1 August 2017
muskoxen butt the sparkling crust furrowed to sastrugi : sharp crescents of cold ingrained in snow crystals that melted, froze, remelted and refroze on windward slopes of snow dunes heaped here by the blizzards then eroded to anvils pointing upwind to meet more wind – gravity winds – by late March geometries and hunger become more abrupt recrystallized grain clusters swallow sunrays squat muskoxen swallow saliva hunters and their dogs swallow shame muskoxen push their horned heads towards the air pooled under the slab snow propped by bent-over spikelets of Arctic wheatgrass promising other ground-hugging plants : crowberry dwarf birch beach rye grass soft to the squared-off warty laminae of their lips they inspect their daily portion of two kilometres they amble between feeding grounds where frozen shallow water doesn’t allow a whirl yet they cross the polar desert towards the barren plateaus frequented by high winds which sweep the snow off the edges of cliffs muskoxen remember last spring the cliffs welcomed – briefly – nesting birds the guano fertilized succulent green now swallowed by the starving white the hungry polar cattle whose long brown shaggy coats repel the wind and rain and snow and keep the warm winter secret of every long-bearded one (here hunters call a muskox umimmaat) : qiviut cashmerelike underwool fine down feathers of little auks calling alle alle under the coarse guard hairs while on slippery slopes muskoxen splay their two-toed hooves dead keratin in the dead of winter – where no warm blood runs no heat is lost – in their firm contact with the firn if this densified snow has survived one melt season they too can survive : they will paw their small eating craters to reach the matted roots of the only woody plant that can grow beyond the treeline on this dry dwarf shrub heath Salix arctica in the short spring its oval leaves will offer more vitamin C than oranges the violet of its catkins will carry more warmth than the surrounding plateaus so its seeds and pollen may quicken and attract insects just as the Arctic willow attracts muskoxen like muskoxen it grows long fluffy hair on its silvery leaves to protect the warmth so precious in this land Greenland where refugia mean survival for this species of sheep oxen counted in late winter while their dark coats are still spotted against the white when the fixed-wing aircraft overhead makes them clump: rumps together horns outwards in a tight circle or a crescent of defence that withstands Arctic wolves but invites firearms when the quota – and the hunger – cannot be negotiated the colony’s Manager writes in Muskox Daybook (entry 3, 1932): Hunter Niels Arke, Kap Hope, reported taking a musk ox. I killed an animal because we had nothing to eat, and because my dogs were very exhausted by too little food. I had passed the animal, but turned back as I found it necessary to kill it. Hunter Niels, who has ten children, could not pay immediately, but was fined 10 kroner, which he was to pay when he was able to.
*The italicised quotations come from Stories from Scoresbysund: Photographs, Colonization and Mapping by the Greenlandic-Danish visual artist Pia Arke (Pia Arke Selskabet & Kuratorisk Aktion, 2010) 65-66.
** Umimmaat (‘long-bearded one’) – the Greenlandic name for muskox used in Arke’s book; dialectal variants include: Umimmak, Umingmak, Omingmak, Oomingmak. In 1816, Blainville coined ‘Ovibos Moschatus’ (also a chapter title in Stories from Scoresbysund), combining ‘sheep’ and ‘ox’ in a mistaken belief that muskox had only two teats. In the 1920’s Arctic explorer Stefansson objected to ‘muskox’, since the animal has no musk glands; Stefansson preferred ‘polar cattle’ to promote the domestication of muskoxen.
*** Little Auk, a bird species otherwise known as Dovekie (Alle alle), arrives at its Greenland breeding colonies in early May and abandons them in August.