Monday, September 27, 2010

Tundra, Tussocks, Pingos & Palsas

If I were not in the Arctic and therefore reading daily from Butler’s Lives of the Saints, I would certainly let you know that today is the feast of Saint Vincent de Paul (1581-1660) whom you recognize as the name on all those boxes in supermarket parking lots where you can deposit your old clothes under the illusion that they will go directly to some needy person who will not reject your rejected items as too tight, too loose or too painfully-eighties. And I would likewise tell you that Vincent de Paul, having escaped from his pirate captors, helped the poor, nursed the sick and been generally kind, died of natural causes in Paris. I would add that his story does not end there, as 52 years later his body was found to be incorrupt, then ‘defleshed’ in a flood, leaving only his washed skeleton to serve as his earthly presence. Some enterprising sort, combining the skills of candle-making and taxidermy, then encased the skeleton in a wax effigy to create a suitable display for the Vincentian House in Paris. Though you don’t have to go to Paris to see it: there is always You Tube.

But here in the Arctic, we have geology.
From our portholes on the Lyubov Orlova, we glimpse the steep cliffs and bleak hills of Devon Island (largest uninhabited island on earth, used for Mars-simulation exercises), Bylot Island, and Baffin Island.
It is an abstract landscape, forbidding and secretive. Or so it seems from the ship.
On land, geology becomes the storyteller. We go ashore in the zodiacs (all landings are “wet landings”) and realize that we are standing upon a vast field of polygonal humps in the tundra, frost boils created by millennia of freezing and thawing: the frost-heaving tosses up rocks and then they settle in a pattern as elaborate and defined as a honeycomb.
Frost boils are the commonest form of patterned ground in the Arctic, but you should not think less of them for that.
Pingos are larger and have the character of archeological remnants. They are conical hills with solid clear ice at their center, and I long to use the word in Scrabble. Occasionally someone will mistake a palsa for a young pingo, but that would be a mistake because at its core the palsa has frozen peat. We did not see any palsas so I could not embarrass myself by misidentifying it as a pingo. We did cross landscapes of lumpy peat mounds, spongy hummocks that defied one’s knees, not unlike moguls.

1 comment:

Rebecca Rice said...

I love these posts, with all their new words like pingos.

Did you know that Emily Dickinson read about Franklin's disappearance and the endless searches for his remains in "The Atlantic Monthly" in the 1850s? Apparently, she was completely fascinated by the story.