Imagine you’re hearing this in the breathless, posh and above all enduring Voice of British Natural History Broadcasting: ‘The eternally setting sun is low in the Greenland sky and all life is stilled at the very edge of the greatest body of sea ice in the northern hemisphere. The water is glass-like and eerily calm, and the only movement the gentle sway of the ship and the one, barely perceptible sound the lapping of the cold ocean against the stern. Suddenly, the mist, until now shrouding the world as we know it, parts, rises and melts away and there appears…nothing.’
The problem with David Attenborough and the Beeb approach to nature and wildlife documentary making is that its plotting of narrative through a series of magic moments means reality is completely distorted. If we’re really honest, the main thing you’re going to see at the poles is nothing, nada, empty space – and while that may not be easy to package and sell, it can be very pleasant indeed as well as good for the soul.
Three months ago, I joined a so-called ‘adventure cruise’ on a smallish converted Russian navy ship carrying just a hundred or so passengers bunked in basic rooms and not compelled to indulge in round-the-clock buffets, themed swimming pools or multiplex cinemas. It was a two-week voyage from Iceland to East Greenland and Svalbard. I was keen to see skuas and terns and other seabirds, seals, walruses, whales, musk ox and, if possible, the polar bear. However, I’d seen the last on a previous trip to Svalbard and knew that nature was no theme park and that people travel for weeks in the Arctic regions and see few of these magnificent predators. But if I had realistic expectations about that side of things, I was, in any case, more curious about the Arctic that exists in our heads – a mythic, abstract region, an impossibly big blankness, a potential planetary crisis I was failing to grasp; any content I could obtain to fill the void would be meaningful.
After a brief stop in Iceland’s Westmann Islands, the ship crossed the slow-heaving waters of the Denmark Strait of and made its approach to Greenland’s Scoresbysund, the largest fjord complex on the planet. Oh there I go with those superlatives. But, the words don’t capture the experience: unless you’re in a balloon you’d never see how big the fjord system is, and for us passengers – as for the few hundred Greenlanders who live on its shores – the world is actually very small. For locals it’s bordered by rocky plateaux and impassable mountains in summer, and by ice, darkness and man-eating bears in winter. If your preconception is that they go off mushing into its infinitude and conquer the Arctic night, some do, yes, but the Inuits I met wore fleeces and football shirts, their kids played online, and most saw the wildlife as food, fur or a source of fear.
If I wasn’t getting an edifying geography lesson, I was getting closer to reality. Greenland in an atlas looks like an immense ice blob dangling from the North Pole. This is an accurate perception, in general terms, but in summer – which is when most people visit – the coast is mainly bare brown gravel with a few swathes of flowery meadow wherever the summer sun strikes long enough to challenge the radiating permafrost. In the main, though, it’s an arid wasteland, bereft of trees and arable land, with glaciers hanging behind and on top of the peaks waiting for the winter to return so they can stretch their limbs and reclaim their territory.
But East Greenland is a desert in other senses too. There are no cities, factories, pubs, trains, signs, supermarkets, gardens, pavements, studios, hospitals, printers, banks. As far as ordinary Western life goes, even the coast – the only populated bit – is a study in absence or negation. Little wonder that this tests the snapshot-avid and memory-hungry traveller. The ship was full of wealthy old Americans and exchange-rate-rich Aussie boomers, with a scattering of Europeans and Home Counties pensioners; but there were also more than two dozen Chinese – the latest wave of global traveller – and many of these were men from a photography club, equipped with the flashiest cameras and the longest telephoto lenses. I saw them, day after day, struggling to frame this alienating world. No dolphin leapt for the super-fast shutter to capture. No whale breached for more than a few seconds. Sometimes a mist, circling the ship like a lunar halo, made the world dim and drear. I watched as all the passengers wondered about this Arctic they’d bought into. It was quiet, uneventful, difficult to pin down.
I could have got bored with the vagueness of my milieu or even blasé about the bergs and glaciers. The former were far, far bigger than the ship and the latter were miles wide. Occasionally I heard and even glimpsed glacier walls calving – falling off into the sea or fjord – but these were the exceptional moments, the punctuation marks. But I wasn’t bored, ever, and the ice works quietly on your mind, becoming less alienating but without losing its strangeness.
In ‘Frozen Planet’, glaciers collapse like scenes from a disaster movie. The sea ice is seen from a small plane and is as rousing as the accompanying platitudes. On land, a pack of wolves stalks a herd of caribou. The chopper catches the action. There’s drama, blood and panting from the wolves and from Sir David. Two years ago I went wolf watching in western Canada. I was joined by my brother and stepfather. It cost us a heap of money. We saw NO WOLVES AT ALL. The snow hadn’t fallen thickly so the moose – and the wolves, which eat them – had stayed up in the mountains, invisible, off our radar. In East Greenland, on this voyage, we saw very little sea ice and no polar bears. The former drifts where it will and is not always abundant. The bears are notoriously difficult to track – without unlimited time, money and resources.
Was I disappointed at the lack of spectacle? Should I have been? In his ‘Le livre de la neige’ from 1990, Belgian poet François Jacqmin writes that the ‘snow is everywhere’ and that it’s in ‘the endless belfry/of its whiteness/ that my finest understatements are heard’. This is the counter-voice to the excitable narrative of televised natural history. Jaqmin sees the snow – the white page, the blank mind – as a prompt to be calm, to reflect, to be wary. He stretches the idea of white space into a philosophical state.
I attended only two lectures while on board; I preferred to be out on deck watching, idling, breathing deep draughts of cold, clean wind. One, on the theme of ice as rock, opened with a slide projection of Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘The Sea of Ice’. Wolfgang, the lecturer, talked about how in the romantic era ice was seen as a strange, dangerous, unpredictable substance: ‘The artist, who had never seen the Arctic, imagined it as a terrifying place, where ships were wrecked. That was the narrative of the time.’ No doubt one day the ‘Frozen Planet’ vision will be seen as just one more narrative – the coffee-table, cliché-clotted gaze of a society in thrall to video images and tweet-length storytelling.
We sailed north-east towards the island of Spitsbergen in Svalbard. Closer to Europe, the island sits far higher than anywhere we’d been to in Greenland. Expectations were high. A couple of weeks before this trip a British boy had been mauled to death by a polar bear. Surely chances of a sighting were good.
From the ship we saw a lone walrus lying down on Moffen Island. We saw a minke whale being characteristically elusive – they call these cetaceans slinky minkes for the way they hardly break the surface as they swim. We saw an amazing sunset, some white Arctic hares, a couple of dolphins. Then, the next day we saw a female polar bear – skinny, hungry, stressed (By us? By a long summer?) – and two cubs, one doomed according to our guide, a marine biologist called Phil. ‘That one’s too thin, worryingly thin,’ he said. ‘I doubt it’ll make it through the next winter.’ But the Chinese got their photos.
Phil seemed to view any cataclysmic future as just deserts. He gave a lecture – the second and last one I attended – on polar bears and the ecological apocalypse facing the Arctic. At the end of it I asked, semi-rhetorically, if people – and politicians – didn’t care much about saving Greenland and the Arctic lands because to most of us they look dead. ‘So will our cities when they’re under water,’ was all he said.
Despite feeling the pressure of the Attenborough factor – which compels humans on holiday to expect photogenic action, nature red in tooth and claw and emotional highs that match his verbal hyperbole – I managed to calm my nerves. My leading thought was: should I – or anyone – be chasing these bears? They’re dying out after all, along with their icy territory and, ecosystems – and a cruise ship, however small and ‘adventurous’ is not wind-powered or subtle in its presence. All I can offer, not as a defence but as an alternative Arctic, is a more complex, multi-layered, nuanced experience. While the fast-food-enjoying, TV-ogling, work-tired braindead part of me adores ‘Frozen Planet’ the reality is a far more fulfilling, subtle, conflicting affair. I’m not sure whether we should go there at all, but if we do it should be with something like sceptical humility seasoned with healthy self-loathing. Meanwhile, I would like the BBC to produce a documentary about emptiness, boredom, peace, tranquility, death, sadness, misty horizons and human failing, but with the Voice taking a back seat and the show, such as it is, presented by an Inuit in an Arsenal shirt.