“Windburned, eyes closed, this: beneath the keening of bergs, a deeper thresh of glaciers calving, creaking with sun. Sound of earth, her bones, wide russet bowl of hips splaying open. From these sere flanks, her desiccating body, what a sea change is born.”
From the endangered Canadian boreal forest to the environmentally threatened Svalbard archipelago off the coast of Norway, Jenna Butler takes us on a sea voyage that connects continents and traces the impacts of climate change on northern lands. With a conservationist, female gaze, she questions explorer narratives and the mythic draw of the polar North. As a woman who cannot have children, she writes out the internal friction of travelling in Svalbard during the fertile height of the Arctic summer. Blending travelogue and poetic meditation on place, Jenna Butler draws readers to the beauty and power of threatened landscapes, asking why some stories in recorded history are privileged while others speak only from beneath the surface.
The remote island of Spitsbergen, on Norway's northern Svalbard archipelago, provides the setting for Butler's evocative ruminations on the harsh beauty at the edge of the world. Butler (A Profession of Hope), a professor of creative writing at Red Deer College, weaves poetry with nature writing as the book shifts topically among the hardscrabble miners and whalers who work the frozen island, the scars they leave on the earth, and the animals who fight to survive. Butler's literary skills make even mundane sights, such as the body of a dead seabird, feel majestic: "Pleated bone flutes open against rock. Arctic tern caught sunning, breast jimmied open by the rummagings of the fox." She finds a solemn awe in the pervasive reminders of death on the island; the remains of whales and birds create "a landscape of bone" in "a land of traces" where "what dies, lingers." Butler also touches on the people who have populated Svalbard over time. Some perished in the harsh climate, while others died symbolically by leaving their previous lives behind. Butler's book is not a standard travel narrative; rather, she wields poetic prose to describe a place that most humans will never visit. The result is highly recommended for lovers of poetry and nature writing.