I do not want, now or probably ever, to write about the teeming horrors of last spring and summer—and anyway you don’t need me to; you were there—or the bleak monotonous winter of endless lockdown. But I do not think I am alone in feeling after the last year that something essential had gone out of me, my waterlogged brain sodden and rotting in my skull and utterly useless for anything other than bulk processing a terrifying number of truly execrable crime novels and mapping the locations of potentially pettable cats within walking distance of the apartment I left only to go to the grocery store or for the occasional run in the harbor.
But my little world here has snapped back to life with disorienting swiftness. The café tables are out on the sidewalks again for the first time in seven months, the harbor bars are open, the intensely beloved and ordinarily quite inept local soccer team won its first important game in twelve years and our neighbors set fire to the asparagus stand in the nearby square. And M had a few days of sailing work bringing a ship from her winter harbor in the Netherlands back to Hamburg, where she will resume her seasonal activities of hauling gaping sightseers twice daily around the seaport to photograph container ships and sunsets.
I went along. While the real sailors spent the first day readying the ship for sail after her hiatus I wandered around the cobblestoned streets and charming slouched-over houses of a town I had never been before, and with each step I took I could feel the moldering wreck of my imagination staggering up and out of the muck in which it had lain embedded, haggard and near ruin but still, somehow, alive. I came across a little cat in a patch of grass who let me scratch her chin. If you ever find yourself in Franeker, I remember where she lives.
In Hamburg I saw dear Heinke, from whom I painstakingly extracted tidbits of sailors’ news (unlike most sailors, who are lascivious gossips, Heinke largely keeps other people’s business to himself, but I am both shameless and persistent), and who told me stories of his own lockdown season in the Netherlands living with a skeleton crew on a ghost fleet of corona-frozen ships, many of which did not sail at all last year. The ship Heinke crewed only carries tourists now, but she started her life as a whaler, scything a murderous circuit from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again. I imagine Heinke’s winter like something out of Melville: the ship’s cook and the ship’s captain, alone on that vast whale-haunted ship, those rain-dark months, playing endless games of chess deep in a blood-steeped barque’s belly under the guttering light of a single lantern through all the long plague nights.1
Fig. 15. A horizon.
I have the feeling that sadness has taken root in my body, a sadness that seams its way through all my foundations like a mycelial network of despair. I never used to get cold, a quirk of my inner workings that seemed to me a sign I was meant to go as far north as I could get; this spring I was cold all the time, going around in the ratty cashmere sweater I meant to take to the Arctic weeks after other people traded coats in for short sleeves. The truth is likely that I am getting older and my metabolism is changing, but it feels as though my body has absorbed the knowledge my brain won’t work through, that I am not going north in the way I bet my whole life on, not last year and not this year and likely not ever. I will have to find another route back to that country of endless light, and none of those paths are ethical for someone like me. Maybe it’s better to learn to live with your ghosts than to plant your dreams in ruin.
Heinke told me about another sailor who swore he’d never work a season in the Arctic again, because he couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear to be a part of it. The same ships that once sailed north for slaughter take passengers now to Instagram the beings they formerly hunted; these days the whales of the northern seas are better business alive than dead.2 All those people with their thousand-dollar cameras and their new rubber boots, flying in biweekly to take pictures of the end of the world. (“Even Svalbard has become a tourist colony,” famed tourist Fritjof Nansen complained in 1896.)3 Whalers logged the lives they took; their notebooks are often lovely, despite what the illustrations record. So beautiful, we tourists say. So beautiful, so sad. The shutter clicks, and we fly home.
Fig. 16. From the log of the whaleship Washington, kept by James G. Coffin in the early 1840s.4
The ship sailed out of Harlingen late at night with the high tide, the ragged end of the waning blood moon swollen huge and low over the water, the clear constellations hung across the velvet dark. Tucked up in the wheelhouse—which on every ship smells faintly of tobacco and sailor, a grandfatherly smell I find obscurely comforting—through the night watch, waiting to see the sunrise. The sky silvering so slowly that I thought for a long moment a pale bank of cloud on the horizon was a glacier, that I had sailed my way to Spitsbergen after all. And then I realized I was only half-asleep and dreaming, and went below.
When I came out on deck again the sun was bright in a hot hard sky, and all the ice of the world was far away.
I always do find my way in the end, no matter how sad I get in the meantime. Mycelium links much of the living world, webs spun from tree to tree, forest to forest, a whole invisible universe of underground connection.5 The grief in me sees the grief in you. I hope your days have joy in them too.
DISCLAIMER: This imagery is flagrant Poetic License as 1. I have no idea where the games of chess were played; 2. the ship has a perfectly good electrical system and I imagine they turned the lights on like normal people; and 3. it seems reasonable to assume that whales have ghosts, but if that particular ship is haunted I have not personally seen any sign of it in my (admittedly limited) time aboard.
For more on the pre-tourism extraction economy of Svalbard, see Bathsheba Demuth, “Footprints of Extraction,” Hakai Magazine, April 2020
Fritjof Nansen quoted in Joanna Kavenna, The Ice Museum: In Search of the Lost Land of Thule. Penguin Books, London: 2005.
Mycelial networks described in Merlin Sheldrake, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. Penguin Random House, London: 2020.