The Last Year

We are well into the year and I think it is time to say that this will be my last year on Svalbard. As the great American philosopher, Kenny Rogers, once said, “You have to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, and know when to walk away.” It is my time to walk away. At some undecided date, most likely early 2025, I will return to the US, to the Pacific Northwest.

My first landfall on Svalbard was in 2017. It was five years after my husband’s death, and I was still in the grey years of grief. My arrival in the Arctic — Greenland and Svalbard — was a revelation. To put it simply, I fell passionately in love with the Arctic. When I returned to Seattle I knew I would do anything necessary to move to Svalbard. To make a long story short, I returned in 2018, and made arrangements to stay.

Just three months, I told my friends. Six months. A year. It’s been seven. During that time, every leaving of this place was a heartbreak. Every return a joyful reunion. It has been an intense, challenging, and sometimes difficult life. I have loved every second. I have seen extraordinary things, I have done things that I never dreamed that I was capable of doing. This place has changed me, as it changes everyone with the courage to love it. It was one of the best things I have ever done.

I have done the best work of my life here. I have grown as an artist. I have experimented, tried new things, and made images that I am proud of. I’ve re-engaged with cyanotypes in a way that is deeply meaningful for me, and I can see my path with that work going forward as well as with my painting and photographic practice. Here I had the focus, the determination, and the time to pursue my work. It has been Svalbard’s greatest gift to me.

But there is a price to pay for this life. I have missed weddings, deaths, funerals, and births because every trip back is a multi-day, expensive undertaking. During the years of Covid I wasn’t sure when I would see my son again, if ever. During those two years he got his PhD, a wife, a job, and a baby. I wasn’t present for much of that. His family is the primary reason for my return. My granddaughter will be four. If I want to be part of her life, then I need to be where she is.

There are other reasons. Social, political, and environmental. This is a town of transients. No one lives in Longyearbyen forever. Even if we want to make this our forever home, we have an expiration date though we might not know when it is. When we first arrive we often don’t understand this, and learning that the differences we can make here are limited is often painful. Collective memory is short. Your friends come and go. Connections are deep and special and it hurts when they end. But that is Longyearbyen. In 2018 this was a town of 1,500 people. Now there are 2,600. That by itself is a big change.

When I first came here we were told this is where climate change is happening fastest. Three times faster than the rest of the world! Now it is seven times. Last year, I saw glaciers I have known since I first came recede onto land. We lost 2 meters of depth in the local glaciers, as well as recession. They are dying, and is just a matter of time before they are gone.

But you don’t need to be on Svalbard to see climate change. Where ever you live, it’s happening there. I believe this is the most important issue facing us as a species. Everything else is dancing on the Titanic. Because if we cannot mitigate these changes, people will die in the millions. I, fortunately, will be dead before the worst of it hits. My granddaughter will not. Here, nothing I can do matters politically. Back in my home country there are organizations where I can (hopefully) make a difference. I am also well aware that living on Svalbard makes me part of the problem. Our lifestyle here is not sustainable. The traveling we do is not sustainable. Everything is shipped in from the food we eat to the fuel that keeps us warm. My conscience pricks me at the gas station, when I buy fresh produce grown in Spain and flown in, when I consider my heat is from diesel shipped from Norway.

My life here has been full of friends and work and purpose. I have loved running the Spitsbergen Artists Center. It has been important to me to help artists experience this place, and to give them a space to expand in their practice. I have met such amazing artists. I have helped support the arts in this town, and gave space to work to local artists and craftspeople. I hope I have made a small difference to the quality of life in this complicated, special, town. I have made such good friends, and I will miss them. So this year is a constant goodbye, painful but also beautiful. I am very lucky to have had this life here, and to have met such wonderful people.

Svalbard is outdoing itself for me. The winter was extraordinary with ice and cold. I walked over the fjord twice, something I could not imagine doing just a year ago. Now we are in a long cool spring that is also beautiful. Except for a few short trips and my Greenland exhibition I will remain here to fully experience this special year. In October, weather permitting, I will circumnavigate Svalbard and then the step into dark season. By then, maybe I will know which month I will leave. Or maybe not. No matter when I return, it is to a place that is beautiful, wild, and extraordinary.

4 thoughts on “The Last Year”

  1. Knowing you’ll leave sometime next year makes every moment between now and then even more special. Enjoy…but you already do that. You do indeed seem to live life right: fully, immersively, richly, engaged with your environment of people & Nature &c.

    May your next step(s) find you engaged in projects and work that bring you satisfaction, joy, and a sense of accomplishment in tricky times. 💚

    1. Thank you. I never thought the day would come when I knew it was time to go. Perhaps this is how the migrating birds feel. One day an indescribably longing for north over takes them, and no matter the difficulty, they must fly there. And then one day, they know it is time to return south. That would be interesting.

      I have plans, and some interesting opportunities to come. So we shall see what happens next. Adventures still because that is what life is.

    1. Elizabeth Bourne

      Thank you! I believe in curiosity, flexibility, and pragmatism. It has led me to amazing places, and I look forward to seeing what this new stage will bring.

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