Sunday, November 16, 2008

What to Watch

Last night we watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” because we were in the mood for a scary movie. That may seem a surprising criteria for that selection but I suggest you consider watching it if you haven’t done so in a while and consider what’s truly dramatically frightening versus the dreary and flat grand guignol that passes for scary in most recent films. I sometimes think that in this day and age film and television, the CSI series in particular, have made us as tough as 2nd year medical students who’ve passed Gross Anatomy when it comes to gore. As such, it’s ironic that splashing blood is still used to frighten an audience instead of more effective, dramatic techniques. In contrast, TKAM explores truly frightening things in both a child’s and an adult’s world. There are the child’s terrors: the strange neighbors or the creaking of the trees on a summer night and for a adults there’s racism. Even more terrible is that both kinds interweave and interact. The execution of that element more than anything is why the book and film have retained their hallowed place in American fiction and film.

So, we picked TKAM because we wanted to watch something really scary. Obviously, it was also interesting in light of recent events. There are the obvious societal comparisons between now, 1964 when it was made and 1932, which is when it takes place. A more interesting comparison is that we’ve just elevated a lawyer to the presidency whom I expect aspires to the wisdom and morality of Atticus Finch, Harper Lee’s hero. We’re told the president-elect is particularly fond of Lincoln, and the manifold allusions in Obama’s speeches, sometimes subtle, occasionally obvious, support that. But he is also fond of compromise, as Lincoln was, and, of course, Atticus Finch. Another interesting attribute is empathy. Atticus Finch tells Scout that you can’t really understand someone until you “put on his boots and walk around in them.” It’s been a while since we’ve had a major political figure who identified that skill as a necessary virtue as Obama has.

This morning I watched the President-Elect’s first weekly youtube video address. I was disappointed. There were only only a few sentences with actionable substance, (his call for the Congress to pass a down payment on a stimulus package and to aid the automobile industry). I empathize with the leadership complexity he faces as he has not yet taken office. Nevertheless, it’s important that his weekly addresses be concrete and meaningful as he prepares to take action. Perhaps, he should have considered simply telling us what he did this week.

Last week the news was full of articles about the Republican meetings and soul searching to rebuild and re-center their party. It seems to me that in spite of their victory, the Democrats need to be doing some of the same kind of work. There are still many missing details the absence of which could lead to missteps early in the next administration. Some historians feel that Lincoln didn’t truly find his stride until the emancipation proclamation. President-elect Obama faces daunting challenges and has the mandate of a significant majority of Americans. Now he needs to put “foundations beneath his castles in the air,” to use Thoreau’s metaphor, and communicate it plainly to the American people.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Remembering Old Books

When I was twelve I tried to read “War and Peace” for the first time. During that part of my life, my parents had instituted a tradition of visiting the recently opened city library on Sunday afternoons to look for books to read during the coming week. Mostly, they chose recent thrillers or mysteries and it was in “borrowing” from my father’s selection that I first encountered the perfect adolescent delight “From Russia with Love.” I never seemed to be able to find sensible entertainment like that on my own. Instead, I was pursuing a larger agenda. In particular, I was looking for a way to distance myself as far as possible from the banal literary pabulum inflicted upon me at school. Even now, the thought of a required ten pages per week of Ricter’s “The Light in the Forest,” is enough to made me shudder physically. I am now as I write this. Back then, I resented everything about it, the adolescent characters, the conservatism, the absence of dramatic risk, the heavy handed themes and, above all, the implicit insult to my intellectual vanity. After all, I was twelve. My job was to distrust and disagree with everything.
Hence, you can appreciate my delight when I discovered one lazy, October, Sunday afternoon, two slightly dusty volumes, each about 1,000 pages long and filled with nearly unpronounceable Russian names and no pictures. My parents, showing phenomenal wisdom didn’t try to discourage me from checking them out. I think I managed a mere 60 pages or so before we returned it the following week. My literary Everest attempt had failed. Oh yes, as required, I had read yet another ten pages of that other thing.
Nevertheless, in college at nineteen, I was ready for another go. This time there was no climbing. The better metaphor is falling. I plummeted into early 19th century Russia during the age of Napoleon and lived it intensively for two weeks. I read surreptitiously in the back of my logic class, I read in the university library after finishing my differential equations homework, I read in the morning before class. The images I made, of Andrei lying wounded at Borodino staring at the clouds, or of Nickolai sitting around a fire nursing an incredibly painful broken wrist after his first battle or of Pierre tromping in the snow during the retreat from Moscow remain as vivid as memory. Literally. Like memories they are not only visual but include sound and smells. Even now, I’m delighted and surprised as I remember and those memories burn back into life yet again.
So, for me, the purpose of fiction, the deepest magic of fiction, is in creation of that alternative experience. The magic is how a limited number of words, a few perfect details induce my brain to create so much more, so much that is sensory and then tumble on like an engine running itself to death in an unending cycle of creation. You’d think it would be exhausting but it isn’t. And all the literary criticism I’ve read, from Coleridge to Eliot to Nye to Derrida has never sufficiently explored how and why it works.
Obviously, there are many other kinds of fiction that can strive for different psychological effects and much of what was written during the last half of the twentieth century explored that. For me, much of it is a digression.
Yesterday morning which was Sunday, I read the usual selection of newspapers, including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Guardian. But I found myself doing something else as well, following links to Youtube videos, mostly comic and ironic commentary on the US presidential election. And that curious mixture of alternating between text and moving image led me to wonder what effect the proliferation and hybridization of media will have on fiction. I’m well aware of the variety of experiments in that direction, including interactive fiction for example. And I’ve read a couple of provocative commentaries, such as Murray’s “Hamlet on the Holodeck.” Maybe we are at the threshold of a new Romantic age in which a plethora of important new hybrid genres will be created. But I’ve yet read or imagine how the natural discordance between what I imagine for myself and what the artist creates for me to see directly can be resolved so that the imagination continues that elemental, active process which gives fiction its power.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bread and Circus

In a recent email conversation with Mark Watkins, a friend in New England, he suggested that the current presidential race had something of a bread and circus mentality. That, it turn led to some further ruminations. Perhaps it began with the weakening and repeal of political checks and balances over more than a decade. Then there were the wars. But economic issues, including the impoverishment and reduction of the middle class as a result of pressure from low cost immigrant labor and dramatic enrichment of the upper classes also contributed to the instability. Finally, after a virtually dictatorial regime, two contenders rose and competed for pre-eminance. One, a handsome soldier in his youth with a record of extraordinary service during a time of national crisis, had become a maverick politician attempting to bestride the diverse values and interests of the several factions within in his party. The other, relatively younger man, known for many things, among them an inspiring, rhetorical skill and a kind of international popularity, had amassed much greater wealth which he used in innovative ways to gain political support and build a broad coalition. Both campaigned by promising outright gifts to the impoverished and stressed middle class while conducting devastating, surreptitious personal attacks.

Gnaeus Pompey, the elder statesman and one time military hero, eventually abandoned Rome and fled before his younger, more innovative rival, Gaius Julius Caesar. Years later, Juvenal satirized the political strategy of appealing to the masses as Pompey and Caesar had done as “Bread and Circus,” referring to the promise of food and gladiatorial entertainment. After a devastating defeat at Dyrrhachium, Pompey fled to Egypt where he was summarily executed.

Historical analogies are both dangerous and important. For every similarity between that time and ours there is an equally compelling difference. Nevertheless, one obvious and terrible principle clearly emerges. A mathematical term, which may be somewhat obscure, is pertinent.

Republics are points of unstable equilibrium. They survive as long as many forces, political, economic and social are balanced and checked. But that balance can be weakened to collapse in many ways: by partisan manipulation of the public confidence in electoral enfranchisement, for example, or cultivation of an electorate unable or uninterested in evaluating candidates and issues with rational, critical intelligence.

During the Renaissance, during the flowering of another republic in Florence, the virtue of “synoekismus” was valued as one of the most important of celebrated ancient heroes such as Moses and Theseus. In simple terms it means the ability to bring many communities together so that they form one. This morning I read that Colin Powell has announced his support for Senator Barack Obama for president.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Hamlet, Generations, Death

Wednesday, October 8, 2008
Stratford, Ontario, Canada

We’re in Stratford, Ontario for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. We flew all day Monday while the stock markets continued their free fall due to the credit crisis. It’s an economic event that will affect more lives than any in a generation and most people, including a significant percentage of our representatives in Congress, simply don’t understand it at even the most basic level, from the integration of modern economies to the importance of credit markets, or even what they are. We landed in Toronto at rush hour and joined the vast river of cars on Highway 410 passing Toronto with the setting sun in our eyes for most of the drive. The barely rolling plain made it seem as if we were driving from nowhere into nowhere.

Mostly, this part of Canada is thickly settled, like much of New England. But thirty miles outside of Stratford, the country became bucolic at last with neat, family farms and occasional stands of maple and oak predominating the fall landscape. Stratford itself is affluent and much larger than its namesake. A large park surrounds the river in the center of town and we recognized several sights from “Slings and Arrows,” the Canadian television series that was filmed here a few years ago.

In the afternoon, we saw “Hamlet,” directed by Adrian Noble, guest director and former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. We’d seen another version of “Hamlet” that he’d directed in London in 1992. Then, Kenneth Branagh played the title role. Both of us were very interested to see a Stratford Festival Company production of the play because of their reputation. We were also interested to see how Noble’s vision of the play had evolved.

A good half of the audience were high school students from several schools judging by the variety of uniforms. They were appropriately rambunctious and noisy in the lobby but settled quickly and were mostly a polite and attentive audience. After intermission, they greeted the return of the actors with wild applause, shrieks and whistles as if it were a rock concert. Interestingly, they laughed twice: once when Hamlet stabbed Polonius who collapsed pulling down a large drape - perhaps they thought it was unintentional although it wasn’t – and again when Gertrude succumbed to the poison.

Ben Carlson, who played Hamlet, is a husky, slightly paunchy young actor who uses broad gestures. No one would doubt him in a role as a high school football player. Hamlet is more of a stretch. I thought he was dreadful in the early scenes. Then something surprising happened. The scene with Polonious and Ophelia saying farewell to Laertes, which is so often static and tired, was played with delicate depth and emotion which revealed several powerful emotional turns. For example, Ophelia was honestly excited to tell her father of her relationship with Hamlet which made his rebuke surprising and stinging. Much credit has to go to the relatively young actor, Geraint Wyn Davies, who, for the first time in my experience of many productions, made Polonious, empathetic, interesting and complex. We’d seen something like this before, in an Ashland, Oregon production, when the actor playing Claudius had made so much more of the role than I’d ever thought possible. This time, it seemed to elevate everyone’s performance. And while the production was not great it was good which is no small achievement with such a complex work. As in 1992 I found Noble’s vision of the play-within-a-play scene and the dueling scene to be both static and destructive of willing suspension of disbelief. I’d hoped for more from his imagination, particularly given his Henry IV production with the late Robert Stephens and Michael Maloney. Nonetheless, the kids loved it and gave it a rousing standing ovation. No doubt for some it will be one of the most memorable theater experiences of their lives.

This production was performed, as it often is now, in 19th century clothes, which to my mind brings very little to the play. I’ve read and studied the play on and off for thirty years now and I find my view of it continues to evolve, yet another indication of its greatness. Perhaps, I’m under the influence of the apparent generational conflict in the current presidential election, but I think that’s an aspect in the play that is unduly neglected. It’s a Renaissance play and should be performed as such. I see Claudius and his court as a late medieval culture with the stasis, stratification and ceremony that connotes, whereas Hamlet and Horatio are educated renaissance men, comfortable with innovations of the new age, among them, theater. Thus, Hamlet’s almost scientific strategy to use the play within the play to test Claudius’ guilt is truly innovative, which it most certainly was when Shakespeare wrote the play.

In the evening, we forewent our tickets to Caberet and watched the presidential debates to see if either would say anything of depth about the current financial crisis. Neither Barak Obama nor John McCain said anything new. I was disappointed in them both, particularly in Obama whom I expected to rise to the occasion and offer something both innovative and inspiring to demonstrate the value of his leadership. He could have.

This morning I had email from Carolyn Foreman in Oxford informing me that James Wakelin, a South African bird watcher, ecologist and photographer we’d met in the Arctic, had died in a plane crash in Mozambique. I only knew James for a few days in the informal context of our wilderness experience. But I found him to be consistently gracious, affable and gentile in the very best sense of the word. He leaves behind a young wife and a ten month old son. Today it is raining in Stratford. It’s supposed to rain all day.

Thursday, October 9, 2008
Stratford, Ontario, Canada

And it did rain, sometimes heavily, all day. We drove west on Route 7 from Stratford to see what we could see, in spite of the weather. The two-lane highway led us through more small towns and long stretches of family farms. Each was unique and details like clothes hanging outside on a line, or a new dormer under construction on a 19th century farm house or a small bakery in the center of a town suggested unique and individual stories everywhere. It reminded me of what I’d imagined the Midwest of the United States to be like when I was younger and hadn’t traveled much, before the uniformity of strip malls and suburbanization had changed the landscape. We stopped to take photographs of a grand field of ripe pumpkins. There were more fields of the same just beyond and in places it looked like pumpkins stretched to the horizon. Their spooky brightness in the dreary day was startling.

We drove on until we came to Lake Huron then turned south, following the farms at its edge. Lynn wondered what it was like to have a farm at the edge of the great lake and what it would be like to face the famous storms. Several of the homes seemed low and vulnerable. We stopped when we came to Bay View where we had coffee lattes and shared an excellent, chewy ginger cookie in a small bakery in the narrow main street overhung with willows. Then we drove back

In the evening we saw Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” with Christopher Plummer in the title role. We arrived early and found our seats so we were able to watch the audience arrive. They were mostly older, many in their 70’s and 80’s and I had that rare experience now of feeling like one of the younger members of the audience. As we were waiting, an actor, costumed as the ancient Egyptian god Anubis rose through a trap in the stage and stood perfectly still staring back at us. The irony made me chuckle but it set a mood a great of great age and timelessness which was exactly right. I thought of Shelly’s poem “Ozymandias” which I’d read again when we were in the Arctic. As the lights went down, he disappeared once more.

The lights came up on a hooded figure coming almost out of the audience to face the foot of the Sphinx with whom he then began a one-sided chat, “For I am he of whose genius you are the symbol: part brute, part woman and part god - nothing of man in me at all." It was Plummer as Caesar, of course, and I was amazed that though he is in his seventies now, his voice had lost none of its vigor or range. It’s Shaw, so it’s a talky play of course with Caesar having a disproportionate share of the dialogue. But Plummer was precise and strong through out. Moreover, there’s a lot of action in it as well. I couldn’t help but wonder how he manages to do it four times a week. It was a tour-de-force.

Clearly, the Stratford Festival had spent its production nickel for the season on this play, both sets and costumes, which this particular play and cast could wear very well indeed. There was lots of well-made Roman armor, great stone pedestals, and many extras playing the role of Roman soldiers or silent, still Egyptian Gods. One scene drew a collective inhaled gasp from the older members of the audience, which as I said, was the majority. Cleopatra addressed her court, demonstrating a new maturity, authority and will to power gained from her association with Caesar. He, of course, in turn was beginning to give up the latter and moving towards an acceptance of his death. The gasp, however, came because two young female members of her court were bathing nude in a steamy bath.

Finally, I consider “Caesar and Cleopatra” one of Shaw’s “problem” plays, (in the sense that “Hamlet,” “Measure for Measure” and “Troilus and Cressida” are Shakespeare’s problem plays.) It’s topics: the movement from childhood to maturity foiled against the movement of age to acceptance and death, are difficult ones for a form partly defined by essential and continuous drawing room wit. Like Hamlet in another context, the play and its concept are almost too big for its genre. But like that greatest play in the language it remains better for all that and is probably my favorite after “Man and Superman.” Thank you Christopher Plummer and thank you Stratford Shakespeare Festival. There are rumors it might move to New York. I hope so.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The World is Changing


“The world is changing, I feel it in the earth, I feel it in the water, I smell it in the air. Once that once was is now forgotten; for none now live who remember it.” – J.R.R. Tolkien - The Lord of the Rings

Lynn and I have been watching the films again – it’s something we do every year or so -and they’ve seemed uncomfortably pertinent to a number of things. The quote above for example, came to mind after we watched the presidential debates Friday evening. I went to bed fearing and expecting that the press and viewers would view McCain as having won them because of his aggressive manner and focus on popular issues such as earmarking versus Obama’s more statesmanlike comprehensive views. To my surprise, I found the next morning that the results were just the opposite. Many of McCain’s allusions, such as to Eisenhower’s having written two letters the night before D-day, apparently had less resonance than he would have liked and the political strategy of winning through personal attacks may have had their day, at least for now.

Then there’s the economy of the first world which is going through structural changes unlike any we’ve seen since Franklin Roosevelt. I think many people in the US forget that market-based capitalism was not ordained by god but is a human invention created in 16th century Holland. It has evolved ever since and must evolve again to function successfully in a very different world with such high interconnectivity of goods, information and people.

For our part, Lynn and I have been reading and writing, as usual. And hiking. Wednesday evening we drove to Sundance where we stayed overnight in one of their cabins. We had an excellent dinner in the Tree Room and the next morning took a short hike on the Mount Timpanogos trail which is where I took the photo. The geology of that canyon, tame in places, violent and deformed in others creates an ambience of danger and uncertainty.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

An Arctic Journal - August 2008


Sunday morning, August 17, 2008 – Longyerbyen, Svalbard

We departed on Wednesday, August 13th flying first to LA on Delta and saw Robert in passing as we left the Virgin Atlantic lounge for our flight to London. He looked a little tired, too. We flew Upper Class across the water and as usual we ate and slept well. I read John Man’s “Genghis Kahn” and watched “Iron Man.” What a combination. Terminal 3 in Heathrow had its packed 3rd world feel in spite of having just been remodeled and I was sweaty and grumpy by the time we found our way to the VA lounge where we were revived by a freshly prepared lunch and surprisingly good chocolate chip cookies. Then it was off to Oslo on SAS. It was 10:00 PM by the time we reached our hotel next to the Oslo Doma, which was surrounded by scaffolding for reconstruction.
The next morning we had a fine Norwegian buffet breakfast replete with multiple Salmon dishes and then the three of us wandered through the city until we found the small ferry to Bigdoy island and the Viking Skipmuseet. The black ships in the spare cross-shaped building like a puritan church always seem to make everyone reverential. And why not, there is divinity in such perfect function, design and historical aspiration. In the afternoon we took the ferry back and the tram to Frogner Park where we photographed the statues and had ice cream and beer. The dragon embracing the woman remains my favorite and I put my arms around Lynn in the same way and looked as dragonish as possible for a photograph for Robert. Then it was back to the hotel so that Robert could catch his flight to Longyerbyen and we ate an early buffet dinner (more salmon) and went to bed. Lynn fell asleep with the tv remote in her hand before she could select a movie to go to sleep to.
We slept late, had lunch, bought a few souvenirs and caught our flight to Longyerbyen. The plane was packed but the older man sitting next to the window asked if he could have the isle seat which was fine with us as we wanted to be able to see. It’s unusual now, but we spent the entire flight chatting with him. He’d been a sea captain in the north sea and had also done significant work in the pacific before moving to the oil business. He was surprisingly well informed about US politics and we laughed about CNNs current strategy of self-aggrandizement. He left us at Tromso and, to my surprise the flight filled again on the last leg to Longyerbyen. There were broken clouds most of the way but we managed a view of Bear Island. I hadn’t felt like we were north until we saw the severity and grandeur of the glaciers and bare mountains of Svalbard. Something, possibly iron deposits, stain the ice pink below the cliffs and the mountains are jagged, bare and young. This is a very new place for us and I can’t imagine what the rest of trip will be. Robert was waiting outside the front of the Raddison SAS hotel for us and whisked us off to dinner at fine place, Krao, where we had lobster, pepper steak and chocolate fondant. Robert regaled us with tales of how he’d spent the day. Even though it’s against the law (for good reason), he’d climbed a nearby peak and saw an arctic fox but no polar bears, fortunately. However, he had seen polar bear scat on the way back. The cliff he climbed is beautiful and the views must have been extraordinary and I could sense a bit of what it must have been like when he said it was spooky when he went beyond the peak both because of the severity of the terrain and the obvious danger. It was after midnight when we went to bed and of course the sun never set.

Tuesday afternoon, August 19, 2008 – Longyerbyen, Svalbard

Sunday morning, after breakfast, Lynn and I walked down to the beach where we were bombarded by skuas until we changed course and presumably missed their eggs. Then we walked back up and visited the small, exceptional museum. Everywhere seems to have a stuffed polar bear which alludes to their proximity. In addition the museum had a fine dynamic exhibit showing the expansion and contraction of the arctic ice-pack, a room devoted to Svalbard’s interesting history during World War II, sections on hunting and whaling, replete with 17th century clothing and gear. How did they brave this land in short breaches and jackets with cotton insulation? There was a produced film showing the sights of Svalbard the tangential star of which was a brave young Norwegian girl who participated in a number of naturalists activities, including standing off a polar bear by scaring it off with a flare gun. Lynn said that the girl was going to be her role model for the rest of the trip. We then shopped for a bit in a well-equipped expedition outfitter with a good selection of Arcteryx gear. Lynn bought some very good pants.
We returned to our room and napped while Robert went hiking illegally once more up to a small knoll above the town. He said he carved my name in a block of ice there and was amazed at its hardness. In the evening, the three of us ate at Hussen, a restaurant in the oldest building in Longyerbyen and far up the valley. The food was exquisite. Lynn had reindeer, which she said was very good while I had char and Robert had halibut. The bread and butter alone were worth the cost and over all it was as good as, and more original than, most meals we’ve had in London or New York. We finished with cloudberries and cinnamon ice cream.
Monday morning, a pleasant young man collected us at the hotel and took us dog-sledding. All three of us imagined that it would be a low intensity, mostly non-participatory activity. Were we wrong. Another couple, Carolyn Foreman and Phil Chanel, who were also scheduled for the cruise on the Antarctic Dream, joined us. After a thumping ride along dirt roads in to a low remote canyon in a Land Rover, we came to the end of the road and a farm house with kennels filled with large, barking dogs. We first met Joplin, a diminutive bitch with new puppies who was shivering and less than enthusiastic about leaving them to lead the team. But the young man told us she was the best leader and he demonstrated how to harness the dogs. Then it was our turn. We fitted the harnesses to the dogs, took them from their kennels one at a time and hitched them to the team that was staked to prevent them from bolting. I was amazed at how strong they were and how much work it was to set up the three teams. One of the dogs, a black one name Arok, which we were told means “black devil” decided to mark territory, including my leg. I understood why we’d been told to put on over-alls first.
Then we set off with minimal instruction. Lynn rode with our guide on the first wheeled sled, followed by me driving the second with Robert as passenger and Phil and Carolyn following. The road switch-backed down and the dogs demonstrated that they were able to move at good speed. My team had a tendency to veer to the right when ever we picked up speed which forced me to brake more than I would have liked. That in turn, forced Carolyn and Phil to overtake which I later learned shouldn’t be done. Nevertheless, we made it to the closed mine which was our destination. There we switched drivers, turned the teams around and rode back. We decided to forgo coffee and snacks to play with Joplin’s puppies and then returned to the hotel feeling like newly minted heroic arctic adventurers.
We shared our cab to the port with a group of women who graciously and unexpectedly paid the bill. Boarding the Antarctic Dream that afternoon was more complex than we anticipated as another ship, the Grigory Mikheev was docked between and we had to cross its deck to get to ours but in spite of the confusion we found our way to our cabins along with our luggage. Robert had some good news: he would not have to share a cabin. We departed and had dinner as we steamed out of Longerbyen. Of the fifty passengers, we were the only three Americans. The majority were British, German and Dutch.
Tuesday morning we were educated on proper Zodiac procedures, including the sailor’s grip for disembarking. Then we went ashore to see the fourteenth of July Glacier, (named after the national holiday of Monaco by a Monaco team.) An Indian woman, Shubha Chawla, who had been an investment banker in London before becoming a full-time traveler introduced herself on the Zodiac as she’d met Robert the night before. After inspecting a verdant micro-environment in an alcove sheltered from the winds, we set off across the tundra to walk to the edge of the glacier. Glacier ice has a wide spectrum of blues and was much more beautiful than it ever appears in photographs. It was also cavating. The glacier thunder caused by large segments of ice breaking off and falling into the sea reminded me of blasting avalanches at Alta, Utah, where we ski. On the way back the seas had picked up and we had a taste of how quickly the weather can change.
After lunch we stopped once more, at Ny-Alensund, the furthest most settlement which serves as a research station for twenty countries and a jumping off point for many polar expeditions. We walked around the spare village, inspected the shop and the bust of Roald Amundsen, along with the tower that was used to moor the dirigible that he and Umberto Nobile used to trans-navigate the North Pole.
In the evening, just before dinner, the seas picked up even more and I suddenly found myself seasick as they were serving the Caprese salad appetizer. I abruptly left and retreated to the cabin in spite of the opportunity to see whales later that night. Robert, who stayed up, saw them but Lynn came to bed before they appeared.

Wednesday, August 20 - At sea, south of Mollen Island

As I was getting dressed, John Neran, the expedition leader, announced that we had the first polar bear sighting. We grabbed our gear and went out onto the passenger’s bridge where we were greeted by two extraordinary sights. First, the ship was crawling through heavy pack ice, sometimes riding up over it only to plow heavily into the sea again. The other sight was a cream colored ursus maritimus traversing the ice in the near distance. We photographed and photographed and photographed. The captain navigated the ship very gently through the pack ice for several hours as the bear wandered, disappeared into the sea and possibly reappeared, if it wasn’t another. All together I had four different sightings.
Later we passed just south of Mollen island where observed walruses collected on the bare shore.
In the afternoon, we took a long walk across the tundra in beautiful afternoon light at a place called rein deer flats. There were no rein deer but the flora was intriguing and included spider plants, miniature trees (a few inches high) and others. The tundra is very soft and walking across it is a little like walking on a cushion. It takes more energy than walking on firm ground, although you don’t notice it at first. In places it was marshy and I could appreciate the danger of mud that we’d been warned about. Lynn reminded Robert and I of the Dead Marshes in the Lord of the Rings which was apropos because of the general desolation.
The low, dramatic sunlight persisted through the evening making the bare rust-colored sandstone mountains clear and unusually beautiful. There was an evening walk to see some of the only geo-thermal activity on Svalbard which Lynn and I declined.

Thursday, August 21, 2008. At Sea in the Sorgfiord, south east of Mollen.

We were wakened at 7:00 by an announcement that we were in pack ice once more and there was a fog bank that the captain was appraising. At breakfast we sat with Michelle van Dijk, a lanky Dutch girl who was one of our guides. She explained her theory of polar bear psychology. She perceives them as rather binary. Either they’re curious and following the straightest path to pack ice, even if it means crossing mountains or towns, or they perceive something as food at which point they become enraged. She demonstrated a bear, only deeply curious, approaching an egg, smelling it closely, deciding it was food and then using all its force indiscriminately to smash it. Obviously, that kind of sudden rage could be helpful when they pull a 400 pound seal through a blow hole with one foreleg. Michelle said that she never prayed except when she was camping in a tent on Svalbard, for protection from ice bears.
After breakfast, John Neran announced that we were going to anchor off the headland on the west side and go ashore. This walk would be unique because the area was almost completely bereft of vegetation, offered good visibility from a small promontory, and would be one of the few placed we’d be allowed to wander on our own. Bears were rarely sighted there.
We were in one of the last groups in. Most of the others had already ascended the promontory to see a cairn with John. Our small group, including the two bird watchers from South Africa, the guide Geordie and the young Dutch girl, Greta, who tends the bar, dispersed. I considered walking with Geordie and Greta but didn’t because I needed to change lenses. Lynn had a similar moment.
I imagined that it was a little like walking on the moon. Then I imagined what it would have been like to be an early explorer walking the same ground knowing that the land was unknown and completely wild. I sensed my breathing was slowing and I was feeling completely alone when I heard John, ¼ mile away on the stony promontory, ordering the group about him back to the boats. It could only be one thing: a bear. I spotted Lynn just below the ridge behind me and began to make my way to her.
We met and went to the ridge where others were gathering. The guides had spread out evenly and were backing in, their weapons ready. John, who was now with us, spoke to Geordie who said the bear was coming along the beach and that he didn’t like the situation. All the zodiacs had been launched from the ship and were either already beached or nearly there.
The group boarded the boats promptly, a few were laughing and some were looking about for the bear. The two South African birders said they seen it and photographed it and that it had been less than 50 yards away when Geordie and the Greta discovered it. Lynn and I were on the last boat out and as we pulled away we could saw it for the first time nosing something on the ridge not more than ten yards from where we’d been a few minutes before. It didn’t seem large but was clearly a mature bear with the distinctive creamy coat they have.
Back on deck everyone watched and photographed the bear for some time. One of the guides speculated that he might have a cache there and someone said that the thought they saw the remains of a reindeer, although I couldn’t make anything out. My photographs were reasonable and I was beginning to think that all my shots of polar bears would be from a significant distance.
I was writing this journal just before lunch in the dining room, when one of the birders sitting across announced that he’d seen an Ivory Gull, one of the rarest birds in Svalbard. I grabbed my camera and crossed in time to get a shot of it flying past but something else caught my attention and everyone else’s. There was a large patch of dark blood on the pack ice and rising from it, another polar bear. He was very close and not concerned by the ship’s proximity.
For the next three hours we watched him as he napped, rolled around and stretched on the ice, defecated and swam almost completely around the ship. This time the photos and videos were very close. At one point I saw him blinking and his dark pupils surveying the ship.
John said that it was the best sighting this season. We then proceeded further north into the pack ice. Several times the ship was stuck in the ice and was forced to motor out to the side or backwards. I decided there was a remote possibility we’d be stuck. The weather improved but by dinner time the ice was beginning to fill in. After a lengthy consultation between the captain and the expedition leader we turned south. Our most northern point was 80 degrees 30 minutes of latitude. We were now on the north east side of Svalbard with the winds and currents coming out of the north. The coming days would be significantly colder. We were 600 nautical miles from the North Pole.
In an hour the seas were clear again. In the orange light of the low sun we passed two massive ice bergs. As ominous as the pack ice had been, the floating islands of ice in the open sea were equally foreboding and other-worldly.

Friday, August 22, 2008 – At sea – Lomfiord, north east coast of Svalbard

After an early breakfast we Zodiac’d a significant distance to a glacial valley for a walk-about. The four guides, John, Georgie, Mitch, Roger and Michelle established a wide perimeter and we made a gentle climb along the northeast ridge of some cliffs. There we met Mickwho had found some polar bear and reindeer remains which we examined. There was also some polar bear fur which turned out to be quite soft, contrary to my expectations. From there, I started up the ridge leading to the top of the cliffs and was soon joined by Robert. About half way there, we encountered John, along with Adam Riley and James Wakelin, the South African birders coming down. They had also climbed the cliffs, but from the east, using a culoir which had been precarious, according to Adam. Robert and I continued up and reached a small plateau. We would have climbed further because the reindeer social trail among the loose shale was good and the incline wasn’t increasing. However, John waved us down in order to keep us in sight. From the top I took a few nice photos of Lynn walking alone in the distance.
Then it was back to the ship for a quick cup of tea whilst we motored up another inlet as far as there were charted soundings for the ship. From there we Zodiac’d out once more, this time to the base of a glacier no one on the guide team had ever explored before. The hiking in the glacial bed reminded me of an immense stream bed: it was muddy and filled with worn stones like river stones although they’d obviously been shaped by the motion of the glacier itself. Then we came to the glacier which had the appearance of concrete dusted with ice. As we climbed we saw small breaks where we could see the particular blue color of the pure glacial ice below. Where the snow began we stopped and John started a snowball fight which he got the worst of, naturally.
Now it’s afternoon, Lynn and I are back at the ship, and have decided to forgo a long Zodiac cruise in the wind to see Kilamots in the cliffs of Alkafellet. I doubt there will be another excursion today as the seas and winds outside the fiord are strengthening. I’m reading a bit of “Andre at the North Pole: With Details of His Fate” by Leon Lewis which I happened to see in the dining room. It appears to be a wonderful piece of 19th century science fiction and I’ll need to find a copy when we return.

Saturday, August 23, 2008. At sea – off Torellinesfillet on the north east coast of Svalbard.

Last night just before dinner we sighted whales, and not just any whales: Bowheads and Right Whales. Both are rare in these waters, particularly the Bowhead which was thought extinct here until just last year when they were sited again for the first time. Only the captain was able to get a really good photograph but the evidence was good enough and sufficiently exceptional to merit official reporting of the incident. It was cold and very windy. Those that stood out on the prow were deeply chilled. Robert stood out on the passenger’s bridge without a jacket for which he is developing a reputation.
This morning we landed the Zodiacs at Torellinesfillet to see a large herd of young male walruses clustered together on the beach. We were able to come very close to them and watch them scratching, waving their flippers and snorting. Then we proceeded onward 2 ½ miles to the edge of the 3rd largest ice cap in the arctic. The land was a moonscape of small rocks sometimes well-compressed and easy to walk on and sometimes not so that it was like walking in gravel. The weather was temperate and sunny and at times the plane appeared to go on forever. We also saw ancient remains of whales along with corpse of a Polar Bear cub that must have died recently.
This afternoon Micelle gave a lecture on Dutch whaling in Svalbard in the 17th and 18th centuries which raised more questions than it answered which was a very good thing. Now we are traveling eastward around the south side of Nordaustlandet island into the pack ice in hopes of sighting more Polar Bears. The sea is extraordinarily calm and glassy. It makes me wonder whether S. T. Coleridge’s surreal seascapes weren’t based on real experience.

Sunday, August 24, 2008. At sea – at the west end of Freemansuet, between Barrensoja and Edgoya.

Yesterday evening we entered the pack ice once more. It’s an entirely different element, not land, not sea but something other. We had fine weather. The low sun cast an afternoon glow over this other world that stretched off in every direction around us. Only the white cliffs of Nordauslandet to the northwest and sharp peaks of Kong Karl’s island to the south east were visible in the far distance. Soon a Polar Bear was spotted at some distance to the port side of the bow. The ship slowed to approach it, but the bear, preserved the distance between us. I think he was hunting a seal because he often stopped to scent the air and moved with purpose. There were seals on the ice ahead and I expected we wouldn’t be able to close the distance.
Then the captain tried an interesting maneuver. He stopped the ship and, after a few minutes, changed course and began pulling away slowly to starboard.
In response, bear changed direction and began to circle back toward us. Soon everyone was in the forecastle photographing him. He kept coming and soon we could see that he was a young, agile animal and very clean. He kept coming closer.
We ran from place to place to get the best shots of him. I stopped at the rail amidship along with James, who crouched below me below a chain across the gangway. We watched and photographed the bear as he crossed the ice, studied his reflection in the glassy sea, scented the ship and finally came to stand directly below us, not fifteen feet away. Given his curiosity, had the gangway been down he most probably would have come up. I couldn’t help but remember Michelle’s polar bear psychology description. As it was, he sniffed the side of the ship and looked in through a port hole, surprising Anna, one of the hotelier staff on board. James was so focused and leaning so far out over the side of the ship I thought I might have to grab him if he lost his balance because there was nothing else to keep him from falling.
Eventually, the bear lost interest, wandered back, leaping from ice flow to ice flow and finally ascended a small, craggy deep blue berg that had formed from the compressed pack ice. It could have been his castle. Everyone talked about it as such afterwards.
The expedition leader pronounced it “a Champaign moment” and ordered Champaign for everyone on board. Later he told me that it was the best encounter of his career. To celebrate he cranked up some music in the dining room and danced with Michelle who was somewhat reluctant but a good sport.
After one of the better dinners, rack of lamb and jacket potatoes, we went out in the Zodiacs once more. We landed on an ice flow amidst the pack ice and took photos. The best part was wandering around the Polar Bear’s primary environment on foot and seeing it from his point of view.
This morning seas were still calm as we moved down the Freemansuet and entered Stormfjorden. We went ashore at Timertfjellen to walk up a wide river valley for a long walk. The tundra here was autumnal and mist hung about the surrounding mountains. Ancient whale bones were scattered all over the wide plane. Walking there was particularly pleasant: the air was cool but not cold, there was no wind and the footing was much more solid than on the previous walks. When we were half way up the valley, the guides stopped us. Another Polar Bear had been sighted between half a mile and a mile away. We stood about while they observed him and determined that he was coming down the valley. We turned around and retreated to the Zodiacs. From just off shore, we watched him amble down, stopping occasionally to scent and moving back and forth. Still he reached the shore very quickly, where watched us watching him for an hour. This was the first time we’d been able to observe a bear on land for any length of time. I took one photo of him appearing to peak over the ridge which reminded me of how possible it would be to come across one unexpectedly.
We were finally forced to abandon observation by the rapid approach of heavy fog. The ship disappeared entirely for most of our return trip but our Zodiac driver, who was following the Zodiac returning ahead of us, found it without difficulty. Later, in the dining room, James and I spoke and he suggested that it could have been a more interesting situation had the fog come in whilst we were in the valley and if the bear hadn’t been sighted. The situation could have been quite different.
Fin Whales, the second largest species of the Cetaceans, appeared off the port bow as we began our navigation down the central passage of the Stormfiord. We then spent the afternoon and early evening photographing them. It was a challenge as it was cold and the only way to get good photos was to stand outside for long periods scanning the waves. Mostly, I stood on the bridge and went inside when my fingers were numb. As with the Polar Bear, I liked the captain’s and the expedition leader’s strategy: we took the time to watch the animals at length which gives you a much better sense of their behavior.

Monday, August 25 – At sea, in the Hornfiord

During the early morning we rounded the southern tip of Svalbard, Sorketland. Then we entered the Hornfiord and Zodiac’d to a wide river valley where we tracked reindeer. The mountains here are young and dramatic: strata is turned on end and there are expansive rock escarpments, sometimes very black in color. There are curious stone circles which Richard called “polygons” in which an irregular section of tundra is surrounded large stones. Roger said that the prevailing theory is that it is created by variable heating and expansion of the permafrost. Maybe. But given the steepness of the nearby mountains and the runoff in Spring from the snowfields I think it’s possible that there’s another dynamic at work. We saw more yellow and purple Saxifrax flowers and tiny forests of willow trees only a few millimeters tall.
In the afternoon, we disembarked at the edge of a glacier. John announced that there were three different walks to choose from: two relatively easy ones and an ascent of the eastern mountain. To his surprise, I’m sure, most people chose the ascent. And so we set off. Almost all the climb was on loose shale, although we crossed some snowfields as well. Those who didn’t have good cleating on their rubber boots had particular problems. John set a fast pace and we lost people at the first rise; still the majority stayed on, although we were soon spread out over half a mile or so. When we reached the last major plateau, John declared that we’d reached “the Hilary Step,” an allusion I wasn’t particularly fond of. It was much steeper after that.
When we were about 100 feet from the apparent peak, a gray-haired Dutch woman who is one of the companions with Ariene van den Blink, suddenly stopped and declared she wasn’t going further. Many of the rest felt the same and so we stayed while ten others, including Robert, Adam, James, Phil and Carolynn went on. I didn’t think the peak was that close and I didn’t like the steepness on such unsteady terrain. Fortunately, those that did go on, were able to ascend a rocky outcrop although it required climbing with both hands and feet for some in places. Also, those above dislodged some large stones which those below had to move away from. As we waited the fog rolled in, obscuring the ship. I thought the descent might take longer than the ascent and that it might turn into a difficult situation.
It didn’t. Those at the top retuned fairly promptly. It had been the top after all and the fog cleared. Further the descent went very fast as we were able to slide down four long snowfields, which was good fun. Adam, James, Carolyn and Phil demonstrated particular elan in their snowfield slides. Adam was especially impressive as he was wearing only jeans and not water-proof pants.
Robert and I brought up the very end of the group. Even Geordie was below us, almost at the beach. We came across a very well-defined Polar Bear track in the mud which Robert photographed. We’d seen another track on the way up and John had commented that he thought it was a day or so old. I don’t know how he knew. This one looked very fresh to me.

Tuesday, August 26 – At Sea off Torellbreen

We took a moderate hike across the Martin-fielta headland in Bellesund. The gravel beach with three three-hundred year-old whaling boats gave way to gently rolling tundra where there were several reindeer sightings. Michelle, who was on point at some distance had three reindeer wander up by her. The mountains are still severe and the strata more consistently suggests upthrust as a consequence of tectonic plate subduction. We finished on a beach filled with whale bones. Once again the weather was clear and sunny although there was some wind, 25 knots according to the bridge, and returning to the ship was more wet than usual, both from the wind and the swells.
This afternoon we’re sailing to the end of the southern fiord that branches off Bellsund, then will return to about the same spot for some short walks and perhaps another peak ascent.
The peak ascent turned out to be a beautiful low ridge in soft afternoon light and gentle weather. However, our ascent was aborted by radio communication from the ship. This time dinner, a barbecue, could not be delayed. I was concerned as I knew our chef was German and wondered what that word meant in translation. We stopped at a small plateau where Lynn was attacked by a polar bear. Fortunately, it was only the small stuffed polar bear, Gustav, that Robert had brought along in his pack. It proved to be a popular photo-op. On the way back, Yolanda Te Riele, one of Ariene Van den Blink's companions, discovered an unusual plant with a large leaf. John, the expedition leader, and a botanist, could not identify it and speculated that it might be a visitor.
As it turned out, I shouldn’t have been concerned about the barbecue. The chef had brought out three large grills onto the pilot deck and was really barbecuing everything from ribs to lamb. The latter was particularly good, as were the accompaniments which included baked jacket potatoes. All in all, the food on board had been dependably good and this was the high point.

Wednesday, August 27 - At sea, Prins Karls Forland, St. John’s Fjord

The expedition is restless. There are talks of mutiny, taking over the ship and not allowing the next group to board in Longyearbyen and instead commandeering the crew and guides and pressing onto Greenland and Iceland. It’s the last day and there is an appropriate bittersweet ambiance which is appropriate for what has been an extraordinary ten days. Even the guides agree that the combination of weather and wildlife sightings, one of which was unique, and others which exceeded some of their experience, combined to make it one of the best.
In the morning we disembarked at Poolepynten where saw long-tailed Skuas, sand pipers and Walruses on the beach. There were two walrus groups: an older male and his harem in a massive group on the beach and two younger males playing together in the surf. At one point they considered coming ashore where we were and some of the photos of the encounter were exceptional.
After lunch we took our last hike in perfect weather and gray light. As we ascended the ridge, we could see two ominous snowfields, shaped like the detritus of explosions in the great open canyons across the fjord. It was one last surprise of beauty in this severe land, this cold coast, this place of sharp peaks, ruled by Isbjorn, the ice bears.
To quote Michelle van Dijk, who knows this land much better than I probably ever will: “Although it was what I expected, this country filled me..... with happiness, excitement, curiosity and gratitude.
Grateful, because it was still there. An (at first sight) untouched piece of nature, where human beings did not yet conquer.
Something which also attracted me in Iceland, is that the people are still inferior to nature, but in Iceland they fight - maybe unaware of it - and try to forget the old natural laws and religions.
Here in Spitsbergen people live with nature, not always on good terms, but there is a kind of harmony.”