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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On polar bears and Barry Lopez.

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 8.50.19 PMI dream about bears.

I am not sure when bears entered my subconscious in such a strange and vivid way, but they did, and I think they may be here to stay. I dream about ferocious grizzlies and playful fat black bears. I dream about big white bears with paws the size of dinner plates and hollow hair that gleams creamy-yellow in the northern sun. In my dreams, I see cubs climbing trees and sliding over the ice. I sometimes think I can smell them in my sleep; I’ve been told they smell of pinesap and animal musk. Sweet, sticky, fresh, brutal.

Sometimes, out of the corner of my eye, I think I see a bear. I never see these phantom bears in the woods or in any landscape when I might meet an actual bear. Once, when I was very tired and working late at Maine magazine, I thought I saw a bear descending the stairs on all fours. Of course, it was just my co-worker, bending over to pick up something he had dropped. I shook my head clear of fuzz and fur, and went back to my computer screen.

I don’t know where this fixation comes from. I never liked bears, not particularly. I always felt kinship with hares and foxes, smaller animals that leap and scurry, not big lumbering things. I was never afraid of bears, either. Not like I’m afraid of heights (that terror is illogical and visceral, something that breaks my composure entirely, turning me into a quivering puddle of metallic fear and foul-smelling sweat).

I saw a video today of a polar bear cub dreaming. I wonder if it dreams of people. I hope not. I hope it dreams of calving glaciers and frigid ice floes, of the epic sounds of its northern homescape. I hope it dreams in a palette of blue and turquoise, deep rich indigo and startling mint green—the colors of frozen water and star-lit midnight.

I am reading a most excellent book right now: Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. Never have I found an author whose career I desire as much as I want his. He makes nonfiction feel as pleasurable as fiction (and that is NOT an easy task). Someday, when I’m old and grey and going over my body of work, I want it to feel like his—varied, complex, focused on nature and the natural world, brave, smart, poetic. Here’s just a tiny sample of the wisdom and beauty that flows throughout Arctic Dreams:

How is one to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s culture but within oneself? If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be when one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of contradiction, because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of leaning into the light.

Dreaming of bears and leaning into the light—one is my reality, the other, my goal. Not a bad place to be, for now.

Image: Sculpture by artist Ellen Jewett who makes “natural history surrealist sculpture.” See more here.