When you first come to the Pole of Cold in Siberia, the coldest inhabited place in Northern hemisphere, where mercury freezes solid and a spit turns into ice before reaching the ground, you instantly live through a shock. Your mind and body appear to stop working. Your lips deep-freeze, your tongue gets paralyzed, and suddenly you can’t say your own name.
But as the time passes your body and mind gradually adapt to a new environment. As your mind changes, your language changes too. It becomes compressed. Paragraphs condense to sentences, and sentences condense to words. Every word becomes more meaningful. It gets extra layers; it gets extra depth. Intonation means more than a word itself.
In the West silence is often seen as the absence of thought, as a sign of intellectual backwardness, of rudeness, or of absolute indifference. But in the Arctic it is different. In the Arctic you don’t need words to convey a message. Silence is OK in the Arctic.
In the West you fill silence with small talk, but in the Arctic you don’t. You hear each other’s breath, and sometimes - each other’s heartbeat. It’s an inner language, the finest instrument of communication, finer than a body language. Words, compared to the sounds of heartbeat, appear to be rudimentary instruments of communication.
Traditionally the hunter was hunting alone, and he had no one to talk to – except for his dogs. But decent dogs don’t need words to understand their master. Even if the hunter were not alone, he would not speak either. Animals, such as seals or narwhales, can hear us from afar. They also have a fascinating ability to instantly scan our mind and read our inner thoughts, unpronounced, the ones that we are unaware of ourselves.
As a little girl, I was growing up in silence. The homeland of my ancestors was taiga, tundra, and peat bogs. Silence was an instrument of survival and a source of power. Instead of talking, we were taught to listen. If you talk too much, you become an easy target.
At the age of 5 I spent days wandering on peat-bogs in search of berries and wonders of life. Peat-bogs were treacherous. One misstep and you are sucked. Instead of walking you glide: you make your second step before you finished making the first one. Walking on peat-bogs requires concentration. You glide on the surface and tune to all sounds that may signal danger. And of course, you do it in silence.
In our Northern culture everything got life: a rock, a stump, a fire and a little fly. And they all have to be respected. And when you talk too much you don’t show them your respect.
When I first travelled to Europe and the US, I was astonished to find out how much people talk there. It was all “small talk”. My new friends filled every single pause with this small talk because a moment of silence is perceived here as disturbing and even aggressive. They were making so much unnecessary noise. In the Arctic this would be considered rude and ridiculous.
At the very beginning, I was paying great attention to what they were talking about. And it turned out that they talked mostly about themselves.
For more than 20 years I lived in New York, in this incredibly intellectual town where people talk day and night, non-stop. I love New York as much as I love the tundra. Except for the talking part… In big towns we talk to impress. We talk to stand out. We talk to conquer. But as we talk we lose an ability to listen. We hear only our own voice, and we miss all the things that are being said or rather – most importantly - not being said. Finally we get disoriented. And then we get lost. We call our doctor to get a prescription. And then we go to our pharmacy, pay a copay and then consume all these beautiful pink, yellow and purple magic pills that bring the oblivion to our worries.
When I was watching my another friend getting on anti-depressants, I always thought that Arctic would do a better job. It was a few years ago, when I started making silent expeditions with our friends who would visit us in the Arctic. We would walk for miles and not say a single word. And then, exhausted we would finally lie down on the snow and look up the sky. And then we would see things we have never noticed before. We would hear the sounds we have not heard earlier. These unfamiliar sounds were coming from underneath, from under the ice. We heard clearly another world talking to us: the world that was much grander than ours. So, we thought - why to fly to the cosmos? Cosmos was underneath us.
I have just lied to you when I said that Arctic is silent. There is no real silence here. Arctic silence consists of myriads of sounds that can’t be heard by an ear corrupted by small talk. Like barking of a seal, cracking of ice, howling of a wolf, sniffing of a snow fox, growling of a bear, breathing of the whale, nightly chorus of the dogs, a thunder-cap of a collapsing iceberg, scratching of a microscopic ice lice…
Every single of these expeditions was a miracle. It turned out that our ability to listen and to hear, even though it was corrupted, was still alive. We noticed that all our basic instincts that had once helped our ancestors to hear and to see things hidden behind the horizon suddenly came back. It meant that the ancient knowledge was not lost forever. You just need to take a break from constant talking, and all these magical things will return.
Couple years ago I was a guest speaker on the BBC The Forum, the World Service's flagship program on Silence. Among many other things, they asked me: “What was the moment when you were the closest to absolute silence?”
And then I suddenly remembered. It was 26 years ago, in the High Arctic, in the small settlement, in the middle of the summer which is the quietest season in the North. Most neighbors were gone camping. And I – pregnant with my second child – was walking away from the village, all alone, deep in my thoughts, looking down the road. When I finally looked up, a polar bear was staring at me from the opposite side of the dumpster. He came here for lunch. No more than 20 meters were separating us. Had he wanted he would have gotten me in merely 2 seconds.
But he did not. Instead we were looking at each other, scanning each other and waiting, repeating each other’s body language. This moment of absolute silence must have lasted for eternity. And then in the middle of that silence I heard – sounds of three hearts beating in unison: mine, polar bear’s and my unborn child’s. This story tells us how strange, tricky and incomprehensible sometimes silence can be….
You are welcome to join us and on one of our future expeditions. Please, write me an email and we can do it together!