By Nancy Forde
“Islands are metaphors for the heart, no matter what poet says otherwise.”
Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry
In pregnancy, the heart is pushed upwards and to the anterior. It grows larger in size. It makes room for the offspring. For the mother, such changes are physical and emotional, literal and figurative. I recently came across this definition of island: a body surrounded by water. We each begin as a foetus buoyed like a tiny vessel, the umbilical cord, our shore fast. We develop afloat in amniotic fluid. Our tiny, forming lungs are filled with it such that we cannot drown in the watery world that is our mother, the belly of our beginning.
I am not an islander, but for three years of early childhood, I lived on the coast of Britain. Trace your finger to its southeast corner and you’ll find an idyllic spot known as Palm Bay in Cliftonville, a suburb of Margate in Kent. The sole souvenir that now washes up on the foggy shore of my memory is the occasional donkey ride I’d be granted over a vast swath of sand and the high cliffs of white chalk towering over the water, like floating icebergs.
Perhaps the reason why I still feel a tidal pull as muscular as the moon’s to the sight of water is genetics: my parents are islanders. They emigrated from Ireland in the late 1950s to Canada. My version of heaven includes salt spray on my lips, salmon, soda bread and Guinness awash in my mouth. I am drawn to coasts, to the placement of shells against my ear, to the lulling bob of boats, and to far-distant and seemingly unending horizons.
In my youth I joked I must have once been a mermaid. Turns out it wasn’t the ideal symbol to explain my love of water or affix myself: mermaids apparently represent barrenness. The fish scales of their nether regions are impenetrable. Nautically speaking, there is—ahem—no ‘port of entry’. Part of the mythological power they hold over the humans they encounter is that they are simultaneously alluring, yet unattainable. Towards the end of my 30s, after close to a decade-long infertility struggle with my then partner, the mermaid I’d been was drowning. Parenthood remained a yet unreachable shore.
In May of 2009, the tides turn. I am alone when I begin labour shortly after midnight in the fieldstone farmhouse where I’ve resided for a decade. Erected by Scottish settlers before Canada is founded, my home’s limestone fortifies and its woodstove warms me as I await the arrival in wee hours of my sister, followed by my midwife and many, many hours hence, my son. Two years prior, I’d ended my long-term relationship, a necessary distancing from the sorrow moored to all the miscarriages and misunderstandings. Sometimes the road to parenthood ends up a solo sojourn.
So much of the prose of pregnancy and birth is nautical. Lunar cycles are monitored. Pregnancies are sometimes in breach; waters break; contractions come in waves. Our first inhalation of oxygen does not actually occur until we surface outside of the womb.
And, O! That first gasp. Of new parent and the newly born. That wail. The ties that bind. The very anchoring of our hearts. This oceanic depth of love.
The day I finally become a mother feels like the start of another island existence. When you solo parent, there may be occasional visits to your shores, but at the end of your day, the currach of you bobs alone. At the start, there is the glimmering glisk of moonlight upon water. This is the honeymoon stage of newborn care when your infant spends much of its day dreaming (as do you).
Eventually, there is no snooze button to your internal alarm clock. You pilot paths to survive the hazardous, jagged shorelines known in other tongues as ‘The Terrible Twos’ and ‘The Fucking Fours’. Those years can descend like a fog that smothers any reach of a lighthouse beam. Tsunamis of tears and tantrums threaten to wash away all signs of human presence or progress. Eventually clouds part. The proverbial red sky at night appears and terrain grows more familiar. It’s not entirely smooth sailing from here, but you’re clear of the Bermuda Triangle that is toddlerhood.
During these years, close friends continue their own escapades, familial and otherwise, and expeditions to where you now live become increasingly infrequent. The kind of island you become is remote. The occasional ping echoes from the submarine of what was once your social life, now lying at a depth and distance unfathomable.
Even on ‘holidays’, there is no off switch from parenting alone. It is non-stop. The zero self-care or downtime, going on years, leaves a hole in my hull and I frantically bail water for a good while. It is in the seventh year of such insular existence, rescue efforts mobilise. A telegram arrives with an offer by family and friends to care for my child so I might enjoy a much-needed respite. My twin sister suggests a beach somewhere south. My parents ask if I’ll return “Home” (as our family still refers to Ireland). But the magnet in the compass of my heart points North.
I have no idea how many years might pass again before another chance of a breather hits my parental coast. So I head to the largest island on Earth, the Mother of all islands, one might even say: Kalaallit Nunaat. Greenland. Above the 66th parallel is the farthest reaches I can imagine from my daily existence. Talk about a ‘getaway’.
As a photographer, I have never witnessed light as soft as that of the midnight sun. At first, the stretch of day is disorienting. On the other hand, I only have this brief gift of time to soak up all the serenity, social connection and sights I can. And so, far from my son, another fills my days. The solar extension of daylight affords me the chance to cram as much as I can into every second I encounter.
Wandering Ilulissat on foot, I head towards its harbour where I meet Stine, an Inuk traditional artist who carves exquisite jewellery out of narwhal teeth and the antlers of reindeer. We chat and connect over motherhood. I’m deeply humbled when she graciously invites me to her home the next day for tea where I meet her daughter and granddaughter. I still wear the bear claw she crafted and sold to me. Nanuq, she informs me, is a symbol of strength and that is what I daily draw from where it hangs on a leather strand near my heart; the same spot where the gift of my visit with her and her family resides.
Ilulissat means ‘icebergs’ and it delivers. The giants that comprise its icefjord, a UNESCO World Heritage site, pepper over a 35-kilometre stretch of Disko Bay. They are calved by the most active glacier on the planet: Sermeq Kujalleq. How fitting that whales and icebergs share a birthing term. It is en route from Ilulissat to Ilimanaq, I first encounter a whale in the wild: a Bowhead with her calf. The spray spouting above the water as they surface sets my heart racing. I am surrounded by water in all its forms: liquid, solid, vapour.
Eighty percent of the largest island on earth is comprised of ice. It’s the reason most of the inhabitants are coastal. And it’s the reason why, here in the Arctic, the rapid effects of climate change bring heightened meaning and immediacy to the phrase 'Water is Life’.
Ilimanaq, formerly Claushavn, translates as Place of Expectations. In this tiny community of fewer than 90 inhabitants, I chat with Evan, a local who holds many of his own. He’s called this beautiful spot home for two decades. He tells me the movement to replace former colonial with indigenous place names is fairly new, but important to many. The vast majority of inhabitants living here are Inuit.
A longtime Danish colony, Kalaallit Nunaat was granted home rule in 1979 and achieved self-governance in 2009, the same year that I give birth. When I finally make it to the Arctic seven years later, we are each still navigating the novelty of our individual autonomies. Challenges remain ahead, but it feels a brighter, more hope-filled state, this independence.
Afloat on a vessel with its engine turned off, I sit a mile from a wall of ice as high as the Eiffel Tower at its peak. My waters break again, this time in the form of tears. I cannot help but weep in the ancient presence of Eqip Sermia. Life rarely offers the chance to experience actual awe. This is the moment I miss my son the most and wish he could witness this Elder with me. The glacier moans as it calves and my thoughts fly like auks back to the day of my own labour and the sheer miracle of his arrival after so long a longing.
An hour later, the icebreaker docks opposite the glacier and we scramble to ascend roped stairs up to the camp’s ‘safety zone’, so named for being beyond the reach of the occasional tsunami a massive calving can cause. That night, I sleep in an eco-cabin mere yards from where Paul-Émile Victor’s original hut still stands, having been erected during his expedition from 1948-1953.
Before campers gather later for dinner, my Inuk guide Kamilla shepherds me from the main lodge over a five-hour trek towards the glacier. We are alone on our hike here, almost 400 kilometres north of where the Arctic Circle begins. A swarm of midges buzzes around the net veiling my head; the manifestation of my thoughts of home, of my son and all the years that have led me to this magnificent spot and this moment.
I once mistakenly assumed remote islands exist in isolation, but here, sipping hot chocolate from a flask and gazing down upon the most pristine environment I’ve ever encountered, I acknowledge I could not enjoy this privilege without the invisible net that has always been there for me. I’ve been focused on the tip of the iceberg, forgetting to consider the seven-eighths hidden beneath the surface, buoying that tip. When I recall my chat with Evan at Ilimanaq, I realise the smaller an island community, the tighter knit
On ancient maps, where I now sit was once known in Latin as ultima Thule, translated as the farthest reaches north, ‘beyond the border of the known world’. Over the crest of some of the oldest rock existing on our planet, a voice of ice formed over tens of thousands of years calls out.
In many ways, I feel less alone here at the edge of the earth where even frozen water communicates its strange tongue to me in a language that is dying out far too rapidly. Only here, in this moment finally, am I able to fully appreciate how deeply we are all connected, not just to the earth, its elements, its variant forms of personhood, but to each other . It’s the humbling reminder I need before I make my journey home. I whisper, “Qujanaq,” my thanks, to the surefooted Kamilla as we gather our belongings and negotiate the long path back to camp.
Sometimes still in wee hours, my thoughts, like the fingers of Inuit hunters caressing an Ammassalik wooden map, steer me back to the Arctic where a part of my heart still beats. The map bobs in my head, attached by neurons to the qajaq of my hippocampus. At challenging times or when I face the darkness of my own personal polar night, I retrieve it from the surface of the water and tuck it into the seal-lined mitt of my mind, retracing the shape of this shoreline of memories and moments.
Until my return, it’s a practice of self-care and part survival technique. Like a Bowhead surfacing for air, her calf at her side.
Nancy Forde is a Canadian photographer, Irish mother and ‘visual seanachaí’ (storyteller). Professionally, she is a member of Women Photograph and Foto:RE and a contributor to Plan A. Last fall she was nominated for the Royal Photographic Society’s #HundredHeroines campaign for her ongoing documentary work on how the womb affects our lives. She is currently pursuing an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography at London College of Communication. Her planned MRP, Tundra, aims to examine and challenge the colonial perspective of the Arctic as ‘barren grounds’. Nancy currently lives in Waterloo, Ontario, with her son.
Find her online at: nancyforde.com.