letters from the north

Preliminary: the event of the exchange

If you think of the clouds like the ground- solid heavy,
it isn't so bad.
Like the Nunavut terrain- whitegreys compacted undulating,
underneath the rails, fur and spit trimmed, of our sledge
allowing us to glide over snow
that we don't even touch.

My plane is like a mid august cicada, bulgy in its weight. Yet it is late May and I am in the air having already left the safety of the shell, detroit airport. Now yesterday, which might be still today but is really gone already, I woke up to hear lovely Lily crying for her food at the bedroom door. Now today, I sit in my gracious hosts Dominique and Christian's quiet home near Goldsmith College and Telegraph Hill Park, which on a clear day you can see the London Eye as I've been told. Tomorrow a food anthropologist will arrive as well as a professional photographer on Monday. William, my Venezualen brother who now lives in London met me at Victoria Station and we ventured to this southeast area of London together, both for the first time. There are rose bushes everywhere, and William reminds me that like last year, I brought the sun with me again to London and hopefully some warmer weather, too.

I am in search of Captain Sir John Franklin and his men for the next 20 days. Yes, we know that these men died in the arctic somewhere between 1847-1852, having left London down the Thames on May 19 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage to India and the Orient. We know that many many search parties went looking for them and their belongings in the past 159 years after they failed to emerge in the Bering Strait. We know that Lady Franklin spent much of her wealth on funding these trips after the Admiralty got caught up in the Crimean War and other engagements. We know that the U.S. governement got involved as well as the Canadian (after 1880) became involved too. The Inuit ethnic groups of these upper reaches have been involved since before Franklin and his men became involved in seeking the famed route. Many of the Franklin 134 sailors' belongings now belong to the National Maritime Museum. There weren't so many handwritten letters sent back as there were 'pieces of': sails, food, wood, tin cans, clay pipes, books, awls, metal, compass, and more. Many of these items were traded from the Inuit groups: the event of the exchange. The 'pieces of' are now in replace of those pieces of lives that did not return, save one, Mr. John Irving, whose remains were returned to English soil after a piece of coat (perhaps?) with his name embroidered on it was found near a skeleton.

It is an aesthetic of loss, of physical disappearance now emerged in surrogate forms. A Landscape of exchanges: oral stories, physical objects, human lives given up to the snow and cold in return for a sleepy death or perhaps another man's last meal. Arctic visual metaphors for vacancy that is visceral and at times tangible. This assumed absence has form, weight in kilos or grams, colors of rusts and age, and perhaps as I hope to find out, a smell. My intention for this scavenger trip (hunt?) is to document as much as I can from the museum's archives in regards to lost sailors in the arctic who returned to England in an object (artifact) body rather than a corporeal form. Words are also important, the things they said about their need to go into the remotes landscape of the now Nunavut Territory in Canada.
My cast of characters will emerge each day. They will include objects as well as people. Memorials scattered all over London and Cambridge as well as tombs to these sailors and captains. The Scott Polar Institute and the Royal Geographical Society (Institute) will aid me, too, as well as the curators of each various collections: manuscripts, flags, library, artefact, painting and drawing...