ArtView May 2015 - Page 41

Arctic mountains have created some of the loveliest abstract shapes I have seen in nature. If the landscape isn’t strange enough, the history of human exploration, determination and settlement in the hostile environment of the Hi gh Arctic is baffling and impressive. (I encourage everyone to read some of the myriad books devoted to the subject, where ships get crushed in the ice and people are eaten by polar bears). We were lucky to visit the Russian ghost town of Pyramiden. Because Svalbard is an international territory it isn’t owned by any one country, which means several countries have settlements or research facilities there. Pyramiden was a coal mining town, mothballed in 1998. There are 5 people (6 if you count the statue of Vladimir Lenin) that live there year round to keep an eye on the place. It used to be home to 800 people, which would be a giant city on this archipelago. The interiors still have photos of residents, the basketball court displays the final game’s score on its board while a lone basketball rests on the floor, the cinema projector is threaded with film, a pommel horse waits in the center of the floor ready for the next young athlete, and dead potted plants line the cafeteria walls. They provide an eerie reflection of the aspirations of all the people that have tried to live there before. The true residents of Svalbard are the ones that have lived there for millions of years: the polar bears, reindeer, arctic foxes, seals, walruses and birds. We were fortunate to see all the large animals except the polar bears who were hopefully on the east side of the archipelago digging maternity dens. Their numbers are decreasing due to shrinking summer sea ice and chemicals (e.g. PCBs and DDT) in the seal meat that they eat. By far the most charming sight was the herds of walruses – animals so odd looking that they must be another trick by Mother Nature. Weighing 9001500kg (2000-3,300lbs) each, they are awkward moving around on their flippers on land. Their tusks seem too big for their relatively small heads, perched so far on top of their bodies that they appear as an afterthought. When in the water all that can be seen