A few days ago I saw an image on the internet that imprinted itself on my subconscious. It was all the more shocking because I was exploring something entirely different, and as a result I was quite unprepared for what I saw. It was a small picture at the bottom of my screen of a starving polar bear attempting to climb onto a thin fragment of ice. The bear looked to be a quarter or even less of its normal weight: there was little left of the creature. It was the remains of a polar bear.
A number of years ago I had the privilege of visiting Greenland. It is a wondrous country: the biggest island in the world with just fifty thousand of a population. There are no roads in Greenland: the tiny communities that hug the coast are linked by sea. I have thought of it since as a child’s fantasy kingdom: when you look up at the mountains you can hardly believe the height of them, or the sharpness of the peaks. It is the most hauntingly beautiful place I have ever seen.
I spoke to a man from one of the villages who remembered his childhood. He said that when he was a boy they drove round to visit friends in winter. Not by road – there were no roads then any more than there are none now – but by sea. They got into their cars and they crossed the sea ice to visit friends. Now, he told us, there is no sea ice. Not that it is too thin for such driving: there is no ice at all. He told us the ice is retreating a full ten miles each year.
Before I left Greenland I bought one souvenir – a tiny carved polar bear. A long time later I wrote this poem, remembering the precious days of our stay and thinking of the future. I thought of it the other day, when I saw the image of the starving polar bear and all day could not put it from my mind.
Last year in Greenland I bought it
Under great whales of mountains by a sea of ice,
From a table of things all carved from shining:
Little men threading water, their softstone canoes,
Walrus rearing at harpoons in mid-roar.
Now, all this time later, that place
Remains like some story from a book.
I turn it in the light, my polar bear on a pad of ice,
And think of the world wilting in the sun’s wrath,
And nowhere left for the polar bear to go.
Kenneth Steven www.kennethsteven.co.uk
From Salt and Light, published in 2011 by Saint Andrew Press