Monday, 1 May 2017

Arctic log: Wednesday 12th October, Smeerenburg - Walrus, wonder and whaling (with added bits)

Wednesday 12.10.2016 Smeerenburg 79°43,7´N, 011°00.5´E, 2°C
8m/s, wind picking up. Sunrise 10:02 – Sunset 17:23.

I wake early and peer out of my porthole; still dark, there is now 22 minutes less daylight. I can just make out coastline and mountains. It’s raining; depressing, it shouldn’t be. What is happening to our climate?
We move a short distance closer to the island of Smeerenburg, and there’s the usual scramble for equipment and to board the zodiac for the trip from ship to shore. The sky clear slightly as we leave the ship, light breaks through the clouds.

Landing on the beach I gaze back to the far shore and dark mountains on the far side of the bay; it’s just wondrous, as though a stage has been set for me.
In the gloom mist is gathering, hovering, moving slowly, and then it seems to be flowing upwards over the dark mountain peaks that poke through. Above an ethereal light is coming from somewhere out of the dark clouds so that the glaciers gleam, turning turquoise as they reach the sea. It looks so ridiculously magical, so unbelievably beautiful I feel I’m in a fairy tale world. 
Turning up the beach we find the walruses, lots of them, lying lazily in large companionable heaps, lolling, shifting, shuffling, rolling, an occasional flipper waving in the air, long white tusks appearing as a head raises to survey us, an occasional snort grunt and fart - they smell. 
A bit like huge slugs as wrinkled brown and pink skin rippling they haul their colossal bodies along the pale yellow sand.   
A young walrus swims with its parents, playfully sinking, surfacing, splashing, pausing to peer at this strange group who cluster on the beach and move as one edging closer to the Walrus mound, our cameras capturing their every move.  
(A point of information: the Walrus’s scientific name is Odobenus rosmarus which in Latin means tooth-walking seahorse).
My feet are wet and I’m cold, and there are only so many photographs to be taken of a walrus; seeing them in the flesh is what counts, and they are pretty amazing to watch, but even this has its limits. Eventually we are able to tour around the remains of Smeerenburg - ´Blubbertown’ - an old 17th Century Dutch whaling station. First occupied by the Dutch in 1614, in its heyday (1630s) Smeerenburg was made up of 16–17 buildings.  A board commemorates the site with a map showing the location of buildings and ovens.

Having be warned to tread carefully and keep off the tundra (again!) we are allowed to wander carefully around the old ovens. Blackened lumps mark the remains of blubber ovens - rock fused with sand, gravel, and whale oil boiled together to make “blubber cement”, and where cooking vessels to render oil from the fat once stood.
Remains of blubber ovens

Flensing. Facsimile of a woodcut in the Cosmograhie Universelle ofThevet Folio, Paris 1574
Blubber cement - It has a texture resembling asphalt.
During this time there were as many as 200 men working ashore, 'flensing' whales (stripping the blubber), the blubber was then cut into small pieces, put into casks and boiled until it became oil. Scattered on the beach a mass of wood lies abandoned, amongst them the bleached white bones left from whales killed and dismembered on the beach; I ponder how old they must be. 

Surfaces scoured by wind and snow, lichen is beginning to take over, the bones look almost sculptural - shades of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.

A barren windswept island, swept by wild sea and storm, it must have been a pretty awful place to be amid the stench of death and boiling oil. On the ground lie patches of bright green and orange mosses, presumably fertilized by the ashes of slaughtered whales. By the second half of the century Smeerenberg was mostly abandoned since they had exhausted the supply of whales. The whale population never recovered. There are almost none left in the waters around Svalbard. Somewhere out here are the graves of over 100 men who lost their lives during the 17th and 18th century… but then I think of all the whales they killed.

In the book The Solitude of Thomas Cave by Georgina Harding I find this quote:
Extract from The Solitude of Thomas Cave, by Georgina Harding

I look around me and imagine the horror of it all, but the surrounding mountains are a complete contrast to the slaughter and chaos that this beach must have endured. In the same book I find a quote echoing what I'm now seeing

Across on the shore I can see the usual photographers at work. Despite its dark history it's a place to capture. I make a few quick drawings looking up at the misty blue blur of dark mountains and snow; the sky has that end-of-day pink.

Standing awaiting the zodiacs a small Arctic fox appears trotting down to the beach. I watch from the Zodiac as it suddenly jumps into the mass of Walrus and disappears. 

In the afternoon I stay on board while others go on a trek up to the top of a glacier; I’m so tempted to join them but my clothes and boots are still wet from the morning, instead I spend some time trying to make colours that I see in the landscape. Grinding the water-colour pigments together that I’ve brought with me, mixing in sea water collected by lowering a bucket over the side of the boat and hoisting it up. 

This is a project I planned before I left the UK, and I still haven’t actually done anything about until now, so I need to get on with it while I have the opportunity and the deck is pretty much deserted. I spend half the time staring at the sea and glacier, trying to decide what exactly are those colours out there. Once I've mixed a batch I ask for them to be put in the freezer to be used at a later date…

-->The Antigua moves off in cloud. We travel slowly through a pale green/grey icy sea, snow covering, ice scattering, sea slowly swelling as if breathing. Ellis O’Connor joins me on deck and we’re both drawing again as land and ice slips by.  
Marvelling at it all

Can’t stop now - white that isn’t white, white that is many whites, soft black, dissolving merging melting dripping.
I gather snow and push it into charcoal and pastel across the paper. Cold fingers.  Visibility disappearing in freezing ice and snow that whips across the deck. These are some of the most perfect moments.

Evening, we anchor in Fuglefjorden, 79°45,3´N, 011°31.5´E. Out on deck in the dark I listen to ice scrapping along the side of the boat, to ice cracking releasing its age-old air.

In January 2017 I travel to Amsterdam and wandering around the Rijksmuseum come across a painting of Smeerenberg The Whale-Oil Refinery near the Village of Smeerenburg (1639) by Cornelis de Man. 
The Whale-Oil Refinery near the Village of Smeerenburg (1639) by Cornelis de Man,
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Clearly from the look of it De Man didn’t actually ever visit the whaling station, painting it from the comfort of his studio at home, and apparently basing it on a Danish painting of a Svalbard whaling station and other images. 
I also discover in a nearby case beautiful knitted hats that were removed from excavated graves on Smeerenberg. 

I suppose due to the freezing conditions so far north, much of the clothing was very well-preserved. As the Rijksmuseum caption notes the men were bundled up so tightly against the cold that they would have only “recognized by the colours and patterns of their caps". As in Shetland fishermen wore distinctive jumper patterns knitted for each family members, I suppose here too, men working in Smeerenburg when pulled from the sea would also be identifiable by the pattern and colour of each hat. The original dyed rich colours of the thick caps have long since faded which have taken up the uniform brown colour of the soil they were buried in, but their original patterns with strips and varying shapes are still visible. They are wonderful pieces to pause by and wonder about who wore them and who knitted them.