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MARVELS OF THE NORTH, AS TOLD BY NANSEN.
In an earlier chapter some account was given of Fridtjof Nansen's great drifting expedition in 1893. Since Dr. Nansen is one of the most poetic of writers no better description of the wonderful sights and scenes in the Arctic can be given than that furnished in his words.
Writing at the time when his ship, the Fram, was fast in the ice and being carried slowly on by the ice-drift, Dr. Nansen says in his book, "Farthest North":
"Tuesday, September 26th. Beautiful weather. The sun stands much lower now; it was 9 degrees above the horizon at midday. Winter is rapidly approaching; there are 14 1/2 (fourteen and one-half) degrees of frost this evening, but we do not feel it cold. Today's observations unfortunately show no particular drift northward; according to them we are still in 78° 50' north latitude. I wandered about over the floe towards evening. Nothing more wonderfully beautiful can exist than the Arctic night. It is dreamland, painted in the imagination's most delicate tints; it is color etherealized. One shade melts into the other, so that you cannot tell where one ends and the other begins, and yet they are all there. No forms — it is all faint, dreamy color music, a far-away, long-drawn-out melody on muted strings. Is not all life's beauty high, and delicate, and pure like this night? Give it brighter colors, and it is no longer so beautiful. The sky is like an enormous cupola, blue at the zenith, shading down into green, and then into lilac and violet at the edges.
BLUE AND PINK.
"Over the ice-fields there are cold violet-blue shadows, with lighter pink tints where a ridge here and there catches the last reflection of the vanished day. Up in the blue of the cupola shine the stars, speaking peace, as they always do, those unchanging friends. In the south stands a large red-yellow moon, encircled by a yellow ring and light golden clouds floating on the blue back-ground. Presently the aurora borealis shakes over the vault of heaven its veil of glittering silver — changing now to yellow, now to green, now to red. It spreads, it contracts again, in restless change; next it breaks into waving, many-folded bands of shining silver, over which shoot billows of glittering rays, and then the glory vanishes. Presently it shimmers in tongues of flame over the very zenith, and then again it shoots a bright ray right up from the horizon, until the whole melts away in the moonlight, and it is as though one heard the sigh of a departing spirit. Here and there are left a few waving streamers of light, vague as a foreboding — they are the dust from the aurora's glittering cloak. But now it is growing again; now lightnings shoot, and the endless game begins afresh. And all the time this utter stillness, impressive as the symphony of infinitude. I have never been able to grasp the fact that this earth will some day be spent and desolate and empty. To what end, in that case, all this beauty, with not a creature to rejoice in it? Now I begin to divine it. This is the coming earth — here are beauty and death. But to what purpose? Ah, what is the purpose of all these spheres? Read the answer, if you can, in the starry blue firmament." At another point Nansen's journal says:
BOREALIS BY DAY.
"Thursday, November 2d. The temperature keeps at about 22 degrees below zero (-30 degrees C.) now; but it does not feel very cold, the air is so still. We can see the aurora borealis in the day-time too. I saw a very remarkable display of it about 3 this afternoon. On the southwestern horizon lay the glow of the sun; in front of it light clouds were swept together — like a cloud of dust rising above a distant troop of riders. Then dark streamers of gauze seemed to stretch from the dust-cloud up over the sky, as if it came from the sun, or perhaps rather as if the sun were sucking it in to itself from the whole sky. It was only in the southwest that these streamers were dark; a little higher up, farther from the sun-glow, they grew white and shining, like fine, glistening silver gauze. They spread over the vault of heaven above us, and right away towards the north. They certainly resembled aurora borealis; but perhaps they might be only light vapors hovering high up in the sky and catching the sunlight? I stood long looking at them. They were singularly still, but they were northern lights, changing gradually in the southwest into dark cloud-streamers, and ending in the dust-cloud over the sun. Hansen saw them too, later, when it was dark. There was no doubt of their nature. His impression was that the aurora boreahs spread from the sun over the whole vault of heaven like the stripes on the inner skin of an orange.
RACE THAT FAILED.
"Sunday, November 5th. A great race on the ice was advertised for today. The course was measured, marked off, and decorated with flags. The cook had prepared the prizes — cakes, numbered and properly graduated in size. The expectation was great; but it turned out that, from excessive training during the few last days, the whole crew were so stiff in the legs that they were not able to move. We got our prizes all the same. One man was blindfolded, and he decided who was to have each cake as it was pointed at. This just arrangement met with general approbation, and we all thought it a pleasanter way of getting the prizes than running half a mile for them.
"So it is Sunday once more. How the days drag past! I work, read, think, and dream; strum a little on the organ; go for a walk on the ice in the dark. Low on the horizon in the southwest there is the flush of the sun — a dark fierce red, as if of blood aglow with all life's smouldering longings — low and far-off, like the dreamland of youth. Higher in the sky it melts into orange, and that into green and pale blue; and then comes deep blue, star-sown, and . then infinite space, where no dawn will ever break. In the north are quivering arches of faint aurora, trembling now like awakening longings, but presently, as if at the touch of a magic wand, to storm as streams of light through the dark blue of heaven — never at peace, restless as the very soul of man. I can sit and gaze and gaze, my eyes entranced by the dream-glow yonder in the west, where the moon's thin, pale, silver sickle is dipping its point into the blood; and my soul is borne beyond the' glow, to the sun, so far off now — and to the home-coming! Our task accomplished, we are making our way up the fjord as fast as sail and steam can carry us. On both sides of us the homeland lies smiling in the sun; and then * * * the sufferings of a thousand days and hours melt into a moment's inexpressible joy. Ugh! that was a bitter gust — I jump up and walk on. What am I dreaming about? so far yet from the goal — hundreds and hundreds of miles between us, ice and land and ice again. And we are drifting round and round in a ring, bewildered, attaining nothing, only waiting, always waiting, for what?
" 'I dreamt I lay on a grassy bank,
And the sun shone warm and clear;
I wakened on a desert isle,
And the sky was black and drear.'
"One more look at the star of home, the one that stood that evening over Cape Chelyuskin, and I creep on board, where the windmill is turning in the cold wind, and electric light is streaming out from the skylight upon the icy desolation of the Arctic night."
Other poetic descriptive passages are these:
BEAUTY OF NORTHERN LIGHTS.
"I went on deck this evening in rather a gloomy frame of mind, but was nailed to the spot the moment I got outside. There is the supernatural for you — the northern lights flashing in matchless power and beauty over the sky in all the colors of the rainbow! Seldom or never have I seen the colors so brilliant. The prevailing one at first was yellow, but that gradually flickered over into green, and then a sparkling ruby-red began to show at the bottom of the rays on the under side of the arch, soon spreading over the whole arch. And now from the far-away western horizon a fiery serpent writhed itself up over the sky, shining brighter and brighter as it came. It split into three, all brilliantly glittering. Then the colors changed. The serpent to the south turned almost ruby-red, with spots of yellow; the one in the middle, yellow; and the one to the north, greenish-white. Sheaves of rays swept along the side of the serpents driven through the ether-like waves before a storm-wind. They sway backward and forward, now strong, now fainter again. The serpents reached and passed the zenith. Though I was thinly dressed and shivering with cold, I could not tear myself away till the spectacle was over, and only a faintly glowing fiery serpent near the western horizon showed where it had begun. When I came on deck later the masses of light had passed northward and spread themselves in complete arches over the northern sky. If one wants to read mystic meanings into the phenomena of nature, here, surely, is the opportunity.
WHOLE SKY ABLAZE.
"Later in the evening Hansen came down to give notice of what really was a remarkable appearance of aurora borealis. The deck was brightly illuminated by it, and reflections of its light played all over the ice. The whole sky was ablaze with it, but it was brightest in the south; high up in that direction glowed waving masses of fire. Later still Hansen came again to say that now it was quite extraordinary. No words can depict the glory that met our eyes. The glowing fire-masses had divided into glistening, many-colored bands, which were writhing and twisting across the sky both in the south and north. The rays sparkled with the purest, most crystalline rainbow colors, chiefly violet-red or carmine and the clearest green. Most frequently the rays of the arch were red at the ends, and changed higher up into sparkling green, which quite at the top turned darker and went over into blue or violet before disappearing in the blue of the sky; or the rays in one and the same arch might change from clear red to clear green, coming and going as if driven by a storm. It was an endless phantasmagoria of sparkling color, surpassing anything that one can dream.
"Sometimes the spectacle reached such a climax that one's breath was taken away; one felt that now something extraordinary must happen — at the very least the sky must fall. But as one stands in breathless expectation, down the whole thing trips, as if in a few quick, light scale-runs, into bare nothingness. There is something most undramatic about such a denouement, but it is all done with such confident assurance that one cannot take it amiss; one feels one's self in the presence of a master who has the complete command of his instrument. With a single stroke of the bow he descends lightly and elegantly from the height of passion into quiet, every-day strains, only with a few more strokes to work himself up into passion again. It seems as if he were trying to mock, to tease us. When we are on the point of going below, driven by 6i degrees of frost (-34.7 C), such magnificent tones again vibrate over the strings that we stay until noses and ears are frozen. For a finale, there is a wild display of fireworks in every tint of flame such a conflagration that one expects every minute to have it down on the ice, because there is not room for it in the sky. But I can hold out no longer. Thinly dressed, without a proper cap and without gloves, I have no feeling left in body or limbs, and I crawl away below."
WHITENESS IN APRIL.
"Sunday, April 15th. So we are in the middle of April! What a ring of joy in that word, a well-spring of happiness! Visions of spring rise up in the soul at its very mention — a time when doors and windows are thrown wide open to the spring air and sun, and the dust of winter is blown away; a time when one can no longer sit still, but must perforce go out-of-doors to inhale the perfume of wood and field and fresh-dug earth, and behold the fjord, free from ice, sparkling in the sunlight. What an inexhaustible fund of the awakening joys of nature does that word April contain! But here — here that is not to be found. True, the sun shines long and bright, but its beams fall not on forest or mountain or meadow, but only on the dazzling whiteness of the fresh-fallen snow. Scarcely does it entice one out from one's winter retreat. This is not the time of revolutions here. If they come at all, they will come much later. The days roll on uniformly and monotonously; here I sit, and feel no touch of the restless longings of the spring, and shut myself up in the snail-shell of my studies.
"Day after day I dive down into the world of the microscope, forgetful of time and surroundings. Now and then, indeed, I may make a little excursion from darkness to light — the day beams around me, and my soul opens a tiny loophole for light and courage to enter in — and then down, down into the darkness, and to work once more. Before turning in for the night I must go on deck. A little while ago the daylight would by this time have vanished, a few solitary stars would have been faintly twinkling, while the pale moon shone over the ice. But now even this has come to an end. The sun no longer sinks beneath the icy horizon; it is continual day. I gaze into the far distance, far over the barren plain of snow, a boundless, silent, and lifeless mass of ice in imperceptible motion. No sound can be heard save the faint murmur of the air through the rigging, or perhaps far away the low rumble of packing ice. In the midst of this empty waste of white there is but one little dark spot, and that is the Fram.
"But beneath this crust, hundreds of fathoms down, there teems a world of checkered life in all its changing forms, a world of the same composition as ours, with the same instincts, the same sorrows, and also, no doubt, the same joys; everywhere the same struggle for existence. So it ever is. If we penetrate within even the hardest shell we come upon the pulsations of life, however thick the crust may be.
HARMONIES OF NATURE.
"I seem to be sitting here in solitude listening to the music of one of Nature's mighty harp-strings. Her grand symphonies peal forth through the endless ages of the universe, now in the tumultuous whirl of busy life, now in the stiffening coldness of death, as in Chopin's Funeral March; and we — we are the minute, invisible vibrations of the strings in this mighty music of the universe, ever changing, yet ever the same. Its notes are worlds; one vibrates for a longer, another for a shorter period, and all in turn give way to new ones. . . .
"The world that shall be! . . . Again and again this thought comes back to my mind. I gaze far on through the ages. . . .
"Slowly and imperceptibly the heat of the sun declines, and the temperature of the earth sinks by equally slow degrees. Thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of years pass away, glacial epochs come and go, but the heat still grows ever less; little by little these drifting masses of ice extend far and wide, ever toward more southern shores, and no one notices it; but at last all the seas of the earth become one unbroken mass of ice. Life has vanished from its surface, and is to be found in the ocean depths alone.
"But the temperature continues to fall, the ice grows thicker and ever thicker; life's domain vanishes. Millions of years roll on, and the ice reaches the bottom. The last trace of life has disappeared; the earth is covered with snow. All that we lived for is no longer; the fruit of all our toil and sufferings has been blotted out millions and millions of years ago, buried beneath a pall of snow. A stiffened, lifeless mass of ice, this earth rolls on in her path through eternity. Like a faintly growing disk the sun crosses the sky; the moon shines no more, and is scarcely visible. Yet, still, perhaps, the northern lights flicker over the desert, icy plain, and still the stars twinkle in silence, peacefully as of yore. Some have burnt out, but new ones usurp their place; and round them revolve new spheres, teeming with new life, new sufferings, without any aim. Such is the infinite cycle of eternity; such are nature's everlasting rhythms.
LONELY WHITE PLAINS.
"Monday, May 28th. Ugh! I am tired of these endless, white plains — cannot even be bothered snow-shoeing over them, not to mention that the lanes stop one on every hand. Day and night I pace up and down the deck, along the ice by the ship's sides, revolving the most elaborate scientific problems. For the past few days it is especially the shifting of the Pole that has fascinated me. I am beset by the idea that the tidal wave, along with the unequal distribution of land and sea, must have a disturbing effect on the situation of the earth's axis. When such an idea gets into one's head, it is no easy matter to get it out again. After pondering over it for several days, I have finally discovered that the influence of the moon on the sea must be sufficient to cause a shifting of the Pole to the extent of one minute in 800,000 years. In order to account for the European Glacial Age, which was my main object, I must shift the Pole at least ten or twenty degrees. This leaves an uncomfortably wide interval of time since that period, and shows that the human race must have attained a respectable age. Of course, it is all nonsense. But while I am indefatigably tramping the deck in a brown study, imagining myself no end of a great thinker, I suddenly discover that my thoughts are at home, where all is summer and loveliness, and those I have left are busy building castles in the air for the day when I shall return. Yes, yes. I spend rather too much time on this sort of thing; but the drift goes as slowly as ever, and the wind, the all-powerful wind, is still the same. The first thing my eyes look for when I set foot on deck in the morning is the weather-cock on the mizzen-top, to see how the wind lies; thither they are forever straying during the whole day, and there again they rest the last thing before I turn in. But it ever points in the same direction; west and southwest, and we drift now quicker, now more slowly westward, and only a little to the north. I have no doubt now about the success of the expedition, and my miscalculation was not so great, after all; but I scarcely think we shall drift higher than 85 degrees, even if we do that. It will depend on how far Franz Josef Land extends to the north. In that case it will be hard to give up reaching the Pole; it is in reality a mere matter of vanity, merely child's play, in comparison with what we are doing and hoping to do; and yet I must confess that I am foolish enough to want to take in the Pole while I am about it, and shall probably have a try at it if we get into its neighborhood within any reasonable time.
"This is a mild May; the temperature has been about zero several times of late, and one can walk up and down and almost imagine one's self at home. There is seldom more than a few degrees of cold; but the summer fogs are beginning, with occasional hoar-frost. As a rule, however, the sky, with its light, fleeting clouds, is almost like a spring sky in the south.
"We notice, too, that it has become milder on board; we no longer need to light a fire in the stove to make ourselves warm and cozy; though, indeed, we have never indulged in much luxury in this respect. In the store-room the rime frost and ice that had settled on the ceiling and walls are beginning to melt; and in the compartments astern of the saloon, and in the hold, we have been obliged to set about a grand cleaning-up, scraping off and sweeping away the ice and rime, to save our provisions from taking harm, through the damp penetrating the wrappings and rusting holes in the tin cases. We have, moreover, for a long time kept the hatchways in the hold open, so that there has been a thorough draught through it, and a good deal of the rime has evaporated. It is remarkable how little damp we have on board. No doubt this is due to the Fram's solid construction, and to the deck over the hold being paneled on the under side. I am getting fonder and fonder of this ship.
OF THE FROZEN NORTH.
"Sunday, November 11th. I am pursuing my studies as usual day after day; and they lure me, too, deeper and deeper into the insoluble mystery that lies behind all these inquiries. Nay! why keep revolving in this fruitless circuit of thought? Better go out into the winter night. The moon is up, great and yellow and placid; the stars are twinkling overhead through the drifting snow-dust. . . . Why not rock yourself into a winter night's dream filled with memories of summer?
"Ugh, no! The wind is howling too shrilly over the barren ice-plains; there are 33 degrees of cold, and summer, with its flowers, is far, far away. I would give a year of my life to hold them in my embrace; they loom so far off in the distance, as if I should never come back to them.
"But the northern lights, with their eternally shifting loveliness, flame over the heavens each day and each night. Look at them; drink oblivion and drink hope from them; they are even as the aspiring soul of man. Restless as it, they will wreathe the whole vault of heaven with their glittering, fleeting light, surpassing all else in their wild loveliness, fairer than even the blush of dawn; but, whirling idly through empty space, they bear no message of a coming day. The sailor steers his course by a star. Could you but concentrate yourselves, you too, O northern lights, might lend your aid to guide the wildered wanderer! But dance on, and let me enjoy you; stretch a bridge across the gulf between the present and the time to come, and let me dream far, far ahead into the future.
"O thou mysterious radiance! what art thou, and whence comest thou? Yet why ask? Is it not enough to admire thy beauty and pause there? Can we at best get beyond the outward show of things? What would it profit even if we could say that it is an electric discharge or currents of electricity through the upper regions of the air, and were able to describe in minutest detail how it all came to be? It would be mere words. We know no more what an electric current really is than what the aurora borealis is. Happy is the child. . . . We, with all our views and theories, are not in the last analysis a hair's-breadth nearer the truth than it.
OF PACKING ICE.
"Tuesday, November 13th. Thermometer -38 degrees C. (-36.4 degrees Fahr.). The ice is packing in several quarters during the day, and the roar is pretty loud, now that the ice has become colder. It can be heard from afar — a strange roar, which would sound uncanny to any one who did not know what it was.
"A delightful snow-shoe run in the light of the full moon. Is life a vale of tears? Is it such a deplorable fate to dash off like the wind, with all the dogs skipping around one, over the boundless expanse of ice, through a night like this, in the fresh, crackling frost, while the snow-shoes glide over the smooth surface, so that you scarcely know you are touching the earth, and the stars hang high in the blue vault above? This is more, indeed, than one has any right to expect of life; it is a fairy tale from another world, from a life to come.
"And then to return home to one's cozy study-cabin, kindle the stove, light the lamp, fill a pipe, stretch one's self on the sofa, and send dreams out into the world with the curling clouds of smoke — is that a dire infliction? Thus I catch myself sitting staring at the fire for hours together, dreaming myself away — a useful way of employing the time. But at least it makes it slip unnoticed by, until the dreams are swept away in an ice-blast of reality, and I sit here in the midst of desolation, and nervously set to work again.
"Wednesday, November 14th. How marvelous are those snow-shoe runs through this silent nature! The ice-fields stretch all around, bathed in the silver moonlight; here and there dark cold shadows project from the hummocks, whose sides faintly reflect the twilight. Far, far out a dark line marks the horizon, formed by the packed-up ice, over it a shimmer of silvery vapor, and above all the boundless deep-blue, starry sky, where the full moon sails through the ether. But in the south is a faint glimmer of day low down of a dark, glowing red hue, and higher up a clear yellow and pale-green arch, that loses itself in the blue above. The whole melts into a pure harmony, one and indescribable. At times one longs to be able to translate such scenes into music. What mighty chords one would require to interpret them!
OLD GLORY NAILED TO THE POLE.
"Silent, oh, so silent! You can hear the vibrations of your own nerves I seem as if I were gliding over and over these plains into infinite space. Is this not an image of what is to come? Eternity and peace are here Nirvana must be cold and bright as such an eternal star-night. What are all our research and understanding in the midst of this infinity?"