Outside magazine, September 1994
I apologize for not being able to tell you the whole of this story. It begins at the airport at Søndre Strømfjord in Greenland, and it happened to a man named Edward Bowman. He'd just come down from Pearyland, by way of Qânâq and Upernavik, then Nûk. About a hundred of us were waiting around for planes, his out to Copenhagen, with Søndre Strømfjord socked in. He'd been at the airport for six days; I'd been there just a few, with four Inuit friends from Clyde Inlet, on Baffin Island. In those days--1972, just out of law school--I was working with Canadian Eskimos, helping to solidify a political confederation with Eskimos in Greenland.
We were all standing by, long hours at the airport. Some people went into town, but the notion that the weather might suddenly clear for just a few minutes and a plane take off kept most of us around, sleeping in the lounges, eating at the restaurant, using the phones.
Bowman was at work on a master's degree in wildlife biology at Iowa State, though by that time he may have already abandoned the program. His thesis, I remember well, had to do with something very new then: taphonomy. He was looking, specifically, at the way white-tailed deer are taken apart by other animals after they die, how they're funneled back into the ecological community--how bone mineral, for example, goes back into the soil. How big animals disappear. Expanding the study a little brought him to Pearyland. He wanted to pursue in northern Greenland some threads of what happens when large animals die.
I should say here that Bowman wasn't eager to talk, that he didn't feel compelled to tell this story. He didn't avoid my questions, but he didn't volunteer much beyond his simple answers. His disinclination to talk was invariably polite, not unlike my Inuit friends', whose patience I must have tried all those years ago with my carefully framed questions and youthful confidence.
Did he go up there just to look at dead animals? In a cold place where carcasses decay very slowly? Partly, he said. But when he'd read what little had been written about the place, he said, his interests became more complicated. Pearyland is an arctic oasis, a place where many animals live despite the high latitude--caribou, wolves, arctic hares, weasels, small animals like voles and lemmings, and many birds, including snowy owls. Bowman said he'd tried to get grants to support a summer of study. Of course, he was very curious about the saprophytic food web, the tiny creatures that break down organic matter; but, also, no one understood much about Pearyland. It was remote, with a harsh climate, and very difficult and expensive to get to.
No funder was enthusiastic about Bowman's study, or his curiosity. (He told me at one point that part of his trouble in applying for grants was that, after working with the deer carcasses in Iowa, he just had an instinct to go, but no clear scientific purpose, no definite project, which finally presented the larger institutions with insurmountable problems.) Eventually he was able to cobble together several small grants and to enlist the support of a foundation in Denmark, which enabled him to buy food and a good tent. For his travel north to Qânâq he was going to depend on hitching rides on available aircraft. With the last of his funds he'd charter a flight out of Qânâq for Brønlund Fjord in early July and then arrange for a pickup in mid-September. All of which he did.
When we met, the only cash he had was his return ticket to Copenhagen, but he was not worried. Somehow, he said, everything would work out.
Now, here is where it gets difficult for me. I've said Bowman, unlike most white men, seemed to have no strong need or urge to tell his story. And I couldn't force myself to probe very deeply, for reasons you'll see. So there could be--probably are--crucial elements here that were never revealed to me. It's strange to think about with a story like this, but you'll be just as I was--on your own. I can't help it.
What Bowman found at Brønlund Fjord in Pearyland was the land of the dead. The land of dead animals.
When he arrived, Bowman made a camp and started taking long walks, six- or seven-mile loops, east and west along the fjord and north into the flat hills, into the willow draws. The fjord stood to the south--open water at 82° north in July, which surprised him; but that is the nature of arctic oases. Summer comes earlier there than it does farther south, and it lingers a bit longer. In winter it's relatively warmer. Some days, Bowman, said, he wore only a T-shirt.
Bowman's treks brought him within sight of many animals in the first few days, but he wasn't able to get near them. And, a little to his wonder, not once on these long walks did he come upon an animal carcass, not even a piece of weathered bone.
The only thing he worried about, he told me, was polar bears. He saw seals regularly in the fjord, so he expected bears would turn up, but he saw no tracks or scat, not even old sign. He wasn't afraid of being attacked so much as of having a bear break into his food. He had no radio, so he ran the risk of starving before the plane came back. For this reason alone, he said, he had agreed to take a gun, which the Danish government insisted he carry. How he learned where he was, that he'd camped in the land of the dead, was that one morning he went for the rifle and it wasn't there.
Of course, no one was around, so its loss made no sense to him. He looked underneath everything in his camp, thinking that, absentminded, he might have left it at his defecation pit or taken it down to the shore of the fjord. Or that in his sleep he'd gotten up and taken the gun somewhere and thrown it away. He said he entertained this last possibility because he was never comfortable with the idea of having the gun, and who could know, he said to me, what the dreaming mind really wanted done?
The day after he missed the gun he saw a few caribou close by, less than a half-mile away. He was eating breakfast, sitting on an equipment crate, watching the wind ripple the surface of the fjord and tracing with his eye a pattern in the purple flowers of a clump of saxifrage. The animals' hard stare caused him to turn around. He gazed back at them. Four animals, all motionless. It struck him then that in that first week or so he hadn't seen any caribou or musk oxen grazing or browsing.
He reached for his binoculars, but in that same moment the caribou dropped off behind a hill. He saw no other animals the rest of the day, but the following morning the caribou were back in the same place. This time he sat very still for a long while. Eventually the caribou walked down to where he was, only about 20 yards away.
"Where is your place?"
Bowman said when he heard these words he thought it was the animals that had made them, but when he turned around he saw, far off near the edge of the water, a man, an Inuk.
"What place are you from?"
It was hard for Bowman to understand that this man's voice was coming to him clearly even though he was standing far away. He didn't know what to answer. He didn't think the man would know about Indiana, so he said he was from very, very far away, to the west and south.
"What do you want here?"
Bowman told me he wished to answer this question in such a way that he would not offend the man, because he had a strong feeling that he might be hindered in his study (which, he pointed out again, was nearly aimless). Or possibly harmed.
"I want to listen," he said finally.
"Do you hear the wind? Meltwater trickling down to the fjord? The arctic poppies turning on their stalks in the summer sunshine?"
"Yes. I listen to all this."
"Do you hear the songs of my brothers and sisters?" asked the man by the fjord.
"I'm not sure," answered Bowman. "I don't think I've heard any singing. Perhaps if I listened better."
At that moment, Bowman turned quickly to look at the caribou. They'd come much closer. Swinging still farther around, he caught sight of two wolverines, that odd lope of theirs, as they came bounding toward him from the west. Then the Inuk was right next to him, sitting on another crate, looking out over the waters of the fjord. Bowman couldn't make out his face from the side.
"I'm the caretaker here," the man said. Bowman could see now that he was about 40, 50. "What do you want? What is Indiana?" he asked.
Bowman, startled, described where Indiana was. Then he tried to explain what he did as a biologist and that he was specifically interested in what happened to animals after they died. After that, he told me, he shouldn't have said anything more, but he went on until he ran out of things to say.
"The dead come here," the man said when Bowman was finished talking. He stood up. Bowman saw he was short, only five-foot-four or so, his short-fingered hands massive, the veins prominent, his forehead receding into a line of close-cropped raven-black hair. "You've come to the right place," he said. Then he walked away. Although he walked slowly, soon he was very far away.
The caribou were gone. The wolverines were still there, watching Bowman, but after a while they, too, disappeared.
Bowman did not see the man again for four or five days, and then he just saw him at a great distance, walking along the low edge of the sky.
One morning Bowman crawled out of his tent and saw an arctic fox resting on its haunches, looking at seals in the fjord. When he made a sound--his sock scraping on tundra gravel--the fox turned around quickly, surprised, and ran away. As he sprinted off, Bowman saw that he had no shadow.
Bowman tried to arrange each day according to the same schedule. When he awoke, he took his binoculars and studied the tundra in every direction, writing down whatever he saw--arctic hare, musk oxen, snow geese. He ate, then took a lunch and his pack and went for a long walk. He made lists of all the flowers, the tracks he came upon, the animals he saw; and he fought against a feeling that he was not accomplishing anything. Every day he wrote down the temperature and he estimated the speed and direction of the wind and he made notes about the kind of clouds he saw in the sky. Altostratus. Cumulonimbus.
One day the man came back. "Why aren't you trying to hunt?" he asked. "How come you don't try?"
"When I was a young man I hunted with my father in Indiana. I don't do that now." Bowman told me he wanted to be very careful what he said. "I don't hunt here, in this place, because I brought food with me. Besides, I don't know these animals. I have no relations with them. I wouldn't know how to hunt them."
"No hunting here, anyway."
"I know this is your country," Bowman said cautiously, "but why are you here?"
"Caretaker. Until these animal spirits get bodies and are ready to go back, a human being must be here, to make sure they aren't hungry. If the animals want something--if they want to hear a song, I learn it. I sing it. Whatever they want, I do that. That's my work."
"Have you been here a long time?"
"Yes. Long time. Soon, someone else will come. A long time ago, before Indiana, there was more work. Many caretakers. Now, fewer."
"What do these animals eat?"
"Eating--it's not necessary." After a moment he said, "They are feeding on the sunlight."
"When they are ready, where do they go?"
"All everywhere. They go home. They go back where they're from. But too many, now, they don't come here. They are just killed, you know. No prayer." He made a motion with his fist toward the ground as though he were swinging a hammer. "They can't get back there then. Not that way."
"Which ones come back?"
The man regarded Bowman for a long moment. "Only when that gift is completed. Only when the hunter prays. That's the only way for the animal's spirit to get back here."
"Do they come here to rest?"
The man looked at Bowman strangely, as if Bowman were mocking him with ignorant questions. "They get their bodies here."
"But only if they are able to give their lives away in a certain manner, and if the hunter then says a prayer?"
After a while the man said, "Many religions have no animals. Harder for animals now. They're still trying."
Bowman did not know what to say.
"Very difficult, now," said the man.
"What do you hear in this place?" the Inuk asked abruptly. "Do you hear their songs? Do you hear them crying out?"
"In my sleep," Bowman ventured. "Or perhaps when I am awake but believe I'm sleeping. I hear a sound like a river going over a wall, or wind blowing hard in the crown of a forest. Sometimes I hear heartbeats, many heartbeats overlapping, like caribou hooves."
"The souls of the animals calling out for bodies, bodies calling out for their souls."
"The bodies and the souls, searching."
"Yes. They come together, falling in love again like that. They go back, have children. Then one day someone is hungry, someone who loves his family, who behaves that way. Wolf, human being--the same. That's how everything works."
"Is there another place," asked Bowman, "where the animal souls go if they are just killed?"
The man looked at Bowman as if he weren't there and got up and walked away.
He didn't come back, and Bowman didn't see him again.
The animals around Bowman's camp grew less shy. They began to move past him as though he were growing in the ground or part of the sky. The caribou all walked in the same floating way, some pairs of eyes gleaming, some opaque, looking at the plants and lichens, at the clouds, and staring at rivulets of water moving across the tundra.
Bowman saw his gun one morning, leaning against a crate.
During his last days, he said, he tried to sketch the land. I saw the drawing--all pastels, watercolors, with some small, brilliant patches of red, purple, and yellow flowers, dwarf willow, bearberry. The land was immense. It seemed to run up against the horizon like a wave. And yet it appeared weightless, as if it could have been canted sideways by air soft as birds breathing.
The pilot came and took Bowman out to Qânâq, more than 500 miles. Two days later he began traveling south. Now, with the rest of us, he was waiting for the weather to clear.
Bowman told me this story over three days. He said it only a little at a time, as though he were not certain of it or me. I kept trying to get him to come back to it, but I wasn't insistent, not rude. I had many questions. Did the animals make sounds when their feet touched the ground? Did he see airplanes flying over? Was he afraid ever? What was the Inuk wearing?
The hardest question, for I had no other reason than my own inquisitiveness to pursue him, was asking whether he had an address where I might reach him. He gave me an address in Ames, where the university is, but by the time I wrote he'd moved away, and like so many young people--he was 23, 24--he did not leave a forwarding address.
Sometimes when I am in a library I look up his name. But as far as I know he never wrote anything about this, or anything else.
The last day of September the fog lifted suddenly, as though it had to go elsewhere. Bowman's plane, which had been there on the ground for eight days, left for Copenhagen, and an hour later I flew with my friends back to Frobisher Bay, on Baffin Island.
Barry Lopez is the author of <CIRE>Arctic Dreams as well as several collections of stories, including River Notes and Winter Count. This story is from his new collection, Field Notes, which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf this month. He is presently at work on a book about landscape and emotion.