As a child I grew up to appreciate natural light as a scarse commodity to be valued and cherished, since much of the time one had to be content with a dark playground and mere artificial light. When I opened my eyes in the morning to see daylight pouring in through the curtains a sense of aliveness and joy pervaded my whole being as I watched the specks of dust dancing in the sunbeams with a pure sense of wonder at and appreciation of nature’s miracles. This is probably the case with most children all around the world but I do like to think that those of us born and raised on the shores of the cold northern seas develop a special relationship with darkness and light.
The summers stand out like oasis’s filled with light-wonder, but most living in Finland takes place when light is retrograde and the absence of it spreads like a cool protective sheet over the land. Protective because despite all his or her complaining the northern person feels quite at home when the bright lights have been dimmed on nature’s stage and one can brood upon things quietly in solitude. The melancholic, nostalgic feelings aroused by this form of contemplation are the source of much that has come to be considered of high artistic value in Finland.
The inner spirit and culture of a land cannot remain unaffected by the various proportions of light and dark that nature has ordained upon its denizens. The alternations of shadow and light scribe the code of the self to a degree, just like genes and upbringing. Finland might well be the place where the senses are sharpened to notice the infinitely subtle words that nature speaks to us through its Morse-code of light and darkness.
I guess one cannot speak of Finland and light without eventually mentioning Aurora Borealis. When I first saw the Northern Lights as a child somewhere on a cold winter night in central Finland I felt I was put in touch with something larger than myself. I stood there taking in the cold crisp air, feeling the ancient darkness spreading in all four directions, and witnessing it being broken by a display of such grandeur that for a moment I felt outside of time and space, or like time and space were inside me, rather than me inside them. I did not say a word to anyone as these things are not discussed in our culture, at least not anymore. Maybe in the past people did, but I have my doubts as silence has pervaded this land since the beginning of time. Occasionally poets, painters and composers have attempted to break the silence by conveying these things through their art. The best attempts having become embedded in the Finnish psyche as national archetypes.
A feeling of awe towards nature may well be the first religious-spiritual feeling a person of the north comes to know. This may sound archaic but still holds true in most cases, even for urban dwellers. The cities in Finland are too small to isolate one completely from nature as it breaks through concrete and stone and the ancient gods and goddesses still lend their names to many places.
As a teenager born and raised in the southern city of Helsinki, the rite of passage to the tundra’s of Lapland was inevitable at some point.
I took off from a hotel with all its securities and modern conveniences and headed for the barren wilderness, which has been inhabited for millennia mainly by tribal descendants of Eurasian nomads who found their home here after the ice age had passed. Rock paintings can still be found in many places dating back to those primordial times.
On my way to the borders of the National Park I passed by an African-American man who was there enjoying the view with his son. The son said to the father, “look, he’s going into the wilderness! Why can’t we?” to which the father replied, “he is one of the local tribal people, he knows the forest”. There I was, a city-boy who knew not much about the wilderness, striding with pride in my chest after this compliment that I knew not to be quite accurate but which made me feel confident nevertheless. I was a Finn and on my way to a meeting with the midnight sun. Life couldn’t be better!
I hiked deep into the woods that day, or at least that’s how it felt, until I found the ideal camping place, set up my tent and built a fireplace. The scenery around me was breathtaking and I was utterly and completely seduced by this ancient landscape. The once proud and ancient mountains that stood as high as the Himalayas when the earth was young are now just heaps of rock looking like a giant had hammered them down to hills of rubble a few kilometers high. Even so they are of such ethereal beauty that I could not take my eyes off them.
I decided to climb to the top of the hill to wait for nightfall from where I watched the endless wilderness bathed in the most serene and surreal light I have ever witnessed, as the ‘night that is not really night’ started descending upon me and my non-human companions. Close to me was a Seita, a little mound of rocks worshipped in these parts since ancient times and a pagan practice that still survives to this day. I said a little prayer to the nature spirits who inhabit these sacred objects and felt blessed.
It was like witnessing the world going into suspended time and where it’s difficult to say where you end and the world begins. All the animals including the birds became perfectly quiet even though all was light around. The sun never fully fell below the horizon but was sending light that was so overwhelmingly different from anything that I had witnessed before, that it almost made we want to weep. Okay, I admit I wept. Such is the effect of the phenomena on one’s state of mind. I sat there transfixed until I realized that the whole night had passed and the night-light was turning into daylight once again. I had witnessed something sacred and wanted more. Eventually I would venture on a whole two-week march away from civilization. I had never before experienced such solitude as during those days basking in the midnight sun and almost completely losing my sense of time. The world and its goings on seemed distant and even insignificant in that new realm I had discovered.
On my way back to civilization I camped just outside the National Park before crossing the border. A group of German tourists saw me gathering firewood and got excited seeing a genuine “tribal” emerge out of the woods. I did not have the heart to tell them the truth and posed for their cameras thinking that it was maybe not too far from the truth.
The opposite of this day-night is the night-day of the winter season. Nowhere is it as extreme as within the Arctic Circle. I had the privilege to live in the extreme north of Finland with an elder from the Sami tribe for a period after his wife had died and it was during this time that I had my first experience of the Kaamos as this dark period is called. During Kaamos period the sun peeks hardly at all above the horizon and even then only partly and soon sends the northern tundra back into the womb of arctic darkness. This lasts for two months.
Unto was the name of my Sámi friend, and he was the real thing. While casually beheading a reindeer he asked me if I would like some of it for dinner after my skiing trip to the hills. I shyly told him of my vegetarianism to which he laughed kindly and with real amusement. And then decided that fish was vegetarian enough to which I had no choice but to agree.
When the little light that nature was generous enough to release was dawning I would put on my skis and head off to the hills. Soon after however the light would start to fade behind the snow-clad hills and darkness would descend over everything leaving only the luminous snow to light my way. I stood there transfixed, watching the silhouettes of reindeer herds against the darkening backdrop. What an exhilarating experience to be completely and utterly immersed in that luminous darkness!
Sometimes my friend Unto had to drive out on his ski-do to look for me as I had wondered too far into the hills. He would throw me a rope and holding onto it I would hitch a ride back through the darkness to the safety of his hut, where we would indulge in a glass of Vodka while watching the news about a world that seemed so distant. We never really talked, but nevertheless felt comfortable in each other’s presence. That is the way of northern people.
There is nothing quite like the endless snows of Lapland and the enveloping darkness of Kaamos. A strange longing for something that is difficult to express in words grips the soul of anyone new to this experience. And who knows, maybe it does that even to the old and seasoned reindeer herders. Along with the darkness comes the silence. Not just normal silence but silence that is devastating on some level yet strangely rejuvenating at the same time. To the urban person the immensity of it can be slightly disconcerting. One will never be quite the same after experiencing it.
I loved every moment of my stay with Unto but at the same time was glad to make my way back south. Some years later Unto came for a visit to Helsinki, which he did not relate to very well. A few years later he passed away.
Walking down Helsinki’s Aleksanterinkatu after a shower of autumn rain, the air was clear and rays of sunshine were breaking through the clouds. I headed towards the harbor to watch fishermen bringing in their harvest from the sea. Light was playing in the waves and reflecting from the boat windows creating a joyous mood while the fishermen touted their catch to passersby. The adjacent market place was filled with people of remarkable diversity. More and more people of various backgrounds and ethnicity are bringing their own color and life to this melancholy seaside port. Maybe they will eventually succumb to the arctic nostalgia too, or who knows, maybe they will pull us kicking and screaming out of this isolation and silence to finally join the rest of the world.