PART 1: Planted in the Brain
A landscape opened up before me. I felt as if I were standing on the top of a mountain, gazing out over a plain, covered by long, meandering rivers. On the horizon, more mountains rose up, between them there were valleys and one of the valleys was covered by an enormous white glacier. Everything gleamed and glittered. It was as if I had been transported to another world, another part of the universe. One river was purple, the others were dark red, and the landscape they coursed through was full of strange, unfamiliar colors. But it was the glacier that held my gaze the longest. It lay like a plateau above the valley, sharply white, like mountain snow on a sunny day. Suddenly a wave of red rose up and washed across the white surface.
That’s Karl Ove Knausgaard describing an exposed brain. “One doctor looked up from a microscope that was suspended over the brain and turned me….do you want to have a look?” he asked…. Later Knausgaard goes outside and stares up at the top floor of the Albanian hospital where he has just witnessed the first steps of a major brain surgery. He gazes at the window of the room where he just saw this incredible sight—a naked human brain; he can barely believe it all. “Still harder was grasping that within that room, there was an opening into yet another room, the human brain.”
It’s been a few weeks since I read Knausgaard’s article and it’s impossible for me to let go of that image. I’ve googled pictures and illustrations and imaginations of what the brain looks like and I only partially see what Knausgaard saw…but that brain in that paragraph is embedded in my mind’s eye forever.
I appreciate such a lyrical look at a brain; it could be my brain, my brain as an actual physical landscape where ideas are born and thoughts are stored and actions are initiated. For all our talk and poetry about mind and soul and heart, this is it, this is where it all happens, this crazy convoluted landscape called the brain.
In what will first appear to be an abrupt change of topic—I am going trekking in Greenland for a week in July; some other places are on the itinerary but the Really Big Damn Deal is Greenland. Since preparation for a journey is almost as exhilarating and arduous as the trip itself why not write about ‘the making of the sausage’ in addition to the tastier items to come. In fact the best travel-lit writers always tell us about, firstly, the dreams and the decisions that launch the journey and, secondly, they make sure we know it’s not all fun and games—there are the harsh realities of budgeting and organizing and scheduling. Then we get to leave the building…. My intention for the next seven weeks is to do exactly that…invite you to experience the whole story.
Let’s start with…Why Greenland in the first place? Here’s where the brain and Greenland start speaking to each other. I’ll explain via Knausgaard’s brainscape. We say ideas get lodged in our brains. I like to think that when the idea of going to Greenland first lodged in my brain it looked just like the glacier Knausgaard described. Even if he was describing the tumor about to be removed I think he’s given us the option to take from his brainscape imagery whatever meaning we choose. I choose to link it to the shining white landscape that is Greenland in the sun from 30,000 feet in the air.
Maybe you’ve flown over Greenland on a clear day. Only a few times in all my years of flying has that dazzlingly fair island been visible, just grazing the tip of the right or left wing as the case may be. But when it is, when the clouds part for your viewing pleasure, you know you’ve just glimpsed an out-of-the-ordinary reality, some mysterious place with no past or future, maybe even an apparition. In fact Greenland is sometimes referred to as Ultima Thule, which to medieval scholars meant a distant place located beyond the “borders of the known world.” How could I not want to go there?”
Here then is my fairy-tale explanation of how it actually came to be that this week I’m making a final payment I really cannot afford for a small walkabout on the island of Greenland. With that initial look, years and years ago on my first flight to Iceland, the deal was sealed, and I just didn’t know it yet. “There were valleys…one…covered by an enormous white glacier. Everything gleamed and glittered…it was the glacier that held my gaze the longest. It lay like a plateau above the valley, sharply white, like mountain snow on a sunny day” (says Knausgaard). A telepathic message was sent—Greenland glacier to Neset brain-glacier. ‘Stop by some time’ it said. My brain registered that as ‘I will go to Greenland someday.’ Another part of my brain that worries about budgets agreed, sort of… ‘Okay but it’ll have to be later when your bank account isn’t overdrawn.’
What I’m trying to say is this—since it’s sometimes hard to discern the original thought that led to a new idea—it’s gratifying when attribution is possible—and even better when it’s connected to brain surgery and glaciers.
Witnessing Brain Surgery by Karl Ove Knausgaard/ NYT Magazine, January 3, 2016/)
To Be Continued…