Monday, June 13, 2011

Losing North


In the far north of Scandinavia (which themselves are already far-north countries) live several groups of aboriginal peoples who are not Scandinavians, whose world has long been trampled by those very nations of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, that over the centuries have grown up around them. These peoples are the Sami (say "SAH-mee;" outsiders long called them Lapps or Lapplanders), and they have their own languages, cultures, and religious sentiments. Separated over the eons by mountains, fjords, oceans, and ice from most of the world, they have been the last Europeans to join Europe.

It is said (heaven only knows the linguistic facts here) that the original ancient Sami languages used words like "coastward" and "inland" for directions, but did not have any words for the cardinal compass points. Notions like "EAST, SOUTH," etc., apparently had no meaning.

The Sami, along with the reindeer herders across the Siberian Arctic, live in a world where the sun offers no help at all in finding directions. The sun blanks out the stars half the year—most of that time it pretty much circles not far above the horizon, a full 360° during the weeks near the summer solstice. When it does actually rise and set, the horizon points of rising and setting are changing continuously, shifting visibly from one day to the next.

And when you do see the stars, the North Star is almost directly overhead--makes it really hard to find "north." All the stars simply circle around in the sky overhead. And it's really easy to lose your way. Time to hire some reindeer!

Have you ever lost your way? Lost it totally? Ever tried to end your life? Ever drowned yourself with food, starvation, drink, drugs, work, play, causes? Ever gotten completely lost?

All the signposts that people recommend seem to fail you. The sun rises in a different spot every day. Or it never rises. Or it never sets. Perhaps you think you're looking for Shakespeare's "star to every wandering bark" (Sonnet 116) in solid character, in romantic love, in finance, in health.

When you've lost all direction, when—for cryin' out loud!—you can't even find which way is north, then your only help is to quit looking. North is straight up! The sun never sets anywhere on June 21; and for months on end it never rises.

Do what shamans do. Travel to spirit. As you can read in the first lines of the book of Genesis, or hear in the pre-modern languages of the Sami: Separate the land from the water, the coastline from the mountains. Shamans know that the basic knowledge is that of earth and spirit. The universe holds us on the ground, so we never fly off into space. Spirit gives us breath and life. Such directions are far better than east or west, in the long haul. Such directions work even when I've lost north.