Neil Shea@neilshea13

writes, shoots, makes films for National Geographic. Short stories + collabs here.

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Neil Shea

In a small museum behind the house are collected artifacts from winters long gone: big old radio sets, cast-iron stoves, broken rifles, skis, walrus and whale bones, pieces of a wrecked Nazi bomber and, strangest of all, a polar bear trap. It is a small rectangular frame made of driftwood and set on driftwood legs, about the size of a rabbit cage. Within the frame sits a sawed-off shotgun, scaled with rust, its muzzle at head height, its trigger tied to a tripwire. Many years ago, weather crews and coal miners were allowed to hunt bears this way: they tied a chunk of rich blubber to the tripwire and a hungry bear soon received a mouthful of buckshot. No one has used this method here for at least 50 years, though I was told an old trap or two remain out there on the island. The walrus, bears and Nazis are gone and still the traps stand, harmless now, chambers empty, waiting for trophies that will never arrive. I had planned to write about something else—it’s a pretty picture after all with good blues, warm windows, a season of silhouettes. But from every museum some idea follows us home and haunts a little while, rattling in the rafters, knocking books off the shelves.

#arctic #norway #tromso #svalbard #barentssea #northofnorway #kystvakt #bjornoya #hopen #natgeo #polarbears #hunting #meteorology #southerneyes #changingarctic #manyarctics


Neil Shea

Every six hours, around the world, thousands of weather balloons are released into the sky. They’re filled with hydrogen and race upward, rising 14 miles or more, and as the pressure falls they expand to the size of small houses. Then, high in the cold thin air, they burst. The balloons carry a small package of instruments that measure temperature, dew point, humidity, and wind speed and direction. In flight they send all this data homeward, helping sketch a picture of what’s happening in the upper atmosphere, and what’s to come, putting weight behind the forecast you find on your phone. It’s a simple, almost old-fashioned scientific gesture, updated with high-tech transponders. Hans-Olaf Reitås sent this one into the Arctic twilight at 6:11 p.m. from Bear Island in the Barents Sea, and the thought of thousands more simultaneously set adrift—nerdy, ephermeral little ghosts—made me smile. I asked a weather observer about her work. She tried to find the official Norwegian translation and then just said, “It’s mostly about clouds and balloons.” Best job description I’ve heard in years.

#arctic #norway #trømso #svalbard #barentssea #northofnorway #kystvakt #bjornoya #hopen #natgeo #clouds #balloons #meteorology #southerneyes #changingarctic #manyarctics


Neil Shea

Bjørnøya — Here is Laban, a 5-year old Alaskan husky, alert outside the weather station on the island of Bjørnøya deep in the Barents Sea. He is beautiful and patient, and he is also an unexpected barometer: The station crews once kept dogs here to warn them of wandering polar bears (Bjørnøya means “Bear Island”), but the big predators haven’t been seen for years. Sea ice doesn’t reach the island anymore, and so bears can’t, either. The last one wandered, or swam, to Bjørnøya in 2013, just as Laban arrived. It left tracks in the snow, and then vanished. With no bears to repel, Laban and his comrade, a two-year-old named Yukon, pounce instead on visitors—licking, leaping, pushing their fine soft heads into your palms. On a walk today the dogs bounded over the tundra beside us, down to the sea, following the scent of Arctic foxes. I walked with Alex, the head chef. Over his shoulder he carried a rifle, which is, like the dogs, a reminder. Scattered throughout the station is an arsenal of rifles and flare guns, more than a dozen, collected in racks by the doorways, or standing alone in corners like sentries. The weapons are relics from the “old days” when winter ice enveloped the island and created a roadway for bears. Alex must, by regulation, carry the rifle when he leaves the station—an echo from the last fatal polar bear attack here, in 1971. But now, the guns and the dogs have both outlasted their purpose. They are little monuments to a colder world, a different Arctic. Each time Alex walks with Laban and the gun he is, without trying, taking quiet measure of how far things have come.

#arctic #norway #bjørnøya #tromso #svalbard #barentssea #northofnorway #kystvakt #bjornoya #hopen #natgeo #gjoahaven #nunavut #southerneyes #changingarctic #manyarctics


Neil Shea

Norway—The blue hour lasts longer here. More like two or three, a prolonged Arctic gloaming along the docks in the city of Tromsø. It was 2 in the afternoon, at a time of year when the sun hardly shows above the horizon. The crew of the KV Svalbard was loading last supplies for a patrol into the Barents Sea, to visit the tiny weather stations of Hopen and Bjørnøya—Hope and Bear Island—and on to Svalbard itself, Norway’s outermost territory. This ship, an icebreaker, is my home for the next week courtesy of the Kystvakt, the Coast Guard, as I continue reporting on the transformation of the Arctic. Around this time last year I worked in Gjoa Haven, a small town in Nunavut, Canada. Tromsø and Gjoa Haven are nearly at the same latitude and both are Norwegian names, but the differences between them are stunning. In Gjoa Haven, barren ground, sea ice, and snow so dry it yelped underfoot. Tromsø is trees, wet snowball snow, and open water warmed by the Gulf Stream. Gjoa Haven’s polar bears wandered through the town dump, stuffing themselves. In Tromsø, they had been shot, mounted, and stuffed into window displays at fur shops and souvenir galleries. A scientist told me recently that there are many Arctics, many ways to understand north. Last night I stood on the Svalbard’s bridge looking out over dark water. Here and there odd clumps of light hovered in the distance, like fallen Christmas ornaments. An officer said they were fish farms, floating pens filled with salmon that would eventually be harvested, filleted and shipped to the grocery store in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I already knew how that Arctic looked—sealed in plastic, priced per ounce, a little dye added to the flesh.

#arctic #norway #tromso #svalbard #barentssea #northofnorway #kystvakt #bjornoya #hopen #natgeo #gjoahaven #nunavut #southerneyes #changingarctic #manyarctics


Neil Shea

Resolute Bay — A few hours north and the world is transformed. The word that comes first to mind is “simplified,” but that is misleading. The visual clutter of the south has been sheared away. Beyond that, nothing is simple here. The yellow lichen on the stones, the few tiny shrubs here and there between the cobbles. They work hard to live. So do the animals, and the human families. I’m stuck here overnight with bad weather. So I hike, heading away from where the polar bear was spotted, to the top of Signal Hill. Facing south there is no sound but the wind and the faint distant growl of a generator. When the wind shifts, laughter and dog howls rise from the village by the sea. A photographer I know, somewhere out in the Arctic sea on an icebreaker, warns in an email that there’s more rough weather headed this way. Fingers crossed. Keep moving

#arctic #canada #resolutebay #northwestterritories #ellesmere #nunavut #cornwallis #eurekaweatherstation #cold #inuit #tundra #wolves #southerneyes #manyarctics


Neil Shea

Yellowknife — Last days of summer on Great Slave Lake. The light is thick, sweet, and in the morning there is a coolness telling of what will come. At the public dock a woman sits in a boat, selling fish. She watches me kneel and dip my arm into the dark water. Jump, she says. Jump in. It’s warm as it ever gets. And it is—at least much warmer than I expected. A raft of dead summer insects whirls past my hand. Gulls loop over bright houseboats. Two flights to go, and then Ellesmere, where warmth is something you carry, like water, keeping it close and trying not to let it spill out. My pals up there keep sending little notes about the wolves they have been working with. Right now the pack is sleeping on the tundra, in freezing rain. Like it was nothing. Last night an Inuit friend teased me about my southern eyes, which are untrained and no good for picking out animals across distance. He said, Good thing the wolves up there let you get close.

#arctic #canada #yellowknife #northwestterritories #ellesmere #nunavut #eurekaweatherstation #cold #inuit #tundra #wolves #southerneyes


Neil Shea

Saul, laying out supper late last year. Tomorrow I head north again, to Ellesmere Island, and this image helps me choose what goes into my pack. There is still some time, though, before north looks like this. Snow hasn’t hidden the earth and the white wolves may still wear their summer coats. But from the day I arrive the sun will begin setting. Slowly at first, dipping below the horizon briefly like a child fighting sleep. Then it will fall faster. And soon it will go down and stay there, tucked out of sight for months. Some say it has been a strange year in the north. More rain, less sun, the wolves not where they’re supposed to be, their dens filled with ice instead of pups. Farther south, some Netsilik say more bears have wandered in, others say they have seen fewer. So far the hares and foxes seem to be doing the same old. I sit in my apartment gathering information and balling up socks and breathing in the licorice scent of new rubber boots. I have never been to Ellesmere, but in my daydreams it has already taken shape, and the cold I am preparing for is in my mind like the cold I felt last year, with Saul. These memories and data points come along like extra baggage, and they remind me that, in this some sense, we are always traveling toward mirages, imaginary places. This richest, most transcendent human ability is also a great hazard. A book I’m reading tells of explorers who sailed north in 1879 expecting to find a tropical sea at the pole—it was the leading scientific theory of the age. Later, as ice crushed their ship, they must have stared at the horizon, wondering where the cold turned warm.

#arctic #canada #ellesmere #eurekaweatherstation #nunavut #kingwilliamisland #gjoahaven #winter #tundra #inuit #natsilik #elders #hunter #char #polarbear #cold #lifeatthepoles #southerneyes #manyarctics


Neil Shea

photo by @dguttenfelder | words by @neilshea13 — You’ve been waiting for this. Suit up, sit down, engines on. In a cartoon skin you’ll cruise the neon dream of Tokyo a few inches off the pavement, head level with the wheels of passing trucks. It costs less than a hundred bucks. Takes an hour or two. Probably you’ve wanted to do this for a long time, maybe without knowing—to bash through this city, indestructible, invincible, even a little kawaii. To dye your hair blue, green or purple, do battle with a tentacled demon and finish your run with beers and a bowl of ramen. How much of your imagination do you owe to Tokyo, anyway? How many games, movies, monsters and heroes rolled out of Japan’s cramped studios and into your childhood? Giant robots, Hello Kittys, Power Rangers, dragon balls. You learn a lot about a person based on the mecha they remember—Gai-King, Gundam, Voltron, the Evas. Or the way their afternoons vanished into Sailor Moon or Super Mario Bros., Naruto, Pokemon, Tetris* on a Game Boy. This country’s culture flows deep and swift through our memories, and its roar—the bleeps and burps, one-ups and game-overs—has become our background noise, like apps we never closed, like TVs left on till dawn. In the stories we saw Tokyo fall and burn a thousand times and each morning rise again from the ashes, resetting the stage. So when you arrive here it will be a kind of homecoming. Signs and symbols may seem foreign at first but relax, get in the car. You’ll know what to do. You’ve been training for years and years.

#japan #tokyo #akihabara #ueno #asakusa #ginza #anime #mecha #manga #mariocart #maricar #kawaii #gocart #otaku #gundam #neotokyo #ngmtokyo


Neil Shea

At dusk the largest city in the world becomes most clearly a map of desire. Crowds pouring homeward, following quiet rivers in their concrete channels, pulsing through the subways, clean and bright. 38 million people passing expectantly through the stations of work and sleep. They are all waiting for someone, hoping for something. In between office and pillow, there’s a certain kind of room, and the city too has been waiting—the pubs and markets, fish stalls and manga cafes and everything else without name. It is mostly a male geography. The rules are old and easy to follow. Just beyond the subway are the gambling parlors which flash and bang in endless frenzy. Clouds of cigarette smoke roll out the doorways like thick wet tongues. Beyond these, in the pleasure districts, men in ties stand at the roadside hoping to catch your gaze. Come inside, sir? Excellent selection here. With decks of cards they show you the faces for sale. And beyond these are quiet neighborhoods where last trains drop columns of exhausted red-faced salarymen. And here, finally, is where the old rules run out. Here, among the sleeping temples, coin laundries and lost bicycles wait desires less well-mapped—the dark matter that drives the universe. You will find it in any neighborhood. Pick one. Walk it after dark. On a balcony high above the street a window opens and out reaches a pale thin arm, pulling in laundry. There is the chirp of a pulley, a cat watching on a ledge. Somewhere children are laughing. This is the city of the future. You notice that nothing is ever dropped.
#tokyo #nihon #nakameguro #shinjuku #asakusa #arakawa #cities #urbanity #desire #ngmtokyo #onassignment With @dguttenfelder


Neil Shea

Photo by @dguttenfelder | words by @neilshea13 — The little god is heavy. Divinely dense. Forty men at least sweat and burn beneath the weight as they haul the god in its miniature shrine through the narrow streets of Minowa, a blue collar neighborhood in northeastern Tokyo. Slow progress, thick happy crowds. Halfway down each block the men pause and then begin to rock the shrine back and forth, back and forth, shaking away evil spirits. It isn’t gentle work. Not the slow roll of a baby’s crib but the desperate pitch of a boat in a storm, riding a sea of sunburnt arms and shoulders. With each wave there’s fear of a wreck. This Shinto festival celebrating good fortune and close-knit community comes once in three years, and by evening the men show off bruises, broken skin, strange lumps that swell behind the neck. There’s a word for them: mikoshi-tako. It means something like “shrine callus,” though these are fluid-filled and jiggle like Jell-O, like water balloons. Here is the price of exorcism. But the crowd is grateful and thrilled—chanting along to a rhythm of grunts and shrill whistles. A man with a megaphone shouts Work harder! and the crowd answers with a cheer. All around is the scent of grilled meat and incense, and from ice-packed coolers at the sidewalk plastic cups of booze flow quickly toward the weary shrine-carriers. Go home bruised, not thirsty—it’s a faith St. Patrick would know. Outside his flower shop a man named Kurihara watches the god rock. No other neighborhood shakes their shrine so violently, he says. His face is red with drink, voice coarse with smoke. He tugs back the collar of his cotton robe, pats the lump and says Our god likes it rough.

#tokyo #minowa #nihon #matsuri #shinto #festival #religion #arakawa #cities #urbanity #amaterasu #onassignment #ngmtokyo


Neil Shea

photo by @dguttenfelder | words by @neilshea13 — You can go up a little higher. There’s a roof deck above, with room for a helicopter, plenty of sunshine, a breeze to whisper through your hair. But the view won’t change: in all directions this city flows to the horizon, except where its ambition breaks against the sea. Tokyo is the world’s largest city. It’s the largest city the world has ever known. And while you understand this as fact—it’s countable, measurable, easy to get lost in—superlatives never capture beauty. They don’t tell how a thing survives and evolves, where it frays and heals or fails to. So we’re walking across this city. Ward by ward, hood by hood, for an upcoming story in Nat Geo magazine. We’re looking for the knots that draw 38 million stories together into the human epic called Tokyo. Edward Glaeser wrote that cities are proximity, density, the removal of space between businesses and people. Yes, and. Tokyo is the brown-and-white pony we met on the sidewalk this morning, eating a carrot from a cardboard box. It’s legends of samurai and print-makers, alongside the hidden stories of brothel girls whose ashes lie in a temple near the city center. It’s the little monument honoring the souls of fish who become sushi, and it’s the old fishmonger families who work next door. A city is a story we tell ourselves, each day a different version. So we’re walking. Join us for more as we go.

#tokyo #japan #nihon #roppongi #roppongihills #tokyocityview #edo #cities #natgeo #NGMtokyo


Neil Shea

Kan’ei-ji temple, Tokyo — Through the lightning and earthquakes, the battles and the fires that followed, some places outlast the worst of us. / More than a decade ago I landed in Japan with a handful of vocab words and no idea what I was in for. First time I’d traveled abroad, first time I’d lived outside my own language. I didn’t know then how much language shapes our perception of reality, or how lost I’d get in the year ahead. Now I’m in Tokyo for a story and old words flood in. Some of them are helpful, practical: Arigato, shinkansen, sumimasen. The rest are odd, like details from a fading dream—inoshishi, higurashi, inari. I guess I was thinking a lot about wild boar, cicadas, and fox-gods. Who knows. Japan does that to you. I’m glad to be back.

#tokyo #nihon #ueno #taito #kanda #kaneiji #tokyonationalmuseum #buddhism #shinto #miyazaki #natgeo #instajapan