Thursday, September 30, 2010

On this last day of the month, before it is another month and no longer the month that it currently is which aptly is Shameless Promotion Month , I want to draw your attention to just a few of the many foods, animals, and causes that are deemed month-worthy.
Here they are: Honey, Chickens (obviously pertinent), Mold, Mushrooms, People Skills, Subliminal Communications and Pleasure Your Mate.
None of which are particularly relevant to the life to Saint Jerome (342-420), whose feast it is and whom you probably know as the Doctor of the Church who translated the Hebrew Bible.
It turns out that Jerome may be the first – perhaps the only – saint to make note of why it is not a good idea to cry when wearing make-up: rivulets & runnels down the cheeks. He may have spent 4 long years alone in the desert, but he still knew a thing or two about personal hygiene.
Saint Jerome in the Desert, El Greco
“If in a moment of forgetfulness they shed a tear it makes a furrow where it rolls down the painted cheek.” One wonders if he observed this phenomenon in company with Saint Paula, when he was not battling the nasty gossip that circulated about his relations with this rich Roman widow.
Saint Jerome in his Study, Filippino Lippi
Unless the wind blows us away this evening, tomorrow we will discuss various types of honeybee communication: vibrating, piping, and the two types of queen piping: tooting and quacking.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010


With great sadness I beg to inform my dear readers that this is my last post from the Arctic. I had hoped to tell you about the taxidermy displays and the Russian security check on the gravelly beach in Resolute, on Cornwallis Island. I was hoping to describe the elegant irony of sailing past the DEW line installations (abandoned and otherwise) in a Soviet-made boat. I had also hoped to describe the throat singing in Pond Inlet which I expected to sound like the ululating women in Gondar, Ethiopia, but was altogether different and mesmerizing (Once again You Tube cuts to the chase: just put in ‘throat singing’.), as well as shopping in the Pond Inlet Coop as well as the carcass of the narwhal on the beach (the ONLY narwhal I ever saw, minus the unicorn tusk) as well as the discarded hitchhiker’s sign for Montreal, perhaps the most poignant and mysterious sight of all given that Pond Inlet is at the northern tip of Baffin Island and there are no roads from there to Montreal or anywhere.
But I find myself back in New York, where the chickens have not yet figured out where to lay their eggs and the autumn honey is flowing.

One last thing: a sign from the Kuujjuaq Airport in Nunavik. And many thanks to my intrepid photographer for her willingness to take whatever pictures I asked of her, no questions asked.

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.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Something of a stretch: How a Pregnant Polar Bear and a Queen Bee are similar

In some mysterious way not fully understood by either mammalogists or entomologists, in both cases the female in question has some control over her internal reproductive system.
Female polar bears will come into estrus in the spring, and mate with a male of the species. But then she will – somehow – delay implantation of the fertilized ova until she has gained enough weight to successfully carry her cubs to term. It is not known how she manages this. Does a certain avoirdupois trigger the implantation? Do hormones do the trick?

The Queen Bee, who busily lays up to 2000 eggs a day during the honey season, must deposit either fertilized or unfertilized egg in the honeycomb cell presented to her by the workers of the hive. They are the ones who make the cells of the correct size, smaller for the worker females, larger for the male drones. The workers decide whether the hive needs more workers, or a few more drones to go out and disseminate their genetic matter. The Queen uses her front legs to gauge the cell’s diameter, and then backs into the cell and as the egg passes through her oviduct, she either fertilizes it or not.

When the Queen was mated on that fateful nuptial flight, she stored all the sperm in her ‘spermatheca’. This is a small sac next to and connected to her vagina via a small duct, through which she will discharge the spermatozoa when she determines to lay a fertilized egg.
We don’t quite know how she does it. What chaos would transpire if we mere humans had that ability?

You can imagine how delighted I was when I learned from our marine mammalogist on board the Lyubov Orlova of this quirk in the reproductive cycle of the polar bear, and quickly saw its tenuous similarity to the case of the Queen Bee. I tried to share my enthusiasm with several other Arctic travelers, but just then there were several thick-billed murres flitting across the sky – and they beckoned more than a Queen Bee’s reproductive talents.

Friday, September 24, 2010


Several people have asked me if there is a patron saint of the Arctic. (This is not technically true; only 2 people asked, but their interest looms large.) And I am sorry to report that there is not.

There are a few saints who are frequently represented with bears. Probably the first was St Cerbonius whom Roman soldiers threw to wild bears to be cruelly slaughtered. Instead, the bears, awed by his sanctity, became docile and licked Cerbonius’ feet.

Then in the 6th century, St Columbanus was looking for a lonely cave in which to pray his lonely prayers. He found such a cave, but it was already occupied by a slumbering bear. The bear, however, agreeably vacated the cave to accommodate St Columbanus.

A century later, both St Corbinian and St Humbert managed to turn ferocious ursines into bellhops: both saints are generally pictured with a bear behind, carrying their luggage.
Were any of the above-mentioned bears of the polar variety? Probably not. But we are grasping at straws here.

Tamed bears aside, it is Saint Brendan the Navigator who is most commonly associated with the Arctic, or voyages that may or may not have arrived at the Arctic regions.
In 484, Brendan was born, significantly, under the Aurora Borealis,in Kerry, Ireland. He grew up in the care of St Ita who made sure he was devout. Mostly, he traveled. In Sabine Baring-Gould’s 8-volume Lives of the British Saints, which devotes about 30,000 words to Brendan, we are told that Brendan’s first voyage came about when St Ita advised him to make himself scarce for a couple of years. Brendan had left a young boy in charge of his boat and the boy had drowned; when his brother went to help him, the brother drowned as well. Assuming that the boys’ family would be seeking revenge from Brendan, absence was suggested.
Whether he was fleeing an angry family, or seeking the Isle of Blessed, Brendan and 14 of his monks built 3 boats out of willow twigs, covered them with hides, and packed food for 40 days. On March 22 they sailed west. How far did they get? Perhaps they made it to Greenland or Newfoundland or Baffin Island. It is unlikely that St Brendan celebrated mass on the back of a whale; though there is a small whale-shaped island off Galway, conveniently called Whale Island, with an inland ‘blowhole’ into which the waves pour in at high tide and spout up.
Pre-Norse Irish books and relics have been found on Iceland. It certainly seems more possible that Brendan and his sailing monks made it to North America, than that Simeon Stylites lived atop a pillar for forty years, and no one doubts that for an instant.

Side note: Brendan’s sister’s name was Briga, and like my sister with a similar name, I can bet that it was frequently either misspelled or mispronounced or both.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010


It was 9/11 all day long and far better than considering that THE 9/11 would have been my 25th wedding anniversary had I still been married and all the sadness that goes with that, far better was looking for BOWHEAD WHALES in Isabella Bay Preserve, a bowhead whale sanctuary just south of Cape Raper on the east coast of Baffin Island.
And this is what I learned: How to Look for a Bowhead Whale.
• Stand on deck in the freezing cold (it’s snowing and we are plowing through the Arctic Ocean) and scan the horizon both with and without binoculars
• Discuss the merits of using binoculars or not for whale watching; people can feel very strongly about this. There are those who favor the Scan-the-horizon-with your-bare-eyes technique vs. those who favor Magnified-examination-of-a-limited-area.
• Finally at long last see a blow – this is a bowhead surfacing and expelling warm air; the visible (fan or heart shaped depending on your informant) mist is a result of warm air from the whale’s lungs making contact with the cold atmosphere
• Discuss how much a bowhead’s blow looks like a whitecap (to you, the uninitiated) and then with time learn to distinguish between them, a skill that may have ramifications in later life
• Listen as knowledgeable/seasoned whale watchers count the seconds from the first blow in the certainty that the second blow will come in ten seconds, and then feel stupid when you cannot see the expected blow. And later, upon learning that bowheads can stay underwater for up to an hour, feel even stupider for having thought that second-counting made any sense at all
• Once you have mastered the sighting and identifying of the blow, you begin to see the whale’s body, the black back, the fluke and then the grail of whale watching, the photographable breach –living proof of your cetacean worthiness.

Look very carefully and you may see the blow of a bowhead whale. Or you may not.

Since I cannot produce a picture of a whale, I offer an iceberg and a glacier.

Unless otherwise noted, all Arctic photos are by Brigitte Kingsbury.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


In a day that did not include a Zodiac landing on Beechey Island to see the graves of the first members of the Franklin Expedition to die, and the only ones to have graves, and then sighting one’s first live polar bear (not counting the Central Park Zoo), the Lyobov Orlova’s lifeboat drill would have been the highlight.
First we gathered in the lounge (the forward lounge where the curtains are always pulled closed and the movement of the ship is magnified and very sick-making and all forms of stomach distress are exacerbated) and heard from the Russian Security Officer. (Have I mentioned that the entire crew of 52 is Russian? The young women are blonde and wear toothpaste-tight jeans. The young men are swarthy, but mostly unseen by us. They all smoke healthy Russian cigarettes somewhere in the bowels of the ship.)
“Good evening ladies gentlemen. I am safety officer on this ship. Unfortunately I am not speaking of your language. I speak only Russian.” Then he launched into his speech – in Russian - that presumably referenced life vests and muster stations and life boats, but could just as well have been his favorite poem by Pushkin, or a dithyramb to his wife's sexual allure.
Then Jason, our Inuit expedition leader, translated. Or we assumed he did.
Five minutes later the bell blasted throughout the ship, and as instructed, we put on our warmest clothes and rubber boats and gathered any life-saving medications we might need on the open seas, and carried our life vests up to our muster station at the stern.
There, Dmitri, Russian Safety Officer, gave another speech in Russian. Jason translated. The sun was shining and icebergs benignly floated and sparkled in the surrounding sea.
Later, my sister, showing off her linguistic talents, said, "Kamillarlutit."
Trying to one-up her, I replied, "Itsavautaup ataaniippallaijuq." Which means, "It's probably under the chair.

Monday, September 20, 2010


Today I saw my first iceberg. Maybe yesterday I saw an iceberg but it did not have the emotional and aesthetic impact of this one, my first. This iceberg loomed large, and we rode around it very slowly in the Zodiac, and examined closely its shape, contours and colors, and imagined what it would be like to touch it, to stand upon it, to slide down its slides or climb up its cliffs.
The first thing you notice is either the whiteness or its size. It seems necessary to think about one or the other. Of course it is big, bigger than a VW bug, bigger than my house, bigger than the whole field now tangled with jewelweed, bamboo, milkweed, porcelain berries and Virginia creepers. Once we are close enough it is bigger than I can see all at once; it is bigger than my eyeball.And I am only seeing one tenth or one eighth, depending on whom you speak with.
After the whiteness, I see every color that is not white.
And sure, we know white is the absence of color
This is anything but absent. My first iceberg is doubly present, no, octally or decadally present. The mountain and valley and ridges,the dell, the beetling cliffs, and the knobby tower above the water line, barely suggestive of the scape below.
Submarine is all conjecture.
And if supramarine stops your breath imagine the long inhale of all you are not seeing in color.

For weeks now I have been carrying around a postcard of "Icebergs" by Frederic Church from the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, CT (otherwise famous for its button collection). I've been gazing at it longingly and wondering when this painter - whom I know for his Hudson River landscapes, quirky Persian style villa and grand vision of the tropics - visited the Arctic. It turns out he did not, not exactly. Like so many others, he was mesmerized by the story of Franklin's lost expedition,and in 1859 Church and his friend, Louis Legrand Noble, spent a month aboard a schooner sketching icebergs and the sky off Newfoundland and Labrador.
The paintings are a riot of color.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


I did not eat my boots, but I did eat muktuk (seal or whale blubber), and you will not be surprised to learn that there is a local Inuit rhyme to be chanted by all initiates into the delicacy of muktuk, making use of every possible rhyme with the final syllable of MUKTUK.
Because there is more than I can say in one breath about the Arctic and because I could not blog from the Arctic, I plan to spend the next few days blogging AS IF from the Arctic. Even though I am sitting here in the temperate zone comfort of home, back with beloved CSB, dogs who would strenuously object to pulling a dog sled across the frozen ice, lazy chickens and recalcitrant bees, the conceit is that I am aboard the Lyubov Orlova, a Soviet era Russian icebreaker named for a Russian film star. She was best known – and beloved – for her roles in such Stalinist classics as Volga Volga; Engineer Kochin’s Error, and The Circus, in which an American circus performer (Lyubov Orlova) gives birth to a black baby and is shunned by the racist Americans, so she decamps to the USSR where she and her black son are embraced by the Soviets. The movie climaxes with a rousing lullaby medley sung by all the happy ethnic groups of the Soviet Union.

Parenthetically, here at home, the chickens have started laying. This is very exciting. However there is some concern there they are not very bright chickens since they (or maybe just one she) are laying on the straw covered floor of the coop, rather than in their roomy and stylish roosting boxes built by CSB himself. So far, she is not falling for the golf ball ruse.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

One more thing not to do before leaving for the Arctic

And I am not referring to extra credit reading on the stomach ailments attendant upon eating too much giviak* at one sitting.

Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to sit in a booby-trapped hammock. This is what I did late yesterday afternoon. After much busy-work all day long I imagined a short respite in the Nicaraguan hammock (from Masaya, from whence come the best hammocks in the world, until yesterday) on the lawn, slung between the outstretched metal pipe arms of the hammock stand, reading the Georgette LeBlanc’s story (Souvenirs) of her passionate love affair with Maurice Maeterlinck.
It was neither short neither a respite. Heavy metal made sudden contact with a skull.
If, however, you are going to be so foolish as to incur a head wound from a disengaged hammock stand, and require nine stitches to ensure no leakage from your already taxed brain pan, then I would strongly recommend going to the ER attended by a Princess in full Princess regalia.
I did, and I have no doubt that the excellent service I received was in a large part due to the fact that I was accompanied by royalty.

(Being essentially a very humble princess, she left her crown at home.)

*Giviak: Eskimo Specialty. First you kill a seal and flense it in “a special and difficult way”. Then you take the hollowed bag of sealskin lined with blubber and fill it with as many little auks as possible. When completely stuffed, you place the bag in a secure place, cover it with stones & keep it out of the sun. The blubber seeps into the birds and cures their meat. After several months, enjoy the feast. This is considered most delicious, especially “the lump of blood collected around the damaged heart.” (As described in Peter Freuchen's excellent Book of the Eskimos.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

How not to emulate Sir John Franklin

Four months ago I had never heard of Sir John Franklin, the English explorer who almost starved in the Arctic and had to eat his boots, and then returned to that hungry place seeking the Northwest Passage and instead lost his ships and died along with all his crew, and sparked a whole Search-for-Franklin Industry.
Now I find him everywhere.
It is impossible to read the history of Arctic exploration without coming upon Franklin from every direction. He is portrayed as a great explorer, or a slow methodical man, or as an egoist whose bad judgment cost many lives, or as a victim of terrible weather and shoddy lead soldering of tin cans. His second wife, Lady Jane Franklin, is however universally portrayed as loyal, grudge-bearing and tenacious to an extreme when encouraging young men to go off to their deaths in search of her long-lost husband.
Even in the Oval Office, even in the HOME section of yesterday’s New York Times, you will find Franklin, though not by name. President Obama’s desk (in his redecorated Oval Office in strikingly safe and bland colors) is called the Resolute, named for the HMS Resolute, one of the many ships that set sail from England in the mid 19th century to search for Franklin or his remains. In 1854 the Resolute was trapped in the pack ice and abandoned.
The following year, an American whaler, Captain James Buddington, rescued the ship off Cape Walsingham in the Davis Strait, which is very far north ( 66˚N) but not as far north as where your blogger will be next Monday (75˚N), and where the airstrip is so short that I will probably have to jettison my boots in order to lighten the load enough to land.
As for the Resolute, Congress bought the ship, refitted it, and sailed it back to England as a gift to Queen Victoria, who was then giving serious thought to siding with the Confederacy.
Twelve years later the old ship was dismantled and Queen Victoria had several desks made from its seaworthy planks. In 1880 she gave President Hayes this historic piece of office furniture. And it is still there, a rectangle inside an oval.

I bandied this fact to my fellow arctic travelers, assuming that they would shower me with gratitude and adulation for presenting them with yet another little-known fact. This was not the case.
“Don’t you ever go to the movies? It was in National Treasure 2. Duh.”

As we learned so poignantly from Franklin, one question we need to ask when packing for the Arctic is: Are these boots edible? How will they taste when all other options have been exhausted? When the seal blubber has been digested, when the polar bear bones have been licked clean?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Speaking of Memory

In the 'I could not make this up’ category, in my mother’s basement (yes, the same basement where we have previously found Little Blue Books, lurid paperbacks of the ‘30’s, a selection of mustards sampled by Napoleon, and 300 unused labels for the bottles of “medicine” produced by the still in the barn) on a shelf a few feet below the upper shelf bearing 8 linear feet of old 78 records, you can find a couple dozen very musty and dusty empty wine bottles, and this label:


My mother has no memory of such a shelf or label existing,nor does she remember the occasions that prompted her to place the empty bottles on said shelf.