Wednesday, November 25, 2009

In the Land of the Frost Giants

Thinking of Iceland again, recently, for a few reasons. Will I split the narrative out into several chapters of a larger book? Will I condense the whole tale into a single book chapter or magazine article? Will I rewrite the entire thing, knowing so much more than I did when I drafted it out, five years ago?

A fragment that invokes good memories for me, describing life in perpetual fog and mist, day after day, 40 miles into the ice cap.

In the mist, I saw four classes of things -- things I wanted to see; things I definitely did not want to see; things simply inexplicable; and a very few real things.

I saw faint shapes which I hopefully attributed to be landmarks of some sort, landmarks I'd expected to see and hoped to see as confirmation that I was actually moving forward. There, that must be the Haabunga Ice Dome! But, no; simply a billow of snow ambling across the ice cap, like a tumbling sagebrush. There, now that grayish blob must the the end of this hill I'm climbing! No; just a shadow cast by the cold moon across a low, fast-moving cloud, and the slope did not level off. Finally! The Grimsvotn Steam Cauldron, maybe two miles ahead! No; a few steps along the dark, expansive oval is just a small depression ten feet wide. Lights? No, Cameron; just a snowflake which has glittered, particularly brightly, for an instant in your headlamp beam. Crevasses, dead ahead! No. The broad smear of grey turns out to be sastrugi, a low ridge of snow sculpted by the wind...Rocks! What are rocks doing here? But they're not rocks...illusions, again, this time I find no explanation for what appeared to be a pile of dark boulders...I arrive at the point where they seemed to be and there is nothing but snow.

The strangest illusion was that of an enormous pair of legs, knees in the clouds, striding across the ice cap ahead of me. I stopped in my tracks and dropped my jaw. The mirage lasted only lasted a moment, but was distinct...I watched as the gargantuan legs took one, and then two giant steps, a mile at a stride, right across my path, then faded into the gloom! Perhaps it was a hallucination...or perhaps it was the Frost Giant Ymir, a primordial character of the Norse mythos, up from Hell to inspect the ice cap. Ymir, the Icelanders say--and have said, and sung, and murmured in their warm sod huts for a thousand years--was formed early in the universe. He arose from a mist liberated by the melting of ice in Hell by a blast of baking air from the burning hot region of Muspell. As Ymir aged, his body spawned the chaotic Frost Giants. In Odin’s quest to understand and control the Cosmos, he killed Ymir, and the Frost Giants drowned in the torrent of giant’s blood. Ymir’s body dissembled, forming the Earth. As a human being, my relation to Ymir was intimate: humans were the maggots that squirmed through Ymir’s flesh. So it was a sort of recursion; it was my own squirming thoughts that brought Ymir back to the ice, in the vision of enormous striding legs.

I smiled; blinked; shook my head; scraped ice from my goggles; looked down at my compass, and continued my march.

I found that the only way to combat the illusions was to force myself to fear nothing and to expect nothing; to simply exist. This reduced my universe to a small bubble of perception, a small bubble of consciousness. Behind, only memories; ahead, only vague expectations. I need only think of here, now, this moment, the next step converted from the future to the present in an endless loop.

Only a few times did I see real phenomena.

One night it was cold and clear, the best conditions for pulling on ice. The stars did not shine, they burned white, and they did not glimmer but blazed evenly, as though Earth's wavering atmosphere had been ripped away by some terrible cosmic catastrophe. I leaned back against the rigid sledhut traces and gazed straight up. Ice encrusted on my mask cracked away, and small chips trickled down my neck. I shivered and stared out at the universe. I may as well have been suspended in the inert depths of interstellar space. I felt far from the warmth of any star. The contrast between the blackness of empty space and the blazing stars was stark. In the black voids there was only distance, only emptiness. The punctuations of starlight were absolutely still. The void was not disheartening. It reminded me of the value of any spark of warmth, and life.

My mind reeled, first with abstractions, then facts, then further abstractions on distances, geometry, and vague concepts of time and space which I have yet to master. My thoughts spanned and closed gaps, leapt others. Soon I stood with a blank mind. I was a single spark of life staring into the the enormity of the cosmos. I realized that I was not staring out at any one thing. I was of course a speck of self-aware cosmos, contemplating itself. The enormity and improbability of all of it were overwhelming. I breathed deeply of the supercooled air, and moved on.

Later, a fountain of amber light washed across the sky like spilled liquid, stopping me in my tracks. Aurora! I said out loud, as a gout of flaming red burst above and left and then faded almost immediately. Then an amber swath seemed to waver like an enormous tapestry fluttering in slow motion at an impossible distance. It, too, faded, replaced by dim green columns illuminated from within, their infinitely-distant tops tilting towards one another. For half an hour I stood transfixed as my sweat crystallized inside my shell suit, and I tried to commit the fantastic images to memory. And, as always, the cold finally convinced me, nudged me, to move along.

Another real phenomenon I saw was the icy expanse I was travelling across. For brief moments the mist and cloud would part, and I would be granted a view of the starlit snowscape, seeming to stretch out from my position infinitely in all directions. It was ruffled, like a windblown lake, but stopped in motion, and here and there a grain of snow gleamed star-white. But cloud and mist always returned, speeding in to blur and then obliterate. The mist was wet, chilling my lungs and glazing my clothes with a cracking armor of ice.

I kept marching, heading for the Grimsvotn Ice Cauldron. I approached it around 3am on the 22nd of December, having traveled since 7pm the night before. It was only an eight-hour day, but the last two miles were an interminable steeper slope that took everything I had and ground me down to a nub. When I reached the top of the slope I dropped to my knees, gasping in the snow. I looked East. The mist had lifted somewhat, and an icy plain fell away before me towards the cauldron.

Vapor billowed up from the volcanic vents under the ice then rose straight into the supercooled air and froze, forming a mile-high column of crystals that glittered in the moonlight, a natural wonder of limitless value.

(c) 2009 Cameron McPherson Smith


Flynn Renard said...

I just viewed your lecture on cognitive archaeology, loved it. Who was it again who wrote on religion and ritual putting a "damper" on individuality? Roy...? At any rate the ideas you presented were quite thought provoking. Kudos.

Cameron McPherson Smith said...

Hy, Flynn -- it was Roy Rappaport; have a look at "Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity."