Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Beauty Absolute

The Hubbard Glacier: hands down, the most amazing sight I've ever seen. We approach aboard ship, in water so calm it resembles a field of rippling grass. Ice litters the calm surface - in dots, chunks, slabs, bergs and little bergs (called, charmingly enough, "growlers"). The bay looks like a giant punchbowl near the end of the party, the original irregular ice-picked hunks now reduced to ice rubble.

The glacier itself is visible to us from 30 miles away. It appears to be still, but is in shape plainly identifiable as a river of ice inching downward. Its face is that now familiar aqua-y blue, striped with white and brown crevasses. Its scale is hard to judge visually (like everything in Alaska), but as we slowly pull away, another cruise ship moves in to take our place and pretty soon it becomes clear that the glacier is huge - far, far more massive than our eyes are telling us. The glacier's scale swallows the replacement cruise ship and makes it look like a toy.

Cruise ships are about 140 feet tall; the glacier's face is 400-500 feet tall - and that's just the face, the flat vertical part at the terminus that, for this tidewater glacier, falls into the sea (and continues all the way to the sea bed far, far below).
The Hubbard Glacier is 6.5 miles wide, 1,200 feet deep and 76 miles long. Our heads know these facts, but our brains somehow can't square them with what our eyes are seeing. Such is the scale of Yakutat Bay and the surrounding mountains that the glacier's face, nestled as it is in the gentle, folding curve of the fjord, looks like maybe a few football fields in length. Even as the river of ice breaking off at the face stretches back and up the huge gully it created, disappearing eventually into the clouds, it seems manageable - big, but not beyond taking in visually.

Cameras definitely can't capture this grandeur. Pictures all look too flat, too static, and the light isn't right. I'm struggling to come up with properly descriptive words, too, despite the clarity of the image before me and the picture in my mind's eye. The silvery white backdrop is bright in a way that clouds in the Lower 48 are not. The fluffy heaviness of the clouds drops in places into discrete puffs that hover over mountain peaks or fill up valleys. In other places, the clouds stripe into tendrils that connect to and seem to be pulling up cones of vapor from the sea. The rounded, tree-covered mountain mounds share the horizon on all sides with the higher, craggy peaks that were tall enough to have ridden above the once blanketing tide of ice. Spots - or so they look, although they're probably half a mile square or more - of snow daub the high granite peaks, looking restful and like permanent fixtures, not remnants. It's gorgeous, majestic, pristine, peaceful.

The simplicity and relative monochromaticity do not make the landscape austere. It's serene. Is it the scale that creates the serenity? The evidence of tens of thousands of years of constant, incremental and inexorable geologic activity, purposeful, but not reasoned? The complete absence of any evidence indicating human activity?

It's impossible to behold a glacier up close and simultaneously consider important or worrisome the price of a stock or the sale of a book. In the face of something so monumental, life for people gets placed in the same category as life for animals or plants - a matter of food, shelter, survival and alignment with nature, such competition as there is more fundamentally necessary than self-aggrandizing. This scenery evokes purity - of color, elements, needs, motives and emotions.

No comments: