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Narrative Travel Writing Contest

2008 Narrative Travel Writing Contest — 2nd Place Winner

The Aesthetics of the Empty Landscape

“But there is nothing there. It is empty. There are hardly even any trees,” is the pedestrian, knee jerk response when people hear that one is going to live in Kautokeino. The region, or country, depending on one’s politics, is called Sapmi and lies deep into Northern Norway. “You will feel lonely,” some said but the dominant feeling, rather than loneliness, is an intense cold with no easily identifiable correlative. With temperatures frequently dropping below minus 30 degrees Celsius and sometimes as low as 50, the dry cold is not of the variety one feels when reaching inside a freezer. It is beyond cold. The closest similar sensation I had previously felt was when extinguishing a galloping forest fire in Africa. Paradoxically, it is more a burning sensation.

Ole Mikkel and Marit Anna were going to spend a week, living in their teepee and ice fishing in a remote part of this Arctic wilderness and invited me to visit them. I replied that I would love to “if I had the time.” Their blank expressions at my reserved reply reminded me that between the frozen lakes and the sky, time seems to diminish in significance. Quickly moving on, I asked, “How will I find you?”  Ole Mikkel, not renowned for his prolixity, took a crumpled map from his jacket pocket and prodded his finger onto the paper, indicating a frozen lake alongside a small hill.

“How far is it?”

“Not far.”

Hoping for something a little more exact, I pressed him until he reluctantly offered, “Maybe two hours. Maybe three.” Distance is measured in time and as such can change. Variables such as weather and proficiency with skis render it impossible to provide the precision that my metropolitan mind demanded. An approximate estimation would have to suffice.

Two days later, aware that we were well into winter, with days surreptitiously becoming progressively shorter, I strapped on my skis and, taking a deep breath like one about to plunge into a winter lake, made my way into the pre-dawn chill. The expulsion of each breath gives birth to a small cloud that momentarily blurs one’s vision. I carefully took in small sips of air instead of hungrily gulping it down, an action that sends daggers of cold into the lungs. Within minutes my balaclava was encrusted with icicles and my eyelashes glued together yet there is something invigorating about the intensity of such conditions. I felt alive. 

The village was asleep. The words, “It is empty,” echoed in my mind as I breathed in the smell of crisp, clean air and the occasional trace of birch scent with smoke slowly curling out of chimneys, the only hint of life. As the first rays of light tip the hilltops and glint off the ice this “empty” landscape fills up with evocative sights and smells, the former probably inaccessible to the untrained eye. A world away from the optical didacticism of television, one starts to notice the finer details, which assume greater significance and grow in stature in the uncluttered world. The fresh footprints of reindeer hold the promise of a chance encounter with those gracefully imposing icons of the north. The senses become alert to new possibilities. Nature reveals herself bit by bit, gently holding out each precious surprise to those willing to meet her half way.

As one glides over the snow, constantly sliding one foot in front of the other and mechanically pumping away with the ski poles, a rhythm surreptitiously melts away the sense of physical exertion, rewarding the traveler with a gradual warming. After three hours, I spotted the teepee standing proud against the endless white backdrop. Leaving my skis outside, I tramped across to the lake where my two friends were crouched around a circular hole in the ice. The traditional dress of dominant bright Persian blue with blocks of red trimmings presents a colorful contrast with the frosted landscape, rendering people easier to spot. Rather than reserving it for festivals and ceremonies, many Samis wear their traditional dress as a daily routine, a sight initially disconcerting for the outsider not used to encountering people walking the streets with knives attached to their belts.

If patience is a virtue then Ole Mikkel and Marit Anna are surely virtuous. Ice fishing is not for those in constant nervous anticipation of the next move. With the lines purposefully dangling over the hole, conversation inevitably drifts towards aspects of Sami culture with speakers exuding a sense of pride in their way of life, an awareness and reveling in the daily activities that they hope to preserve from technological intervention. Their imperturbable fielding of my questions was equaled by their patience in fishing. For the latter, they were rewarded. With the catch dangling from a spear we returned to the teepee where the hole in the roof allowed us to cook inside. Sitting on reindeer skins, enjoying the warmth and soothing crackling of the fire, we were soon picking at trout and ruminating on the gratifications of outdoor life. “How do you maintain your high spirits during the months of darkness?” I asked. “You need the darkness to appreciate light,” was Ole Mikkel’s reply to which, after a moment of pondering, Marit Anna added, “And vice versa.”

With dark, black coffee thick enough to keep a spearhead afloat, stories start to diffuse the conversation. The oral tradition of the reindeer herders comes alive as people turn to stories to illustrate, entertain, pass on information and record history. These stories are a place where dreams are revisited in words. The imagination is another landscape to be explored, where the surreal fuses with the harsh reality of life at 69 degrees north. Just like the reindeer, the imagination is given space to roam as it drifts between parable, philosophy and anecdote. 

“There is a storm coming,” offered Marit Anna, notably not looking at the sky when she passed on this vital information. People’s subconscious registering of weather patterns and predictions is somehow ingrained in a land where discussing the weather, rather than a polite conversation opener, assumes life saving proportions at minus 40 degrees. “When will the storm reach us?” I enquired. “Later. But not so late,” was the reticent reply leaving me unsure whether the vagueness is a language issue or simply a hedging of bets.

My mind full of the deeds of shaman, I left my two friends and set off on the journey home with the early signs of dusk leaving its imprint on the landscape and sky. As darkness presses in the village lights guide the traveler home.

This vast expanse of Arctic desert was no Italian landscape painting with its requisite stream and trees. It isn’t better or worse, just different. Marveling at the interplay of fading light and undulating terrain, I deviated slightly from my course to climb a small hillock and better survey the surrounding land. Standing atop the hill, the village lights were suddenly no longer visible. Threatening sweeps of snow were moving in, immediately obliterating the landscape. Within seconds everything was submerged in a snowstorm with a violence of flakes stinging my eyes, rendering me barely able to see my skis. The first palpitations of panic struck with the realization that a miscalculation of less than one degree would send me into Arctic oblivion rather than to the warm security of home. I estimated the bearings and, despite the apparent futility of it, started moving again.

Within ten minutes the snow began to ease. Turning to the sky I saw the first stars dotted above. I briefly understood the relief of a sailor sighting a lighthouse as the re-emerging familiar blinking of the village lights offered a personal beacon in this unfamiliar sea. The rest of the journey was spent switching glances between the ground and the distant village.

With 20 minutes to go, something urged me to look skywards. Above was a flickering curtain of yellow light with wisps of ultra violet green dancing with infrared orange. A spray of blue light joined the crescendo of movement. A red, lurking on the edges, floated in as if to say, “May I join the dance?”  A blend of colors like an artist swirling oils in her palette streamed above. As if the light were being spilled out of the sky, pools of co lour appeared on the land with the northern lights reflecting off the snow and ice. 

There is a scientific explanation for what I was seeing but I didn’t want to know it. Not yet. I first wanted to marvel in the expansive mystery, feeling the haunting beauty, feeling rather than understanding it, eager not to reduce the experience in any way. For a moment I believed that the show had been staged entirely for my benefit as if to say, “Welcome to Sapmi.”

Watching these colors leaping across the sky, setting it on fire, one paradoxically feels simultaneously blessed and inconsequential. The vastness is at once overpowering and mysterious, dwarfing humanity. I felt gloriously insignificant with the awareness that variations of what I was witnessing had been seen by generations before, on display since the earth first formed an atmosphere. I indulged in the presence of something far bigger than myself.

This is Sapmi’s answer to the great cathedrals of Europe. The seemingly solid stone blocks will eventually crumble while the northern lights are reconstructed time and again, in a seemingly infinite possibility of colors and choreography, for those privileged enough to happen to “be there.” There is no entrance fee. No queues to negotiate. It cannot be painted. I felt the presence of the camera case on my hip but decided to leave it there, reasoning that the ensuing print would be a pale imitation of reality. Here was Hamlet’s “brave o'erhanging firmament.” Here was his “majestical roof fretted with golden fire.” The pulse quickened and I felt a surge of inspiration as if the lights were emitting excess energy. Invigorated, I pushed off once again in the direction of home. As the village lights revealed themselves to me once more, I slid one ski in front of the other, and thought to myself, “The land is only as empty as the beholder.”

The temperature was plunging when I passed into the village. The freshly laid blanket of snow muffled all sound until, sliding past the wooden houses, I noticed three toddlers sitting on the ground, building snow castles. Their contemporaries in the Spanish Algarve were probably doing the same with sand trickling through their fingers and the warmth of the sunshine playing on their backs. “There is no such thing as bad weather. There is only bad clothing,” a local reindeer herder had previously told me with a hint of a wry smile playing at the corners of his mouth while I stood shaking in the winter night. 

I unclipped my skis and, with the snow crunching under foot, turned once more to peer back into the night. Look into the landscape and sky and you look into yourself, finding things in both that were not overtly apparent at first. To tune into the aesthetics, one has to put aside other thoughts and let nature write itself into your memory. If you leave home with a subconscious imprint of what you expect to see then you will return as you left. You will have seen nothing. There is no such thing as bad weather. There is no such thing as an empty landscape. We fill the spaces with friendship, stories and light. And with what is already there, lying undetected, ready to assume its stature upon recognition. I inhaled the night once more and stepped inside.

Months later, while enjoying the endless days that accompany the midnight sun, I attended an exhibition on Sami landscape art where I overheard someone say, “You cannot paint the empty spaces. There is nothing in this painting.” Once they had moved on, I stepped closer, gazed into the seemingly empty canvas and there it was.

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