Here are my three fleeting personal experiences of the far North. In 1982, on my only trip to Japan, I flew over the Aleutian Islands. Out the plane window was a spectacular sight, jagged, snowy mountaintops tearing through clouds -- spectacular, that is, until a stewardess came over and asked me to pull down the shade. The movie Fame was onscreen and the Aleutian light was bothering the passengers around me.
In another distant year, after a boondoggle of a summer trip to a "peace conference" in Stockholm and a night spent farther north in Sweden where the sun set late and slow, and I could go out "after dark" to gather wild mushrooms with an expert (and her two Egyptian wolfhounds), I flew home over Greenland. That place had loomed mysteriously large on my childhood globe and indeed, even from the heights, Greenland once again loomed large and mysterious.
Finally, if memory is to be trusted, I once saw the Aurora Borealis faintly over Long Island (New York). Other than that my sole venture north of southern Canada was in an early, particularly degraded part of my work life. I first broke into publishing as a freelance editor of textbooks for professors whose idea of scholarly research was, in at least one case, to take a publisher's money meant for a research assistant and spend it on a snow blower. (Perhaps that, too, should qualify as an obscure connection to the snowy north.) In any case, it meant that I became a de facto researcher for the book, my entertainment at the time.
I ended up writing those little boxes, you know, the ones with curious tales and even more curious facts that are meant to enliven a dreary text, including one I wrote about the far north that has never left my mind. As it happened, in the Middle Ages, certain birds like the "barnacle goose" had breeding grounds so far north that no European had seen them. Conveniently, for those in Catholic Europe yearning to eat flesh on Fridays, that aptly named goose and other northern breeders could be imagined as generating from shells and so products of the sea ("neither flesh, nor born of flesh"). Once the actual breeding grounds were discovered and the lack of barnacles with geese in them became apparent, the French word for that goose (and more generally for "duck"), "canard," also became the word for "hoax," "false report," "lie." Fully accurate or not, it's the memory of "the north" that I carry with me.
Today, in a lovely experiment, Rebecca Solnit has adapted a section of her new book, The Faraway Nearby, for my website TomDispatch.com. That book contains some of the most beautiful writing she's ever done, sentences that will make you (or at least made me) gasp out loud. The book is officially a memoir about her difficult relationship with her mother, but honestly that's a little like saying The Odyssey is a tale of a traveler's conflicted relationship with a one-eyed stranger. The Faraway Nearby is also a flight and an escape, literal and figurative, into the north of everything, into a place of total darkness -- which, TomDispatch readers will remember, was the confounding image of hope Solnit first brought to this site in May 2003 -- and of total light. It's about fleeing yourself and so finding yourself, often in others and in the most unexpected ways. It's about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Che Guevara's visit to a leprosy colony. It's about... well, take a taste of her piece at TomDispatch and then make sure that you explore The Faraway Nearby at your leisure. Head north, young woman (or young man), into the healing darkness that links you to the rest of us. No recent book I've picked up has been more worth the read.
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