Sarah slings a rifle across her shoulder and starts toward the glacier. She is one of our polar-bear guards. We follow her across the muddy ground churned through with gravel, flecked with cow tongues of snow. All around us snow is melting in fine-veined rivulets. The land tinkles, burbles, gurgles, squelches. The babble of spring.

It feels like a warm April day from my childhood in southern Norway, but it is June, a week shy of the summer solstice, and I’m in the Svalbard archipelago, deep inside the Arctic Circle. We reach the edge of the glacier. It, too, feels familiar. I touch the edge of my impatience. The glacier’s underside has turned upward here, revealing a fine layer of silt: cinnamon on oatmeal. Or one of those tall roadside snowbanks blackened by soot, slowly melting in the sun. As if I were a child walking home from school, I feel an impulse to bend down and look for the first blooms of coltsfoot, their buttery shine. I remind myself that this dirty snowbank is part of a much greater body of ice stretching inland for miles and miles. In my mind I connect it to the Scandinavian ice sheet of ten thousand years ago, which ended in the place I used to call home, a gravel ridge built — only yesterday — by detritus from the retreating ice. Yet I cannot feel the glacier’s enormity as it wastes away in the sun. I try to photograph it, but all I capture, all I see, is grimy, dripping ice. Every photo obscures more than it reveals.


Yesterday I scrambled aboard the sailing ship the Antigua with an international group of about two dozen artists and academics, all ready to explore the waters and shores of Svalbard as part of the Arctic Circle expeditionary residency program. We were laden with notebooks, laptops, Arctic encyclopedias, sketchbooks, brushes, and pencils. The Antigua will be our home for the next two weeks. One cabin is filled to the brim with tripods, drones, Polaroids, state-of-the-art digital cameras, and field cameras from the early 1900s that fold like accordions.

We had spent a few days waiting for the ship to arrive in Longyearbyen, a settlement of nearly two thousand souls surrounded by mountains covered with gravel and abandoned coal mines instead of snow. We stocked up on chocolate, sent off our final communications to the world, and watched throngs of cruise-ship passengers walking to and from the big ocean liners, carrying their new polar-bear teddies. As I bit into my cinnamon bun, I smugly thought our status as artists-in-residence on an old barkentine — a three-masted schooner — would protect us from becoming like the tourists with their obligatory selfies and quick souvenirs. We would really see the Arctic. Yesterday we set off down Isfjorden, the main artery in a splintered fjord system. We toasted the start of our expedition with hot tea as a fin whale breached in front of an arriving airplane. A hunk of floating ice hit the hull, and someone belted out “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic.


In my early twenties I was of the belief that I had constructed a fairly good system for evading death. Every morning I read the obituaries in the newspaper and spent an hour or so in mourning for strangers. I rated each death on a scale of how sudden the death was and the age of the deceased, and spent the appropriate time mourning. The young were the most deserving of my sympathy, although special attention was reserved for those whose age matched my parents’. A woman in her nineties dying quietly in her sleep received barely any time at all. An accident was given more attention than an illness, because of the sudden nature of the death, the lack of preparation. If I was always thinking about death, I figured it couldn’t creep up and surprise me.


From the beach I have a better view of the glacier. It stares back blankly. Tight-lipped and immovable in its vast supremacy, it spreads out before me, carving the land to fit its form. Mute, with a sharp glare in the Arctic sun, like a lover midfight.

It is only our first day at sea, and we’re not far from Longyearbyen, but, up to this point, Svalbard is far removed from my Arctic fantasies of leaving land behind for the northernmost edge of the world, a place filled with solitude, adventure, and self-knowledge; drifting sea-green icebergs and a midnight sun that makes the snow shimmer pink at bedtime. It is hard to catch a moment alone. The Antigua is small and crowded, and while ashore we are herded by our polar-bear guards for our own protection. The midnight sun is here, but its light is so cold and harsh it seems fluorescent. I was glad to leave Longyearbyen yesterday, but it seems we are not yet beyond the reach of civilization. My cell-phone signal is even better here than it was in Longyearbyen. The ancient glacier beams modernity right back at us. I sneak away to call my dad. Sarah, the polar-bear guard, has told us not to use our cell phones, lest they ruin the impression of remote wilderness, but I make an exception for his birthday.

Later a handful of intrepid artist-explorers are ice bathing in the shallows when there is a loud groan. Water froths. The glacier has just calved: shed a huge shelf of ice from its side. We all turn toward it, waiting to see if it will happen again. It is an uncomfortable position to be in, somewhere between horror and wonder. Glaciers ebb and flow with the seasons, and calvings are a natural part of their life cycle, but now, in 2016, they have become alarming symbols of climate change. We’ve heard there was no ice in the outer fjords last winter for the first time in living memory. We all know the ice is shrinking. And we have been repeatedly warned about the dangers posed by calving ice. Yet I still hope to see it: a spectacle of devastation. Reveal yourself to me, I demand. The glacier answers with silence. I soon return to the ship.


We rarely notice our body until it fails us. The heart skips a beat or flutters, the head aches, an arm goes numb. We can only hope to be sent a warning sign. How else can we know what’s taking place inside? Blood gushes out of the left ventricle, passes through the aorta, and branches off in an intricate irrigation network to far-flung reaches of the body. Arteries carry blood from the heart, and veins bring the blood back to its beating source. The blood is expelled from the heart with great force and needs to be stilled before it can reverse and enter the slower-moving course of the veins. In a well-functioning circulatory system, this job is performed by capillaries that connect the arteries and veins. These narrow passages reduce the force of the torrent.

In my body I can’t be sure this will happen. There are malformations, handed down from my father and grandfather. I have a genetic disease called Osler-Weber-Rendu syndrome, named after the doctors who a century ago first described skeins of blood vessels, appearing as red freckles on the skin, in the mouth and nose, and on internal organs. In a person with Osler’s disease, not all blood vessels form as they’re supposed to. Certain tiny, vital capillaries might be missing, and the blood then moves with explosive force directly from artery to vein — a faulty irrigation system, prone to flooding. If the capillaries are not there, stemming the torrent, making sure the pressure is not too great, a vein might rupture in the nose or lungs or brain.


I am working on a letter to my boyfriend, which I will post in Ny-Ålesund, a mining-town-turned-research-settlement where you can find the world’s northernmost post office. Many things up here — coal mine, university, judo club, circus, Oktoberfest, piano, limousine — are given the honorific “northernmost.” In the letter I describe two walruses I saw lying close together on a beach, like two great brown logs, tusk to tusk. I watched them for a long time. Once in a while one of them would lazily flap its tail and stroke the other on the stomach with its flipper as if trying to wake it up. The other walrus would raise its head, look around, and lie back down. Sometimes they would nuzzle, then go back to sleep.


From a very young age my faulty, bleeding body made time seem finite. I can’t remember not being scared of dying, so I’ve lived life in a hurry. The easiest way for me to feel fully alive is to experience something for the first time. Happiest in newness, I move restlessly through the world, amassing snatches of possible lives. At night, when I can’t sleep, I carefully gather these past lives and trace their outlines: the countries I’ve called home, the places I’ve seen, the men I’ve lived with.

The Arctic is alluring because it’s one of the great unknowns, more mythical than real to me. I’m on this ship because I want to see what the edge of the world looks like.


I wake up with last night’s shattering cold still in my bones. A blue-whale sighting kept me up on deck past midnight. I wore nearly all the clothes I’ve brought and swaddled myself in blankets, but the wind still tore right through me. I must admit a slight envy of cruise-ship passengers’ big, panoramic windows. On the Antigua we have only tiny portholes. The temperature has stayed above freezing, but there is a kind of cold up here I’ve never felt before: blown off the glaciers, it burrows into your spine.

We’ve lost cell service now. I meet the others on deck to prepare for our morning landing. We still struggle with the life vests, but we’re getting used to this routine. There are usually two expeditions every day, one in the morning and one after lunch. After dinner crew members reveal where we’ll make landfall the next day. Then there are artist presentations where we talk about our work. When we leave the ship for an expedition, crew members take us ashore in inflatable boats called Zodiacs. Once there, we jump into the shallows in our insulated wellies and put our life jackets in a big plastic bag. Today we land on a pebble beach. Gray rocks worn smooth by water through the eons, the beach rising and falling like waves.

Our four polar-bear guards set up a safe area the size of two soccer fields, inside of which we are free to walk around for three hours. We retreat into our work: wandering, watching, photographing, sketching. It’s a nice break from the close quarters of the ship.

Behind the pebble beach there is rubbery black marshland dotted with patches of purple saxifrage and a lagoon the color of sea-foam bordered by froths of tiny white flowers. I find Kristin, one of the guards, near the remains of an old fox trap. This shore was inhabited by overwintering hunters a long time ago. The stones and wood that make up the trap are almost covered in moss and saxifrage. Everything grows very slowly on the tundra.

Sarah stands next to a whale rib that is almost indistinguishable from the stones and driftwood around it. It is turning into its own landscape, covered by gray lichen, succulents growing in its cracks. Sarah and I kneel down silently. We listen. I pop a soap bubble of restlessness. Faint rain plonks down on our hoods, and, some ways away, waves lap the shore. I am starting to hear the hum of this land. It sings a song of time.

The minutes open into centuries, which are interrupted by a buzzing overhead. One of the artists has launched a drone.


It is worse to be alone in my body at night. Without the sonic river of car horns, ice-cream-truck jingles, and drunken brawlers passing by my window in Brooklyn — and without a friend, lover, or parent a phone call away — anxiety spreads far and wide. Heartburn or a stomachache can quickly turn sinister in the nighttime caverns of my mind.

I am used to being up at night with a failing body. The most common symptom of Osler’s disease is frequent nosebleeds. A vein bursts in the nose, and for some time — weeks, months — it refuses to heal. My nosebleeds are worse after bedtime. Lying down seems to bring them on, so I sleep sitting upright, bolstered by cushions like a seventeenth-century noblewoman. Still, I’m often awakened by blood. On nights when I don’t sleep, nights spent in the dark with half-closed eyes or in a bright bathroom with bloody tissue, time stretches and extends. I stare at my face in the mirror just for some company.

Doctors can treat the nosebleeds with laser surgery. It helps, but it will never eradicate them. Osler’s disease is like a weed that keeps growing back. During those endless nights I imagine my veins spreading, unfurling, blooming inside me. A tangle of pea tendrils, fern fronds, and poison ivy. I feel the blood course through my veins. I follow its circuitous path around this unseen landscape.


Two pairs of woolen socks, two pairs of woolen long johns, three woolen undershirts (spaghetti strap, short sleeve, and long sleeve), a pair of fleece pants, a thick woolen sweater, a down jacket, a Gore-Tex outer shell, insulated boots, a woolen scarf and hat, and a pair of sealskin mittens given to me by my late grandmother ten years ago — and still I am cold.


This is how water dismantles a mountain: it enters tiny cracks in the stone, then freezes and expands, thaws and contracts. It goes on freezing and thawing, expanding and contracting year after year like a beating heart, slowly accumulating enough tension to crack a rock, to split a mountain.

Every mountain I see in the Arctic is covered in gravel. The mountains look porous, caught in the middle of disintegrating. A freeze-frame.


After a restless night on the waves, we enter the quiet Fuglefjorden in a dreamlike state, gliding across the still water. The calm sea, petroleum green like the hull of our barkentine, reflects the snowcapped mountains surrounding it. At the end of the fjord a glacier is creeping down the mountainside toward the sea, its turquoise tint exaggerated beneath an overcast sky, the crackled celadon of Chinese urns. A landscape of fragmentary maps and white voids. Bone and bruise.

When I hang over the rail, the little shards of ice floating about look like fat snowflakes, as if it were snowing horizontally. Closer to the glacier the ice grows into larger hunks known as “growlers” and “bergy bits.” There is a scent I’ve never encountered before: deep and mineral, fresh and old at the same time. The bay smells of cold weather and age. It’s like entering a frozen, unmanageable archive. The glacier preserves the past and deposits pieces of it at will. It releases ice several millennia old, and it’s as if I can smell the centuries.

We can’t get any closer to the small icebergs with the ship, so we rush to climb into the Zodiacs. There is a constant crackle, like static electricity; the ice sparkles and snaps and fizzes. It’s the sound of glacier ice melting in seawater, releasing pressure that has built up over hundreds of years. The soft sputter and bright pop of frying an egg in a hot pan on a Sunday morning. I quickly take off a sealskin mitten and fish out a small piece from the freezing water. After I suck off the salt, a marble of pure ice remains, too hard to chew through. It’s the freshest ice cube I’ve ever tasted, despite being thousands of years in the making. I’m eating ice created from snow that might have fallen and frozen four millennia ago.

A bearded seal drifts by on a floe, lazily lounging on top of its ice bed. As the pieces of ice grow larger, they change color from translucent to frosted to cyan. We circle a small iceberg without getting too close. The rest of its massive form is visible beneath the surface. You never know when it might decide to flip, creating a swell that could capsize our small inflatable boat. We watch it intently. There is something in the way I observe this landscape that’s akin to how I monitor my body during sleepless nights. My body has trained me to have a cautious gaze. Up here, we are always watching for the next calving — hoping for it, in my case — for polar-bear tracks, for dangers, fractures, tears, and open seams. But right now this iceberg is unmoving and quiet. It gives no hint of its inner workings. The sky is purple, the sea a deep green, and the iceberg glimmers like a gem stuck between two rocks.

Back on the Antigua I go into the mess hall to defrost. When I hear a great shouting, I run back out. The iceberg has turned and split.


A diagnosis offers knowledge, but it also opens the door wide into the unknown. When I was diagnosed with Osler’s disease in my late teens, the nosebleeds, previously dismissed by both doctors and my parents as a bothersome family quirk, became part of something more sinister. I rolled the new word around in my mouth like a lozenge — Osler’s. My father was in his fifties then, and as we read brochures about our shared illness at the Department of Rare Disorders and Disabilities at Oslo University Hospital, his medical history started to make more sense: the shadowed half lung he’d had removed, full of yarn balls of veins. The brain abscess that had nearly killed him in his thirties, bacteria thriving in malformed blood vessels, bypassing the cleansing heart.

I felt as if my nosebleeds became life-threatening in that moment, but in reality they became safer. With diagnosis came surveillance, rays beamed through my body, maps of treacherous riverbanks inside me. Small pulmonary malformations detected, monitored, and photographed while we wait to see what they will do next. The vessels in my father’s lungs are rowdier than mine, but their wild entanglement is now tamed by embolization: a tiny coil shrinks the malformation by cutting off its blood supply.

Then there are the areas the doctors do not illuminate. The brain is often too risky to treat. The only remedy for malformations in the liver is transplantation. Doctors tell us to live a normal life, but the possibility of bleeding in the brain quivers like a taut bowstring in my mind.


I start to worry about the little personal pantry in my cabin. Food has taken on immense importance on this trip. I have never thought about it more, never eaten more. It’s as if my body is trying to insulate me from the cold after my high-tech gear has failed. Breakfast is a Northern European feast of breads, buns, scrambled eggs, cheeses, meats, jams, and spreads. I’m ravenous again at lunch, which includes lasagna, pea soup, and jacket potatoes with baked beans — warming dishes after the morning expedition. Afternoon tea and cake has become my favorite time of day, when I’m starving again after the afternoon landfall and the three-course dinner is too far away. Still, it is not enough. I hoard fruit and cookies for my own private stash. I drink tea all the time to heat up my insides. Instead of making profound personal realizations at the crown of the world, I obsess over my personal supply of tea and dark chocolate. I count all the tea bags — the black, the green, the chamomile — and the squares of chocolate, calculate how to ration them to last me the entire trip.

Most of the time I walk around feeling like an insatiable sausage, hungry and gorged at the same time. My body, constantly encased in many layers of wool, has become a foreign entity. I hardly see or feel it.


Smeerenburg: a flat spit of windy land in northwest Svalbard. All that remains of the seventeenth-century Dutch whaling station are the ruins of blubber ovens and the whalers’ graves. The latter are stone-covered to ward off foxes and polar bears. Graves on Svalbard have been powerful portals into the past. The permafrost has preserved corpses and clothing for centuries, mummies swaddled in woolen blankets. Now, however, this icebox is thawing. Next summer, when archaeologists will open three graves, clothes and soft tissue will have rotted away, leaving only bones, teeth, and clay-pipe fragments.

Still, these skeletons will have their stories to tell. The way glacier ice keeps a record of ancient climates, our bones keep a record of our life. Hidden deep inside, there are chemical traces of the air we breathed, the food we ate, our fortunes, our despair. A stealth archive. Our bones can reveal the way we died four hundred years later: Syphilis eats away at the cranium. Scurvy softens the spine into a cresting wave. A carved scar on the ribs discloses a sharp knife or harpoon from a rivalry or accident.


We are sailing north and will be throughout the night. An icy blue undercurrent on the wind brings the scent of snow. I can smell the North Pole. We are leaving the islands of Svalbard behind. All that stands between the magnetic pole and us is ocean. We crossed 80 degrees north a couple of hours ago, the sails are up, and there are whispers we will continue on until the sea freezes over.

I long for the great unknown. So far our old barkentine has not been sufficient defense against the tourists’ fate. We’ve been schlepped around to the usual famous spots on Spitsbergen, Svalbard’s largest island, where most of the settlements are. Though cruise ships are nearby, we’ve never seen one; arrival times are carefully coordinated to preserve the appearance of lone discovery. Tonight, however, as we crossed 80 degrees north and went beyond the tourist track for the first time, we were transformed from ordinary people into adventurers. Crew members bolster our fantasy. Instead of stating our destination as usual, they give us coy hints that we may stumble upon the pack ice in the morning.

The pack ice: a landscape of frozen water covering the Arctic Ocean, the mythical north the old explorers sought — and the desolate wilderness in which many of them perished. Polar bears hunt on the pack ice. The North Pole sits somewhere inside the drifting, swirling, restless mass of floes. This is what I’ve come on this trip to find.

But for the time being we sit in our toasty mess hall, snug in our woolen long johns and fleeces and sated from a festive dinner of canapés, sweet-and-sour chicken, and tiramisu. We toast with cheap German wine.

I leave the other artists to celebrate and go out on deck to bid land farewell. Snow-crusted mountains shimmer like gold behind us. It’s almost midnight. The clouds hang low over the dark waters, exaggerating the mountains’ golden glow. When I look north, the sky appears to be falling into the sea. It’s as if a great cloud of snow, the dust of an avalanche, were approaching.


Doctors call Osler’s disease the “great masquerader,” as its symptoms are so often mistaken for other illnesses: anemia, migraines, cirrhosis, heart failure, stroke. An itinerant illness, it can travel to every frontier of the body on the currents of the circulatory system. Scientists are building a gene bank to trace its source. Several different genes can cause Osler’s, and not all of them have been discovered yet. Some researchers claim specific genes cause problems for certain organs such as the lungs, liver, or colon. Identifying the patient’s gene could then help doctors monitor the disease by plotting a probable path of progression. When we were first diagnosed, my father and I had our blood tested to identify our own errant genes and provide data for the mapping out of this mysterious illness. The tests came back negative. Our gene has yet to be discovered.


I get dressed in hushed movements and tiptoe through the corridor in my hiking boots. It’s 6 AM, and I’m hoping to be on deck when they spot the pack ice. It is difficult to feel like you’ve reached the edge of the world when talk of the New York art scene abounds in the mess hall and they sell beer from Williamsburg in the bar. In my Arctic dream, entering one of the most remote corners of the world is something one does in silence and solemnity. I want a moment alone with the ice.

It’s too cold to stay outside on deck. In my rush I didn’t put on a full dozen layers. I retreat into the wheelhouse and discover that I’m too late. In addition to the two shipmates, Alvin and Moritz, two other artists, Clare and Anders, are already there. The pack ice is there, too. In the distance I see an immense white sheet, cracked and moving, shining bright beneath a gray sky. Small fragments, like broken glass, float in the water. We’re at 81 degrees north and sailing south alongside the ice.

My hope of a solitary morning gone, I soon settle into the warm cheerfulness of the wheelhouse. The shipmates joke about nude Arctic swimming as they try to find a good spot to enter the maze of ice floes. “Is it dangerous?” Clare asks. Alvin says everything in life is a risk: “You go to a bar one night, meet a guy, and end up marrying him.”

After breakfast — a thick slice of homemade brown bread with sweet Norwegian goat cheese, a warm bun with marmalade, and a big cup of Earl Grey — we’re much closer to the ice. The glass shards have grown into bigger fragments in the shapes of corals, flowers, jellyfish. Translucent rocks and jewels float by in the black water.


My bleeding nose has brought me many habits, many rites. I make sure I get enough sleep. I humidify the dry winter air in my apartment and soften my mucous membranes with Vaseline. I never lean forward. When I get too enthusiastic or angry or sad, I control my emotions and calm the rising pulse that might open a vein about to burst. At the slightest hint of a headache I check for signs of a stroke: I smell for burnt toast. I raise both hands above my head. I laugh on command.


Moritz navigates the Zodiac in a sinuous path amid the big pieces of flaking pack ice. The sea here has the consistency of slush. Unlike glacier ice, sea ice is soft and dissolves into tiny particles. Its sound is softer, the fizzing of an ice cube plunked in a glass of seltzer. The cloudy sky brings out the blue in the floes. The flat surfaces are covered with white snow, but their underside is the dreamy color of Caribbean bays. A ringed seal pops its head up. Sometimes the sun nearly shines through the thin clouds, and the black sea is coated with a golden film. In one of these moments I catch sight of the other Zodiac, a tiny black boat carrying a few insignificant souls through the vast, inhospitable ice.

After lunch the ship herself enters the cracks in the pack ice in search of polar bears. We don’t see any, but we sail as far as we can and anchor to a floe the size of a Brooklyn backyard or two: First two crew members walk slowly across the ice, testing its thickness and stability. Then they dig a wooden pole into the ice and fasten the ship to it with two giant ropes. They pose for photos on the moving, melting surface. If it weren’t for the bright-blue-and-glowing-orange jackets, the pictures we take could be a hundred years old. They look brave, like adventurers in an icy new world. Soon we will be where they are.

As clouds thicken and descend, and the floe and the cap it belongs to melt little by little, we all wait in line to take a twirl around the glassy surface. We’re let onto it two or three at a time. Kristin guards us from polar bears while we get our adventure photo taken and the drifting ice slowly drags us out to sea.

Later, after gulping down dinner, I rush out on deck again. We only have one day here, after all, and every minute spent inside feels like a waste. I lost the feeling in my feet hours ago, but I no longer care. It has started to snow, adding texture to the floes, muting the palette. All is solemn and melancholy. A light fog transforms the landscape into an ethereal dream.

It is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen, and I know I will never see anything like it again. One hour, and we will sail south. Another generation, and the ice might be gone. I look and look, memorizing these patterns, these colors. It keeps snowing; the sea keeps changing. Before dinner a sound artist heard what she thought was whale song through her underwater recorder, and now she’s trying to attract the whales by blasting Sigur Rós, Bach, and Édith Piaf’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas” from the ship’s faulty loudspeakers. The sound fades in and out as we look at the endless white, and it should feel like it’s too much, but it does not. The big, sentimental music fits the grandeur of the moment. We will see this only once in our lives.

The broadcast works. The recorder picks up a soft, unearthly sound, like wind through trees. We all take turns listening. It’s seal song.


When I finally lose sight of the pack ice, I go inside and bury myself in blankets. In this land of cold I’ve often dreamt of warmth. While shivering through our long landfalls, I’ve thought of summer in New York and found it hard to believe I ever deemed it too hot, too sticky, too much. I long for the balmy East River breeze at sunset, cooling sweaty limbs. On hikes across treeless, gravel-covered landscapes, all whites and grays, I’ve imagined swimming holes in the Catskills illuminated by shafts of light through green foliage. Ordinary pleasures. French toast and bacon drenched in golden maple syrup. That salty-sweet taste of American ease and abundance.

In bed at night, cocooned in woolen underwear, I’ve wished for the warm nook of my boyfriend’s arm. I am still writing the love letter I will send from the world’s northernmost post office. Within its pages are the glossy coats of seals, a midnight bay full of beluga whales, and a starving polar bear. Beaches of bone and trash. A solstice bonfire underneath a pale sky. Sugary words stripped of any salt. Desire in its most uncomplicated form. In its words the known and the unknown rest in comfortable proximity. Love has become orderly on a thin sheet marked with horizon lines. The sweetness of longing instead of the reality of having. My life in Brooklyn feels almost like enough.


After a long night sailing away from the pack ice, we enter a quiet bay on Nordaustlandet, Svalbard’s second-largest island, at midday. Although most of this island is covered by one of Europe’s largest glaciers, here the sloping, curved hills that enclose the bay are dirt brown, encrusted in gravel and mottled with snow. Very few animals live here; very few plants grow. Low sky, wet mist, a greenish tint to the sea. Everything painted in muted colors. Sarah compares the monotonous landscape to a desert but urges us to look more closely.

We set out for a hike. The weather is blustery and biting. Small hail pellets prickle my face while Gore-Tex, sealskin, and wellies protect the rest of my body. It is, as Sarah said, bleak.

I look down at the rocks beneath me, my gaze focused. After a while, colors start to appear like stars emerging after your eyes have grown accustomed to the dark. The wet stones glisten with green, gray, and rust. Lichen grows in luminous bursts of orange and seafoam, whole universes spreading across the stones. The land has been nibbled at by frost. Different rock types all crack in different ways. Some break apart in perfectly smooth slabs, like a loaf of sliced bread. Others form sharp shards or round black stones, like barbecue coals beside flame-colored lichen. The rocks layer themselves differently, too — fallen dominoes, cardiograms, dragon scales.

After more than a week spent scanning my surroundings for polar bears and calving glaciers, I feel as if I’m finally learning how to see. At first the scenery here wasn’t much to look at, just ice and rock. To get beyond the monotony, I have to look closer until the landscape opens up to me. At the start of this trip I sought awe only from glaciers and icebergs, exasperated when they didn’t immediately gratify me, acting like a tourist who stays only long enough to get the perfect shot. I did not know the wild wonders, the miniature Arctic landscapes, that reside in the sheltered crack of a whale rib. I still haven’t seen a glacier calving, but I’ve taken into my body an ice cube older than ancient Greek texts. I’ve seen so much gravel. I think back on the frozen water drops that have the power to break apart mountains, and now even gravel seems epic.

I think many of the others with me have known how to look at this landscape all along. It’s evident in the nightly artist presentations, where much of the work appears fueled by sustained attention, returning again and again to the same lake or copse or terrain. Perhaps that’s why many of them seem to have an easier time moving between deep contemplation of glaciers and nostalgic Britney Spears dance parties in the mess hall: they know the gap between the extraordinary and the everyday is narrower than one might think. I’ve been the only one seeking glacial solitude. In strictly controlling my narrative, I’ve missed other stories, other joys.


The beach in Nordaustlandet is covered in great, smooth logs that have traveled all the way from Siberia over the course of a hundred years, as well as our era’s detritus: plastic bags and gas canisters and soda bottles. Humans have never lived on this island, but we’ve trashed it just the same. We are here today to pick up after ourselves. We walk with backs bent, looking down. The plastic, porous from age, water, and sun, crumbles when I touch it, small pieces disappearing between the rocks before they reach the bag at my hip. Like gathering water with open hands. It’s hard to separate the trash from organic shapes. Nylon strips merge with the tips of bird feathers. Translucent plastic glimmers brighter than seaweed by the water’s edge. Traces of our civilization disappear between pebbles. I’ve read that all that will remain of humanity is a thin layer of plastic between the strata.


A landscape is a text that slowly becomes legible. Observation leads to knowledge. A glacier’s blueness reveals its activity, its aliveness, its danger. A bright-blue cut means a fresh wound, ice just fallen off, a smooth surface through which the light can refract. Like a scar, it fades over time.

I have made of my body, too, a study. My literacy brings a measure of prediction. After thousands of nosebleeds, I can feel one approaching. It is signaled by a rush of heat, a slight pressure, a sense of something widening inside. I tilt my head just so, put my hair up in a bun, take off my sweater, and slip off my socks. I sip cold water, put ice cubes on major arteries. I tell my heart to calm down. I beg my blood to be still. I make myself as cool as I possibly can to counteract the hot, bursting vein. Some days my body listens. The chilled blood flows back toward the heart. I have the illusion of control. Other days not even standing barefoot in falling snow can lessen the flood.


We approach the Blomstrandbreen glacier cautiously and keep our distance. It is easy to imagine the falling ice producing a big wave that could capsize the Zodiac. The water is so cold we’d soon die. The expedition is nearly over, and we’re back on Spitsbergen, the main island. After two weeks glaciers have become commonplace. They have ceased to inspire me. But this glacier is different. It is the clearest, coldest blue I’ve ever seen. Its mass emits loud booms that reverberate in the bay, like a troll inside his mountain, rattling his chains. As I hear the internal thunder of churning ice, I imagine fractures, deep chasms, and crevasses. I imagine the englacial river system hurtling toward the sea, spreading out in a network of tunnels like veins, splintering the ice from within. Bits of ice fall into the water incessantly. We can feel it shifting, breaking. We wait to see where it will rupture.

Shipmate Alvin is navigating the Zodiac. This is his first trip to the Arctic, and the first time he’s taken us to get a closer look at a glacier. His driving style seems a bit reckless. He warns us about the freezing water while narrowly dodging icebergs that could flip our boat in a second. The danger is probably slight, but we give each other worried glances. None of us speaks up. We silently accept our fate, like cavalry meeting the enemy on an open field. The glacier rises before us, the size of a couple of city blocks. Its top is jagged like the crenellated wall of a medieval fort. Great bay windows and tall doors are dug into its side, and the bottom is lined with cellar caves. Fog rolls in and swirls and dances among the chimneys and towers. It seems as if at any moment the doors of ice might open and swallow us whole.

As the fog thickens, the landscape turns more otherworldly. We’re all alone. The ship with the crew and the other artists has disappeared behind the mist. I’m mesmerized, but after sitting still for one hour, my limbs feel lifeless in the cold. We are contemplating heading back to the ship for warm tea and cookies when we hear the glacier roar. We’ve just missed a calving. The water roils. We keep looking, not daring to take our eyes away. Soon snow pours out from the glacier like icing sugar into a bowl. Tons of ice crack, break, and fall: A second calving. Another roar as the water rises in a great wave. The glacier has opened its portal, and a hidden interior rushes uncontrollably to the surface. Once it’s over we all erupt in laughter. The water has turned emerald in the fog, and the air has a milky, almost tangible quality. Bits of ice small as tinsel drift toward the horizon and glitter. We ride back in silence, as if through a new world.


Back on the ship, my body is returned to me. I temporarily left it when the glacier calved, but I have again become aware of how cold I am. My teeth won’t stop chattering. I bring a leaning tower of cookies and a mug of tea down to the cabin and get under the duvet. The slowly returning warmth makes me sleepy. No matter how far I go, even to the edge of the world, I cannot reach a place beyond the body. I am always reunited with it and its shivering needs. That treacherous vessel, that wondrous land of blood and bone.


In the end I got what I wanted: the spectacle of a glacier calving. But I had learned by then that marvels also live in a marble-size piece of ice or in a cracked rock, that observation can open up any landscape, unlock wonder in the most common of sights. Can I bring this way of seeing back to Brooklyn? Can I let my own street reveal itself to me again and again like a landscape always in motion?

One day, near the end of our voyage, we go for a walk on a glacier. We hike to the top of the moraine, a wild jumble of mud, snow, and deposits. We hear but cannot see the ice-covered river of meltwater that marks the glacier’s boundaries. Kristin finds a spot we can easily traverse. Atop the glacier, mud and ice mix in intricate patterns. Ice crystals grow close to the land like frosted flowers. Soon snow turns to firn: the uncompressed, granular snow found atop a glacier, with the texture of hard, crushed ice. It’s like walking on diamonds. From the glacier’s edge we have a clear view of its main body. The aquamarine ice is full of crevasses.

The reason we can walk on this part of the glacier is because it has ceased to move and is slowly trickling away here in its final resting place. We’re walking on dead ice. It seems the only safe glacier is a dead glacier. It will not surprise us by opening up into unknown depths. I can feel its lifelessness. It is predictable, and the predictable does not inspire awe. The calving glacier was so powerful in part because we had searched for it for so long, because we could not control when or how it ruptured. Out there in the small boat, in front of that cold blue fort, waiting, hoping, not knowing — that is the most alive I’ve felt up here. Not the calving itself, but the waiting.


In my letter I also tell my boyfriend about the animal bones scattered everywhere. Whale ribs and reindeer vertebrae slowly grayed by time until they could be mistaken for pieces of driftwood. In this cold climate, plants treasure any food they can find. Moss often covers these bones, living off the calcium in the remains. Small purple flowers grow on them, too, feeding off past lives. Who knows what we might turn into? We are always partial things.


I ’m home now, but a part of me still lives on the ship, at the northernmost edge of the world.

As we prepared to leave the pack ice, I stood on the aft deck with Anders. He was listening to music and lent me an earphone. The sounds of a Catholic Mass, worthy of a funeral in Rome, in a cathedral full of lilies and black lace veils. I could have laughed at the majesty of it all, but I didn’t. We departed in the thickening snow while a choir sang, “Hallelujah.” We were always disappearing, this land and I. I looked at the pack ice one last time. The floes glided past like continents, islands, and skerries — so many geographical contours and curves. They heaved like living things on the light swell, gently rising and falling. I could not stop watching. It felt like breathing.