Place Where You Live:

Gamvik, Norway

Nordkyn. Speak this name and save it.

This is the knife edge of a continent. You will find kindness here, the raw hospitality of a sliver of land caught between the fjells and the sea.

Beyond the surf, the surging fin of a whale, the constant echo of a ground truth. A scramble for survival, a celebration of every minute lived. So you stop and watch. For there is detail here. You spot the grey and white of a rock ptarmigan, or the first blush of a cloudberry among the cottontail. Your own small fire.

I live in the old bakery for the summer. It’s a yellow house on the verge of collapse. Most of the houses eventually yield to the intransigent laws of this climate. Not the cold, but the lashing wind and the frequent rain. Rain is kin to this land. The walls weep blacks stains where the rain seeps in through the woodwork. A ghost of water materializing as rot. Moisture clouds the ceilings, a shroud of silent rain.

Downstairs is the tack room where I keep the saddles for the horses and the firewood. When they announce hurricane winds I tie rope to the doorhandle so it doesn’t slam open. I keep the reindeer skins and the precious old books upstairs in a chest in the attic, to keep them dry. There is an old set of crockery and a photo album belonging to the previous owners. I have never met them but I can retrace their residence here in the atmosphere of their legacy, the scripture of random objects.

From my bedroom window I can see the formations of Grytvasshøda and Steinvågaksla, shoulderblades of fjells rimmed in crags. Across Koifjorden, I can spot the plateau of Vuokkanjárga, its summits scarfed in lingering snow. The summer is only a rumour in the highlands, a blink in the big sleep that is the Arctic.

Weather permitting, I walk into the tundra. It’s safe here. There are landmarks to guide me, boundaries of sea and road. I walk across Slettnes to Hollendervika, the Dutchman’s Cove. Whalers used to anchor there in order to trade with the village. Nowadays, the beach is littered with plastic bottles and oil drums. The trademark of my time.

Further along the coastline, near Steinvåg, there is a stone labyrinth most visitors never notice. There are several theories. Some claim it’s an ancient site of solar reverence, a spiral, a vortex, the birth of a phoenix in the ribcage of a culture. However, a gap of centuries cannot be bridged with assumptions of purpose, and pride in science is always a great injustice. Perhaps we consider these monuments best like the bones of our ancestors. If anything, with respect and a touch of mystery.

Slettnes is a nation of its own, a transient state of bliss. Where golden plovers dart from reed beds, indignant and alarmed, where reindeer drift along the ridge line of Veslevikhaugen by the hundreds, awaiting their capture and ultimately, their slaughter in southern corrals.

Skuas guards their young with a fierceness that I equal with this enduring land. Their voracious grace as predators, their vulnerability as parents, their persistent occupation in the face of a threat.

I work as a guide and a housekeeper. I feed the horses, I watch birds, I go hiking. On my days off, I go foraging for wild plants or trout fishing. Working in tourism forces me to question what is right about my access to these resources, visible and invisible. There is the land and there is its community. How much is up for sale? What is ultimately so personal about this place? Ownership is an open mine.

I keep a jar of shells on my desk and a compass to remind me of my own brief manifestation as a human, my geomorphology. Pace is everything and to slow down is to withdraw into myself.

Navigation illuminates the magnetic field around me, the web that fostered me and calls me back with each day that passes, each revolution of the Earth that makes a day. I love the suggestion of scale that beachcombing awakens in me, the size of the world, both small and afar as seen through a spyglass, and suddenly material and tangible: a medicine bottle from Reykjavik and driftwood from Siberia, vessels for the imagination.

My own footprints, washed away by the brine of the Barents Sea, the journey of my predecessors inscribed in me as a path forever written and unwritten. A plunge. At the other end of the village is the fish factory. It used to be a king crab processing facility. King crabs were introduced by a Russian scientist and escaped, migrating hundreds of miles across the sea bed. They are what they are. There is the obsession with a virgin land, a primary state of nature. The wildlife will defy such delusions. There is no inherent right of precedence, no controlled origin, no manifest destiny. In the end, everything that lives here and survives here (de)composes the Arctic and your success will secure your return.

This is the king crab era. These are the days of plunder and refuge. This is the story that needs to be recorded. The perils of investment. The factory re-opened in 2007. A Korean entrepreneur bought it and hired Icelandic fishermen. These days, the catch is cod and halibut and wolf-fish. Factory workers flock here from Latvia. We all obey the same logic of migration. I wouldn’t argue we all seek the same thing, but security is a big part of what we call a future.

On a clear day, I can spot the oil rigs from the lighthouse. Those are times when I shudder to think of our presence here as an extraction, a process of exacting pain. I think of us as disoriented, arrowed shoals of panicked fish, silver-streaked and blind in our hunger. Away from the abyss we have drifted into darkness, where we have no expectations other than escape from what must be our shadow. At low tide, there is the reek of seaweed and wastewater. There is no water treatment station. The sea must deal with this chemical trespass, with all our minor and major trespasses, and with it, the countless waders scouting the slick rocks for mollusks and other shellfish. Behind the local landfill, a spit of benign white sand, and the sound of cormorants nesting on the offshore island of Flintodden, out of harm’s way.

There is another labyrinth on the edge of town, near the churchyard. It’s more recent than the stone circle from 10,000 years ago buried beneath the berry and the heather. It is more brutal in its significance. A bunkertown built in WWII. This was a post of scrutiny. a display of sheer force. How many man hours were wasted here in the cold expectation of enemy ships never glimpsed? The rusty rings of dismantled artillery platforms remind me of yet another cycle, one of terror and fear and retaliation. All of which end in fire and ashes and old graves.

Among these vestiges of war, I find peace in the supremacy of time and space, the inherent oblivion of the earth. A self-defeating architecture. Truce, when the storms have raged and nothing is left but the phantom of an appartion, the hollow shells of hostile machines. From my vantage point, every wave is a beginning and an end and an erasure.

Here, a historian can hover like a hawk, dallying between the obscurity of eternity and the stark present of the midnight sun. This land is trapped between immediacy and expectancy, the ebb and flow of life. The slow metamorphosis of rock, the progressive chiseling of ice, and the quick death of a gull chick, as the fox snatches it, and the winter announces itself, again and again.

Locals ask me where I’m from, how long I will stay, what possessed me to come. I don’t know. But it’s related to this slow unveiling of a place, how it reveals itself in layers like the slow archeology of a story. Often there is the illusion of a special connection. But the truth remains: like the mystery of my own origin, there is a staggering amplitude to this search for balance. In the end, it’s exhaustive.

The first settlement dates from 10,000 years ago, and this realization is like an imploding star. Nothing escapes from this gravity. A ladder of generations. I think of the land emerging, the eskers gouged out by inching glaciers, the treeline creeping further North, then halted by an isotherm. Here are the remains of a common skeleton, the essence of our journey as a species, our capacity to adapt to new climates, but also, the womb of the wild that sublimes and dwarfs us. Our limiting line. Thankfully.

Eventually, every place will tell you the story of our pursuit as a species and hitched to this quest, our trials. Gamvik is like any other place, an aggregate of our multiple incarnations as voyagers and pilgrims of a foreign faith. We are shape-shifters. This land was Sámi before the Christenization. They retreated, reformed and resurfaced as a nation. Resilience. But it would be a mistake to reduce this land to the dispossession of a people. Nothing is uniform. This land is no property. It belongs to us in the form of an emotional engagement.

What this place tells me. What is savage is not always wild and vice versa. While nature was keeping watch over the established deaths of young and old, the mathematics of blood, the barbary of the witch trials of Omgang. An act of enlightenment? One single coastline with a few thousand inhabitants carving out their dreams and nightmares. In the end, the sum of our passions and the reality of cheap destruction. What do you find at the end of the world? The diversity of our ruin, the futile incarcerations of our fellow man, the call of rebellion, the fallacy of a claimed discovery.

From the lighthouse, the sea can seem limpid on a calm day. A dream of possibilities. Never fool yourself into believing you were the first man to entertain such ideas.

Gamvik is never safe. Nothing about this region of the globe is simple or predetermined or pure, and so, the salmon returning are never sure of their arrival when councils dam rivers or allow more pollution for the sake of their own progress. A whole bioregion is at the mercy of a few governments gathering in Greenland and speaking of nothing less than a slash-and-burn future. Here, where the ice reigns supreme.

I think about the mineral truth, like bombs that didn’t detonate when they fell. I shiver. I think of the Arctic.

Or rather, I feel for the Arctic.

This fragile majesty.