“We are flotsam…”

magnetic north

My Edmonton family gave me Jenna Butler’s Magnetic North: Sea Voyage to Svalbard for my birthday a few weeks ago. It’s a beautiful book, brief in the way a book can be when it knows exactly what it wants to do. This one takes you on a (brief) voyage on a sailing ship carrying researchers, artists, and writers along one coast of Spitsbergen Island, in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. The island was a whaling base in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Svalbard is a land of traces: what dies, lingers. The bone beds of the
whaling stations, the outposts with their ragged timbers overlooking
the straits. Each thing that lives its space on the island casts some small
shadow, a sundial arm of birth and death. Only humans in this place
foreshorten the clock, turn away those about to die, to be born.

I’ve thought a lot about this book since I read it last week. It straddles genre in a way. It’s given this classification on the publisher’s page:

Subject(s): TRAVEL / Essays & Travelogues, SCIENCE / Global Warming & Climate Change, SCIENCE / Life Sciences / Ecology, Climate change, The North / Environment / Travel / Women’s Studies, Ecological science, the Biosphere, LITERARY COLLECTIONS / Canadian

Yes, it’s all those things. Jenna notes the signs of climate change, the geology of Spitsbergen, the tiny Arctic willows, saxifrage, the kittiwakes, the weather; and hers is an ardent eye: “To watch a glacier calve is to watch time run in both directions at once.”

It’s also poetry. Some might call it prose-poetry but I’d suggest the line breaks are important in a lyric context. The language is taut and transparent as ice. You see through the lines into the air and water, where a minke whale breaches, and where midden heaps are visible from sea. Each short section contains sufficient observation and imagery to allow the imagination to expand in the long hours of daylight.

In a way, this book is almost perfect and its beauty is in the restraint of its author. I think that another writer, another publisher might well have wanted more. A travelogue/essay collection of 100 pages is the literary equivalent of a novella, a suite of poems, and how often we are told that such books are simply not cost-effective? I never thought as I was reading Magnetic North that it should have been longer. Yet I was surprised (and delighted) with the physical qualities of the book itself, the attention given it by a designer (the pages are uncluttered and open, the sections feature black and white photographs that elegantly take the reader into the text, there are French flaps, a beautiful cover). It’s not that I think all travel books (or essay collections) should be this size, with the elegant brevity of this narrative; but I’m so glad that the University of Alberta Press gave this particular book such a classy presentation.

We carry this space with us when we go.

In photographs and recordings, etchings and climate data, we carry
the feel of a Svalbard summer. On the sun-brittled carapaces of prairie
sailboats, I’ll find my feet and bear down; I’ll cast back to Antigua’s
decks, the come-from-away skeletons of the whaling stations under
endless noonhour sun.

The way of all expeditions: at the end, a slow fragmenting, everyone
compassed towards home. Pyongyang and Halifax, Seattle and
Sacramento, London, the Alberta bush. We are flotsam, travelling
greedy tides back to our own small spaces of dark. Our own
welcome nights.

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