Farthest North

Six O’Clock gin and tonic

The Arctic night is making its slow and majestic entrance.

Low on the horizon in the south-west there is a flush of the sun – a dark fierce red, as if of blood aglow with all life’s smouldering longings – low and far-off, like the dreamland of youth. Higher in the sky it melts into orange, and that into green and pale blue; and then comes deep blue, star sown, and then infinite space, where no dawn will ever break. I can sit and gaze and gaze, my eyes entranced by the dream-glow, the moon’s pale, silver-sickle dipping its point in blood.

Presently, as if at the touch of a magic wand, a storm of light streams through the dark blue of heaven in matchless power and beauty. It begins to dawn with a pale yellow, spectral light in the east, like the reflection of a fire far away. It broadens, and soon the whole of the eastern sky is ablaze, one glowing mass of fire.  Now it fades again, and gathers in a brightly luminous belt of mist stretching towards the southwest, with only a few patches of luminous haze here and there. After a while, scattered rays suddenly shoot up from the fiery mist, almost reaching the zenith. Suddenly a perfect veil of rays showers out over the northern sky; they are so fine and bright, like the finest of glittering silver threads. The brilliance gradually flickers over into green, and then a sparkling ruby-red, with spots of yellow; the one in the middle, yellow; and the one to the north , greenish-white. Sheafs of rays swept along the sides of the serpents, driven through the ether-like waves before a storm-wind. They sway backwards and forwards, now strong, now fainter again. The serpents reach and pass the zenith while pencils of streamers shot out swiftly towards the east.

Then it appeared that the storm abated, and the whole turned pale, and glowed with a faint whitish hue for a while, only to shoot wildly up once more and to begin the same dance over again.

Though I was thinly dressed and shivering with cold, I could not tear myself away till the spectacle was over, and only a faintly-glowing fiery serpent near the western horizon showed where it had begun. It seems to cast a spell over both sight and sense. It does not matter if one has seen it a thousand times before: it makes the same solemn impression when it comes again; one cannot free one’s mind from its power.

Years come and go unnoticed in this world of ice, and we have no more knowledge here of what these years have brought to humanity, than we know what the future ones have in store. In this silent nature, all is shrouded in darkness; there is nothing in view save the twinkling stars, immeasurably far away in the freezing night, and the flickering sheen of the aurora borealis

How I long for the polar night, for the everlasting wonderland of the stars with the spectral northern lights, and the moon sailing through the profound silence. Daylight here with its rigid, lifeless whiteness and numbing cold has no attractions. This eternal day, with its oppressive actuality, interests me no longer; but the evening and night thaw the heart of this world of ice; it dreams mournful dreams, and you seem to hear in the hues of the evening, sounds of its smothered wail.  It is like a glimpse into the realms of fantasy.  There are no forms, no cumbrous reality – only a vision woven of silver and violet ether, rising up from earth and floating into infinity… There is dawning life in the slumbering night, if it could only reach beyond the icy desert, out over the world.

Adapted from Fridtjof Nansen’s Farthest North, Gibson Square Books, 2002

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