9 October 2010 – Longyearbyen, Svalbard

Tomorrow we leave, late in the afternoon. I guess we will be on the boat during the day, finding our way into its spaces and making everything fast. There were excursions today to the Global Seed Vault, to the Airship Museum, and to an art opening. I decided not to go – though I’d quite like to have seen the James-Bond-like seed vault, projecting out of a mountain like an evil techno-hideout. In it are millions of cold-stored seeds, saved from around the world in case of massive environmental destruction.

Instead, I looked at maps, beautiful maps of places with beautiful and evocative names – my favourite so far, Liefdefjorden – the lovers’ fjord. Weather permitting, we will sail there. The nautical charts are also beautiful – and expensive. One of the other artists bought three, and I envied her. But they lack the names, the words, in favour of the detail of the sea. So I’m happy with my land map, covered in beautiful words for glaciers and mountains and places that are no more than a name applied to a desolate coordinate, along a coast.

I realised today the obvious: that the nothingness is right here too, a few miles across the fjord. The town obscures it – this place’s nothingness has been dug away and is split and scattered shale and rock and slurry between dwelling and industry and tourist office. But I walked at the end of the day down to the water – just five minutes away. And across the water are the mountains, swathed in fog and silence, craggy one minute and smooth-faced the next, and snow-capped. And there is nothing else there but a hut or two the same dark brown, huddled low, by the water. 60% of Svalbard is glacier, and close to 30% is bare rock. The rest bears very little in the way of life – though birds and foxes abound. There is a family of arctic foxes, thick-white-furred, living under the deck at the back of the lodge. I’ve not seen them yet, but others have, one of them playing with chunks of coal like a cat with a toy; another coming to Mary-Ann’s call from a window, poised there neatly like a dog at a table.

Books I have with me:

Christiane Ritter’s A Woman in the Polar Night

Den Norske Los – Arctic Pilot, sailing directions (Volume 7, Svalbard)

Luce Irigaray, The Way of Love

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Helen E Ross, Behaviour and Perception in Strange Environments.

Nearly dinner time, someone is playing Penguin Café Orchestra on the stereo (less annoying than you’d think), another guest is sitting down to dinner with her young daughter – fish fingers. Half the lights in the big lounge area are off because there are so many Macs plugged into all the power sockets – heads bowed everywhere over small glowing apple-shapes. Nice time of day, and having done kitchen clean-up on Thursday and helped cook last night, I’m not on any kind of duty tonight. On board we will have full catering and four meals a day – yippee! It was so cold when I walked down to the water tonight – I know we’ll need our nourishment. Tomorrow’s on-land weather forecast is maximum minus eight.