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. 

In Norway they call it Friluftsliv; in Maine we call it everyday life.

Ken Douglas Norway 2My love for all things Scandinavian continues with the word friluftsliv. What is that unpronounceable string of syllables, you ask? It’s a Norwegian concept, and there is no direct translation in the English language for what it means (in case you want to drop it into conversation, it’s pronounced free-loofts-liv). But anyone who lives in Maine will recognize the feeling—it’s that sense of being connected to nature, of feeling part of the greater world, of being outdoors and breathing the air, knowing that with each breath you are taking the exhalation of trees and droplets of lake water and even the matter of mountains into your lungs. Ken Douglas NorwayOkay, I’m editorializing a bit. Friluftsliv means “free air life” or “open air living” and it is similar to the concept of allemannsretten, which literally means “all men’s right” but is often translated as “freedom to roam.” (Did you know you can camp on anyone’s land in Norway, so long as you’re a certain distance from buildings? Free roaming for all!) Coined relatively recently, in 1859 by poet Henrik Ibsen, friluftsliv is a way of living that brings us into close contact with the great outdoors. It’s about connecting with nature, living in harmony with the green things that grow around us. Like the Danish concept of Hygge, frilutsliv provides another barometer for happiness—an alternative way of approaching harsh winters. Don’t hibernate—celebrate!

Scandinavian culture is so fascinating, and the longer I live in Maine, the more I appreciate their cold-weather wisdom.

Read more about this untranslatable word at Mother Nature Network (there’s also a short documentary at the link, which is great for procrastinating/feeding your wanderlust).

Images by Ken Douglas.