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A Sense of Time and Change from an Arctic Perspective

Today was a humbling day. The landscape of Svalbard belittles you, and makes you feel like a child discovering the world. It’s like seeing the engine that drives the planet naked, stripped down to its bear parts (pun intended). Our UNEP instructors and the boat’s guides are our instruction manual, enabling us to read this landscape and relate it to the world’s climate and politics as well as our personal narratives.

My background lies in geology and environmental sciences. When I see this landscape I see my textbooks brought to life. My mind strains hard, running down the dusty library that is my memory, reaching for every scrap of knowledge I can find which will help me read the landscape I see. The earth sciences are all about looking at time from a deep perspective, 1 million years is nothing. The last 10,000 years of the Holocene period, the stable period of earth’s climate during which human civilisation evolved and developed is less that nothing, it is the last second of the last hour of the day which represents the 3.5B years of earth history.

Standing on the sand and gravel shore of the Fjortende Julibukta (Fjord of the 14th of July), I look southwards and on the other side, perhaps 2km away I can see the end of the lateral glacial moraine (the gravel and boulders pushed to the side by a glacier flowing towards the ocean).

The peninsular like tip of the moraine marks the entrance to the Fjord, named the 14th of July Fjord after a tragic story of early 20th century German explores who lost 10 out to 12 men when their boat was trapped by the sea ice. Today, from the terminus of the glacier to the end of the moraine some 3-5km of milky turquoise blue water in fills the Fjord meeting the intense sapphire blues of the calving ice at the glaciers foot to the east. A glance at the map shows that the glacier in 1966 once reached to where I now stand some 1.5 km away. A once much mightier period in the glacier’s recent history has left steep walls carved out of the mudstone on either side which plunge steeply towards the sea. A participant described it today as if the Alps have been decapitated and then dumped into the Arctic Ocean.

What is amazing to me is that you can clearly see how natural forces have shaped every aspect of this landscape. The valley sides, exposed by the receding ice at the end of the last ice age are steeper than is stable and so are in a continual state of erosion. Pebbles and sand on the shoreline morph into a thin strip of tundra running parallel to the coast, this strip merges sharply into a 45 degree scree slope that rises some 200m before meeting a thick 100m band of vertical rock which was its parent. The dull rock where exposed is peppered with fiery red lichen giving its natural brown colour and orange twinge in the sunlight.

In places, the rock face is clad with swirling, squawking colonies of kitty waits, looking like a bee swarm on slow-mo, and sounding like the cacophony of a stock trading flaw – buy – sell – buy – sell – kitty – wait – kitty – wait. The birds are actually named after this sound.

Above the rock face, and framing the image, the vision is capped by an icing like band of snow. For me, you can see how the landscape has changed gradual physically, and the enormity of the vision suggests timescales of thousands of years, millions of years even. Even the young geological processes that have formed this valley’s recent features span the whole of human civilisation. Processes alien to our daily lives but innate to the earth/climate system that ultimately governs our planet.

At the same time, some things here in the Arctic change rapidly. The weather can change in an hour from clear blue skies and sheet like oceans to wind, rain and an ocean speckled with white caps. The seasons here are also dramatic, the seasonal accretion or thoring of pack ice, and the annual influx and exit of migratory species being the most immediate examples. As I write the time is one in the morning and brilliant sunshine is streaming through the window, at this time of year above 66 degrees north the sun never sets. From a human perspective, time and days become blurred, which only adds to the impact of the visible, tangible timescales I can see in the landscape around.

Our second landing today was to visit an old mining outpost established in 1906 by a man of the name Mansfield. Mansfield had convinced stock traders in London that Svalbard was in fact a mystical island of pink marble located in the far north and he did indeed mine the marble.

However, neglecting to consider frost shattering caused by the cold, his shipments of perfect marble quickly turned to rubble before arriving in Europe. Nevertheless he persevered for some years but had to abandon the camp to the elements shortly thereafter.

Standing at the camp today is surreal. A law here on Svalbard prohibits the removal of nature or human items left here pre 1946. Consequently the elements have been allowed to slowly, and seasonally ravage the remains of the camp.

Located next to a small bay, the remains of a wooden crane stand derelict but remarkably intact, perched on a low limestone slab overhanging the bay. In contrast, all that remains of one of the main huts is a solid cast iron arguer complete with a kettle and various implements. Scattered around it lies the remains of the hut, wood silvered and shrivelled with exposure to the sun and constant freeze thawing; metal piping, wire, old equipment. Further up the hill can be found the old mining equipment and carts, on the side in big bold letter can be seen “Made In Leicestershire”. For me what this scene illustrates is just how temporary and ephemeral humans are and how much slower, more powerful and relentless natural forces are.

The contrast in timescales that these two pictures represent really has a lesson in it that is relevant to climate change and how we view it.
What is meaningful to our lives occurs over periods of at most 100’s of years. Human endeavours come and go much like Camp Mansfield. Humans will come and go. These powerful natural forces which shape our planet however are here to stay, they don’t care what we do, they don’t care who we are, and they don’t care what they do to us. They do however react to what we do. They respond to the way in which we force our climate and once they respond such forces are like a loaded train with bad brakes, our muscles are too weak to break hard enough in the face of the weight and momentum. Before a tipping point comes, we can imagine the train travelling along a flat surface and eventually a small breaking force could stop the train. If the train is on a hill (over the tipping point), well then our breaking is in vain until we find ourselves at the bottom of the hill (a new climate state) hopefully still on the tracks.

On current trajectories we could well see an ice free arctic in the summer within a generation. Such a process may well be irreversible on human timescales. I – we here on this trip may literally be one of the last generations to do this and see this unique habitat, this unique place at the top of our word. We are talking about a permanent voyage into the unknown, into a world alien to that which we have grown up in:a world less diverse in its cultures, less diverse in its environment.

We cannot make up for it later, with apologies, remorse or token efforts at recompense. But the fact remains that we still have a choice, we are not asleep at the wheel, just drunk driving. It’s time to sober up and realise that we have to take control of our future. We have to take responsibility, and we have to pay more attention to things that operate beyond the timescales that our daily lives suck us into. This we can learn from the arctic.

Hitching From Paris – Barcelona – London: Why slow travel is worth it and a few tips too

Right now I’m sitting in my living room, the tv is gone, the book shelves are bare and there are bags all over the house as well as dust hanging in the air from all the moved furniture. It’s been making me sneeze all day and to be honest has been driving me a little crazy. What all this alludes to is that today and tomorrow are moving out days for my roomy communal house and garden in Montpelier, Bristol. All 10 of us are leaving in trickles, some staying in Bristol, some off to London or Leeds,  in my case I’m heading back to the motherland (Devon) for a chilled, although hopefully not too extended period to regroup. I’m actually really sad to be leaving, I’ve loved the house and the people I live  with.  Finally I have graduated and have to start treading a path that leads somewhere, although who knows where the is?  I’ll be leaving Bristol and with it many of my closest friends as well as many new friends too. Maybe I’ll come back soon or maybe I won’t, I know I have to keep moving forwards, take available opportunities and not stagnate. Packing up my stuff I found a little note-book that I hadn’t seen for over a year and in it was something that made me smile. It was some scrawling from a hitch hiking adventure I embarked on with two friends last summer. Before I consign the book to the recycling bin I would like to share some of the highlights with you guys, whoever you are, if indeed anyone reads this at all. At the least, this can serve as a permanent digital record of that trip, and at best I hope it will inspire some people to take up the slow travel approach.

Almost exactly a year ago now two friends (Sophie Hewitt and Jess Whelligan) and I took the Eurostar from London to Paris armed with backpacks, maps, dictionaries, euros and marker pens. We had taken advantage of the good early booking rates for the Eurostar (see http://www.seat61.com) and got across the channel for about £25 pounds each, which is about the cost of a return from Bristol to London. This I think was excellent value, and as I shall later explain totally worth it for the virtue of avoiding port towns.  Our aim was to meet our good friend Maisie in Barcelona, she had just moved out there to embark on an international relations Msc, taken in Spanish, despite the fact she hadn’t studied it in years. A very brave thing to do in my opinion. I won’t focus on the visit in this blog so as to keep it short(ish) but needless to say tuvimos un tiempo bueno!

We spent only one evening and morning in Paris, it was my first time  and I would love to go back and properly explore but our timetable was strict, we had to be in Barcelona as soon as possible.  Now the first tip I have for you when it comes to hitch hiking is checking out Hitch Wiki, this website has tips on safety, techniques, and crucially, a directory of good hitching spots to get in and out of major cities all around Europe and beyond. Using this we chose to hitch from Porte d’Orléans which could be reached at the end of one of the metro lines heading out into the Paris suburbs. On the train journey we had used our marker pens to draw some signs made from cardboard kindly donated to us from a Parisian green grocer. In bold clear, slightly arty letters they said , SUD (South), Lyon, A6 (the road we wanted) and of course SVP (s’il vous plaît, please!). Signs are in general a good thing, they show you’ve made some effort, are polite, and let driver know exactly what your after. It was therefore slightly embarrassing that after hitching  for half an hour by what we thought was the right spot, a man pulled over and informed us that we were on the wrong road to go south and pointed us to the right one, this was one of many acts of kindness we were to receive on our journey. It also reminds me of another good tip, get hold of a road map and use it religiously.

Being French by the Seine in the morning

Once on the right road and the correct side, we chose to hitch by a set of traffic lights next to an overpass. Choosing you hitch spot is crucial and has many complicated pros and cons associated with it. One key thing to note though is that it should always, if possible be somewhere that cars stop, slow down, are moving slowly, and crucially are able to stop. Good examples are peages (toll booth stops), petrol stations, super markets, traffic lights, and on ramps to roads (in front of the sign). After 5 minutes standing, the threatening, monochrome grey heavens finally opened on us.  With no nearby shelter our signs became progressively soggier and our spirit, somewhat doused. However not two minutes had passed when our saviour Khalid honked a horn and told us to get in the back of his 1980’s Citroen hatchback, how french! The lesson to learn here was, don’t under-estimate the sympathy hitch,  kind stangers are out there. As it turned out Khalid had just quit his job in Paris which he had hated, in fact he pretty much resigned on the phone with us in the car. He was heading south towards Clermont-Ferrand to spend Ramadan with his family as well as attend his sister’s wedding and was glad of our company. This was a massive result and meant that we would be more than halfway to the Spanish border by late afternoon.  As we drove we talked about music, hitching, family, culture and politics among other things. Khalid was a second generation French Algerian  and told us about how his dad had picked up hitchers when he was young. Khalid was great company and an excellent guide, telling us about all the regions through which we were passing, their festivals, food and traditions. It also turned out he was a Trotskyist and so interesting political discussion ensued. We spend 6 great hours with Khalid, with the only bad moment when he was pulled over and searched by the (probably racist) french road police. In the end he  dropped us on the skirts of Clermont-Ferrand by a round about leading to the main road for Montpelier, a good hitching spot, he said.

Our first hitch spot

Within an hour, and as dusk was falling on the green and gold summer hills of southern France, we were in the car of a nurse on her way home  from work that evening. Although we spoke little french we managed to convey a common affinity for Dub Incorporation and Manu Chau whilst listening to a funky local radio station. She dropped us at a petrol station 2 hours down the motor way. By now we were buzzing to have gotten  so far south, and even though we were tired, it was dark,  and there were good camping spots around, we thought we’d try for one more lift. It’s at such times that it is crucial to have something to do and something to eat; firstly to keep your spirits up,  and secondly not to have to buy super expensive service station food. For us this was juggling balls, biscuits, baguets,  and a ukelele.  Two hours and many cars later, we were still stood singing Mumford and Sons (after seeing them at Glasto that summer)  and we were ready to call it a day, pitch the tent and get some sleep. However the road clearly had other plans for us as the last car we thumbed, (a Toyota Prius with images of solar panels blazoned across it) stopped followed by the jumping out of a jolly, portly, shaven headed, middle-aged french man to help us put our bags in his boot. I can’t remember his name now but lets call him Martin. Martin was driving back home from a business trip to return to his family in  Montpelier. It turned out that he owned a solar power business and although I speak no french we somehow managed to have a several hour conversation about renewable energy whilst in the starry darkness we drove over the Pyrenees with Sophie and Jess collapsed asleep. In a strange way it felt like that feeling  you get when you are a kid of being driven home from some place at night by a parent.

Late night hitching

The car approached Montpelier (and more importantly the Mediterranean Coast! ) around 2am that morning. We had originally agreed to get dropped off somewhere where we could camp, but after a call from his wife this changed to us camping in their back yard. Their house was  beautiful with white washed walls,  a flat terracotta roof, and was embedded in a garden containing  figs, vines and herbs. We could hear crickets and the air was warm, aromatic, fresh and salty. It was such a contrast from Paris where we had been not 24 hours earlier. The immediate generosity of Martin’s family stunned us, with his wife, mother, two kids, and wolf like dog all coming straight out to greet us. We were given showers, actual beds (in their garage), and  had ice cream sundaes made for us by the kids. Martin’s wife spoke great english and we stayed up with them both talking for hours about travelling, their youth, our studies, internationalism and the state of the world before finally collapsing into bed exhausted. That morning in the brilliant sunshine we had breakfast with the whole family outside on a big table, shaded by a trelace laden grape vines. We were informed that as it was the weekend they wanted to show us around a bit, naturally we agreed and so we proceeded to go swimming at a local beach, visit an old castle by the sea, have a tour of Montpelier (and a few beers in the pub), and follow this up with a meal at a restaurant that evening. Although we could have stayed longer, we felt we needed to push on and so they dropped as at the appropriate peage giving us waffles and apples to snack on. In return we gave heart-felt thanks and promised to e-mail and send postcards.  I had never received such staggering and open generosity from a former stranger in my life and can safely say after that 48 hour period my faith in humanity was brimming. Now you don’t get that on a plane now do you?  From this I think a key tip is evident, if you can, go with the flow and take up people’s offers (as long as they are sane!). You will get the chance to experience a place or a culture in a way totally inaccessible  to most tourists, and what’s more you’ll feel first hand that altruism among strangers and foreigners is alive and well, at least among some people.

Amazing people, and yes we know it's spelt wrong

Getting out of Montpelier proved surprisingly hard, 4 hours of singing, some waffles and much juggling later we were still without a lift and it was both late in the day and dark. It was at this time that having 3 people really helped, one could hitch, one could entertain and the other bum out for a bit. Eventually we manage to grab a short lift to the next major junction but on arrival realised it was from a small town and by this time it was 2am. Again we were about to give up, I was half asleep on the curb when we got a lift. This time is was from a blinged up man with gold chains, rings, rap music and a 4 litre BMW. Needless to say the question ‘drug dealer?’ came to mind as we sped at over 200km per hour towards the Spanish border although he later told me he was visiting his girlfriend who lived over the boarder. It was my turn to be in the front and whilst I tried to look cool and chat in spanish, my hands were unconsciously clamped vice like on the edge of my seat. So fast were we going that we had to stop to refuel twice in 2 hours. On the up side we found ourselves deep into Spain in no time at all and were dropped at a services near Girona about 4am. Turns out he was a nice enough bloke, tough guy image or not. That night the three of us scouted around for a secluded patch of grass to pitch our small two man tent and get some sleep. Almost unwittingly we ended up 20 yards from the on ramp, pitched next to  tall reed grass nestled in a hollow awayish from view.

It was cool at night but by 9.30 the next morning we were baked out of our slumber by the summer sun. We packed up the tent and walked to the edge of the road on the way to the services to brush our teeth, get some food and work out where to hitch from. Still half asleep and straddling the road barrier we looked up and there was a white truck stopping in front of us, the door opened and a tiny wiry man wearing an old football shirt opened the door. “Barcelona?” I said,  “Si”  he responded, so after approximately 0 seconds hitching we had a ride. Surely some kind of record. Truck drivers (as we were later to find out) are a golden resource and always worth approaching. Our driver spoke no english and so it was up to me to converse with him, it turned out he was an Italian driver but lived in Czechoslovakia because the cost of living was cheaper. We chatted politics with him, he hated Berlosconi and lamented the falling voice of the left in Europe. We also found out that truck drivers get a really raw deal, he spends little time at home with his family, gets paid very little, and had to pay the truck company rent to sleep in the cab of his truck at night whilst on the road. This sounds like exploitation to me but apparently it is common, especially among eastern european drivers.  I sat on the front left seat with Jess and Soph on the bunk just behind. On the dashboard were 3 packs of Marlboro Reds which our driver chain smoked, resting his twig like legs on the dashboard and letting cruise control do the work. Several hours later, and still before noon he dropped us on the hard shoulder before a junction leading to the main road into Barcelona.

After a short trek to find the right road, and a short wait, a skin headed, heavy-set man driving a mini van type vehicle stopped to pick us up. He was Romanian, had worked in the construction business all over Europe and was running a company in Spain. He was learning english so as to come to England the next year to start-up business and was chatty as we cruised into Barcelona along the main highway leading directly into wide boulevards towards the city centre. We were into the city within half an hour and a rush of buzzing excitement ran through me, completely overcoming the tiredness and lack of sleep. It turned out he wasn’t even going into the city proper but insisted on dropping us of where ever we needed, yet another act of kindness. By 2pm that day we were 2 blocks from Maisies house, mission accomplished.  We had already had an amazing adventure, and had so many stories to tell to our friends who had flown. Most of all the feeling of being lucky, and the kindness of strangers lingered throughout the week.

Tasty Spanish food


More adventures from the return leg some time soon………..