Undeveloped

Hey Everyone!  It’s been a while since my last post.  Things have been super busy at home and at the school.  I started a story for a writing contest but didn’t finish it in time to submit it.  So then it took me about two weeks writing on and off to finish it.  The title is “Undeveloped.”  The ending is meant to incite some thought as to whether or not the character made the correct decision or not.  I know that to some, the answer is very obvious but to others it will actually take some thinking to decide.  Also it ends rather abruptly because I just really wanted to finish it.  I will probably revisit it later to clean it up and revise.  If you feel like responding with your thoughts on the ending in the comments section please do.  Thank you for reading.

Undeveloped

“No, Greenland is covered with ice and Iceland is very nice!”  I was lying on the bed of my hotel room in Nuuk, Greenland. Watching D2, the second film in the Mighty Ducks trilogy, seemed fitting right now.  Although I had no knowledge of Greenlandic, the language of Greenland, I was familiar enough with the movie to know exactly what the characters were saying.  

The quote was accurate as well.  Greenland was a country that was mostly covered with ice.  In fact, nearly 80% of the country was canvassed by the Greenland Ice Sheet, the second largest single body of ice in the world.  According to legend, the viking Erik the Red had named it Greenland in order to attract people to live there after he had been banished from his native Iceland for killing three men.  He had apparently settled on the eastern shore of the island and wanted people to join his settlement. Many historians like to think of it as the first case of false advertising in history.  However misconceived it may have originally been though, the name “Greenland” was now proving to be somewhat prophetic. The ice sheet covering the majority of the island had been melting and shrinking due to the global climate change bringing in warmer air. That’s what had brought me to Greenland in the first place.  I was part of a team sent to study the island with a focus on the effects of the rapidly vanishing layer of ice and snow.

I had found during my two days in Nuuk that I really enjoyed it there.  Everything felt fresh and natural. The houses were painted vibrant colors that seemed to spring out from the backdrop of white snow and gray-black rock.  The climate and environment seemed as much a part of Greenlandic culture as language, art, and music were to other cultures. The cold ocean air whispered wondrous words of its own as it drifted through the city.  Sometimes the wind spoke long drawn out sentences in creaking planks on front porches and sometimes it spit short staccato syllables in the banging of a loose shutter. The works of renaissance artists paled in comparison to the lichens, mosses, and cow vetch painted onto the canvas of the mountains.  And the chatter from the colonies of puffins, auks, and kittiwakes created a symphony of sound that rose and fell in crescendo and decrescendo like choir of tuxedo clad choristors.

As a scientist, I dreaded what I anticipated the results of our study would be.  I thought of what beauty might be lost should the ice sheet continue to disappear as it had been doing.  Just how fragile was this ecosystem? One hundred years from now would the Greenlandic musk ox be merely a photograph in a history book?  The biggest question really was whether or not we were too late to stop it?

An avid environmental activist, I fought hard for policies that did more to protect the environment but it always seemed like the big businesses won out.  As the saying went, “Money makes the world go round.” and in this case it was making the world go warm too. As a geologist and cartographer, I had been offered jobs with exorbitant salaries to work for big oil, fracking, and natural gas companies.  I’d turned them all down to work at a research laboratory. I had always thought that I would feel like Luke Skywalker flying TIE Fighters for the Empire if I took any of the other jobs. My heart was definitely in environmental protection, not exploitation.

The pounding on my door woke me from my reverie. I rolled my eyes.  In times like these, I pictured myself like Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof, as he looks to the sky and says, “Sometimes I wonder, when it gets too quiet up there, if You are thinking, “What kind of mischief can I play on My friend Tevye?”  

Really, this mischief was none of God’s doing and all of the budget’s.  Due to monetary constraints, everyone on the expedition had been forced to share a hotel room.  I had drawn the short straw and had spent the last two nights rooming with the trips official photographer Devin Hiteman.  He was, in my humble yet unadulterated opinion, as untalented as he was revolting. To call his clothing, personal hygiene, and equipment unkempt would be an insult to people who were simply unkempt.  In the three days we had been traveling and staying together, I had not yet seen him shower or even brush his teeth. To be completely honest, I doubted altogether if he had even brought a toothbrush or owned one at all for that matter.  I tried not to judge too harshly on trips such as this as I maintained a rather disheveled appearance myself, but he was another matter entirely.

“Hey buddy! Can you let me in? I forgot my room key again.” came the shout from outside the door.  I was tempted to act like I was asleep and let him stay out in the hall all night. At 1:15 in the morning, it would not have been an unreasonable response.  However, I decided against it for the sake of the other guests of the hotel. Devin would have simply kept yelling and pounding until someone had let him in the door.  I got up, walked to the door and opened it.

When I was in the fifth grade, my two older brothers had filled  my closet with water balloons as a prank. As soon as I had turned the handle, the weight of the balloons had forced the door open so rapidly that the falling balloons had all but enveloped me and knocked me to the ground, soaking me in process.  Drawing from this memory, I stepped to the side as I turned the handle. As I had suspected, Devin had been leaning on the door and, just like the balloons, his weight against the door drove it open and he stumbled in. He was clearly very drunk and stood there blinking and looking around like he was Dora the Explorer and had just asked a question to an imaginary audience who couldn’t actually answer.  

After about 15 seconds of awkward blinking, he mumbled something about helping him out of his shoes and collapsed onto the plaid armchair next to the bed.  I did not feel that the boundaries of our relationship extended to the point of actually touching his shoes, so I left him where he was and began prepping my equipment for the next day.

We had decided to travel across the ice sheet via dog sled.  Satellite imagery had already revealed that the ice sheet had been losing a total of about 200 cubic kilometers each year for the past twenty years.  If melting continued at the current rate, it would not be long before there would be serious effects on not only the Greenlandic but global ecosystem as a whole.  Scientists estimated that, were the entire cap to melt, global sea levels would raise over 7 meters; a truly catastrophic event.

One of the mission goals was to find how much the ice sheet was losing in height as well as width.  Satellite imagery was still unable to produce a conclusive measure of depth. This was going to be done via boring.  The last time that a team had drilled through the entire ice cap, it had measured a thickness of almost two miles. We would be travelling to almost the same location to drill and find a new and more accurate measurement to determine how much the ice had melted down.  Our equipment for the drilling was obviously heavier than we could take in dogsleds and was being delivered to the location prior to our arrival. We were travelling separately in order to study the landscape from the ground on the way out. Satisfied that all my equipment was in order for the next morning, I lay down on the twin bed and drifted to sleep.  

The next day started predictably enough.  Rousing Devin from his stupor was a frustrating fifteen minute process.  By the time he was actually awake and ready to go, we were already over an hour behind the schedule that we had set out.  But eventually, we were off, skimming along the snow on dogsled. The fresh frigid Greenlandic air was absolutely invigorating.   There was a chaste, virginal aura to the terrain. As we left civilization behind, I felt as if I was the first human in the history of Earth to ever draw breath in this location.  I almost felt guilty for sullying the purity of the air as we passed through. Not only was the air remarkable, but the landscape itself was as well. Having never been on an ice sheet before, I had pictured it to be a long flat blanket of ice.  I found the topography to be anything but. There were hills and valleys, mammoth ice caves, and statuesque frozen monuments seemingly carved out in tribute to the ice gods of a bygone era.

We took somewhat frequent breaks as we travelled.  We had a guide with us to help care for the dogs. His name was Artaartik but he said to call him Arty.  He was a seasoned outdoorsman, as most Greenlanders were. As we were taking our breaks, he spoke of his love for his native land.  The way he talked about Greenland, it was as if he had a tangible personal relationship with the land. The flora and fauna were like family to him.  His DNA intermingled with that of the environment in which he lived.

When we spoke of the reason for our mission, a palpable sadness fell over the group.  His face contorted in pain as if we were speaking of a family member dying of cancer in the hospital.  As scientists, we all agreed with Arty on the importance of preserving the environment and protecting the natural beauty around us.  However, we had one outlier among us. Devin had a much more capitalistic view of thing. “Come on bro. It’s just a bunch of snow and stuff.” he said.  He argued that the environmentalist “tree-hugging hippies” were holding humankind back. “It’s ridiculous,” he continued, “that you put some birds, cows, and even the moss here on the same level of importance as humans.”  I didn’t bother to correct him in that a muskox was not nearly the same thing as a cow.

That was really how most of our conversations went over the next couple of days as we journeyed out to the center of the ice cap.  We spoke of our love for nature and the importance of exercising prudence when using natural resources. He lauded the merits of industrialisation and the virtue of human ingenuity.  We revelled in the natural beauty of our surroundings and he devised plans for tourist attractions and ice castles. “This could be really big!” He kept saying. We just rolled our eyes and continued on.

When we arrived at the drilling site, we set up camp and got to work assembling the equipment.  The sheer enormity of the drill was overwhelming. Obviously with the ice being nearly two miles thick, it’s not as if there was a single drill bit.  There were stacks of bit laying neatly side by side that we would have to keep adding on as we bored deeper and deeper into the ice.

Every 50 meters, we were going to take a sample of the ice to study back at the lab.  Much like the rocks that make up Earth’s crust create the geologic record and provide us with some history of the planet, the layers of ice also could provide us insight to what Earth was like many many years ago.  

Our virologist warned us of the possibility of prehistoric viruses and bacteria that had preserved for hundreds of millions of years.  “The human immune system has not interacted with these viruses and diseases for thousands of millenia.” she said. “We need to use caution when handling the samples.”

As we finished constructing the equipment and prepared for the drilling, there was a tangible feeling of elation amongst the group.  Even Devin seemed somewhat excited though he tried to downplay it. After the first two hours of drilling however, that feeling dissipated rather quickly.  It was slow, monotonous, and arduous work. However, we kept at it, working in shifts and laboriously delving further and further into the ice underneath us.  We carefully packaged and labelled each sample of ice according to drilling depth and set them aside for the trip home.

I was on my off shift the next morning enjoying a cup of black coffee when I first felt the ice shift beneath me.  The first movement was a slight, nearly undetectable shift in the frozen top layer of snow. The second time however, I very clearly felt the entire surface beneath me drop about three inches.  After that, everything happened in quick succession. I saw six large cracks emanate from the base of the drill and spread and fan like a bolt of lighting in a thunderstorm for about a 100 meter radius in each direction.  Then an entire circle of the ice cap split into seven large triangular slivers and collapsed in on itself. And then we were falling and tumbling. Everything a blur of white snow, gray steel, and then darkness.

It took a good five minutes are us to get our bearings.  Although the light was shrouded, it wasn’t completely obscured.  There was a dim hazy glow in the distance. We had all been so disoriented during the fall that we had no idea which way to go.  We conferred and decided that any light was a positive thing and set out in that direction. However, as we approached the source of the light, we began to realize that it was not the sun producing the glow.

It also became apparent as we walked that we were not travelling in a direction that would lead us back to the surface of the ice.  The ground beneath us was sloping downward at a somewhat alarming rate. We also soon came to realize that we were no longer walking on snow and ice, but on solid rock.  Call it professional curiosity that we continued. We were walking in a gigantic ice cavern whose ceiling seeming expanded upward as we travelled down. The air was cool and moist but not cold.  I soon found myself sweating and decided to shed my outer coat and tie it around my waist. The others all followed suit and did the same.

About five minutes of walking later, we discovered what was producing the glowing light.  A large outcropping of rock was protruding out of the ice wall. The shape of the rock somewhat resembled a nose so the entire scene looked somewhat as if a stone giant had been trapped frozen in the ice but had stuck his nose out to breathe.  And sprouting out from the bottom of the outcropping, like a large bundle of fluorescent orange nose hairs, was a growth of lichen. The glow was not so faint as to be indistinguishable but not bright enough to illuminate much more than anything in about a 5 meter radius around it. “Wow,” I breathed out.  There was not much more that I could have said in that moment.

We all simply stood there entranced by what we were witnessing.  The incandescence of the lichen was not steady. It swelled, faded, and shimmered almost as if the lichen itself was breathing and with each breath produced the soft warm glow that emanated from it.  All of a sudden a hand reached out and ripped a piece of the lichen off the rock. Devin had survived the fall.

“Dude, what are you doing?” I said.  He looked at me stupidly with the chunk of lichen is his hand and shrugged his shoulders.  As we stood there, the glow from the lichen slowly faded like a candle in a jar slowly running out of oxygen until it finally died.

“Can you just not touch anything and maybe just stick to taking pictures?” I asked.

“Oh yeah!” He replied as he reached into his backpack and pulled out his camera that had miraculously survived the fall.  As he started taking pictures, I heard a click and whir sound. I looked at him. “It’s an old school camera. Real film. Sometimes I prefer the feeling of it to digital.  It feels more natural. You can’t edit like you can with digital but the pictures still turn out great. There’s something I like about taking the film and developing it.”

“Well, it might be a good idea to leave the flash off,” I said, “We don’t know the makeup of the flora and fauna down here.  The bright light could be damaging.” He nodded and continued clicking away.

We continued on down the slope til we got to a point where the land leveled out.  At this point, the bunches of lichen became more and more frequent and larger and larger.  With the increased amount of lichen, we were able to better view our surroundings. We really were in a mammoth ice cavern.  In the increased light, I could see that the ceiling was about 500-600 meters above our heads which meant that there was still a layer of ice that was well over a mile thick.  The landscape was now visible for about two miles ahead of us. Glowing hills and valleys split by small rivers lit with dancing reflections of the shimmering moss. We were now able to see that there was an entire thriving ecosystem hidden underneath the mountain of ice above us.  

We came to the bank of a slow drifting river about ten feet wide.  I reached down and cautiously dipped my finger into the water. It was delightfully warm, about the temperature of a bath that you would make up for a toddler.  Not as hot as an adult bath but not close to luke warm either. The river emanated from underneath a large rock hill that was covered in a purple shade of the glowing lichen.  “It’s hot springs.” I said “That’s what keeps it warm in here. It’s like a giant igloo warmed by geothermal heat. We might be the first people to ever set foot in this place.”

Devin stopped taking pictures for a second to realize the implications.  “Guys, can you imagine how much money we could make? Tourists would come here by the boatloads!  How does it work anymore with exploration? Like do we need to plant a flag or something to claim this as our own?”  He said the last part partially in jest but we all realized that he absolutely meant the first part.

“Dude knock it off.  This isn’t gonna be a tourist attraction.  It’s basically the only untouched ecosystem on Earth.”  I realized though that we really did have to make a decision about who to tell, if anyone, about the previously undiscovered land.  We discussed this as we sat down for a break.

The majority of the group was in agreement that we should be extremely selective in the people who we informed of our discovery.  Obviously the Greenland government had the right to know. Their policies and administration generally very much supported maintaining the natural beauty of Greenland’s environment.  They were very careful about tourism and its effect and we did not feel that they would be as eager as Devin to start carting thousands upon thousands of people down into this breathtaking new world.

Click. Whir. Click. Whir. Devin was going crazy with his camera now.  “When I make my pitch to Carnival or some other big company, I want to have plenty of pictures to show them.” He was saying.  He was cut off as we turned the corner around a sharp chunk of rock and found ourselves face to face with one of the biggest muskoxen I had ever witnessed in my life.  Its long shaggy coat hung down almost to the ground.

Unlike the normal grayish brown of the muskoxen on the surface, this one’s coat was jet black.  If not for the eyes, we might have run right into it before we noticed it standing there. Its eyes were incredible pools of milky blue.  Though not as bright as the lichen, they held a certain luminescence of their own. A soft glow that was soulful and inviting all at once.  It looked at us quizzically but not fearfully, as if we were the attractions and it was studying us and not the other way around. As we stood there, two more muskoxen stepped out from behind the rock with a small muskox calf behind.  They all had the same black coat and softly glowing eyes. Their eyes were all different hues of green, blue, and purple and all held that same peaceful inviting quality. I had never before seen anything like it.

Click. Whir. Click. Whir.  The sound of the camera broke the moment between us and the muskoxen moved along as if nothing had ever happened.  “I can’t wait to get this film developed and show this place to the world!” Devin was downright exuberant. When we proposed the idea of using some discretion in who we told and when we told them, he started getting somewhat hostile with us.  “Listen,” he said, “I’m not going to let a bunch of sad sap bleeding heart liberal hippies hold me back from being rich and famous. You guys do what you want. I’m going straight to the media with this.”

At this point we didn’t know what to do.  There was really nothing that we could do.  Legally there was nothing that was stopping him from telling whoever he wanted about our newly discovered land.  However, as a group, we decided that we should probably turn back the way we came. We had no provisions down there with us and had already walked for about 3 hours in the exact opposite direction of where we needed to go.  We decided to table further discussion about announcing our discovery until we got to the surface. I just prayed that in the end Devin would display a little more wisdom than what he had shown so far.

After a seemingly much longer and definitely much more strenuous journey back to our original location, we could now see that our initial fall had only been about 200m and then we had rolled about a half mile down the slope from under where the hole in the surface of the ice cap had broken.  The broken triangles of the surface ice that had acted as a slide on our initial fall and saved us from falling straight down had shattered, leaving a 200 meter vertical ascent to the top. Fortunately, the drill had stayed intact and provided some means of climbing to the top. It was dug into the ice beneath us but bent at such an angle that it was not a direct climb out but more of a slant.  It would not be an easy ascension but not an impossible one either.

Our virologist went first.  Gradually but steadily going up the 9 inch shaft until she crested the edge of the surface ice and disappeared.  One by one, our other team members followed suite until it was just me and Devin standing together at the base of the drill.

“After you Chief.” He said, and gestured with his hand.  “Age before beauty.” I replied as I took my first step up toward the pole.  I’m not terrified of heights, but not exactly comfortable with them either. Fortunately, at this point, it was probably sometime around midnight and once I was several feet off the ground, was unable to see anything below me.  I climbed for what felt like hours until finally I was within a few feet from the surface. The rest of the team stood around and helped me off the drill bit before calling down to Devin that he was ok to begin coming up himself.  

“Can we just leave him down there?” the group botanist quipped.  “Seriously,” I replied in jest. However, I knew that Freud would say that in every comment said in jest, there is some subconscious truth.  I pushed the thought out of my mind and waited at the top of the drill for Devin to appear. Pretty soon his head appeared and then his entire body as he struggled up the pole.  He was laboring fairly hard as he reached the surface and it took both my and one other person’s full strength to get him onto the surface.

He rolled off the drill bit and lay on his back, breathing heavily on the snow.  His breath made small clouds of vapor that quickly dissipated in the cold night air.  His snorting reminded me of the muskox we had seen down under the ice sheet and I immediately felt remorse.  The perfect, peaceful life that the muskoxen and all the other animals had previously had was about to be shattered.  To what extent, we didn’t know. However, knowing what we did about Devin, he was not keeping anything at all under wraps.  

As Devin rose to his feet, I saw in slow motion the ice surface beneath him give way and collapse.  Using reflexes I would have bet my house that he did not have, he was somehow able to grab onto the pole as he fell and hung there dangling like a marshmallow on a skewer that was halfway melted and about to drop into the fire.  He was within my reach and I immediately moved forward to grab him and try to lift him.

However, as I reached out, the image of the fluorescent lichen, slowly fading and then dying off completely flashed into my mind.  The soulful eyes of the muskoxen came into my vision. Without thinking about it or truly making a conscious decision, I withdrew my hand and took a step back.

There are moments in time that are frozen, etched in the memories of those who witnessed it.  The look on Devin’s face was one such moment. I’ll never forget the sheer shock and panic that swept through his eyes as his hands slipped and he plunged down into the dark.

There was a deafening silence then that seemed to last for hours.  I was afraid to turn around and face the rest of the group. There was no way that they hadn’t seen what I had done.  Finally I slowly turned around and brought my head up. They were standing there in a semi-circle just looking. Jensen, our botanist, was holding Devin’s camera bag in one hand.  They all were looking at me but there was no judgement or anger in their eyes. There almost a mood of quiet understanding. Finally Jensen stepped forward and tossed the camera bag over the edge and down into the abyss.  “There are just some things,” he quietly said, “that should stay undeveloped.”

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