I grew up in North Haledon, New Jersey, in a house that faced due north. I was taught to orient myself by standing at the mouth of our driveway with east to my right and west in the leftward direction of High Mountain, just behind which I imagined cowboys and Indians exchanging fire in a perpetual sunset. Straight ahead and hundreds of miles up the northbound interstate were the Green Mountains of Vermont, where we’d rent a cottage for two weeks every summer and see a thousand stars at night. On the highest peaks, even in July, we might need to wear our sweaters—and I can’t have been the only kid ever to climb a mountain with the illusion that he was heading north. From my earliest days I was predisposed to think of north as up.
If ever I had doubts, other factors would have kept north at the top of my childish cosmos: the globe in the school library, the blue sheen on the northern half of the needle of my cherished pocket compass, and the observable fact that houses in North Haledon were generally newer, larger, and had roomier yards than those of Haledon, her elder sister to the south. The city of Paterson, where “the colored people” lived and where I was born, was more southerly still. Before I knew it as an anthropological fact, I knew instinctively that the cradle of human life was Africa; before I’d heard of the Great Migration or the Underground Railroad, I had the sense that “moving up,” toward freedom, meant heading north.
Eventually I came to understand that any notion of north as up is as historically anomalous as it is astronomically spurious, there being no “up” in the universe and thus none to any object it contains. A cursory survey of antique maps makes that clear. The ancient Egyptians put east at the top of their cosmos, as did most medieval Christians, who saw Jerusalem as the center of the world with Eden above it. Not until the late 1400s does north achieve its conventional placement at the top of European maps. Early Islamic maps tended to put south at the top, perhaps to indicate the direction many of the world’s faithful would be facing when they turned toward Mecca. Though ancient Chinese maps put north uppermost, the Chinese word for compass, a device they are generally credited with having invented, means “south-pointing needle.” (Since a compass needle aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic fields, it points south as much as it points north, take your pick, and the Chinese picked south.) Their north-pointing maps have been explained as an upside-down genuflection to the emperor, the “man at the top,” whose seat of power lay in that direction.
The decision to put any of the four cardinal directions at the top of a map, be it mental or cartographic, marks the point at which directionality shifts from pure geography to metaphor. It is as if, the maps are saying, a much less literal statement, really, than “Here be dragons.” It is as if north were up here. Or east, which does seem more logical. That’s where the sun rises. Shouldn’t top o’ the mornin’ be top of the world?
One of Aesop’s fables tells of a competition between the north wind and the sun. They vie to see who can make a man remove his clothing sooner. The cold wind tears relentlessly at the man’s cloak, but he only pulls it more tightly to his skin. The sun “persuades” the man to remove his cloak by gradually heating him up. It shouldn’t surprise us that the source of all energy on Earth, a god in more than one mythology, wins out in the end. What might surprise us is the status of the north wind as a worthy competitor of the sun. It may be that its formidable power is part of what draws our imaginations north. Even in the Land Down Under, the north wind can be ominous, though it blows hot instead of cold, blasting Australia with equatorial heat and fanning fires in the outback.
It may also be that the east–west path of the sun, with its ready-to-order symbolism of birth, death, and resurrection, together with the warmer south of the Northern Hemisphere, leaves the idea of north more open to interpretation. And if open to interpretation, then evocative of mystery. I balked at first when a friend suggested that north was “spiritual” in a way the other directions were not. Wasn’t that simply a matter of interpretation?
Wasn’t that rather her point?
After all, our sense of the spiritual—the name our secular culture prefers to give to the religious impulse—is about nothing if not the interpretation of experience. The gods may have spoken but we must still determine what the gods meant (and didn’t mean). Divinities speak in statements and commands; human beings, with questions. Before we interpreted data and texts, we interpreted visions and dreams. We looked for signs. Before we were literate, wisdom was about learning to read.
The difference between true north and magnetic north supports the notion of a compass point with nuance, a space with exegetical wiggle room. They are a thousand miles apart, and the angle between them varies depending on your location, which is to say, your point of view. Add to that what Fergus Fleming tells us in the first sentence of his 90 Degrees North: The Quest for the North Pole, that there are in fact “five North Poles”—including, in addition to the forenamed two, the North Geomagnetic Pole, which “centres the earth’s magnetic field”; the Northern Pole of Inaccessibility, “a magnificently named spot in the Arctic Ocean north of Alaska, which represents the point farthest in all direction from land”; and “even a Pole in the sky, the North Celestial Pole, the astronomical extension of a line drawn through the earth’s axis which nearly…hits Polaris”—and one begins to entertain the possibility of a Midrash of the North. Five North Poles, 500 pages of commentary—much of it, we would imagine, as paradoxical as a midnight sun.
I’m looking at a National Geographic map of ancient human migrations, a sort of cartographic fireworks display originating somewhere in Ethiopia, the land of Mother Lucy, and shooting up through the Levantine Corridor and across the straits between Ethiopia and Yemen to shower the continents with stars of hominid fire. First to move was Homo erectus, nearly 2 million years ago, followed much later by the more evolved, venturesome, and ultimately triumphant Homo sapiens. At least one group headed due south, the ancestors of the Khoisan, who may be the most authentically indigenous of all surviving peoples on Earth, having been in southern Africa for 100,000 and perhaps for as long as 300,000 years.
But for most of our hominid ancestors, including many who remained in Africa, migration began by facing north. After that their trajectories spread, as do the land masses, east and west. Some evidence suggests that Homo sapiens were in Australia some 10,000 to 20,000 years before they reached Europe; so it’s silly to postulate some relentless northward pull. Nevertheless, the first and predominant surge was to the north, and I wonder if we retain an atavistic memory of setting out with the rising sun to our right. If so, north has for millennia been the direction of the unknown, alternately beckoning and threatening, as the unknown often is.
Belief systems have also shown a tendency to move from the warmer zones in which they were engendered toward the infidel hinterlands. Historians have traditionally counted three great missionary religions, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, each of them with a pronounced northern thrust of conversion. One could argue that this ought to give an added spiritual significance to the south, as in those Islamic maps that bow toward Mecca, but from the point of view of the faithful, the mission, the Word, goes north. The ancient Hebrews were not a missionary people, but their exodus from Egypt is also a northward quest, southeast through the Sinai, and then north to the Promised Land.
Yet, when the word north appears in the Bible, which it does rarely, its connotations are fraught. “Behold, a people cometh from the north country,” proclaims the prophet Jeremiah. He means the Babylonians, who will destroy Jerusalem and carry the cream of Judea into exile. It is almost impossible to think of north without recalling the number of invasions that have come from that direction. The invaders sweep down from the north so much more than up from the south, perhaps because the pickings for plunder are generally better in more temperate climes. The Hyksos who overran Egypt in the second millennium BCE came from the north, as did the Vedic peoples alleged to have conquered India, and the Dorians who supplanted the Ionic civilization in pre–Classical Greece. “If the regions of the heavens and of the earth are divided into four parts,” writes Ephorus, a Greek historian, “the Indians occupy that part from which Apeliotes blows, the Ethiopians that part from which the Notus blows, the Celts the part on the west, and the Scythians the part from which the north wind blows.” It’s not hard to guess which wind carried the most terrifying rumors, the most fearsome barbarian stink. The Germanic tribes who destroyed the Roman Empire and the Mongol hordes who overran China and the Islamic world—arguably two of the most devastating conquests in history—both came from the north. To say nothing of the Arab and European slavers who descended into Africa and the colonial powers whose legacy continues to work such havoc there still. I assume Southern readers, at least, have heard of General William Tecumseh Sherman. They may not have heard of the only Confederate raid to have taken place in New England, launched from Canada on St. Albans, Vermont. The invaders robbed three banks before giving a last Rebel yell and hightailing it back over the border. Even Southerners will hit you from the north if they get a chance.
And then there are the Vikings, those Scandinavian freebooters who terrorized Europe and Eastern Russia in the ninth and tenth centuries. “From the fury of the Northmen, O Lord, deliver us” went a well-known Dark Age prayer. “From out of the north like an icy wind,” began the theme song of Tales of the Vikings, a TV show I watched avidly as a boy. I was nuts for Vikings. I had a model of a Viking ship in my bedroom and for a brief time, before the teacher on playground duty abruptly called a halt to our make-believe burning and pillaging, I was the de facto chieftain of the school’s extremely unofficial Viking Club. Looking back, I marvel at the sanction given to those TV Norsemen to pursue their escapades during prime time. I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t some quasi-racist, Teutonic idealization going on—as in the always exultant disclosure that the Norwegian Leif Erikson probably reached America before that Giovanni-come-lately Christopher Columbus. There are reasons besides snow and Santa’s hoary beard to associate north with white. I can’t imagine watching a TV show in 1960 with a theme song that began “From out of the south like a sultry wind” as turbaned “blackamoors” surged over the straits of Gibraltar to sack churches and carry off screaming señoritas. I’m told my old TV show has a current cable-network successor called The Vikings, which apparently spices up the action with horrific tortures. Perhaps in our “postcolonial” age the fair-haired Norsemen receive their cultural sanction from a sense of political correctness: It would not do to portray “indigenous” peoples with sadistic tendencies. I’ll wager there’s no grisly miniseries in production called The Mohawks.
The Norsemen were among the last Europeans to be converted to Christianity, and they were not an easy nut to crack. (Their conversion to social democracy seems to have gone more smoothly.) The old faith held on, and archaeologists have found syncretistic monuments mingling the symbolism of Valhalla with that of the New Jerusalem. The Sami, a shamanistic people of Lapland, did not embrace Christianity until well into the eighteenth century and their conversion was never complete. They had long had a place in the darker recesses of the European imagination. The “witches” of Lapland are mentioned in Milton’s Paradise Lost and in the letters of Martin Luther, the latter glossed by one biographer with a reference to “the gloomy old Northern Mythology, full of witches and kobolds.” It was a mythology that died hard. Witches were being pursued in Scotland well into the Enlightenment. Something about the dark, something about the cold; something about the rugged landscape, which a contemporary English traveler through the Highlands, Sir John Stoddart, was not surprised to find “marked by superstition,” unlike the gentler landscapes of his merry old homeland to the south.
I think sometimes of those Christian missionaries venturing to the farthest northern wastes, to Lapland and then into the Arctic itself. Not just from the cold might they have felt frozen; not just of witches might they have been afraid. How do you speak of the Bread of Life in a place where wheat will not grow, or celebrate Mass among a people who have never seen a grape or tasted wine? At some point the missionaries must have found themselves recalling the words of that anonymous Judean carried into exile by “a people from the north”: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?”
Then again, what is “the Lord’s song” if not that kind of poignant question?
I’ve asked one or two of those questions in my time, including a secular version of the psalmist’s lament about songs in strange lands. Now and then it strikes me as one of the more dubious moves of my life that I should have left the environs of Paterson, spiritual home of Allen Ginsberg and William Carlos Williams, and set out with my new bride and my callow poetic ambitions for the boonies of Vermont. The pull I felt toward the North—was it inspiration or merely nostalgia for my childhood, a nostalgia formed (this is the joke of it) in the summertime for a place of long winters, “nine months of snow and three months of poor sledding” as a local saying has it? Although I’ve wondered on occasion if my best songs were meant to be sung in New Jersey, and about New Jersey, the truth is that North Haledon was never going to be north enough for me, never close enough to the kobolds and the Vikings. And I’m not alone in my inclinations. Rilke is supposed to have claimed that the opening lines of his Duino Elegies were dictated by the north wind. Could any other wind have served?
My friend and neighbor Howard Frank Mosher may be the most passionate lover of all things north that I’ve ever met. Four of his books have some form of the word in their titles, and in one of them, a travelogue called North Country: A Personal Journey through the Borderland, he begins by dating his attraction: “Ever since my grandparents began taking me on weekend trips to the Adirondacks when I was four years old, traveling north has exhilarated me.” And not just traveling: “Next to going there, I loved nothing better than reading about the North. As a boy I read everything I could get my hands on having to do with the North Woods, the northern Great Plains, the Far North. I devoured all of Jack London and Robert W. Service and memorized the Paul Bunyan tales.” Striking a chord that also resonates for me, he speaks of “that transcendent sense of well-being that I experienced in the northern wilderness and nowhere else—least of all in a classroom. I couldn’t explain it, but somehow I felt that the North was where I belonged.”
I can’t explain it either, not fully, but that offhand reference to the classroom is telling. Along with the “boreal realm of deep evergreen woods, raw-looking paper-mill towns whose acrid tang you could smell ten miles away, swift dark rivers with hard-to-pronounce Indian names,” what I think attracts my friend and stimulates his creativity is the anarchic forces that seem to go with the places he describes. His unruly fictional characters attest to his fascination, as does his abiding interest in such North Country examples of outlawry as the short-lived Indian Stream Republic, proclaimed in 1832 by the restive inhabitants of a then-disputed territory between New Hampshire and Canada, the Francophone whiskey runners of Prohibition, and the rogue inventor Gerald Bull, who in his remote compound near the Vermont–Canada border worked on developing hundred-foot “superguns” capable of launching “rocket-assisted shells the size of Volkswagens,” a technology he eventually sold to Saddam Hussein.
I hasten to add that fascination is not the same thing as emulation. My friend lives the conventional, routine-driven life of a dedicated writer and a confirmed family man. Outwardly he bears little resemblance to Noel Lord, the last-stand logger in his novel Where the Rivers Flow North, who looks like a pirate and scraps like a wolverine. But a life devoted to literature is a last stand of sorts, an act of outlawry in its own right. “Mister got a cold blue eye that cuts right through you, eh?” Lord’s live-in “housekeeper” says to a down-country developer who tries to coax the old man off his land and away from his livelihood. “Keep your eye clear / as the bleb of the icicle,” Seamus Heaney exhorts himself in a poem called “North.” He’s talking about something different, of course, but not entirely so.
“Help us with your cleansing wind! May it make us pure so that we may walk the sacred path in a holy manner, pleasing to Wakan-Tanka” [the Great Spirit].
So prays the participant seated at the northern side of the lodge in the Oglala Rite of Purification, as recounted by the holy man Black Elk. The sacred pipe is eventually passed to the north in order to be purified. The souls of the departed go south in the Sioux tradition, returning to the direction from which they came, but the soul of the spiritual seeker invokes the aid of the north.
In the Oglala rite known as “Crying for a Vision,” the one who cries for illumination, “the Lamenter,” takes his seat on the north side of the lodge, as do “four pure virgins” in the Ceremony for Releasing a Soul, “for the Power of this direction is Purity.”
Why that should be raises some interesting questions, not the least of which pertain to the meaning of purity itself. A loaded word, when you think about it, at once evocative of health—the “cleansing wind” that drives away the noxious vapor, the pure water that cleans the wound—and the utter absence of biology. Most of us would not call a rain forest “pure,” the reason being that it teems with life. The moors, the high plains, seem like better candidates; the desert and the tundra, better still. The bleb of the icicle makes for a pitiless crystal ball. Between north as the notional direction of purity and north as the reputed domain of witches, there is perhaps not so great a contradiction as we might suppose. Sterility is also pure.
“Purity of heart,” according to the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart, “requires denial of the self”—which may give us a more helpful entry into the rites and mysteries of Black Elk’s account. If north bespeaks purity, it is at least partly because the farther north we go, the farther into its extremes of frigidity and desolation, the more we need to shed our superfluous possessions and our complacency. (The southern pole is no less extreme, but the first recorded sighting of Antarctica does not occur until 1820.) We need to be more attentive to our surroundings, more sparing in our consumption of resources, and even in our enjoyment of society. One of the lessons that came out of the numerous failed and often disastrous Arctic expeditions of the nineteenth century, a lesson that might have been learned sooner had the explorers been paying closer attention to the Inuit, was that smaller parties are better provisioned and more easily sustained by the landscape than larger crews. It is easier for a walrus to pass through the eye of a needle than for a big party of rich Europeans to enter the Arctic Circle.
Not long ago and for the first time, I watched Robert J. Flaherty’s 1922 documentary Nanook of the North, a film so iconic you’re sure you’ve seen it until you realize one day that you haven’t. I sat down knowing that Flaherty had staged some of the action, and I was wise to the distortions that enter into any filmmaker’s attempt to catch people being themselves, especially when the people fall into the category of “natives.” Still, I was deeply moved by Flaherty’s depiction of Nanook’s subsistence life. It haunted me for months. It haunts me now. Its austerity reminded me of scenes in the films Diary of a Country Priest and the sublime Ida, both religious in their subject matter, only here the deprivations were imposed by nothing but the climate, the “discipline” not so much a matter of self-denial as of stark competence. Had I known of Nanook as a boy, I might have let go of my Vikings sooner. There he is, Pa Ingalls in an anorak, with his children climbing like a troop of circus clowns out of that rugged kayak and his beautiful wife baring her breasts as she prepares to bed down with the whole family under their animal-skin coverlets. How snug and happy they seem in their igloo, so free of affectation, so self-sufficient, so lively and pure. Nanook is both monk and patriarch, an ascetic after my own heart, subsisting on nothing but meat and eating it rare, very rare in fact, though it must touch his lips as one of the warmest things he knows besides the nearness of human flesh. And even that he embraces as much from necessity as desire.
But unlike the cowboys who ride off into the sunset, leaving us to imagine their future lives on the other side of the rolling credits, Nanook’s dogsled travels under the fatal radiance of a midnight sun. A note attached to the beginning of the film claims that he was lost on a hunting expedition and starved to death. I don’t know what became of the little one who peeked from under his mother’s papoose-like hood, and I have no wish to find out.
There is probably no such thing as “the last word” on the North, but if there were, the word might be failure. More than purity, barbarity, or adventure, that is its spiritual connotation.
The Norse believed their gods would eventually be beaten by the forces of ice and snow. The Frost Giants would overrun Valhalla in a Viking-style Armageddon called Ragnarök. After 500 years in existence, the Norse community in Greenland languished and then disappeared for reasons that are still hotly debated. Archeological evidence suggests that the Inuit were in a state of cultural decline when they first made contact with European explorers. The North is where the protagonist in Jack London’s most famous short story fails to build a fire. No less visionary than the Sioux, and despite the fact that their Trail of Tears would take them west, the Cherokee associated the direction of north with “defeat and trouble.” Why? Perhaps for the same reason that poets find inspiration in the north wind. The Cherokee knew that the north wind brings change, and change is often for ill. And that life seldom gets easier with the onset of cold.
With our blithe faith in markets, gadgets, and information, we like to think of failure as a correctible deficiency, a miscalculation of the data, a malfunction in the gear. Less even than we like a god in heaven do we like a mystery in our defeats. Cold for us is merely a measurement, a factoid of life, a cryonic answer to death. But there is a cold that shrinks the mercury, and then there is a cold that shatters the glass.
You don’t have to live at the North Pole to be unsettled by its breath. Somewhere between twenty and thirty degrees below zero strange noises intrude on my quiet country soundscape. Assuming I can get our car to start in the morning, the speedometer whines as the cable struggles to turn in the cold-congealed grease; the needle jumps up and down, miming apocalypse, refusing to tell me my speed. At night I’m awakened by a loud pop, like that of a muffled pistol shot, as another contracting steel nail loosens from the clapboard of our old house, un-hammering itself out of the paint. If I wanted to, I could imagine the hammer of Thor giving way before the final assault of the Frost Giants. Instead I think of that whimsical line from It’s a Wonderful Life, where the angel-in-training tells Jimmy Stewart that whenever a bell tinkles it means “some angel’s just got his wings.” Once I asked my wife, huddled close to me under the multiple blankets, if she too had heard the nail pop and would like to know what it meant. “It means some pain in the ass has just moved back to Connecticut.”
To which she retorted: “We won’t be able to stand this place either when we’re old, you know. Our days here are numbered.”
North is always sending people back. The Ice Age reversed the northern migrations of our species and reversed its multiplication. According to one controversial theory, the shivering human population may have fallen below 10,000 souls. In a recent book entitled El Norte or Bust!, author David Stoll studies a Guatemalan town whose residents are trapped in a cycle of “debt migration,” accruing preposterous debts in order “to join a chronic surplus of low-wage labor in El Norte.” Their inability to repay their loans has disastrous consequences for the economy back home, prompting further migration. As North Americans discuss the legalities of immigration, some activists in Latin America are calling for a “right to not migrate,” which sounds like the most profound of historical reversals, a turning upside down of the world as we know it. And a project bound to fail.
Less desperate but hardly less dire, the polar expeditions launched to discover a Northwest Passage through a virtually nonexistent opening in the Arctic Ocean, and others to find the North Pole, provide the most persuasive reasons for associating failure with the North. John Cabot looked in vain for a waterway over the top of the world as early as 1497, and Mercator’s 1569 map optimistically shows one, but finding it proved elusive and deadly for more than 300 years. Twenty out of thirty-three crewmen perished during George DeLong’s 1879 expedition when their ship, the Jeannette, became trapped by the ice. The six survivors of the twenty-five-member Greely Expedition of 1882–83 resorted to cannibalism before they were found. All of them had set out forewarned by the fate of the Franklin Expedition, an 1845 misadventure whose name has become a byword for disaster. No fewer than sixteen rescue missions were dispatched after the expedition’s two ships, with 129 members aboard, disappeared. The missions also failed.
The true poet laureate of the North may not be Robert Service or Robert Frost so much as Samuel Johnson. I am thinking of his poem “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” in which the word north doesn’t appear once, though he has lines that could be emblazoned on a plaque stuck somewhere at the North Pole:
Where wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.
The remains of the Franklin expedition were finally found in 1859 on the shores of King William Island. (Three graves had been discovered nine years earlier at the site of an abandoned camp, and one of Franklin’s ships was discovered underwater only last year.) When Roald Amundsen finally managed to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic in 1903–06, the way proved so difficult as to be worthless as a nautical route. An outstanding achievement, Amundsen’s, but a pyrrhic victory at best.
The distinction of having been the first (white man) to reach the North Pole was contested between American doctor Frederick Cook, who claimed to have reached the pole in April of 1908, and Robert Peary, an American naval officer who claimed to have reached it in April of 1909. Both parties included Inuit members, and Peary’s an African American named Matthew Henson, inclusions that the polar historian Adrian Howkins says “diminished a little of their achievements” in racist eyes. Cook’s claim has repeatedly been dismissed as a hoax, though as Howkins notes, in the history of Arctic exploration, “honesty often appeared in short supply.”
The Antarctic story generally makes for happier reading, with many fewer disasters and more examples of international cooperation. Whether it speaks more accurately of the human spirit remains, like the fate of the Greenland Norse, a subject for debate. One doubts it could ever speak more powerfully to the poet or the lover of myth. I’m not sure how a land populated by penguins could. I happen to love penguins and everything about them, their intrepidness, their monogamy, their unhurried savoir faire as they mingle about the rookery, ready to swim if they have to, but much too sophisticated to fly. We have a penguin ornament on our Christmas tree and books all over the place with penguins on their spines. But it’s nearly impossible to imagine a Norse god or a Lapland witch or even a St. Olaf in a land full of penguins. There’s something about the creature, its complacent waddle perhaps, that tells you no Duino Elegies are likely to come blowing from that direction.
When the poet Randall Jarrell wanted to write about the meaninglessness and despair he saw characterizing the human condition, he knew which pole he had to choose. The Arctic expeditions form the background for one of his bleakest meditations, a poem called “90 North,” in which the speaker finally reaches the North Pole only to wonder what good came of it. The closing lines are as chilling as the hardest ice.
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge
I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.
I have long admired and often quoted those last two sentences, so righteously dismissive of every attempt to paint a didactic gloss over our sufferings and failures. But I have questioned them too. In their way they are as pat as Aeschylus’ contrary dictum that “Man must suffer to be wise.” To both utterances, I want to say, “Well, that sounds about right, but is it?”
Our historic migratory yearnings northward and our more recent forays into the Far North hint at the existence of some middle ground between pain, pure but meaningless, and wisdom, sure but suspect: a figurative expanse of some thousand miles or so between the poignant pull of the magnetic pole and the absolute zero of the true.
Between the young Oglala brave crying for a vision and the decommissioned Viking dozing in his chair.
Between all that might be said about the North and the little there actually is to say.
Neither wisdom nor pain.
Call it humility.