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Of Birds and Men and Night

— Walter M. Robinson

1. Birds

Black dots fill the air in swirling random curves, soft-edged streaks darting across the sky. At first, the objects are small tracers across the visual field. They might be ocular floaters; they might be specks of ash floating up from a nearby volcano; they might be debris clouds from some disaster I left behind when I came to the top of the world, to this cliff face in Svalbard, on a ship filled with my fellow tourists. But as the ship moves closer, the cloud precipitates into individual black buzz-bombs, birds upon birds upon birds in a magnitude too numerous to count, dark dashes leaving the edge of the cliff like atomized steam. They fill every hole in the open sky.

The ship’s engine thrums and then slows. A hundred clicking cameras divide the scenes ahead of us for later consumption. As the engine noise fades, I expect to hear this avalanche of screaming birds, and yet, no sounds of protest, no sounds of warning. This flock does not see the machine that carries us as an enemy. Perhaps they have enemies enough at hand.

Here and there along the sloping surface of the cliffs, there is a flash of green that makes a home on the nourishing excrement of the birds. Seeds carried from elsewhere on the wind or in bird gullets settle into the manure coated walls and cling for life. Now, in June, the greens are luminous, full of the pressure of the short growing season, eager to soak up the light in the short Arctic summer. Everything on the cliff face is coming to life, with none of the sleepyhead feel of the emerging spring in warmer climates. At the top of the globe, spring must explode out of bed when morning comes.

As we get closer, I can see that birds occupy every horizontal surface of the cliff, as though poured out of a bucket by some cliff-top giant. The naturalist tells us that the birds are called thick-billed murres in the western hemisphere; in Europe they are Brunnich’s guillemots. They stand in line and erect in the manner of penguins on land, though they are auks, third cousins to the puffin, and not penguins at all.

As we get even closer, I can see them swarm off the cliff, swooning down towards the cold water before spreading their wings. There is no room for a flapping start on the cliff edge. In the sky, they fully reveal their half-and-half-ness: black backs but white chests and bellies. From below, the torpedo-shaped bodies seem all white, and they wear a cape and cowl of black as though they have secret identities. When they fly below us, the cape and cowl envelopes them save for a stripe of white pushed back from the edge of each wing, a secretly lit whiteness only a God’s-eyes-view will reveal. They trail behind them a splayed and awkward pair of webbed feet that allows them to paddle in the water and cling to the slippery ledges.

Clumsy in the transition, they are elegant in the air. They get the job of flying done with speed and not too much visible effort, though their plump bodies would seem to need more lift than their wings can provide. They bank and float near the surface, dipping a wing tip in the water to pivot, then piercing the water’s surface and coming back up with a beak clutching a sliver of floppy gray: the fingerling polar cod who come to feed off the botanical bloom at the cliff base. Sometimes, we are told, they must make do with a sinuous fish called the snakeblenny, a mouth-with-a-tail monster out of a human nightmare, but this year the cod fingerlings are plentiful. The guillemot are said to go as far as one hundred meters beneath the surface to find their wriggling delicacies, though how we humans know this is a mystery to me. Those of us confined to the surface watch in silence as they swoop and flash a foot or so under the dark water, disappearing and reappearing with a mouthful, and then watch them chase the winds along the water’s surface until they take flight towards the cliff edge to deliver their catch. The guillemot moves across all the states of matter—air, water, ground.

In spite of the green burst of growth around them, these birds do not have the material to build a nest. There are no twigs and not enough grass, nothing to build a bowl for an egg to rest in. The flock itself is a living nest, the scrum of bird bodies keeping the eggs on the narrow ledges. Evolution has helped these birds by favoring an egg pointed at one end like a the bottom of a Greek amphora. When turned by awkward flippered feet, as eggs must be now and then, they rotate around the pointed end rather than rolling side to side, and so stay on the ledge rather than plunge into the sea. How many generations of round-egg laying parents had to be childless for the indifferent hand of evolution to favor the pointy-egg layers? Pointy eggs make a winged future. Round eggs feed the sea.

We are told by the naturalists that the eggs all hatch within the same forty-eight hour period. Twenty days later the fledglings are tossed off the cliff edge into the water, having never swum and still unable to fly. Ten thousand bird babies plop into the sea on the same day. Ten thousand helpless meals.

And the predators will come, the arctic fulmars and the glaucous gulls, birds with sharp beaks and strong wings, here to gorge themselves on the roiling tender food in the sea. The murres’ trick is one every cafeteria owner knows: the promise of all-you-can-eat is limited by the size of your stomach and time. There is only so much one gull can eat, and there are only so many gulls. The simultaneous mass expulsion of the chicks insures that some will survive to return to this rock face and breed again. The safety of the few depends on the certain death of the many. They fling their children into the air and the sea, with only the protection of the crowd.

My imagination takes hold at times like this.

I imagine the birds think of their chicks as children, though surely they act on instinct.

I imagine the parent birds are reassured by the tradition: we plopped into the sea unguarded and unready, we learned to swim and feed and fly, we returned to this cliff. Here we are, ready to fulfill the destiny of our kind. But surely they know nothing of all this, nothing of hope or fear or wonder. They know only the feeling of the air, the chill of the water, the underwater flash of the silvery meal.

I imagine these birds feel the safety of the crowded cliffs, though surely, like us, they know nothing other than the world they inhabit, and so see what is as what must be.

We have so little in common, these birds and I.

I cannot imagine them imagining me. I cannot help but imagine them, and always as what they are not: nuns at the cloister wall, men in dark coats at the rail of a football game, disruptive children in school uniforms. A crowd, a mob, a riot. A march, a protest, a movement. They are watching something, a play, a dance, an execution. They are lined up for a firing squad or gathered for a revolution.

I know what it is to be in a crowd. I know the false security of numbers. Alone in a crowd, we each surrender our space to the common purpose, extending our bodies by merging with the multitude. One set of wings becomes a swarm. The many become the one.

The chicks are safe once the gulls are sated.

2. Men

Off the ship that afternoon, I walk on rocky ground punctuated by boulders dragged here by the glacial flow. I see lumps of gray rock standing in shallow water, hear the crunch and crackle of the smaller stones shifting as I walk along in my perfectly waterproof boots. I am here on a trip of the imagination, and the frozen world outside the ship is the fulcrum of my imagining.

As I cross this new landscape, I think of the men who preceded me here, the explorers and discoverers about whom I have read so much in preparation for my own trip. The story of the arctic was for so many years the story of failed exploration, of starvation, of numbness and scurvy, of an endless dry and filthy cold. It was also an imagined journey, like mine, but a journey with expectations of heroism, imported ideas of hierarchy, dreamed escapes from the strictures of a warmer world. Ice filled the imagination of the men who came here, and it echoed across the thoughts of those who stayed behind.These men crowd my consciousness as I stand on the flat slopes, the smell of the ice and the sea in my face, and I know it is not heroism that kept them alive. We often make them heroes at home. Here in the cold, there was nothing but persistence.

On one scrap of land on the far side of a small rise we stood in the cold wind and looked at a square metal stove sitting on a platform of straight timbers, all that was left of an overwintering expedition from a world when distance and time were more closely linked. We can get anywhere in a day. They needed to relay across the seasons to get even this far. We are told that the intention was to get as far north as they could during the warmer months, with enough supplies as a ship could carry, and hide out here while the winter made travel impossible. Then when the ocean opened up again in the spring, they would set off to reach further north still; travel was hopscotch.

A ship full of provisions landed carrying a pre-built wooden house to be assembled in a treeless land, reindeer for food over the season, and fresh water, food, and coal.

They brought a five foot wide cast iron stove with floral patterns on the oven doors. There was a railing to hang a dishtowel. They had flour in woven sacks.

All abundance was brought to plan for the winter, but the ship and the crew stayed too long, their goodbyes elongated into farewell parties. Fellowship and bravado clouded their reading of the skies. The weather worsened.

The frozen sea embraced the land and trapped the ship.

In the next days and weeks, the ice does not melt.

The crew must stay.

Abundance becomes scarcity when shared among too many.

The reindeer sicken.

Anger at the weather, at God, at each other and themselves for mistakes of their own making traps the men more than the winter’s cold.

Some die, though most survive the winter to sail away home, back to the safety of warm liquid seas. The relay to the north fails.

The stove now sits on planks of grayed wood, preserved in the cold and dry air. Its rusted cooktop is the tallest thing for one hundred yards. I can see our ship in the distance, a blue underbelly carrying a crisp white hotel with bright orange dots of rescue boats on each flank. It waits for us with solid certainty, rising up out of the flat sea like a herald.

We walk back towards the landing spot, through the jumble of rocks to the shore, and pass an ancient glaucous gull sitting on the ground and facing downwind. His feathers are out of order. His eyes are sunken and dulled by the end of expectations, though his beak still glows crisp yellow in this dun-colored world. We are the intruders of his decline.

My boots sink into cold muck as I walk around the path to give him room for whatever private ritual his species has for the end of life. I want to make room for whatever solace awaits him.

His gaze brings me to think of the other stories of the Arctic I read before this trip. One of the men of the ship, stranded and frozen on the western coast of an island off the other side of Greenland, ate with a spoon tied to his useless frozen hands. Not that there was much to eat; the diet was mostly rock tripe, a form of lichen that I now slip on as I walk across the damp rocks back to our landing site. This lichen grows as a rough curly edged patch of damp green-black on the surface of the rocks, and they called it tripe, the innards of the animal that they cannot hunt, the echo of stewed stomach of an animal far south of here.

I imagine the work of scraping the lichen off with fingers that can hardly make a fist, so sore and swollen are they from scurvy and lack of protein, and bringing the pitiful harvest back to the hut. I imagine staring into a charcoal-stained pot boiling snow for water, and smelling the sea and dirt fill the air with a rank aroma, a cruel echo of a meal to a hungry man.

And then I dream myself as one of the men on the ship that comes to their rescue, the surprise and joy of finding them, and the shock of their appearance. The wounded ghostly figures in stiff and filthy clothes, the matted hair and beards, the wild and empty eyes, the muted joy of survival among the dead.

I think of the deaths two days later as the rescue ship moved south to warmer waters, as the blood began to flow to frozen hands, the microbes awakening to bring the blooming of gangrene, and the fatal consequence of warm blood flowing to infected tissue. I think of the chills, the shakes, the fevers, the blood infection and the death, all brought by rescue. A full year of waiting in the cold and dark, a year of working at unworkable plans, a year of enduring the death of comrades, to survive all this and then to die by the means of your salvation.

As the flat rocks knocking against each other under my boots, this makes sense to me, the cruelty of our lives, the bitterness of expectation.

When the cold closed in on the men, when the winter shouldered them inside, I would have been no help. I would have done my part at first, worked to keep the group alive, to hold good cheer in my mind and to share it. But when deprivation became desperation became starvation, I would have stayed still to await defeat. Others will strike off for new surroundings, will gather their knowledge up around them and make plans of action to survive. I would have been the one to wait. I am no explorer, and no rescuer either. I am the one who waits with you for what we know is coming but do not welcome.

I know what it means to sit at the side of the dying, but I do not know if that ability and my uncomfortable pride in it would travel with me to a cold hut at the top of the world. Is my dedication to accompany the suffering portable? Would it disappear once my own life is threatened? Or more to the point, am I still who I am this far north? I am not tested in this way and will not be. It is too late in my life to forge mettle—no expedition, no war will prove my fortitude. With a full belly in a warm room, I know what it means to wait for what you cannot prevent. But starving and cold, I do not know who I might become.

3. Night

It takes three days to miss the darkness.

Before the third day, the world seems full of time without exhaustion. All the activities are served in allotments. Every announcement arrives inside wet Dutch diphthongs over the intercom, the zodiac boarding times for the short and long hikes, or the side trips for birders—This is the fifteen minute call for the adventure with a wet landing. Then there is tea with the captain dressed in his uniform and his first name. Then there is the recap of the day, some slides of things we might not see tomorrow, and a session on using a polarized filter. (Don’t.)

Have a beer, sir? Time for dinner. Time for eating again and again.

Tonight is roasted pork. Tonight is chopped salad.

Chef has made milles-feuilles with ganache and passion fruit.

But after three days, I am awake, and the clock says three AM. But there was no morning today, no shift on the horizon to signal the day, how can it be night? A slow sliding brightness along the horizon is all we got, a rheostat world where the light never goes out. Never a fresh morning star, never an evening twinkle.

Sideways on the edge of the bed, I am remembering how patients in the ICU would tell me that they counted the holes in the ceiling tiles, wondering why the pattern was not consistent and imagining stories to explain the difference. “There are forty-one holes in the tile directly above my head and forty-four in the one just to the left, the one that is obscured when the nurse comes to suction my tube. It seemed so real, doctor, to worry about the holes in the tiles.” The light in the ICU never dims. My patients without darkness create constellations in the ceiling tiles.

How long will it be before I begin to hallucinate, to see a story in the endless blanket of daylight? Before I imagine the moon has been stolen, the chariot of the sun lashed to the sky by golden ropes, the lazy god of the rotating days shirking his duties, seduced by the voluptuous curve of a glistening body resting on the ice?


Alone in my narrow bed at the top of the world, I finally slept.

I dreamed of the end of the solid world. I dreamed of flooded sidewalks, of gray-green water filling the hallways of office buildings, sluicing into the driveways and parking lots. I dreamed of the end of walks for coffee, the end of manicured wildflowers bordering brick hedges.

I dreamed alongside the constant grinding of the ship’s engine, the murmuring of pistons and pressures necessary to keep the passengers afloat, holding up what was left of the dry world so that we might continue with the endless dinners, tables and chairs anchored to the floor with black strapping and chrome carabiners; continue with the endless lectures from home-schooled poets reading odes to the gods of the former world; continue with fruitless invocations of the knowledge we ignored, the knowledge that melted the world.

I dreamed of the end of the satisfied need. The loss of the new. The set-sail and the never-dock. Water without shore awaits you, my dream whispered. What use are your adjusted annuities, your lawns and your rec rooms, your marble floored museums, in the face of the erasing tides? What good are your combine harvesters, your table manners, your rotating monthly memberships? What will fill your lungs in this watery world?

I gasp awake.

I go up to the observation deck. It murmurs to me in low international style: white leatherette swivel chairs bolted to the floor, chrome cylinder lamps on the edge of Formica tables. I am awake inside a dream and it is daytime at night.

The Italian man in Longyearbyen—the one I delighted by recalling the photo of his countryman Nobile flying over the Pole in his majestic airship with his white dog Titania—spoke to me of craving the darkness in the summer months, of being so hungry for darkness that he would shut himself in the bathroom and feed on the lack of light.

I laughed, then. But now, like him, I search for the off switch. I long for the ticking clock to mark the movement of the sun instead of the schedule of the landings, the meals, the lectures, the drinks.

It is trivial to miss the darkness on a floating platform of luxury. But I am an animal, a body built on cycles and patterns. I need the night.


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