Arctic Warning

by Claire Savage

When I first heard about the trip to the Arctic, visions of polar bears, reindeer, and jolly old Santa Claus danced in my head.  Childhood fairy tale scenes of The North Pole were all I knew of land and sea beyond latitude 50 degrees north, having never ventured farther north than Vancouver, British Columbia.  In spite of my fairy tale images I still feared the journey to this remote hinterland.  Would the barren landscape and frigid temperatures be too much to bear?

Layers of protective clothing in tow, I departed from San Francisco with an overnight in Ottawa.  And after a short three-hour flight, I saw sunlight radiating off the landing strip on Baffin Island in the city of Iqaluit.   “Welcome to Iqaluit’s Spring Festival” read the banner in the lobby of the Frobisher Inn.  For three days each year, the city of Iqaluit (I- KA-loo-it) celebrates the return of the light, longer days and warmer weather.  This year, in addition to hosting Inuit traditional games and events, the Inuit Circumpolar Conference invited members of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the National Resources Defense Council, politicians, artists, journalists, and, to top it all off, actors Jake Gyllenhaal, who starred in the movie “Day After Tomorrow,” and environment-conscious Salma Hayek.

I felt honored to be a part of such a group, my role being a member of the team that was to create a performance art piece on the ice.  All of us had assembled there to draw attention to the precipitous rise in temperature of the Arctic, the dangerous melting of the sea ice and the deleterious impact on the lives of the Inuit.  As a canary in a coal mine warns of leaking gas, perhaps the changing climate of our northern neighbors foreshadows drastic environmental changes for the rest of us living farther south.  We had come to the Arctic in the hopes of sending a message of warning to the world.

While the celebrities, politicians and journalists were speaking at a press conference indoors, a team of seven of us, led by artist John Quigley, worked outside preparing for the aerial art event to take place the next day.  Low winds and sunny skies supported us as we marked out a grid within which hundreds of people would gather to form a large image.  First, we staked out four corners of a square with 200 foot sides, placing in each corner a pink flag.  Then we marked 20 points at 10 foot intervals along each side, thus forming the grid.  Several more flags were placed inside.  By the end of the afternoon a field of pink flags danced against the ice and sky.

The next day, in even less hospitable weather, -25Ëš Fahrenheit with 40 mile-per-hour winds, we were back outside to “draw” the image within the grid.  The image of a drum dancer flanked by the words ARCTIC and WARNING in English and LISTEN written in Inuktitut, the native language of the Inuit, appeared in flags on the sea ice just in time for hundreds of local residents and school children to file down the hill and take their places somewhere upon either the picture or the words.

Along with 50 other people, I lay down on the ice and became part of the lower fringe of the drum dancer’s jacket.  Next to me a little Inuit girl in tennis shoes, her ankles bare between the tops of her socks and the bottom edge of her jeans, unprepared for an hour-long event in the bitter cold, cried frozen tears.  I wrapped my arms around her and gave her my scarf in a futile attempt to protect her from the cold.

A short while later, after photographers flying overhead in a helicopter had taken pictures of us on the ice, we joined hands to form a great circle.  After a moment of stillness we raised our arms into the air and sent our message out.

The sun shone bright and warm the day we departed.  Surrounded by a large group of townspeople, I was heartened by the strength and grace of this community, who have survived for generations in the cold, creating a rich and meaningful culture.  The paradox is clear, we all desire warmth against the cold.  But our lifestyle, by over-warming the earth’s atmosphere is devastating all of our future lives.  The Inuit are only the first to experience the consequences of this paradox.

Gazing out the airplane window on the ice below, I wondered whether our efforts were of any consequence, whether the press conference, the aerial art event, or the news coverage could possibly help stem the tide of our planet warming up.  Who will hear the call?  Who is listening?  Are we all like a mythical Cassandra predicting the world’s fate, but doomed never to be believed?  And in the end, will anyone live happily ever after?

Claire is raising her daughter and writing in San Rafael.

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