Character # I
Aline Victoria Birkeland (1870 –1952)
The Un-known Adventurer
The researcher Aline Victoria Birkeland travels in the Arctic regions and Svalbard at the turn of the twentieth century. She struggles with social expectations and is forced to hide her own scientific discoveries. She realises she has made an important discovery. She hides the finding by digging it back into the ground. Many years later, she writes a letter to her granddaughter, where she tries to convince her to travel back to Svalbard to reveal the discovery.
Aline Victoria Birkeland begins her letter as memoirs, recounting her life as a curious young girl with a strong ambition for natural historic discoveries in the Arctic. However, she was born in a time when men dominated the scientific field. She wrote a proposal to embark on an expedition, which was signed by her father. Aline was accepted for the expedition, yet had to accept the fact that she had no official title, not even being mentioned on the expedition’s list of crew members. She was simply a stowaway. Later as she became more established as an independent researcher, she continued to embark on challenging expeditions despite having to take care of her daughter and maintain a domestic life with her husband. During the many years of her travels, she had to abandon her daughter and her husband from time to time. In the story, there are moments when Aline struggles internally and begins to doubt the value and importance of her persistence in becoming a scientist. The story is redolent of nostalgic sentiments and Aline's strong will to continue the expeditions despite personal heartbreaks, and thus brings forth inspirations for personal strength and perseverance in going forth unwaveringly with one's strong belief.
The face tilts slightly down, eyes looking straight into yours, as you return the gaze. The eyes are radiant blue; smaller lines, as of a hard pencil, surround them. Two deep wrinkles part the forehead. A right hand – large veins, solid joints, deep furrows, twisted wrist, palm turned upwards – as the firm, yet weakened, grip reaches out a letter. Take hold of the paper, the tightened fingers insist as they let go:
Dear Aurora, daughter of my daughter, my granddaughter, it hurts me to realise that I’ve never been there for you, so that you only know my face through yellowed photographs.
In order to live life the way I wanted, I’ve given up certain parts of life, pieces that you may consider life itself. In this life-long chain of decisions, many have led to loss. To not see you, to never meet you, was the last and hardest one to make. As acceptance or refusal often does, it not only affects my own life, but shapes the story of others. Therefore, it is only justice that it is you who receive this letter, this tale, about decisions that were made many years before your arrival into this world. Standing at the end of the queue, you have no doubt found it hard to understand the reason for this waiting and what you have been waiting for.
Everyone has been awaiting this letter, perhaps apart from you. The letter is a sign of life from a disappeared woman. Here I am, tucked up in a blanket, on a terrace outside a cabin in the French Alps. At home they must imagine me on a daring, adventurous expedition, still exploring through my last days of life. The truth is, I can hardly lift a shovel. My bones ache after hours, days and years of strenuous journeys in the cold Arctic. My lungs need feeding with air, in deep, strained breaths.
Now the time has come to write my memoirs, my life and experiences, for those coming after. I have chosen this place because it gives me peace. I am surrounded by snow and cold light. Coldness makes me calm. Days bringing hints of spring – like today – thaw me up and melt me into reverie. The cottage must be the smallest guesthouse in the world, yet the service is impeccable. Jean-Claude keeps three fires lit and Marina is a master chef of delectable French cuisine. I try to fit the role of a patient who requires care. Yes, I am a patient now, rather than a scientist or tourist. The doctor has added me to his daily round: a routine that I suspect consists of only me. I have not dared to tell him that I did not choose this village for medical reasons. The destination emerged through a compromise between Audun’s need to give me the best treatment, and my desire to write in surroundings appropriate for this story.
I will make an effort to keep the chronology and be systematic, yet I know it will be easier to turn to metaphors, as I will tell the tale of a long, lived life. I hereby admit it this instant, and set off the story with one:
Imagine yourself as you stand at the end of a long line. I am neither behind you, nor in front of you. I am standing right next to you. I hold your hand, and as you gaze towards me, you can see my forehead, nose and mouth as a line. I have always thought I am best viewed in profile. My eyes are blue. Two wrinkles part my forehead. My skin is leather, stretched across my hand, enveloping large veins, solid joints. Furrows interrupt the surface like deep gorges on a map in miniature. I turn my head around, tilt my face slightly down, look straight into your eyes, as you return my gaze. I twist my right wrist, then turning the palm upwards, reach out with this letter. You take hold of the paper. My palm is bare, and you notice the long line of life, a curve in the skin that runs all the way down to the wrist. I have now walked the curve, the long line, to hand over this letter. You have not the slightest idea why there should be a queue at all; you have not noticed all the others standing in front of you, familiar faces hidden behind crouched necks. And because you do not know, do not expect, you are chosen to receive the answers. I believe you are the best suited of everyone to read this letter with an open mind.
Let us start from the very beginning.
I was born into a prosperous family of wealth and vision, two parents and two children, belonging to the upper middle-class. My father Normann Birkeland worked at the university. He was a man of few words, yet many a meaning. On the rare occasions when father did speak, we all listened. At the university he used his strong voice to speak up for the few female students. At home he spoke up for me, with an even stronger voice.
My older brother Magnus and I used to dig in a heap of soil in our backyard, hoping to find treasure. One day we did – a real treasure indeed! I was permitted to carry two beautiful, white stones, while Magnus carried the third one. Eager to show mother our findings, we forgot to scrub away the soil from underneath our nails. Magnus’ stone was carefully yet closely examined, and put up on display on the windowsill with an approving nod, as Magnus ran away, still with brown dirt underneath his fingernails. I, on the other hand, received a rumbling reprimand. Mother literally dragged me by the braids to the washbasin. She grabbed my right wrist and bent my fingers to a straight position. The larger of the two stones went splashing into the sink. She repeated the gesture with my left hand. A second splash followed. As I stared at the two stones lying at the bottom of the basin and mother held my splayed fingers above the boiling hot soap and water, father said with a clear voice, “Girls are allowed to hunt for treasure too, or am I wrong Hennie?”
Mother let go of me. Father picked up the stones from the sink, wiped soap and water away, and placed them on the windowsill, to the right of Magnus’ stone, so that there was an entire exhibition on display.
Father grabbed my shoulders tenderly. “Oh my, what a treasure the two of you did find today! Do you want to go outside and look for more, Aline? When you are returning for dinner, you must both remember to wash your hands, all four of them. Understood?”
We did not find any more treasure that day. Despite the lack of findings, I returned for dinner with clean hands, white nails shining, and a smile shining even brighter.
It was a long time ago, my dear, yet I recall it as if it was yesterday, most clearly of all memories. This day stands for me as a pillar of ice, radiant and clear as crystal. My first finding, the white stones, meant more than I could ever imagine. Father’s trust would eventually open doors to a world of dreams and opportunities: my dreams and my opportunities. His recognition of women, of his own daughter, would later culminate in two words, a signature, written in black ink on white paper. The name Normann Birkeland would open doors that had never before been opened, but also lead to doors being slammed shut.
Many a treasure hunt, lecture and exam were to follow, yet I still longed for one thing: to embark on an expedition in Polar Regions. A real expedition! The wish did not just appear out of the blue, as it must seem to you now. I was already an experienced researcher. Father and I had been in Finnmark, a journey resulting in geological findings, dug and collected. In the previous few years we had spent the entire summer – June and July and most of August – making these small expeditions. If anyone knew what I was capable of, it was father, yet despite his unconditional trust, I dreaded to confess my greatest desire. He certainly thought it the Peak of Joy me being an intellectual woman, the fact that I loved to travel being the jewel of the crown. Yet, I doubted that he wished to send me off on strenuous, perilous journeys, with potential polar bears and encounters of all imaginable kinds, far too dangerous to even imagine. I did not just want to spend holidays doing research shrouded in mosquito swarms, heat and humidity. No, I wanted to make travels in the wilderness my life and livelihood! But would I just give up on a family, a home and the university, in exchange of a tent, a ship and a team of sweating, rough men? His imagined objections to this became a source of dilemma and frustration to me. Eventually I had to confide in father, as it had gotten harder and harder every day that went by in thought and suspicious silence – as I was normally very talkative.
One deep furrow in the lower part of his forehead was all I got from him. Then silence, endless silence, only interrupted by small coughs. As I recall it, the silence lasted for almost four weeks. Meanwhile, I guess father talked to mother, Magnus and his students. Yet, he did not utter a single word in my direction. Then one day, all of a sudden, a stream of words poured out of his mouth, as if all the unspoken words the past month had been dammed up to create a fountain of sentences. I only recall a single question, repeated over and over again: “Is this what you really want” or “Are you really sure this is what you want?” You should note which words he emphasises, Aurora. He needed a strong conviction from my part, a clear answer to both the questions. First, to if I had the desire, although I guess he knew I had already. Second – and this is what he thought the most important – to if I had the will, determination and strength to actually go through with it. This could easily have been turned into a battle – and easily have become a battle lasting a lifetime.
The sun is almost set, and this is enough writing for today. The doctor waits for me inside. You and I will continue the tale tomorrow. I will try to start off early, as I have so much I want to confide in you.
During the years that followed father helped me tremendously, yet he still pressed that the scientific discoveries had to come from my research alone. It was of great importance to him that I made some convincing scientific discovery on my own. Something so unexpected, so overwhelming, that the fact that I was a woman came in the shadow, completely insignificant, in light of the significant finding.
Crystallisation of different elements had been my subject for a long time already. Every day I spent hours bent over the microscope. Looking back, these years were the toughest of my life. I could feel how my body aged and became gradually more exhausted every hour and day that passed by. The only motivation was moments when something important, confirming or surprising appeared. I proved and disproved many a hypothesis, and after some time developed my own theory. I don’t want to dwell too much on the details here, as that will make every young girl impatient, dearest granddaughter. The details become more significant and of greater importance to the overall story later, in the years that followed.
One morning father said that he had been looking through my notes. He considered my hypotheses convincing, and that I had to systematise my research, the findings on crystallisation, and write an article that he could publish. Furthermore, that I should write a letter to one Dr. Westergaard, a renowned geologist, as he was planning a large expedition. The text had to explain what parts of the crystallisation theories I aimed to investigate further.
Father read the letter once it was written. I stood impatiently by his chair. I had leaped the stairs to the laboratory, one floor above my own research room, as it was simply impossible to put the matter to rest until after dinner.
An appreciative nod here and there, small chuckles and sharp, specific corrections with a hard pencil. “I made some corrections, yet all in all this paper looks very promising. You should transcribe it on the finest stationery. And then we will just have to hope this will do it for Gunnar as well.”
I smiled confidently as he handed me the letter. As I was on my way out of his study, he took hold of my arm.
“Just one thing; you must not sign the letter yourself, as we should avoid, by all means, that Dr. Westergaard knows that you are a woman, until he has acknowledged your theories and found you a worthy scientist. Let me sign.”
I looked puzzled, as I was bewildered. “But, father–”
“It his your only chance, Aline.”
Father, always sincere, sacrificed his own reputation and that of many of his acquaintances – accomplished fellow professors – to give me this one chance.
Today I feel a little unwell. My hands do not obey my will, and as you can tell, my pen scrawls messily. I wrote about cold hands once, and this is precisely how my old, tired hands feel today, even if the sun shines warm and it is spring. Today of all days, when I was about to start the tale of the best days of my life! I hardly want you to put away this pile of papers with a great yawn, so I think it wise to give you a small glimpse into my dearest journals: my diaries. They say something about me, about the restlessness that drives me, that has always driven me.
During the expeditions, I always kept a diary, yet I hardly had any time to write poetry. Still I brought the same notebook every time, hoping to get down a few small paragraphs. Underneath follow a few lines that I managed to scribble during my first journey to Svalbard:
Nights lengthen and darken. Days are turned into flickering glimmers. I sleep less and less every night. Where others resign, I take over. Yet first I experience times of distress. I find myself in a void between two phases, the wait as I gaze in the direction of something new. Others “aspire” in spring; they harvest as summer sets. In early spring I travel as much as possible, then I spend some time back home as summer begins, with deep, hibernating rest. As I rub my eyes, I am ready to pick ripe fruits, motivated for new tasks a bit sooner than everyone else. To me August is restless, the time before the waiting time.
These sentences were written on the ship. What follows as I turn the page, are more hasty observations, scribbled as the wind got hold of the tent and my fingers where white and dead cold after a long day outside:
Blood rushes restless, cold hammering towards my temple. The watery, numb sensation of real cold, everything else fades away. Simple tasks, one by one, conducted quickly in the cold of the wilderness. Fingers, red and chapped, run across tools and instruments, as not to get caught up by the cold, forever frozen. They forget what to grab hold of, what to hold onto, even how to open and close. Eyes seek new tasks. Blood rushing down my veins drives me. Hands swell up. Body aches and is torn. Wrists freezing, soon there is no strength left.
It may seem like exaggeration, as you are not there yourself, shivering crouched over the cold instruments. Yet, the accounts are far from it; in fact they are rather observations, simple facts, recorded rapidly.
As I flipped through the notebook, I found a small piece of paper stuck between the pages, a two-line addendum. A few years later, probably as I was at the laboratory, systematising journals and findings, I added, with sloppy handwriting in blunt pencil:
In such a numb state I made my first significant discoveries, and as I did so, I realised why the summer nights made me restless, as it finally was about to darken.
The doctor arrives to treat me, and today is the first time I have really felt I need it. Marina is here now, and wants to help me out of the chair, back into the warm cottage. Perhaps I should accept the kind offer. Let us continue tomorrow, Aurora.
What a beautiful morning! A stream of white fog slices the surrounding mountain peaks. This stripe continues as far as I can see, as if it carves a circle. Here, down in the valley, the sun is shining. I sit quite comfortably beneath my blankets. Marina has served me biscuits and coffee. Now I look forward to tell you about the events that followed:
The letter was signed by father, put in an envelope addressed to Dr. Gunnar Westergaard and sent to his house in Harald Hårfagres gate, not far from the Natural History Museum. You should go there and have a look some time, Aurora. For all I know, you may have been there a hundred times already. Let us put that matter to rest. Anyhow, a few days later I received a reply from Dr. Westergaard, inviting me for a stroll in the botanical gardens surrounding the museum. I recall how my hands started to sweat as I read. The paper was soaked with perspiration, and I feared the ink letters would drip off the paper and simultaneously slip from my mind. After a while my thoughts cleared up. The moment of relief soon became one of despair. This stranger, strict yet highly important for my future career, was still not aware of the simple facts. I am a woman! A refusal would have been better than an invitation!
Father was proud and did his best to prepare me for the events that were about to follow. All of a sudden the day had come. I dressed in my prettiest day dress and brought a small notebook. It would be useful if I became too nervous and did not know where to keep my hands. In these cases I could pretend that the conversation took an interesting turn, that he made such a good point, that I just had to scribble down his quote for future reference. This could well be the case with Westergaard, as he certainly was a wise and intellectual man.
The garden surrounding the museum is quite large, with a labyrinth of small paths. I placed myself by the well in the middle, the place where people usually meet. A man walked right past me. He looked occupied, clutching a pile of notes beneath his arm. I waited, while tapping my notebook. The same man returned. This time I noticed his height, or lack of it. He was not much taller than me. He wore a brown coat, black overshoes, gloves and a cap instead of a hat, this being quite peculiar as every man wore a hat back then. Yet aside from the hat, considering the way he was dressed and the way he contained himself, it was quite obvious that he was a gentleman of means. As I walked passed him, I could not help notice a second peculiarity: the binoculars around his neck. I coughed. He turned around and looked at me.
“Yes?” he said, slightly bothered, perhaps interrupted in a chain of thoughts.
“Excuse me, but are you looking for something? May I help? I could not help but notice that you passed me just a minute ago.”
He looked at me once more, a little friendlier this time, and continued. “As a matter of fact, I am on the lookout for something myself, as you may have guessed with these around my neck.” He held up the binoculars with an ironic, yet kind and apologetic smile. “Or someone is more correct. I was going to meet a Professor Normann Birkeland here. I guess you do not know him, so you must excuse me for bothering you.”
I wanted most of all to run away, but I restrained myself. “Yes, as a matter of fact I do. I am his daughter,” I mumbled.
“Oh, you don’t say! I imagined him as this young, adventurous gentleman, about your age. Well, well. Hah!”
These last words he had muttered mostly to himself, in astonishment, before he remembered my presence. “Miss, Birkeland?”
I bent my cheek to a nod and looked him straight in the eyes, as he continued.
“But then he must be older, and perhaps feeling a little frail today? So, he sent you instead, am I right? I guess I should offer him a position in my laboratory instead. His theories are astonishing, indeed! You must tell him that I hold him in high regard, how he speaks of differences in crystallisation depending on the elements investigated and how he also took their environmental conditions into consideration. Quite formidable! Amazingly innovative. Sadly, I cannot bring an elderly on the expedition. We do have enough with our cook. So, you must send him my kind regards and–” He halted, as if he had to consider the facts for a moment, before continuing the flow of words that he pouring onto me and down into the well next to us.
I interrupted him before he could say anything else. A woman is not supposed to interrupt under any circumstance, but he did stop talking, and after all, these were special circumstances. In fact it was a matter large as life.
“It is me who wants to come with you!” I heard myself shout. “The theories are mine. I am the one who wants to embark on an expedition! I made father sign, so that you at least would take the letter into consideration. Not even in my wildest imagination, did I hope for you to find my theories adequate, and further to send for me, take your time to meet me in person!”
Here our meeting came to an end. Mr Westergaard was so shocked that he turned his back on me and left. A couple of weeks later he came to see me in the laboratory, where I had kept myself idly uninspired more or less every day since the last time I saw him. He came straight in without knocking, placed himself right in front of my desk, fingers folded in a triangle in front of his face. “I have been thinking. You may join our expedition. The ship boards for Tromsø this fall. We need a new cook anyway. You may assist the crew and me whenever we are in need of your assistance. Whatever time that will be left, you may use to work with your own theories.”
My face glowed. I felt warm, shy and happy all at once.
“But if you do come up with something – a finding, an observation, anything – whatever you may find belongs to me. In fact, officially we do not have a cook. There will be no portrait made of you; your name will not be published: neither before, nor after the expedition. When we board the ship in Tromsø on the 15th of September at eleven, you will be already in the galley, waiting for us. Those are the conditions.”
My face felt colder, my smile had vanished, yet my body quivered with excitement. I was going on an expedition! I did have a few months to think through what I had accepted without a moment of hesitation. The very few I had confided in were quite shocked that I, as a woman, even considered the possibility of such a strenuous journey. Father was the only one who supported me in the matter and thought it not only acceptable, but highly respectable, to embark on such adventures, even though the terms set by Westergaard were hardly acceptable. To clarify to myself why I wanted to go, no matter what, I wrote a manifesto for the journey to Svalbard:
To me, life is journeys and experiences in the land of ice. To astonish – not only others but also myself – is far more important than to acquire fame, fortune or acknowledgement. Perhaps I am not as concerned in matters of society as I should be. Instead I am drawn towards the Polar; thus I compensate for ignorance in other fields, with an ever-growing eagerness for doing research among the ice caps. Yet – if anyone objects to my desires, or asks me to keep calm, I will highly object. Politics – women’s rights and social involvement – being reason and weapon!
As the departure approached, time passed with packing and preparations. The night before the big day, I boarded the ship, to spend the night there as Gunnar had insisted. He would not risk anything.
The first spectators arrived early. I was about to place myself in my cabin, when I heard the voice of a child: “Grandpa, where is everyone? When do they come? How many are they? Will they bring their dogs? Skis? Guns, even?” The boy was so eager that he talked both while inhaling and exhaling.
The grandfather seemed of the patient sort, always early. “They will be here soon. You wait and see. We did get here first, my lad. And do you know what that means?”
At this stage, the boy must have shaken his head, as I did not hear his reply.
“We caught the best spot! This it is not like in the theatre, where the size of your wallet determines whether or not you sit in the first row. Now, look – over there! Barrels of food, and my guess is, ammunition too.”
I heard his footsteps moving along the vessel. My thoughts wandered from what I heard from outside, from the opposite side of the hull, to what surrounded me in the cramped cabin. Dark wood and four narrow bunk beds with thin mattresses. I touched them, my suspicions being confirmed by the tight, airless texture against my cold fingertips: quite right, hard straw mattresses, indeed. A rifle hung on the wall, with surveying instruments to measure un-known territory, axe, chisels, hoe, rope and binoculars. Right above my ship chest hung a bulky washbasin and a tin cup for my coffee; everything as expected, so far. Then, at the lid of my chest lay a package the size of a fist, wrapped in brown paper with the inscription: To Aline. I opened it. It was a leather case and a folded piece of paper. I examined the paper first, a note written in blue ink:
This companion will guide you away from thirst and hunger, and may otherwise provide assistance in unpredictable situations, yet to come, that none of us can predict.
Dr. Gunnar Westergaard, Head of the Expedition.
I pressed the small pushbutton on the leather case. Its interior held a rectangular drinking glass, of similar shape to the case, only slightly smaller. Inside the glass was a knife with a folding bottle opener and nail file attached to the shaft, a spoon, and a fork. The cutlery had solid shafts made in bone, each with a small gap in the middle, so that the outer half could be folded into the shaft. This way the glass had room for the complete cutlery set, attached to a piece of leather so it did not rattle around. The gift made me aware how the entire cabin was furnished in similar ways; every object had its own place, attached to floor, ceiling or walls with solid clamps. Just like the cutlery, everything was placed as to not make a sound, not stand in the way of anything: nothing could rattle around, even in rough sea. I came to appreciate this more than anticipated. There is no room for mess, if a job is to be done on a ship in the swells of the Artic Ocean.
I noticed how there were more and more excited phrases shouted in my direction from the harbour. Grandfather and grandson were not alone anymore, as an entire spectacle came to take in the sight of an expedition bound for the Arctic. I envied the rest of the crew, marching across the landing, as their confident smiles and winks confirm how grand and major this journey really is. They got to feel the excitement among the crowd, to hear how much their efforts were appreciated even upon departure. Meanwhile, I was in the cabin, feeling nothing but my own anxious loneliness. What did I want to achieve on this journey? What could I achieve, when no one even knew I was exploring? After a while I feared there was a mob outside, ready to come in and get me: to haul the hidden, soon-to-be-exposed and thereby caught-in-the-act woman out of her hideout, drag her across the landing, to put her – this hideous hag that dared to dream of an expedition – on display at the harbour. Was she a rootless, reckless and restless gypsy? Oh, they chanted – yes. I have thought too many thoughts for too long, tormented, troubled thoughts. I still do think a lot, I think. By writing you this letter, I get to gather them all, forward them, and thereby pass them on.
These hopeless thoughts were paradoxically what made me behave completely without any thought of consequence.
At first I had not noticed the small, circular window on the wall between the gun and the binoculars. As I noticed it, I did not consider for a second what I was about to do. I got to my feet from where I sat in front of the chest, where I had until a quarter of a second earlier sat on my haunches, making myself as tiny as possible, folding long, shaking limbs, crouching my neck, half hiding my face between hard knee caps. Completely extended to full height and width, I leaped two long steps across the room to the small, smudged porthole. I peeped out.
I heard the coarse voice of a man: “Who’s that? In the cow’s eye?”
A second of silence elapsed as Westergaard – slightly in doubt and almost exposed, caught and unmasked, truth revealed – pulled himself together.
“Where?” He was confident, back to normal terms. “Oh, there in the porthole? It’s probably just Aline. She has assisted us, made the cabins neat and clean – ready for departure. There’s so much to arrange before such a long journey at sea, so terribly much indeed. Okeydokey, young gentlemen, let us all board the ship!”
A couple of hundred fare well, then a gloved hand lands firmly and strictly on my shoulder – Dr. Westergaard. “Oh, dear Lord, you almost pulled the trigger there, Aline. Now, there is only one way to solve this matter. You had better leave the ship and greet the masses, polite smiles and a crouched neck, so that no one becomes suspicious. Then we will pick you up at the headland there in half an hour – be on time!” He pointed westwards, towards a headland where swells smashed into white powdery masses of frothing foam. Then I had a backwards and upside down experience of the previous event. Where the others had bid their farewells, I had to utter my “good days”, with a false facial expression, polite and without expectation.
I looked down, as I walked calmly through the crowds. Anyone meeting any gaze would have seen that my eyes were beaming with excitement and fear. Finally I sprinted west towards the weathered headland.
On the first few days of the journey, homesickness and nausea consumed most of my time. I was a young lady all alone on board a ship, surrounded by men and huskies. I stumbled around between barrels of provisions, crates containing equipment, weapons and fuel, as I tried to be useful. At first, being useful turned out to be quite difficult. As Mr. Westergaard had told me, I was to be the cook, thus consigned to a daily life relating to pots and pans. I started to prepare food as soon as I found my sea legs. But what do you prepare from dried meat, fish, sugar and coffee? After two days a member of the crew, Audun Borg, showed me where the oats and wheat flour where kept. (I was never able to get past the polite way of addressing the rest of the crew, but I did so with Mr. Borg. Yet, Audun and I addressed each other with title and last name if anyone else were present.)
Now I could prepare porridge for breakfast and bread for supper. Perhaps it was just as well that the servings had been slightly sparse the first few days, as everyone thought the menu impeccable when sandwiches and oats were added to the staple diet. A week or so passed by, until Audun suggested that I might give everyone about fifteen grams of dried blueberries every day to prevent scurvy. Laughing, he then displayed the wooden crates filled with chocolate bars. Of course, I wondered why we had brought so much chocolate, as we barely had a single potato. Audun explained how chocolate could be used to prevent weight loss and acute hypoglycaemia. Further he explained how easily the body loses reserves on an expedition: “The body gets numb exposed to extreme cold. Before you know it, you feel that all strength leaves you. To avoid collapsing, and shape up in an instant, chocolate may help. In fact, it can be used as a medicine. Of course we could use sugar, as we have brought that anyway. The thing is, few manage to swallow sugar crystals in such a condition, and to boil water and make syrup will take too much time and demand too much effort if you’re all alone.”
Immediately, as Audun described sugar as crystals, my mind wandered to my own hypothesis on the phenomenon of crystallisation. The ice drifting around us on all sides was water that had been through a process of crystallisation. To examine the purest, most basic element and its properties in regards to that phenomenon in this perfect environment: that might be worth the effort? I ran back into my cabin to pick up my notebook from the shipping bag with the initials AVB. I scribbled a note: Water becomes ice. Crystallisation in Polar cold: Different conditions – gives difference in ice? Perhaps the phenomenon is obvious, yet not fully investigated.
Finally we made it across the sea, and I knew where I wanted to look for answers. We were surrounded by snow and ice. Everything that was not ice already became hard as ice in minutes or seconds, depending on the temperature and humidity at the time.
These expeditions made me forever cold. My own daughter is like a stranger to me; so is her daughter. To whom do I tell my story? Will you ever pass the tales on, or am I a stranger forever? Goodnight, my dear child.
Today I went skiing, being terribly unsteady. Still it did me good to be surrounded by mountains and blue skies, rather than to sit in a chair leaned against the wall of a cabin, witnessing the scene as audience overlooking the stage of a theatre, being unable to relate oneself to the performance. I was never any good at, and am still not good at, being the spectator. I want to stand in the centre. Yet, I am content to not be the centre of attention, as long as I get to decide my own actions and opinions.
While skiing, my thoughts wandered to the forgotten note from the expedition. This diary entry is more about the everyday, the trivial problems, than the others. Nevertheless, these trivialities shaped my second important turning point in life. Back in the small room here, I picked up my notebook, and found what I was looking for, at the very back of the book – a paragraph scribbled on a sheet of thin, fragile paper:
I never understood why every expedition ended with empty supply crates, in turn leading to empty stomachs and after some time malnutrition and scurvy. I always thought there to be certain limits to what one actually manages to devour in a single day. Then, it was only to multiply that amount by the number of persons and days, hardly complex mathematics or logic, rather a simple multiplication for a child at primary school. Now, however, I had felt the cold – how snow and frost forces the body into a state of constant movement. After one night’s sleep I am not well rested, rather cold, rather aching and weary after being crouched and shivering in a foetal position. My stomach is growling prior to the quick morning routine. We all eat more here. Breakfast consists of porridge, cured meat and coffee. We eat just enough to pull the sledge and move forward. The meals during the day are eaten quickly and in small portions. There is so much to do; it is cold to stand still, hard to eat with gloves on. In the evenings we have all been eating extra large helpings, more than usual, more than expected. We have prepared the food on the fire and finally we are warm enough to feel the hunger as appetite. Then after the long night we appease starving stomachs in the morning, with a ladle of soup or a big piece of bread.
There was too much effort, too little time in the ice pack, to closely study the phenomenon of ice crystallisation. I measured the density of samples of snow and ice, categorised them in an improvised catalogue. To collect sufficient material for a theory on the crystallisation of water in regards to environment, I needed as many and various samples as possible: in other words, more robustness in my work. I was not satisfied with the samples I collected. However, I did find something: some samples that lay the foundation for further research and most importantly the next expedition many years later.
This will need some explanation. You are the first I am telling about this finding, but first a short introduction: at a young age I considered myself a geologist. The interest in water and crystallisation came from my first discovery of crystals with “blobs” of water inside: small bubbles of liquid within a seemingly solid crystal. More scientifically said: certain minerals incorporate water pockets in their crystalline framework. Upon heating the water vapourises, but often the crystalline properties get lost – meaning the crystal morphs. I saw this for the first time in a bright blue copper sulphate crystal. It was pure divinity in a very small scale. My entire world was narrowed down to that barely visible bubble within the bright blue. Father had made this crystal, and now I wanted to see for myself how and where this happened in the world outside.
It was the beauty of stones and further crystals that made me want to become a geologist first, and a glaciologist later, once I realized the pure beauty of crystals was found in the most fragile crystals of them all: the ones partially or completely formed by water.
Back on that boat with my young self and Dr. Westergaard: our final destination was the outer edge of the Arctic ice pack. The pole itself was out of reach, but the Polar got a grip on us. We sailed through the New Siberian Islands, a place that the other crew mainly considered a waiting place until we reached our final destination. Dr. Westergaard did not give me too many tasks. I was free to explore on my own. I took samples of water and sand from the lakes of Belkovsky Islands, where winter storms hurl salt water on land, so that both glaciers and lakes are partly salt. From the turquoise colour of the lakes, I gathered they contained both copper sulphate and algae. One cold morning, in early September with winter already in the air, I found a shallow lake completely frozen. I screwed down a metal tube in the ice, to extract a core. I did the same four times, circumnavigating the small lake; doing samples north, south, east and west. I left them to thaw up on deck. Three of them dissolved into puddles that I had to wipe up. The fourth one, the one extracted from east, where the lake was closest to sea, left some small green and white opaque crystals. I gathered them up and into a glass tube, attempting to maintain a careless expression as I did so.
I never showed Dr. Westergaard. I had been left with two choices: to find something, which meant to let him find something, or not to find anything. So I did not find anything.
Instead, I found Audun.
Tomorrow I will tell you about my second expedition. But first I will need some rest.
Many years had gone by since my arrival home from Gunnar Westergaard’s expedition, when I embarked on my second expedition. Meanwhile I had married Audun, your grandfather. Your mother had been born seven months after we came back home and by now she had grown into a strong, independent girl. This part of the story I am sure you know already, and many others can fill in the gaps with far more interesting and amusing details than me. Last night, as I sat here at the terrace to enjoy the sunset, certain events from the nine years that passed between the two expeditions kept coming back to me, tales worth telling, stories that could be of great importance to you:
After giving birth to your mother, I drifted around as if in a mist. If I spent time alone I longed for the ice, yet as soon as I set eyes on my dearest daughter once again, the fog broke and I felt joyous. She needed me, I needed her, yet she needed more than I could give, she demanded more love from me than I had. In a life that was all about exciting explorations and great adventures, it was hard to settle and be happy, to feel contented as one did housework and followed routines. For me it was impossible. Luckily Agathe was a quiet girl; I simply brought her with me to the laboratory at the university. I installed her in her own little nook. Equipped with pencils, paper, scissors and glue, Agathe could keep busy for hours. In other words, she was more easily contented than her mother. As she got older, from about the age of five, she became more restless. To keep her busy, I gave her pipettes, small bottles and test tubes. She also had a magnifier for small expeditions in the gardens. She would wander around, sometimes for an hour, other times for only a few minutes. She would come suddenly rushing back inside, to be reassured that I had not left her. She was always afraid that I might leave her, to embark on an expedition. Perhaps she felt that the adventures in the ice had been more important to me than she was? If she came across anything of interest on her small expeditions, she would come rushing back inside to show me. If I did not take a closer look at the findings immediately, she would break into temper tantrums. As soon as I gave her the attention she longed for, she would calm down. Her demanding mood would change as abruptly as it had started. She would glance at me, worried, polite, where I sat as if under a spell. She would ask me the same question five times. I still wouldn’t answer her. Then I would look into her deep green eyes, reassuring her that I would not go anywhere. When she became a grown girl, with no need for her mamma to tie her laces, ribbons and bows, read books aloud and comb her hair, perhaps I would travel back north once more. I could tell that my honesty kept her content for now. Yet, Agathe did see my restlessness.
When Agathe came back home after her first day at school, she announced that I might just leave north again this instant. She had just learned how to tie her shoelaces, with a double knot. “Miss Dahl told me we will learn to read soon too – pappa can be in charge of the rest for a while?” I answered that she was a good girl, but that I would not leave her just yet.
Agathe’s precocious decision made me think of the opportunities we had. Still I did worry about why she wanted me to leave all of a sudden, the girl who until recently had worried herself sick fearing that I might leave her. Did she utter this comment only to get praise and attention? Did she prefer her father to take care of her? I also did as a child. I had previously never offered it a single thought, yet now I realised it did something to me.
Audun had settled more back home than I had. He did not long for explorations as much as I, even though I knew he would love to experience the life of cold, snow and adventures once again. Despite the implied challenges, I decided to plan a new expedition, heading north, to the Arctic regions. I wanted to bring Agathe and Audun with me. We knew a family of Norwegian-Russian descent that had settled in the town of Grumant, in Svalbard. They agreed to short-term fostering of Agathe, providing her with the food and lodging and – of far greater importance – the love and care she needed, through the winter. A partly Russian, partly Norwegian family was highly unusual at that time. Mr. Peter Vladimir had been working as an interpreter in Finnmark. When he arrived from across the border, he did not have any place to stay. There was a housing shortage, so he ended up sleeping in a tent. Anna, being the oldest of nine sisters, was watching over the reindeer herds, and discovered a tent in the middle of the tundra. She wanted to chase whoever was in the tent, or more precisely underneath the tarp. She bravely pulled the tarp aside, and underneath she discovered a man sleeping on his back, in a neat overcoat. They started talking, and Anna brought him back to her family’s house. There, over a coffee, Mr. Vladimir convinced Anna’s father to sell him a piece of land. It was no tough negotiation, as the family was in need of money. At the plot stood a small shed, but it did not take long until a grand house stood next to it. Even Anna’s father, who was not easily moved, and had been sceptical to the Russian interpreter at first, was deeply impressed. When the house was finished, Mr. Peter Vladimir proposed to Miss Anna Oline.
That summer I went with father to Finnmark for the very first time. By chance we put up our tent on the pasture of Miss Anna Oline too. First she was strict and reserved. When we explained about our scientific purposes, she was more hospitable. She told us how many strangers sneaked around on her property to harass her Russian husband. Father demanded that this should end in an instant! It was too big a task for one single man to get the people of Finnmark to accept the Russians, but at least he got them to make an exception and accept Mr. Peter Vladimir. He wrote an article in the local newspaper, where he accounted for the importance of an interpreter to keep good communication across the border. He wrote about the tasks of an interpreter in general terms, and I guess it made people think. As Peter spoke Norwegian and was married to a woman of Sami descent, I guessed that eventually people would forget that he was born in Moscow. Father’s article made the wheels turn faster. When Peter Vladimir and Anna moved to Grumant, the tables were turned, as Anna had to be a good Russian housewife in a Russian mining town.
Grumant is situated on the side of a bay. The coal was transported to the ships by a narrow-gauge railway with one single wagon, a railway made purely for the purpose of transporting coal. Audun always joked about there being room for Agathe in the wagon too. “So, if we want to come back for you when there’s a storm coming, they can load you in at the top of the hill, and you’ll simply be sent with coal and other goods back down to our luxurious ship, waiting in the bay!” he said as he pinched her nose and twisted it halfway around. He had decided to travel forth with the expedition crew for a month or so, until he would settle in a hunter’s cabin to make his own meteorological observations.
How Grumant was situated in relation to the surroundings proved essential when Audun and I decided to leave Agathe there for a few months. If Vladimir and Anna had lived in a more remote area, further away from Longyear, we could have faced the risk that the ice never melted that spring. If their home was too far to reach by dog sledge in unstable weather conditions, we might not have been able to reach the destination in time, and Agathe would have been left without us for another winter – until the ice went away the following summer. It was unbearable to even think of this as a possible outcome. It would have been hard for her to forgive us, and even harder for me to forgive myself.
This expedition was mine, the terms were mine and the goals were mine; yet even so, papers had to be signed by someone else, signed with another name. This time it was not my father that had to lend me a helping hand, but my husband Audun. Such a compromise was hard to swallow. If I had called for proposals to the expeditions and signed the adverts with my name, many eminent scientists would simply not have considered the request appropriate nor professional. As mentioned in the manifesto I wrote many years prior to this expedition: if politics had been my greatest interest, I would bombard them with counterarguments. However, I kept science much closer to my heart. Dig, pick, collect and measure as much as I like, without chitchat or discussion.
We all left; Audun, Agathe and me – as well as the five male members of the crew – on a fully loaded ship. First we went to Tromsø, then our journey continued to Svalbard. We had left Bergen by the end of April – as I had set as a goal – to complete the construction of a brand new scientific base camp in time for winter. As Audun joined us crossing the North Sea both ways, we had sufficient time then to explain to the crew that even though the ship left the coast of Norway with Audun as skipper, it was to me they should address inquiries concerning findings, logs and scientific results.
We left Tromsø, the ship surrounded by a delightful, sunny breeze, holding promises of spring. It was wonderful to be an official member of an expedition! I could stand there, Agathe’s small hand in mine, Audun’s hand rested on my shoulder, as we waved goodbye to the crowd that cheered us along on our prosperous adventure! Of course, it was not as many as when we were bound for the same destinations under the command of Dr. Westergaard. We were not such a great and well-advertised expedition. Yet, this felt a thousand times better; my heart beat as fast, but more steadily than nine years back!
Once we had all arrived safely aboard the ship, many questions were asked, but Agathe got most of the attention and spared me from many a question. Most of the crew had children back home, and one by one they were caught by her charm in the role as scientist in her very own lab, created in the upper bunk bed. Especially Mr. Asle Jacobsen seemed to enjoy Agathe’s company as much as she enjoyed his. He taught her about aurora borealis, the midnight sun, polar bears and Arctic foxes. He explained to her how all instruments and belongings had an assigned place on the ship, like I had noticed myself during my first expedition. He gave her a tin box of nails. “You can decide how everything should be arranged up there. You are the scientist and chief of the upper bunk!”
Mr. Jacobsen was a cheery, well-mannered, friendly gentleman. He immediately acknowledged me as leader, and gradually the attitude spread to the other four men. He had also been a part of Gunnar Westergaard’s expedition, and knew both Audun and me well. He was an outstanding zoologist, making astonishing discoveries in Svalbard and Northern parts of Norway, revealing undiscovered species of bird on every single expedition. He had researched the social behaviour of seals, through a meticulous way of observing them close by, that few others would’ve had the patience to conduct. He had spent months alone at a hunter’s cabin, most of the days – and nights – sitting in a tent by the shore, to make the seals get used to him and accept his presence. After some time he became like a member of the pack, and the other seals did not jump any more when they noticed him, than they did if they met another seal.
During the days spent at sea, we asked Asle to teach Agathe about what he would describe as: The animals of Svalbard – entertainment and endangerment we may come across on our journey. Unsurprisingly, yet highly amusingly, Agathe became a young animal expert, with seals as her main subject.
We went directly to the bay close to Grumant, where Agathe was going to stay with our friend Mr. Peter Vladimir and his wife Anna. They had a son one year older than Agathe. His name was Nils, and he spoke Norwegian, with a beautiful singing Sami accent, as his mother was from Lapland.
I dreaded for the day to come when I had to say my goodbyes to Agathe, but it was quite touching to observe her as she went straight over to Nils, who looked at her shy and restrained. Agathe was happy to finally meet someone her age after weeks at sea, yet for Nils it took a while longer to reciprocate the trust. “He has seen himself as a person of small stature with a long life ahead of himself. There are no other children in this town.” Peter had said.
Very few of the workers of Grumant brought their children. Peter brought his family, as he had to stay here much longer than what was required of a regular mining worker, as he was one of the people in charge of constructing and establishing, and later facilitating and maintaining, the mining town. The coal company allowed him to bring both wife and child, as they hoped for him to stay for as long as possible. Peter taught Agathe and Nils mathematics, construction, engineering and Russian. After some time Agathe and Nils spoke Russian when they played together. Agathe always had a good ear for languages, so the fact that she later became an interpreter and translator by profession, was not too much of a surprise, yet it highly pleased me.
I always wonder how much Agathe remembers from those days spent in Svalbard. The journey lasted for about two years. That is quite some time: a quarter of a life, for an eight-year-old child. She was eight when we left and ten when we returned to Bergen. She had lost all her milk teeth during the time spent away from home. Perhaps you can ask her to tell you about Grumant? I am sure it would be considerably more exciting if she gave you a synopsis. Tomorrow I will tell you about the time spent on the ice among men.
Good morning, Aurora! I completely forgot to introduce you to the crew. Here is a list I made prior to the expedition, with an overview of their professions and expertise. They all fulfilled the tasks expected, so I see no reason to change or alter the list:
Aline Victoria Birkeland is the leader of the expedition, educated both as chemist and geologist with crystallisation as her main area of expertise. (On the list of crew presented to the public I am the chemist; the leader of the expedition is my husband Audun Borg.)
Asle Jacobsen is educated as a zoologist. He will research the social behaviour of seals. Earlier he observed their behaviour at one specific site, by the Hunter’s Cabin on Austfjordneset. He is interested in changes that may arise according to site. Sea currents, temperature, the width of the bay and so forth, may affect the behaviour of the seals. In addition he will hunt, thereby augmenting our food supplies with fresh and cured meat. He will also be resourceful observing the animals surrounding us at all times, and further decide whether they pose as endangerment or entertainment, as he puts it himself.
Nilas Hætta was born and raised on Finnmarksvidda, accustomed to cold climate from a young age. He has customised our accommodation to the extreme conditions, providing tents made specifically for our expedition, and will be in charge of setting camp and packing the tents as we proceed. Nilas is an excellent skier, and the most knowledgeable when it comes to snow as a surface for transportation and habitation. As he puts it himself: “You learned to crawl on the floor of your living room. I never crawled. It was too crowded for that sort of activity in the tent and freezing in the snow outside. I stood up and walked instead. Then they gave me a pair of skis.”
Terje Johannes Thingstad is a chemist and will assist Mrs. Birkeland to collect samples of ice. He is highly interested in nutrition, and has been of great assistance in procuring food supplies prior to departure. He has also preserved food for us: dried, lyophilized and canned.
Olav Vaage Isachsen is chemist and mathematician. His academic expertise lies in analysing various systems. He will assist me systematising samples of ice, a method that will enable us to find the density and quality of specific crystal types, in relation to water quality: whether freshwater, brackish water or sea water, depending on wind and air humidity among other indicators.
Henrik Hammer is our deckhand, so will have many practical tasks among his duties during the crossing. In addition, he is in charge of everything that gets loaded on-board, and will see to all crates, ensure that everything is securely placed and fastened, so that the ship is balanced before the strenuous sea journey.
Nilas, Terje and Aline share the responsibility for cooking.
Andrej Bolsjov and his wife Tanja will also be aboard during the crossing, as guests. Andrej owns a coal company in Coles Bay, which is close to Grumant. They will disembark at the same time as Agathe. The purpose of their journey is primarily to tend to their own business and their workers, as well as an amusement trip, excitement and diversion for the wealthy couple. Andrej Bolsjov finances half the expedition with the generous contribution he has provided.
Today I felt well enough for a small excursion. It was wonderful to be back among the mountains once again. I enjoy traveling by dog sled, but I must admit, I do miss longer trips on skis all by myself, in complete solitude. The endless, eternal, silent snow and the rhythmical, yet quiet beat of the skis as they slide through the white land. I really look forward to spend the rest of the day, until it gets chilly out here, telling you about the expedition:
During the Arctic summer, the rest of us sailed to Siberia and further to the southern edge of the ice. If the weather allowed it, and we did not risk the ship becoming entrapped in the ice, we would then travel by skis and dog sled across parts of the ice. This was on my request, as I strongly wished to see whether the quality of the snow and ice changed where there was no land beneath the ice.
We experienced a summer unusually free of ice, so we soon arrived in Siberia. Despite our good fortune, we realised time was short if we wanted to carry on all the way north to the polar ice, continue further north with the dogs, and get back to our boat in time to return to Grumant by sea. If our good luck persisted, we may have completed this in time to spend winter in Grumant, yet there was risk of the ship being trapped in ice. Then we would´ve had to fetch Agathe in Grumant by dog sled. We would be running a great risk, taking her along on the journey returning to the ship. And if we managed to get her safely, she would only join us in our hibernation, arriving at a ship that could not move an inch, trapped until the ice hopefully thawed up the next spring.
Over the years, as already mentioned, there were so many hard decisions to make. The decision I was about to make here would lead to more tears than any of the others, a great deal of loss and despair. Even so, it was me that made the final decision: we would spend the winter in Siberia. This meant that Agathe had to spend the winter in Grumat.
In March, as the polar nights finally lost their grip, our plan was to advance further north by dog sled and skis. We intended to return to Grumant during the Artic summer. This meant we would be almost six months behind schedule, meaning six months later than what we had promised Agathe.
Audun had been warned there was a slight risk the plan may fail, and had agreed to leave the hunter’s cabin in February whether we had returned to meet him with the ship or not. Alternatively, he would travel by dog sled to Grumant, where he would stay with Vladimir, his family and our dearest Agathe. I knew this was a tough and strenuous journey, where one wrong decision could mean death. Uncertainty tormented me every night, as the cold crept inside me and prevailed whether I slept in a boat or a tent, wrapped in a blanket, a sheepskin or the warmest overcoat. One night I dreamed Agathe was standing in the snow in her nightgown, her mouth toothless, while Audun lay behind her in the snow. He was more dead than alive, yet his chest raised and lowered itself. It was not the bear that had caught him, as there was not a single red spot in the completely white plain.
We did not leave the ship at Severaya Zemya off Siberia, as originally planned. When spring arrived, we took the risk of sailing all the way to the edge of the ice, and left the boat deliberately to be trapped in the ice. This enabled us to bring all equipment required. From here we made numerous journeys on dog sled, and shorter trips on skis. Often I went alone, even though I preferred to bring Mr. Thingstad. He proved himself lazy and with no ambitions, and simply refused to come with me when it was too cold or damp outside. Much to my delight, Asle came with me instead. He proved himself useful when I wanted to cut out large blocks of ice. He was strong like a bull – or strong like a polar bear! Once he helped me to drag a block of ice from far northwest of the ship, all the way back. The way the ice was layered in patterns there fascinated me. Some layers were transparent, others consisted of small crystals shaped like needles, whereas others again were full of small bubbles of air. I wanted to transfer the different shapes onto paper and test the breaking strength of the ice as I hammered on it using a chisel. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon, so I placed myself on deck and started to draw the layers. After dinner there was still daylight outside, as it was midnight sun season, but I discovered that the piece of ice I thought would be turned into water by now, looked like it was not yet completely melted. White blocks of various sizes were lying around on deck. As I got closer, I discovered that the blocks consisted of the most astonishing crystals! I picked one up. It was not cold at all. I collected all the crystals and brought them back into the cabin. I placed them in the bunk above mine. I was reminded about Agathe – for once she was not already in my mind – as this used to be her berth. The small research station of hers was still intact, and now, I had to smile at the thought of it; she would have been really proud to know that I found her lab useful too.
The next morning I rose out of bed so quickly that I felt lightheaded. I spent a couple of seconds pulling myself together. I tiptoed to look up on the bunk. The crystals were still intact. What could they be? I smelled one of them. It smelled faintly of sea, and then I licked it. It was a salt crystal! The cold and the pressure from the ice had made it hard as stone. I had never seen such large and shiny crystals! One was as big as a yarn ball, nearly circular, with sharp crystals splayed out in all directions, like a sea urchin.
I wanted to go somewhere else and see if I could find any more crystals of similar character. Maybe they would be slightly different? What was the origin of the salt? Perhaps the ice was so thin that the saltwater was drawn upwards from the sea below?
I convinced Asle to come with me, together with four dogs and a big sled. We hammered out a new block, sawing and drilling even deeper this time. Back on the ship, I melted the block by the fire. It disappeared completely. There were no crystals. Asle was patient as ever, but gently told me that he had something important to do and returned to his studies. I went down into the cabin to take a closer look at the crystals. I stared at them until it was time to go to bed.
The following morning I went back on my own. And the day after, and the day after. I lost track of the days watching blocks of ice as they melted, in numerous locations and by different methods: on deck, in the sun, by the fire. Weeks passed by. There was a result: no crystals, just puddles of water.
Gradually I felt safer in the landscape, and drove further and further onto the ice. Moreover, every day I brought a block from deeper down. One day I went in the same direction as the very first – straight north. I went further than ever before and found a site where I dug a deep hole. A block was hauled out: the biggest block, from the deepest hole. If there was no result this day, through this effort, the first finding had to be considered as something inexplicable, a mysterious anomaly. More patient now, I left the block on deck, as I did when it was sunny. It was a cloudy, misty and cold day.
The following morning I got up early. On deck lay scattered crystals! The largest was even larger than the one I found the first time, and it had the same circular shape. I noticed something dark in its centre, like a tiny furred animal, or a wad of dark moss. What could it be? I brought the collection of crystals down to the cabin, to compare the new findings with the ones I had made earlier. I had not inspected them for at least a week, having almost given up hope to solve this mystery: instead spending hours with Mr. Isachsen to synthesize more ordinary findings into a table. (Do not tell anyone, but Mr. Isachsen was a real stick-in-the-mud. I had to concentrate not to fall asleep, as he went about with his explanations on the subject.) As for the systems, the only thing I knew for certain was the existence of crystals of salt. Whether as salt and other minerals, or as samples of ice – I could not tell yet.
I climbed the small ladder to the top bunk to inspect the new crystals. As my face reached the upper bunk, eyes fixed on the crystals, I realized that many of them were broken. They had become porous, more like regular salt crystals. Their hard surfaces had been weakened. It was too hot for crystals in the cabin! I ran up on deck to save the newest discovery. My mind was set on the largest crystal with the dark, almost hairy centre. I looked at the crystals, perplexed. It was still there, yet slightly to the right of the other crystals. What could I do to preserve it? I went back into the storage space where we kept provisions and picked up an empty tin box. I brought it back up on deck and ran to get a chisel and hammer form the toolbox beneath my bunk. I put it all on a sled. Time was too short to buckle up the dogs.
As soon as I got onto the ice I removed a block the size of the box. Then I ran back to the ship, as quickly as I could while pulling the sledge. The block did not fit into the box, so I had to scrape some of the hard ice off all sides. Then I hammered a hole in the block and lowered the crystal carefully into the hole. I picked up the cutlery set I had received from Dr. Westergaard on the first expedition. I opened it and took hold of the spoon, a nice little tool appropriate for digging. I wanted to fill the small air pockets between the snow and the crystal. I lifted the crystal back up, and while carefully holding the spoon with my left hand, brushed some snow into the hole. I placed the crystal on top, and covered it with some more snow. I had considered using seawater at first, but then realised that if it froze around the crystal, it could destroy its natural shape, as the salt in the water may form new crystals on the outside of the round crystal or – even worse – that the water could dissolve and morph the original crystal.
I was quite relieved! For now, I had been able to save this one, unique, finding. Yet, there was an obstacle – we were about to set sail, heading back south, the next morning. Where should I keep it? It would get too much attention on deck, and, worse, break. I decided to fasten it on the outside of the hull. I remembered the nails and the hammer Asle had given Agathe. Could they still be there in the upper bunk, in the small toolbox? On my way down the stairs I almost collided with Asle.
"I must say, you really are racing today!"
I had no time to answer, as I ran straight past him back to my own cabin. Fumbling with my hand across the top bunk, I knocked a crystal, which fell and shattered into scores of tiny crystals as it hit the floor. I was too preoccupied with my new finding to give this much thought. I needed a few pieces of wood to reinforce the box containing the crystal. I ran down into the hold, in search of the leftover driftwood from when we completed the research station. After bringing some small planks up the ladder, I took a closer look at the exterior of the ship. The plan was to attach the box to the hull, up high, to avoiding it being smashed by the swell. I chose to secure it to the exterior wall near my own cabin, as it was back by the stern, where the waves hit with less power than further forward. The box was also secured with a rope from the stern railing above, because Hætta said bad weather was coming. I could guard my treasure, as it was visible from the little porthole if I leaned firmly against the wall.
We indeed experienced bad weather during the crossing home. . I was glad that the box was fastened doubly. But soon enough it managed to loosen itself from the solid mounts, and began swinging on the long rope attached to the railing! I dashed out to bring the box up on deck and tie it there. Nobody did ask why it was there. We had all gained a mutual respect for each other during the long journey. The others had probably realized that the box contained something of great importance to me – and further that I would have revealed the content if I wanted them to know about it.
Insufficient food and daylight, yet plenty of waves, frost and wind; that was life crossing through the inhospitable Siberian waters back to Spitsbergen. You may think I'm abrupt when I say: Enough said about the matter! Yet, nothing of great importance happened. There's an awful lot else I've skipped and pushed aside, as it must be when a lived life is summarised in the form of a letter. If I should tell it all, I would have needed to start writing down my memoirs many, many years ago. If I started after this expedition, it could have been a book or two by now, and a great book too! Let's venture further – while I still can.
As we reached Grumant, the Arctic summer was already long gone. I was happy, sad, nervous and excited – all at once – as I wandered tired and battered towards Peter Vladimir's house. Peter opened the door, beamed a happy smile and embraced me with tears of joy. In the kitchen sat Nils, Audun and – I had to take a second look to be sure – Agathe. She was shy and did not walk up to me right away. She stared at me with big, dark eyes. Audun stretched out his arms, but he did not rise! I suddenly realized that he had his reasons, as his leg looked severely injured. He was unable to walk. Then it struck me: we would have to stay put until spring. Agathe ran straight to me and threw herself into my arms. I wanted with all my heart to comfort her, to give her a warm hug, but she changed her mind and refused to hug back. She broke free from my embrace, looked at me with dark eyes, then turned her back to me and shouted,“what took you so long? How could you let pappa travel all the way over here alone? He was two weeks late. He was close to dying! I thought you were dead too, before...” – she was hysterical, as she turned and stared back at me – “ ...until he told me that you had lied to me. That you knew it could be like this from the very beginning.”
I was hurt, and realized what she had been through, but I managed to hold my tears back. The expedition had been a necessity for me. This was the first of many arguments to come between the two of us. Agathe blamed me for the accident: Audun had been thrown off the sled as the dogs led him over a steep mountain pass. I agreed with her. My husband would walk with a limp for the rest of his life. Audun had sacrificed his foot in order to support me and reach Agathe in Grumant. I tried to explain to her that my life was divided in two. I loved her, yet I had such an inexplicable urge towards the icy wilderness.
Through many long conversations in family Vladimir’s living room, we got back on terms, got to know each other once again. Yet I do not think she felt that she knew me as she did before I left. I had failed. While I was away, Agathe had lost all her milk teeth. It made me realize how long I had been away from her, how much of her life I had missed. She opened gradually, confided in me, told me more and more about the life with the Russian family. I wanted to confide in her, too. I told her about the crystals that did not melt and showed her the box. She went reluctantly aboard the boat with me, where I showed her the crystals lying in her upper bunk. I explained how they had become porous as they were exposed to heat. Then I asked her to show me somewhere safe, where we could bury the box. I had realized that the crystal finding had to be hidden in the cold.
Agathe took hold of my hand and dragged me up the hillside behind Grumant, where she knew a safe spot. “It is mine, and I will remember it forever, mamma,” she said. We had to dig that day, as the frost could return any time soon. I used a chisel to penetrate the upper layer of frost.We dug as deep we could, but it was probably less than a metre to the completely frozen tundra. I lowered the box into the hole, then we packed the earth back into place.
I noted the site by map and compass and covered the excavated, dark soil with a rusty metal plate that I had picked up on our way up the slope. I stood there, staring into the ground and said my goodbyes. Agathe hugged me. It was the first real embrace she had given me since my return. She bent down to look into my eyes as I sat on the ground her dark eyes looking into mine. “Mother?”
I looked down at her.
She stuttered a bit, as she continued, “will you ever leave me again?”
I shook my head. “No, my dearest sweetheart, the two of us will return back home now, together.” I tried to hide how much it hurt to leave my major finding behind, hidden beneath the ground. If it had not been for Agathe, I would settle close by and watch over the crystals, prevailed until the world was ready for me to reveal the finding. We were lucky. The following night, the cold struck with full force. The morning after, everything was covered in snow – and if you had not known, it would have been impossible to tell that anyone had been digging up the ground.
Advent, Christmas and Easter. The entire winter was a long wait for those of us who were going home. For the first time in my life I felt that it was okay to wait. My body needed rest.
During the crossing home, Agathe enquired about the box on several occasions, always referring to it as the second treasure of mine. I had to assure her that she would come with me the day it would be retrieved, a promise I still plan to keep; yet I want you to be involved too, Aurora! You have been part of the plan ever since you were born into this world. I chose your name, Aurora Iselin, after the northern lights and polar ice. It was quite hard to persuade your mother, as I had failed when I left the family once again. Her dream was no longer to be a scientist like me, but rather an interpreter like Peter. As she longed for her mother and father, she had turned to Anna and Peter. Now she missed them, and preferred turning to the written word, rather than to speak up. Russian, French and English, hours and hours spent bent over books: dictionaries as well as great literature. She translated even better than she interpreted. She was like a daughter of Peter Vladimir.
Agathe inherited her stubbornness from me. I hope you have it in your blood too, so that you manage to persuade her to come with us. You need to play you cards right – curiosity and adventure that is – I never told her about the dark centre of the crystal sphere, so make her curious. If she decides that she wants to find out, she will never give up.
The hillside behind Grumant has the geographical coordinates 78° 10' 40" N, 15° 07' 45" E.
Look for a rusty plate. Dig up whatever might be there. Try to get your Mother to unveil her own memories in the process.
That autumn, as we were reunited in Grumant just before winter returned once more, Agathe’s accounts of her journeys with Nils were full of life and wonder. Yet, after we returned home, she rarely mentioned Grumant at all, as if not only the crystal, but also the journey was one great secret aside from reality.
Bring forth this discovery and its history, show it to the world, immediately if you consider society ready. With the story, you should probably introduce me, and as part of the introduction you will need to shed some light on your own stories: how has your journey progressed towards this goal? Please write a log and keep a diary. If you are not careful with how and where the finding is presented, it can easily disperse into the scientific discoveries of your contemporaries. Much has happened in the scientific field since I hauled something up to the surface, only to dig it back down into the ground. Perhaps someone can explain to you and the rest of the world, what I found exactly sixty years ago. Yet, some wonders of the world are unexplained phenomena. Until now, no one else has ever found such crystals. I have followed every scientific report related to the Arctic and Polar regions. Even though I have not been able to watch over the crystal, I have watched over the phenomenon.
Ever since I was a young girl, coming across some white stones in the garden, I have always wondered how they ended up there. My wonderment grew stronger when I discovered crystals of ice, and it has never lost its grip. It never let go of me. I never let go.
I do hope, and I like to believe, that this wonderment has rubbed off on you, and that you will choose to travel. Good luck on your journey, my only, my dearest granddaughter!
Do what you desire in life. Venture where you want to.
Wishing you all the good in the entire world.
Your mother's mother,
Aline Victoria Birkeland.