off the port side, colors ranging from pale to bright green in organ pipe-like spikes, in parts swirling blue and pink. Over a period of thirty minutes it morphed into different patterns while maintaining the ghost of the original oval. The Big Dipper was just overhead, the handle arcing towards the port horizon, with Arcturus deep in the shimmering lights.
Throughout the night we passed through narrow straits lined with towering mountains, and the aurora came and went. At times it seemed to surround the ship. The stars were so bright behind green fire. Orion walked through it, balanced on the horizon. I stayed on deck for a long time. My hands were cold and numb, but I kept watching.
The next day we docked in Tromsø. I nearly asked if there had been any cancellations, if I could stay in my cabin and just keep going north. This might sound strange, but after the experience of the night before, seeing the northern lights, I didn't want to keep chasing them. I felt I had gotten more than I'd dreamed of--to see them above the cliffs of the fjords on a totally moonless night, with all the constellations in the background. Even now I can't explain how meaningful the light, and the dark (especially the dark--so blue and beautiful) was to me. The north in winter is a nocturne, a luminist painting.
After I got off the ship, I flew to Oslo. I had seen my friend play Othello, and I'd finally made it to the Arctic, and I'd seen the northern lights. I had every intention of returning straight to New York, but there in the Oslo airport I realized I wasn't quite ready to go home. So I hopped a flight to Paris instead.
Photos of Norway, all taken on my iPhone: