We’ve been away a while. The grass at the back of the house is so high it’s impenetrable, so there’s no way a lawnmower will deal with it. If we had one, that is, which we don’t. So we went in search of a ‘lie’ (pronounced ‘lee-ah’).
A ‘lie’ is a good old fashioned scythe – the kind you have to be careful not to chop other people’s legs off with, and the kind featured in Bergman’s films on the shoulder of the angel of death. I didn’t like the idea, but having been brought up in farmland, where attacking a meadow with a ‘lie’ is child’s play, Rolf reassured me that he would have no trouble using one without endangering my legs or summoning the angel of death.
To our great surprise the local hardware shop in Kiruna didn’t have one. The owner was sympathetic but his face said ‘we don’t get much call for them these days’. We went to the DIY supermarket and all they had was a ‘lie’ handle – the blade would have to be ordered. When they told us the price we wondered if we could just get to like the grass wilderness instead. That had originally been our plan when we moved here, suspecting the grass would be a problem while we were away, but we’d soon realised that a wildflower meadow becomes a birch scrub and in town that’s all that separates you from the encroaching wilderness. Buying an all-singing, all-dancing lawnmower is the favoured option, but if you’re away, as we were, at the key growing time – when the snow melts away and the sun shines longer and then shines all night – then you’ve missed any chance of using a lawnmower. A ‘lie’ it would have to be.
We asked our neighbour. Anyone she knew who needed a ‘lie’ already had one, handed down from their father or their father’s father, so it wasn’t immediately obvious to her where you would go to buy one. But she suggested Vittangi, a small village about an hour’s drive east of Kiruna, where a degree of isolation has kept people feisty and independent and no doubt fond of their ‘lie’.
We like Vittangi, so it seemed an ideal outing for a sunny day. It was 24 degrees of heat in fact. The landscape glowed with colour – the stimulation of 24 hours of daylight accelerates growing and gives a once frozen landscape real green energy. The drive there was on the main road out of Kiruna (there are only two roads out) and although on some parts you encounter the occasional mine lorry, there’s lots of empty road stretching ahead of you into forest, so it’s pleasant drive.
Arriving in Vittangi we suddenly remembered ‘closed for the summer holidays’. In a small community that’s the normal practice in July, and most of the shops there were closed. But we were in luck – the hardware store was only ‘closed for lunch’. So we drove down towards the river to wait somewhere.
The Torne river is very wide in Vittangi. The skyscape is grand and expansive, water below in all directions, sky above. We found a small spit of land reaching out into the river (water on all sides) where we parked ourselves on some fold-up chairs for our lunch. It was blissfully warm, and silent. The water was almost millpond still; quite recently it had been ice. Pike snapped at the surface among the reeds, making us turn our heads, surprising us with a sudden break in the silence. It was enough to help dismiss thoughts of blue water being good for swimming.
We were in a good mood by the time we returned to the hardware store. There were no other customers there. It was a cavern of a place, stacked with several models of the vehicle of choice for this time of year (a quad bike) and spare parts for the vehicle of choice another time of year (a snowscooter). A man rose to greet us, and we asked about a ‘lie’. No, he hadn’t had one of those in stock for a couple of years, sorry. No explanation, no suggested alternative, no offer to order one. Pity we weren’t after a quad bike. It was disappointing to say the least. With nothing else to do, we drove out of town looking for adventure and, failing that, for somewhere to stop and have some coffee out of our thermos flask.
Our first stop was scenic enough – right by a lake in a clearing in a forest. The natural world at our feet. But the ants there had a mission to find and destroy, and were crawling determinedly up our legs within twenty seconds. Time to move on.
Our next stop we’d rejected earlier because it looked like it might have been private summer houses, but on closer inspection it was a public area, with pontoons out into the water and no-one in sight. The pontoons were on the edge of a wide lake surrounded on all sides by low forest. There were small benches of soft pine to stretch out on and we wondered if these were primarily for fishing. The water lapped invitingly against the rocks. I was resistant to swimming, as I have been ever since 1997, when I jumped in one summer’s day and leapt out again five seconds later. I hadn’t had a dip in the arctic chill since that day.
I went in. It was cold, but not painfully so. The water was clear and clean, and yet it had a strong primeval fishy aroma which reminded me I was not in my element. It always feels a bit threatening, being the only person in a large body of water, and in particular arctic water has always felt off limits, so I was nervous. I wondered if the fish were ravenous and might mistake me for giant bait. After all, they’d had a rough winter. What monsters might lurk in this deep? Pushing the thought aside I swam out a bit more, and then, sensing the degree of cold, I got out and dried myself in the sun. It was hard to believe we were in the arctic. We drank our coffee and felt happy.
Then at the distant clearing a car drew up and two men got out. Would this be paradise lost? When they saw us they walked to the other pontoon. At the bench and table there they silently ate lunch and read newspapers for ten minutes or so. And then they left. Some people are lucky enough to work where they can come to places like this for a bit of lunch, and don’t even feel the need to look up from their papers.
Another hour or so passed, in almost total silence. It had been a day we meant to get a ‘lie’, anxious to regain control over the growing wilderness in our garden. Lying on the pontoon looking out at the lake, the untamed marshlands and the low spreading birch forest, a ‘lie’ seemed rather irrelevant.