Sunday, February 12, 2012

Caspar David Friedrich freezes up on our shore


I have to admit, it was Bree Zorel's hilarious photographs of mini-bergs--tiny accumulations of snow around Halifax, each one resembling a minor iceberg--that started me wondering, "and what do the pans of ice that stack up on our shore look like?"

Because I'm much more serious than Bree is (well, in demeanor only; a comedic artist is really about as serious as one can get, and that's what she is), my thoughts turned instantly to romantic images of ships stuck fast in the ice. (Ah, the tragedy, the mockery of human ambition, the dashing of the well-laid plan! You see how German philosophy fits me like a glove. I'm steeped in it and cannot get these tea stains out of my head.)

In particular, I thought of Caspar David Friedrich (a Swede by birth, a fact that did not exempt him from darkening romantic thoughts; he too received German training and is usually considered German), and of that painting known variously as The Wreck of the Hope, The Polar Sea, and The Sea of Ice.  Completed in 1824, during a period of great despair in the painter's life, the work was not particularly well-received.  Even contemporary commentators have described it as overwrought--a work that "goes beyond documentary into allegory: the frail bark of human aspiration crushed by the world's immense and glacial indifference." (This is, itself, quite dramatic wringing commentary--was the painter ever particularly "documentary" in ambition or execution? Really?)

But there we are. I have my model, such as it is, for what this ice resembles, and what--perhaps--it means.

Do you see the Hope there, a dark shape, a crushed and splintered ship to the right of the largest stack-up of slabs of ice? That it will founder is a conclusion we cannot avoid. Still, how beautiful the ice!

Caspar David Friedrich, Wreck of the Hope, 1823-4, Kunsthalle, Hamburg

Caspar David Friedrich freezes up on our shore, a set on Flickr. To see enlargements of the photographs, click on each one.

Quote about Friedrich's painting comes from "Art: the Awe-Struck Witness," Time, October 28, 1974.

Sea Ice Breaks On the Shore


It begins, slowly, the ice-up.

Freshwater freezes first, and near the shore, skims and plaques of ice form on the surface. They float in on the high tide and, then, as the water sucks back out, the ice is left behind to crack over rocks and barrels and tree limbs and other detritus.

At first the ice is very thin, and because it contains some salt, brittle, like shattered glass. Then it thickens, breaks, forms again, breaks, thickens, until huge boulders and pans of ice lie scattered across the beaches, an impassible wreckage, the sea a solid frozen mass without colour or visible movement.

Then the seals come deep into the bays to pup; we see them out on the ice, moving first one flipper, then another.

But we're not at that point yet. The icing up is just beginning here....Breaking, reforming, thicker than before.

Click on each small photograph to see a larger image in Flickr.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Fata Morganas Studied, Seen and Found


Q: What is a fata morgana?

A: A fata morgana is an elevated, distorting mirage that usually appears over large bodies of water, grass or sand, though apparently it can be seen anywhere, even in the air from an airplane if the conditions are right. In a fata morgana mirage, islands or ships at sea appear to lift off of the water or to be stretched and stacked upon the water, typically in great layercakes alternating right-side up and upside-down forms.

Sometimes, fata morganas make objects appear where none are. One day off of the west coast of Greenland, for example, we saw, in the distance, what seemed to be a large modern city rising out of the sea. It looked as if Panama City had suddenly sprung up north of the arctic circle. No such thing was there of course; nothing at all was, although for a time, it looked as if numerous glass and steel towers clustered on some edge of land to our east.

This was not the first time sailors in the far north thought they saw things where there were none: in 1818, while hunting for the Northwest Passage, Sir John Ross arrived in Lancaster Sound and thought he saw a mountainous mass of land.  Several of his officers argued that he was seeing a mirage, but he would not heed them,  and because he thought he could not pass, turned around and sailed back to England. He named his vision Crocker Mountains, after a man who was then First Secretary of the Navy. A year later his first mate, William Edward Parry sailed through those mountains and further west, into the Northwest Passage, leaving the reputation of Sir John Ross in tatters.

Nearly a century later, in 1906, Robert Peary sighted what he believed was a land mass, which he placed at about 83 degrees north latitude and 100 degrees west longitude. Ironically enough, he called his vision "Crocker Land," though his Crocker was not the same Crocker, but a fellow in the Peary Arctic Club. Seven years later,  in 1913, at great expense, Donald Baxter MacMillan launched the "Crocker Land Expedition," to find and chart Peary's imaginary landmass. They thought they found it; according to MacMillan's notes they saw "hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon.” Piugaattoq, an Inuit hunter traveling with the expedition told the explorers that what they were seeing was "mist," an illusion, but, naturally, in typical arctic explorer fashion, they didn't believe him and pressed on for days through dangerous breaking sea ice. Finally they gave up, admitted Piugaattoq was right, and turned around.

Q: What causes a fata morgana?

A: Typically, warm air lies in a layer over the earth, while cooler air rises into the atmosphere.  But sometimes, in calm weather, this order is inverted, and a layer of warm air lies above a significantly cooler surface layer.  The sharp temperature gradient between these two layers may create conditions where what is called an atmospheric duct, a zone of refraction between the two layers, functions like a lens, bending light rays more strongly than the curvature of the earth.  When this happens, you get fata morgana effects, in which reflections from the water or ice or land or air are refracted upward, from denser cool air towards less dense warmer air and stacked on top of one another or otherwise distorted.  These can be photographed because they are not simply optical illusions, but real atmospheric effects.

Q: Where does that name, fata morgana, come from? What does it mean?

A: According to writer Morgen Jahnke, "Fata Morgana is the Italian name for Morgan le Fay, the half-sister of King Arthur in Arthurian legend. Reputedly a sorceress and able to change shape at will, Morgan le Fay was sometimes said to live below the sea in a crystal palace that could also rise above the surface. The fata morgana effect was so named for the superstitious belief among sailors that she created illusory visions to lure men into a false port and to their death."  

The term was in usage in English in 1818, to describe a "peculiar mirage" that appeared in the Strait of Messina, a narrow body of water between Sicily and the southern Italian region of Calabria, and was locally ascribed to "a fay Morgana."  Soon however, the use of the term was more widespread.  Thus, for example, in 1873, in his poem, "Fata Morgana," a tiny fragment of a much longer work entitled Birds of Passage, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes:

The weary traveler sees
In desert or prairie vast,
Blue lakes, overhung with trees
That a pleasant shadow cast;

Fair towns with turrets high,
And shining roofs of gold,
That vanish as he draws nigh...

FATA MORGANA SEEN--Look, that island is standing on its head!

8 February 2012

Glittering sunshine, cold blue air.  An edge of Ship Island lifts up off of the water like the sole of a shoe coming unglued. Not yet a fata morgana, but when the water gets colder, it will be. Funny how light shimmers in the heat or mimics water, tossing illusory puddles in the road, but elevates in the cold and mimics air, building fantasy castles and other odd forms.

I wonder if we find ourselves fascinated by mirages because they fight against the notion that our senses impart truths to us about the world.  But when our senses show us things that aren't "really true," or "really just as they seem," it is perhaps not our senses that are out of order, but our interpretive capacities.

The positional information we receive from our senses rarely designates "true points," as any navigator knows. Everything is perspectival; everything lies in parallax. As you approach any object or island or land mass, shortening the angle of your view, the object's position seems to shift.

This is one of the pleasures and wonders and dangers of seeing. And drawing. What you see or what you sense is not as you think it should be, but as it is, elsewhere, according to some other logic, which is what you must then discover.  Such labour of discovery is ultimately the work of living. Truly. Deeply. And yes madly.  Who would want it any other way?


Because it's shifting.  And enchanting.
Werner Herzog, Fata Morgana, 1970 (

Photo: Beaver Harbour Light, Harbour Islands seen from Sober Island. January 2012
Andy Young, "An Introduction to Mirages,"
Morgen Jahnke, "The Fata Morgana Effect" Interesting Thing of the Day, July 24, 2006,
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Fata Morgana," 1873,

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Bog Walk

Finally, a day of light.

It is sunny, bright, cold; the frozen sea glitters and the snow-covered pond lies in blue shadows. Our salt-caked windows refract and soften the light, turn it golden as the tones in an old photograph.

We decide to walk across the barrens, as the spruce bog that stretches between Port Dufferin and West Quoddy is called here. Impassable to humans in all but a deep freeze, the barrens are anything but empty land. Coyotes live and hunt and pup in the bog; we've come across the remains of downed deer while skiing, and stood at the edge of the tamped down ring from whence the coyotes howl. And twice we've followed the tracks of a black bear through the snow. The barrens are not a place to be at night, but they're fine to explore in the midday sun, the dog trotting sniffing happily beside us.

Deep ponds extend beneath the roots of the spruces and other arctic succulents native to the bog. This is really a rough and brushy northern desert, a place that stores water and nurtures plants with hardy, spiny, even carnivorous properties, like the rare--though not here--pitcher plant, which lures insects with its flower, and then, when they tumble into the waiting tubular stem, digests them. Hillocks of juniper shelter tiny sheepskill bushes, and short trees, no higher than my waist, gnarl in the wind.

Lichen and moss-covered ridges of slatey stone run at odd angles across the landscape; taller spruce forests grow up in their lee, and are quite impenetrable, forcing us, and the deer, to meander in circles on the perimeters of the barrens. Now and then, despite the cold snap these last few days, we break through the ice to the black water below. Ice gathers on our boots.

It is easy to get deranged in this landscape.  The bog appears to be a vast bowl surrounded by trees, though there are higher and lower sections, bounded--and thus hidden from view--by the ridges.  The landscape can look the same as itself from any direction; often you cannot quite see where you are going, or where you have come from.

It is warm on the barrens; here, in this bowl, we are sheltered from the bitter northeast wind blowing across the water, and we stop now and then to turn our faces to light. We take the sun as our guide and listen for the sound of the road so that we know which way to turn as we wander from one deer trail to another.  In this way we orient ourselves until we come to the edge of the barrens and see the backs of shut up summer cottages and an old barn, dripping icicles in the sun.

Elisabeth has been here before us; we see her tracks.  With the dog in the lead, we follow her footsteps back to the house, and Marike heats up squash soup for lunch.