Listen: “Lemmings and the Midnight Sun” read by the author is also available to download from the Podcast page
Summer nights in Lapland have a peaceful, still quality lent to them by the magic of the midnight sun. The light, so bright at such a late hour alters your sense of time and place. Is it 10 am? 10 pm? It’s hard to tell.
It was 1970 and I was staying with a Lapp family in a remote cottage near the village of Ivalo, in Finnish Lapland. Vaula, the daughter of the house was a girl about my own age, who had been living in England as an au pair and who invited me to come home for a visit with her family when she returned. She was an usually quiet, moon faced, serious girl, who rarely spoke, and seemed to be totally lacking a sense of humour, except when on rare occasions she would suddenly beam with delight when she understood a joke or found something amusing. She had been completely out of her environment on the outskirts of London and was obviously pining to return to her family in the Northern parts of Lapland. We had journeyed to her home first on a 4 day trip on a very basic Russian boat that had two grades of accommodation – crew and third class (which we were), then taking a long train journey from Helsinki to Ivalo before making our way to her cottage. As soon as the train began to leave civilization behind, Vaula began to relax visibly and as we got near her home, she became almost bubbly with excitement. Her family warmly welcomed us and Vaula invited me right away to have a sauna with her to clean off the dust of the journey. I had never experienced a Sauna before, but it seemed to be a wonderful way to get clean and relax. The heat was intense, but just when I felt I could stand it no longer, there was a freezing cold lake to jump into and the feeling was exhilarating. We returned to the dark wood heated sauna and I had just got settled on the bench again when suddenly Vaula seemed to have gone completely mad. This taciturn, reserved, almost sullen girl suddenly turned into a giggling lunatic who began hitting at me with a bunch of thin twigs with leaves on them. At first I was so shocked I just jumped back to get out of the way, but then Vaula explained that this was a ‘vasta’ – birch twigs that are a traditional part of a sauna, the gentle beating of the body apparently helping to relax the muscles and calm mosquito bites. Vaula was finally in her element and happy in a way I had never seen her in the sophistication of an English home.
Many of the creatures that live in that area have a special quality about them, like the environment. They have a short time in which to breed, raise their young and then migrate or bear the brunt of the long dark winter as best they can.
After a good night’s sleep following the sauna and a lazy day spent helping her mother around the cottage, the next evening I found myself in a little boat with Vaula and her father. We were on our way to check their fish trap.
As we made our way across the calm lake the air suddenly became filled with the screaming cries of Arctic Tern. These beautiful, delicate looking, acrobatic birds have the longest migration of any creature, averaging more than 70-90,000 kms annually, many of them living over 30 years. It seems that we were coming too close to their nests, hidden nearby in the grassy tundra and they began to dive bomb us, coming so near that we had to duck and cover our heads to avoid being struck as they’re quite capable of drawing blood. Once we began to leave the immediate area of their nests they left us in peace and we continued up a small river until we came to the basket-like trap. (See the kind of fish trap here.)
This device rested under the surface of the water amongst the tangled reeds. It was made from willow twigs woven into a long, conical shape with the wide opening positioned so that the fish would swim into it and then be unable to exit or turn around. This one contained an ugly big pike at least three feet long, which would be our evening meal. We landed on the shore with our catch and Vaula and her father went back to the cottage to prepare it. I wanted to stay and sat down at the edge of the still water, on the rocks.
The sun was bright, but everything was eerily quiet. The birds were not singing as they would normally, which was the only real clue that it was night. Though I didn’t have my guitar with me, I began to sing some of the folk songs I knew, quietly to myself at first, sitting all alone on the edge of the water, then a little louder as I knew that no one was nearby to hear. Gradually as I sang song after song, I became aware of little rustlings around me and I saw small furry creatures, about 4 inches long, scurrying up to me and around me. They looked almost like hamsters, but wild, not captive to a cage and exercise wheel. Their bodies seemed to flow over the rocks and tufts of grasses at the edge of the water. As I watched them it dawned on me that they must be lemmings – sopuli in Finnish.
Some of the little animals came quite close and seemed curious, as if they were listening to my songs. They showed no fear at all as I imagine that they had not had contact with people and had so far no reason to fear them. Or perhaps it was that they sensed that I wasn’t a threat to anything as I sat still, just singing my tunes, the water of the lake lapping at my feet. One or two climbed over my feet and legs and sat there for a short while. It was a wonderful moment and I felt that I should stop singing and hold my breath, but was afraid that this would break the mood and scare them, so I continued. In fact I was just a temporary diversion for them and after a while they joined their companions that were continuing on their journey to the edge of the water. They began swimming, striking out for the opposite shore and I realised that the lake had hundreds of these little creatures, moving smoothly in the water, some aimlessly swimming in circles, but most keeping a true direction to cross the lake.
Every story I had heard about lemmings described them as crazed little animals that throw themselves off cliffs and into the sea and drown. The ones that I saw seemed not in the least crazed and to have a sense of purpose in their trek. It seemed likely that many would actually make it across the small lake and be able to climb out on the far bank, to scurry off on their journey. There were obviously a few for whom the swim had proved to be too much as I became aware of some bodies lying at different spots on the shore. Were they the weak or the old? I have learned since that this strange migration, believed to be caused by overcrowding and shortages of food happens only once in about every 25 years and I just happened to be there in that special time and in that special place.
Sometimes, in your travels, it’s a distinctive feel of the place more from the landscape and its creatures than from the culture that comes back to haunt you, many years later. Northern Lapland is just such a place and leaves a memory of peace and calm that is all too rare in the world and one that I shall never forget.