The Soulless Village
“For the first time, I realize that in the solitude of an all-too-powerful nature things have a different meaning from that we attribute to them in our world of constant reciprocal relations between man and man. It dawns on me that in many cases, it may be more difficult for a man to retain his ordinary humanity in the Arctic than to sustain his life in battle with the elements.”
— Christiane Ritter (A Woman in the Polar Night)
I knew a person, a woman, who left the chaotic comfort of a big European city to move to a small town in the middle of the Arctic Circle. A small town, going by the name of Lonewosuss, on an island far away in the north, with 2000 living souls and tiny houses built at the cross of two roads.
The small town had always been considered a remote and hidden treasure. Whalers, hunters, miners, and tourists have come and gone over the centuries. In fact, the peculiar thing about this place is that it was initially a deserted place, untouched by human activity.
Nowadays, this small town is a place like any other. However, in the woman's imagination, Lonewosuss was a dream, the refuge, the salvation, the adventure. A place where finally she could find herself, where she could express herself but also be understood.
The woman walks to the top of the hill to reach the church. From there she can have a view on the valley and the bay. From this privileged point of view, everything looks like a doll town. The landscape is a greyish backdrop on which are popping out a messy sum of cubic shucks made by composing materials from containers. There is the main shop, the sheriff station, the school, and the church. Everything seems in place, but indeed, something dark is happening there.
This is not the postcard she was imagining. In those pictures she reminded from some wildlife photographer's Instagram account, there was always a dramatic scene. Wild animals; a fox, a polar bear cub, a seal, or a puffin, and on the backdrop a perfect landscape surrounded by a perfect light. Motionless, everything seemed to stand there for the viewer.
This construction of beauty in the landscape is a heritage of Romanticism. This vision revives in a fantasy that is fed by a kind of narrative portrait, aimed at producing an idealized reality. But what is the right and the wrong in the flood of images of landscapes, photographs, reproductions, high glaciers (which are fading forever), seals and polar bears, snow-covered dunes, ruins of huts, old tombs, and abandoned crosses? When does reality lies? In the idealized landscape. A symbolic and moral engraving is purging the real world of its flaws.
In an island like this, a No Man's Land, a story becomes exchangeable with fiction.
That woman, she was looking for nature and found the artifice in it. The deluded expectations of a ‘natural lifestyle ‘ faded in an ungraspable dream. That place wasn’t the white mountains covered in snow, surrounded by an idyllic purple pink light, not the magic of the perpetual night interrupted only by green flashes of Northern light, not even polar bears cubs following their beautiful mothers, dog sleds, whales singing in the bay, pancakes ice, etc. Those are just subliminal delusions projected by souvenirs from a major tourist company (owned by a Chinese Corporation).
Those are postcards made to covet. Desire to be the one and only on a desert island. It is the fascination for new beginnings. It is the dream of wild sexual encounters. Being in touch with uncontaminated nature. It is the chimera of freedom, the fountain of Youth, the myth of overruling water and fire.
But like in a snake fight, this has a second side. It is a fool’s joy without paying the price. To have violence and abuse and to get unnoticed. To relish our darkest thoughts and let them slide indifferently as the water on the back of a whale — an entire land as a darkroom in a swinger club.
It is to control and to maintain, but still, be considered as environmentalists.
As the first explorers did in the 18th or 19th century, mostly moved by easy earnings but also to challenge their own limits, many men went for whale fishing and later for hunting fox, seal and bear skins. Later came the time for minerals and energy. Small communities bloomed around the mines. Communities destined to disappear with the closure of them, emptying these villages of their life. Today, research and tourism have taken over. However, these activities are just a magic screen to reflect other interests, other and more remunerative form of exploitation. In between, there has been human life: families, children, love stories, loneliness, brothers and sisters, tears, friendships, and death.
From the beginning, life in the Arctic regions has fluctuated between this thirst for conquering and exploiting, masked by a sublimated patronizing attitude.
The impact of humans on such a delicate environment has been so far catastrophic. But nothing stopping people from thinking that it is good to stay in this place and persevere in a destructive, selfish and aggressive lifestyle. Additionally, it is a complete indifference towards the rest of the world, which far away, looks at environmental protests which, instead of developing greater awareness, ignore ignorance, distance and feed precisely that idyllic image and illusion that is slowly producing the destruction of this place.
Our civilization has delayed a process of acknowledgment of nature through its imagination and illustrations.
It would be a great step forward if now we could understand we are not the only one on earth.
All images by Julian Charrière