What Happens When You Take a Poet to the Arctic

Since the 4th century BC, explorers, geographers, archaeologists, cartographers, navigators, sealers, whalers, miners, scientists, artists, writers, and others have traveled to the Arctic to observe, document, research, explore, and exploit its beauty, its ecosystems, and its natural resources. They have described being awed by its grandeur, diminished by its scale, mesmerized by its stillness, and scared by its awesome power. Many have reported being changed in fundamental ways by the experience.

In 2010, when British poet, screenwriter, and librettist Nick Drake was invited to join a three-week trip to the Norwegian Arctic by the international climate/arts nonprofit Cape Farewell in order to investigate the changes brought about by the climate crisis, his personal journey of exploration was added to the long list of others that had come before him.

Cape Farewell’s 2010 route around Svalbard. Photo by Cape Farewell.

Cape Farewell’s 2010 Art and Science expedition sailed around Svalbard, an archipelago 550 miles north of Norway, on the two-mast vessel Noorderlicht with five marine scientists and ten artists from around the world. Prior to embarking on the voyage, Drake had never thought deeply about the climate crisis nor addressed it in his work. When he first accepted the invitation from Cape Farewell, he thought he would be encountering a wild, pristine land that had not been spoiled by human intervention. With the help of the expedition’s scientists, he soon learned about the devastating acceleration of glacier melt, pollution, and human exploitation. In his first written piece documenting his impressions, Drake describes in poetic language the millennia-old memories embedded in the ice as well as the vestiges of industrial activity that were melting the glacier in front of his eyes: 

It’s good to know this vast frozen beast, born of the last Ice Age, is still here; suddenly it’s strangely comforting to think of it as a world library of snow – for it’s true if fanciful that the snow of the winters of all our lives is somewhere in here, crushed down to ice; so is that which fell during Shakespeare’s winter’s tale, on the ice-fairs on the Thames; and the snow that fell when Breughel’s hunters were returning home; and the snow that fell long before anything human was really here. And now, the warm breath of billions of lives, and the CO2 from the stacks of foundries and factories, and worldwide traffic jams, and the collected vapour trails of all the flights that have ever flown, is melting away the monster, little by little.

Drake also recorded himself reading a poem based on the blog entry above while he was still onboard the Noorderlicht.

Two particular incidents that occurred during the 2010 expedition impacted Drake in a visceral way and informed the content and format of The Farewell Glacier (2012), his book-length poem, which he wrote when he returned to the UK. The first event happened as the Noorderlicht was traveling down a passageway through pack ice in the northern part of the archipelago. Suddenly the ice closed around the ship, which became instantly trapped. After many tries by the ship’s pilot to disengage from the ice, the passengers were instructed to prepare for an evacuation by helicopter. Ultimately, the pilot was able to extract the ship without the need for a sea rescue.

The dramatic experience left Drake with a very real understanding of how, within a split second, one’s life can become endangered in this harsh environment. He also developed a strong sense of connection to the young men who had come to the Arctic in previous centuries aboard whaling ships and on other expeditions without the advanced technology that provided the crew and passengers of the Noorderlicht with an immediate lifeline. Drake later incorporated the voices of these untrained and vulnerable young men in The Farewell Glacier. Over the following year, he used other human and non-human voices to tell the Western, and especially European, story of the Arctic. 

Svalbard

The second experience that impacted Drake was a real-time visual example of the climate crisis in action. Sailing towards a large glacier, the expedition scientists indicated the area in the water where the glacier had once been. It was a full 40 minutes before the ship reached the edge of where the glacier was currently located. From this and other “aha” moments, Drake felt an immense responsibility to write something about the extreme acceleration of climate change that would appeal to the hearts and minds of the general public. 

The Farewell Glacier is a chronological account of the Western, and especially European, experience in the Arctic told through the voices of the humans who encountered it, the chemical elements that have polluted it, (including methane, PCB, POP and DDT, etc.) and other non-human actors, such as a sea-shanty, the sun, pteropods, and an ice-core sample. He calls it “a story about wonder and consumption,” of “exploration and exploitation.” 

Drake wrote The Farewell Glacier in stages. The first section of the poem that he composed after he returned from the Arctic was the voice of “The Future,” which is both a tale of warning and a call to action. In 2019, Fleabag star, Andrew Scott, and his sister Hannah recorded “The Future,” which was then posted on the twitter page Culture Declares Emergency and can be found on Drake’s website

In 2012, the National Maritime Museum in London commissioned Drake to write a poem that would tell the story of the Western experience in the Arctic as part of a major installation developed by United Visual Artists, in collaboration with Cape Farewell. The result was the full text of The Farewell Glacier.

Drake describes the book as a “collection of monologues or arias” from “the deep past, and into the near future because as Inuit say, ‘we are the people who have changed nature.’” The excerpts below are just two of the voices in The Farewell Glacier that are part of this powerful Arctic story. 

When I was twelve
To win a bet
I walked across the thin ice of the frozen Severn
And never looked back.
Later, I resolved to walk
From Alaska to Svalbard
Across the thin ice
Via the Pole of Inaccessibility
And the North Pole.
My Inuit friends left a map
Pinned to the hut door
Marked with the places they thought I would die.
It was 3,800 miles;
We left in February,
Four men and forty dogs. 
And in July we made camp
Because the ice was not drifting 
In our favour.

When the sun returned
We continued through the next summer
To reach 90 degrees North.
I telegraphed the Queen.
Trying to stand on the pole 
Was like trying to step
On the shadow of a bird
Circling overhead.
Two weeks later
A man took the first step on the Moon
And by the time we got home
We were forgotten.
You couldn’t walk it now,
Even if you wanted to –
Why not?
Because the sea is melting,
And no one can walk on water.

— Wally Hebert (1934 – 2007), British polar explorer, writer and artist

We were born in your dream of the future – 
Released by fire
We ascended the winding stairs of the smoke stacks
Until we reached the orange sunrise
And the blue sky.
No one waved goodbye.
No one saw us go;
We were uncountable
And invisible.
One way or another 
We were carried north
In the hands of the winds,
Through the stories of the rivers,
By the generosity of the oceans;
And when we arrived at the cold
Top of the world
It felt like home, sweet home;
And we waited in the long darkness
Until at last
The first light of the year transmuted us
Out of thin air and we came to rest
In ice and snow and black water.
Now we accumulate
And magnify
In the cells of fish, in the eggs of birds,
Inside the warm coats of seals and bears;
And in the wombs of mothers
We concentrate so the faces of the future
Take on our features,
And we sing our names into the ears
Of the unborn:
PCB; POP; DDT:
Cesium, technetium;
Mercury.

— Mercury, chemical element also known as quicksilver

Since his voyage to the Arctic, Drake has written other poetic works on the climate crisis. Most notably, he wrote the libretto for a choral work entitled, Earth Song, in collaboration with composer Rachel Portman. The piece premiered on September 27, 2019 at St. Paul’s Knightsbridge and was broadcast on the BBC in October of 2019. As Portman described it, Earth Song is an expression of how “humans are as one with the earth and inseparable.” Drake’s libretto incorporates lines from Greta Thunberg’s powerful speech at Davos in 2019. 

Additionally, in 2018 Drake created the libretto for The Cave, an opera on climate grief, in collaboration with composer Tansy Davies. The Cave follows “a grieving father’s quest for survival in a world devastated by climate change” and was produced in a cavernous warehouse space in London.

Ten years after his expedition, Drake still speaks passionately about the Arctic and its extraordinary light, stillness, silence, and ancient landscape, but mostly he is on a mission to expose his words about the climate crisis beyond the poetry world to create awareness and inspire change. He disagrees with Auden’s oft-quoted line, “poetry makes nothing happen” but sees his poetry as a signpost for the way forward. His commitment towards that end is what happens when you take a poet to the Arctic. 

(Top image: Poet Nick Drake in the High Arctic. Photo by Deborah Warner. Poetry excerpts by permission of Nick Drake, The Farewell GlacierBloodaxe Books, 2012.)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited in widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and climate change. She co-created a national, participatory public art project, The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and which has inspired thousands of adults and children of all ages, abilities and backgrounds to protect this vital resource. Her most recent body of work calls attention to the growing number of rampikes along our shores – trees that have been exposed to salt water and died as a result of rising tides.

3 thoughts on “What Happens When You Take a Poet to the Arctic

  1. Collective human existence (for me, at least) has for too long been analogous to a cafeteria lineup consisting of diversely societally represented people, all adamantly arguing over which identifiable traditionally marginalized person should be at the front and, conversely, at the back of the line. Many of them further fight over to whom amongst them should go the last piece of quality pie and how much should they have to pay for it—all the while the interstellar spaceship on which they’re all permanently confined, owned and operated by (besides the most wealthy) the fossil fuel industry, is on fire and toxifying at locations not normally investigated.

    The latter is allowed to occur, because blue-shirted liberals and red-hatted conservatives are preoccupied loudly blasting each other for their politics and beliefs thus distracting attention from big business’s moral and ethical corruption, where it should be focused.
    Meanwhile, mindless arguments are made, and stupid-sounding catchphrases are uttered, like “It’s the economy, stupid!”

    Although I very much want to be proven wrong, we, in short, are distracting ourselves from our own burning and heavily polluting of our sole spaceship (i.e. Earth).
    What is sufficiently universal, however, is that the laborers are simply too exhausted and preoccupied with just barely feeding and housing their families on a substandard, if not below the poverty line, income to criticize the former for the great damage it’s doing to our planet’s natural environment and therefore our health, particularly when that damage may not be immediately observable.

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