Two and a half months have passed since I last wrote on my blog. Scandalous, to say the least. (Partly due to summer vacation; mostly due to work with other stuff.)
But now, as you see, I am back. I will try to write two blog posts a week, sometimes (hopefully) even three.
As you may remember, I had just begun to describe the first day of a week’s hike on the mountain heath west of Iešjávri, the largest lake in Finnmark, the northernmost county in Norway. Four blog posts hadn’t gotten me further than a few hundred yards up the hillside east of Tutteberget [“Tutte’s Crag”] by the Joatka lakes. There’s a lot you are compelled to write about when you start walking outdoors.
I had just passed through the reindeer fence halfway up the hill. The golden plovers – the very incarnation of the tree-less moors that I had depicted in my last blog post – continued to bemoan my presence. Let them complain to their hearts’ content; I myself felt exhilarated as I trudged uphill. To me it was as if the golden plovers were welcoming me home to the Iešjávri heath.
That particular notion is downright wrong, of course. The golden plovers’ mission in life was certainly not to serve as hosts for me; they merely tried to lead me away from their eggs. Difficult for a human being to accept, of course, but still: They did not exist in the world for my sake, but for their own.
On the slope north of me a herd of domesticated but shy reindeer was grazing on whatever green stuff the heather, plants, and bushes had sprouted so far. They were on their way to the coast to fatten up. They did not exist in the world for our sake, either, despite the fact that they were part tame.
Trudging along, I nonetheless felt as if I were on my way home. Hard-science people would have smiled condescendingly. What a hopeless nature romantic, they would perhaps have thought. And the so-called postmodern humanists would have agreed. Nature – a home? That’s just a cultural construction, they would have said. A product of verbal diarrhea. Doesn’t this dimwit know that nature has no meaning other than the one we give it through language?
One of my objectives with this dairy from the heath is to prove them wrong. People who argue that we merely create the world in our own image, have lost contact with the sensuous, pulsating animal that is them. The heath is not merely a product of my (or your) cerebral fabrications. It is filled with life – with plants and animals, sun and rain and wind – that continuously assault our senses. To be able to “read” this bombardment of physical impressions requires experience and knowledge. But the sense impressions in which we partake are the products of a sign language that mirrors a ceaseless exchange between various life forms.
When saying that I bodily sense that nature is a home, I am not speaking metaphorically. Instead it is a lived, tangible fact, both for me and perhaps also for the golden plovers that now left me and flew back to their own territory.
Let me try to put it another way: Nature – in all its vibrant sensuousness – became part of me as a small boy, even before I acquired words with which to think. I have been at home “out there” in my natural surroundings as far back as I can remember, ever since I toddled around on plump baby feet with outstretched hands and tried to grab hold of a sparrow or thrush on the lawn at home. And the heaths and the mountains have always spoken to me with a sign language of their own, independently of the language I employ to talk and write with. Ever since my early youth the heath has mountain-crammed itself into my eyes, wind-swept and bird-warbled its way into my ears, bog-reeked and flower-scented its way into my nose, and sun-burned and rime-frosted itself into my skin.
In this way it has become part of me, with all its comforts and discomforts, the whole shebang. No wonder I belong here. Are there better definitions of a home than this?
When I had trudged up the last rise, I encountered a fresh waft of air. I sauntered some fifty yards along the ridge, and dumped my backpack on the ground and relished the light, cool breeze against my summer-warm, sweaty face and neck. Ahhh, it felt good. The tiny waft was also sufficient to make the mosquitoes temporarily disappear into the heather and the dwarf-birch shrub.
The sight of the billowing upland hills and the smell of heather and spring soil cleansed my mind. I felt exactly as Johan Turi describes it in My Book about the Sami (Muitalus sámiid birra) from 1910, the first published book in the Sami language that was not primarily about religion: “When the Sami enters an enclosed room, he understands almost nothing – when the wind is prevented from blowing against his nose. His thoughts do not flow when there are walls around him and when the roof is sealed off above his head. Neither is it good for the Sami in dense forests when the weather is warm. But when the Sami is high in the mountains, his reasoning clears.”
That was precisely the way I felt, too. It is first when I cross the treeline onto the bare heath, that my mind is cleansed. There are of course people other than Turi and his reindeer-herding companions (and me) that have felt this way. Even the Norwegian playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen have expressed something similar in his poem “Paa Vidderne” [“On the Heath”]: “My lowland life I will no longer trod; / Up here on the heath are freedom and God. / Down there the others are fumbling.” This was somehow appropriate, too. Ibsen’s words are, however, a little too grandiloquent to have the same weight, the same matter-of-fact authority, as Turi’s lived life on the heath, expressed in simple, concrete, and sensory terms.
The mouse-eared foliage of the dwarf birch lent a tender, light green tinge to the moors. The sensation of being physically linked to the soil that gives us life, is particularly strong at springtime here in the North. Such a feeling increases as the snow is transformed into water, and the brownish-yellow ground and the naked, black branches are filled with a living, green web. At the same time we shed our woolen caps, mittens, and thick overcoats. And more and more often we step out of the square boxes in which we work and eat and sleep. This is the time when the sensory and sensual world enters our bodies again en masse.
This was exactly how I felt as I lay down, flat on my stomach, in the heather and looked out at the landscape.
Below me lay the Joatka lakes and shimmered in the sun. By my wrist grew a mat of pink alpine azalea, and here and there the bog-rosemary (marsh andromeda) had acquired deep-red buds. The fragrance of the heather and the soil on which I lay was strong and raw. I pressed my hand deep into the ground, burying my fingers in moss and roots. Then I held my fingertips to my nose. The smell was sour and sweet at one and the same time, a scent of earth and water and life.
The winter was over and done with, no doubt about it.
Before I knew what I was doing, I had thrust my nose deep into the heather, almost like a nursing baby buries its face in the soft breast of its mother. When I looked up again, the naked moors glittered in the sun. My eyes drank and drank from the sight. My God, how beautiful it was! My God, how wonderful it was to live!
It was one of those moments in life that befall us undeservedly – that we have done nothing to make happen. They cannot be planned or commissioned. We merely try to hold on to them as long as we can. A fly crawled slowly across the back of my right hand; it tickled. At the same time I felt the sharp fragrance of humid earth stinging in my nose, the reflection of the sunshine on the lake flickering against my eyes, the sweat on my neck evaporating in the sun, and my groin hardening against the ground.
It was for moments like this that I existed. And this I had in common with the mosquitoes that had started whizzing around my head again. And with the Lapland bunting chirping in the shrub close by. And with the mat of alpine azalea growing right before my eyes.
Modern men and women have gotten it into their heads that they are alienated – and most of all from nature. If you are a civilized person, you have somehow lost the ability to feel at home in it. This is pure nonsense, if you ask me. Like any other animal human beings have a series of senses. We make constantly use of them. And to sense our natural surroundings is certainly the diametrically opposite of being separated from them, it is a way of taking them in. If we start ascertaining this – for instance when we take a little walk just to, well, take a little walk – we will find that the sensory easily verges into the sensuous, which easily verges into the sensual.
To grant oneself ample time to see and listen, to smell and taste, to sense, touch, is the same as initiating a love affair with the world. It lies there, waiting for us. All that we need to do is to stick our noses into the humid soil and begin!
Source: Johan Turi, Min bok om samene, [”My book about the Sami”], translated into Norwegian by Harald O. Lindbach (Karasjok: ČálliidLágádus, 2011), 11. The translation from Norwegian into English is my own.