This is a transcription of Episode 28 — Arctic.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Episode 28 of Strong Sense of Place. Today, we are getting curious about the Arctic.
Melissa: Even though living in Texas for 13 years taught us that we really love cold weather. we have not been to the Arctic.
David: No, and I would like to go after the research I’ve been doing.
Melissa: Yes, I would like to go, too.
David: Yeah, I think I’m going to need a better coat, though. A nice hat —
Melissa: Furry boots.
David: Maybe some dogs. But yeah, that would be awesome. I’d love to go to the Arctic. I would love to see the northern lights.
Melissa: You don’t have to go quite all the way to the Arctic Circle to see the northern lights now.
David: But you have to get pretty north and that would be exciting, too. Are you ready to do the Arctic 101?
Melissa: I’m ready. Let’s begin with the basics. The Arctic is the northernmost region on Earth.
David: I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone.
Melissa: I want to make sure and cover all my bases. To get a little more specific. Most scientists define the Arctic as the area within the Arctic Circle, which is a line of latitude about 66.5 degrees north of the equator. So if you think back to your third grade classroom globe, it’s the little yarmulke sitting on top of the planet. Inside that circle is the Arctic Ocean, which is twice the size of Australia.
Melissa: Just to give you a sense of scale. As far as land masses, the northern parts of Russia, the state of Alaska and parts of Canada, Greenland, and the northern tips of Norway, Sweden, and Finland are in the Arctic Circle. So it’s mostly water with a little fringe of land around the edges. Of course, you probably know that in winter, it’s dark almost all the time. And in summer, the North Pole stays in almost full sunlight all the time. And that’s where we get the phrase Midnight Sun.
David: Yeah, that was crazy for me doing the research and realizing that the North Pole has exactly one sunset and exactly one sunrise every year.
Melissa: That’s kind of bananas.
David: Yeah, it is.
Melissa: I learned some surprising things about the climate in the Arctic Circle. The temperature there is moderated by the ocean water in the Arctic Ocean. And the temperature of that water never goes below -2C, which is 28F. And what that means is that in the winter, the North Pole is not the coldest place on Earth. Even though 28 degrees sounds pretty cold, that’s actually kind of a moderate temperature, given the context. The coldest place on Earth is in Antarctica, which is the other pole because there’s that moderating quality of the warmer ocean. But in most places in the Arctic, it is below freezing all winter and above freezing all summer.
Melissa: Let’s talk about sea ice for a moment. Sea ice is frozen ocean water, implied by the name. It forms, grows and melts in the ocean. And for most of the year, it’s covered with snow. In contrast, icebergs, glaciers, and ice shelves float in the ocean but originate on land. I didn’t know icebergs originated on land.
David: No, I didn’t either. I assumed they formed in the ocean.
Melissa: Yeah. So now we get into a little bit of a bummer situation.
David: What’s that?
Melissa: Arctic sea ice helps moderate the global climate. Because of its bright surface, about 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes the ice is reflected back into space, which means it’s like a reflecting shield keeping the Earth from getting too hot.
David: Right. It’s like the aluminum shield you put in your car to keep your car cool.
Melissa: Or the aluminum hat you wear to keep from getting messages from outerspace.
David: I think those are different things.
Melissa: But we understand each other. As the sea ice melts, it exposes the dark surface of the ocean and the ocean absorbs 90 percent of the sunlight instead of reflecting it. And that raises the temperature of the ocean. Which then expanding out from there, raises the temperature of the Earth. Climate change has caused the Arctic ice cover to get thinner recently and in the summer of 2007, the route through the Northwest Passage, which is a water passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, was entirely ice-free for the first time in recorded history.
Melissa: So I’m sorry, I let us into a little bit of a bummer place there.
David: Sad. But I have something that may lead us out. Did you know that the Arctic got its name from the Greek word for bears? It’s literally Bear Land. And then there’s the Antarctic, which is ‘no bears.’ We have two places Bear Land and No Bear Land that are capping the world.
Melissa: I think I choose Bear Land. I’m for bears.
David: Yes. Also makes it super easy to remember where the polar bears are versus where the penguins are.
Melissa: Exactly. So I don’t know about you, but when I think about polar bears and the rest of the Arctic, I kind of perceive it as very barren with not very many people. There are about four million people living in the Arctic.
David: Wow, that’s about three point five million more people than I thought there would be
Melissa: Same if you Google cities in the Arctic Circle, you get a bunch of photos of kind of industrial-looking cities in Russia. Of the top 10 largest cities in the Arctic, eight of them are in Russia and two of them are in Norway, including a very cute seaside town called Tromsø, which I would like to go to immediately.
David: Oh yeah, yeah, I’ve seen pictures of Tromsø. It looks really nice.
Melissa: So of that four million people, about 10 percent are indigenous, mostly from Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. And of course, the other inhabitants which you already referenced are animals. The mack daddy of them, all polar bears. Also foxes, wolves, caribou and moose and musk oxen and sheep. In the sea, there are whales, Greenland sharks, which look very prehistoric, sea otters, seals, walruses, and my personal favorite: narwhals which never look real, no matter how many times I look at their photos.
David: Greenland sharks are one of the oldest animals in just their age on the planet. There’s a Greenland shark that’s supposed to be somewhere around 400 years old, floating around the coast of Greenland.
Melissa: Wonder what goes through his mind?
David: I don’t know. Kids these days, huh?
Melissa: I should mention that birds are also well represented: Canada geese. Arctic terns. Puffins, which are the best birds because they can fly and swim. Yes, but again, penguins? No. Antarctica for penguins.
Melissa: Let’s talk about the Northwest Passage. That’s probably a phrase that will tickle people’s memories from junior high. I don’t really feel like it comes up that much in adult life.
David: Unless you’re near it. You wouldn’t think that it would. But it was huge for a while. A big, big deal.
Melissa: So starting in about the 15th century, Europe wanted to be able to trade with the countries of East Asia, but they didn’t want to have to sail all the way down and around the tip of South America to get there.
David: Super annoying.
Melissa: So they started searching for an all water shortcut through North America, which meant they would be going through the Canadian islands of the Arctic archipelago. Spoiler: They were successful. In 1906 Roald Amundsen and his crew of six made it all the way from Norway to Nome, Alaska, on a fishing sloop called the Gjøa.
David: But it took until 1906.
Melissa: But it took until 1906. For hundreds of years, the Northwest Passage seemed like a pipe dream.
David: Yeah, a good 400 years of people trying and failing.
Melissa: The failed expeditions to find the Northwest Passage reads like a Who’s Who of explorers. I’ll put more info about those in show notes with some really good fun facts. But now I just want to get into the story of the Franklin expedition because it continues to be somewhat of a mystery to this day. It’s a very dramatic story, and I think it helps that the names of the ships where the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror.
David: Yeah, I always wonder that. Who willfully gets on a boat called the Terror to go do a horrible, horrible trip which has killed many, many other men.
Melissa: Maybe it gives you a sense of determination because you are the terror. You’re bringing the terror to the sea.
David: I just think it’s a strong marketing problem. They should have gone on the hope the good sea, something like that.
Melissa: The exhilaration.
Melissa: Sir John Franklin was an English Royal Navy officer. He’d previously led two expeditions into the Canadian Arctic in the earlier 1800s. Now it’s 1845. He he’s 60 years old, and he still feels like he has something to prove. He wanted to make it through the Northwest Passage. This was his legacy that he wanted to leave for the world.
David: That poor guy, you know. Sixty in 1845, and you’re, like, still got to do it. Still gotta go north.
Melissa: Under his command. He has two ships, as we’ve mentioned the Erebus and the Terror and 128 men, and he is determined that he is going to make it this time through the Northwest Passage. And map it, right? This is the thing: You not only want to get through. You want to map it so that every single person who comes after you is, like, Those dudes made it and they got the proof.
David: Yeah, and I know how to get through now.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. And they were very well set up. The ships bows had been reinforced with iron plates to help cut through the Arctic ice and the engines — original ships engines — were replaced with converted former locomotives so they could travel on steam power and go much faster than ever before, or they could go under wind power to save fuel. The ships were also stocked with libraries of more than 1000 books to try to keep the men’s minds straight. And they had a three-year supply of food, including 8000 cans of soups and vegetables, cured meat, pumpkin, which is this kind of beef jerky stuff. And they even had a couple of live cattle. The canned food is going to turn out to be really important, so tuck that into the back of your mind for a moment. A little more than two months after setting sail, the Erebus and the Terror were spotted in Baffin Bay, which is just east of the entrance to the Northwest Passage. And then they disappeared, and none of the crew was ever seen by Europeans again. What we know is that the ships became ice bound in Victoria Strait, which is just a little bit west of where they were spotted and they sat in the ice for more than a year.
David: Which was not uncommon for these trips, right?
Melissa: That’s why they took so much food with them. It was kind of anticipated that they could get stuck. During that time, Captain Franklin and almost two dozen other men died, a lot of them officers. They were not expecting that. So remember that canned food? It turns out that the cans had been sealed with lead solder, which leached into the food and caused lead poisoning that would have affected both their mental and physical capacities. It made them paranoid. It made them more susceptible to things like tuberculosis and pneumonia and the scurvy that was already kind of sneaking around the edges of their lives. And at first, the officers died at a higher frequency because they got the better food.
David: And of course, once they’re dead, the rest of the crew is like, Well, now we can eat the canned food.
Melissa: Exactly. In April 1848, the crews abandoned both of the ships, and the survivors were led by the second in command Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames, who had been the captain of the Erebux. They set out on foot for the Canadian mainland, and they disappeared. Franklin’s wife, Jane, was not having it. She got on the Admiralty and demanded that they send out search parties. So two years after the last communication from Franklin, the search started, and at various times over the decades, different search parties found graves and letters. They were able to get stories from the local Inuit. But they weren’t really ever able to put together a complete narrative of what happened. And then in 1959, during a search expedition, a 27-foot lifeboat was found and inside was a frozen corpse sitting upright, fully clothed, clutching two loaded shotguns. And at the other end of the boat, there was another body curled up, and in between them were 40 pounds of chocolate, five Bibles, eight pairs of boots, and the novel The Vicar of Wakefield.
David: That’s bleak.
Melissa: It’s very sad. And they had a novel with them.
Melissa: But the ships were not found until 2014.
Melissa: A search team discovered the wreck of the Erebux sitting in just thirty six feet of water; that’s 11 meters for our metric friends, and two years later, another team found the Terror. So just a few years ago, they finally were able to discover the ships, and it’s a little weird because the ships were found much further south than they anticipated that they would be. So again, there are lots of questions about what actually happened after they got stuck in the ice. There’s a pretty awesome video of divers exploring the Terror that I’ll put in show notes. It’s, of course, very eerie, but it’s very well preserved because it’s in cold water. There is still plenty of mystery surrounding what happened to these two ships. And you can see a speculative/horror version of that in the novel The Terror by Dan Simmons and also the AMC series of the same name. I will say that following the threads of what is known and what is speculation and how it might all fit together is really, really fascinating. And I’ll link to a bunch of resources in show notes. The really sad working theory is that just one by one, the crew died from scurvy and exposure on the ice.
David: I would think right? It would be a slow, slow dwindling of men.
Melissa: Yes, and as they got hungrier, even if they knew the food was poisoned, their options were eat the poisoned food, starve, or turn to cannibalism, which there are some signs they finally did.
Melissa: Once again, I’ve brought down the room.
David: Indeed, yeah.
Melissa: My work here is done.
David: Ok, well, that was good.
Melissa: Let’s book a cruise to the Arctic.
David: Yeah, OK. This is as far as we’re going?
Melissa: That’s what I got.
David: Ok, well, maybe I can help here.
Melissa: I don’t know. Do you want to talk about puffins some more?
David: No, but I’ll tell you what I want to talk about. I want to talk about Svalbard.
David: So let’s get into Two Truths and a Lie.
Melissa: Bring it on.
David: OK, so, Svalbard is just a fascinating place to me. If you were going to go to the ends of the Earth, you might pick Svalbard as one of the ends. It’s a chain of islands, about 150 islands, a good distance from Norway. It’s between Norway and the North Pole, and it’s closer to the North Pole.
Melissa: Does Santa lived there?
David: I don’t think so.
Melissa: Does Santa vacation there?
David: Probably. Yeah, it’s an archipelago, which is just fun to say. I just like saying archipelago. Archipelago is a fancy word for a group of islands. Svalbard is about the size of West Virginia or Croatia or Egypt. They’re all about the same size, and it’s the world’s northernmost year round settlement. There are about 2600 full-time residents there. I imagine that they are hearty, independent, strong-willed people who take their coffee black and don’t mind being in the cold or the dark. But that might just be my imagination. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a whole lot of introverts in Svalbard.
Melissa: But I think by definition, you might have to be.
David: Again, I don’t have anything to back that up with, but —
Melissa: I mean, it would be a pretty hard place to be an extrovert.
David: It would be. Oh, I love that idea. Somebody in Svalbard just going around being like, How’s it going? How are you doing? Svalbard doesn’t get sun for about two and a half months a year. It’s well into the Arctic Circle. The sun is up from late April to late August. It’s also surprisingly mild for a place that’s only 650 miles from the North Pole, or about a 1000 kilometers, if your metric. The average high in February is 15F, which is -9C, which I’m not saying is warm, it’s just warmer than I thought it would be. In July, it gets up to 47F, which is 7C, which is easily T-shirt weather if you’re from Vermont or Canada or someplace similar. There are also an estimated 3000 polar bears on the islands.
David: Yeah, they outnumber the residents. It is strongly suggested that you take a rifle with you. If you’re leaving one of the population centers
Melissa: Or a pizza, right, you can just throw a pizza and run.
David: Like, here, take this. Besides the human and the polar bears, you’ll also find reindeer and walruses and a whole bunch of Arctic birds up there. Svalbard is visa free. Anyone can live and work there indefinitely without a visa. As a result, it pulls in people from all over the world. The 2600 people there come from 50 different countries.
Melissa: Oh, that is so cool.
Melissa: Literally while you were saying that, I was like, We could go there for a while.
David: Yeah, yeah, we could. So let’s get down to business. Here are three statements. Two of them are true. One of these is a lie. One: It is illegal to die in Svalbard because they can’t bury people there. Two: There’s a university on Svalbard. Three: A company is planning a vault there. It’s a post-apocalyptic music vault in the case of a global disaster. The vault will carry the music we know to the future.
Melissa: Ok, those all sound very plausibly weird.
David: Two of those are true. One of them is a lie.
Melissa: Let’s take them in order. All right. It’s illegal to die there. Yeah. What the heck? True.
David: That’s a lie. [laughter] But it’s barely a lie. So the problem started in this way.
Melissa: Honestly, I thought the third one was the last one.
David: The problem started in the 1950s, when the Svalbard locals realized that the bodies of the dead weren’t decomposing.
Melissa: Sure, it’s too cold, right?
David: Yeah, yeah. You can put them in the ground, but they just stay there.
Melissa: That’s not creepy. That’s fine.
Melissa: There’s no ghosts there. Everything’s fine.
David: One of the things that they were really worried about is the number of people died of influenza in Svalbard in the 1910s, and they were worried that there was still live influenza cultures in the ground.
Melissa: That’s legit.
David: Absolutely. So what they do now, they solved the problem by outsourcing their dead. If you get close to dying on Svalbard, local officials will fly you out to Oslo for your final days.
Melissa: Like a last hurrah vacation.
David: I guess. It just seemed so sort of touching to me like you’d be old and they would fly over to Oslo and maybe your friends would come visit. And that would be it. The same thing happens if you’re pregnant. The hospital is not equipped to deal with pregnancy. If you get close to birth, you go back to Oslo.
Melissa: How far is it to Oslo?
David: It’s a three hour flight,
Melissa: So not that close.
David: No, not super close. So the university - there is a university there. That’s true. It’s the University Centre in Svalbard. They have courses in biology, geology, geophysics, and Arctic safety. Full-time students are required to take the AS101 course Arctic survival and safety. There they learn first aid, navigation and glacier rescue techniques.
Melissa: I want to take that course. That’s so cool.
David: I know! How do you know you’re having an adventure when someone is trying to teach you glacier rescue techniques.
Melissa: And you would be so self-sufficient? I would never get on the wrong metro again.
David: And you’d know how to stop a polar bear.
Melissa: I already told you: Pizza.
David: Pizza. Yeah. Currently, the university calendar lists the highly anticipated 2022 Arctic Fox Conference that’s coming up in August. Who doesn’t want to go to the Arctic Fox Conference?
Melissa: Everyone wants to go to the Arctic Fox Conference. Is there, like, a dress up your Arctic Fox competition? And snuggle with the Arctic Fox demonstration.
David: You could find out what the Fox says.
[laugher] [music - what does the fox say]
David: If your employer has an education stipend, maybe you need to explore the Arctic Fox Market.
Melissa: We should definitely talk to our employers about that.
David: In addition to the universities. Svalbard is also home to the world’s northernmost brewery and church, and I think those are two different buildings, but I’m not sure.
Melissa: It’s better if they’re one.
David: And then finally, the music vault. So there are already two doomsday vaults in Svalbard. There’s a seed vault, and there’s a code vault.
Melissa: That’s why I thought the third one was a lie because I knew about the seed vault and I thought you were trying to trick me with the music.
David: The seed vault has over a million seed samples there, representing about a third of the world’s most important food crops. The vault is set inside of a mountain well above sea level. There’s an illuminated artwork that marks the vault location. This was done in part so that the vault could be found in and in part because Norwegian law says that government buildings that exceed a certain cost must include artwork.
Melissa: That’s a fantastic law.
David: Isn’t that nice? The seed vault in Svalbard is one of 7800 similar sites across the globe, but this one is the largest of its kind. It’s a backup drive for civilization. And speaking of which, there’s a code vault in Svalbard buried deep in a decommissioned coal mine. Thousands of open source projects are sitting on hardened film so that 1000 years from now, we can still use the technology that powers the internet, theoretically. I’m curious about the documentation of that project. How would that work? But the code vault is a GitHub project. GitHub are the people who back up our site in about 190 million other projects.
Melissa: Go, GitHub.
David: It sounds like a made up number. That’s the actual number. It’s about 190 million other projects. And in June of this year, an Oslo based group, Elire Management, announced the global music vault. They want to preserve as many music genres as possible. And you can find out more at globalmusicvault.com
Melissa: I can only hope that ‘Rapper’s Delight’ is in there. Yeah, and something from Louis Prima.
David: Louis forever.
[song clip of louis prima singing the song ‘pennies from heaven’]
David: If you want to visit Svalbard, and I do, there are daily flights out of Oslo. There are also a number of northern excursions by ship that disembark there. We’ll put the details on our site. Oh, and I should mention that there’s a there’s a pirate radio station that broadcasts from an old Soviet coal mining settlement there. They play music from 1932 to 1958. It’s called the Arctic Outpost Radio. We’ll put a link in their live stream in our show notes. That’s Two Truths and a Lie. You want to talk about books?
Melissa: Yes. My first book is The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister. This is a historical novel that tells the story of the Franklin expedition from a completely different perspective.
Melissa: Yeah. In the world of this novel, it’s the 1850s, and Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of missing Captain Franklin, hires a group of 13 adventurous women to go into the Arctic to find her husband, or to at least find out what happened to him.
David: So rescue team of women?
David: In the 1800s.
David: This is awesome.
Melissa: It is awesome. The leader of the expedition is Virginia. She got her experience guiding people on the trails of California, and she is made of pretty tough stuff. But she is reeling from a recent emotional blow. And when the story opens, she’s on trial for murder. [sinister piano music] She is accused of murdering one of the women on her Arctic expedition. So the story alternates between her trial in Boston and the events out on the ice. This is a brash, old-fashioned, swashbuckling adventure story with secrets and tragedy and surprising plot twists and these just remarkable women who are fighting the brutal environment of the Arctic while crushing society’s expectations about what they can do.
Melissa: The author, Greer Macallister, is known for writing about women with guts and moxie. Her novel Girl in Disguise is about Kate Warne, who was the first female Pinkerton detective.
David: Oh, right.
Melissa: She also wrote a book about Nellie Bly, who was the reporter who went undercover at the Insane Asylum.
David: Yeah, we talked about her in our last episode on newsrooms.
Melissa: Yes, so this book is called Woman 99. This story is a treat because there are two very well-drawn settings: the very civilized kind of upscale Boston courtroom and the Arctic. The scenes in the courtroom are super tense. If you enjoy courtroom dramas, you will love this. There’s no physical danger as in the Arctic, but devastating facts are being revealed about these women’s pasts and what happened when they were, you know, out exploring in the Arctic. Virginia could end up spending her life in prison. And some of the secrets that she’s been keeping have repercussions for other members of the expedition. And just when she gets asked a very dramatic question boom! cliffhanger, we jump back into the big outdoor adventure in the Arctic.
David: So in the courtroom, they are sort of reliving the parts of the expedition to find these people. And it’s jumping back and forth.
Melissa: Yes, in the courtroom, she’s being asked very specific questions about a particular event. And then in alternating chapters, we’re kind of getting a more chronological unfolding of what their trip was like. And that’s how we get to know the other women in the expedition. We see them as themselves as opposed to just Virginia describing them in the courtroom. Macallister does a really great job giving us vivid descriptions of the weather and the scenery and just the brutality of this mission.
Melissa: The women in the book and men in real life, because it was always men who got to go on the expeditions in real life, they were in like near-constant discomfort and danger.
David: Oh sure, I would think. Yeah.
Melissa: Both from the natural conditions and from other people. These are not necessarily nice people who were all ‘all for one, one, for all’ kind of attitude. In an interview, the author said that she had been very caught up in this period of Arctic exploration that’s all about ships full of British men. She said quote, ‘It’s very man against nature, and it’s also a story of massive hubris.’
David: And white guys, right? It’s been tough to read about the Arctic in this era that we’re currently in, because it’s all about the hubris of old white guys going out into the woods. And it’s like, maybe don’t do that.
Melissa: To make a name for themselves, not necessarily to further the betterment of humanity. I mean, if you trace it down to its roots, it’s all about trading and finances.
David: Yeah, getting tea.
Melissa: Yeah. So anyway, Greer Macallister was caught up in the kind of hoopla and excitement of this exploration, but also like the hubris of men all the time. Simultaneously, she was also exploring what women at the fringes of society were doing really bold, sometimes dangerous things that are particularly well known. Again, this reminded me of when we were doing our newsroom episode and found out about all these female reporters that you don’t really hear about commonly. So Greer Macallister decided to ask ‘what if?’ and just kind of let her imagination run. It is true that Lady Jane Franklin sponsored a number of expeditions to find her husband. So why not make up one all of women? So the skills of the women on the team in the book are based on real things that women were doing at the time: cartography, botanical illustrations, journalism, mountaineering, nursing. These are the kinds of skills that would have been really helpful on a mission like this one. So it is fictional, but it’s all grounded in real history.
Melissa: One of the things that really stands out, both in reading the non-fiction stories of Arctic exploration, but also this novel is that the people on these treks could be a little shady.
David: Oh yeah.
Melissa: They’re driven by something that’s not necessarily healthy or upstanding.
David: Well, if they had like a solid family and a good business and a reputable background, they would stay where they were and instead, these are men who are volunteering to get on something called the Terror and for some unknown number of years and potentially face death in a horrible, horrible way. And I assume they all knew that. And they’re just like, ‘Yeah, sure, OK, you’re going to pay me. Let’s do it.’
Melissa: We see that on this team of fictional women, too, they’re looking for redemption or they’re punishing themselves for some past misdeed, either real or perceived, or they’re just straight up running away from something in their lives or pretending to be somebody else.
Melissa: It makes for a very exciting story because hidden motivations kind of come out in situations that are really stressful. I love when historical fiction is able to create suspense in what’s a well-known, maybe centuries-old story. And this one really kept me guessing. The back and forth between the tundra and the courtroom creates a lot of tension, and the stakes are very high on every page, literally life and death situations. And slowly we learn what really happened out on the ice. That is The Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister.
David: That sounds great. My first book is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. So there’s a definition of art, I guess, in which the artist finds something that he’s passionate about and then he tries to light that passion in others. When you’re looking at Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, you’re really looking at Vincent saying, ‘Look. Look at this beautiful night.’ Vincent is doing everything he can to put you on that field on that night in South France, staring up at the sky and seeing the beauty that he saw.
David: Arctic Dreams is a book by Barry Lopez. It’s a National Book Award winner from 1986. He’s a great nature writer. After this book was written, he would go on to be a contributing editor to Harper’s and a writer for National Geographic and the Paris Review and Outside. He’d write another dozen books, fiction and on before this book was written, he spent five years exploring the Arctic as a field biologist. In Arctic Dreams, he’s trying to explain his relationship with the Arctic, his love for the Arcti, and why the Arctic is important for all of us. And he’s doing everything he can to put the reader in the snow and the wild with a polar bear and a narwhal and 1000 miles of sea and glaciers. And for me, he was pretty successful. I opened this book and like flakes of snow drift across the bed, right? It’s longish. It’s about 500 pages. There’s science and history and his own travels, all told by a scientist who has a storyteller’s sense for drama and detail. Each chapter talks about a different element in the Arctic, so there’s a chapter on polar bears. There’s a chapter on the sea. There’s a chapter where he takes a walk around a snow field trying to see the world as an Inuit might.
Melissa: Oh, that’s so nice.
David: Yeah. He does a lot of teaching through these chapters, but all of the detail is somehow presented with this infectious sense of wonder. When I started reading the chapter on Musk Ox, I was thinking, ‘Really? Sixty pages on Musk Ox, really?’ And then by the end, I was on Team Musk Ox. I am just, ‘Go, you furry brothers. If you can hear me, fight the power.’ One of the one of the reviews I read from The Guardian said that, ‘The effect for the reader of these sudden shifts of perspective is exhilarating, as though Lopez has gripped you by the shoulder and pressed his binoculars to your eyes.’
Melissa: Oh, that’s really nice.
David: Isn’t that great? One of the great things about this book is how it explores how land shapes people inside and out. Our stories are informed by the landscape we’ve seen, and so are our dreams and the Arctic in particular, is rich in imagery and metaphor and illusion and literally, cold, hard reality. The whiteness and the dark make things disappear and reappear and seem larger and smaller than they are, which makes it rich soil for story and dream. There’s there’s a bit in the book where the author is lost in a snowstorm. He’s blinded by the intense light of sun being refracted through snow. So it’s just brighter than you could possibly imagine.
Melissa: One of the characters in the book that I’m going to talk about next actually says something very similar to that. Who thought that light could obscure things?
David: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So in this storm, everything seems to vanish for him. Listen to this paragraph where he explains both his physical and mental state. He writes: ‘There are no shadows. Space has no depth. There is no horizon. The bottom of the world disappears. On foot, you stumble about in missed stair-step fashion. It is precisely because the regimes of light and time in the Arctic are so different that this landscape is able to expose in startling ways the complacency of our thoughts about land in general.’
David: Which I think is one of the great things about travel. It exposes your complacency and what a great way to say that. When I was doing the research for this book, I found out that I’d read another of Lopez’s books. He wrote a book called Of Wolves and Men, which is a history of man’s relationship with wolves. It was very big with the outdoor club of my high school, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award. That’s not why I read it. I read it because the girl I liked read it. Still, it caught me at a great time, and it was a really amazing book. Realizing that he wrote that too was like finding an old friend at a masquerade ball like, ‘Oh, I recognize you now, of course, and great to see you.’ If you are a nature loving nonfiction reader or no one, this is an easy recommendation, but I feel like people who just like good writing would also love it. It’s Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez.
Melissa: That sounds so good.
David: That’s really good.
Melissa: My next pick is Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. This is a very eerie ghost story.
David: Oh, yay.
Melissa: I loved it so much. It’s a really fast read. It’s 256 pages in print, so you could plow through it in a weekend, but I’m going to 100-percent recommend the audiobook. It is six short hours of gorgeous, immersive tingles up the back of your neck storytelling. It’s narrated by the British actor Jeremy Northam, who you might know, Dave, from Gosford Park, because I’ve made us watch that movie a dozen times.And Jane Austen fans will know him as Mr Knightley in the 1996 version of Emma, all of which to say he’s got a very plummy, lovely British accent.
David: Let’s listen to a little of it.
Melissa: So here’s the setup. It’s January 1937 in London, which is shorthand for war is coming. So already there’s a little cloud hovering over this story. Our hero, Jack is 28 years old. He’s poor, he’s lonely, and he desperately wants to change his life. So when he’s offered a job as a radio operator on an expedition to the Arctic, he says yes. Despite some misgivings and hesitations as any rational person would have. The thing that’s giving him the most pause is that the other four members of the team are amateur explorers from posh families. He feels very outside their boys’ club, and there’s immediate tension around their class differences. All but one of the men are what I kind of refer to as the ‘Hey, hey, yeah, yeah guys.’
Melissa: You know these guys.
David: Hey, hey, yeah, yeah.
Melissa: There’s like a lot of backslapping and bragging and never showing any vulnerability and mean spirited jokes are funny.
David: Yeah, yeah.
Melissa: That’s the situation he’s walking into. Which tells you how bad he thinks his everyday life is because he’s like, Yes, that would be better than what I have right now.
So even though he’s got some hesitations, when they set out on the ship from Norway with the five men and eight huskies along for the ride, he is feeling very exhilarated and optimistic.
David: I would think, right? Setting out on a boat with a bunch of huskies, going to the Arctic —
Melissa: Big adventure. And he’s skilled, so he’s going to use his radio operator skills, be part of the team. But shortly after they arrive at their destination, where they’re going to be staying for the next year, tragedy strikes and one by one, his companions are forced to leave and he has to make the decision if he is going to leave as well, or if he’s going to stay all alone in the Arctic for the winter.
David: Oh, yeah, yeah. I hope he brought a book.
Melissa: So strange things begin to happen.
Melissa: And it’s unclear to Jack and to us if there’s really something supernatural going on out there on the ice or if the isolation, the fear, and the 24-hour darkness are causing Jack to lose his grip on reality.
David: Yeah. Yeah, both of which seem likely.
Melissa: Yes. Ok. Things I love about this book, if it’s not already clear. The descriptions of the scenery and the weather are visceral. They, as you said, snow falls out of the pages. Through Jack’s eyes, we also get to see his wonder at this completely foreign but devastatingly beautiful environment. We also feel that it’s quite frightening and dangerous a lot of the time. And his experience goes through that evolution, right? So he starts out excited and it’s so beautiful and it’s blowing away all of his expectations, and he just can’t believe his good fortune at having this experience. And then slowly, it gets really, really scary and intense. And you are along for that ride.
David: You just said that and I was picturing — it’s not hard to see how they got to the myth of the ice queen from there, you know what I mean? It’s like the intense beauty, and it’s lovely. And then it’s going to kill you.
Melissa: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Another thing to love is that the story is narrated in the first person from Jack’s point of view. So we are directly experiencing what he’s going through as time goes on. He starts out in very high spirits. He’s very enthusiastic about this adventure. But as time passes, we hear the fear starting to creep into his voice as his doubts start to take hold. He can’t trust his senses anymore. Again, it’s very similar to what you said about Arctic Dreams. Like your eyes are open and you are looking, but you don’t really know what you’re seeing. And he is all alone in the seemingly endless landscape. Except for the maybe ghosts. As the situation in the book got more dire and fraught, it reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart,’ not because of the writing, because Michelle Paver’s writing is very tight and sharp and evocative, and her sentences are normal sentence length. It’s not like Edgar Allan Poe, where there’s one sentence per page.
David: On and on.
Melissa: But that sense of dread and the unreliability of the narrator’s senses and his own questioning of ‘Am I losing my mind?’ So it’s got a little like Poe essence to it. Also, the story of how Michelle Paver wrote this is perfect. She didn’t tell anyone except her agent that she was writing a ghost story, so she didn’t have a deadline. She didn’t have a sold deal in place. She was just writing to write it. And she wrote the first draft in the summer. And when she was finished, she went out and she bought six feet (two meters) of black satin ribbon and tied it all around the manuscript so that she couldn’t touch it for a while. And then she put it aside, and she worked on a children’s series for the rest of the summer. And then on Halloween, she untied the black ribbon and started her rewrite. She said, ‘I felt it was important to get back into the rewrite at the time when the nights were lengthening and winter was coming on because this is the proper time for ghost stories.’
David: Nice. Yeah, that’s really nice.
Melissa: That’s Dark Matter by Michelle Paver. I should also mention that she is the author of a manor house book that I’ve written about on our website called Wakenhyrst. So if you have read Wakenhyrst and enjoyed it, you will absolutely love Dark Matter.
David: My next book is The Wolf in the Whale by Jordana Max Brodsky. Ginger from Hawaii told us about this book, so thanks, Ginger! This is a story that follows a young Inuit shaman living in the Arctic about a thousand years ago. Omat is her name. Omat is taught from an early age by her grandfather how to use the spirits of the land to protect and guide her people, which makes this sound like a fantasy and it kind of is, and it also walks this sort of fine line on that border. I think I’d call it magical realism. Spirits appear. People who believe in them can interact with them.
Melissa: It sounds a little bit like the setup for The Whale Rider.
David: Yeah, a little bit. Although I think this is more dire.
Melissa: Yeah, from what I know from the little bit you’ve told me about this book, it’s a much darker.
David: Yeah. So life is hard for Omat’s tribe and trigger warning. This book does not spare the reader anything. Things happen in this book. It gets bleak. There’s sexual abuse and suffering. If you’re sensitive to violence or blood, this probably isn’t your book. So things are hard for Omat and her tribe, and they don’t get any easier. At first, she’s facing hunger and identity conflicts and the insularity of the tribe, and then they’re visited by another sort of hostile tribe. The head of that tribe is horrible to the people around him, particularly the women, but Omat’s tribe is impressed with his hunting abilities. Eventually, Omat is in part abducted and in part given away. That doesn’t go well. And just about the time, as a reader, you’re thinking things can’t really get much worse. We get to the central conflict of the book. The Vikings arrive. The Vikings and their wooden boats and their metal tools and their cooked food —
David: — arrive and they see the Inuit as vicious animals.
Melissa: That’s rich.
David: Yeah. So at its core, this book is a coming-of-age story wrapped around the conflict of two cultures and their gods, the Inuit and their spirits versus the Norse and their gods. So I’m going to stop right there, and I’m going to say this would be a great book for a book club. Assuming everybody is on board with a book with some teeth. It’s a great story. It’s well told. And most importantly, it is thick with stuff to talk about. I’ve been in a number of book clubs where people propose a story that is a good story, but there’s nothing really to talk about after you’re done with it. This book does not have that issue. There’s the Arctic and there’s the life of the Inuit, which is brilliantly described here. The writer grew up in Virginia. She graduated from Harvard, and she lives in Manhattan. I’m not sure how she learned how to hunt, skin, and prepare a walrus, but I am convinced she knows. The world building is just great here. There’s big pieces like the whole walrus hunting thing, but they’re also little details, like when she describes an old Inuit man who was now using his walking stick more to make sure of himself rather than the ice beneath his feet.
David: I know it’s like, Oh, it’s a yeah.
Melissa: If I wrote a sentence like that, I would be like, And I’m done forever.
David: Yeah, that’s it. The story has a lot to say about gender issues. Without giving anything away, Omat’s relationship with her masculine and feminine sides is significant to her and the people around her, and the book has a lot to say about religion. Who are heroes and gods, and what did they say about us? How do they inform us and what happens when a religion dies or a new one is born? Thor appears in this book, but in his form from 1000 years ago. Of course, as an old comic reader, I kept wondering how the Old Norse Thor is different from our Marvel Cinematic Universe Chris Hemsworth Thor, functionally. Like, will anthropologists 1000 years from now, talk about Thor as one of the gods of our era. Why or why not?
David: But to get back to the book, there are also really interesting cultural comparisons, like when one of the Viking characters is talking to an Inuit and realizes that the Inuit doesn’t have words for lands claimed by other people. So we call it Canada, but to them, it’s just more land. The Inuit also don’t have vocabulary for buildings or horses or war and how that shapes a people. This is a big epic story, but it is mostly the story of Omat’s self-discovery. It’s told in first person, so the words are simple. It reads like a young adult book, but the action is adult, and the story and its themes are rich and dense. If you’re interested in the problems of a tough little girl who walked the Arctic a thousand years ago, it’s a good read. That’s The Wolf in the Whale by Jordana Max Brodsky. I want to mention that the author, in her research notes at the back of this book, wrote, ‘Before I ever traveled to the Arctic myself, I was able to gain a profound appreciation for its mystery and majesty for its landscape and wildlife through two incomparable books: Katherine Sherman’s Spring on an Arctic Island and Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams.
Melissa: Oh, there’s your old friend again.
David: I know. Oh, it’s nice.
Melissa: My last pick is Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks Dalton. This is an apocalyptic novel, but in the way that Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is an apocalyptic novel. It’s beautifully written, it’s very suspenseful, and it’s not really about the apocalypse itself. That’s happening in the background. It’s really about how this terrible event is a catalyst for what happens to the characters who survive.
Melissa: So first, we meet Augie. He is a 78-year-old, and he is objectively a brilliant astronomer. But whew boy; he is prickly and arrogant. And at the beginning of the novel, he seems very much like a privileged old white dude that you wouldn’t really want to spend time with, even though he’s very good at what he does. He’s working at an observatory in the Arctic. When something catastrophic happens in the world, it is not specifically named. All we and Auggie know is that the research center has to be evacuated and Augie refuses to leave.
David: Do you ever find out?
David: Wow, OK. All right.
Melissa: It’s very bold storytelling. You do not know what is happening out in the world. Augie can’t bear to give up his life’s mission, and there is a really great passage that describes his personality. ‘He had never been satisfied and never would be. It wasn’t success he craved or even fame. It was history. He wanted to look back into the dawn of time and glimpse the very beginning. He wanted to be remembered.’
David: It’s like the other Arctic explorers.
Melissa: Exactly. So he stays, and shortly after everyone else is gone, he finds a little girl. She is maybe seven or eight years old, and he assumes that she has been accidentally left behind in the rush to evacuate the base. And there’s no way for him to contact anyone. Communications are down. Everyone is gone. So he reluctantly starts to take care of her the way the grouchy old man at the end of the street might take care of a stray dog.
David: Yeah, yeah.
Melissa: He calls her iris. And they eventually form a very unusual friendship.
David: She doesn’t tell him her name?
Melissa: It takes her a while to start speaking. So in the beginning, he doesn’t know. At the same time, a spaceship is on its return flight from Jupiter, and on the way home from their very successful mission, the crew loses contact with mission control on Earth. And this is when we start following the experiences of a woman astronaut named Sully. So those are human characters in this drama, one in space, one in the Arctic.
David: So these are the last three people on Earth, as far as the story goes.
Melissa: Yeah. The landscapes of both the Arctic and outer space are also characters in this story. And in fact, in a lot of ways they have more influence on what happens than the people do. The similarities between the Arctic and space are really compelling, and until I read this book, I hadn’t really thought about that.
Melissa: They’re both mind blowingly vast if you’re a puny little human. They’re cold and very hard edged. They’re places that humans aren’t really welcome.
David: Yeah, they’re both actively trying to kill you.
Melissa: Yes. But at the same time, they’re unbelievably beautiful and can be very peaceful. Here’s an example of how the author sets the scene: ‘When the sun finally returned to the Arctic Circle and stained the gray sky with blazing streaks of pink, Augustine was outside waiting. He hadn’t felt natural light on his face in months. The rosy glow spilled over the horizon and seeped into the icy blue of the tundra, casting indigo shadows across the snow. The dawn climbed like a wall of hungry fire, delicate pink deepening to orange than crimson. Consuming the thick layers of cloud one at a time until the entire sky was burning. He basked in its muted glow. His skin tingling.’
David: That’s so nice.
Melissa: The chapter’s alternate between Augie and Sully’s experiences, and eventually they’re two stories connect. Along the way, we get their day to day survival and flashbacks into their histories. And the parallels between the two characters are really striking. They’re both very ambitious. They’ve excelled in their careers, but that success has come at a really high personal cost. And this is something that you and I talk about a lot. How people who are kind of single-minded and pursuing something have experiences that the rest of us don’t get to have, but then they also miss out on the other experiences of family life or hanging out at your corner bar, just like those everyday things.
David: Just having some random interest you’re chasing down right now because you’re committed to that thing.
Melissa: So it’s really — I found it really interesting looking at that, like what they’d given up in order to achieve what they have. And both of them are questioning that now because this might be the end of everything.
Melissa: In no particular order and without giving anything away, this story involves intense polar bear encounters, severe space danger, obviously bitter cold, dwindling food supplies, and harrowing snowmobile rides. It also has an ending that I found very emotionally resonant and satisfactory, and I would love to discuss it with anyone who reads this book because there is a lot to talk about. If you’re interested in reading this book, I’m going to urge you not to Google it too much because there’s a lot of discussion of the ending, and I don’t usually care about spoilers that much, but I was really glad that I experienced it just through reading it and then went and dug into the discussions about it. So a little word of warning, if you think you’re going to read it,
David: You want them to go in cold.
Melissa: [laughter] Well played, Dave. The author Lily Brooks Dalton said that she got the idea for the story when she was working at a radio station, and it was someone’s job to go out and knock the snow off of the transmitter. Otherwise, it would muffle the signal and the station would go off the air.
Melissa: And that got her thinking about someone alone keeping a signal alive. And that’s where the story came from. I really love that the story focuses not on the tragedy of the apocalypse — there is no big blow up bombastic, The end of the world is here kind of event. Instead, we have her characters reflecting on their personal stories and what really matters when it seems like everything else is gone. That is Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks Dalton.
David: Those are five books we love set in the Arctic. Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for all kinds of awesome stuff about the Arctic. I’m telling you, you need to go visit our show notes if you can. Mel, can you tell us about the blog post you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: I did some deep digging around on Instagram and I found some really cool Instagram accounts about polar research, about women scientists, about cute Arctic animals. If you want to deepen your knowledge and be wildly entertained. this is the blog post for you. And we’ll be sharing a recipe inspired by the Arctic that only requires ingredients you can get at your local grocery store. Nothing too exotic and weird.
David: Not muktuk.
Melissa: Not muktuk.
David: This podcast is brought to you by our patrons and only our patrons. If you want to support the podcast, the newsletter and the other work we do head over to strongsenseofplace.com/support; that’ll redirect you to our Patreon page. If you sign up for Patreon, you’ll get extra stuff and you will meet our like-minded readers, which is endless joy to me.
Melissa: It’s such a good group of people, and we’ve been sharing a lot of personal slash behind-the-scenes stuff lately that our patrons seem to be enjoying. Yeah.
David: Recently, we talked about a Nellie Bly Fan Club and —
Melissa: — secret handshake, cute hats —
David: And the deep, dark soul of William Randolph Hearst. Oh, that guy.
Melissa: Bless his heart. Yeah.
David: Mel, where are we going on our next episode?
Melissa: Given the state of the world, we’ve made a last minute substitution to our schedule because the recent news made us curious about Afghanistan. So we’re going to Afghanistan in the next episode.
David: We will talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Kertu/Shutterstock.
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