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Above the Ice

October 23, 2014 | by

Grief and adventure on the path to the North Pole.

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François-Auguste Biard, Magdalenefjorden, 1840.

For two weeks in the summer of 2013, I traveled around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard as part of the Arctic Circle Residency, proceeding up the west coast of the main island, Spitsbergen, and making landfall at tiny settlements and untrammeled beaches at the edge of the known world. At one point, our course took us into a small fjord where we sailed past an abandoned mining town called Blomstrandhalvoya; a research station, Ny-Ålesund, on the opposite shore; and, farther in, two massive glaciers, Kongsvegend and Kronebreen, twin ice masses sliding slowly into the fjord.

The glaciers hug a promontory butte that stands in defiance to these ice sheets, though they are both slowly wearing it away. In a struggle imperceptible to human eyes, the glaciers grind relentlessly against the rock face, carving their inexorable history into its striated face. They could win against this rock, wearing it down over eons into a plain or even a valley, but instead they’re ceding the battle, retreating backward. At some point in the future the promontory will be an island, as the glaciers recede and allow water to spill in behind them.

The sound you hear when you put ice cubes into warm (but not hot) water—that subtle but quick crackling—is the sound all around you in the summer fjords near glaciers. There is ice everywhere in the water, the size of your fist and the size of small islands, and because the water is only a few degrees above freezing, the ice cracks slowly, abundantly. It takes a moment to understand what you’re hearing, because it’s so constant and so low in the air—this soft crackle, like static over a radio.

Next to the noise, there is the wind. Strong, persistent, a wall of bitter blue. Constant: no slack, no gusts, as if from an electric fan. It is utterly cold and utterly fierce. You gaze into the white at the edge of the glacier that gives way slowly to its interior blues, blues of a depth for which there is no word, buffeted by the wind, which streams steadily and directly into you. Read More »

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Unhousing

March 19, 2014 | by

Foreclosed homes as haunted houses.

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Photo: Casey Serin

My wife and I began searching for a house in 2008, just as the market was crashing, just as those first waves of foreclosed homes and short sales were hitting the market. Priced out of Los Angeles real estate for so long, we were finally able to afford houses whose prices had been ridiculously inflated only six months earlier. Occasionally we went to those open houses with smiling realtors and bowls of candy set out, where owners had recently landscaped or repainted to enhance value, but we could never seriously consider any of these. The homes that mattered had lock boxes, were abandoned or in the process of being abandoned—the ones that reeked of disrepair and despair.

We spent the summer touring nearly every distressed property in the neighborhoods East of Hollywood: Los Feliz, Silverlake, Echo Park, and Atwater Village—every abandoned or half-abandoned monstrosity and beloved ruin, looking for a home. I still have a hard time articulating the sense of dread and fascination those houses stirred in me. The feeling of moving through these spaces—particularly as we were visiting seven or eight of them in an afternoon—was indescribable. A sense of wrongness pervaded so many of these homes. I’m not superstitious—I don’t believe in spirits or forces or haunted houses—but much of our lexicon in these cases depends on notions of the supernatural; in the end, the only word that seems useful for talking about the houses is unheimlich—a German word, literally “unhomely” or “not of the home,” “unfamiliar.” It’s more idiomatically translated as “uncanny”: a word that Freud plucked and repurposed from the realm of the supernatural. Read More »

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