dalia pagani   In the North  
photo of dalia pagani



photo of dalia pagani
  In a Northern Landscape "The pattern of the thing precedes the thing, " Nabokov once said, and when I began writing Mercy Road it was the vivid intensity of my childhood memories that rushed out. Light on ice, bear tracks leading to a hole in the frozen lake, the figure of a hunter like a black dot on a hillside, the musky smell of some mornings, the stark, the bare, the fugitive light of a polar day, the land then, the land and human longing.

When I was seven my family moved to Alaska. I have no memory of being alive until then though I have been told often by my parents that surely I was old enough to remember living in Puerto Rico. Hurricanes, beaches, hot sunny days. I don't remember any of it.

What I do recall is living in a vast white land surrounded by glacier lakes and everywhere I looked there was Mt. McKinley. It was the first and last thing I saw every day. I remember huge herds of caribou moving through the tundra, I remember looking up the definition of tundra. I remember the first time I saw the northern lights, the sky was liquid, transparent, like a three-dimensional water color. My school was called Ursa Minor, my older sisters went to the Ursa Major, and we stood in knee-deep snow with the flag whipping violently on the pole, and all of us children singing Oh what a beautiful morning oh what a beautiful day...

We studied stars, ice, snowflakes. My classroom had elk antlers, bear claws, whale bones, sealskin. We made our own totem poles and imagined our animal ancestors: beaver, eagle, bear. Midnight sun, and the dark months. We skied to school in the dark, reflectors on our parkas, we came home in the dark, a darkness that was soothing, constant, but not total; it emanated a peculiar light, polar light which seemed to have substance. It was everywhere and fell on everything, it penetrated the senses and came with a taste, a smell, a weight. And when it fell it on you, you could say: I felt it fall over my left shoulder. What was bottomless in that light suddenly appeared to rise out of a great depth and hang suspended. Mist shrouded lakes, kayaking between glaciers, the glacier glow, the fantastic reflection of blue ice on water. Teachers showed us the motion of earth around the sun with a hand-held orange and a grapefruit. I have taught my children the same lesson. It was important then for me to know exactly how far I was from the North Pole, what latitude, what longitude. I loved knowing the weather could be measured in degrees. I was fascinated by mathematical calculations, astonished to learn how old glacier ice is. I learned to call owls, I read survival stories, and learned how to tell a blizzard was forming, how to run in front of the weather, how to smell snow melt, how to decipher animal tracks, scat, and how to find food, how to kill to avoid starvation. Thin ice, frostbite, snowblindness. There was danger and beauty everywhere.

And beyond all of this I was somehow led to believe that the land was holy, ageless, unreasonable, not ours, yet ours, unholy, uncaring, and indifferent to human sorrow. A girl my age died, impaled by the antlers of a moose, crushed against a tree. Pulp, my parents said, there was nothing left to her but pulp. I watched bear cubs follow their mother across a wild river and catch leaping salmon in the air. I learned to stand real still and watch two elks tangle antlers until they both dropped dead. I tasted whale blubber and chewed it like the Eskimo do, like chewing gum. Everything I learned then is part of me still.

When Mercy Road was finished I knew I had a story about very particular people in a very particular place, a mountain ridge in northern Vermont. The time was winter, blizzard conditions. The feelings of the characters were of hopelessness, of deep melancholy brought on by the many icy dawns, the nights of sub zero weather. I knew they were reacting to the land, its force, its permanence. Still, when it was finished it was a story about humans subjected to place. That was not enough. I wanted to show the degrees, the exact measure of human and animal suffering, I wanted the land to speak, to say It is me, look at me, I am here. And then it happened, the landscape took over with metaphoric powers and spoke. It was not the first time I felt the power of fiction, but I was stunned. The work then became part of another realm, and was whole.

In Shakespeare's The Tempest, Prospero, the exiled Duke of Milan, uses his powers of enchantment to amaze his enemies, and deprives them of their powers of discernment. By the play's end they are no longer able to tell what is real and what is not. In Mercy Road, the land appears as a mirage, like an elaborate illusion that sometimes takes the shape of a ruby-eyed crow, of old farmhouse ghosts, of landslides, or moves like foxfire over a cedar bog; it reveals more than the characters are willing to accept or understand. The power of the mountainous ridge develops as the character's suffering increases and together they create an orchestration of pure amazement.

It is mid-March, another winter storm has ended after twenty four hours of snow and bitter cold. The tall spruce, the birch, the enormous oaks are draped in snow, as is Mt. Ascutney, and the corn fields and the banks of the Connecticut River. The bird feeder is full of seed and crowded with a flock of mourning doves who will later perch on the clothesline and regard the day once again with closed wings. I am grateful for the blue spread of the jay's wings cutting across this white land, for the cardinals feasting on the red sumacs, the chickadees on the lilacs, and the red-tail hawk swooping over the river like something on fire. I am watching, standing very still and watching, as if in a spell that can't, and shouldn't be broken, ever.
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Copyright © 1998 Dalia Pagani.

Photo credit: Valley News Photography staff, Jennifer Hauck