Greetings from the Arctic Circle (and why animal sounds are just sublime).

polar bear jill greenberg

Today I am revisiting a book I haven’t read since college (though in college we called it a “text”), Edmund Burke’s On The Sublime and Beautiful. Despite it’s rather strange specificity (he devotes paragraphs to explaining why some colors evoke feelings of the sublime, while others do not, or why looking down from a great height feels more moving than gazing up at something equally tall) it feels appropriate for my current geographical situation.

A few hours ago, I crossed over the imaginary, human-delineated line into the arctic circle. I flew into Bodø and boarded an old 60’s cruise ship, which goes port-to-port all the way to Hammerfest. The weather is poor—rain, sleet, and some muculent snowflakes—and the waves are rough (I have fed myself enough dramamine to dizzy a whale) and the company is blue-haired and heavily accented, but I’m enjoying myself immensely despite all that. I’m reading a lot and staring at the ocean for extended stretches of time. I’ve thought about a lot of very stupid things but I’m trying my best to keep focused on more useful ideas or (gah, excuse the cliche) living in the moment. Sometimes, that second thing comes naturally, even for me, because certain emotions occupy the brain like hostile soldiers, leaving no room for dissent (or intrusive thoughts or niggling worries). Fear, even fear of vomiting from motion sickness, will do that. But so does astonishment, and I’ve felt a good deal of that in the past four hours. Burke explains the effects of astonishment like this:

The Passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.

Mountains, whether I’m looking up at them or down from them, never fail to astonish me. Animals, too, can be astonishing. Later in his very thorough book, Burke grapples with four-legged things and the sounds they make:

Such sounds as imitate the natural inarticulate voices of men, or any animals in pain or danger, are capable of conveying great ideas; unless it be the well-known voice of some creature, on which we are used to look with contempt. The angry tones of wild beasts are equally capable of causing a great and awful sensation… It might seem that these modulations of sound carry some connexion with the nature of the things they represent, and are not merely arbitrary; because the natural cries of all animals, even of those animals with whom we have not been acquainted, never fail to make themselves sufficiently understood; this cannot be said of language. The modifications of sound, which may be productive of the sublime, are almost infinite. Those I have mentioned are only a few instances to show on what principles they are all built.

There haven’t been any polar bears in this part of Norway for a long time, but I still dream of seeing one. From a far distance, while I’m wearing an armored suit and holding a flare gun, just in case. Just look at these sexy beasts:

Polar Bear_Jill Greenberg_2

Anyway, I have to go now. They’re serving warm fish soup (“varm fiske suppe”) on the outdoor deck and I’m going to try to sneak a second portion.

Images by Jill Greenberg, an amazing photographer who somehow makes every piece look like a silky, rich painting. See more of her series “Ursine” here. Read the full text of A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful for free on Bartleby.com. 

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A perfect word for that good kind of melancholy.

andy_denzler_sad_pleasuresFrom an NPR piece on Brazilian music, a beautiful word that has no direct translation in English:

Perhaps my favorite of these elusive words is saudade, a Portuguese and Galician term that is a common fixture in the literature and music of Brazil, Portugal, Cape Verde and beyond. The concept has many definitions, including a melancholy nostalgia for something that perhaps has not even happened. It often carries an assurance that this thing you feel nostalgic for will never happen again. My favorite definition of saudade is by Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”

This is the perfect word for when a sad song gives you goosebumps and makes your throat ache but you still play it on repeat. It’s also the perfect word for so many artistic experiences, so many encounters with art and literature.

But is it bad to suffer a pleasure? The word saudade reminds me of the problem of sentimentally, particularly Leslie Jamison’s defense of the term  She grapples with the pleasure of sentimentality, with the dangers of feeling something too acutely or performing that feeling with too much flair. The New Yorker thinks the pangs of pathos that come from reading a sad story are fundamentally lazy. In an article about Humans of New York, the venerated magazine argues that storytelling has lost its teeth and become something less savage, more concerned with egos and sentimentality and branding than ripping away the veil:

In this way, [Humans of New York] joins organizations like ted and the Moth at the vanguard of a slow but certain lexical refashioning. Once an arrangement of events, real or invented, organized with the intent of placing a dagger—artistic, intellectual, moral—between the ribs of a listener or reader, a story has lately become a glossier, less thrilling thing: a burst of pathos, a revelation without a veil to pull away. “Storytelling,” in this parlance, is best employed in the service of illuminating business principles, or selling tickets to non-profit galas, or winning contests.

I agree that stories can be daggers, or as Kafka puts it, axes to hack away at the frozen sea inside. But I also agree with Jamison and de Melo—some ailments are too sweet not to enjoy. Some pains are pleasurable.

And I’ll take my pleasure where I can get it. I am lazy and I am very, very susceptible to saudade.

Image by Andy Denzler. See more of his glitchy paintings here. 

Big city lion.

big city lionWhile on assignment in Spain, photographer Julia Werner found a starving dog blonde dog. She fed the skinny little guy and rescued him. She loved his big spirit, and so she made him a mane to match. Then they went out exploring Hapsburg. The resulting photo series is wonderful—whimsical and sweet. Poking around her website, I saw that she also photographs kids in super hero costumes, which is just so damn happy it hurts.

And with that, have a nice weekend, you big city lions.

Your wild is tame compared to these reindeer-riders.

05-mongolian-reindeerOne of my many 2016 goals is to get in touch with my wild side. I don’t mean my party-girl-stay-up-all-night self (no, I know that bitch well enough already, thanks) but my moss-sniffing, leaf-eating, earth-worshipping wild side. The side of me that revels in storms and licks the rainwater off my face. The side that dreams of bears and sleeps under the stars.

This part of myself is also loud and a little unruly. She feels everything and she reacts quickly. She knows her place in the world and loves it (she’s joyful, that wild girl). She’s dirty and willful and perhaps even sometimes a little obnoxious. But she doesn’t give a fuck. Because that’s what being wild is… to me, right now.

But as I write this, I am reminded of the actual wild folk on this planet, the people who live off the land for twelve months of the year. Compared to many people in this big world, I’m the tamest little shrew that ever lived, typing away on my laptop, safe in my bed, miles from any the real wilderness. In many ways, I have an easy life, a cushy one that allows me to grow fat on my butt and fingernails too long for manual labor.reindeerriders1

I know “easy” is relative. I know one way of living is not superior to another. I know I am romanticizing the nomadic, of-the-land lifestyle that many people lead by necessity. But I do think there’s something I can learn from listening to my wilder side. I think there’s a lot the earth can teach me; so many things the world has yet to reveal.

Today, I am gazing at pictures by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, a Harvard-educated photojournalist and scholar with a Phd in Mongolian and Tibetan languages. He spent over a decade living in Tibet and the Himalayas, documenting the lives of nomadic tribes and herders. He captured women riding reindeer and men communing with bears. He documented a girl and her fawn and a boy gazing proudly at his trained eagle. He lived amongst these people, learned their habits, and depicts their wild lives with compassion, honesty, and just a little romance.

Mongolia_Reindeer_PhotographyThere’s nothing wild about looking at pictures on your computer screen, but it is very inspiring. Check out more of his work at MessyNessy or on his official website. 

By the light of the moon.

Darren Almond Full Moon PhotographyPhotographer Darren Almond uses the full moon to light his landscapes, and the results are otherworldly, frothy and strange, with muted colors and streaks of brightness as stars move across the sky. “With long exposures, you can never see what you are shooting,” said in an interview with The Guardian. “But you are giving the landscape longer to express itself.”Fullmoon-Quatrain700

Moonlight has always felt rather magical; I think it helps reveal things that are normally concealed. It shows the landscape at its softest, most vulnerable. Like people, who undress at night and slip under the covers, turning toward each other in quiet intimacy, the earth slowly disrobes as the moon rises, shedding layers of shadow and light until only the thing itself is left. You have to strain your eyes and open your apertures to see it. You have to wait. Steady, still.  Continue reading

Shooting the moon: early lunar photography.

First Photograph of the Moon This photograph is believed to be the earliest picture captured of the moon. The mirror-reversed daguerreotype was taken by Josh W. Draper from his rooftop observatory at NYC on March 26, 1840. Early Moon Photography by DraperHere is another one of Draper’s early moon pictures. (Photo by J. W. Draper/London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images). According to this article, Draper wasn’t the first photographer to shoot the moon. Several Frenchmen may have beaten him to it, but he was the first photographer to capture it in any detail. He was also definitely the first to shoot a full moon, so he gets credit for that. First image of the far side of the moonThe Soviets beat us to the opposite side of the moon. This picture was captured by Zond-3, the second spaceship to view the far side of the lunar surface. Lots more here.First picture of the earth from th emoonOne of the first pictures of the earth shot from the surface of the moon. Via National Geographic: “This photo reveals the first view of Earth from the moon, taken by Lunar Orbiter 1 on August 23, 1966. Shot from a distance of about 236,000 miles (380,000 kilometers), this image shows half of Earth, from Istanbul to Cape Town and areas east, shrouded in night.”

“When I follow the serried multitude of the stars in their circular course, my feet no longer touch the earth.”

Friend_A-03Sometimes, I think the stars come out at night because that is when we are tired and worn, when we feel threadbare from the demands of the day. Stars ask for nothing (and most pleasures do ask for something; even flowers beg to be smelled). They are the stalwart companions of the insomniac, steadfast enough to guide a ship. The night sky is the largest, most expansive thing I will ever see with my own eyes. I can look out across an ocean, but as the world curves, it turns and hides itself, coyly holding back a glimpse of my final destination. The night is a gift in that way, a brief time when hidden things become visible, a suitcase turned inside-out and upside-down. Those stars, bone-white and unfathomable, are infinite in a way that nothing in my life will ever be infinite. They are beyond me always; beyond the grasp of my mind, beyond the reach of my arms. And yet, all I need to do is walk outside and I can take part in that silent symphony. Always, I’ll have the stars. And never will I ever have the stars. I find this comforting. I find this to be true.

Image by photographer Amy Friend. More here.

Iceland is magic.

Andre-Ermolaev_Iceland_photograph
2015 has been a strange year for me. It’s been a year of very high highs (engagement! book deal!) and very low lows (cancer. surgery.) and all the forward motion has my head whirling. So, I did what I always do in times of stress: I booked it outta there.

I’m writing this from Iceland. I’m staying in a little wilderness pod on a peninsula in western Iceland, about an hour or so north of Reykjavik. I’ve been to Iceland before, but I didn’t get to truly experience it. Now, I’m traveling abroad alone for the first time in my life and I love it. I’ve been here for less than 24 hours, but I’ve already swam in an outdoor public pool, took a sulfur steam bath, climbed to the top of Reykjavik’s highest church, tripped into a waterfall, and hiked over a Viking ruin. It’s a little lonely being here by myself, but in a way I really enjoy. I talk to myself. I eat what I want. I take naps in the car. I ignore all itineraries because the only one I need is in my own damn head.Andre_Iceland_photography
Anyway, for the next five days, I’m going to be bumming around the Icelandic countryside looking for hidden folk and snacking on delicious cheese. (Seriously, the cheese here is like nothing I’ve ever tasted—creamy beyond belief, flavorful yet mild. Mmmm I want more just thinking about it.)

In the meantime, please check out some of my previous Scandinavian-themed blog posts:

1. A post about “Friluftsliv” a rad Norwegian word that means connecting to nature, soaking in the wilderness, and feeling peace from green things.
2. Have you ever heard of the Jolabokaflood? It’s a holiday tradition that I think is absolutely BRILLIANT. (Also, did you know Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country on earth?)
3. A little bit of imagery-inspired fiction (or to use a title I don’t really like, “Old Finnish People With Stuff On Their Heads)
Iceland areal shot
And finally, the pictures above are by the very talented photographer Andre Ermolaev. Seen from above, the Icelandic landscape is even more otherworldly (and trust me, it’s pretty surreal already). His photographs look like beautiful abstract paintings. He captures the natural beauty so wonderfully, with striking compositions and colors that really sing. Check it out.

Two nice things: a poem by Colleen McElroy and the fantastical photography of Cig Harvey.

cig_Harvey_TheBluebird

Sometimes the Way It Rains Reminds Me of You
Colleen J. McElroy

these days I speak of myself in the past tense
writing about yesterday knowing tomorrow
is no more than mist crawling toward violet mountains
I think of days when this weather meant you
were not so far away   the light changing
so fast I believe I can see you turning a corner
the rain comes in smelling of pine and moss
a kind of brazen intrusion on the careful seeds of spring
I pay more attention to details these days
saving the most trivial until I sort them for trash
or recycle   a luxury I’ve come to know only recently
you have never been too far from my thoughts
despite the newborn birds and their erratic songs
the way they tilt their heads as if dowsing for the sun
the way they repeat their singular songs
over and over as if wishing for a different outcome

Read that poem aloud. It is so beautiful—both in the lyrical language and the subject matter (I would like my life to smell like rain and pine and moss, please and thank you). Then, go look at these stunning images by Maine photographer Cig Harvey. Although we live in the same state, and have contributed to the same publications, I’ve never worked with Harvey. So far, I’ve just admired her work from a distance. Her photographs are rich with surreal, subtle magic. I dig it.

Sweet science: deer beds.

Katherine_Wolkoff_DeerbedHere is something I learned today: Deer beds are beautiful.

Here’s another thing: Deer travel and live in herds. They’re social animals—to an extent. While the bucks are off… doing whatever it is bucks do, the lady-deers come together. The female deers and their little dappled fawns bed down together in large groups, while the bucks only hang out in groups of three to five (they are constantly fighting for dominance, which weakens the herd dynamic, kind of like when you go out with a few guys and they start playing darts and the night quickly dissolves into puffed chests and hurt feelings).

Hunters often track deer based on the imprints they leave when they lie down to rest. They create oval-shaped indents on the ground, crumpled swirls of grass. In the winter, their body heat melts the snow beneath, so if you see a few round melty spots, that’s probably a deer bed. Katherine_Wolkoff_deerbed_2

Photographer Katherine Wolkoff has created a series called “Deer Beds,” and I’m absolutely in love. To capture these images, she followed deer around Block Island, stopping where they did and training her camera on their nocturnal nests. The photographs (above) are strangely intimate and human. Touching and wild. Sweet and subtle. Imagine stumbling on a one of these deer beds in the wild grass. Lie down, it’s still warm from their gentle heat. Smell the plants, prickly and pungent, green and growing. Go to sleep. Dream of the herd, prancing away without you. Oh, deer.