These Old Bones

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A few days before my birth my father returned from an Arctic expedition. He’d been away for several months on Svalbard – a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean, halfway between continental Norway and the North Pole – exploring the glaciers, fjords and mountains east of Ny-Alesund, earth’s most northerly civilian settlement at 78° 55’ N. It was night and raining hard when he got back. From Svalbard he’d flown down to Tromsø, then Luton, then caught several trains and finally a bus to Penclawdd, a village in south Wales. My mother, sitting by the window, saw him walking up the shining road, pack on his back. Once home he was amazed to see how pregnant she was, how round her belly.

Next morning he unpacked his bag and from deep inside the stuffed mix of wool and down he drew out a most amazing object, a polar bear pelvis he’d found on the glacier of Kongsfjorden: abstract, sculptural, bleached. A strange find from another world. I trace my love of travel to parts unknown, my interest in landscapes and the stories they hold back to that pelvis.

The polar bear bone lived in the study of our various houses throughout my childhood. It looked so pure and supernaturally white, and it was heavier than one might expect. It enthralled me; an almost feathered line of peaks ran over the sacrum and coccyx; the broken ends of the flaring hips revealed a coral interior. The hollow eyes of the femur cups, the sinuous lines of the iliac crest, its conch shell-like fissures, cracks and apertures – all these tactile features thrilled and intrigued. The idea of my father having discovered it on a glacier, in an impossibly far-flung landscape of mythical beasts, caught my imagination. To hold it was to think of my father as a young man in that great silence, tramping about in the realm of polar bears, and feel my horizons expand.

Thirty-five years on from that rainy Penclawdd night I too set off for Svalbard. I was writing a book about the human outp

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About the contributor

Dan Richards’s Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth is published by Canongate.

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