Impossible… to happen
…human, but to pray for a share
… and for myself

Sappho, from Fragment 16

 

1. In October 2017 I became a mariner of sorts. I set sail from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, on the Arctic archipelago ten degrees from the North Pole. On board the Antigua, I wouldn’t have access to the internet. I wouldn’t see my cousin’s video comparing Democrats to Hitler. I wouldn’t see my great aunt’s meme likening Republicans to Hitler. I wouldn’t glimpse my mother’s support of Franklin Graham or my colleague’s mockery of Graham for his comments about walls. On the Antigua, I could escape my growing anxiety over the great cracks in my relationships since the 2016 U.S. election.

The Antigua is a traditionally-rigged barquentine tall ship like those of the seventeenth century but with modern amenities like a gourmet kitchen and a diesel engine. I was joined by twenty-eight other artists from around the world. Besides the U.S., there were people from Singapore, Latvia, New Zealand, Australia, Taiwan, Canada, and England. Day after day, we traveled north from the rainbow-colored glacier of Ymerbukta to the ice-choked waters of Fuglefjorden to the strangely flat island of Moffen, farther and farther from the divisive noise south of the Arctic Ice Cap. We helped the crew raise and lower sails, splashed ashore in rubber zodiacs, and hiked desolate tundra of islands small and large to work on our art. One artist wrapped batik cloth around icebergs granting them personhood in a Buddhist-like ceremony. Another recorded calving glaciers with an underwater mic. Another shot an experimental film featuring plastic inflatables, garish and grim against the silent whiteness. A sculptor created glass replicas of small ice chunks. A performance artist made love to glaciers. “This trip has an enormous carbon footprint,” she said, “so we have to take responsibility for it, and I want love to be the means by which I do that.”[1]

I had come to write a series of fragments to reflect the fracturing Arctic ecosystem, the ice that creaked and moaned, calved and split into bergy bits and growlers. But my plan turned out to be more difficult than I’d thought. Once we set sail, I realized that though I admired fragments as a literary form—my favorite poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, is master of the fragment—they seemed impossible to write while living with the other artists in the close proximity of the ship. Even on shore we were relegated to a bordered area guarded by three formidable women carrying shotguns to protect us from possible polar bear attacks. A wonderful cohesion developed as we slept, ate, and worked elbow to elbow.

handmade paper with text "The very deep did rot: O Christ! That ever this should be! Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs Upon the slimy sea"

 

2. I’d brought on board the Antigua a copy of Coleridge’s 1802 The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a poem I teach every year. Before squeezing into bed at night, I reread the familiar story, how the mariner shoots an albatross, how the crew hangs the slaughtered bird around his neck for penance, how in the land of mist and snow, there is no redemption, only a dying world. The sun sits like a disc on the rim of the earth. The wind stops blowing. Rain ceases. The ocean burns and begins to rot. The ship stagnates in its own shadow. As the crew members drop dead in the relenting heat and resurrect as ghosts, the mariner sinks into existential depression.

Coleridge did not travel to the north or south poles, but he took some of his images from early Arctic travel narratives. In the wee hours of mornings—the only time I was alone during the voyage—I stood on deck among the ropes and pulleys, gazing out at the land of mist and snow, imagining myself as one of those seventeenth-century mariners who might bring home alarming stories of a world gone awry. During the days, I strolled around with my notebook watching the other artists.

One afternoon, I was standing in front of Esmarkbreen, a glacier on Svalbard’s west coast. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a woman, gray hair flying in the wind, thick black glasses, and an open face, who, like me, was one of only several middle-aged people on board. Annique was collecting water in jars and tubs. “I’m fascinated by water in all its forms, by how water connects us,” she said in a melodic Australian accent. She spoke in such hushed tones, I had to lean in and say, what? “The water that we find here in the Arctic is the same water that travels around the world. It’s the same water that runs through our bodies. Water doesn’t have a notion of borders like we do.”

I followed Annique to the top of the glacier where she rolled out sheets of Chinese mulberry paper two or three meters long. She asked several of us to cover our hands with graphite powder and then place our hands on the paper. The warmth of our skin melted the ice below, mixing with the graphite, so that our human touch became marks embedded on the paper. The idea, Annique said, was to allow us to draw in partnership with one another and with the glacier underneath.

 

3. When I struggled to write literary fragments in the Arctic, I don’t know why I didn’t link that struggle to the day-to-day fragmentation I’d experienced since the U.S. election. At the university where I work, more students than ever lined up for counseling services, mirroring national trends. People I knew who’d worked together for years building successful student programs stopped speaking. I stopped speaking to a woman who, all evidence to the contrary, accused a friend of racism. When my parents called with Fox News blasting in the background, I froze up and delivered short yes and no answers. My husband’s bitter argument with one of his best friends in a Chicago restaurant was a reminder of how easily relationships could crumble in this brave new era. I hated the division. There’s nothing worse for me than the ache of not connecting with the people in my life. There’s nothing more devastating than being at the center of a shattering community. Cutting off colleagues, friends, family, and being cut off by them, made me feel as if there was something terribly wrong with me.

handmade paper with text "Researchers explain life remained little more than slime for a billion years before rapidly diversifying in the 'Cambrian explosion of life'. February 18, 2014 Science in Public"

 

4. One morning on the Antigua, after pushing through the night, we anchored on the northern tip of Svalbard in a bay, huge snowy mountains punching through sky and the sun barely visible on the rim of the earth. We went ashore on the island of Amsterdamoya, high waves besetting our zodiacs. Kristin, one of our polar bear guards, a dark-haired Norwegian in skin pants and jacket she’d made herself from seals she’d hunted with her dog sled team, guided us to the settlement of Smeerenberg—literally, blubber town—the best-known whaling station of the seventeenth century.

At the south end of the island was a huddle of groaning walrus. The entire artist group tiptoed over to watch the barking goliaths. They lifted their heads, whiskers thick as rope, yellow tusks razoring the sky. They belched and farted and rolled on top of one another. In a moment of recognition, we laughed into our gloves.

After half an hour, most of the artists strode away to collect Arctic garbage that had washed up on the beaches; a few lingered to film the walrus. But I felt drawn to the remains of the whaling settlement, a space littered with splintered timbers and whale vertebrae hundreds of years old. The bones were well-preserved, bleached white by the sun, and wrapped in kelp. I walked among the bones and crumbling rings of red bricks the size of billiard tables—fragments of the blubber ovens once used to render oil from whales. The ovens cast long, eerie shadows across the golden sand pocked with dry snow. Whales, I learned from one of the books I’d brought, were slaughtered in such great numbers in 1640 that they virtually disappeared from Svalbard. The settlement was the first instance of oil extraction, the forbear of the modern petroleum industry.

I wandered down to the shore. One of the other guards was looking out to sea, shotgun slung easily over her shoulder. She squatted and grabbed a wad of kelp, which was strewn along the beach in a gilded band as far as I could see. “You can dry this and use it as parchment,” she said. I scowled at the wiggly mass spilling over her gloved hand, recalling the algae and bull kelp of my childhood on Mukilteo beach near Seattle, where my mother often took my brothers and me to play among the tide pools. I had been repulsed by the slimy organisms then, long and curly like intestines or globular and organ-like, a heart or lung, and had turned away. But at Smeerenberg, I touched the cold, slick surface of these delicately beautiful life forms and felt strangely calmed for the first time in months. These simple beings thrive by clumping together, the guard said, because they function as a group rather than as individuals. A weakness of humans is their complexity, I thought, and I felt a momentary longing for the impossible, to be as communal as kelp.

handmade paper with a photo of bones

 

5. By the time I joined the Antigua, I’d already begun to make friends with marine algae, of which kelp is one example. Months earlier, I visited the southern English seaport of Watchet, the setting of the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I climbed to St. Decuman’s church, a squat stone structure on the hill above the town, where the poet first looked down on the seaside and imagined the bride in white, the naïve wedding guest, the mariner who is cursed to retell his story of shooting the albatross. I ate dinner at the Bell Inn, a traditional pub with low ceilings, yellow walls, a fireplace, where Coleridge wrote the poem.

I’ve been fascinated with the Ancient Mariner for twenty-five years, since my graduate student days. I’ve written scholarly pieces about how the mariner’s journey could be an indictment of Europe’s destructive practices, from global trade and scientific exploitation, to the annexation of India and the horrors of forced labor and slavery, to industrial capitalism and environmental destruction. But there is one part of the poem that has always puzzled me: the “thousand thousand slimy things,” prolific, alive, thickening the ocean and repulsing the mariner. The slimy things appear throughout the poem, including at the miraculous turning point, when the mariner’s world is on the brink of apocalypse and he suddenly feels intense love for them. He cries:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
And I blessed them unaware.

At the moment of unconscious blessing, that is, his curse lifts and the albatross falls from his neck.

But what, I’ve wondered, is an unconscious blessing? And what exactly are slimy things? Sea animals? Primordial goo? Environmental waste? Or—as I was beginning to think as I walked the beaches of Watchet—kelp. Kelp was Watchet’s main export in 1797, when Coleridge wrote the poem. The kelp and marine algae under my own feet was thick and various, as they would have been in Coleridge’s day. I couldn’t help but stoop to touch them, and soon I found myself shoving the organisms into my pack. Back at my hotel, I rinsed them in the bathtub to remove the oily, fishy scent, dried them in the window, and took them home.

handmade paper with text "VOYAGE INTO Spitzbergen and Greenland: 15th of April to the 21th of August, 1671. Friedrich Martens / II. Of the Snail Slime-fish / They swim in great numbers as numerous as the Dust in the Sun. It is believed that the Whales feed upon them; They are quite transparent."

 

6. Besides the Ancient Mariner, I’d carried on board the Antigua a few early Arctic travel narratives. One was the quirky seventeenth-century Voyage to Spitzbergen, Svalbard’s previous name, by Frederick Martens. Martens’ book is unique among narratives for its savage account of whaling on Smeerenberg. He writes, for instance, “the Harpooner doth dart the Harpoon just behind the Spout-hole of the Whale … for that maketh him spout Blood sooner than if wounded in any other place … The first Whale we caught spouted Blood in such a quantity, that the Sea was tinged by it where-ever he swam.”

Coleridge, I knew, had borrowed liberally from the Svalbard traveler when writing the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Yet not until I landed on Smeerenberg did I understand how Coleridge transformed Martens’ slime into redemption. Martens profiles slimy sea life in multiple chapters—they’re shaped like caps, like hats, like buttons, like roses, like fountains, like spiders that dance on the surface of the water. Some of the slimy things have hair, some legs, and some are amorphous. Some are bluegreen, some gold-vermillion, some transparent. They are, writes Martens, “as numerous in the North Sea as Atomes in the Air.”

Standing on the edge of the North Sea itself in the half light of the pole, I realized that Martens regarded Svalbard’s slime with scientific inquisitiveness, while Coleridge saw slime spiritually and prophetically. His mariner is revolted by the slime, but that revulsion is his path to redemption. The moment when he most despises the slimy creatures is the very moment he blesses them from the egoless part of himself. As a poet of the sublime, Coleridge was used to exploring that fragile border where individual identities break down, where the line between human and human, and human and environment, shatters.

Suddenly, I was folding handfuls of the Smeerenberg kelp into my pockets as I had the Watchet kelp. I brought them on board the Antigua, and dried them under my mattress—I had a very tolerant roommate. Kelp was the only item we could remove from the island other than garbage, as if the kelp were a waste product instead of our future. “Marine algae created our present oxygen-rich atmosphere 2.45 billion years ago, and continue to make the majority of the oxygen we breathe,” I read later in an essay by Margaret Atwood, one of many contemporary writers to praise the organism. “If the algae die, that would put an end to us.” The idea I’d had as a child, of kelp as an organ, was right. The organism transforms the ocean into a liquid lung, an intimate partner, breathing our CO2 as we breathe its oxygen.

 

7. My father, a retired plumber, and I have never agreed about politics, but we’ve traveled the country together on backpacking and hiking excursions, where we openly debate current affairs. I’ve always loved our discussions, when we eventually stop spouting lines from media outlets, when we abandon public language for something beyond language. Once, on a trip to Utah’s Bear’s Ears National Monument, we had a sharp conversation that swung from our positions on public land to the welfare system. “I wish I could stay home and let the government take care of me!” my father said. We stopped at a gas station when an old man wandered up in tattered clothes asking for money. I remember, with some shame, how I left my window rolled up while I watched my father pull out his wallet and place two fifties in the man’s hand. But after the election, those discussions with my father crumbled. Meaning, we don’t debate anymore. I can’t speak for him, but I know I’m afraid to bring up politics, afraid our rigid opinions will splinter our bond. And yet, we have lost something in not being able to talk through our disagreements as we used to.

 

8. One night the Antigua was pitching wildly from side to side; many of my comrades were in bed seasick. I stepped outside my cabin into the small hallway to find Annique leaning against the wall talking to two artists from Taiwan. “I use the aleatoric method,” she said, her thick, salt and pepper braid draping over her shoulder, “where some vital part of the work is left to chance. For me, chance is the materials themselves. I allow the materials to do what they want, what they must. I have the agency initially, and then I step back into a partnership with the materials. And that’s how we should be with our planet, working with natural processes rather than controlling and dominating them.”

She kneeled among her materials: a small hand blender, paper pulp in an old cottage cheese carton—she’d made the pulp from discarded cotton t-shirts in Australia—a few yellow felt couching sheets, and a bottle filled with slimy green water.

I asked about the green water.

“I cut the kelp up into small pieces and blended it,” she said with a kind of glee in her voice. “I’m not sure what it will do!”

I’d begun to feel unwell in the tossing ship, so I stumbled back to my cabin. I fell in and out of sleep all night, images of green slime and paper pulp mixed with memories of the first time I made paper. My mother often brought crafts to our Mukilteo beach trips, supplies to fashion tie-dye shirts, wax and plaster of paris to craft sculptures of our hands in the sand, and recycled newsprint to make handmade paper. I remembered the magic of lifting the sheet from the slurry, the primordial goo from which paper is made. Form from formlessness: it seemed like creation itself. That delirious night turned out to be a premonition because later, back home in Chicago, inspired by Annique, I would immerse myself again in the analog art form of hand papermaking, using the kelp I had collected from Svalbard and Watchet. I would add it to the slurry, embedding fragments of the parchment-like organisms into the wet sheets and employ kelp as formation aid to bond the fibers. Was it naïve of me to want to hold everything together with slime?

handmade paper with text "Even marine algae can be added to slurry for an interesting touch."

 

9. Literary fragments, I’ve come to realize, are not lone individuals. They are vitally connected to what’s around them. A piece of writing in fragments can be held together by repeated images and phrases. Characters. Humor. The development of an idea. Fragments are communal in the best way. They demand accountability: readers become the connective tissue, making leaps and filling in gaps. When I learned that the literary fragment dates back to the Greek poet Sappho, around 620 A.D., and that her poems were fragments only by accident—waste products, some were found in an Egyptian garbage dump, others on the papyri used to wrap mummified bodies—I thought of the whale bones wrapped in kelp on the shore of Smeerenberg, how so much meaning can be found in rubbish.

 

10. After two weeks at sea, the Antigua docked at Longyearbyen. Within the grasp of the internet, our cellphone and computer screens lit up with the first news about Harvey Weinstein and reports of Russian trolls using social media to sow divisions among Americans. But what I found astonishing was how, outside the confines of the ship, our group dynamic changed. We were twenty-nine individual artists again. We didn’t eat every meal together. We weren’t a whisper away from a conversation. I experienced this separation as a loss, even if it was inevitable.

But what I can’t forget is how, the day before we departed the high Arctic, one of the experimental filmmakers said he wanted to record us reenacting the walrus community of Smeerenberg. I can still see us on shore, rolled on top of one another, breathing together, lifting our heads in unison like the gentle giants.

 

_________

[1] Devra Freelander, to whom this essay is dedicated, was one of the most generous and insightful artists on board. Her life was taken on July 1, 2019, while cycling in Brooklyn New York. She is greatly missed.