The Way Things Work

The sun’s ascent in the past week has been obvious, almost mechanical, like you can feel the ratcheting of North, clicking back towards the immense burning globe: there are a solid 15 minutes of light added to either side of the sun’s path, every day.  This has not caused any change in temperature or the general roughing up of the spirit at the hands of Mr. Boreas, however.  If anything, it has become more frigid.  The last week has sustained a high of about minus 38 and lows way lower, with several days of awesome wind and sideways snow.  Here’s the first full naked appearance, right around lunch time a few days ago:

It’s hard to explain just how huge it seems when you stand there in front of it.  It’s like the only player on the stage, built up by all the stage hands to take up the whole runway, and then they open the curtain and roll it out and wheel it across… and, since this is the most important part of the play, that’s all there is and the curtain falls.

I’ve heard that despite the return of the sun, late January and February are the most brutal period of winter… and several people have told me that they haven’t had winter like this for a long time, with temperatures sustained way down below minus 40 for weeks.  A couple of the elders have blamed it on me.  I take it as a complement.  We have also had some of the more smashing nights of Aurora Borealis since being here.  I ventured out last night with a tripod to try to document the green fire dance in the heavens and failed.  I couldn’t sustain more than about 60 seconds of naked hand before being incapable of moving my fingers and close to frostbite… and I couldn’t organize the camera properly at first… and then the cold zapped the batteries and everything in the camera froze.  I went with a friend and we took tea in a thermos.  I poured some out into the little cup and then raised it to my lips about 15 seconds later and my bottom lip stuck to the metal cup… I tipped the liquid back to get it to overflow the cup (carefully) to loosen the frozen bond of my lip to the cup and–astonishingly–the tea was already tepid.  About one minute later is was frozen.  So much for the idea of sharing tea out under the northern lights.  The show of light, on the other hand… is awesome.  It’s huge seams of light ripping through the sky, from the horizon to up over head; the light is most intense and pure at the seam and then the light diffuses up and partially blocks the view of the black starry night.  They move like flames, quietly oscillating through thousands of miles of space, moving up and then retracting and the seam closes up and is gone and several seconds later a new seam opens up.  Last night it was particularly green light, with a bit of phosphorous type white light at the crisp edge of the luminous crack.

(It’s about 3PM here now and the last light is fading behind a fairly powerful blizzard, sideways snows in 40 MPH wind… dark again until an earlier sun show tomorrow.)

I find myself thinking often about how things work, especially up here.  I suppose I look into these things to some degree until I come up with a story that satisfies my appetite.  Some things I have begun looking into recently:

The Aurora Borealis, why does it happen?

The mechanical systems of a modern Arctic home, how does it work?

A traditional Inuit caribou hunting qajaq, how was it made?

The modern Inuit educational system, how does it work, what does it say about the education of the West?

I won’t go through these questions systematically… I just wanted to share what I’ve been thinking about this past week.  As far as the show of the norther lights… I started my search in obvious places… and learned that they are the result of solar winds moving over the top ionosphere of earth (50 miles up), and result from the sun’s ions colliding with atmospheric particles, around the poles, releasing photons, blah blah blah.  (It says all that in the linked article.)  And as fantastic as that science is… it feels different than that.  It’s almost as if the quick knowledge of a wikipedia article replaces the beauty of the thing, rather than accentuate it.  Last night, out there walking underneath it, looking at it… it doesn’t look like ions colliding with oxygen atoms at all: it looks like a war between gods, or exhalation of some great mystical deity, smoking an evening pipe and exhausting the vapors of deep contemplation about his next creative endeavor.  And once again I am drawn to the Inuit sense of the phenomenon.  They figured the lights were a direct expression of their own emotional moods, reflected in the dark heavens of the dark season.  In a happy good time of abundance the lights come out, dance, flicker and exalt.  In a moodier, more brooding time there might not be any light.  If they whistle at them and call them, the light moves.  I know a modern scientist would look at those theories as silly… but I wonder if there might not be something even more scientific (using that word strictly) about just pure observation of a ton of green light cascading into the North from the heavens, dancing… because that is what’s happening.

I have also been up here doing my job, which is the installation of an exhibit case for a traditionally made Inuit qajaq.  The kayak form is a uniquely Inuit boat technology, developed by these peoples of the north for hunting.  It was only recently that I learned from Brendan that the main purpose these boats served was hunting the summer caribou, in rivers.  There was a certain amount of seal fishing done from kayak, but that would have been a different boat (than the one we’re displaying), and a much trickier hunt, not to say that the caribou hunt was “safe.”  This boat was built for speed, to rush up along side of a group of caribou, entering a river, herd them along into the middle of the river (there would have been multiple qajaq hunters on either side of the river), and spear as many as possible in the back and side of the neck while the caribou fled through deep water, swimming for safety.  Here is the boat, and case as of last week:

I have since put much more of the case together and completed all of the acrylic, plexi-glass work to enclose the boat in its climate controlled environment.  In each third section of the display apron is a box which will have a glass cover and the box is meant to display artifacts associated with the qajaq-caribou hunt.  Here is Brendan going through some of the possible artifacts with Mary and Annie.

I guess these artifacts (which range widely in age and value, but have all been collected from fairly nearby) had been poorly stored until just now, when Brendan went through all of them and cut special foam cradles for everything.  The ladies were elated to see how it had all been organized and were really excited to see these old tools.  There are all kinds of incredible artifacts here, old bone fishing lures, hide scrapers, a little bone scoop that Mary said was for scooping up frozen pee or excrement from a kid in an igloo to put it somewhere special outside, harpoons, knives, spear ends, spindles for tendon fishing line, etc.  So we went through them to choose some of the appropriate tools to display in the qajaq case, things that would have been used either in the maintenance of one’s qajaq or in the river caribou hunt.  There will be one box which displays the tools used to build and maintain a qajaq, little toggles for tying things off, the bone drill used to make the holes for lashing the ribs to the stringers of the boat, knives and chisels (blades often made of locally occurring copper) used to make the shoulders for wood joints… and another box displaying the spear ends the hunters used to slay the caribou.  There will also be displayed a pair of shaven seal skin boots sewn with the special waterproof stitch, and some of the amulets a hunter would have brought along in the boat for good luck, such as an arctic bumble bee, or the red throat skin of a loon.

A few of the case:

more soon…

One thought on “The Way Things Work

  1. Ben,
    Yesterday was another glorious day in Hood River, so a friend and I had to get out and enjoy it by mountain biking Syncline. We saw the first Wood Willows that had popped up, Mt Adams was in it’s full glory and the river views were pectacular. Despite the beauty, I found myself complaining that it was “friggin’ cold”. Then my thoughts went to colder places and my mind wandered to the Artic and you. Now to my delight, I find your blog and even your treatise on the word cold! I have now promised myself to experience that sensation differently, more hardily and will definitely enjoy saying it to a whole new degree! (Ha ha, get it??)
    Anyway, I’m so enjoying reading your blog and had a few thoughts of my own…hope you don’t mind…
    On Sketches on Technology:
    I really think you could have picked any two things that two cultures pride themselves on (not necessarily technological) and would find a similar phenomenon. It’s human nature to seek improvement, to delve deeper, to invent and reinvent, to seek efficiency, to compete, to customize, to make things bigger & better. Then they are shared, coveted, claimed, owned, controlled and eventually end up far different from their original pure forms. There will be those that seek profit from this process, those that object and reject the “improvements or change” and those that relish the process itself rather than the “thing”. It could be a tribe or group that makes beautiful music. Pride and appreciation for their skill abounds. Naturally they want to make it more beautiful and maybe even better than their neighbor’s or record it. Possibly training becomes involved, the addition of new instruments and eventually a whole different attitude and feeling about their talent. It becomes so much more (and less in some people’s opinion) than what it started out as. It could be an agrarian community that lived in a land with rich soil and after years and years of constant battles with pests, they end up discovering biotechnologies to grow and protect the crops and the product is inconceivably changed. It could be a group of Shamans seeking deeper exploration of the spiritual world. Should we resist these desires and changes? Ultimately does it tarnish and result in the demise of the thing we so extolled? I think that is the key part of this discussion.
    It is in our nature to seek growth and improvement, to evolve, explore, change and part of the process is to resist that change. There will always be that polarity. Comparing the before and after, the good and bad, the light and the dark. Without the contrast how can we really appreciate it or what we do or don’t have? Isn’t that what it’s all about? Let me explain what I mean by that. For me it’s not necessarily about the stuff, the thing, the talent, but what burdens it relieves, what luxuries it provides, the comforts & enjoyment it brings and then it’s the gratefulness that gives my life a deeper meaning. It’s about that seeking, growing and enjoyment of it. It’s the awareness of the gifts. It’s about the work to make and cultivate the things. Do these things define and rule us? Only if we get caught up in the thing itself. It’s the experience through it and the sharing and appreciation for it that it’s all about for me. Yeah, I love my Iphone! But it’s that it connects me to my friends, family and the rest of the world and I like to think it doesn’t rule me 😉 So many things I’m grateful for but it takes an experience like yours to really realize all of the things we can do without and take for granted. Every day, I’m even thankful for modern-day plumbing! And now I’m grateful for having found your blog, your inspiring thoughts and that you too are about sharing…such interesting, touching, educational and truly thought provoking words.
    I would love to be able to ask you questions about the Inuits and their beliefs/approaches to life and death. I want to challenge your comment about their living and being so close to death, but first hope that you’re interested in a dialogue 🙂 In the meantime, may your work go well, thank goodness for the warmth and protection that your seal skin provides, enjoy the increasing sunlight and the thrill of the Aurora Borealis (wow). Get vitamin D whenever you can and I hope you keep making time to blog! You’re writing seems to come from an open heart, an eager mind and you have quite a way with words. I look forward to more. Stay warm, be well and happy!