We're digging ourselves out of the blue and making summer playlists to share with each other. If you have one, or want to make one, and write a little about it, send them to Meowmeowpowpowlit@gmail.com (Spotify or any platform, or just write the songs down)
by Tim Jones-Yelvington
Svalbard is an Arctic archipelago located around 80 degrees north, and 600 miles from the North Pole, held by Norway through treaty. I visited in mid-May 2023, traveling along the west side of the island of Spitsbergen, and into its fjords, in a 50-something person expedition boat, with daily Zodiac raft excursions. When Kim saw my photographs of dazzling snow-covered peaks rising from the water, tessellations of sea ice, and craggy glaciers, he naturally asked whether I could make a playlist illustrated by one of these images, to dive into the seeming disjuncture between summer and snow.
When traveling, it is my practice to teach myself about the political history and current struggles of a land's indigenous people. Svalbard is so remote that no indigenous cultures settled there permanently. Its indigenous inhabitants are, in a sense, the polar bears, walruses, reindeer, arctic foxes, auks, puffins, fulmars, and kittiwakes, each of which we experienced with some intimacy, and many of whom, in various ways, have experienced the fallout from colonization.
Svalbard is so remote that no indigenous cultures settled there permanently, but it's considered a credible theory that its first visitors could've been the Sámi people, who chose not to settle. On the boat, I spent some time reading about the Sámi, whose homelands and ways of living have been continually disrupted throughout history by the State-making objectives and continuously redrawn borders of Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, in various and shifting configurations.
Later, when colonizer Europeans came to Svalbard, they/we settled, and in our typical form, commenced extraction—first through the whaling industry, later through coal mines, a couple of which remain open, including the Russian coal mine we were told is staffed largely by Ukrainian workers, trapped in place.
How to build a playlist around this experience? I worried that my moody song choices, with their frequent references to snow, ice, avalanches, and the sea, might veer into cliche, or else just land a little too on the nose. But as I settle into this playlist, I hear a lot more variation than might be immediately apparent. Similar to how, when folks look at their photographs of Svalbard, they wonder whether they were accidentally taken in black and white. But look more closely, and the landscape lives in color.
A disclaimer: For a "Svalbard Summer" playlist, the snow is actually a bit of a mislead. We visited during the spring in part in order to appreciate the snow and ice along with warming temperatures and 24 hour sun—by the time we returned to the settlement of Longyearbyen after our seven days on the boat, most of the snow that had coated the town before our departure had already melted away, and the frozen river was thawed and running. The snow would continue to melt, quickly, following our departure. By summer, many of the snow-covered mountains will be dark rock. As you sink into this playlist, I invite you to dwell inside the simultaneity of the steadfast vastness of nature, geologic time, and the near constancy of often rapid change and transformation.
A change I believe we are each called in our own way to shape toward liberation, land stewardship, and all that affirms life.
Get a copy of Don't Make Me Do Something We'll Both Regret by Tim Jones-Yelvington from Texas A&M University Press
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