“Everyone carries their own idea of north within them.”
—Peter Davidson, The Idea of North
My call to the north came in the summer of 1999, during a heat wave in New York. I was living in an airless apartment, at home with the television on, reading but losing interest in a book of bad poems. I looked up at the television: two men on a trawler idling in the North Atlantic, shotguns in hand, an iceberg in their sights. They shot it, then set out in a skiff to haul its pieces aboard, not unlike Nantucket whalers. Every atom in my body wanted to find that boat, to join the hunt and write about it. The men were from Newfoundland, and curious enough, but it was the North Atlantic circumstances, and the mystery of that monstrous ice, that struck a chord, that compelled me north.
There is a kind of holy vastness to open waters, and farther north there is, it seems, a holiness multiplied by stillness, a monotony that spans latitudes and hints at the infinite. A valley can be idyllic, but it doesn’t check your senses in quite the same way. Of course, in reaching Newfoundland I only made it as far as 46 degrees north, which means those icebergs were simply awesome messengers of what lay beyond. And while I’ve yet to cross into higher latitudes, I can say I touched a piece of the North, shot and chopped and sucked on the ancient waters of the Arctic, and can honestly say that the region—the idea of it—has possessed me ever since, spurring serious intentions of someday heading deeper, seeking who-knows-what.
In the meantime, I get my fix through art in one form or another, mostly maps and books about the Arctic. The touchstone of this obsession, however, is a recording of a radio documentary by pianist and composer Glenn Gould called “The Idea of North,” the first part of his Solitude Trilogy, produced in 1967 for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The documentary was an experiment in what Gould called “contrapuntal radio,” in which the voices of five people—Canadians who all experienced life in the North—function like the musical elements of a fugue, their voices layered in counterpoint.
Gould was fascinated by the Arctic, in a way that evoked a kind of childlike devotion—an almost joyful vulnerability—to the potential it suggested, an antithesis to the petty urbanism he navigated in his daily life in Toronto. In the North, Gould recognized “the creative opportunity which the physical fact of the country represents.” And while I can’t claim to have experienced the conditions that led to his epiphany, I’ve shared the end result—by traveling to the outer edges of the region, and through its images, and in its evocation in writing. Perhaps this sounds more aspirational than actual, a bit like an armchair explorer. In a way, I can hear Frank Vallee, the skeptic in “North,” chidingly add his two cents: “I don’t go for this northmanship bit at all. I don’t knock those people who do claim that they want to go farther and father north, but I see it as a game.”
So why the fixation? Are there universals buried there? More likely there are universals buried in the desire. Because the feeling isn’t necessarily about how far you actually get than what the place—the concsiousness of the topography—means to the imagination. As Gould put it, even the documentary itself was “an excuse—an opportunity to examine that condition of solitude which is neither exclusive to the north nor the prerogative of those who go north but which does perhaps appear, with all its ramifications, a bit more clearly to those who have made, if only in their imagination, the journey north.”
At VQR, we rarely see a theme evolve into what we expect it to be. That’s how theme issues should be—organic, unscripted call-and-responses between the editors and the writers, mindful all the while that the theme has a will of its own. Taking a cue from Gould, the idea for this issue was to explore variations on a theme, to test its malleability and figurative potential and embrace the contexts that sit apart from the immediate and familiar.
To that end, in addition to pieces set above the 60th north parallel—which include brilliant portfolios by photographers Katie Orlinsky and Aaron Huey—we have a dispatch by Mark Sundeen about a couple who heads to Missouri to build a kind of utopian settlement, an experiment that, while hardly northern by most geographical definitions, shares a spirit with what drew Gould north in the first place, fleeing “ideas and values that seemed…depressingly urban oriented and spiritually limited thereby.” Leslie Jamison contributes an essay on the remarkable artistic collaboration between American photographer Annie Appel and a Mexican family she met south of the border in 1993, and how, for the next twenty years, Appel would return to Mexico (“twenty-two trips, 21,000 frames”) in order to build an immersive visual document of that family’s three generations. In Hawaii, Trevor Quirk reports from above the cloud line on the largest optical telescope in the world and how, for all its value in reading the heavens, it remains anathema to the Native Hawaiians seeking to protect the sacred mountain site upon which it will be built. In another portfolio, Jeanine Michna-Bales composes a visual journey along the Underground Railroad, evoking the dangers and promises of this northward mission. And Lois Parshley, meanwhile, takes us to the front lines of far-flung cartographical experiments—from Haiti to London, from Antarctica to the Greenland Sea—and in doing so offers an insight into mapping’s humanistic value.
“In some subtle way,” Gould wrote, “the latitudinal factor does seem to have a modifying influence upon character,” an artistic hunch he sought to test through documentary, through the experiences of people with different angles of approach to the North—an enthusiast, a cynic, a bureaucrat, and someone who possessed a “limitless capacity for dissillusionment.” But the arrangement would’ve been incomplete without Wally Maclean, the “disillusioned enthusiast” who folded all of those experiences together, and thus functioned as the narrator of the story. In Maclean, the artist found the sweet spot, the factor that made the work whole. So, too, do we hope that by starting with an impulse and following it where it leads, we end up with an issue that is greater than the sum of its parts, that begins in the north we expect and drifts confidently elsewhere, exploring not just the idea of knowing where you are, or where you aren’t, but who else notices. An issue that is as much about one’s relation to north as it is about not being on a map at all, of being invisible to any human record.