the whole pageantry
of the year was
the edge of the sea
— William Carlos Williams
Lines Toward Ice
Further north than I have ever been, hills emerge from the sea, obdurate, popping knuckled seams in the day’s meager heat. Sun on snow, tideline clotted with scrims of pack ice.
There are no animals here but rock itself gone swayback up from the water. My palms tingle in my pockets, singularly attuned to prairie and its capaciousness, a rigour of skyline. These hills beckon some obscure phrenology, a laying-on of hands the only way to suss out the true form of a country obscured the majority of its life by quick-moving drifts. Even now, a shifting of the wind, snow winnowed out across the rocks and just as suddenly eddied in on itself, collected again. Obfuscate and make plain, sleight of hand, the calculated reveal. A good poker face.
What I know is the knife-edge of boreal forest, gantry of muskeg spruce hoisting ravens against the clouds. My eyes attuned to periphery, horizon line muggy with deer flies, nascent thunderheads, prairie fleece.
This land is pleached square against the clouds, unforested entirely. Over port, the gannetries rise in a consortium of granite. Birds in their millions skirl and banter, sound so all-encompassing that it ceases to be sound, becomes substance. Livewire spark, electric. The cliffs coruscate in bird lime; at midday, they are impossible to look upon. A different kind of snowblindness, those scabbed rocks, the sound they house.
We nose into still water leeward of the rocks, the kittiwakes haranguing, mewling low on bold wings. Shunt aside the growlers clanging against the hull, put ashore at the only strip of beach visible below the ice crust. The boreal navigation I know: wading through Labrador tea plants jittering with early bees, plush moss, the unfurled heads of ferns. On the beach, moss campion fingers itself over the south side of the rocks, blossoms frantically and in miniature.
We expect pebbles, find instead a midden, narwhal and harp seal, gannet wingbones thinned to needles. A landscape where one goes slowly, eyes on the ground, a thousand years of human habitation rustling under our boots. Kneel to recover the shed pinions of Brent geese, gone now from the beach, out over the water to Taymyr.
At home, winter’s scent is quantifiable: black spruce and frost, bistre of tamarack roiling in the wood stove. Out here, the air has been scrubbed clean. Bergs heft their indigo bones like naves in the sunlight. We look, as we have always done, to sight something looking back at us, but there is only the expanse of midden beach and its disarticulated moonscape. Nothing here precisely for us or against, just a great unembodied presence. Narwhal horns cross their shadows from the midden heaps, unperturbed as ice, or time.
Jenna Butler is the author of three critically acclaimed books of poetry, Seldom Seen Road, Wells, and Aphelion, and a collection of ecological essays, A Profession of Hope: Farming on the Edge of the Grizzly Trail. Her work with endangered environments has taken her from Tenerife to the Arctic Circle, exploring the ways in which we interact with threatened land. A professor of creative writing and ecocriticism at Red Deer College, Butler lives with three resident moose and a den of coyotes on a small organic farm in Canada’s north country.