“How varied are the experiences one lives through in the Arctic. One can murder and devour, calculate and measure, one can go out of one’s mind from loneliness and terror, and one can certainly go mad with enthusiasm for the all-too-overwhelming beauty. But it is also true that one will never experience in the Arctic anything that one has not oneself brought there.”
In 1933 Christiane Ritter, an Austrian hausfrau travelled from the safety of her home, her small child and the comforts of central Europe, and spent a year living on the northern coast of Spitsbergen with her husband, a researcher and trapper, and a Norwegian trapper called Karl. Their tiny hut, situated on a promontory known as ‘Grey Hook’, with its knackered stove and macabre garden of stripped and bleached bones comprised her home and sanctuary and the place from which she came to know and love the Arctic – its storms and icy brilliance, its terrors and its pleasures.
Ritter was the first central European woman to spend time in the Arctic and there were many who counselled her against it including her family and friends, and even the crew and passengers on the ship that transported her to the lonely coast in Spitsbergen where she met her husband and unexpected housemate. Her initial reaction at arriving at her new home was not entirely positive, as Ritter describes here:
“The scene is comfortless. Far and wide not a tree or shrub; everything grey and bare and stony. The boundless broad foreland, a sea of stone, stones stretching up to the crumbling mountains and down to the crumbling shore, an arid picture of death and decay.
The hut stands in the middle of a small promontory whose banks drop steeply down to the sea. It is a small, bleak, square boxes, completely covered in black roofing felt. A few boards, nailed higgledy-piggledy over the felt, provide the only light touch in all the blackness. A solitary stovepipe rears up from the roof into the misty air.”
Her adjustment to polar living took some time, and Ritter felt herself unlikely to fall into the grip of Arctic mania which drew so many trappers and explorers to return and return to the inhospitable land. She disliked the idea of eating seal, she begged to save the life of a little Arctic fox that befriended them – Mikkl – despite knowing that both her husband and Karl were predominantly hunting fox and polar bear for their hides during that season. She found the little hut poky and uncomfortable and despaired at the constant stream of black smoke that belched from the stove every time it was lit, despite knowing that their survival depended upon its heat. She obsessed about vitamins continually during her trip, worrying that they would never get enough from their meagre and restricted diet. Considering the contrast from her former lifestyle, it is perhaps surprising that Ritter could adjust at all. But adjust she did, and with what spectacular results.
Gradually the lure of the Arctic seeps under her skin and this is where the book transforms from an interesting encounter in with the Arctic to something transcendent. Far from seeking to conquer the Arctic as the explorers did, Ritter allows the Arctic to conquer her. No longer does she see a comfortless scene filled with rocks and stones and more rocks and stones. She begins to see something else entirely. She grows rapturous about gradations of light, the sounds of the storms raging outside, the brilliance of the ice and the quiet and the calm. No longer does she see a bleak and lifeless coast. Instead she encounters seal and fox, she learns to recognise the mark of the ptarmigan and the footprints of bears; the joy and beauty of the dead land, its rippling light and changeable moods, the stripped-glory of the landscape. This translates into a different form of inhabitation – she not only inhabits the earth but she begins to see how it inhabits her and comes to recognise what it means to be human, not struggling against the world but embracing it:
“The power of this worldwide peace takes hold of me, although my senses are unable to grasp it. And as though I were insubstantial, no longer there, the infinite space penetrates through me and swells out, the surging of the sea passes through my being, and what was once a personal will dissolves like a small cloud against the inflexible cliffs.
I am conscious of the immense solitude around me. There is nothing that is like me, no creature in whose aspect I might retain a consciousness of my own self; I feel that the limits of my being are being lost in this all-too-powerful nature, and for the first time I have a sense of the divine gift of companionship.”
The transformative nature of Ritter’s Arctic experience translates with incredible intensity particularly in the middle section of the book, and the contrast from her initial concerns and reactions is marked. There are passages of such extraordinary beauty, the way she describes the scenes of Arctic darkness with brilliance and simple joy it is easy to become swept up in it. There is passion in Ritter’s writing, but it is a passion tempered by humility and a recognition that she was at the mercy of the Arctic – not just the inherent hostility of the land but at the mercy of its transformative power, the way it forced her to confront herself and reshaped what she had thought important. As she describes in the opening quote the Arctic forces you to experience whatever it is you brought there with you, and as a Norwegian sailor acknowledged as she stepped off the boat “Yes, you will get rich” though not with material things.
A Woman in the Polar Night is another re-read for me so I had an idea what to expect from it and it didn’t fail to deliver. Ritter’s story is inspiring and the way she conveys it has a gentle power. She coaxes the Arctic night into the room with her vivid, dream-like descriptions offset against the concrete realities of raging storms, snowdrifts ten feet thick and the lifeless calm of the polar winter. It is an extremely compelling read. As I read I found myself thinking about how little she lived with – a tiny hut, a stove, a few provisions, the company of two able men – and how this elucidates how little we actually need and how much time is spent – I spend – desiring things which ultimately add little to my life experience. I imagine Ritter felt the same things as she adapted from her European life to one of pure necessity and basic survival. Put into context my book hoarding compulsion is ultimately pointless, particularly when what I really want is to experience that transcendent certainty that Ritter describes so compellingly as her Arctic experience begins to seep through the layers of social conditioning and reveals to her a fundamental truth: that what we have that matters we carry with us. It is a sobering yet enlightening thought. Suddenly my wardrobe full of clothes is meaningless, as is my DVD collection and library full of books. Knowledge, of course, remains worth attaining, being one of the things we carry with us, but knowledge does not come from unread books stacked on shelves and one does not have to own something to possess it, a truth that romantic fiction has been trying to tell us for an eternity. I begin to believe that I can cast off this need for possession and return myself to a truer, more valuable existence, if that in itself doesn’t sound to romantic to be believable. Yet I woke suddenly in the night last night and I must have been thinking about Ritter’s book, perhaps in that vague space in between sleeping and waking, and the thought occurred to me that life is extraordinary and special and it is time to stop degrading it by being dissatisfied by all the things I don’t have and haven’t done and start celebrating the things I do. I am in possession of a unique and interesting life; perhaps I will never go to the Arctic like Ritter did, but perhaps because Ritter did I don’t have to. What her book has taught me is that you carry with you all the things that already matter; you don’t have to go to the Arctic to find it (though perhaps it helps), it is already there waiting for you. Perhaps you just need to look in the right place to find it, and perhaps the shopping centre – or even the bookshop – isn’t the right place.
A Woman in the Polar Night is published by Alaska