再別北極 (Please scroll down for the English Version)
那是二零一二年九月二十四日下午, 我在阿拉斯加, 一艘五人小船上。
From the Museum of the North, Fairbanks.
這次回香港搞影展, 認識了一位好友梁先生, 幫我找到了夢寐以求的星野道夫中文版「與時間的河約定」。其中有一章,說他在北極雪地看到了灰狼的腳印,他寫道:
船開了半小時, 海上滿是一片片剛凝固的冰塊, 不斷聽到船身與冰塊碰撞格格的聲音。
冰水時而濺進來, 船的地板是濕濕的, 我一手抱著600mm鏡頭, 一手夾住租來的200-400mm, 雖然重三十磅, 但我不想放到地板上去。
船越駛越近, 距離約二百尺時, 我們看見了,果然是一頭北極熊。
我們不想打擾她們, 船長馬上把引擎關掉, 讓小船隨著海浪載浮載沉。我們靜靜的看著她們, 感到世界好像只有我們和這北極熊母子。
這樣過了十來分鐘, 天空被夕陽染成一片金色。就在這剎那,她們醒來了, 微微抬起頭好奇地看著我們。
過了幾分鐘, 太陽已在地平線上。晚霞的餘暉把十月剛剛凝固的薄冰照得一片鮭肉色, 色彩延綿數十公里，一望無際。
我這才看看一直在我旁邊的好友卡爾, 我的眼睛在問他是否相信剛才的一幕, 他點點頭, 也激動得說不出話。
四周又回復寂靜。這時我回頭看了看我身後的海洋, 一輪明月剛剛升起。海洋另一邊的繁囂文明世界, 人們都在營營役役, 忙過不停吧。我在那邊究竟在幹甚麼。人生是為了甚麼。
我這又望向前方,看著這北極熊家庭, 與世無爭, 千萬年如一日。
我脫下手套,俯身碰一下離船邊最接近的那片冰塊, 感受那凹凸不平的表面, 手指觸碰的冰冷感覺把我和她們的世界拉近了。我彷彿坐進了時光機,回到了遠古的過去,感受到我們祖先如何和這些龐大又神秘的野生動物共同擁有這片土地。如今,聽說在未來幾十年北極熊將會永久消失,心裡不禁無恨惋惜。
If you are interested in purchasing a print, please click HERE.
Tin Man Polar Bear Encounters (English version)
The first time I saw a polar bear, I didn’t take a photo.
But that moment was forever in my heart.
It was Sept 24, 2012. I was in a small five-person boat in Alaska.
The boat was moving forward, and I was looking at the distant snowy mountain, completely lost in the beautiful scenery of the Arctic.
Suddenly, I heard a splash about 500 feet away.
I turned my head towards the sound and saw a big splash of water next to a small island.
Once the water surface calmed down, I saw them--- three bears. The mother bear and two cubs had just jumped into the water. The mother was turning back to make sure the cubs were safe. I could only see their heads above the water.
It happened so fast that I wasn’t prepared mentally.
Were those really polar bears?
I was frozen, and didn’t take a pic. I soaked in the moment in awe. The impact this experience had on me was huge. I wondered why.
Then, one year later, I visited the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, Alaska. I came across the photos and writings of the late Michio Hoshino and was deeply moved. I wanted to learn more about this legend by buying all his books in English, including Hoshino’s Alaska.
From the Museum of the North, Fairbanks.
But what I found was that he wrote a lot more essays in Japanese--- including one that was only translated into Chinese. I searched for the book for a long time without success.
Then, while attending the opening ceremony of my HKUST exhibit in Hong Kong, I got to know a good friend Edwin from the exhibition committee. He was very kind and resourceful, and was able to help me track down the book of my dreams— The Eternal Journey by Michio Hoshino.
I loved the book so much. I read it slowly, not wanting to turn the page until I read each line again and again. In one of the chapters, Michio said he saw a wolf track on the snow one day in Alaska. He wrote:
"I often think that one of the most important things in our life is the rich living things surrounding us human beings. Their existence not only heals us, but most importantly, they let us learn and understand what we human beings really are. I believe that only very few people would ever see a wild wolf in their whole life. But, whether we would meet a wild wolf or not, it’s not important. It’s the fact that the wolves and us both live on and share this earth, and that we understand and be grateful of this fact--- that’s the most precious thing for us. Not only wolves, but the meaning of all lives in our eyes should be the same."
I pondered the meaning of this paragraph for a long time.
Nature did heal me physically and emotionally. It allowed me to appreciate the simple pleasures in life and forget about the expectations of our society. It also enabled me to understand more about myself. It let me know my limit in the power of nature. From learning the behaviors of these wild animals and how they survive in their secret and disappearing wilderness, I learned to salute them with high admiration, and also learned that life is poignant, fleeting, and unpredictable, yet still beautiful and full of love.
"And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the earth."
-- Henry Beston
So true! We are all brothers and sisters, caught in the same moment with a limited amount of time as prisoners on this planet.
I came back to the Alaskan Arctic again one year later, in mid-October 2013. Little did I know that between two Alaska trips, my most beloved grandmother would pass away--- just days after I went through a tough breakup. I was in mourning and wasn’t planning to go, but since I had booked and paid for the trip a year before, I went anyways, as an escape.
After two days of driving and flying from Fairbanks, it was already late in the evening when our plane arrived the airport. There was only one hour left before it turned dark. We had originally booked two small boats, but only one showed up. The other boat captain had an emergency and had left the town. So we had a total of eight people, but the boat could only seat four.
While we were wondering who should go into the boat first, a couple said,
“You guys should go. We have been here several times before.”
So this couple and our two tour leaders decided to let us go first. I have since been very grateful to the couple, David and Kathy, and our leaders, Hugh and Patrick.
The sun was going to set very soon, and so far there had been no sightings of polar bears that day.
The boat took off right after I got in. After half an hour, we came to an area where the sea was filled with pieces of ice. We could hear the sound of contact when the boat hit the ice.
I could smell a mix of engine oil and metal in the boat. That smell always carried my memory back to trips to my native village when I visited grandma. Every time on the ship in my childhood, I would scan the surface of the distant ocean, dreaming to see a whale coming to the surface to breathe.
The ice-cold water from the sea got into the boat from time to time, and the floor was wet. Though my 600mm lens and the rented 200-400 weighed more than 30 pounds, I was holding them both by hands, as I didn’t want to leave them on the floor.
My face and fingers were already numbed by the fresh yet cold Arctic wind. Pain was temporary. It made me feel alive.
We scanned the area near and far. Nothing. Nothing at all in this white winter wonderland.
The evening sun in the Arctic Circle was very soft. Like a soft focus filter, everywhere appeared to be covered with a thin orange blanket.
Only 10 minutes remained before sunset. It seemed that we would be going back empty handed.
Expectation only brought disappointment.
But it’s not bad at all, spending a lovely evening in a small boat in the Alaskan Arctic.
Jack, our boat captain, who’s a native of the Eskimo town, saw that the light was fading and there wasn’t much to see, so he turned the boat around, ready to return home.
At that moment, I saw a little mound in the distant.
“What’s that?” I asked Jack.
“That may be a polar bear,” Jack had alreadymotored the boat in that direction as he spoke.
As the boat closed to within 200 feet, we were able to see clearly. It was indeed a polar bear!
It was a mother polar bear and her cub. They were laying on the snow, sleeping.
Since we didn’t want to disturb them, Jack immediately shut off the engine of the boat, letting it drift with the current.
We all quietly watched these two sleeping polar bears. It was as if the world was made up of only us and them.
It felt like we were in a fairy tale.
After 10 minutes, the sky suddenly turned golden.
At that moment, they woke up and raised their heads slightly, looking at us curiously.
I said to Jack, "Could you please move the boat a little to the left? The background may be better that way."
Jack nodded and moved the boat slowly towards the left. I kept my lens focused on the polar bear family.
What we didn’t realize was that another polar bear cub had been sleeping behind the mother bear this whole time. He popped his head up behind his mom, thinking that we couldn’t see him.
After a while, they all fell back asleep.
A few minutes later, the sun was disappearing from the horizon. The afterglow of the sun turned the field of freshly frozen sea ice behind this polar bear family a salmon color, extending for miles and miles.
The sleeping cub in front suddenly opened his eyes and looked at us. Then he stretched and flipped around, and sat up on the ground like a human, with his back leaning against the mother bear. The bottom of his feet were facing us, and they looked like snow boots. He rested his paws on his hind legs, and started to look at what was in front of him, his eyes shinning. Suddenly he opened his little mouth and breathed in deeply, as if feeling content with what he had in his world of the Arctic.
The current was rocking the boat up and down. At times it would push us farther and farther away from the polar bear family, then suddenly it would pull us to a distance too close for comfort. If that happened, Jack would open the engine gently and drove the boat a bit farther away.
Because of the abrupt change in distance and the rocking of the boat, photography became very difficult. I stood in the boat. I needed to switch the heavy lens for suitable focal lengths, while trying to focus on the bears, while my feet tried to grab a-hold of the boat so that I didn’t fall off into the water. My legs were shaking because of the fatigue, and in the end I hurt my back.
However, I was so moved watching how elegant and relaxed the motion of the cub was, as if he had completely accepted the presence of these few visitors from another world.
I put down my camera and soaked in the present moment in awe. It was so intense that tears filled my eyes.
The cub sat for a while. At one point, both his sibling and his mother woke up briefly, and then they went back to sleep.
Seeing that his mother and sibling were sleeping so deeply, he dropped to the snowy ground and joined them again.
That’s when I remembered that I was actually in a boat with my friends. I turned my head and looked at my good friend Carl next to me. I didn’t speak a word. My eyes were asking him if he believed what we just saw. He nodded, and was so emotional he couldn’t say a word.
We were surrounded by complete silence. I turned around and tried to look at the end of the horizon of the Beaufort Sea. That’s when I realized the moon was rising.
I thought to myself, "On the other side of the ocean, people of the crowded civilizations must be so busy workin, trying to meet expectation they have on themselves, or what society has placed upon them." As Michio said, “How strange, human emotions. We’re pushed left and right by the petty details of our everyday lives.”
What had I been doing on that side of the world? What was the meaning of life? What was the meaning of meaning?
I turned back and looked at the sleeping polar bear family. They had nothing to do with the world on the other side. And this happened years after years.
In the face of nature, everything repeats in the circle of life. In this remote wilderness, life had been the same 10 years ago, 100 years ago, and 1000 years ago.
I took off my glove, bent down and touched the piece of sea ice floating next to our boat. Feeling the cold and irregular structure on the surface, the painful sensation running through my fingers brought me closer to their world. It felt like I had traveled in a time machine and come back to an ancient time, feeling how our ancestors had shared this land with these mysterious and humongous wild animals.
I had heard that polar bears would be extinct in a few decades, and disappear forever.
Was our world behind this boat slowly and gradually pushing these brothers and sisters to their end?
I recently read Landscape Beyond: A Journey into Photography by David Ward. In it, he quoted Ernst Haas, saying “Beauty pains, and when it pained most, I shot.”
The serene beauty in front of my eyes couldn’t be expressed in words. Though I barely had any strength left in my arms, I pulled together whatever I had left, and aimed my camera at this unrepeatable moment in life.
If you are interested in buying a print, please click HERE.