There is a point in the coming months when I find myself fixated with the idea of North. As the evenings gather round they seem to rumour something of a foreign land of darkness, and if we wake early enough in the morning, we might catch a newly arrived chill testing out its reach in the damp air, before the aged sun sends it into the shadows where it plots and waits.
I have a compass app on my phone. If I take it out now, and set it on the desk next to me, the sharp white marker points determinedly and unshakably out the back door, across the garden, swerves the washing-line, and dives into the brambles beyond. I wonder what it would be like to follow it, to travel shaman-like due north; through the hill, filtering between the grain of chalk and the deep-sea nodules of flint, and out where the spring seeps up at the edge of the wood, and on into Wealden clays and greensand. Beyond, is imagination. Here the morning is the same blue purple bloom of hedgerow damsons, but travel far enough north and it would grow velvet dark again.
I think about the one time I have been that far north. It was summer, and far below me the ice flows glinted, startling in both clarity and presence from the airplane window. In a moment, perspective shifted – light particles from the sun traveling unimaginable distances at incomprehensible speeds from the sun, bounced off water in its three forms, and into my eyes thousands of miles above the revolving earth. An image on my retinas that was freshly unique, precise and fleeting. No living eye had captured that exactly light at that exact angle and position before, nor would again. I blinked away from the plane window and found my fellow Canadian-bound passengers exactly as they had been; reading watching, sleeping. Back out the window the view had shifted, tilted, just clouds and wing stretch. The ice-light had gone.
It was summer, and the polar ice glinted blue-bright. So why is it that I always think of the far north in times of dark?
I blame Christmas, and the birds.
We all know Santa lives at the ‘North Pole’ – a mythical place, not true magnetic or geographical north but somewhere in the heart of Lapland, populated by elves, candy canes, and reindeer. Illuminated by strings of fairy lights and lanterns, because of course it’s always dark in winter.
The magic spirit of the season suffuses everything with pine scent and images of conifer trees, the tongue-tip-melt of snowflakes, and the dark of solstice night (and many very lost penguins).
And with it come the birds. Viking raiders, plundering south from distant lands. I’ve been stood outside in the evenings this week listening to the yawning sky. Redwings migrate at night, their contact calls pricking the night air as they slip unseen overhead. I’ve been listening but haven’t heard them yet. They will come soon, and behind them will follow the fieldfares. It is the bright feast of fruit and berries our countryside holds ready for them that they come for, but it is by darkness that they travel.
By late winter I bemoan the dark and gloominess by day, longing for the warmth and lift of spring sunshine. But in truth I know that Darkness is one of my favourite things in the colder months – not spooky Halloween dark, but the velvet rich dark, womb dark, earth dark, heart of winter north dark – the pitch black of our street-lamp free home that allows the stars to marvel at their own beauty, the kind of dark where you open your eyes when woken in the middle of the night and it makes no difference to your clarity of vision. Only if I experience this dark can I truly revel in the sun.
Having come to appreciate it as more than an absence of light, I will embrace the dark this year. I’ll let the north bring it into my soft southern home; I’ll welcome the visiting migrant birds with a share of my harvest, apples and seed, I’ll bring sprigs and boughs of evergreens indoors and wrap gifts in Nordic patterned paper, and wish for snow.