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Rebecca Solnit, The Art of Not Knowing Where You Are

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Here are my three fleeting personal experiences of the far North.  In 1982, on my only trip to Japan, I flew over the Aleutian Islands.  Out the plane window was a spectacular sight, jagged, snowy mountaintops tearing through clouds -- spectacular, that is, until a stewardess came over and asked me to pull down the shade.  The movie Fame was onscreen and the Aleutian light was bothering the passengers around me.

In another distant year, after a boondoggle of a summer trip to a "peace conference" in Stockholm and a night spent farther north in Sweden where the sun set late and slow, and I could go out "after dark" to gather wild mushrooms with an expert (and her two Egyptian wolfhounds), I flew home over Greenland.  That place had loomed mysteriously large on my childhood globe and indeed, even from the heights, Greenland once again loomed large and mysterious.  Finally, if memory is to be trusted, I once saw the Aurora Borealis faintly over Long Island (New York).  Other than that my sole venture north of southern Canada was in an early, particularly degraded part of my work life.  I first broke into publishing as a freelance editor of textbooks for professors whose idea of scholarly research was, in at least one case, to take a publisher's money meant for a research assistant and spend it on a snow blower.  (Perhaps that, too, should qualify as an obscure connection to the snowy north.)  In any case, it meant that I became a de facto researcher for the book, my entertainment at the time.

I ended up writing those little boxes, you know, the ones with curious tales and even more curious facts that are meant to enliven a dreary text, including one I wrote about the far north that has never left my mind.  As it happened, in the Middle Ages, certain birds like the "barnacle goose" had breeding grounds so far north that no European had seen them.  Conveniently, for those in Catholic Europe yearning to eat flesh on Fridays, that aptly named goose and other northern breeders could be imagined as generating from shells and so products of the sea ("neither flesh, nor born of flesh").  Once the actual breeding grounds were discovered and the lack of barnacles with geese in them became apparent, the French word for that goose (and more generally for "duck"), "canard," also became the word for "hoax," "false report," "lie."  Fully accurate or not, it's the memory of "the north" that I carry with me.    

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Today, in a lovely experiment, Rebecca Solnit has adapted a section of her new book, The Faraway Nearby, for this website.  That book contains some of the most beautiful writing she's ever done, sentences that will make you (or at least made me) gasp out loud.  The book is officially a memoir about her difficult relationship with her mother, but honestly that's a little like saying The Odyssey is a tale of a traveler's conflicted relationship with a one-eyed stranger.  The Faraway Nearby is also a flight and an escape, literal and figurative, into the north of everything, into a place of total darkness -- which, TomDispatch readers will remember, was the confounding image of hope Solnit first brought to this site in May 2003 -- and of total light.  It's about fleeing yourself and so finding yourself, often in others and in the most unexpected ways.  It's about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Che Guevara's visit to a leprosy colony.  It's about... well, take a taste below and then make sure that you explore The Faraway Nearby at your leisure.  Head north, young woman (or young man), into the healing darkness that links you to the rest of us.  No recent book I've picked up has been more worth the read. Tom


The Far North of Experience 
In Praise of Darkness (and Light) 
By Rebecca Solnit

One summer some years ago, on a peninsula jutting off another peninsula off the west coast of Iceland, I lived among strangers and birds. The birds were mostly new species I got to know a little, the golden plovers plaintively dissembling in the grass to lead intruders away from their nests, the oystercatchers who flew overhead uttering unearthly oscillating cries, the coastal fulmars, skuas, and guillemots, and most particularly the arctic terns. The impeccable whiteness of their feathers, the sharpness of their scimitar wings, the fierceness of their cries, and the steepness of their dives were all enchanting.

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Terns were once called sea swallows for their deeply forked tails and grace in the air, and in Latin, arctic terns were named sterna paradisaea by a pietist Danish cleric named Erik Pontoppidan, at the end of a turbulent career. It's not clear why in 1763 he called the black-capped, white-feathered arctic terns sterna paradisaea: birds -- or terns -- of paradise. He could not have known about their extraordinary migration, back in the day when naturalists -- and Pontoppidan himself in his book on Norway -- thought swallows buried themselves in the mud in winter and hibernated, rather than imagining they and other birds flew far south to other climes.

Of all living things, arctic terns migrate farthest and live in the most light and least darkness. They fly tens of thousands of miles a year as they relocate from farthest north to farthest south. When they are not nesting, they rarely touch ground and live almost constantly in flight, like albatrosses, like their cousins the sooty terns who roam above the equatorial seas for years at a time without touching down. Theirs is a paradise of endless light and endless effort. The lives of angels must be like this.

The far north is an unearthly earth, where much of what those of us in temperate zones were told is universal is not true. Everyone walks on water, which is a solid. In winter, you can build palaces out of it, or houses out of snow. Ice is blue. Snow insulates. Water crystallizes into floating mountains that destroy whatever collides with them. Many other things turn hard as rock in the cold. Nothing decays, and so time stops for the dead, if not the living. Cold is stability and warmth can be treacherous.

Trees dwindle; shrubs cling to the ground; and further north nothing remains of the plant kingdom but low grasses, diminutive flowers, mosses, and lichens hidden beneath the snow part of the year; and nearly every species but the reindeer and some of the summer birds is carnivorous. In winter, light can seem to shine upward from the white ground more than from the dark sky where the sun doesn't rise or rises for an hour or two a day. And at the poles themselves, there are not 365 days per year but one long night and one long stretch of light, and the sun rises once in the spring and sets once in the fall.

Their opposite is the equator, where every day and every night of the year is exactly twelve hours long. The further north or south you go, the longer summer days and winter nights get. In Iceland, each day of spring was several minutes longer than the one before, so that in May the days went from nearly 17 to 20 hours long, and by June there is no true darkness, no night. The sun dipped low around midnight or after and there were spectacular sunsets that melted into sunrises, because the sun never went entirely away.

That summer among the terns, I lived at latitude 65, about as far north as Fairbanks, Alaska, and one degree south of the Arctic Circle. If you go farther north, to, say, the town of Longyearbyen in the Norwegian Arctic at latitude 78, which I later visited, the sun rises in late April and stays above the horizon until nearly the end of August, when sunset finally comes -- a few minutes before sunrise. There, winter is a night as long as that summer day, running from the end of October until the middle of February. The twenty-four-hour cycle of day and night we think of as normal and daily comes as a rush of rapidly changing days and nights, flickering like a strobe, between the great day and the great night that each lasts 1,000 hours or more.

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Long ago, I had read about the white nights of St. Petersburg in Russia, at only 59 degrees north, and I had once spent a couple of weeks in the Canadian wilderness at that latitude near midsummer, when night was just a blush of darkness that generally began and ended while I was asleep in my tent. I had always wanted to see the white nights farther north, but actually living through them was a little disorienting.

In Praise of Darkness

Sometimes during that summer when the sky was often gray but never black, I would think that a task had to be done before darkness and then realize that there would be no more darkness while I was there, and it didn't matter so much when I rose, when I slept, when I traveled. For me day and night were time itself, and I missed the rhythm and structure they provide. I missed stars. Darkness no longer shut me in: I shut light out to sleep. It was as though I had entered a landscape that itself never slept, never dreamed, that never let up the rational alertness of daytime, the light of interrogation and analysis.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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