On Walking and Living With Nearly 20 Hours of Daylight... Or More
On the summer solstice yesterday, the sun rose at 04.18 here and set at 22.19. That is an enormous arc of 18 hours of daylight. In London the sun will rise at 04.43 and set at 21.21, which gives them nearly 1½ hours less light (at this time of year).
But, we get longer than that, because of course the sky lightens here an hour before sunrise. And it is light for an hour after sunset. My father-in-law used to say he could read the paper outside at midnight on the solstice. I’ve tried it – if it’s a clear night you can – just.
We have so much more summer light than most of the UK because we lie within the 57th parallel – a line parallel to the Equator but 57 degrees north. We are latitude neighbours with Riga in Latvia; with Gotland in Sweden; with the Gulf of Alaska in the USA.
London’s latitude is 51 degrees north. St Petersburg is 59 degrees north. We are much closer to St Petersburg. That’s quite a thought.
I find one dramatic effect of all this summer light, is that I sleep less. It’s hard to go to bed at 10.30 when it’s as bright as 2pm outside. Walking early, I get a glimpse of how people lived when the sun was the major source of light; not an electric bulb. You get up with the sun. Some mornings I fight to stay in bed after 4am.
I was once inside the Arctic Circle in June, somewhere between Murmansk and Archangel. It’s 68 degrees North there, and we had 24 hours continuous daylight. We were fishing. Instead of going to bed after dinner, sometimes we picked up our rods and headed up the river bank.
The man who was teaching me how to fish said that the oldest rocks on the surface of the planet were here. And that when I sat for my sandwiches at lunch, I must put something between them and my bottom.
Why,’ I asked, ‘I’m wearing trousers.’
He shook his head. ‘You must. So old. So cold.’ And he lifted his hands and curled the fingers into fists, and drew them down. As if he thought something ancient from deep in the earth would reach up into us. And perhaps suck out our warmth.
The sun, scarce and precious to us in the Highlands is even more precious to them. The man told me they hardly sleep all summer, but cannot wake naturally in winter – when it is night for three months.
In the old days, he said, when we lived in accordance with the nature’s timetable, people there slept through the winter months. They took it in turns for one of them to stay awake, and feed the fire so they did not freeze. He was telling me, surely, that in some sense, they hibernated.
Our little camp was 50 miles from the nearest road and 400 miles inside the Arctic Circle. Around 1am, the sun slipped gracefully through a shallow arc. That was it, night-time. Reindeer, wolverine, mink, salmon, bear, all roamed wild here.
I felt I understood why so many ancient peoples worshipped the sun. Their sun, as ours can, seemed to have the quality of immanence. From the Latin im- = in + manere = remain, ie to stay within. Immanence is often used to describe the pantheist idea of a god present in everything.
As we walked, our shadows lengthened to show these enormously long stringy figures, carrying long poles across one of our world’s most ancient landscapes. It was primary. Nothing had changed here since it emerged from the sea and formed land. Our shadows made us look like creatures of myth. As if we too walked in that much older time. All of us bathed in its light. We were golden.