When I was in my 20s, strapping and idealistic — i.e., an idiot — I lusted after this landscape. I knew it only in the photos in the Sierra Club coffeetable books, thinking how grand it would be to live in an alpine meadow in the Cascades, Sierras or in Alaska, with distant lightning-zag waterfalls dropping in a pencil-line a thousand feet down the face of a granite escarpment. I could feel the bracing air in my imagination.
The attraction was part a Longinian yearning for the sublime, for the vastness of the landscape; part of the attraction was its isolation, away from the ordinariness of daily life with all its people, some of whom might well be my boss. There was no TV in this idealized world; only bear and moose.
I am older now, still an idiot, and I can no longer feel that fervid longing, at least not directly, but I remembered it keenly visiting the mountains and glaciers of Alaska. They are vast, the air is ice on the skin and the vistas are the kind John Martin might paint.
The pianist Glenn Gould once made a radio show for Canadian listeners called “The Idea of North.”
For those of us south of his border, the idea of north is Alaska. Endless forests, grizzly bears, rock-cobbled rivers, salmon, snow and rime.
Alaska is an inaccessible place, where no interstates lead, and even its state capital cannot be reached except by air or sea. For most of us, Alaska is important precisely because we cannot get there; it is proof that there is still a moment on the planet that is not yet filled with highways, billboards, Nike ads and grinning tourists. For most of Alaska, to be seen is to be explored; it takes dedication, muscle and energy, just as it did for the Gold Rush prospectors who hiked over the Chilkoot Trail.
We think of Robert Service poetry or Jack London novels. Perhaps our idea of the frozen north comes from Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North,” or Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein.” In any case, it is a north that is still dangerous. A landscape that carries with it the final sense of the sublime: beauty that can kill us. And even if we survive, it is beauty on such a scale that our human minuteness shrivels our ambitions and makes us harbor cosmic thoughts.
Two hundred years ago, European art and literature was chockablock with the frozen Arctic. From paintings by Caspar David Friedrich to “Frankenstein,” it was icebergs and glaciers that told of the vastness and sublimity of nature. Make that Nature, with a Capital N.
“We are still surrounded by mountains of ice, still in imminent danger of being crushed by their conflict.” — “Frankenstein”
Or, from “The Ricome of the Ancient Mariner”:
“And now there came both mist and snow,/ And it grew wondrous cold:/ And ice, mast-high, came floating by,/As green as emerald. … / It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,/ Like noises in a swound!”
As green as emerald? Rather, as blue as sapphire.
In College Fjord, the glacial ice is blackened at the margins with sooty dirt and rocks, but the central part — the “filet,” as you might call it — is pure and clean. It is there, in places where deep fissures in the ice let you see into the glacier, that the ice shows bright, clear blue. The color is brighter when the sun briefly shines on it. It is Tarheel blue, as bright as a new paint block in a watercolor set.
One of the vertical slices of the glacier has been worn through, leaving an icy natural bridge. In its donut hole, the blue is intense. Ice, it turns out is blue. It is not the mere reflection of the sky that makes it so — if proof be needed, there is no blue sky most of this day — but rather that the ice is not clear. Turns out, water is not clear, either. It really is blue, although so thinly colored that a glass of it looks transparent. Put enough of it together and the blue is apparent enough. And the ice made in this giant Frigidaire is also blue where it is pure enough, although much of the surface is roughed up with layers of snow, to make them white and glistening.
Crack and boom, and some more ice falls off the front of the glacial wall. Most of the calving involves an avalanche of small ice cubes and snow balls rather than the giant heaving chunks we see on the nature TV shows. The center of the glacier’s face is where most of the action is happening; a certain section is concave and its upper surface, overhanging its lower, keeps dropping bits like plaster falling off a wet ceiling. It crashes into the water in big ice slides and sends up waves that circle off toward the boat. They peter out into wide ripples before they reach us, so we can hardly notice them as they pass.
When a bigger chunk falls off, it drops below the surface and immediately pops back up, like a whale breeching. Sometimes, as it reappears, it also turns over on its back, like a restless sleeper, before settling back down into the water. Seabirds rush to the spot to seek food.
It was the north that attracted Amundsen, Nansen, Peary. Parkas of animal fur made their heads three times normal size and they walked about in a stiff-leg shuffle in the ice and snow. The sky was always gray and the air always frigid. Snow blew sideways.
It was the ice and isolation that drew Byron’s Manfred, Jack London’s White Fang, Robert Service’s Dan McGrew. In Finland, it is the snow and ice of Sibelius’s “Finlandia,” the thin, remote trombones of his Seventh Symphony.
The problem is, that for most Americans who venture to Alaska now, they do so on a cruise ship, eating rib roasts and sherry triffle, looking off the taffrail for the spout of a friendly whale, or the antics of a sea otter. The cruise industry has turned the sublime into Disney ride. Whee!
It can take some concentrated effort, but for anyone who wants to invest the psychic and emotional energy to do so, the Alaska of vast spaces and endless emptiness is still there. But unlike the days when leathery men packed mules to go across the passes, we have to make that journey more in our heads than on our feet. It is an act of imaginative will to see the skull beneath the skin, the rocky sublimity under the coating of easy tourism.
I went to Alaska to find the wilderness I fantasized about when I was 20. It was the allure of the Sierra Club coffeetable books, with their glossy photos of deep glacial valleys and snow-capped sierras. I imagined living on some Cascadian mountainside with mountain goats and bear grass.
We gain a good deal as we accumulate experience like barnacles. We are stronger, less easily angered or driven to political excesses, and we certainly have learned something about love that we could never have guessed when our hearts merely wanted. But, we have lost a good deal, too.
Now that I am past 60, it is no longer a life I want, but one can never cease wishing to be 20 and longing for the heart’s desire.