The morning I spent at the RAMM museum in Exeter with a group of writers and scientists was an exhilarating experience. I had chosen a display of exhibits from the Arctic, fascinating artefacts from the peoples who make this frigid world of tundra, sea and ice their home. I was particularly taken by a wonderful little model sled, with a miniature hunter and his seven tiny wooden dogs searching for seals. There were other exhibits too, including a set of throwing stones, a beautiful sealskin coat and an Inuit canoe. I took two groups of writers to visit the display, where we talked about our changing world and our hopes for the future. After each visit, we returned to a room at the back of the museum to write. Sally Flint, our tutor, gave us a few expert tips to bear in mind, including taking care to think about our point of view.
I’ve been fascinated by the polar regions ever since I came across a book at school of Herbert Ponting’s evocative black and white pictures of Robert Falcon Scott’s exhibition to the South Pole. Last year I travelled by sea from Aberdeen to Spitzbergen, and was lucky enough to watch a polar bear mother and cubs resting on a floe and learn from experts about the ecology of the bears and the threats they face from the diminishing ice. This session in Exeter deepened my polar experience further, as my cohort of writers and I, the scientist, responded in our different ways to this chilly landscape and these resilient people.
There was also my own poem to think about. Sally was not letting the scientists get away with taking it easy on the writing front. Leaving the Arctic display, one of my group wanted to take a detour by the massive stuffed polar bear who stands defiantly alongside a menagerie of other exotic animals collected by the curious Victorians who founded the museum. And it was this moment of serendipity that helped fix a problem with the story I was trying to tell. I realised I needed to change my point of view, from hunter to hunted, from man to bear. I wanted disaster at the end of my little narrative but I also wanted an upturn in fortunes. A hungry bear finding meat gave me a grim happy ending.
Before we dispersed, we listened to the work we had created in such a flurry of creative energy. It was a gloriously diverse collection and I could really see how this group of experienced writers had brought their skills and insights to bear on the task Sally had set us. We scientists also had our own work to read out. I thought it belonged with the others just fine.
The Hunter Hunted
by Peter Stott
eyes narrowed against the polar sun,
nose flaring for a scent,
twin cubs leaning against her massive yellowed flanks,
skidding across the ice,
two dead seals lolling on the sled behind,
seven panting dogs straining against the ropes up front.
Her offspring are too hungry,
the floes at sea too far apart,
the gaps too wide,
She’s too tired
other than to watch
for luck to change.
like a pistol shot,
panicked yelps, a bark of man,
and the perfumed smell of terror,
as the watched
dive headlong through the newly opened fissure
from white to black.
and they need to eat.