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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Jetlagged in Zurich & where I’m headed next.

rhythmic-landscape-on-lake-geneva-1908On the plane ride from Boston to Zurich I met a girl named Desiree who was flying home to Bern. She had been visiting her boyfriend (a Mexican-American serving in the US Air Force). She missed him already, and I told her I missed my guy, too, even though we had only been apart for a few hours.

When we got off the plane, she helped me find the shuttle train, those quiet and sleek trains that seem to have been installed in every major airport. I was asking her about Switzerland—do you like living in Bern? what is the best thing to eat while I’m here? what’s cool about Zurich?—and when we got on the train, she pointed up with one finger. Her eyes were the kind of pristine china blue that inspires men to write longwinded rock ballads. “Listen,” she told me. “They play cows and the sound of birds and that big instrument that you blow? That big one that is shaped like a…” here she used her hands to draw a large swoop in the air. “That’s Switzerland,” she said as the sound of mooing started playing over the intercom. She laughed.

Earlier in our conversation, I asked her what she liked about America. She said a lot of things, but my favorite was this: She said it was just like the movies. She wanted to go to a house party, having seen so many on screen. “Those red plastic cups!” she exclaimed. “Solo cups,” I provided. “I love them, too.” I asked if she got to play beer pong, and she said yes, and even though this sounds silly—your country has cows, mine has house parties and drunk college students—it made me feel infinitely better about America. We’re the country of flip cup and Hollywood and boyfriends in the Air Force and lots and lots of land.maggia-delta-before-sunrise-1893

I’m in a Holiday Inn in Zurich now. It’s a 24-hour layover before I fly to Oslo. I can’t sleep, because my body hasn’t figured out which knob to pull to reset and rewind its inner watch. I spend the day wandering around the city. I spent hours in an art museum (more on that another time) before walking aimlessly around the streets until my feet hurt from the cobblestones and my mind felt foggy. It’s a Sunday, so all the shops are closed, but it was 50-something degrees out and it seemed like the entire population had come out to celebrate. I walked across bridges, back and forth crossing one side to the next, like I was lacing up a shoe. On each bridge, I stopped to look south, out to Lake Zurich, out to the Alps. I’m always looking toward mountains.

Tomorrow I fly to Oslo. From there, I go further north. It’s as though I harbor a compass inside my ribcage, an iron needle that hums and worries when it’s being ignored. Ever since I was a little girl, I have always fantasized about the far north, the arctic, the cold, the clear truth of ice.

I’ll be there soon. Zurich was lovely, and I miss America already, but I’m excited for Finnmark. I hope to write more on this blog while I’m there, so whoever is reading this… I’ll see you again soon.

Images by Swiss painter Ferdinand Hodler, who may just be my new favorite artist. He believed in something called “parallelism,” a system of symmetry and rhythm that connected people to the landscape and created world harmony. (I think? I’m not sure I fully understand.) His work reminds me of the Viennese Secessionists (my fave) and I spent a very long time in a room with his paintings today, just staring. Today was a good day. 

Rock stealers confess in beautiful book.

badluckhotrocks12-1024x824I am a rock thief. I left Iceland with pebbles in my pocket, black lava stones that had been smoothed by the ocean, pieces of wild nature that fit into my palm. No terrible luck has befallen me as a result of this practice—yet.

Collected in the book Bad Luck, Hot Rocks: Conscience Letters and Photographs from the Petrified Forest are dozens of confessions that were sent to Arizona’s National Park. There are over a thousand such letters, and they date back to the 1930s. In these letters, people apologize for stealing rocks, often returning the pilfered items alongside handwritten tales of woe. Broken down cars, sudden illnesses, divorce—all supposedly stem from the curse. Bad luck befalls anyone who steals from the petrified forest.

I think maybe I should return my Icelandic stones. Now I feel guilty for taking them off the beach. It’s just so hard for me to resist the desire to pocket rocks. They’re simple, potent symbols for an experience of sublime awe and beauty. But… perhaps they belong where they belong. As the old Leave No Trace credo goes, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” I need to get better at that one—and some others. (At least I’m aways improving, right?)

P.S. I bought the book. You can, too. It’s a perfect gift for naturalist magpies or whimsical outdoorsmen.

 

“Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree.”

4167-frauen-auf-baeumen-lr-04Collector Jochen Raiss gathered hundreds of vintage photos of women lounging in trees and recently published them in a comprehensive coffee table book called Frauen auf Baumen (in English: “women in trees”). From what I’ve seen so far, the pictures are delightful—silly and strange and happy. Obviously, I want this book.

While we’re on the topic of trees, and German folks, I found this passage by writer Hermann Hesse in which he muses on what trees can teach us:

In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfill themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree… A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live. Trees have long thoughts, long—breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is.

Beautiful

Everything she wants to say: Some paintings by Helen Lundeberg.

yas-queen-helen-lundeberg“My paintings and drawings say everything I want to say,” artist Helen Lundeberg once famously said. I’ve got a lot of thoughts about why her minimalist work is so visually appealing, but since she since she was a lady of few words, I’ll keep my commentary short, too.

Here is a dope landscape: helen-lundebergHere is a painting that made me go YAS QUEEN: here-for-it-helen-lundebergI’m HERE FOR IT, Helen Lundeberg! i-like-you-helen-lundebergIf you’re a New Yorker (which you probably aren’t since my blog is weirdly popular in Finland and Portugal but not NYC) go see her work at the Cristin Tierny gallery as part of an exhibit titled “Classic Attitude.”

Plus, here’s a NY Mag slideshow of her works. I have always liked Alex Katz, but I love Helen Lundeberg (they’ve got similar vibes going on). So flat! So minimal! Such colors!

Pretty dark: Star kicking.

mihoko-ogakiI learned a new term today, thanks to my favorite nighttime distraction, The Myths and Legends podcast, and I’m excited to share it with everyone (even though I suspect few people will want to hear it). Our history lesson of the week is the phrase “star kicking.” Though it sounds beautiful, it’s actually what famed Hungarian torturer, sadist, and murder Countess Elizabeth Bathory did to people she disliked. Well, it’s one of the many things that twisted bitch did—she also drained people of their blood, ate peasant girls, and murdered hundreds of people. (She preferred adolescent girls, because, let’s be real guys, even women hate women! That’s the real poison of the patriarchy.) But anyway, she also liked to stick pieces of parchment between her victims toes and light them on fire. They would then kick and flail in attempts to dislodge the flaming pieces of paper and animal skin. Thus: Star kicking.

Horrible, right? It sounds so pretty. Star kicking. It has a real rhythm to the syllables, a real swing to its iambic feet, those insolent i’s and careless k’s. But damn, Bathory was messed up.

The more you know, right?

Image: Sculpture by Mihoko Ogaki, part of an ongoing series of installations called “Milky Ways.”

For now we have parsley.

sadnessWhen I grieve, I feel it. Not feelings feel it, but I physically, literally, intensely feel it. This isn’t unusual, I know, but it never ceases to amaze me. When my emotions are too much for my head to handle, my body begins to ache. My chest hurts, a pain that feels heavy. Breathing becomes a burden. Tears do nothing to wash it away.

I’ve learned that there is no way to move beyond grief except by moving through it. By feeling it with my whole body. By letting my heart be a rock for a while. By letting my limbs be numb and heavy and my brain be clouded and fogged. I cry until my eyes hurt. I remind myself, “Drink water, sleep, take care of yourself.” I drink, I sleep. I eat strange meals of zucchini soggy with vinegar, bunches of parsley pulled from the fridge and balled up in my fist, pieces of dry, broken crackers that taste like ash in my mouth. I drink more water, and then it comes out in tears.

Healing will come eventually, but grief comes first.

For now, we have poetry (and water and parsley). Here are some good words:

The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Barry 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Illustration by Willian Santiago. See more here.