By Julian Hanna
I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
- Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues
The strangest thing about visiting the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the Svalbard archipelago during the 24-hour darkness known as polar night is that you can’t see the island you’re on. I was surprised, when I flew into Longyearbyen this past January, how unsettling an experience it was. The fact that I was there for an island studies conference compounded the sense of absurdity: though I talked about islands all week, I never actually saw the island I was on. It was pitch black when we landed – nearly everyone arrived on the same afternoon flight from Tromsø and climbed out of the cabin to go blinking across the runway moonscape – and blackness followed us from morning till night. It was still dark when we boarded the return flight at noon on the day of the US presidential inauguration. I was ready for the cold (the temperature hovered around -15, often with a strong wind chill), but I was not prepared for the disorienting feeling of being on an island built largely from my own imagination.
A few facts: the Svalbard archipelago lies between Norway and the North Pole, far above Iceland, and at 78 degrees north Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost settlement. There are 30% more polar bears than humans. There are northern lights, apparently. I did not see the northern lights, or any other natural light, during the six days I was there. The conference was called, in all caps, REMOTE.
If you ever get the chance to visit Svalbard, even in January, take it. Despite the 24-hour darkness of polar night, drawn like a heavy curtain over Longyearbyen from October 28 to February 14, the people we met were lively and happy, even slightly giddy, drunk on the melting together of day and night. School children wearing reflective vests built snow forts under stark electric lights. People rode past on bicycles even in -20 degree temperatures, or on snowmobiles with rifle mounts. Huskies were tied up outside shops, and you had to check your gun at the door. The day after we arrived a mother polar bear and her two cubs wandered into town and were gently escorted out again in the most Scandinavian way, only to return the following day.
Normally when we travel we first imagine a place and then visit it, confirming its existence. The only other time I have visited an island whose islandness could not be proved by sight was when I was a child. My father used to take my sisters and me camping, and every summer for a few years we went to a place called Cougar Island. It so happened that we always fell asleep during the car ride: once I woke up to find that we were on a small ferry, and my dad told me it was the ferry to Cougar Island. That made sense, so I went back to sleep. Then like a dream we had arrived in an unspoiled paradise (we worried about cougars, but only at first). I found out later, however, that Cougar Island never existed. My dad made it up, and kept the deception running for years, which was typical of his commitment to such things. The ferry we took – once, anyway – crossed an inlet on Vancouver Island. So we were still on an island, but it was the island we were always on: not a new island, but the same old island seen through new eyes. (Now that I think of it the story reminds me of a Ray Bradbury tale, ‘The Rocket’, where the poor but inventive father takes his kids on a make-believe journey to Mars. This might even have been the germ of my father’s idea.)
On the third day the mother bear and her cubs showed up again. This time it was at our dogsledding camp outside Longyearbyen – news that was conveyed to us by a man with a gun as we warmed ourselves with brandy and coffee in the lodge. (By law you can only leave the city limits with a high-powered rifle, or a guide who carries one.) The exchange between the armed wanderer and our guide, who also had a rifle but carried it discreetly and put it in a locker at the camp, went as follows:
‘These people have all signed the waiver.’
‘Ah good, they’ve signed the waiver.’ (The waiver stipulated that if we were eaten it was not the company’s fault.)
‘Look – they’re over in Philip’s camp, near his tent.’
‘Is Philip there?’
‘Ja, I think so.’
‘Yesterday they scared them away and said everything is okay, but they came right back.’
‘Ja, they must be hungry. They came up here maybe because of the meat. So stay with the boss.’
The scary thing about bears wandering into settlements – aside from the obvious menace of a large white bear hiding in a blizzard during the polar night – is the suggestion that something is going seriously wrong with nature; that hungry bears are a visible sign of, for example, climate change. Rising temperatures in the Arctic mean melting sea ice, which in turn makes it harder to find food (in the form of seals), and the whole sea ice ecosystem starts to collapse. The desperate mother bear – for what bear in its right mind would go near a place full of dozens of barking dogs, shouting humans, and vehicles – was likely trying to find enough to feed her cubs.
The Arctic weather was generally cold and clear, with soft, drifting snow, but again, dark – the surrounding mountains and fjord could only be glimpsed in dim outline. The effect of day after day of total darkness is hard to describe. It wasn’t far to reach the end of the road – after which there was only the abyss, like falling off a map. Occasional gale-force winds might whip up unexpectedly, turning a walk to the pub into a blind life-or-death journey in which your colleagues suddenly disappeared and you were walking down an endless icy road, alone. This made one pub on the edge of town feel a bit locked in, like Minnie’s Haberdashery in The Hateful Eight. At the same time there was also the hygge factor: indoors, for example, in restaurants and pubs and shops, everyone padded around in woolly socks; we even presented our paper in socks, which certainly gave the conference room a cosy vibe.
In the third episode of Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus experiments with phenomenology. ‘Proteus’, as the episode is commonly known, begins: ‘Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes.’ He taps with his cane along the beach in South Dublin, ‘closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells’; he asks, ‘Am I walking into eternity along Sandymount strand?’ At last he opens his eyes again and declares: ‘There all the time without you: and ever shall be, world without end.’
Being in the polar night puts you in a similarly questioning frame of mind. Are there really polar bears out there in the darkness? If so, where? Is that a mountain or an iceberg? If this really is an island, where do the edges lie? To find out you would only need to walk in any one direction long enough, but the threat of bears means you would not get far before someone brought you back to the settlement. Is the polar night, where nothing exists beyond the last streetlight but an endless sea of darkness, enough to make an island of Longyearbyen?
At the conference itself we met Owe Ronström, ethnologist and musician, a warm and generous soul from the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea, who gave the keynote and showed us cartoons of desert islands. We sat drinking boxed wine from the Nordpolet late into the night. We talked about anticipation and wish fulfilment, needs and desires, Zygmund Bauman and Albert Borgmann, as well as more topical questions: What is the best (peaceful) defense against polar bears? What are you supposed to do with brown cheese? How long can a person survive without sunlight? Is it healthy to jump in the snow after a jacuzzi? The organisers, Adam Grydehøj and Yaso Nadarajah, deserve immense credit for losing not a single delegate.
I’ve been to larger events in the past year, but none so remote or intimate. Bringing together an eclectic mix of researchers, the presentation topics ranged from medieval Norse-Sámi relations to intercorporeality and islandness to cultural identity and animal husbandry on the Estonian island of Ruhnu (pop. 97). For our part, my colleague James and I spoke about designing bespoke energy solutions for Madeira, the island on which we live.
As a recent BBC documentary on Svalbard states: ‘This is not a place for normal.’ I found this to be true, but also found promise in the periphery (the title of our talk, as it happens) – both in the case of Svalbard and our own remote island. We all survived the Arctic and after almost a week of darkness saw the sun again as we flew over Tromsø. We re-entered the world just in time to watch Trump’s ‘American carnage’ speech on CNN. Suddenly the remote expanse of Svalbard looked far less like a hostile and frozen wasteland, far more like an oasis in the midst of an apocalypse.
* A shorter version of this account appeared on the blog I co-author with James Auger: crapfutures.tumblr.com
Julian Hanna grew up on Vancouver Island. He currently lives on the island of Madeira, where he is Assistant Professor at Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute. His research on literature and technology appears regularly in academic journals; his creative nonfiction can be found in The Atlantic, Berfrois, 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], Numéro Cinq, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @julianisland and @crapfutures.
Header image by Kitty Terwolbeck CC 2.0
Others by Julian Hanna.