In February I was chosen from a host of applicants to participate in The Arctic Circle, a 17-day residency conducted as an Arctic expedition. This September-October, about 20 artists, scientists, architects and educators from across the globe will convene aboard a traditionally-rigged, ice-class Barkentine Tall Ship. We will have the unparalleled opportunity to work on personal projects and collaborate with one another as we explore the international territory of Svalbard.
Svalbard—governed by Norway and still known to much of the world as Spitsbergen—is an island archipelago in the High Arctic, just 10 degrees from the North Pole. This region is also nothing less than the beating heart of my obsession and my current project: a work of lyrical historical fiction addressing several of the most trying or otherwise noteworthy pre-20th century feats of Arctic exploration. But when you hear "historical fiction," please don't think: re-tellings of dusty old stories. Think, rather: meditations or impressionistic character studies told from the perspectives of the participants. Also, if you will, think: scurvy, botulism, lead poisoning, trichinosis, starvation, cannibalism, lichen-eating, boot-eating, excoriated vertebrae-eating, Victorian sense of honor, misplaced nationalism, whales, polar bears, seals, narwhals, and the limits of human capacity.
I have been working on this project for two years. The first story in the collection, about John Franklin's harrowing Coppermine Expedition of 1819, in which he earned the nickname, "The Man Who Ate His Boots," is written. To do this, I read many primary and secondary sources and immersed myself in the literature of the period and of the expedition. But I cannot continue or complete the work until I see and get a real sense of the Arctic for myself—the sea/landscape of the far North is the most important, and the only recurring, character in the collection. Spitsbergen, for so long the destination, launching point or final resting place of Arctic explorers, is the ideal place to do my research—my field work, so to speak.
The collection also lends itself naturally to photographic accompaniment. I will record much while up there (look to your right for the reward cycle), as I'll be bringing with me little more than a camera, pen and paper, and my Wellingtons. Photo possibilities include: mountains (the name Spitsbergen means "jagged peaks"), glaciers, sea ice in a range of formations, the ship herself, wildlife if we are lucky, the aurora borealis if we are even luckier, me in my trusty muskrat hat if we are supremely unlucky.
But to make this happen—the residency and the subsequent collection of words and images—I need your help. The Arctic Circle, a program administered by The Farm, Inc., a non-profit arts organization in New York State, covers approximately 50% of the total cost per person. The remainder, alas, is not insubstantial. $5,000 will cover enough of the expedition's cost to make it feasible. The rest, plus the airfare, I can scrounge up. Please note that any amount, however small, will make a difference, and that your pledge won’t be called in unless the total goal is reached.
I cannot tell you how much your support in this endeavor would mean to me. I feel like Shackleton, trying to drum up investors for his latest hare-brained Antarctic attempt. Of course, some lovely photographs (sent to you by the holidays) and a copy of the piece itself (regardless of publication; date unknown) can in no way repay you for your contribution. But you must know that you'll be making possible a long, long-held dream, and supporting the creative arts. Also, my guess is that if you're here, still reading this, you too find your curiosity piqued and your old explorer-self roused by the idea of a little-known place, changing rapidly, home to various species in fast decline, marked as "Unexplored" on maps until only a few years ago, cold and inhospitable to most, and still rife with danger and surprise.
Much obliged to you for your time, consideration and support,
I remain, etc.,
All photos in public domain. Credits (from top to bottom):
John Maler Collier, 1881. "The Last Voyage of Henry Hudson."
Willem Barentsz, 1599. A portion of his original map. Spitsbergen, seen here for the first time, indicated as "Het Nieuwe Land" (Dutch for "the New Land"), center-left.
George Back, 1836-7. "HMS Terror thrown up by the ice." Engraving after a drawing.
Cornelis de Man, 1639. "The whale-oil factory of the Amsterdam Chamber of the Greenland Company on Amsterdam Island near Spitzbergen."
Gerrit de Veer, 1596. "A Polar bear approaches the men of Willem Barentsz." From his diary.
John Wilson Carmichael, 1847. "HMS Erebus and Terror in the Antarctic."
H. Lachambre, 1898. Salomon Andrée's balloon takes off from Danes Island, July 11, 1897.
Nils Strindberg, 1897. Örnen (The Eagle) shortly after its crash on the pack ice.
- (49 days)