“Why was there this fence, a symbol of territory and separation, in this unlikely place?” – Tim Cresswell on Svalbard and poetry

Blog / Tom Chivers

I never expected to write poems based on my visit to Svalbard in 2011. I was lucky enough to be invited on board the boat, the Noorderlicht, along with the artist Alex Hartley and a motley crew of writers, thinkers and creators as part of his nowhereisland project. He had been funded by the Arts […]

I never expected to write poems based on my visit to Svalbard in 2011. I was lucky enough to be invited on board the boat, the Noorderlicht, along with the artist Alex Hartley and a motley crew of writers, thinkers and creators as part of his nowhereisland project. He had been funded by the Arts Council and the Cultural Olympiad to create an art project for the Olympics. I was on board as a geographer and, in that capacity, took part in spirited discussions about migration, nationhood and mapping, among many other topics.

The natural beauty of the place dazzled me. I have never been anywhere so beautiful. But it was not the beauty of the Arctic that prompted me to start writing poetry. Rather it was the signs of human presence, particularly the ghostly presence that comes from absence – old bits of human landscape folding back into the land after a century or more of abandonment. There were relics of eccentric British entrepreneurs, intrepid balloonists trying to fly to the North Pole and Russian coal miners whose town, complete with statue of Lenin and Soviet murals, was gently and slowly collapsing.

Most of all, though, I was moved by a modern fence surrounding a pile of rocks and surrounded in turn by something close to wilderness. The fence, we were told, was the northernmost fence in the world, a story that could possibly be true if you look at a globe. There is not much competition at close to eighty degrees north. Why was there this fence, a symbol of territory and separation, in this unlikely place? The answer was that it was designed to keep tourists from climbing over the rocks. The rocks are, in fact, gravesites for whalers from as early as the late sixteenth century. Tourists had been stealing bones and relics as souvenirs.

So this fence, in the middle of nowhere, is a testament to the travels of whalers and tourists as well as the things they take with them: the bones and oil of whales, the bones and fragments of long dead whalers. The whalers had come here to hunt the bowhead whale. It was a whale rich in oil and baleen that did not migrate and was thus, always plentiful. Its oil was used to light interior spaces of the growing cities of Europe while its baleen (the bones in the mouth) was used for the manufacture of corsets and collar stays. The fence, a marker of territory, was there because of a long history of mobilities. It revealed how this distant and remote place had been thoroughly connected to the rest of the world for over 400 years. I was just the latest visitor.

On my return home I started to write a about the fence in prose form for the nowhereisland blog – and later the monograph. I discovered two other people who had stood more or less in the exact same spot as we had. One was the English explorer and whaler, Robert Fotherby, who had visited, mapped, and named much of the area on behalf of the monarchy in 1613 and 1614. The other was Leonie D’Aunet, the first woman to visit the island, who has written a journal of her visit in 1838. In her journal she writes in haunting terms of stumbling across the graveyard describing it as a city of the dead. I used rearranged extracts of both of their journals, as well as my own visit, to produce a fragmented and polyvocal text that connects that remote spot, over and over again, to the rest of the globe.

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