It’s grim up north. At least in August. It’s been hovering below ten degrees for a couple of weeks, the sky is grey and the air is wet.
Meanwhile, in town, pigeon grey is still the theme. It isn’t very inspiring, and sometimes we wonder what we’re doing here. Fixing the house, chopping wood for the winter, scything the meadow. I was covered in insect bites last week. They’re the insects that lurk in the grass, and when my scythe hits their lair they fly up in a rage and attack.
Then a couple of days ago the temperature dropped even further. 3 degrees at night and snow in the fjäll, so we gave up all hope of a return of summer. The garden was strangely empty of biting insects. It wasn’t just too cold for us – it had killed off most of our resident insects, so things looked up a little.
Cheered by the death of so many insects and with a slightly drier forecast for that day we set off for a bit of berry picking, in between showers. We took the car and had a place in mind, just off the road by Lake Torneträsk on the way to Abisko. It would enable us to retreat to the car whenever there was a sudden downpour.
As we got out the car we pulled our clothing tight against the biting wind. We wandered down to the lake over the boggy undergrowth, scouring the rough ground for signs of berries. I’d brought a plastic container so we could bring the berries home rather than just eat them (as we tend to do). It was peaceful, even if it was far from a warm summer idyll.
Trying to stay positive we hoped we would find cloudberries, so we passed by areas of small blueberries that we normally have picked instead. The cloudberry is the holy grail of the northern berry hunter. Hard to find, hard to pick at the right moment of ripeness, and usually a berry you have to trade for quite a lot of mosquito bites.
We’d spread out across the bog, sinking into the spongy moss and searching among the insignificant foliage. I could see Rolf in the distance, pausing only briefly to bend down and look before moving on again. It appeared we were too late – some pickers had already been and picked the lot.
Then, I saw it, hidden under a hanging green leaf; the most perfectly formed cloudberry, a vision of orange and pink loveliness, plump and wet. The scrubby cold landscape was in that instant transformed into a kind of Eden, where finding a single berry – ripened exactly for that moment, the moment I was there to pick it – signified to me that the world was a kind and good place.
There were more cloudberries, but so well hidden. Finding the berries’ secret places, and then choosing to pick only the moist, luscious, fully ripe ones – this was a meditative experience. The day may not be warm, the sun not bright, and the summer almost gone, but in those moments it was hard to imagine there could much better than this.
We both worked silently, stooping to release each berry, as they revealed themselves leaning into trickling streams, hidden under grasses, lying in the shelter of small pieces of bark or stone. In the distance Torneträsk seemed bluer than ever. After an hour or so we made our way home, flushed with success and a container packed full of cloudberries.
Driving back into Kiruna, though, our mood sank a little. It was pigeon grey, no doubt about that. It’s a mining town and it doesn’t do pretty, least of all at this time of year.
We drove past piles of mud and stacks of building materials at the foot of Luossavaara, under the concrete bridge and advertising banners for the local burger bar, hanging broken from their strings above, past the sprawl that is now the mine’s industrial back yard, and up into the main part of town. Tower blocks of flats that could look impressive in the white light of winter just looked grey and flat at the end of a cold summer day in August. New graffiti had appeared on a bus shelter, and a digger and a pile of rubble decorated the street. Our car bumped over the rough unfinished surface.
Then I saw it. Among the rubble and the grey high-rise, among all that dull ordinariness, a sudden, vivid impression of something else, something bright and red and green. It wasn’t easy to see, set back a little from the road, its small neat shape nestled between high buildings. Flowers fell in swinging garlands from its window boxes, and on a small wooden veranda a man leaned out invitingly from a serving counter. A giant coca-cola bottle balanced at a cheeky angle on the roof signalled its presence to passers-by who cared to notice. This is ‘Empes’, the town’s best ‘korv grill’ kiosk. It isn’t so easy to find, you have to know where to go. Since 1945 Empes has smiled out on the town, through many summers and winters, witness to the changing faces of Kiruna.
Seeing it there gave me a warm glow – and I speak as a vegetarian who’s never been tempted by a ‘korv’. Just knowing it’s there, so small scale, so under-stated, so modest, so local. Another rich ripe cloudberry to pick.