Natasha Avseenko Swimming with the Belugas
Puritan contributor Kasia Juno, whose poetry appears in our most recent issue, Summer 2014, discusses coldness, comfort, and the practice of “drawing through” one’s writing.
Mid-winter, I was sitting in an unheated flat in Berlin, thinking: This must be the coldest place on earth. But when I Googled “the coldest place on Earth,” it turned out to be in Antarctica, at the Vostok research station. Canada only comes in seventh on the coldness scale: there are recorded temperatures of minus 63 degrees Celsius in Snag, Yukon in February, 1947.
But back to Antarctica. Who lives there? I asked myself. And how do they survive? Same questions people asked me about Berlin (there are no jobs in Europe). As those of you who have watched penguin documentaries will know—Antarctica is a desert, an endless winter desert. There is no reprieve, no compassion. That is why penguin documentaries are some of the most depressing things to watch. Don’t watch them in Berlin, mid-winter.
A few years ago, I read an article about a female Russian scientist who went swimming naked with Beluga whales in the subzero waters of The White Sea. The photography is beautiful, but I’m not sure what the idea was—to gain the whales’ trust? The scientists said something about the whales having very sensitive skin.
Apparently the nudity made the Belugas uncomfortable. “Don’t swim with whales naked in winter time,” said Natasha Avseenko, after the swim. “They won’t appreciate it.”
Kasia Juno’s Sketch of Lake Vostok
That made me think about the ice, the border between the water below and the elements above, the ice age, the mineral age, and the age of air.
I’ve included a sketch of Lake Vostok, a buried lake roughly the size of Lake Ontario. I always buy notebooks without lines because, for me, drawing and writing feed into one another. Literarily. As I child I was a terrible speller and whenever I made a mistake, I would turn the word into a drawing of an octopus or a tree, or a winged beast. When I’m stuck on something, a description, phrase or a story idea, I’ll often try to draw it, or draw through it, and vice versa. In this sketch of Lake Vostok, the ice is portrayed as a sleeping woman. She lies above the lake, blocking it from the sun. The Yeti crabs are enormous. Don’t worry; they are not that big in real life.
The thing that fascinates scientists about Lake Vostok is that it is untouched—like the Beluga’s sensitive skin—and in a way, undiscovered. There are so few of those places on Earth now. They use hot water drills to break through the ice. They’re hoping that the life they find in Lake Vostok will give us clues to possible life on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. But so far the Russians have been disappointed. All they’ve found is more ice.
Kasia Juno was born in South Africa and immigrated to Canada at the age of 12. She studied literature and creative writing at Concordia University and the University of Toronto, where she worked under the mentorship of Anne Michaels. In 2009, Kasia received the Quebec Writer’s Federation prize for her short story, “The Fox.” Kasia’s stories can be found in Maisonneuve, Echolocation, and The Rumpus. Kasia is at work on her first book.