On and off the Arctic Circle Trail (2)

Arctic Litter Trail
Litter in hunting area, Itinneq (Ole's Lakseelv). © Lodewijk Muns 2017

Rocks and clouds, shrubs and moss. A minimalist landscape in endless variations. The arctic tundra has a melancholy quality, with autumnal colours in late summer.

A different kind of melancholy was on our minds when we booked our passage to Greenland. Melancholy, or rather anguish: about the fragility of its habitats, the melting icecap, the opening northwest passage, container ship pollution and small ports exploding into large commercial centres. The doom of progress pushed onward by a mentality of environmental disrespect.

A mentality that leaves its traces, on a small but disturbing scale, on the trail itself.

“Hiker” does not equal “nature lover”, is one lesson I learned on the ACT. But what motivates people to take the trouble and pay the expenses of travelling to a remote place, carrying a week’s necessities on their backs, and not care about the environment they’ve chosen to be in — I haven’t a clue.

arctic hareIf on the ACT you spot something white, chances are 0,5% that it’s an arctic hare, an animal smartly camouflaged for the snow, but playing sitting duck in summer. In 99,5% of the cases it’s toilet paper.

Burying your paper and excrement away from the trail and water is a generally recommended “leave no trace” practice, as should be the use of biodegradable recycled paper. It is often recommended to burn toilet paper, but in an area where much of the soil is fuel (peat) that’s a risky practice — and it seems to have been the cause of a wildfire near the Ikkattooq hut in 2016.

Looking back towards the burnt area on the west end of lake Amitsorsuaq. © Lodewijk Muns 2017

Wildfires became an issue just a few days before our departure, making part of the trail inaccessible. Their unusual severity made world headlines and caused worries about CO2 release and soot pollution. An exceptionally dry summer had made the peat soil highly combustible, possibly also due to degrading permafrost, and more indirectly, climate change.

The immediate causes are uncertain. Lightning is known to have sparked them off sometimes, but a trail-on-the-trail of cigarette butts all the way from Kangerlussuaq to Sisimiut raises different suspicions. Not only hikers are to blame for negligence and unsanitary habits. Some of the evidence (cartridge holders, animal remains, and probably the cardboard box in the picture above) points to hunters.

The amount of litter along the trail shows how popular it has become. We rarely encountered fewer than four fellow hikers on one day; and on a wilderness trail that’s almost a crowd. The total number per year was an estimated 300 according to Paddy Dillon’s 2010 guidebook, but a poster nailed to the wall of each of the huts along the trail speaks of nearly 1300. The poster is signed by Frieder Weiße, chairman of Polar-Routen eV – Association for the Promotion of Hiking and Conservation of Nature in Greenland. Weiße has carefully calculated the figure on the basis of his inspection of the entries in guest books in the huts and interviews. (He has kindly sent me his report by email, and hopefully it will soon be available on his website).

Weiße conducts a campaign for trail hygiene, calling upon hikers to collect garbage and document their work through an internet form. He is also campaigning against the ATV track that threatens to spoil the area between Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut, a project (as I wrote in my previous post) that is thought to bring greater prosperity to the Qeqqata community.

Compared to cruise tourists and trophy hunters, hikers may be a poor source of revenue. They import their own freez-dried food and sleep mostly for free in tents or in the huts. Still, by Weiße’s estimate the ACT contributes a revenue of 1.46 million euros (11 million DKK) to Greenland’s economy, at little cost.

Unfortunately there’s a limit to the popularity a wilderness trail can endure, without ceasing to be both trail and wilderness.


On and off the Arctic Circle Trail (1)

Two Towns, and What Lies between Them
Leaving Kangerlussuaq. © Lodewijk Muns 2017

The somewhat grandly named Arctic Circle Trail parallels a tiny 165 km segment of the Arctic Circle. It runs between two Greenlandic towns not connected by any road, Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut. What lies between them is rock, swamp, shrubland, an uncountable number of picturesque lakes, pools and puddles, and a trail increasingly trodden by walkers from all over the world.

With snow covering the land for most of the year, an overland connection should be of limited use. Under a snowmobile’s caterpillar tracks the hiker’s 7-12 days journey shrinks to one of less than two hours. A car should be nearly useless, I would think, when all you can do is drive some 35 km to the ice cap in the north-east, and 10 km to the harbour in the south-west.

For Kangerlussuaq, 500 souls, is little more than an airport and a small harbour. Established in 1941 as a US air base, it still is a settlement rather than a town, with the somewhat unsettled quality that the word implies. Its peculiar charm is mostly its lack of any, a certain casual harmony between its grim functional architecture and the bleak landscape, with a river of milky and undrinkable melting water that flows into a sandy fjord.

Smells of kerosene and gasoline fill the air. Considering the size of the town and its disconnectedness, the number of motorized vehicles on the road is stunning. Among them a large number of touring cars that transport tourists en masse from a cruise ship in the harbour to the end of the north-eastern road. There they can set foot upon a tip of the ice sheet that covers most of this gigantic island. Luckily we had completed that part of our walk before the ship’s arrival.

And among all these vehicles not a taxi is to be found. After walking all the way to the ice cap and back (with no regret), we decided to follow the guidebook advice and let a taxi take us to the end of the south-western road, where the trail ‘officially’ starts. The taxi stand is empty, the telephone is disconnected. When I make inquiries at the tourist information desk, a grumpy Danish giant mumbles something about a copper coloured car. A copperish car is parked outside the post office. The post office is closed.

Fifteen minutes later I watch the unhelpful Dane driving away, to be replaced — in my imagination — with a friendly Inuit lady. Returning to the desk I find a lady who looks formidable but is friendly enough, though not recognizably Inuit, and at least is able to explain the situation. If the telephone is disconnected, the taxi is at the harbour, 10 km down the road. Beyond range.

Faced with the choice of carrying our 25 kilo backpacks along the road and waiting indefinitely, we decide to walk. The weather is splendid (finally) and having set foot on the island three days ago we still excitedly remind each other and ourselves: We’re on Greenland!Sisimiut towards the Northwest.

Eleven days later, first glimpses of Sisimiut. Howling sledge dogs greet the wanderer from afar, but it takes a tantalizing 40 minutes to reach the first sheds and doghouses. Minutes during which the town seems to sink mysteriously between the rocks, as if it were a leaky ship. After that, fresh bread and coffee at the famous konditori, with a grand view of the cemetery.

With a population ten times that of Kangerlussuaq, Sisimiut is definitely a town, even though its uneven rocky basis produces an adventurous, chaotically surprising town plan. Traffic hardly quiets down during the night. And what surprises us most, after past experience: every second car is a taxi. A fisherman who has stepped out of his boat with a three foot halibut quickly wraps it in plastic, whistles a taxi, and puts it in the trunk. Out of another steps a lady with shopping bag, and lightfootedly climbs a pathless rocky slope towards her invisible house.

What lies in between these towns is rock, swamp, shrubland, lakes, pools and puddles — a walker’s paradise. Walkers, wanderers and hikers should pray and hope and fight that it will remain that way.

Marius Olsen, Chairman of the Living Resources Committee of the Municipality of Qeqqata, argues that “We can make better use of our living resources than we do now”. An ATV (or quad) track between Sisimiut and Kangerlussuaq “and later on a real road” would allow for the establishment of muskox and reindeer farms and transportation of seafood from Sisimiut to Kangerlussuaq.

What Mr Olsen and others fail to recognize is that this quad track will mean the end of the ACT. The end of silence, clean air and water, and untouched wilderness. The end of experiencing the landscape from the landscape.

The Art of the Branded Self

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

Häkschle zum 60.: Schnittpunkt III and Gerade IV in the Kunsthaus Brönitz.

At the advanced age of 60 and with a name designed to be garbled, the painter Roald Häkschle has unexpectedly made it into the major museum circuit. It makes one wonder what makes a painter successful in an age in which the art of painting itself seems to be an anachronism.

The first requisite is, I guess, a simple formula. Better stick to one idea and keep repeating it. A Häkschle is easily recognized by its limited subject matter — blind walls and pavements, minutely rendered repetitive surfaces that never seem to be part of any solid construction. Subdued colours: shades of red, yellow and (occasionally) blue.

And of course we recognize a Häkschle through the omnipresent figure of the painter himself, foreshortened, with heavy legs and a little head, dressed only in a short raincoat, under a 1940s type of hat. Always gazing away from us, showing his gray ponytail (which, I’ve heard it whispered, is false).

Every Häkschle is in fact a huge selfie. In the present climate of hysterical self-promotion it will no doubt help to put yourself into everything you make, and in this ego market Häkschle seems determined to compete by size if nothing else. Too big for your living room, his canvases stake their claim to public walls.

Behind every successful artist there is a broker, and in this case his name is Ernst Bronn. “Häkschle teaches us something,” he writes in the catalogue. “The man who stands on a street corner in Schnittpunkt III, hesitating and suspicious, maybe, faces the immeasurable emptiness ahead. It may be sunny on the other side of the street, but this naive yellow light may well be the false glow of empty promises and futile hope. The nudity of his stout legs makes him look both strong and vulnerable.”

(Two visitors in front of me were arguing whether he was taking a piss. He isn’t.)

“This recurring figure may borrow some of the artist’s features, but at the same time he is Everyman (and, I dare say, every woman, transgender and bisexual), trapped, like all of us, between walls, stuck at crossroads.”

True, but trivial. Maybe superficial symbolism too may help in becoming famous.

And strong one-liners. “The whole distinction between abstract and figurative is bullshit.” (“Der ganze Unterschied, abstrakt oder figurativ, der ist ja Scheiße.”)

It is true, a figurative painting may be seen in an abstract way (think of Vermeer, the master of red, yellow and blue); but the other way round? Häkschle’s titles suggest the abstraction of mathematics: intersection, line, plane (Schnittpunkt, Gerade, Fläche), as if we should forget the man in the raincoat and focus on the composition. But in every painting there is geometry to be found — so what’s special?

Is there anything about these paintings that makes one want to call out loud: this must be seen?

They have a vaguely surrealist, disturbing atmosphere. Mostly through the false perspective, the flat surfaces, rather like the scenery of computer games (and obviously the artist has designed his pictures on the PC). But like computer games, they leave an impression of mental constriction.

Roald Häkschle, Schnittpunkt III © Lodewijk Muns 2017

Roald Häkschle, Schnittpunkt III

Häkschle likes to play with focus in a photographic way, and sometimes creates a kind of dynamics within the static composition. Here size is of the essence; you can’t have the experience through a reproduction. Walk up to Schnittpunkt III, and the lack of focus in the brick wall may give you an uncomfortably dizzy feeling. Your gaze will be forced towards the sharply drawn human figure, far on the right.

Beyond that, a “false glow of empty promises”.

The Bad, the Ugly, and the Shameless

Aesthetics and ethics. If ever there was a time to rethink these concepts and how they relate, it is now. As it was yesterday, and will be tomorrow (if we’re still here).

One thing baffling about Trumpian anti-culture is its utterly shameless inversion of values — of transforming vice (lying, denigrating, boasting, bullying) into a kind of anti-virtue. But even more striking is the way bad morals, bad taste, and shamelessness are perfectly aligned. The bad taste of gold plated office buildings, golf courses and pageants. A caricature of the nouveau-riche, even though the man is old-riche and has had ample opportunity to better his judgement.

De Efteling (2014)In The Netherlands a little row has occurred these days over a news blog called GeenStijl (roughly translatable as Bad Taste). ‘Tendentious, unfounded and needlessly offensive’ by its own definition, it attempts to convert vice into a kind of anti-virtue without altering its substance. Not so much a channel of free, anti-establishment speech, as a depressingly sordid puddle of racist and sexist abuse.

When this newsblog attacked a critical female journalist by inviting its readers to submit rape fantasies (a call promptly answered), 130 of her colleagues responded with a manifesto that was printed in two national newspapers, calling upon the site’s advertisers to withdraw their sponsorship.

A sensible and fair action. If you don’t like it, don’t buy it. It’s just a pity that the action should be female-only, since that tends to confirm the opponent’s stereotypes (‘broom riders’).

Among the (sometimes unwitting) advertisers are McDonald’s, Rabobank, the Dutch Tax Authority and Ministry of Defence, De Efteling, and bol.com webshop. De Efteling is a fairytale theme park designed in a kind of neo-Biedermeier style. But its spokesman should find no major discrepancy between the site’s rapist hooliganism and De Efteling’s own ‘ideology’ (gedachtegoed). The Ministry of Defence initially saw no way of recruiting 4000 young males per annum without addressing the site’s typically male young adult audience (arming rapists with Brownings?), but has fortunately revised its position.

My personal dealings are limited to bol.com as a book supplier. So I let them know that I intended to suspend my patronage. Their answer: that they had one campaign running, and would reconsider only afterwards. Not good enough.

Bad style, bad taste, bad morals. The scary thing is that with its nearly 2 million unique visitors per month the site is not an obscure and negligible fringe phenomenon. As a branch of media company TMG it is firmly embedded in the right-wing commercial mainstream, which indirectly receives such encouraging support from the White House.

Is the fight against bad morals a fight against bad taste? Is there some common ground of shared — preferably, permanent — values between morality and aesthetics, some kind of ethical-aesthetic imperative? Does the Enlightenment idea of a morally uplifting cultural education, of improvement-through-art still have any validity?

If a pathological lack of shame is the clue to Trumpian politics, general behaviour, and aesthetics, maybe we should recommend a healthy sense of shame and good-natured modesty as ethic-aesthetic counter-attitudes. An old-fashioned virtue that is hard to cultivate in a society which constantly urges individuals to engage in bloated self-promotion.

The Road and the Landscape (2), or: Can Green Be Right?

Flakkee, Zuid-Holland © Lodewijk Muns 2016

Q. What is the first thing you would do once you are free to go outside?
A. I think I would take my own car which I haven’t been able to use for a very long time and would take a ride all by myself and enjoy it.
A child interviewing PVV party leader Geert Wilders, who has been living under close protection for twelve years. Jeugdjournaal (Kids News), Dutch NOS television, 3 March 2017

This is a man who watches the landscape from the road. Freedom equals driving a car. Unsurprisingly, a vehicle tax reduction of 50% is the crowning point nr. 11 of his one-page election ‘programme‘.

The position of this man’s Freedom Party (PVV) in the political spectrum is clear (even though its basic neoliberal austerity is sweetened with welfare goodies). Islam should be banned; the Netherlands should leave the EU; and human-induced climate change is a hoax.

If there seems to be a consistency between these principles, it is largely an effect of habituation. In fact, there is no logical contradiction between concerns about the rise of islamic militancy and oppression, about the social and environmental effects of immigration and overpopulation, and about global warming. One may consistently be anti-islamic and anti-fossil.

How green can the right be?

‘Green-right’ is a small niche that in the Netherlands has for some time been filled by fringe parties, unable to overcome the electoral threshold (Groen-Rechts, Partij voor Milieu en Recht, both defunct; Groen Liberale Partij, Nederland Duurzaam, and the cutely named Partij Bonte Koe or Spotted Cow Party). A few dropouts have found an unlikely refuge in Wilders’ PVV. It is a pale shade of green. Pro animal welfare, pro open landscapes, but anti wind energy — which counts as landscape ‘pollution’.

Undeniably, a nostalgic regret for disappearing landscapes may be one of the causes of feeling ‘green’. But though this nostalgia may easily take a nationalist tinge, it is totally at odds with the PVV’s fiercely automobilistic fossil freedom ideology.

A more prominent, but wishful liberal ‘green’ initiative (trusting the market to clean things up) has died as ingloriously in the Netherlands as it has in the UK. There is a fundamental contradiction between environmentalism and capitalism/(neo-)liberalism. Green politics calls for radical changes in production and consumption patterns. Which in turn call for government initiative.

But with an election outcome that favours a coalition encompassing the leftist green and the moderate right it has become an urgent question how far the right can be pulled toward the green side.

Elections, Muddleheadedness and Music

stemming  /’stɛmɪŋ/ (nom. fem.) 1. voting, vote; ballot; 2. ♪ tuning; 3. frame of mind; …

One good thing about the Dutch electoral system is that its low threshold allows so many parties to enter parliament, that absolute majorities are unlikely to arise. Maybe this mechanism has just protected us (the Dutch) from being governed by the nationalist ultraright.

Another effect of the system is that for any crackpot idea you may find a party to represent it, and sometimes several. Take, for example, basic income (a form of social security dispensed to all citizens unconditionally). To be sure, I don’t think this is a crackpot idea. There are strong arguments in its favour, and four parties in parliament at least encourage experiments (PvdA, D66, GroenLinks, Partij voor de Dieren).

And exactly because it should be taken seriously it is a pity that two fringe parties (which failed to win a seat) have made it their nr. 1 priority: the Basic Income Party (Basisinkomenpartij) and the Freethinkers’ Party (Vrijzinnige Partij, VP). “Free thinking”, I’m afraid, is a euphemism for muddleheadedness. Witness the curious paragraph on music in their election programme.

Much of the the trouble and strife in the world, according to the freethinkers, is due to the fact that musicians tune to a “fundamental” (grondtoon) of 440 Hz. This tuning “provokes discord and agression”. If only musicians would attune to a “natural” 432, harmony would spread through society.

The mistakenly so-called “fundamental” is, evidently, the conventional pitch standard (or “concert pitch”), fixed by reference to the A written in the treble clef. Now, the idea that this somewhat arbitrarily established standard is “unnatural” (and therefore unhealthy) is not new. Tracing its origins will send you spiralling down into a netherworld of superstition, pseudoscience, number mysticism and conspiracy theories. Which I disrespectfully decline.

If this proposal deserves to be mentioned at all, ever so briefly, it is because in the press coverage absurdity was raised to the superlative. In a somewhat ironic reportage, De Volkskrant, a leading newspaper, defined the so-called “fundamental” as “the lowest pitch produced by a vibrating source, such as a musical instrument.” (A mistake for which the journal’s editor may be to blame, who evidently relied on Wikipedia). As a result, the Dutch government was called upon to lower the range of musical instruments (to 432 Hz!), preferably in a European collaborative framework.

The fact that this garbled version of a muddleheaded idea has spread across the internet shows the helpless ignorance of the average citizen when faced with even the most basic concepts of music. Fixing the basics (De basis op orde) was the Freethinkers’ Party’s election slogan. Let’s fix the basics of education — giving their due to both music and critical thought.


*) To a smiley generation this may look like a grin and a black eye. But this is a not a post on faces, but a note on footnotes. A note lacking context, an aside without dialogue.

(Wouldn’t it be wonderful to watch a play of nothing but asides.)

I remember the first time I encountered a footnote, and I remember it, because the fascination I then felt hasn’t gone away. In some children’s book (Dutch, 1930’s, probably, as a child I read a lot of very old stuff), the author explained an unusual word at the bottom of the page. I even think I remember what it was:

*) De motorfiets werd toen, heel zot, “schetenfiets” genoemd.
*) In those days the motorcycle was called, oddly, “farting cycle”.

There may be some involuntary fantasy in this  (I have found no web traces of the word schetenfiets, which however deserves to be remembered — and will be, tagged with this post).

As an aside, as discourse within discourse, the footnote belongs to that broad category of phenomena known as recursive. Or rather, recursion is an abstract feature attributable to a wide range of unrelated phenomena. And as is well known, recursive features hold a (sometimes dangerous) fascination. You may think of Douglas Hofstadter, Noam Chomsky, or (if you’re a musicologist) Heinrich Schenker and Hugo Riemann.[1]

Brackets within brackets within brackets within brackets … which may hold whatever. Footnotes within footnotes within footnotes …

(Wouldn’t it be wonderful to read a book of only footnotes. — No.)

The footnote is an outcast, banished to the bottom of the page. Which is another of its charms. It may say what the main text isn’t allowed to say — a bright, but irrelevant observation; a criticism too argumentative, or a detail too particular to give prominence.

It should not be allowed to expand and take possession of the page, as is common in eighteenth and nineteenth century writing. Long elaborations are better consigned to an appendix (which nowadays may be easily published online). In which case one may add a recursive layer — footnotes within a footnote.[2]

But despite its charms, the footnote mostly serves a dull and humble purpose, that of providing references. Of the three common methods of citation, the first, common in scientific writing, dispenses with footnotes. It assimilates all references (author-date) into the text. This may be efficient, but frequently produces unreadable monstrosities like this:

It has often (Dunce, Dullard and Dolt 2002, Dolt and Dullard 2003, 2005a, Dunce et al. 20007a, b) been assumed that certain things are in certain ways, but more recently (Smart and Sharp 2009, Sharp 2012a, Spruce 2011, Smart, Sharp and Spruce 2015b) it has been argued that they may well be different, or even (Tidy and Bright 2016) nonexistent.

So I can understand why scholars in the humanities, who generally may be more concerned with the literary of rhetorical quality of their prose, prefer to relegate bibliographical data to the foot- or endnote area. Which is fine, as long as those references remain brief and in turn refer to a full bibliography.

Unfortunately, many journals in my field (musicology) still cherish the irrational practice of cramming all bibliographic information into the footnotes, with full citation first time and short titles afterwards (just crawl backwards through the notes to find that title …). In the face of a hugely expanding wealth of sources, this is a waste of space and effort.

And a pity, to bury your spicy asides in dry bibliographical data.

[1]^ See my Music, Language, and the Deceptive Charms of Recursive Grammars (2014).
[2]^ For instance, my Gustav Anton Freiherr von Seckendorff, alias Patrik Peale: A Biographical Note (2016).