Pointillism on the Tundra

The Art Institute of Chicago is home to Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grand Jatte.  Perhaps you have seen it in person or in a reproduction:  the couples and families sprawled at leisure along the riverbank, the bustled woman holding an umbrella in one hand and, somewhat improbably, a monkey on a leash in the other.

With the unveiling of this work in 1888, Seurat introduced a technique that became known as Pointillism.  He first applied small horizontal brushstrokes and then added little dots of paint over them.  Viewed up close they are singular points of color, but from a distance your eyes and brain resolve the complementary hues into shapes and contours so that the broader picture emerges.

Seurat came to mind one afternoon in an arctic river valley as I hiked across an expanse of open tundra with some friends.  Each of the millions of tiny wildflowers had donned a new coat of fall color.  The late August sun circled low around the horizon, casting a glancing light in which individual blazes of purple, crimson, orange and gold melded into a gloriously iridescent whole.

Like an art student standing before Seurat’s masterpiece, I couldn’t help being drawn in for a closer look.  Which is to say, I did a face plant, catching my foot and toppling forward as the soft tundra rushed up to gently cushion my fall. 

This happens to me a lot on tundra hikes.  In many areas, the decades, centuries and millennia of slow arctic growth and decomposition have produced tussocks, islands of bunched grasses surrounded by moats of swampy mire.  An age-old debate rages:, a conundrum worthy of Hamlet:  whether to walk on top of the wobbly mounds or to step between them?  Usually, a combination of tactics works best, and the knee-high boots that are ubiquitous in Alaska certainly come in handy.

The first time I tripped was unremarkable, as was the second.  After a few more close encounters, however, the experience started to wear a bit thin.  Because the soft tundra absorbed each impact, the only serious injury was to my pride. 

In the end, it was all worth the while.  Summiting a ridge, we had a vantage point from which to survey the broad expanse of the Sheenjek river valley.  Snacks soon emerged from daypacks and we picnicked sur l’herbe.

With the sun arcing behind us, the valley shimmered as if a Pointillist Genie had unfurled a magic carpet, woven from boldly dyed threads of the finest silk, across the tundra floor.  Only one problem remained.  We couldn’t ride the lustrous carpet back to camp but instead had to slog once more across the tussocky plain.

On the bright side, who wouldn’t want a further opportunity to form an intimate relationship with the tundra wildflowers?  Georges Seurat would have been so proud.

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