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Première partie : Montagnes poétiques et esthétiques

On Being on the Top of the World

Rudy Wiebe
p. 17-20

Editor's notes

Keynote Speech at the Conference on "The Mountain in Image and Word in the English-Speaking World: The Landscape Figured and Disfigured", Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail, 4-7 October 2007

Full text

1We three are on the spine of an unnamed nunatak rising out of an unnamed glacier, and we are having a conversation about the age of rocks. Here, June 28 in the last year of the millenium is a blazing blue twenty-four hour day, the temperature varies from a constant two to four degrees, and we sit on our backpacks in a virtual ocean of black mountain peaks and snow eight hundred kilometers from the North Pole. Much closer to the North Pole than to my home in Edmonton, Alberta. I have questions, always endless questions of the kind only writers have who, since they always need to know more, will persist with in a kind of indefatigable and shameless ignorance:

2"How can you talk like that", I ask, "‘older rocks’, ‘younger rocks’? A rock, the earth, is what it is, what it has been, from whenever, from wherever".

3Ulrich, the senior geologist, and I have had this conversation more or less since the first time we met, most recently on the Twin Otter as we flew north between the ocean cliffs lining Grise Fiord. He told me then, he told me earlier, "Geology isn't so much a mathematical or chemical science, it's mostly history. Just try to think in somewhat longer terms, millions, billions, of years".

4But now Keith, the other geologist, responds: "The earth is never just 'what it is', it's always changing. Volcanoes, floods, earthquakes are quick and obvious, but there's always erosion, you walk on this scree and start a small landslide—everything changes, rocks do too, they just take longer".

5"But their elements have always been in the universe, how can you call them ‘older’? Even if a meteor from space slams into the earth, it's not as if something ‘new’ has actually been made, so how is ‘older’—"

6Even as I say this, I realize it sounds a good deal like the explanatory notes in the Scofteld edition of the Bible I once had, where at the head of Genesis chapter 1 the date of the creation of the universe was fixed as 4004 B. C. For a child that seemed sufficient time.

7Keith interrupts, "You could say that about yourself too, the elements of your body have been around forever, just in a different form. If change doesn't count, then..."

8"Okay... okay". Logically he's dead right: "young" and "old" are our time designations for particular states of matter. If the elements contained in the universe are a closed system, as it seems most logical they are, then every new-born baby is simply a re-assembled form of original, irreducible elements. Fundamentally—or shall we say elementally—we are, every one of us, as old as the universe.

9In June/July, 1999, and Ulrich, Keith and I are part of a Geological Survey of Canada team of twelve, including a helicopter, pilot and mechanic, located for six weeks at Carl Ritter Bay on the northeast coast of Ellesmere Island. We walk in stunning sunlight on the tenth largest and, together with its companion Greenland, most northerly island on earth. Here, among unglaciated mountains unending as an ocean, the brain cannot truly comprehend what in every direction the open eye must see: there are no margins to help you frame or focus, your glance seemingly cannot stop moving because at every edge of seeing—left, right, down, up—there is merely more depth, more distance; the lure of overwhelming space. You begin to understand that human eyes, fixed as they are to peer relentlessly ahead as if nothing except forward mattered, your eyes should really be set on either side of your head and equipped with multiple focusing lenses so that you could comprehend, simultaneously, every direction and every depth and height, the full round bulge of existence all at once. Like any eagle.

10But 81 degrees north is too utterly North for eagles. On this immense island there are only 3 tiny spots of human habitation—and two of them are minute weather and military observation points. Where we stand is simply mountain and depth, down to the toe of that glacier and that river braiding itself gray down the broad, round valley, the width of unaccountable mountain peaks domed around us with icefields, the distance of the Nares Strait smashed white with ice and the long, layered plateau of Greenland rising flat out of that, so close a polar bear could amble over in half a day. Well, here in July a word like "day" means nothing: the sun never sinks below the horizon of mountains; it simply circles you every twenty-four hours.

11At another time Ulrich and I are on an outcrop of the Victoria and Albert Mountain Range. Our geological hammers break open embedded masses of sponge and algae trails and bodies, the hollowed spoor of worms, the blunt tracks of pebbles moved by currents in the silt at the bottom of a shallow sea: all turned into sedimentary rock, Precambrian era, Middle Proterozoic period, somewhere between three to seven hundred million years ago.

12"The first forms of life so far found on earth", Ulrich says.

13Here in a sea of unnamed mountains on the last land on earth; creatures older, and much more primitive in structure, than the Burgess Shale creatures found at the tops of the Rocky Mountains west of Banff, Alberta. Six hundred million years older than dinosaurs.

14Alone, on another day I climb another unnamed mountain, the one I face from the door of my sleeping tent. Up, over a folded bend of rock, and three muskoxen graze below me. Muskoxen, unaware on a ledge above a stream which cuts its canyon down into the immense valley with our tiny camp of tents, the twisting river, the distant bay between whose framing capes lies the dazzling sea ice, grounded icebergs, and the broad, humpy band of Greenland closing the horizon in blue. To stand in such a place, the widest possible camera lens is basically a silly little thing. With the warm, blackly beautiful animals that live here; the mind drops, bottomless.

15For half an hour I work my way downwind towards the muskoxen, down, keeping out of sight as much as possible in the crumbles of the ridge. But soon they see me and one by one they freeze, staring.

16Then, moving more slowly than is imaginable, they coagulate together with two others, towards a lower flat above the canyon where two smaller ones—yearling calves I think—emerge. We initiate a measured dance: whenever an adult moves a little, at least two others stand facing me. When I step forward, they step back. Eventually they are all on the ledge and I'm closer than I dare: on an outcrop high enough to see the creamy light saddles behind the humps over their shoulders. They shift into a row, two adults on either side flanking the calves, considering me. Abruptly Big Shaggy rubs his head against his legs and snorts. The sound is explosive, but strangely puny in this perpendicular world of silence.

17They shuffle their positions, the nervous calves always surrounded, and I am close enough to understand that their eyes, set so high on the outer edges of their heads just inside the curve of their scimitar horns, their faces are positively malignant.

18Another adult lowers its head, rubs, grunts, and they shuffle again. On and on during the next fifteen minutes, changing positions with the two smaller calves often hidden. They seem like a mirage in a dream: wild animals that will not run. Finally the calves disappear altogether, the adults are so tightly compacted they have become one massive black animal with four white saddles and seven visible legs, its four heads facing outwards in the four directions. Only one vicious head confronts me, and it would surely be enough. Their long winter skirts of wool rise in the wind like gossamer, but otherwise they do not move. And I stand motionless as well, looking.

19The Inuit call them Oomingmak: "the bearded ones". When human beings first came to the Americas from Asia, Oomingmak had already been living here continuously for seventy-five thousand years.

20This is their place but, like every other creature, they also have their time. Their bones, left on this cold, stony landscape will provide nutrients for single blades of grass, food to nurture the next generation. The continuous cycle of their life revealed in one skull I happen upon as I trudge down the mountain.

21And human beings? They came to Ellesmere Island from Asia, too long ago to leave any skulls, or even indelible teeth to reveal their passing.

22But when this land was a good deal warmer than it is now—ice-free summers and milder winters, which began cooling around 1200 AD into the "Little Ice Age" of 1600 to 1850 AD—different peoples lived here, from the Thule People to the Dorsets to the variously named Arctic Small-Tool cultures that spread across the top of North America from Asia in separate migrations and lived in small hunting camps throughout the High Arctic as early as 5000 years ago. During the millenia of the Egyptian and Roman empires they developed a precise technology to successfully hunt the great whales and other sea mammals, and so on Ellesmere their living sites can be most easily recognized along the coastlines.

23When I ask Ulrich about people here, he shows me what to look for. As we fly back to camp along the Nares Strait shore outlined by rotting ice, he spots a human site almost immediately. Mark drops the helicopter down, hovers for the best view. An irregular ring of brownish stones on the jagged black gravel. After lunch in camp I hike for an hour to find the place again.

24Stones a good size to lift with both hands, to carry against your stomach, to lay down on a tent's edge against the wind. So much like a prairie teepee-ring, though this rough circle is not as large and not at all overgrown; not a sprig of green anywhere on this rock floor. There is also the adjacent scatter of a possible food storage site directly above the drop of the gravel beach. I search for possible artifacts, but I don't really know what I'm seeing and don't wish to disturb anything: what I find are two jagged pieces of weathered bone inscribed by tendrils of moss—how ancient?—one of which is broken off and apparently sucked out for marrow.

25I look around, at the eroded cliff above me sloping up to the cape's peak, at the ice pans passing relentlessly south in the open water, and tiny Hans Island, and the flat shimmer of Greenland across the Nares Strait, the grounded iceberg that has been fixed in the middle of the channel, motionless, since we arrived.

26Then I see another human site on the narrow beach, two rings of stone even more clearly laid out on the black gravel. Between these tent rings are three larger stones grouped closely together so as to open to the sea, and I recognize a shape I have seen on the prairies of Canada, in the mountains of Guatemala, in the desert of Paraguay, the most intimate human stone structure of all: a three-stone family hearth.

27Archeologists tell us these earliest people on Ellesmere Island lived a life of great meagerness; it would seem that the things they carried were infinitely less in number and complexity than what we modern humans apparently need to live in comfort. But around the warmth of this hearth, with family and friends and food and talk, and such astonishing beauty, I suddenly feel that they must also have known great happiness.

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Bibliographical reference

Rudy Wiebe, « On Being on the Top of the World », Caliban, 23 | 2008, 17-20.

Electronic reference

Rudy Wiebe, « On Being on the Top of the World », Caliban [Online], 23 | 2008, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 25 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Rudy Wiebe

Canadian writer, Edmonton. Copyright Jackpine House Ltd, Edmonton, Canada, 2007. Rudy Wiebe est romancier et professeur émérite de l’Université d’Alberta. Il a écrit de nombreux romans qui ont obtenu plusieurs récompenses, parmi lesquels A Discovery of Strangers (1995), récompensé par le Governor General Award, Prix qu’il a obtenu également pour son ouvrage Stolen Life. Il a reçu également la Royal Society of Canada’s Lorne Pierce Medal in 1986. Ses racines Mennonites apparaissent dans son livre, The Blue Mountains of China. Il a publié The Temptation of Big Bear, avant d’écrire avec Yvonne Johnson, petite-fille de Big Bear, le livre témoignage Stolen Life

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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