In June 2008 I travelled by boat along the coast of Spitsbergen, in the High Arctic, between 70 and 80 degrees North. I went to observe polar bears on the sea ice, which is their principal habitat and the platform that enables them to hunt for seals. The shifting beauty of the ice-scape, and the presence of the bears and the other marvellous Arctic creatures transformed my understanding of wilderness – I came to see it not as a place that can be mapped and bounded by humans, but as the dynamic unfolding of the Earth’s creative wild power. Just as I began to write about the journey for Thinking Wilderness, I learned that the winter ice extent this year is the lowest ever measured in the Arctic. And I realised with renewed urgency how we much we need to reconnect now with that creative power within ourselves.
June 2008. In the pack ice, off the north-west coast of Spitsbergen.
The first band of drifting pack ice seemed no more substantial than a line of thin cloud along the horizon. As the ship approached, it hardened to a frieze of chalky stone, buoyant as pumice on the water, sculpted by the artistry of cold from water, salt and light. Grinding into the pack, I watched flat planes of ice splinter before the ship’s reinforced bow. They were unexpectedly colourful, bright with shallow pools of turquoise meltwater and patches of gold-brown algae. But I felt their power: in the continual light of high summer, the pack ice gave way and opened before us, but it would take only a sudden sharp drop in temperature, a shift in current to close it again with implacable force.
As a child, growing up on the rainy, temperate Irish West Coast, where it almost never snowed, I had a strange fascination with ice. I wanted to travel with sled dogs, to be wrapped in furs and see the great bears moving, white on white, on the gleaming ice. The North held a mysterious, suggestive power; it could take you out of this world entirely, I thought, and lead you on to the edge of stars.
Now I had come into the polar bears own domain, the shifting, unpredictable world of the Arctic sea ice, just 500 miles away from the geographic North Pole. Sea ice is the platform that allows the bears to hunt successfully for seals, and Spitsbergen and the other islands of the Svalbard archipelago are among the most important of their High Arctic habitats. They lie within the Arctic Ring of Life – the ring of islands all around the Arctic basin where wind and currents crack open the sea ice and allow nutrients in the water to bloom and sustain the ringed seals which are the bears’ most important source of food.
The Bear that Flew down from the Stars
The first bear I saw was resting on a drifting floe in the pack. He rose and stretched, pressing his thickly furred feet against the side, padded across the hummocks on the surface – and then turned by a blue cone of ice, and stared at the ship. He was young; his face smooth with no battle scares, his thick fur luxuriant, like thickly-folded cream. I looked at the white warmth of his fur against the translucent blue-white cold and remembered one of the polar bear’s most beautiful indigenous names – The Bear that Flew down from the Stars.
I could tell you so many extraordinary things about the polar bear. Here’s just one: If I reached out to touch him, I would feel no body heat at all: his fat layers and the hollow cores of his coat hairs that held warm air against his dark skin, insulate him so effectively that the only detectable heat comes from his breathing. In thermal images, a polar bear almost disappears. And so he has no need to hibernate in winter: since leaving his mother, that young male had remained awake through the long months of polar night, travelling alone through the freezing darkness, lashed by winds and snowstorms, or lying buried in the drifted snow.
Here’s another: the polar bear can hibernate with open eyes. In the lean times of summer, when the sea ice has melted and retreated and the bears are trapped on land and cannot hunt for seals, they slow their metabolism down. Biologists call this adaptation walking hibernation; it is one of the remarkable sequence of changes that occurred as polar bears diverged from brown bears some half a million years ago.
Nanuq, the one who always wanders.
These evolutionary changes allow them to live at ease with the ice. The bear’s sense of smell is so refined that she can catch the exhalations of a seal at its breathing hole across half a mile or more of ice. Her large thickly furred feet take her surely across thin ice; the webbing between her toes give her power in the water as she swims across the areas of open water that open in the ice.
Some of Spitsbergen’s estimated 3,000 bears remain close to the islands. Females especially tend to stay closer to the denning areas on land where they make snow caves to gestate and birth their cubs. Others roam very widely, to the Siberian islands of Franz Joseph Land and Novaya Zemlya and beyond. Another native name for the polar bear, Nanuq, means The One Who always Wanders for this ability to travel surely, and for great distances on the sea ice.Think for a moment of what this means: The polar ice cap is not a stable surface: it is a constantly moving world, a place of temporary forms, whose edges crack, dissolve and reform as the year turns between dark and light. The ice moves beneath the bears, flowing like a river across the Arctic basin and turning in a great circle known as the Beaufort Gyre. The wilderness of the sea ice is not a fixed place – it is a power, a dynamic unfolding of the creativity of the Earth.
And Nanuq always knows where she is in relation to the dynamic motions of the ice. Canadian polar bear biologist Ian Stirling has described seeing the same bears at the same location – the same latitude and longitude – year after year. The bears, he suggests, have some power of orientation that enables them to compensate for these shifts. Polar bear tracks have even been seen close to the North Pole, suggesting that Nanuq is the only creature other than the human one to have navigated the ice cap and reached the pole itself.
Kokogiaq, the Traveller.
A shaman seeks wisdom in the great solitude, Igjugarjuk, a Greenlandic shaman, told the Danish explorer and ethnographer, Rasmussen. It is surely this ability to travel across the great solitude of the sea ice that caused the Arctic shamans to honour the polar bear as the most powerful of all the animal spirit guides. Just as Kokogiaq, the traveller, moves surely across the ice, so she safely guides the shaman on their perilous inner journeys through the hidden dimensions which underlie physical reality in search of knowledge and healing power.
The Master of the Helping Spirits, the One who Gives Power.
In the shamanic Arctic traditions, the polar bear is also the guardian of the most profound spiritual transformation. The shaman’s enlightenment traditionally comes through intense visionary experiences of death and rebirth in which the outer form of the personality dissolves, and the formless “shaman light” shines out. Arctic shamans have described a fierce spirit that comes to them in the form of the bear and devours their flesh, stripping everything away until all that remained was the bones. They called this spirit Tornarssuq – meaning The Master of the Helping Spirits, the One who Gives Power. “He will devour all your flesh and make you a skeleton and you will die. But you will recover your flesh, you will awaken, and your clothes will come rushing towards you.”
Thinking about these visionary experiences of death, transformation and rebirth now, I feel that the Arctic shaman entered a dimension of consciousness that transcended the everyday mind and personality, which is so limited and largely fearful of change and death. As they witnessed their own death in a state of lucid stillness, they found within themselves the creative essence that sustains all life and constantly renews it through the multitude of changes in physical form.
“A great shaman is reborn three times, a poor one only once.” from a Yakut of Siberia.
These shamanic wisdom teachings may come from a distant culture, but I feel they are real and important for us right now because they touch on the most fundamental levels of human experience. These ancient teachings tell us that nothing can remain static in the living world, for life renews itself through change and transformation. They speak of the formless creative essence at the core of each person, beyond our mental judgements and fear of death. They tell us that we grow and expand in consciousness as we let go of the limited small self and connect with the creative essence of life. And that only stagnation and ultimately death can come through resistance to the pulse of transformation and renewal.
As the Yakut man said, it is only the poor shaman who tries to remain the same; the truly great one remains willing to be transformed again and again, because they have learned to trust the formless essence of life.
The Shaman is the One Who Knows
The word shaman comes from the language of the Tungus-speaking people of Siberia: it can be translated as “The One Who Knows.” And this deeper knowing does not belong only to the indigenous shaman; it exists within each one of us in potential. Now in March 2015 this deeper knowing is calling us to transform and renew our relation with the Earth. This pressure is making itself known with particular urgency in the Arctic, where rising temperatures and the long-term decline of the sea ice show how rapidly the delicate dynamic equilibrium of our climate is being disrupted by CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.
According to the latest report from the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre in March 2015, this winter the sea ice reached the lowest extent ever measured in the Arctic. Like a rare white winter flower, the sea ice extends and opens in the cold and dark of the polar night, and it shrinks back when the sun returns in spring and summer. The multi-year ice that does not melt over the summer is among the most powerful balancing agents in the global climate. It is harder and whiter than the seasonal young ice and it acts like a cooling mirror that reflects sunlight back to space.
Now this multiyear ice is disappearing; everywhere the ice is thinner and so more vulnerable to melting in summer. When I contacted my friend Afanassi Makovnev, one of Russia’s most experienced Arctic explorers, for this article, he told me:
“Since 2008 I have spent almost every spring on the drift ice in the Arctic Ocean and the ice is not as thick as it was even ten yeas ago. There was thick multi-year ice all over the Arctic Ocean. Now, year after year, there is less thick ice; it is spread out, like the open fingers of a hand, and the new ice that forms between is easily broken by tidal movement from thicker ice fields.”
The Earth’s ecology and atmosphere are showing themselves to be far more sensitive and responsive to the impact of human activity than we ever realised. But this very sensitivity, this delicate responsiveness, also give grounds for hope. A December 2014 study published in Environmental Research Letters suggests that the time frame for greenhouse gas reductions to impact the climate is much shorter than previously thought – meaning CO2 cuts could also take effect more quickly. It is not inevitable that the Arctic ice, and all the marvellous life that it sustains, will dissolve and vanish. If we act now, as a global community, and set about cutting CO2 emissions without further delay, we will be able to protect it, and begin to stabilise the global climate. “This is really good news,” said Dr. Steven Amstrup, chief scientist at Polar Bear International. “The findings suggest that the time frame for greenhouse gas reductions to impact the climate is much shorter than previously thought – we could stop temperature rise in about ten years instead of the many decades previously thought.”
There have been times when I have felt powerless before the magnitude of the change that is needed for us humans to draw back from destruction and come into balance with our wondrous, living, breathing earthly home. There have been times when I have given way to lassitude and despair. But I feel more deeply now that there are powerful reasons for hope. As the true shaman knows, the potential for renewal is always present, below the surface changes of our anxious, restless everyday minds. That power of renewal lives within each one of us. At the very heart of our being, there is a presence that is infinitely more potent than lassitude and despair. Each one of us embodies the unpredictable wild creativity of the universe in this uniquely personal human form. And we have the marvellous ability to go into ourselves more deeply, and connect consciously with the flow of universal creativity, allowing it to renew and inspire and guide us to our own part in the transformation that is pressing on us to come through.
Additional Credits: Home page image: Bowheads off the Greenland Coast. Image: Val Perrin, 2008
Eleanor O’Hanlon has worked in conservation since she first volunteered to stuff envelopes for Greenpeace back in the late 80s. Her work for Greenpeace International sent her to remote parts of the Russian Arctic, sparking an intense love for the Arctic and its wildlife which has never faded.
She has researched the international trade in endangered species for the Environmental Investigation Agency and other groups. She featured as on-screen investigator in the award-winning ITV/Discovery Channel series on the wildlife trade Animal Detectives and her articles on wildlife have appeared in magazines in the UK, Europe, and the US.
Her book Eyes of the Wild takes the reader on an epic, personal journey from the gray whale birthing lagoons of Baja California to the Arctic pack ice to meet whales and wolves, bears and wild horses. The journey is guided by outstanding biologists and other observers, men and women who are renewing an ancient way of relationship with the wild. As their scientific research meets ancient shamanic wisdom teachings, we come to know these animals as guides to deeper relationship with life. Eyes of the Wild was awarded the 2014 Nautilus Gold Book Award for Nature Writing. Eleanor is currently working on her second book featuring the desert elephants and black rhinos of Namibia.