Retreating to the woods–Time to look around
In a gust of elation
I realize the floor
Is a carpet of blueberries
It’s late evening, and outside the rippled glass of a 1920s window, the water of the Torne River burns orange, mirroring the northwestern sunset sky as if to suggest that here, above the arctic circle, the river will do anything it can to keep ahold of that trailing warm sky and the summer it promises. The boreal forest that humbly extends from the riverbanks far into the distance harbors a silence that I can feel all the way into my center, a silence that I nearly forgot existed while in the bustle of London. As I stood on the riverbank this evening admiring the endless redshot sky, I listened to a car, a single car, trail away to the north. I must have listened for 10 minutes, and the car didn’t seem to become any quieter, as if moving in eternity, just next to me. Then all of a sudden, silence again.
As I walked back to the house, two swans glided in over the Torne, spreading their wings in unison and plonking into the water. They trumpeted and made screeching sounds that echoed off the village of Junosuando. I wonder if the swans were confused by their echoes. “Hey, stop copying me. Hey, stop copying me.” “MEAEAAAAAAAAA. MEAEAAAAAAAAAA.” For all the fuss about how elegant swans are, they seem to me like somewhat clumsy birds, quite fun to watch, and not living up to the expectations of tranquil eloquent beauty. Or maybe the swans in Junosuando are just glad for the low key Swedish countryside, glad that there aren’t hordes of people watching them from the pond shore in St. James Park where they have to be composed for the queen of England. The swans travel through Junosuando on their migration north to their arctic breeding grounds, and now they are passing by on the return trip south. Though it’s still August, autumn is in the air here, and some of the aspens are already quaking yellow.
Before I get on too much to Junosuando and the Torne, I’d like to say a few more things about London.
On the last day of my stay, a man came to the flat to replace the unit that monitors use of electricity and gas. The old one was acting up, so this guy from the utility came with a new doodad to install. He did the whole thing, and I was impressed by how professional he was–also quite friendly and willing to respond to my curiosities. When I asked him if there are water monitors in London, he said no.
I thought to myself, how can a city of 20 million people, or whatever the gargantuan figure, make it by without monitoring their water? They’ll dry up the Thames! I thought of the sad sight of London with a dry riverbed, bridges standing for nothing, sub-river tunnels losing their impressive stature.
But obviously the Thames has plenty of water, wide tidal river that it is, and I suppose it rains a lot in Great Britain. Water isn’t a woe there like it is back in New Mexico where I grew up or other exceedingly dry places. Gas and electricity must be a relatively scarce and expensive resource in London, both worthy of a monitor that will tell you every instant how much you are using, while water is not valuable in the same sense, sure water is fundamental, but a set fee for Londoners and that’s enough, no need to measure.
To learn more, I wrote a number of emails and made calls to the Water Utility asking them if I could come and tour their facilities. They finally wrote back, after I had already left London, to say that absolutely not, I couldn’t visit and that a high level of security clearance is required to enter. Quote,
“Dear Mr Hecht
Thank you for taking the time to write to us, to enquire about a visit to one of our treatment sites this week.
I’m sorry, but we’re unable to allow unauthorised personnel to visit our sites/premises, due to security reasons.”
It’s not Scotland Yard! I wanted to write back.
Even when abundant Like it is in Britain, water is so valuable–a fundamental source of life, civilization fuel, the fire in the furnace making the city to work, move, live. Imagine if somebody got into the London Water treatment facility, where they clean the poo and plastic, bacteria and industrial effluents out of the Thames water to make it safe for drinking, and dumped a packet of a top-secret pathogen into the system. Out of every tap in the hundreds of thousands of homes and offices and banks and hip pizza joints and cafes would come something horrible, something that looked like water but would turn even the most stylish young handsome hep-cat into a geezer wearing worn out and smelly sweat-shorts with a combover, a wizard hat, crocks and socks, and bad breath… Some chemical…. It would turn London into zombie-geezerville in a matter of days!! This is scary, the state of water for so many people is serious business, sanitation isn’t an obvious ordeal. Hot or cold, like it or not, water is life, and what could we value more than life?
Someday, maybe even very soon, London will have nice guys in uniforms installing fancy water monitors in every house.
At the end of London, I felt great about meeting the GangesSUP gang and connecting with lots of people over water issues there and in India. My main triumph was to have preparations in place for travelling India, and I even took my first online Hindi class with my new tutor Ruchir from Alahabad who is fantastic, and has already taught me the Devnagari script and a bit of grammar in just five skype lessons.
I left London through a maze of Duty Free shops and a confusing puzzle of terminals at Stansted Airport. I arrived in Sweden to a cozy hostel where I stayed the night in Stockholm. The next day I visited the travel agency responsible for providing Indian travel Visas and then set off for an overnight journey by train from the south of Sweden along the Gulf of Bothnia then inland towards the northern border with Norway. I was in a cabin with four dutch guys a and a German man, all of whom were heading off for vacations to trek in a national park called Abisko, near Tornetrask, a big lake that is the headwaters of the Torne River. They had bought a stuffed cow and beaver as camping pillows, who I also befriended.
Sleeping in the train was surprisingly comfortable, and I got off in Kiruna, a small mining city at 67-some degrees north, ready to go. For the first time, I breathed the crisp, humid air from north of the arctic circle.
After watching hours and hours of trees go by on the train, expecting to arrive in tundra at some point, I was surprised in Kiruna to find so many trees. It didn’t feel so arctic, even though just a month and a half ago there were three weeks of midnight sun. Were I to be in central Canada, it would surely be witness to a different scene with few trees and plenty of permafrost supporting an arctic tundra. Here the gulf stream brings warm air across the Atlantic that heats up the atmosphere of Scandinavia, so it is warmer and more forgiving here than at comparable latitudes in Alaska, Siberia, Greenland, and Canada.
I took a bus from Kiruna to the quaint village of Junosuando where I am now, staying in the wonderful and well-set Junosuando Guest House, just 50 meters from the Torne Riverbank.
When I arrived a kind man with a flash of blond hair and a quiet grin ushered me into the big white house right across the road from where the bus left me. We exchanged few words as he showed me around the guesthouse, but I felt welcome in the warm and cozy place. This was Mikael. He and his wife Maya run the Junosuando Guesthouse and a winter wilderness retreat. They are one of the few families here in Junosuando, a town of 350.
Mikael took me up to meet Maya and their three daughters in the house just down the road. Sonya who is the youngest, Sita in the middle, and Uma is the oldest who just started 8th grade. Last year my friend Lily helped Mikael and Maya around the house and with their girls, and she made the connection which led to my very fortunate arrangements in Junosuando.
I explained to Mikael and Maya that the central theme of my year is to study rivers, the people who live around them and the geographies they are a part of, that I want to learn more about what the future of water might look like in the world. At first Mikael seemed skeptical. A carpenter and obviously a very practical man, my anthropocentric and slightly academic ideas might have seemed a bit unfounded, or perhaps he was wondering why I had come to one of the most water-rich areas of the planet to study such a topic. Maya was quietly supportive, and they offered any help they could give with my project.
One of the first things I noticed when I got to Kiruna was a sticker that said, “Refugees welcome. Bring your families.” It was really touching, and as I walked around the city I saw maybe 50 of them, giving me both a sense of generosity, but also of something discomfiting. In the warmth of the welcome sticker, something much darker is suggested. I asked Maya and Mikael about the refugees, and they told me that just last year 50 refugees, mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan came to Junosuando. They arrived in November. Can you imagine? To arrive after such a journey–leaving your home and friends and place of birth, a temperate land with diurnal rhythms, making the often dangerous, gruelling, uncertain journey through unknown lands, navigating the harsh, competitive bureaucracies that confront running peoples with obstacle after obstacle, and then you arrive in a town of 350 people, north of the arctic circle just as the sun sets for winter. Some darkness.
I wondered deeply how these refugees found Junosuando, and how they were doing settling in. I learned some through Mikael and Maya and the girls. They told me that the refugees are still waiting to gain status, that the parents are trying to figure out work and so forth and that the kids are lively and learning Swedish and making well with the Junosuando community. I learned a very small bit from watching Muhammad, a gentle and kind Afghani man who is helping Mikael with carpentry work and who went fishing with us, but because I don’t speak Swedish or any languages from Iraq and Afghanistan and I didn’t meet a refugee with any English, I didn’t get many insights.
While thinking so much about the dynamics of watersheds, I was struck with the intimacy of another movement: the river of people moving out of countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, and so much of North Africa, a humanshed of immensity that I have not begun to understand that demands a global effort to handle, and the patient, accommodating generosity of countries, cultures, and families everywhere.
From a headwater in the center of civilization
From the heart of the valleys that gave life
To the first modern humans
Comes a tidal wave of runners– people fleeing
Escaping a reality that my imagination cannot recreate
A river 65% oxygen, 18% carbon, 10% hydrogen, 3% nitrogen,
I spent quite a bit of time studying while in Junosuando, reading the international agreement signed by Sweden, Finland, and Norway that ensures the Torne will remain undammed unless all the nations agree to develop hydropower on it. That the nations must routinely check the water quality to ensure that a minimal amount of mine tailings and other harmful effluents remain in extremely low concentration in the waters. This agreement seems very proactive, and in a general context it is… Few places on earth have enough flowing freshwater and few enough people that such a large river can have a straightforward bilateral agreement to remain undammed and to be conserved on the grounds of ecological health. The Scandinavian arctic is a water-privileged place with a very small population, and they clearly value the rich and diverse arctic environment that the free Torne river supports for fish, birds, and many terrestrial mammals.
Of course, I didn’t spend all my time cooped up reading. I went on many walks in the woods and along the river, and Mikael made it a point to get out onto the land and onto the river with me during my stay.
I saw the transom of a wooden boat
A long dark-stained riverboat
Sharp against the water illuminated with sunset
I sat mid-keel as Mikael pushed us over the glassy river
I watched the ducks fishing easy by shore
Swans casting snowy waves
Their plumage feflected in the river
As though balanced on the fold
between two worlds
Following the line of the river,
Weaving in and out of forest,
The boat resembled a needle
Threading ripples over the surface
Binding us to the waters
A part of the slow parade
In a free river
Towards the sea
The days in Junosuando were punctuated with fishing trips, blueberry gathering, foraging mushrooms. I learned that Junosuando is located right after a major bifurcation in the river, the second largest river bifurcation in the world. At the point where the river splits nearly perfectly in half, extends a triad of three enormously wide rivers, each large enough to stretch the imagination and believe that this massive pool is really a lake with divergent and confusing currents. The capacity of the earth to hold so much water amazed me here, and I imagined the intense weight if the water, what if it just broke through? I watched Mikael take a sup right out of the Torne over the gunwhale of the boat.
Off the boat, I continued to be impressed by the load of water the land supports. Everywhere are bogs, and where the earth isn’t blanketed in spagnum, it is host to other mosses and liverwarts and blueberries, cloudberries, crowberries, winterberries.
From Junosuando I got to engage with the arctic nature in an intimate way, learning about the species that live here and trying to come to grips with the fact that for a better part of 8 months, this place is in what most anybody would call winter.
I am reading Barry Lopez’s book, Arctic Dreams, a stunning and engaging look into the northern part of earth. The emphasis on natural history and wildlife biology is stoking my already deep appetite to learn more about the north, how the creatures and plants and people of these high reaches live and adapt to a climate so unfamiliar to me, to spend a winter in the north someday, to take a while to do as the ice bears do: “Gathering ground to themselves. Navigating. Wandering with purpose.”
Unfortunately, but not regrettably, this journey into the arctic is the shortest of my Watson wanderings across the broad earth. I am soon to be back in Stockholm at World Water Week, before making my way to the headwaters of the Ganga River at the foot of the Himalayas. I have every intention of returning to the far north. Next time I want to feel the breadth of 24 hours of summer sun, to watch the migrations of myriad creatures south, to feel packice shift under my feet, and to ski through the forest or across the tundra on moonlit winter days.