“In 1934, the painter Christiane Ritter leaves her comfortable life in Austria and travels to the remote Arctic island of Spitsbergen to spend there a year there with her husband. She thinks it will be a relaxing trip, a chance to “read thick books in the remote quiet and not least, sleep to my heart’s content’, but when Christiane arrives she is shocked to realise that they are to live in a tiny ramshackle hut on the shores of a lonely fjord, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlements, battling the elements(, the loneliness and the emptiness,) every day, just to survive.” When I read this promise at the cover of this book, I decided to buy it to read it this spring in Norway. Things turned out differently. I ended up reading this book in my house in Belgium. I also felt sad that I could not explore the icy wilderness with my own senses. However, Christiane’s memoir let me forget my own isolation and the ‘dangers outside’, as I could connect through her words with the Arctic’s harsh, otherworldly beauty. This story gave me some solace in the last days. If you are looking for stories about wilderness and isolation, this is one I recommend.
A role model for other feminist nature writers
First, memoirs written by women about hanging out in the wilderness in the early 20th century , which makes A Woman in the Polar Night a must read for any feminist nature reader. And she is a great writer with eye for detail and sensory experiences. Sometimes she writes very practical things, as if she was giving advice to others how to take care, but other times, and more and more toward the end of the book, she gets poetical and even mystical. After spending some time alone in the hut, she understands the “terror of nothingness” that must have been responsible for the death of hundreds of men in the Arctic. In the end she almost concludes that “civilisation is suffering from a severe vitamin deficiency because it cannot draw its strength directly from nature. Humanity has lost itself in the unnatural and in speculation.” This vitamin deficiency is also what we address in forest bath guiding practices.
Of course, the wilderness that Christiane describes is more difficult to find. We have to venture deeper in the wilderness. On the other hand, if everyone goes looking for wilderness, will there be wilderness left?
Besides, I have to say I also start to recognise some of her transitioning over the past 5 weeks. I was also uncomfortable with the idea to live in one place and being isolated for I do-not-know-how-long. I have no mountains who are like white shadows and sea which is like a black shadow, but even in my daily walks I observe other ‘wild things’. I had dreamed of staying in a cabin for months, or even years, in the middle of wilderness, but now I feel I am getting to know if this dream would really suit me. And some other dreams that I had. Perhaps, I discover, I am so wrong about many things and assumptions about myself. And it start to hurt.
One long night
What can I learn from this book? That my heart yearns to a slower, simpler world, but that my habits don’t. I am so locked in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. Dreaming of long stays in a cabin in the remote wilderness seem to be an antidote. But what after the retreat? I made a couple of hero journeys and retreats. I have been to places where most people won’t come, often coming back with ideas how to do things differently, but I end up always in the same habits and patterns. Christiane did not write what happened after her year in the Arctic. She never wrote a book again.
The polar night is one long period of darkness, where you are forced to live day by day, and more importantly, to unlearn a lot. Perhaps this is also an invitation to find wonder in the ordinary?