Messages from the North

I wake in the dawn and there are swallows and martins, stitching the sky, flickering black-and-white against the pearly blue of the morning, filling the chill air with their chitterings. Each day I expect to find them gone, but they linger in this late-summer spell of fine weather, gathering on wires and rooftops, waiting for the imperceptible shift in their brains that tells of leaving. For the first-year fledgelings, they know nothing of the journey they have yet to face, only the ache of distance which tells them it is time to go.

At this time of year, the skies are filled with departures and arrivals. In the early morning and gathering dusk of evening, I hear skeins of geese chattering southwards; pink-feet and greylag, drifting to earth into fields sodden from a summer of rain. They are ranged across the pale sky in lines which ripple and shift as they change direction, a pulse which passes from goose to goose, a subtle flex of the wings as they turn eastwards towards the lakes. I try to imagine their journey to arrive here, at the western fringe of this damp, green archipelago: the days of endless ocean, touching down briefly in Faroe or Shetland, feeding hurridly at reed-fringed lochs before taking off again in their leaden-winged flight, heading south to a place which their senses remember from last year, or to a place they have never been, but is hard-wired into their memory through the migrations of their ancestors. An impulse to escape the onset of winter.

The arrival of the geese is tinged with romance and sorrow; I hear their calls as though through layers of memory, as though flecked with snow. They are both exotic and familiar, bringing something of the far north to our autumn skies. I remember the way that sound carries across the tundra on still days; the compression of distance that comes with such clarity of air, so that the geese seem close to me as they pass thousands of feet above. I know that they come from Svalbard and Greenland, and the thought comforts me as the days shorten towards winter.

I visited Greenland in the summer of 1989. It is a distant time for me now; a series of fragments as though listening to someone else’s dream. I remember the dry gritty path from the helicopter pad into the village, the strips of whale meat spread to dry on flat rocks by the harbour, the smell of blood and seaweed in the chill morning. I recall the supreme clarity of the air, the mountains etched against the pure white of the ice cap in the evening sun, the crackle and fizz of the northern lights on a night lustrous with starlight.

But most of all, I remember the ice. At the head of the fjord where I spent two months camped in the vicinity of a Norse monastery, a glacier flexed down from the ice cap, a thousand feet or so of steep crevassed blue-white ice, until it met the steel-grey waters of the fjord. At that point, slabs of ice calved from the snout of the glacier into the water, gathering in intensity throughout the day. From our campsite, a couple of miles distant, we could see ice pillars the size of tower blocks topple with a splash into the water. A couple of seconds later, we heard the dull sploosh, a sound like distant thunder heard beyond the hills. A few seconds after that, waves would arrive on the beach below us, short and insistent, like the wake of a passing ship.

When I left, after two months living close to the ice, I yearned for home, for the familiar, the known confines of small towns and country pubs, but also for the sense of peace and space which I was leaving behind; the feeling that here was as much the centre of the spinning world as any other place on this blue-white globe.

I think again of that journey home: the ice cap falling away beneath us we took off from the west coast, crossing the empty miles of glaciers streaked with the debris of rockfall, stripes of moraine like toothpaste squeezed from a tube; the gathering icebergs clustered off the west coast, stacked like ships at anchor; the impossible green of Iceland as we touched down briefly on our way to Copenhagen. And beyond that, the miles of rippled ocean, steel-blue and unknowable.

I have never returned to Greenland; I probably never will. It is enough for me, now, to look down from miles in space through the convenience of Google Maps, to trace the tongues of glaciers spilling towards the long, snaking fjords, their snouts retreating each year, further and further back uphill, as the snow supply from above changes to rain, and the level at which the ice melts shifts higher and higher. The centre of the Greenland ice cap is 11,000 feet thick; the ice at its base is thought to date from over 100,000 years ago: that is as old as our species, as long as Homo sapiens have walked the earth. There are layers of ice which have witnessed every episode in our ignoble history.

It saddens me to read, as I did this week, that the Arctic sea ice has melted this year faster than any other year since records began. In a few years, there could be an ice-free passage to the North Pole. On land, the glaciers which shed icebergs into the chill northern sea are calving faster than ever before, their ice melting into warmer seas.

In 1989, I did not understand that to fly was to be part of the gathering problem. I believed that a knowledge of the world was a positive thing, a way to extend the boundaries of my understanding to counter the parochialism with which I had grown up. At that time, the sea ice was still a dependable presence, the glaciers still crept their slow progress towards the sea. Now, it is enough for me to hear tales of distant lands from the geese which arrive through the autumn, rumours of a land beyond the horizon which is no richer for having seen it; a land where glaciers still calve into the sea with a sound like thunder over a distant horizon.


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