I’ve written about Kathan Brown, founder of Crown Point Press, on this blog previously. While I was visiting CPP in San Francisco, I was introduced to The North Pole, Brown’s book about her adventure on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker in 2002. With no coffee table aspirations, this paperback is simply and elegantly designed, interleafing Brown’s own narrative entries, her small format photographs, excerpts from the 19th century journal of polar explorer Fridtjol Nansen and interviews that Brown conducted with some of her fascinating cotravelers.
Brown’s encounter with this raw, uncompromising, haunting place ends up transforming her view of the world as a whole. The poles are where the earth bares its fragility, like a fraying seam in a skin tight suit. Brown’s style is straightforward and informed, and it was easy for me to be pulled into the enchantment she encounters. Her approach to the journey is refreshingly nonlinear, with chapters that cluster around key concepts, like “The Polar Bear,” “The Ship”, “The Weather.” With her astute power of observation, the ramifications of global warming are evidentiary and unavoidable.
Another quality captured in her book feels transcendent, an energy larger than the ice, the history and the ecology. Some of that is suggested in this passage:
The North Pole is the point at the top of the world on which the axis of the earth turns. A straight line drawn from it into the earth’s center, then out again to the equator, forms a right angle, or 90 degrees, so if you stand exactly at the North Pole you are at latitude 90 degrees north. You can bounce a signal from a global positioning device off a network of satellites in outer space to confirm it. But if you check again after remaining in the same spot only a few minutes, you will be at a different latitude. The North Pole has not moved: the ice on which you are standing has drifted. In 1874, the leader of a band of polar explorers discovered that after walking for two months they had traveled only nine miles. They were going south, trying to save themselves, on ice that was drifting north…
At the North Pole, there are no landmarks; there is no land. The North Star is fixed exactly above the pole and have been used for centuries everywhere in the northern hemisphere for navigation, but when you are at the North Pole, you cannot see the star.