“Meanwhile the world out of doors falls into deepest night. The mountains are no more than white shadows, the sea no more than a black shadow – until that too dissolves away. And then everything is dead.
In this pitch darkness we cannot move far from the hut. I make the smallest possible turns around the hut – all that is left of my walks. When it is not snowing we spend hours outside the hut chopping and sawing wood by the light of the hurricane lamp….
The wind that, rising and falling, lasts for days, is in fact our last link with the reality of the world…” Christiane Ritter, A Woman in the Polar Night
A Woman in the Polar Night is an astounding memoir by Austrian artist Christiane Ritter who, in 1933, joined her scientist and hunter-trapper husband, Hermann, on the remote island of Spitsbergen 400 miles off the coast of Norway.
If you love memoirs of travel, adventure and, especially, nature, I highly recommend A Woman in the Polar Night. This is an extraordinary book written in poetic, painterly prose by a woman with a fearless spirit who was profoundly moved and changed by her year in the Arctic.
Christiane writes brilliantly about the beauty of Spitsbergen and also its terror. She thrived on Spitsbergen, but during both the darkest and the brightest stretches of her polar immersion she approached the edges of madness. As anyone might.
She writes of a terrifying two weeks spent alone in a fierce snowstorm. The hut was buried completely except for the stovepipe attached to the roof. Christiane’s husband and their companion, Karl, had gone on a hunting trip, and she was left alone with the darkness, snow, and raging wind.
She survived the storm and isolation. But when a full moon finally broke the long darkness, Christiane became moonstruck:
“It is full moon. No European can have any idea of what this means on the smooth frozen surface of the earth. It is as though we were dissolving in moonlight…. One’s entire consciousness is penetrated by the brightness; it is as though we were being drawn into the moon itself…..
Neither the walls of the hut nor the roof of snow can dispel my fancy that I am moonlight myself.”
Fearing Christiane had rar, a strangeness that befalls some who winter in polar regions, Hermann and Karl kept Christiane in the hut, so she wouldn’t succumb to ishavet kaller – meaning “the Arctic calls” – which can drive a person to throw herself into the sea.
“Surrounded by this boundless deadness and rigidity of everything physical, one’s living senses begin slowly to go their own way. More frequently and more brightly as the winter is prolonged, a strange light spreads before the inner eye, a remote and yet familiar vision. It is as though here, in this apartness, we develop a particularly sharp awareness of the mighty laws of the spirit, of the unfathomable gulf between human magnitudes and eternal truth. Outside of time, everything is annihilated. The imprisoned senses circle in the past, in a scene without spatial dimensions, a play in which time stands still.
Often I see the flowers and trees of the distant sun world, but I do not see them as I used to see them. They are glowing with color and piercingly beautiful. Their most secret meaning lives in their growth and their color.”
Dutch Whalers near Spitsbergen. By Abraham Storck – Stichting Rijksmuseum het Zuiderzeemuseum. 022296, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5040261
Christiane writes of bear-hunting with Hermann and Karl in a “gigantic wilderness of ice”:
“We are in the middle of the bear kingdom. All my fear of bears has vanished. As in a dream I go on through the splendid strange world.
How quiet it is here. The sun shines on a soundless scene. The magical hues of the soft shadows glow deeply. Everything belongs together here, even the bear tracks in the deep snow, which show with what peace of mind the animals have gone on their way. Everything breathes the same serenity. It is as though a current of the most holy and perfect peace were streaming through all the landscape.
I feel that I am close to the essence of all nature. I can see its paths interlacing and still running alongside each other in accordance with eternal laws. I divine the ultimate salvation before which all human reasoning dissolves into nothing.”
Ptarmigan was part of Christiane’s Spitsbergen diet. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.
The memoir’s conclusion is triumphant and sad. Christiane must finally leave the island, forever changed and knowing she will never return. She doesn’t reveal she has an infant daughter at home in Austria until nearly the end of her memoir, a startling bit of information that for me highlighted what an unusual couple the Ritters were.
I was curious about what it was like for Christiane to return to civilization and wished for an epilogue (there is none), but on the other hand I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. On top of having to re-integrate into society, Christiane returned to Austria as Europe neared the onset of World War II.
I found a 1954 edition of Christiane’s memoir at the local library, illustrated with line drawings by the author. You may want to look for the University of Alaska Press edition, published in 2010, which includes a preface with biographical information about the Ritters. It may satisfy some of the inevitable curiosity you’ll have about how the lives of this remarkable couple played out.
Christiane wrote, “You must have gazed on the deadness of all things to grasp their livingness.”
It seems to me her memoir is a remarkable example of someone whose extreme adventure pushed her into completely letting go of her ego and recognizing that we don’t have dominion over nature; we are instead part of nature itself. I think the world would be a much better place if we could all come to know this.
So it was especially sad to read the excellent book I picked up next, What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice by Wen Stephenson, which makes clear that humanity hasn’t learned what Christiane Ritter learned. This book is depressing but empowering at the same time.
Stephenson reports that many climate scientists now believe climate catastrophe is inevitable.
He explains the term “climate justice” and how it is different from climate activism and environmentalism. Many have come to realize that climate change is the moral and spiritual issue of our time, inseparable from social justice and equality. The poor and disadvantaged will suffer the most from climate disruptions, as we’ve already seen in places like New Orleans and in countries around the world.
Stephenson lives near Walden Pond in Massachusetts, and he looks at climate justice through the lens of Henry David Thoreau‘s principles of civil disobedience. He likens climate justice to the social justice struggles of abolitionism and civil rights.
Stephenson writes about how he came to leave his career in mainstream journalism to immerse in climate justice, and it’s fascinating to read his interviews with others devoted to the cause as they explain the spiritual and other motives that drive them.
Most are young, some got their start in the Occupy movement, others are evangelicals, Quakers, atheists, community organizers, and grandparents. Many of them have come to believe that the way to survive climate change is to build strong, local communities where people trust and look after each other.
I couldn’t get out of my mind a young woman Stephenson interviewed, Grace Ann Cagle, who said she’d much rather be on a farm having babies than on the front lines of climate justice. Grace took part in the Texas Tar Sands blockade.
“She’d been up in the trees for about a week, in late September, 2012….Sure enough, TransCanada’s machines came up from the south.
‘They came over the creek….They had a feller buncher – it grabs the trees, cuts them, and throws them. And as they cross the creek, they’re coming like ten feet, twenty feet away from me, practically at the base of my tree – and I thought they were going to kill me….Why would they care about me? And so I jumped onto this traverse rope, and I’m dangling there, wearing all black with a mask on my face, screaming, Go away! Get out of here! They stopped their machines…..I spent like six hours dangling there, in a harness, because I could protect two trees at once….'”
How sad that, since Christiane Ritter’s time, we’ve come to this.
Read A Woman in the Polar Night to be transported and to understand what we’re losing. Then, if you want to consider what your role might be in the greatest battle of our time, you could follow the memoir with What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Climate Justice.