An ode to the Arc­tic

The in­cred­i­ble light­ness of be­ing in north­ern­most ex­tremes

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - LAVINIA GREEN­LAW

THERE is a place in La­p­land called Arc­tic Cir­cle. You can step across a painted line and re­ceive a certificate, although the ac­tual cir­cle, around 66 de­grees lat­i­tude north, is un­fixed.

It wa­vers over the north like a lasso and slips ac­cord­ing to the tilt of the earth on its axis. The feel­ing of slip­page is im­me­di­ate. The nights are at least 20 hours long and the world is snow. While my mind gives up try­ing to keep time, my body clings to any fa­mil­iar sign of it.

The sky pales for three or four hours, although a con­stant black haze re­mains over the pole. A small sun inches into view and rolls along the hori­zon, and the sky takes on a faint wash of yel­low and blue.

I feel as if I’ve caught a glimpse of an ac­tual day hap­pen­ing some­where else. As the sun tips away again, I can’t keep my eyes open.

The Arc­tic High­way runs north from Ro­vaniemi along a river, only now there is no river, just fields of snow. There is no road, ei­ther, and the few cars that come this way fol­low its com­pacted grey trace past signs that can­not be read be­cause they, too, have been wiped out.

This is fairy­tale snow, hang­ing in glit­ter­ing swags from trees which dou­ble over un­der its weight. It em­pha­sises tele­graph wires and heaps up cosily against win­dows. Snow scat­ters light and flat­tens per­spec­tive. It is ab­sence and sub­stance at the same time, a per­fect form of equi­lib­rium. There is noth­ing to read in it, just a fun­da­men­tal con­ti­nu­ity that makes ev­ery place fa­mil­iar.

I am near the edge of the com­pass. From the pole, which­ever way you head is south.

What does mi­nus 50 mean? That the ink in a pen freezes, that water thrown from a cup turns to ice be­fore it hits the ground, that your lungs might bleed. Even now, when build­ings are heated and sealed and streets can be as brightly lit as a film set, there is an in­her­i­tance of cold and dark­ness.

In a hospi­tal in La­p­land I meet a Fin­nish psy­chi­a­trist who is an ex­pert in Arc­tic per­son­al­ity dis­or­der. He says that dark­ness is less of a prob­lem than the cold; it makes the body hoard blood around the heart, de­priv­ing the brain. He ex­plains that the Arc­tic per­son­al­ity is char­ac­terised by sisu, or adapt­abil­ity and per­se­ver­ance. Such peo­ple have a ten­dency to be greedy, stingy and ruth­less.

They hoard in­for­ma­tion, are sus­pi­cious of strangers and are sex­u­ally spe­cialised. His other in­ter­est is sui­cide, and he re­marks that women have started to kill them­selves in the same way as men. They used to take an over­dose or drown them­selves, so as not to leave a mess, but now they are as likely to use a gun.

This dark­ness doesn’t trou­ble me. I came to the Arc­tic hav­ing lost my imag­i­na­tion and soon feel re­stored, not be­cause there is noth­ing to see but be­cause this is such a fun­da­men­tal way of see­ing. Even when it is cloudy, you can catch sight in the sky of wild streaks, sheets and pil­lars of gaseous colour. The aurora bo­re­alis or north­ern lights are a form of ele­men­tal dis­tur­bance ( elec­tron show­ers stir­ring up hy­dro­gen and ni­tro­gen) and the raw­ness of their colours, like the raw­ness of that small sunset, sug­gests a time when light was first oc­cur­ring.

The Finns call the north­ern lights revon­tulet, or fox­fire, af­ter a myth­i­cal fox who swept snow into the air with its tail, ig­nit­ing it. If you talk to the north­ern lights, they will come down and grab you. If you don’t wear a hat, they will clutch at your hair.

Not be­ing able to see did not trou­ble me as I am so short­sighted. My un­der­stand­ing of light be­gins with frac­tured auras and haloes, leaky shift­ing colours and gran­u­lated shapes which might or might not be­come clear.

There is a mo­ment, though, when this world be­comes very clear in­deed, a win­ter twi­light called, in Fin­nish, sini­nen hetki, or the blue mo­ment. It is as if blue light rises out of the snow and, be­cause ev­ery­thing is cov­ered in snow, ev­ery­thing turns blue, so the world is full of its own space and si­lence and not empty at all. A night in the port of Bodo in north­ern Nor­way, where ev­ery build­ing, from the fish­ery to the church, is com­pact, func­tional and low. The town looks as if it has been con­structed from a kit and could be packed up and driven off in a sin­gle day.

Even soft­ened by cloud, the light is in­sid­i­ous. I am wait­ing for some­thing to hap­pen, for the sky to break, but noth­ing will hap­pen and all night peo­ple cir­cle the har­bour square or ride back and forth in cars and on mo­tor­bikes, just pass­ing the time. I lie down for three hours and, once or twice, dip into sleep.

The next day the ferry sails for five hours to­wards a dark line that breaks down into is­lands. Their cliffs are so sheer that they veer away from them­selves and each is­land sits in black shadow, giv­ing the im­pres­sion that it is hov­er­ing on the sea. Ev­ery­thing is unan­chored. There are too many is­lands, too much water and too much light.

Vaeroy is one of the Lo­foten Is­lands. Here the sun does not rise for a month in win­ter; nor does it set for two months in mid­sum­mer. The beach is lit­tle more than a ledge of blanched sand; the sea is so thick­ened by cold and light that it might be glass.

For now it is calm, but what­ever washes up has been pounded and scoured: heaps of stones worn into huge, beau­ti­ful eggs shot through with quartz, a sheep’s ver­te­brae, eye socket and jaw as smooth as pa­per, translu­cent shells of crabs, sea urchins and limpets, fray­ing husks of sea­weed.

This is bird land. Their eggs are hid­den be­neath my feet among the egg-shaped stones. There are no trees so they make do with ground cover: rock, gorse and grass. Oys­ter­catch­ers run past scream­ing, warn­ing or dis­tract­ing. Red­shanks blurt from fence posts, their nests scat­tered among what­ever grass they can find.

Masses of gulls and terns ex­plode out of the cliffs. Crows mob the oys­ter­catch­ers, af­ter their fledglings. Cor­morants wheel and dive. Auks come on to land to breed. They nest on high ledges and lay eggs which have evolved into a tear shape so that they won’t roll.

Mid­sum­mer is the feast of John the Bap­tist. Tonight the trolls come out to make mis­chief and the witches go to meet the devil on the moun­tain top.

By late af­ter­noon, the sun be­gins to make its way from stage left. Peo­ple ap­pear along the coast build­ing fires. They share the tra­di­tional mid­sum­mer feast of dark beer, salami and semolina, but this is no rau­cous af­fair.

The light is so bright that the flames are in­vis­i­ble. There are no leap­ing shad­ows. Peo­ple gather round long enough to make sure that their un­wanted fur­ni­ture and tyres have prop­erly caught light, and then they go home, long be­fore mid­night.

I wait on the beach as the sun makes its way to the cen­tre of the view. At mid­night ex­actly it starts to sink down on to the sea, so smoothly that it looks like a ball about to bounce. And then it does bounce, off the hori­zon. It is im­me­di­ately ris­ing again. I feel thrown into re­verse.

For all my years in the city, in London, my nights ma­nip­u­lated by tung­sten, neon and sodium, halo­gen and 60-watt bulbs, traf­fic lights, street lights and se­cu­rity lights, my body in­sists that this is wrong.

It is wrong to be able to see so far and so clearly that the earth curves, wrong to have a 50-foot shadow, wrong to be sleep­less and wrong to be so happy. Light meets ev­ery thought and glance. I have no imag­i­na­tion here. This is an ex­tract from The New Granta Book of Travel, edited by Liz Jobey (Granta, $29.99; dis­trib­uted in Australia by Allen & Un­win).


The aurora bo­re­alis, or north­ern lights, a spec­tac­u­lar form of ele­men­tal dis­tur­bance that ‘sug­gests a time when light was first oc­cur­ring’

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