North of the Sun
How escaping the world's troubles can return us to them
As T.S. Eliot had it, April is the cruelest month. And though I tend to take Eliot’s word for things, seeing as how he had a good 40 IQ points on me, I always thought he missed it by two. (Yes, I know we’re not supposed to take verse too literally, or else the Girl from Nantucket has a lot of explaining to do.) But when we’re talking cruel months, February is the true pisser of the lot.
Nothing personal against February, but I have always hated it with my whole heart. As a year-around fly fisherman, I find fishing to be most moribund in February. Why, I went out just the other day, on an unseasonably warm 60-degree afternoon, and all I could manage was one lonely, lethargic bluegill, which I foul-hooked on a nymph. He couldn’t be bothered to bite it - probably because February had crushed his spirit, too. Every dog I’ve ever had seems to have died during this cursed month. Whenever March dawns, I always turn to my current canine companion, throw him a Milk Bone or three, and tell him, “Glad you made it. You’re one of the lucky few.”
February is the month with the most bogus and least festive holidays, like Valentine’s Day. Which is a scam holiday hatched by florists and Hallmark-card writers who couldn’t cut it in advertising, but who nevertheless have found a guaranteed paycheck by conscripting us into pitching woo to mates we’ve already won. How charmless is February? Well, it’s officially National Children’s Dental Health Month. For which I am grateful – that will train children to hate February as much as I do.
February tends to be the coldest month, the most strangely-spelled month, the only month of the year that might pass without a full moon, one of life’s true pleasures that never gets old – unlike February, which makes us all feel older by its end. It is the shortest month of the year, which seems about right. Even the Gregorian calendar can’t wait to be rid of it.
This particular February, of the last many, has shaped up to be the cruelest of all – with a neckless madman with dead, possum eyes and an ice floe for a heart attempting to throw his picnic blanket over a country that doesn’t belong to him, giving the world exactly what it doesn’t need after two solid pandemic years of fear and dread and instability: which is even more fear and dread and instability. Here’s hoping Putin gets repaid for his cold-blooded February spirit in the hottest part of Hell, where they have already reserved his eternal Airbnb with a panoramic view of the Lake of Fire. Long may he sizzle.
And yet, even during bleakest midwinter, I try to take a happiness pill every February, as I did this one. Because sometimes to fully re-engage with the world, you badly need to escape it for a while. And for me, here is what that often looks like:
Several years ago, I stumbled upon this screwy, 46-minutes-long, subtitled documentary called North of the Sun (or Nordfor sola in the original Norwegian), and I haven’t been able to stop watching it since. It’s become a hallowed winter tradition: like polar bear plunges or drinking until passing out by the fire. While nothing much happens in it – and its appeal might not make sense on paper – as with food-cart hot dogs, or Arby’s gyros, it somehow satisfies again and again.
In it, two twentysomething filmmakers/surf’n’snowboard bums, Inge Wegge and Jørn Ranum, chuck their everyday lives and for nine months, live in an uninhabited bay on an arctic, mountainous coastline, with frigid winds and waves blowing in off the North Atlantic. Though where, precisely, they set up camp, they refuse to say in voiceover: “We won’t tell you where this is. We want to give others the chance to find their own paradise.”
They come with nothing more than their boards and a few tools and packages of cheap, expired food like scalloped potatoes. They build a snug cabin for themselves – one that looks like a hobbit house – out of found materials such as driftwood and shipping crates that continuously wash ashore, and which they then insulate with empty plastic bottles and by packing snow on their roof. They endure the elements, huddling around the stove they’ve created out of a sawed-off rusty barrel.
They get an unexpected visitor one day, a Finnish hiker named Heikki, who plays reggae over his small backpack speakers, and makes them Cuba Libres. He stays for a week, until, as Ranum says, Heikki has to head “back over the mountain. Back to his job. Back to chasing time.” As the sun disappears for months on end, they surf dark, choppy waters. They are gloved and hooded in wetsuits, their faces going numb, as the hard winter winds blows wild mist droplets over their barrels like an old man having his hairpiece flap about his scalp in a gale. Sometimes, the Northern Lights even dance above them.
They climb to the top of steep mountains that descend to the sea, just to catch some sun that eludes their shaded cove, then carve those mountains up by snowboard, looking like birds that have just rediscovered their wings. (Unable to actually break free from this earth, Wegge also tries to beat gravity by paragliding off cliffs.) They tell the same stories three times, and laugh at stupid jokes. Once their shelter is fortified, with nothing to do but be, they surrender to the music of nature’s rhythms. As Ranum says, “The rest of the world seems far away. Time no longer exists. My cell phone, news, doesn’t matter so much.” As Wegge says: “With so little to relate to, I feel free. No closing time. We can play whenever we want.”
They also pick up the trash that keeps rolling in on breakers - literally tons of it. They throw nets over the piles, that will later be airlifted out by helicopter. They mercifully don’t get eco-preachy about this. They just clean up what is now their backyard. It’s disturbing to see that much trash in such an otherwise pristine environment. A reminder that however far we go to flee the world, the world’s garbage tends to find us.
I was reminded of this again during this February’s North of the Sun viewing. As I re-watched it on my laptop, I kept the television on while monitoring this new horror in Ukraine, and saw one haunting image after another, frequently causing me to turn the sound up: Frightened Ukrainians huddling in subway stations, now serving as bomb shelters. Brave Ukrainians standing in front of Russian tanks, as if human will was the ultimate weapon. Little girls who were just normal little girls yesterday, now holding their moms’ hands - their civilian dads stuck back at home making Molotov cocktails and taking up arms in a fight they didn’t want, but that came to them anyway – rolling their tiny suitcases into Poland and an unknown future. They might have just been little girls yesterday. But today, they’re refugees, with all the trouble and uncertainty that label entails.
I still found pleasure and relief, watching North of the Sun. But not as much as I usually do. Beauty is always worth taking in for its own sake. It is often the best medicine for what ails us. But that doesn’t mean we should avert our gaze from the ugliness that causes our fellow humans to suffer. As I concluded my laptop viewing, I looked up to my television, where a frazzled Ukrainian woman was telling a CNN reporter: “In all the years I’ve lived, I never thought I’d live to see such horrors.”
She reestablished for me that even though suffering is universal, we are lucky to live in the world that we live in, the generally stable version of one. (For now, anyway. Her world was likely stable enough, too, until instability found her.) But it is good to live in the version of the world where people have the luxury of seeking out hardship, like our Arctic adventurer friends, just to feel alive. While the other half has to flee hardship, just to stay alive. Enjoy the former. But don’t forget the latter.
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Bonus track: First and foremost, if you want to help Ukrainian refugees – which now number around a half a million, here’s a good place to start. Second, unlike our North of the Sun subjects, I’m not a surfer, but here’s another little gem I stumbled upon while surfing YouTube the other day. Ukrainians singing “He Will Hold Me Fast.” Though as I just found out while searching a day later, David French beat me to the punch. (Damn you, French!) Who cares? Now is no time to let the burden of unoriginality stop us. Translation:
When I fear my faith will fail
Christ will hold me fast
When the tempter would prevail
He will hold me fast
I could never keep my hold
Through life's fearful path. For my love is often cold
He must hold me fast
Double Bonus track: A great north wind song, in keeping with the spirit of our Norwegian friends. Here’s my very favorite cover of Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” performed by Bruce Hornsby, live from the Mountain Stage: