A Geography of Hope The White Silence of the Far North

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It’s midnight in April on the high slopes of Svalbard’s arctic archipelago. At 79 degrees latitude, the sun at this time, though low in the sky, will refuse to set.

Tonight is my last in this spectacular part of the world. I’ve left behind Svalbard’s sole town and set out towards the alpenglow blooming on the horizon. Beforehand, I spoke with an old salt about my itch for one final arctic adventure. While he had arrived in Svalbard years ago in pursuit of its prolific cod resources, the islands had cast a spell on him that still endures decades yet. Though his explorer’s days were now behind him and he no longer ventured out into the barren beyond, his wistful gaze still spoke of a wild heart. After all, wanderlust runs deep in these parts, for both visitors and inhabitants. His gaze spoke of all I needed to hear.

I carry a shotgun, a flare gun, and a serrated knife bound to my leg. This is the High Arctic, and while its landscapes can be exceptionally tranquil, it’s polar bear country, and under the land’s piercing serenity, the seeds of Jack London’s harsh White Silence still remain. More bears wander the archipelago than people; they preside over Svalbard’s food chain. The bears’ presence, among the endless expanse of white, permeates the landscape in words unspoken.

In spite of the land’s unrelenting harshness, I feel a peculiar sense of being at home, a geographic déjà vu. The tonic of nostalgia and summit fever compels my journey onward. Before departing these lands, I must feel the Arctic’s wild heart a bit deeper. The immensity of Svalbard’s landscape is lonely yet grand. Coal-enriched pockets of black punctuate endless expanses of white, while an ever-changing blend of soft colorful hues instigated by the low-angle, sun, color the landscape. Mountains beyond mountains lead me onward, in disappearing parallel lines, absent any signs of humanity’s influence. Even with the unsetting sun, the cold bites heavily. I ponder how the cold is supposed to reduce the excitability of molecules and cellular motion, yet, the arctic has the opposite effect on me. The source of energy I’ve tapped is pure, is sacred, and not to be forsaken. A deep, guttural, primordial howl rises from within.

Many say that the world is bereft of empty spaces, of the wild by which it once was so dominated. How we as a society have lost our connection to nature and wilderness, and that our modern needs and social constructs derive greater utility from the march of the bulldozer than that of the wild silence. How misguided!

While we have indeed degraded much of the wild, there are lands that still mystify the imagination. If in doubt, simply head north — to the far north — where the wild refuses to be tamed, and where raw, untrodden lands still cast their spell. The great discovery you will find is that, with eyes newly-opened, you’ll likely recognize that the wild still exists in not so faraway lands, albeit in our own backyards, just beyond our modern paradigms.

I need these lands. We need these lands. We are a wild species. We’ve yet to breed out our (metaphysical attachment to) and spiritual connection with the wild. If and when we do, it will likely be our Frankenstein, our final act of arrogance, for we will be losing a powerful mystic vein in us all that is deeply human and irreplaceable within our modern constructs. The primordial seeds of the wild that we gathered over millennia, of interdependence with the natural world, still lie within us under a veneer of civilization. We ignore such a fact at our own peril, and risk not only the long-term survival of our species, but also our happiness, fulfillment, and sense of meaning in the world. A trip to the wilds of Svalbard is, at its most basic, a simple reminder of this.

While romanticizing the wild has its own dangers, I’m confident that our retreat within ourselves and away from the natural environment is destroying something special, something priceless, something human. Surely a world in which the wilderness becomes merely an abstract concept, only to be experienced through static images and the anecdotes of others, is a fool’s paradise. The grandeur of the wilderness and the raw splendor of adventure must incorporate direct experience. The mere notion that we can apply a principal of worth to our lives, independent of material value, is a profoundly powerful and refreshing realization.

While wild places like Svalbard may seem irrelevant to our daily lives, paradoxically I’ve yet to come across places more ‘real.’ We must continue to seek them out — vast areas of terrain that provide little certainty as to what lies beyond the horizon —where we must understand the landscape on nature’s delicate yet beautiful terms. We must breathe in their rawness and their ruggedness. We must experience their boundlessness. Come, friend, exploration amongst untrodden paths awaits.