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Slate Sky

Winter, by Ketil Kvan (reproduced with permission:

Some would say it is a bleak image, made up as it is by a block of dark blue-grey, slate sky, with lighter greys below, both almost featureless, meeting in a horizontal line in the middle of the wide picture. Jagged mountains flank the centre, white with ice or snow, casting pale reflections onto the dull sea. There are no signs of life of any kind, no fish, no fowl, no humans.

1 Bergen

The sea in Bergen harbour glitters in the sun. The wind is a whetted knife, straight from the Arctic – not far from here. Some hardy souls eat and drink at tables in front of the harbourside cafes in the Bryggen, but I am glad to duck into one of the narrow passages.

These wooden buildings are now less square, less vertical, than once they were. They mostly date from the eighteenth century, when profits were made from dead whales, not black gold. They are far longer and taller than they are wide, and the upper floors overhang narrow wood-floored passages between them, forming tunnels. It is cool here, not cold, the lack of sun more than made up for by still air.

The fronts of the ground floors have been converted into cafes and tourist shops selling silverware and expensive knitwear. Rooms along the passages, too, have been converted into tourist traps, and I browse among knitted gloves and sweaters, felt slippers, and rows of long-nosed trolls in a range of sizes. Stuffed reindeer heads or antlers announce leather-goods shops, next to art galleries without prices on their wares.

I pass a shop selling prints. There are glass-fronted cases outside, displaying small copies of the range of prints on sale. Inside, they are pinned to the walls in all their different sizes and states, bare, mounted, and framed. They are arranged tightly, one against another, filling the space.

The one that calls to me is slate-blue, blue-grey and white. I’m not sure I like it, for it is bleak and soul-less. It is cold, remote and lonely. I move on, looking at fleets of stylised Viking ships against vertiginous fjord landscapes, depictions of the Bryggen buildings, small houses in snowy landscapes and circular, vaguely astrological designs. Oh, and fish, lots of fish. The prints are all simple in style, many of them woodcuts, effective and eye-catching. But still I end up in front of the slate sky, gazing at it before resolutely leaving the shop.

I meander on beyond the Bryggen, up through steep cobbled streets, admiring the painted wooden houses with their glossy roof-tiles and window boxes, plant pots brightening odd sunny corners. My wanderings finished, I return through the wooden canyons in the Bryggen, back past the print shop. The slate sky is mounted on the wall just inside the door; it draws my eyes as I walk past.

It is not unique – it is a print, a copy of an original. Many people must have one hanging on their walls. I wonder why it attracts me, and whether it speaks to others as it speaks to me. Perhaps it is the ambiguity – is that slate sky threatening a storm, or is it just going dark? Perhaps there is an attraction in the total absence of humanity in it.

I walk away. If I buy it now it will get crushed or torn. I am for the north – in the lap of luxury, it has to be said, but still it is not practical to carry a print like that around with me. And I don’t need more pictures for my walls at home.

Nearly two weeks later, I am back. I have sailed in lengthening days from spring back into winter, through long evenings when it doesn’t go dark, gliding past snow-covered mountains turned to shades of pink and orange by the low sun, clouds turned to streaks of fire. Through all this, the picture still sticks in my mind. We return to Bergen in mid-afternoon. The Bryggen is one of the most attractive parts of the city, so naturally I go back there to fill my time before my flight leaves the following morning.

Naturally, I buy a picture of icy mountains under a slate sky.

2 Stay cold

Mountains white with ice or snow. Water in its solid form. H2O, or dihydrogen monoxide, if you’re trying to be clever, essential for life as a liquid.

It is cold, in that painting, or the snows would melt, run into the fjords leaving bare rock, patches of lichen on scree. Colder still, and the sea surface would freeze. Cold enough for long enough and snow builds up, year by year, decade by century by millennium. Builds up, compresses, turns to ice. Cold enough for long enough, and you get an ice cap.

We need the ice we have. We need it to be ice, to stay solid. Ice caps on Antarctica and Greenland lock up huge amounts of water. When it melts, sea levels will rise, submarine rivers will change their paths, and our climate will change. Who knows how? Or when?

3 Cold curtains

The moon lights the snow on the mountains, limning ridges and peaks against their shadows. In the slate sky, the diamond glitter of stars is paled by the moon glow. The beauty is stark, harsh, glacial.

I wait, in the warmth, hoping for the aurora.

Here, behind the glazing, there is little sound beyond the crackle of wood in the stove. The air outside is calm. When the wind blows, it howls around the chimney and makes white caps on the water, streaking them with blown spume.

Icicles hang from the eaves. It is cold outside, but not enough to freeze seawater. I open the doors and step out, closing them carefully behind me. I will need the warmth again soon.

I shrink as the world around me grows, the sky expanding to surround me. Frigid, uncaring, unfeeling. A gentle breath whispers against my face, not enough to stir the stalks of dead grasses poking through the snow. Faint sounds of waves against the rocky shore are all my ears detect above the hush of my breath. White beneath my feet, and on the mountains before me. Black above my head.

I am insignificant. Nothing matters.

This is comforting.

I have left behind bills, adverts, news. Arguments about the planet’s doom, campaigns for this or against that. Buy this, pay for that, work harder, get the latest model.

I have wood for the stove, food enough, thoughts enough.

The sky brightens in moving bands of green, flowing and shifting. Cold curtains of light, the northern dawn, a chance combination of sunstorms, magnetic fields and atmosphere. The universe cares not that we enjoy its beauty. Cares nothing for us or what we do. Nothing for what will become of us.

‘Save the planet!’

I laugh, breath puffing small clouds into the air. Save our way of life, they mean. The great world will spin forever, until the Sun expands. Our planet doesn’t care. Snowball Earth or Venusian hell – it makes no difference to the ball of rock we inhabit.

I am so small and insignificant, why worry about my actions, or lack of them?

The uncaring universe sets me free.

4 Dead cold

Ice is cold, hostile, unforgiving. It can squeeze ships to death, but can also kill in small ways. Touch ice that is cold enough with a bare hand, and you will leave layers of skin on it. Freeze tender plants–or humans, come to that–and ice crystals will burst cell walls.

Ice sucks heat from things around it. Capillaries close to limit heat losses, flesh chills. Without oxygen carried by the capillary blood, cells die, flesh turns black. There is no cure–affected parts must be removed before rot spreads and poisons the rest.

For some faiths, hell is a lake of brimstone and fire. The pain of a burnt hand is bad enough, I cannot imagine the whole body agony of being burnt at the stake, or the prospect of that eternal burning. Surely a death by cold is preferable. The body cools. Fingers and toes, painful at first, soon go numb. Tiredness sets in, blood slows, and slows the brain with it, until there is unending sleep.

Sleep, perchance to dream?

Who knows?

5 Crystal cold

The moon lights snow on the mountains, bright against the sky. A crystal cold light, unfeeling and chilling. The Moon and the Sun, cold and warm, ying and yang.

Sunlight is life and growth, moonlight merely a pale reflection, good only for showing this desolate scene, bare and lifeless.

I had people once, warm and soft.

The moon is bright, but hazed with sheets of cirrus, hiding the few stars that should be visible. Their absence speaks of weather fronts, thickening clouds, a storm to come. Isolating me further in wind and rain.

It is fitting, this stark landscape with the colour leached. I had enough, but I wanted more. In the pursuit I gained pale silver but lost warm gold. My silver is measured in pounds, dollars, kroner. In diamond watches, crystal pins. In cars, and houses, prestigious holiday cabins overlooking the fjords. My lost gold was measured in love and companionship.

There is warmth here, in the physical sense. A generator, hidden away in an outbuilding to preserve the illusion of a cabin of old, the heating hidden in floors and walls. Although the illusion is shattered by the picture windows, triple-insulated. And so I stand, isolating myself indoors from the isolation beyond, inside a shell within a desert.

Connections. That is what life is about, what is missing. Can I connect with the slate and white outside? With the sea and rock and sky?

I slide the doors open and step out. The air bites my lungs, my eyes water. There is not wind enough, yet, to ruffle the water, but still it spears through my clothes and ruffles my hair. I step forward to the rails separating the deck from the rocky shore beyond. The last of the warm air in the cabin drifts out behind me, and the cold stabs harder.

To my left, the shining, rippling path of the moon on the sea calls me, blocked by the small rocky point sticking out into the fjord. I walk down the steps, onto the pebbled shore, my shoes slipping on ice-rimed rock.

Around that point, the moon glint will come to my feet, form a path to my future.

Perhaps I will follow it.

6 Icy sentinels

White sentinels in icy splendour,

Bidding farewell.

A passage out, away

To stormy seas, wild waves,

The unknown.

White sentinels in icy splendour,


A passage back, home

To sheltered seas, placid waters,

The familiar.