Alone

John Burnside

Quite early one May morning, in the last days of a subarctic winter, I strayed from a marked trail I had been walking for just under two hours and discovered I was lost in the north Norwegian tundra. It was something that never should have happened: 99 times out of a hundred, I am a sensible, even cautious wanderer, but that morning, in an odd mood I couldn’t explain other than to say, lamely, that I was sorry to be leaving Finnmark, I had left the borrowed lakeside cabin where I’d been staying and decided to go for one last walk along a not at all hazardous eight-mile trail about thirty miles east of Kautokeino. I had all the right gear, or most of it – layers of thermal clothing, a good map, a pocketful of energy bars in case the walk took longer than expected – but, really, this wasn’t one of those serious, adventure trail, orienteering-type walks. It was just a last wander to say a mental goodbye before driving my hire car back to Lakselv and taking the shuttle plane down to Tromsø to spend Grunnlovsdag (Norway’s equivalent of Independence Day) with friends.

Harald Sohlberg, ‘Lillegaten Røros’ (1903).
Harald Sohlberg, ‘Lillegaten Røros’ (1903).

I said goodbye to my host – an elderly woman with a broken leg, a friend of a friend of a friend who had agreed to let me use one of her holiday cabins for a week, though it was out of season and, as she said, ‘the stove was cold’ – and didn’t worry too much when, going over my things, I discovered I had lost my compass. I didn’t even bother to check the forecast. I just headed out. I’d had a fine time in the area around Kautokeino, walking each day on set trails over empty tundra or along the river, the last snow still glittering in the sun at midday and not dirty yet, though the night skies were already white, a thin, grey twilight settling over my little lake in the wee hours and every sign that the big thaw was on the way. It was the thaw that I had come north to see, or rather, to hear: I’d been told about the odd sound that came when the snow finally loosened its grip on the Finnmarksvidda – a sweet, musical sound that, if you could be quiet and still for long enough, you might sometimes hear quite clearly – and, though it may seem eccentric to travel thousands of miles to hear snow melting, this sound was the real, if secret, reason for my journey. By then, I had been to the north several times and I knew that, here, what began as silence was really a nuanced fabric of faint or far off murmuring: inhuman voices on the wind; the soft, far pulse of something I couldn’t pin down coming through a stand of birch woods near Karasjoka; the cries of a drowned girl from centuries ago calling through the moans and rumblings of the Alta River at Pikefossen. This time, I was hoping to stand out on the high plain and listen to that thaw water music, but the hard cold had returned unexpectedly and, less than halfway through my walk, it started to snow, slowly at first and then, quite suddenly, in thick, quick gouts, so when I finally realised I’d somehow strayed off the trail – that I had, in fact, probably left it some time ago – I couldn’t follow my footprints back to safer ground.

For several minutes, the idea that I was lost was so absurd I didn’t quite believe it. Even when the knowledge sank in, I experienced just the briefest sensation of panic, and not for any sensible reason, but because I was supposed to be returning my car the next morning and if I didn’t get back and call home, my wife would worry. After that, I became quite calm and, though I am all too aware of how odd this sounds, I have to confess I felt something close to happiness. I was lost – though surely not very lost – on the high tundra, with snow falling around me and visibility about half what it was when I set out, and I was happy. It was only hours later, when I found myself sitting in the car, numb with cold and aching with fatigue, that I realised how scared I should have been. At the time, however, my first recognisable emotion was a quiet sense of actually being in the world, a thread of its fabric, stupid and vulnerable perhaps, but alive and more alert than I had been in a long time. Certainly, I felt more real than I ever felt at home. I was a lost creature, happily coming to his senses, even though I was in a place that I didn’t understand in the least and into which I might, quite literally, disappear. Needless to say, that exhilaration didn’t last and it really was a matter of luck that I eventually got out of there.

To say that I should have known better than to go wandering off into the snow of the high vidda is a serious understatement. By the time of my Finnmark misadventure, I had been travelling to the Arctic Circle for several years and should have been more respectful of the terrain. My first visit in 1996 was to a conference in Tromsø, and, for reasons that I couldn’t explain at the time – reasons that had more to do with déjà vu than conscious choice – I’d felt compelled to return ever since, usually once, sometimes twice a year. I am not sure I can adequately relate how strong this sense of being suddenly and uniquely at home in the far north was; what I can describe is the memory of that first arrival, a memory of slowly descending out of a high white sky towards a landscape that looked and felt immediately as if I had secretly belonged there all my life – a place that, had I not known how far I was from my own house, I would happily have called home. That sense was utter and immediate and I will never forget how intense it was. Of course, I had thought and spoken of other places as ‘home’, and I had meant it, in the casual way we mean the things we’ve been taught, but as this northern island rose to meet the plane in its descent, I knew that, with each of those homes, I had settled too readily for an illusion. It goes without saying that I am all too aware how ready I am to shift the furniture of recollection around for convenience or dramatic effect, but this sense of suddenly finding home wasn’t a realisation that I came to in the course of time. It was immediate and true, and so close to overwhelming that, when the plane touched down and the other passengers disembarked, I had to stay in my seat for a while, gathering myself. What I had felt, on that descent, was an extraordinary sensation, as unsettling as it was pleasurable and, as I finally emerged from the plane, under the watchful eyes of a concerned flight attendant, I couldn’t help feeling that I was betraying something, or someone, in the life I had just left behind – a life that suddenly felt like a back story.

That dual sensation – of finding and, at the same time, betraying home – only grew stronger with time. For my second trip, I went to Rovaniemi in northern Finland, and walked out in the bright, crisp white of the January snows to stare at an astonishing, powder-blue shaman’s mask at the Arktikum Centre, but more often than not I headed for Tromsø, to stay with a philosopher I’d met at the conference and with whom I had become instant friends – and, again, there had been an element of déjà vu in this, like meeting a brother, even a twin, I didn’t know I had. A native of the southern region of Telemark, my friend had come north as a young man and it may be that he saw in me the same fatal attraction to the north that he had experienced. He had also caught sight of something else in me, something dangerous. One day, it was early September and the last of my visit, we were on one of our rambles around the lesser islands of the archipelago along the Troms coast: Kvaløya, where I dreamed of living in the lonely, grey-blue wooden house I had seen on the shore road near Mjelde, then Sommarøya with its white beaches littered with ghostly cold-water corals and, finally, on the westernmost tip, the rocky last stand of Hillesøy. It was rather a fine day, though well past summer’s end, and though I would have been content to sit talking in his kitchen, as we usually did on the eve of my departure, I think the reason he drove me out there was to warn me, in his understated way, about what he’d seen. As it happened, that warning didn’t register till much later, and maybe it only started to sink in when I finally abandoned my dreams of living in the far north and settled into the inevitability of here – the place where I work, where my children go to school and where, undoubtedly, I am doomed to belong.

I wouldn’t want to make too much of this. My friend is unobtrusive and tactful, and I don’t want to suggest that he was preaching, or pulling me up, on that day’s walks around the outer islands, culminating, as always, at the far end of Hillesøy – a place I had christened ‘the end of the world’. Of course, to the child in us, almost everywhere has its world’s end, but Hillesøy’s is more convincing than most. It’s not picturesque, just a series of wooden houses painted in various shades of earth red and powder blue and ochre, terminating in a battered, wind-bleached boathouse and, just beyond it, a path that leads out to low cliffs over a dark, almost midnight blue sea. The vegetation is scrubby and brittle at summer’s end, but it’s never very startling: the Arctic Circle contents itself, mostly, with minor miracles, the subtle shades of mauve and orange lichens, an immense range of greys and fogged blues and, in the right season, the stark beauty of the Arctic poppy, a slender grey-green plant with pale yellow, near translucent flowers that turn constantly to face the sun through its daylong journey around the summer sky. Elsewhere, there are gentians and tiny saxifrages, too small to see until the eye learns this northern light well enough to pick them out among the blown grass and the moss. In early September, the only colour was the occasional orange-yellow bauble of a cloudberry amid the dry ling, and the not quite pea green of the kråkebolle, those little sea urchins that gulls snatch from rock pools and carry high into the air, soaring above the cliffs and then letting the little bodies fall over and over again till they break on the rocks below and the tangle of edible ooze and viscera hidden within the shell is exposed.

My favourite thing to do on Hillesøy was to walk out to the edge of the land and fix my eyes on the horizon – and that was what I did, while my friend trailed behind discreetly, allowing me a moment of the solitude he had come out here to savour so many times himself. There are places where we can make out the curvature of the earth and I always think I can see it out there – and it is always pleasing, for reasons I don’t fully understand. All I know is that it has more to do with proportion than with size or significance.

After a long moment, my friend caught me up. He had found a good cloudberry, which he offered to me as a token of hospitality, me being the visitor. ‘Taste it,’ he said. I knew this wasn’t the best place for cloudberries, but this particular specimen was fat and juicy – though not sweet. Cloudberries are never sweet. They aren’t supposed to be. ‘It’s very good,’ I said; then I turned and looked back out across the dark water. I was happy, as I always was when I came to the world’s edge, but I had no idea why. In front of me there was a stretch of dark blue water; behind me, a rugged, but not particularly imposing or picturesque headland. It wasn’t special in any way, not guidebook material. We had stopped talking now, but I was quietly aware of a shared sense of the place and the moment that is the bedrock of companionship – and it did seem to me, then, that we were there for the same reasons. It was an assumption I had always made; like me, my friend surely loved the north because here, out on these lonely islands, he could find the isolation that his mind and his soul needed. But that assumption was mistaken, in small yet significant ways and, that day, after a long, mostly silent drive back along the coast road that skirts the deep, elk-haunted woods of the interior, I began to see how much I was taking for granted. All the way back, I knew something was on his mind, but my friend is one of those rare men who weighs up everything he says and it wasn’t until we reached the outskirts of the city that he began to speak. Even then, he didn’t really say that much and his voice was innocent of any accusation or irony; yet his intention was clear, even if I didn’t make out the full burden of his words till later.

‘This is a special place for you,’ he began, quite conversationally, as we passed the stores at Kvaløysletta.

I nodded. ‘More than anywhere else, I feel completely at home on Kvaløya,’ I said – though I was aware I was only repeating what he already knew.

He nodded in turn. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘And if you could, you would buy that little blue house at Mjelde and spend the rest of your life there, wouldn’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Perhaps you would be happy there. Alone, quiet, able to work. You’d be right at home.’ He had his eyes fixed straight ahead, now that we were in traffic. ‘But there is something you should consider.’

I laughed awkwardly. ‘I wouldn’t worry about it,’ I said. ‘It’s not going to happen –’

‘Maybe not,’ he said. ‘But you have to remember, just in case, that you don’t come north to get away from people.’ He shot me a brief glance, but I didn’t say anything, and he turned back to the road. The firmness in his voice had taken me by surprise. ‘It’s not about romantic isolation, no matter how attractive that might seem,’ he said. ‘In fact, it’s quite the opposite.’

For a moment, then, I allowed myself to imagine that I didn’t know why he was telling me this – I had never made a big, Garboesque production of wanting to be alone, or not that I had noticed – though of course the truth was that I understood immediately. I am one of those people who dreams of having, not just a moment’s quiet, or a chance to work, but a solitary existence, and some of the choices I have made in my life – choices that I don’t regret but don’t wholly understand – continue to surprise me. Choices that involve being with others. Choices that involve doing exactly what I say I have no desire to do, in places I have no desire to be.

‘Up here,’ my friend continued, not looking at me, ‘you have to get along with people. Not just individuals, but everybody. Avoiding them isn’t really an option because at any moment you might need your neighbour in order to survive. And that’s any one of your neighbours – you can’t pick and choose.’ He let out a soft laugh and shook his head. ‘I don’t say that people here are any better than they are elsewhere. But, given the circumstances, they have to be able to trust each other.’ He turned then, and looked me in the eye – and I immediately saw that he was talking about himself as much as me, about the younger self he had been when he moved north. ‘It’s not what you think,’ he said. ‘Really. You can’t live here in splendid isolation. You may think you want that, but you don’t. You’d go mad in the end, believe me.’ He turned back to the traffic. ‘Here, it’s not about solitude, it’s about having a real community. Once you have community, then you can be alone. That sounds like a paradox, but it isn’t really. When you go out to the edge of the world, you have to have something to come back to. You may not come back very often, but you have to know that you can. Otherwise, you’re lost.’ He gave another little shake of the head, and I could see that he was being a little theatrical, to take the edge off the lesson he was giving me. ‘To be alone, you have to know there’s a real community you can trust.’ He nodded slightly, confirming something – for himself, I thought, more than for me. ‘Without that, you’re not really alone at all,’ he said. ‘You’re just – hiding.’

Had I been honest that day, I could have admitted that the idea of community had always been a problem for me, but not because I wanted to live in splendid isolation. On the contrary: for a long time I wanted to find a community to which I might honourably belong, but the kind of life I dreamed about was unavailable. Sure, there’s always been fine rhetoric from politicos about community values, but what they’re talking about is a continuation of the old inequalities, the hierarchy where everyone knew his place and they were right at the top. This kind of community wasn’t about equality and mutual support, it was about grace and favour and the deserving poor – and that was more of a disappointment to me than I was prepared to admit. Growing up at the end of the 1960s, I had hoped, naively and very briefly, that my generation, having ‘cleansed the doors of perception’, would create a new order based on social justice and the seemingly limitless powers of the imagination. Then the backlash had come – and it had been not only brutal but condescending. Vance Packard’s analysis is typical: ‘The rather desperate efforts of … hippies … to establish “tribes”, farm “communities”, and even communal pads might be viewed as an outspoken symptom of a more widespread yearning for “community”’.

I was never a hippie and I had never wanted to go back to some notion of a tribal or agricultural past, but for me, ‘community’ was a revolutionary idea, one that meant rigorous standards for societal relations. I had been naive, perhaps, but I was never guilty of nostalgia. Eventually, however, it began to appear that a just, egalitarian community was a pipe dream – and like many of my contemporaries, I gave up on social engagement altogether. Now all that remained was the consolation of ecology – which in my case took the form of an idea of north and a sense that, somewhere in what ecocritics call ‘the more than human’, the natural order continued, whole and just and intact. To honour that inherent order, some of us adopted a proud and sterile form of internal exile, of being at least self-aware in what David Riesman calls ‘the lonely crowd’.

While it may be true that there is some honour in refusing the false community on offer, if only for the sake of what Riesman calls the ‘other figures in the landscape – nature itself, the cosmos’, possibly even a deity of some kind, there is also the problem for the self-exiled of not being perfect. Marooned in the lonely crowd, the solitary has to be impeccable and without societal needs: to want anything is a sin that must never be confessed, in case the frustrated desire to belong is made public – and so comes to seem like a readiness to make the unacceptable compromise. This is why turning away is as much a matter of grief as it is of honour, and the only thing that can assuage that grief, in the absence of a just belonging, is to vanish completely into the larger world.

To vanish completely. Perhaps this was my fantasy – and I knew I wasn’t alone, for I had frequently chanced on the same fantasy elsewhere. If there is one constant in late 19th-century Norwegian art, it is the constant play between appearing and vanishing, between remaining in this world and receding into another. We find it in Munch, of course (where being in this world can end in the horror of The Scream, with nightfall coming and the given world swirling and dissolving around you), but it’s present in the work of other artists too – in Frits Thaulow, in Eilif Peterssen, in Kitty L. Kielland and, perhaps most notably, in the hugely underappreciated Harald Sohlberg, a painter at least the equal of Munch, but now barely known outside Norway. As it happens, I first came across Sohlberg in the Kunstmuseum in Tromsø, where a little painting of his captivated me at first glance. According to the museum guide, its title could not be translated into English, or not by a single term, but meant something like ‘snow’s loosening’ or ‘snow’s melting’, and it is astonishing how utterly Sohlberg captures that moment when, after four or five months of deep winter, the snow finally lets loose its grip on the land, and everything on it, and shapes, colours, textures begin to emerge. It was a theme this painter returned to again and again, most notably in his great paintings of the Lillegaten in the town of Røros, where the blood-reds and the pale, lit golds of the houses seem to have been renewed by their long absence throughout a Norwegian winter; or in Sagene of 1911, with its astonishing greys and greens and subtle washed ochres emerging from, or vanishing into, the snow and the gloaming. It’s not clear which, but this is not important: what’s important here, as it is in the winter paintings Sohlberg produced throughout his career, is the constant play between coming and going, between the vanishing and the re-emerging that both consumes and renews the things of this world. In these works, the colours are both vivid and almost unbearably transient – yet there is nothing else I can think of in Western art that so wholly captures the play of reality, a play that undermines our sense that the world consists of solid facts and material things.

This great painter never quite shed the suspicion that even his admirers didn’t understand him – ‘it is probably true,’ he said, ‘that for simple and naive reasons my works have aroused sympathy. But I maintain that they have by no means been properly understood for the pictorial and spiritual values on which I have been working consistently over the years’ – and he eventually withdrew from the world so utterly that, by the time he died in 1935, his obituarist described him as a forgotten man and expressed a hope that the ‘coldness with which he surrounded a name that had been famous in his day, would now thaw’. And yet, while there is no doubt that Sohlberg saw his retreat as a necessary act – he believed wholeheartedly in the idea of the solitary and mostly misunderstood genius – the final irony of his decision is that much of the later work is considerably less interesting and quite often descends into self-caricature, or chocolate-box picturesque. But then, maybe the painting wasn’t what mattered any more. Maybe it was the solitude. The being alone, and the striving to be impeccable. Maybe that was the real work of art.

I didn’t vanish into the snow on that last walk in Finnmark, but it took me a long time to find the way back to the car and, when I did, it was through no virtue or skill of my own. As far as I can work it out now, I wandered in circles for hours and then, because the snow had abated and because, by some fluke I chanced on something I’d seen before – almost a miracle in itself, in that constantly shifting terrain – I managed to work out where I was in relation to the last trail marker I had seen. What I had chanced on should have been more transient than anything else on that day of ever-shifting weather – it was a sort of hollow, almost like a small cave, in the frozen snow that had accumulated over a stream – and must have altered in the several hours that I had been wandering, but it was recognisable enough that I remembered it. Of course, when I eventually found the first trail marker, I still didn’t know the shortest route back to the road (nothing, at this point, looked familiar at all). Eventually, after a walk that must have lasted around 12 hours, six or seven of them lost, I saw the car, a strangely alien-seeming sky-blue metal object that looked far too small for any real purpose. It was night now, and if it had been any earlier in the year, I might never have seen the car. I had been ridiculously lucky – but it was only when I got in and turned on the heating that I really understood just how lucky I had been. I had been hopelessly ill-equipped for getting lost on the tundra: I’d been without a compass, I had no idea how to read a map in a place where there were no obvious landmarks and, most significantly of all, nobody had known I was there. There was no community behind me, there was just me – and, but for the grace of something or other, I might have vanished for ever. But then, hadn’t I known that all along? Had this not, in fact, been the entire point of the exercise? The thought crossed my mind, I admit, but as I started the engine and pulled away, my head throbbing now and my hands numb on the wheel, it wasn’t something that I wanted to pursue – not with so many more hours of driving ahead, and a longer road still to go before I would make it home.