"The Aurora blazed all of a sudden into brilliant life.... a thousand miles high and ten thousand miles long: dipping, soaring, undulating, glowing, a cataract of glory." (Philip Pullman)
It’s books that inspire me to travel. Since I was little, I have loved reading, and it’s the books that you read when you’re young that make the strongest impressions. ‘Captain Corelli’s Mandolin’ took me to Kefalonia. ‘Dracula’ to Whitby. And it was Philip Pullman’s ‘Northern Lights’ that took me to Lapland.
I thought it was such a cliché to come here because of that book; that lots of people would have passed through here because they had the same image as me in their mind: of Lyra racing on Iorek across the icy Arctic wilderness, under curtains of flickering and dancing lights. So, it was with a little bit of embarrassment that I answered the question of ‘why Lapland?’ with ‘Philip Pullman’. Embarrassment dissolved swiftly to disbelief when it became apparent that nobody, be it my fellow volunteers or my Finnish hosts had ever heard of it.
Needless to say, when my family came out to visit me a little over a week ago, a dog- eared copy of ‘Northern Lights’ came in the suitcase, and now sits proudly on the Hostel bookshelf where we live. Everybody has strict instructions to read it before they leave, especially so when Wikipedia informed me that the fictional Lake Enara, from where the witch Serafina Pekkala was the Queen of, is actually based on Lake Inari, the place where I am living. On learning this, and reading the book again, everything suddenly has a new significance, and I was struck with new perspectives and feelings both about the text and this beautiful part of world.
In ‘Northern Lights’ the Aurora is a gateway into another world. Physics explains the beautiful displays of colours and lights in the Northern sky as solar particles colliding with earth's magnetic shield and encountering atoms of oxygen and nitrogen at different altitudes. For the Sámi, the indigenous peoples of the North, the Aurora was an Arctic Fox made up of light that flew through the sky, brushing aside the stars with his tail. I think the beautiful image conveyed by the Sámis captures what it’s like to experience the northern lights so much better than the scientific explanation.
The Aurora is visible here in Inari nearly every night. However, clouds obscure it, and streetlights make it fainter, so the best nights have been when it is clear and we have walked or driven out of the village’s lights to somewhere like a lake, where you can look out across to the horizon without trees obstructing the sky. A 20 minute drive outside of the village is an old bird tower, which rises 100 feet above the ground, affording panoramic views of the sky. But we’ve also seen the aurora from our window, shimmering across ghostly green lines, or just outside our front door, snaking over the roofs of where we live. Dashing into the supermarket to buy some beer, I said in excitement to the lady behind the counter that there was a beautiful aurora just outside. She looked at me with some kind of mixture of pity and derision. Our host called us up last night: “Beautiful beautiful aurora outside just by the guesthouse!”…. and then she went to bed. I can’t imagine becoming so accustomed to such an astonishing and mysterious act of nature. Conversely, for them they think it’s kind of funny that people travel from the other side of the world to see it; a local girl: “it just means the sky is lighter! You can just see better!”
I think the indifference that is shown to this natural phenomenon is kind of sad, but beginning to be apparaent even in us. At the beginning, we’d be so excited at a greenish blur under a thick layer of cloud. Now, we’re kind of picky. If it’s not really clear out, or a really active aurora (the intensity of the colours and the movement of the aurora depends on the magnetic activity and wind speed) we do tend to roll back into bed. I don’t think I’d ever get to the same level of derision, and things can also work the other way with the people who live here. A guy who has been here since he was born explained to me that working with the ‘Aurora Hunters’, a group of British guys who sell aurora tours to tourists, has actually made him appreciate the northern lights more.
|The cabin I stayed overnight in|
What will certainly stay with me long after I have left Inari will be the time that I was stayed overnight at Kotiniemi, the horse and husky farm. The farm has no electricity or running water, and I was sleeping in the cabin for the night. It was beautiful. I made a fire in the stove and got the cabin cosy, lit a couple of candles, and snuggled in a sleeping bag to read a book. At about 7pm I looked out the window to see lines of green light hanging amidst the stars outside. Pulling on my coat and gloves I went outside, stood out on the frozen lake and looked up at the sky which was completely lit up by snaking green lines hanging in curtains above me, dancing and moving, some slowly and some more quickly. Reds and purples chased the edges of the thicker blocks of green, and sky was alive with colour and movement. Tendrils stretched right above my head before seeming to fall around me like rain. This continued for about an hour, and began to die away- I could then see more stars that I have ever seen in my life. Eventually I went to bed. About midnight I woke up, looked outside, and it had begun again. I watched for another hour in awe; the place where I worked everyday with the horses and dogs was transformed into what looked like another world. I woke up again at 4am, and then again to start feeding the horses at 7.30am. Both times the aurora was shimmering outside. It was one of the best displays I had seen. I’m not sure if I’m sad or not that there was nobody with me to share that experience. I think it meant more, and affected me more, because of the fact that I was alone.
I think it was meant to happen like that.
I think it was meant to happen like that.
"She was riding a bear! And the Aurora was swaying above them in golden arcs and loops, and all around was the bitter Arctic cold and the immense silence of the North." (What brought me here. Lyra in 'Northern Lights')
|Oh, and did I mention, we've started running horse sledding aurora tours. Awesome.|