On October 10, 2016 I got myself left in Cherokee Marsh before dawn and stayed until it was dark, after sunset. The rules were: basic food and water, my journal and paper, and a recording device. Stayed about 12.5 hours. To begin with it was very cold. I knew the paths and was scared in the woods. Around late morning I began to write. Here follow some thoughts about being in a remote barren wilderness (Svalbard) and in an urban restoration wetlands (Cherokee marsh).
“A landscape is never unpaintable for purely descriptive reasons; it is always because its sense, its meaning, is not visible, or lies elsewhere.” – John Berger
The human dramas in barren landscapes, and the corollaries that find sense in the Arctic wilderness, are inner ones. Spiritual ones. In a place with nothing but rock and ice and endless seas, we are reminded of the time just after worship or leaving meditation, or having just received a blessing. The feeling in the land is like the times when we feel scrubbed clean and cavernous, feelings which lend themselves to silence, and to inner resounding of experience. One whole purpose of religion is to fashion a bridge towards the divine on which we might meet it, inside ourselves. In the Arctic the wind calls like the foreign language we can speak sometimes, on this bridge.
Or, the land or the sea is so huge, and us so small so near it, we are reminded of the terrible fear of Heaven, of being seized by doubts or abandoned inside a gripping insanity. These are experiences which cannot be described, whose horror is bound up in their inexplicability, as silence is bound up with prayer, as fear of drowning in an abyss is also the fear of close confinement. This response to wilderness has been described in the Bible whenever people meet with angels, and can report nothing but falling to the ground, nothing but their faces pressed in the dirt, even the bravest of Abraham’s family being renamed for having wrestled with this vastness and survived it.
Those are not the human dramas reflected here in the woods, in the marsh, on the buzzing prairie, where the wind will sound like someone approaching. The things we find here are social dramas. See the leaves pinned to the bark of trees, or impaled on twigs, or look at just the trees themselves: falling over and supporting each other (upright, horizontal, or leaning in between). These are mirrors to society, and family. Compare them with the beach on Julibukta in Svalbard, where the icebergs washed up on the rocks looking for all the world like glass anvils, like water frozen instantly from the great pitcher that poured it – a scene with only a mirror in dreams.
And the way light appears or is filtered in both places, stony wilderness or marshy woods:
In the marsh — Light comes through the trees or is shadowed in a bird’s wing, glints off the water or blades of water grasses. All of these activities are known to us. The light descends the canopy roof. It illuminates a space of human scale. A companion might disappear down a path or between trees, but long before sinking down the curve of the land. We can touch the tree’s bark. Our feet can both get wet in the grass. If we need to we can chop the trees down and split them open and burn the wood, or hide in the brush, or make pictures with the leaves. Sun on an open field is still filtered through the clover and grasses and we feel ourselves treading on a thick cushion woven out of drying sun and dampened shadows. The God of the marsh goes walking, catches frogs, rubs legs and wings together in song.
And in Svalbard — The light on the open space may be divided by a mountain, this part in darkness and that part in sun. There will be a perfect line between them, not as in draftsmanship but as in geometry: the line having no area or width, just a location and length. A line of cleavage, of pure division.
The sun which in Svalbard in the summer is always circling low on the horizon most likely will be filtered through the clouds, which will most likely be even and grey. The clouds there are also like a field, but not at all like one at the edge of a marsh. It is one we can only see from great height, one we can only map from a distance, never enter. The field of sky in Svalbard is dulled with the uncapturable quality of fog. Even flying right on top of the clouds, they look instead like mountains or far-off lakes. No, they look like dreams or ghosts of these. In Svalbard we arrive again and again in the realm of the visible unreal. We arrive in the mystery shrouding that other one, which we might in a place more nameable call God.