Tuesday, July 24, 2007

38° and Foggy for 48

For two days the temperature and the sky dropped in Pangnirtung. At first the fog sat on the ground, thick and full of drizzle. Then it lifted a hundred feet and made a line along the mountainsides like the edge of a square-dancer's skirt. Later, the wind picked up and the fog began to swallow hillsides whole. During the swallowing phase, I went out to paint and settled on a rocky outcropping, near a small stream half way up the hills, high enough to stay within the fog. A rock, elaborately dressed in gray lichens, brown fungus and a large ruff of flowers and moss, was the subject for the day. Nearby the recent moisture helped to bring along new blooms including drifts of fantastic pink and cream spires. Transported by the moment, I suddenly realized that the fog which obscured the hillsides to such romantic effect, could also hide a polar bear. I shouldn’t be too worried about polar bears, since they tend to stay near the coast, but Canadian Wildlife TV and a book I am reading about surviving Greenland in 1900 have brought them to life in my mind. Suddenly the Fog was less pretty, and I planned emergency responses to polar bear attack. First, I would offer my sandwich to the bear, and hope that the zip lock bag would cause confusion and delay the attack so that I could roll into a ball as recommended, or run. During an attack I thought it unlikely that I would roll into a ball, even though it is recommended, so I decided to grab the pot of paint thinner to use as a weapon as I dashed away, tossing it toward the face of the bear during the chase over the tundra. Reassured by the effectiveness of the pot of paint thinner as a weapon, I went back to work. Sure enough, I was attacked later that day, but by mosquitoes, who are attracted to the colors of paint and die in quantity on the palette and the pictures. Since they struggle and muck up the paintings, I remove them with tweezers. Worries of bear attacks aside, I’m still the predator at the top of the food chain.
Late that night, the fog was sent off by clear weather and lots of wind.

Monday, July 16, 2007

On the Land

In the morning after a sandwich, a chocolate bar, bug spray and 45 pounds of painting gear are packed, I walk up the river gorge behind Pangnirtung looking for something to paint. A shelf of ice, the fold of hills, a cascade of boulders, a gush of water, the color of lichens and the carpet of plants have all stopped me in my tracks. Usually the thing of interest is off the trail and I carefully climb up or down the sides of the gorge, adjusting to a new center of gravity as the backpack shifts. Once arrived, I look for a flat spot with a duo of rocks to serve as chair and table on which I happily drop the pack. Preparing to paint outside takes countless small actions, which were time consuming until they became routine. Wind, uneven land and broken equipment have created challenges to setting up, but bungee cords have proven to be an all-purpose solution. Filling the emptied back pack with rocks and suspending it from the bottom of the easel with a bungee, for example, is a good way to prevent the constant wind from upending everything. Setting up takes half an hour, which gives the mosquitoes time to smell blood and track me. They are very large and travel in packs, but so far, they have been deterred by applying a 50% solution of DEET to exposed skin every 4 hours.

The sky varies from “mostly cloudy” to “partly sunny”, so the light is most often soft and cool. As the weather has warmed to 50° F, the color of the distant hillsides has made a modest shift from tan to olive. Not all the colors, however, are quiet. The ice sheets, for example, are a brilliant aqua when suffused with daylight and the granite boulders which cover the landscape like nuts on a sundae are modeled with contrasting spots of orange, chartreuse and charcoal. More dramatically, the color of Pangnirtung Fiord shifts from black to teal as the light changes during the day. Like the desert and the prairie, the arctic landscape has no middle scale. Things are either enormous like the mountains, or miniaturized like the plants. Only the occasional boulder is of a middle size, and as a result, the experience of seeing is pushed to extremes. On the land I am either standing in a humbling panorama, or down on hand and knee studying the complexity of the ground cover. The openness of the land is both awesome and unsettling; on Baffin Island a human-scale rock can feel like reassuring companionship. The shape of the rocks has become a favorite motif for painting, as has falling water, ice, moss and lichens.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Virgin Mary Land

I was out on the tundra painting, and marveling at the surface of the land, when a young Inuit man, wearing baggy fatigues and a patterned ‘hoody” appeared behind me and said, “Pangnirtung is Virgin Mary Land”. I jumped. Whether he was reporting a private vision or providing the English translation of Pangnirtung, I never learned. Virgin Mary Land, however, seems an apt description for the miraculous and tender cloak that blooms here.

Arctic Pancakes

There is not a metal spatula to be bought in Pangnirtung, which is a problem since I like pancakes. So I am using a rubber spatula, which is inadequate because it is straight, narrow and flexible in order to scrape batter from concavities. A metal spatula, the kind I am missing, is hard and flat with a sharp leading edge. The correct spatula also has a bend so that the handle is parallel to the slope of the pan side, while the blade remains parallel to the pancake. This angle, I have discovered, is essential for the safe transport of wet loads.
When using a rubber spatula, the pancake must be carefully structured. First, make small cakes. Second, cook the pancake on low heat until it bubbles, and continue cooking until the bubbles begin to dry, and the bottom is crisp and rigid. Normally, one would not cook a side of a pancake to this degree, but a pancake that is moist in the center will gather into pleats when the rubber spatula is slid beneath. Of course, adding fruit is a concern, since it weakens the cake. With a fork, nudge the fruit-filled cake onto the rubber spatula, pause for balance, lift five inches, and flip decisively.

Although the Arctic is generally well stocked, the mainstream of commodities is far away and the connections to it are tenuous. But Scarcity in the form of a missing metal spatula has shown itself, and it is enough to trigger cunning.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

House 524

Like convicts, the houses in Pangnirtung have numbers. Addresses are not necessary since the streets are unmarked. House 524 is in uptown Pangnirtung, which is separated from downtown Pangnirtung by the landing strip. The house is very near the main road that runs along the fiord and not far from the edge of town, which makes it a good base for hikes into the countryside. Like all of the others, House 524 is built on pilings and sits several feet up in the air. It is strapped to the ground with steel cables to prevent the Arctic wind, which is compressed and excited by the steep walls of Pangnirtung Fiord, from carrying it off to Kansas. I awoke one night from the roar and bang of the gale outside. Things were flying in the night and hitting the house. For hours the bed shook, and I imagined the house flipping and myself landing under the bed, with an impression of the popcorn ceiling on my face.

The house is very comfortable, recently renovated and minimally furnished. The water is delivered by truck every two days, and the sewage is pumped and the garbage is removed on a similar schedule. Electricity is made by an oil-fired generator in town. The garbage is hauled a mile away, and burned, poorly, every other day, sending up brown smoke which rises a few hundred feet before it is stopped by a thermal barrier and spread laterally over the town. The noise, odors and dust created by these activities keep the fundamental responsibilities of the municipality in plain sight.

The views from House 524 are striking. From the bedroom I can see Pangnirtung Fiord and the entrance to Auyuittuc National Park. It’s a treat to watch the weather and the light move over the mountains. At the moment, the sun makes a continuous ellipse overhead, dipping to, but not under, the horizon. If the top of the world were a bald head, the course of the sun would describe the brim of a hat set at an angle. By 3 AM the morning sun rises high enough to flood the bedroom window with morning light, confounding my internal clock. From the living room I can see the “golf course”. Dozens of kids play late into the night batting balls over the rocky lot. No landscape is more inhospitable to golf than this, but the kids are persistent. From the kitchen I can see the street and my neighbor’s yard. Last week the oil truck delivered a load, but my neighbor was in the process of installing a new oil tank and had unhooked the old one. As a result, six hundred liters of fuel oil spilled into the space between our houses. This is the third oil spill this year in Pangnirtung. Thousands of liters of aviation fuel went directly into the bay because of a valve that was left open. Another large spill was contained by a retaining wall before making it to sea. Pangnirtung is entirely dependent on oil. Heat and power are from oil. Everything, including food, clothing, building materials, and medical supplies, comes by plane or sea lift. Local forms of transportation, trucks, four wheelers and boats all use oil. The remoteness and harshness of the Arctic exposes dependency. An oil shortage would end this settlement very quickly.

With the help of cardboard, plastic and tape, the master suite of House 524 has become a studio, a little dim, but functional. The challenge of establishing living and working spaces has inspired practical ingenuity, an enjoyable frame of mind