“As one looks across the barren stretches of the pack, it is sometimes difficult to realize what teeming life exists immediately beneath its surface.” – Robert Falcon Scott
Barren is a poor word to describe the boggy base and steep trail leading up Ireland’s Mt. Errigal. Not all appreciate the winter beauty of this harsh landscape, but the practiced eye can discern shape and form in the apparent sameness of this layered gray and snow streaked terrain. The silence is near perfect here and should the mists lift, the panorama will steal your breath away. There is beauty of a special sort to be found in places like this.
“The theory of emptiness…is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are.” ― Dalai Lama XIV
It was found again in Norway on the North Cape of the Arctic Circle. We were prepared for the grayness of the sky and sea by a guide whose story was unusual. At the age of 16 she was moved from Southern California to the Norwegian coastal town of Harstad. Light is precious here and there is not much to do. Bodies accustomed to the sun suffer terribly as they adjust to the frigid wind and relentless gray of the long Arctic winter. Of necessity, she learned to see, and slowly came to love, the soft, porous earth and the lichen covered ground of the Arctic tundra. Shades of gray became weather predictors and a sense of snow – there are different types – developed. She learned to hear the wind and smell the sea and treasure the dancing Northern Lights as they streaked across the sky. She shared her story and in doing so made us look for the small, but beautiful features of what many consider to be a barren and desolate landscape.
“The cynic sees a void, the poet sees everything that fills it.” – Marty Rubin
Back in the day, the comedian Mort Sahl insisted the ugliest word in the English language was “maimed.” I think “barren,” “desolate,” “empty” and “hollow” should be serious contenders for the title. These words are used to describe people, places or situations and they have no real value or effectiveness. That’s terribly unfair and speaks more to the mind set of the observer than it does to the observed. A studied read of Conrad or Eliot is proof positive that poets can be cynics. Both men suffered periods of serious depression, but they were granted the gift of words and each had a powerful voice and muse. Yet, the worlds and characters they created were empty and morally bankrupt. As writers, they captured little of the beauty life can bring. I wonder what their eyes would see if they were to stand on the cliffs of the North Cape our Norwegian guide had come to love.
To fully appreciate the power of this place, you must walk away from the crowds and the monument which marks the northernmost point on the European mainland. The Atlantic and Arctic Oceans meet here and standing alone on the steep promontory you can hear and see massive waves crash against the cliffs. Staring out across the water it is impossible to tell where the sea and sky meet. In winter the expanse is gray, but I’m told that in the summer the blanket becomes turquoise blue. It is a place that inspires meditation, but time – at least tourist time – demands you move on or miss the bus. The North Cape is not a place to be abandoned, but should you ever have the opportunity do stop and examine the stone cairns people have built to prove their presence here.
The Norwegian’s tell a story, probably apocryphal, of a man so determined to see the North Cape that he drove over 1600 miles along his country’s rugged coastline in his only reliable transportation: a forklift truck. Before you dismiss the claim out of hand, I must caution this just might be true. With Norwegians you just never know. They are a hearty, determined lot. As they are pelted by a horizontal rain and an oatmeal-thick fog engulfs them, they will cheerfully insist there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. These are my kind of people. They’ve learned to look beneath the surface and find a beauty that others often miss.