Arctic jewels: pixie rock gardens

By Ken Eastwood 7 November 2013
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Polar bears and the aurora borealis are awe-inspiring but there’s beauty to be found in the tiny too, says Ken Eastwood.

Regular Australian Geographic contributor Ken Eastwood spent 14 days sailing around Iceland, Greenland and Spitsbergen on an AG Society expedition in September 2011. Read the full story in issue 106 of Australian Geographic and find more details about going on the 2012 expedition below.

WALRUS. REINDEER. AURORA BOREALIS. Polar bears. Giant icebergs. Beluga whales. Snowcapped mountains. Glaciers plunging into the sea.

With so much on such a grand scale to be awed by on this expedition, it has taken me almost the whole voyage to become aware of the ‘other’ world in Svalbard. The micro world. According to expedition leader Don McFadzien, it’s a mistake many people make when they come to the Arctic.

“You can see people who have been on such an expedition before, because they do [spot the small stuff] – they get it,” he says. They look at the grand spectacle before them, but are also aware of the tiny things: an Arctic fox print on the sand or a pebble smoothed by aeons of glacial movement.

When he started bringing people here five years ago, Don wanted to run lessons in “how to see”. “But you can’t teach that,” he says. “You can demonstrate it. And I can get on the ground and focus on something small like a pebble that’s been beautifully split by ice, but some people will still walk straight past.”

Harbour seal

launch gallery

Tiny Arctic flowers 

It’s here at the old gypsum mine of Skanskbukta that I finally feel I am absorbing and fully appreciating the micro: a piece of smooth white gypsum, a rose-coloured jellyfish, three white feathers, a purple stone brushed with elegant orange lichen. I sit by a garden of thick moss and smile, remembering many of the other smaller joys of the trip.

At the bottom of many glaciers is a silky silt that could be bottled and sold as a newfangled skin treatment. In the low Arctic sun, it forms stunning patterns in the water.

At St Johns Fjord the bleached reindeer horns were obvious, but in amongst the bright green moss and rivulets of pristine water, proud fungi stuck up their little heads. Arctic mouse ears, with tiny white flowers like daisies, can also be seen.

Even walking on the stark glacial moraine, where it first appears there’s nothing growing, tough tiny flowers are poking through.

“That’s purple saxifrage,” says assistant expedition leader Amanda Till, pointing at a tiny posy of purple flowers. “It’s one of the first plants to colonise the moraine and start the vegetation process.” One of the more abundant plants in Svalbard, it is also found in mountain areas in central and southern Europe. Its very shallow roots help it take hold before other plants.

Flowers in the snow

Only 10 per cent of Svalbard’s land is taken up by vegetation – all the rest is rocks and ice. Nearly all of the 173 flowering plants are tiny, particularly in the areas we have explored. These include 60 species of grass – and there are another 400 species of moss on top.

Many of the nutrients that support the pixie rock gardens are provided by the birds, which convert and move the nutrients from their sea diet to the land. For example, it’s been estimated that the two million adult little auks in Spitsbergen each carry about 250g of fertiliser to the tundra in the breeding season. That’s 500 tonnes all up.

Although our visit is after the main flowering summer season, it’s easy to rejoice in the myriad tiny flowers still around: the red stalks of knotweed, pink moss campion, yellow snow buttercups and whitlow grass, box saxifrage and white tufts of cottongrass. But as well there is joy in the shards of shale that shatter underfoot like broken crockery, and over ridges mounded high with rounded boulders, each one smoothed by glacial forces.

“My pet hate is when people ask me ‘what are we going to see?'” Don says. “When you come here you need to put aside your expectations and just see what’s there.”

Learn more about how to sign up to the 2012 expedition and find detailed information about the itinerary here.