Monday, 28 December 2009

Writing in the Arctic Circle

If you are a writer who craves silence, there is nothing quite like the silence of the Arctic Circle in winter. Night falls by 3.00pm and then it is pitch dark until ten o'clock the next morning. Morning is no different to dinnertime the day before. It is a strange existence hovering between perma-night and daytime activities and all the time, outside, nothing moves. Even the wind does not sound in the trees because the trees are too heavy with snow to rustle their branches.

Snow covered trees on the fells

I spent a week in northern Finland, a part of Lapland, just before Christmas. We experienced temperatures as low as -30C and could only cope outside in special thermal suits and boots. I needed a balaclava to keep the tip of my nose from freezing over! The only part of our bodies exposed to the air was around the eyes. Remarkably, with the correct equipment, we were outside for hours in both daylight and at night. Our hope was to see something of the Northern Lights. To do that we had to stand out on a frozen lake between from 11.00pm - midnight and stare at the northern sky. We were extremely lucky to see the so called 'quiet' lights, on one night only.

But the Lights were not the main event of this holiday. To me, as a writer, it was the extraordinary silence and beauty of the Arctic and I felt that the extreme cold was part of that beauty. This was a landscape unlike any other I had ever experienced. In my notebook I recalled all the accounts I have read about the great polar explorers."How did they endure the wastes of the Beardmore Glacier? 9,000 feet high and Scott writes, ..huge drifts collected, and the sledges were quickly buried. It was the strongest wind I have known here this summer. Their endurance comes home to me just trying to cope outside even without blizzards and snow drifts.Our week is truly Arctic. Last week there was fog and temperatures hovered around -4C. How disappointing that would have been. Thank Heavens we are having a true Arctic experience. But the cold is really hard work!"

Miriam and cousin Val in full thermal gear.

Standing in the doorway of an igloo. Its only -17C and so I can manage without my balaclava and gloves. Feels almost warm!!

Our guide for the week was an experienced outdoors Lappi guide, Antti, who often quoted his grandfather. Dress up warm, he urged us. My grandfather says, "Warm doesn't break the bones." Antti led us through the forest, showed us all the different animal tracks from reindeer to mice, taught us how to make kindling from logs, made sure we could always tell north - ants build their hills on the south side of trees - moss grows on the south side of the trees, facing the light. And what should we do if we get lost in the forest? "My grandfather says, If you are lost, walk back home."

Pages from my notebook

Our guide, Antti, heating berry juice over the fire in a wooden Teepee. There are reindeer skins on the benches and the berry juice has traditional cloudberries, picked in the Lapland forest. It kept us going all week.

The morning is as dark as night and we had to set out alarms to know which way was up.Daylight is rationed to less than four hours by late December and the sun never appears. But gradually the sky changes from deep midnight black to Stephenson blue by 9.00am.; the colour of the ink in my old school fountain pen. By ten on a clear winter's day the sky is powder blue and the clouds are tinged with rosebud pink. It is a beautiful invigorating light and gives you the energy to set off and explore before the dark sets in by three o'clock. We don't realise how lucky we are in a London winter having 8 hours of daylight and the wonderful sun blazing sometimes in the sky. I didn't realise how much I had missed the actual sight of the sun until I arrived home and saw it blazing over Hampstead Heath.

I always collect found objects from the ground when I travel. In the picture below are two stones from the amethyst mine we visited. They contain glimmers of the purple amethyst and also quartz. There is also a piece of bark and cone from a conifer tree. I found them in a cluster lying on the snow and when I returned nothing had moved, been blown around or covered up. The forest floor remains as motionless as the trees. It is almost eerie.

To live without the sun would be to die, piece by piece, a little every day. But spending time in the great, pure silence of the Arctic was a gift and a privilege and will inspire my writing for a long time to come. Andreas Alarieston, a wonderful artist who recorded the life of the traditional Sami people says, "The reindeer are excellent predictors of the weather." In the paintings below you can see a reindeer with his Sami herder and also a painting of the old post office in the trunk of a tree. The life of the Sami people is changing but we were given a peek into how to survive in the Arctic forest no matter how harsh the weather. My notebook and pen were my survival tools.

The Reindeer Driver Rests and The Post Office at Hankankama. Paintings by A.Alriesto.


  1. Wow, what an incredible experience!

  2. How brave and what an amazing adventure. Brave because I would fear the cold. To have to wear a balaclava to prevent a frost-bitten nose is too cold for a wimp like me. But seriously I'm so pleased that you saw the Northern Lights. What wonderful memories you've been able to gather.

  3. Your words inspire and entertain in equal measure Miriam. Thank you for sharing. Rebecca.

  4. I loved reading this, especially since I could hear about the frozen conditions without having to go out into them!! What a wonderful trip, Miriam, and I too am really glad you actually saw the Northern Lights. Happy New Year!

  5. It sounds like you had a wonderful time! What a beautiful landscape. I love the silence so this would have been pure bliss for me!

  6. Womderful pictures, Miriam - what a marvellous experience!

  7. ----- Original Message -----
    From: maryan hadley
    To: miriam
    Sent: Monday, January 04, 2010 9:23 PM
    Subject: Re: from Miriam ; My Blog on the Arctic!

    Hi Miriam
    Checked out your Lapland blog - very interesting and colder than Iceland since we didn't wear special suits but just as many fleeces as we could fit under a ski jacket. Did the special suit come with the holiday or is it your own? the balaclava must've looked fetching. It sounds a wonderful experience - definitely not run of the mill. xx Maryan

  8. fantastic experience - you know there's a bursary where artists/painters/thinkers/writers can spend six months at a base station in the Arctic Circle. I'll try and remeber the lin but maybe google it... you could go, be inspired and get money (not much) to go. x

  9. Thanks Miss Tree but to be honest I'm not sure if I could cope with six months at a time in the Arctic. Its very hard work keeping warm!!

  10. From:
    Sent: Wednesday, December 30, 2009 4:32 PM
    Subject: Re: from Miriam ; My Blog on the Arctic!

    Hi Miriam:

    What an adventure! I love the idea of all that silence and your survival tools being a notebook and pen. Thank you for sharing the pictures of your journey, of your notebook. You must be full of fresh air and experiences. Happy New Year.



  11. From: Denise De Rome
    To: miriam
    Sent: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 5:01 PM
    Subject: Re: from Miriam ; My Blog on the Arctic!

    Dear Miriam
    This has immediately fired me with the desire to go. - Your writing is full of small details which make the experience come alive. - And as far as your survival kit being a notebook and a pen, yes, but it's your evident warmth and interest in people, plus the imagination behind your writing which makes that notebook and pen work for you!


Looking forward to reading your comment.