We are sitting in a circle, some thirty of us, around a log fire. The gamme, a conical hut of tarred logs, shields us from the wind, but the top is open to the sky. Mikkel Sara, a reindeer herdsman, is singing a joik – a muttering chant that resonates deep between belly and throat. Joiks are traditional songs of the Sami peoples from Finnmark, a territory that stretches from northern Norway, where we are now, across Sweden, Finland, and into Russia. Mikkel sings the joik of his dead grandfather, but joiks can summon the spirits not just of people, but of animals or places. Many evoke nature or the weather: sea, forest, sun, wind. Nature, says Mikkel, gives us everything that is good and vital: food and water, beauty, light. Life itself. It can take it all away too, and make us suffer, even die. And the weather is not all outside, you know. We have weather inside us, too. Sometimes it is good. Sometimes, bad. That simple truth – more valuable than any amount of psychologising – stays with me as we go outside to find a sky stained by a milkiness so slight it might be a trail of mist. My first, faint glimpse of the Northern Lights.
The arc of this evening reminds me of a dance performance we had watched a couple of nights back. We are here in Hammerfest – ‘the northernmost town in the world’, as the brochure proudly proclaims – for the Barents Dance Festival and the annual meeting of Keðja, a Nordic–Baltic dance network. Coming up by coach from the airport, three hours’ drive to the south, we had stopped to walk up a hillside where we formed a kind of human henge around a log fire. Inside were two joikers in reindeer coats, and three dancers, wrapped up good and warm, who dipped and quaked to the music’s murmuring rhythms. The night sky dwarfed us, and the wind flayed our skin as it swept past.
It was a strangely touching performance but I, newly arrived, was still full of the city and the south, and wondered what it was worth. Now, it seems like a foreshadow of this magical evening: joiks, a fire, an enclosure made not of tarred logs but our own bodies. We had left more quietly than we arrived, the coach trundling northwards until we saw the faint lights of our destination: houses, a harbour, oil works.