Expedition Jokkmokk

by Stephanie Heckman

This journey had been a long time coming for me. I had met Laila Spik, Sami wise woman, a year ago in Millemont, Paris. The Sami are the last unbroken indigenous tradition of Europe, spread across the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They are a nomadic people, herding reindeer across the Arctic mountains since time immemorial. She had invited me to visit her there, in the winter town of Jokkmokk, just above the Polar Circle. I didn’t know what to expect, but the calling to the north was unambiguously strong. Since moving to Sweden in the summer, I had been mentally preparing for it.

And so while most of our classmates went home over the holidays to take a break from things, me and my close friends and (adoptive) housemates Brendan, Benni, and Hanne traveled in the other direction, digging yet deeper into our transformational MSLS year. Before going, we had shared our personal significance and intentions for the journey. And so, clad in our many thermal and woolen layers, we also got to bring our inner layers on the trip. Our four-headed expedition crew was one of loving openness and resilience.

Brendan and I arrived a day early. After traveling through the night, we stepped off the real-life Polar Express into the deserted darkness, light snow coming down in complete silence. In an instant, we felt the slowing down of time. It wouldn’t speed up again until back in the south. Without a second thought, we stepped into the Arctic rhythm, where the days felt like forever, because they were being carved so deep into us. Getting up when we woke up, napping when tired, eating when hungry. Day and nighttime had lost their conventional meaning anyway. The four hours of daylight were just enough for a walk in the hills of the pine forest, playing and ploughing through the deep powder snow, before being enveloped again by darkness and spending the rest of our waking hours, often till 4 in the morning, talking over unending cups of tea at the kitchen table.

That kitchen table was the beating heart of our journey. With unbelievable hospitality and generosity, Laila welcomed us into her life without any reservations. During the many many hours we spent with her, from breakfast until deep into the night, not once did I discern even a hint of impatience with us. That sentiment was not even in her book of options. She set the tone for how we lived together that week, in her tiny little house filled with treasures. During naptime in the 2PM dusk on our first day, I had kept the bedside light on just to take it all in. The pictures and paintings on the walls. The sculptures and ancient tools and stacks of books covering every surface. We barely had space to roll out our sleeping bags, and knocked things over left and right, but the household the five of us created together was characterized by love and joy and care for each other. So far away from our homes during Christmas and New Year’s, we became family. Our affection for Laila was like for a grandmother, and we were home with her.

She spoke to us nonstop for a week. For hours and hours on end we listened, eagerly drinking in the nourishment of wisdom and knowledge. And if we weren’t listening, we were all journaling ferociously, capturing her lessons. Laila was fully present every waking minute she spent with us, sharing her stories and answering our questions. She spoke in the name of her family, and we met her father and mother, their spirit still so wholly present and alive through her. She told extensively of the history of her people, and we traversed the mountains with the reindeer in the Arctic summer, through her. And through her, we learnt also about the more recent history of the Sami, reminiscent of that of any oppressed indigenous people. Forced Christianization, boarding schools, hospitals and parking lots constructed on top of ancient burial sites. Family names changed, Sami music – the joik – forbidden. Ridiculed for their clothing, their food, their language. The tragic end of the Sami shaman tradition in the 17th century. And the Sami’s sustained pride in their surviving culture, despite it all. She showed us the artifacts that filled her house: heirlooms from every century, dating back a 1000 years. Old smoking pipes and wedding garments, smooth birch knot bowls and Sami knives with delicately carved reindeer antler sheaths. And she knew the stories that accompanied each of these objects, safeguarding the soul in them. She shared her wisdom of how to live one’s life, her extensive knowledge of plant medicine, and how to prepare the most incredible meals from the forest.

Every night was a feast, with cheese courses and rich veggie dishes from us, complemented by her with everything from salted reindeer meat to smoked grouse, wild pig and horse hair lichen soup, fish eggs from the mountains, bark flour flat breads and grilled cheese, powdered nettle, birch sugar and angelica syrup, cloudberries and roasted lingonberry leaf and pine needle tea. Have you ever eaten something that lived to be 500 years? We ate her moss soup, and it was one of the most delicious soups I ever tasted. The king of Sweden thought so too. She served it to him three times.

To witness Laila’s deep connection to her family, her people, and her land, made a profound impression on us. Through her, we all felt the presence of our own lineage stirring in us, and the desire to connect with our own ancestry and legacies, wanting to be known. Stories of our grandparents, great aunts, and parents drifted to the surface. At the heart of my experience of our time there was how much Laila brought my own grandmother back to me. The parallels were uncanny. A hundred similarities followed each other day after day. One of Laila’s jumpers, the brass duck head on her kitchen table, her trouble with the DVD player, all reminded me of my grandmother. Her scent was similar to my grandmother’s. I smelled my grandmother’s breakfast by her dishwasher on our first morning there. The life lessons and the worldview Laila was given by her father, are exactly how my mother and grandmother raised me. She lives with the forest the same way that my grandmother taught me to live with her garden. Utterly, I am my grandmother’s and my mother’s continuation. And through them I connect back into the human family. Being there with Laila, I was remembering who I am.

So rich and full were those days. I long back to the sensory richness: the flavor of pine needle tea and smoked reindeer meat. The scent of the morning frost and our woolen jumpers. The sight of the snow covered pine branches, the night sky over the frozen lake that we visited on our nightly ‘aurora checks’, snow magically sparkling in the dark. The touch of my feet sinking into the crunchy snow and the softness of reindeer fur. Like from a dream I can recall the graceful silent dances of the Northern Lights, emerging suddenly as a thin band of color above the city rim, or as a sharp, vertical blade of a green flare, quivering on one edge before swaying into pink, lilac, white swells, with animal and human figures galloping in the coursing waves of light. The deep nourishment of Laila’s stories, the example of her life, and the delicious food every night. I miss the slow pace, the simple, unplanned days, and the companionship of our expedition crew. I haven’t felt homesick all this time for the Netherlands, but now I feel homesick for Jokkmokk.

The words an elder gave us in Millemont have echoed in me for days: “Walk slowly the first four days after ceremony,” she said, “or else your feelings may get all mixed up.” I’m feeling the consequences of the involuntarily rushed transition back into the MSLS grind. Submitting an assignment within 20 hours after getting off a 22 hour train ride. Straight back to classes every day. All our projects starting up again, our days booked full by meetings. With stubbornness I’m managing to keep some space free for stepping back into the Jokkmokk energy and savoring it some more while it settles in my soul. But there’s no time to walk slowly. I’ve felt flushed by anger, frustration, and sadness. The band of travelers is dispersing into our school lives again, where we have to share each other with our other housemates, friends, and classmates.

In the true fractal nature of my year here, coming back from Jokkmokk into MSLS is a precursor of what I can expect when emerging from MSLS into the wider world again. As much as I love and learn profoundly from my MSLS life, I feel disconnected from it now, wanting to hold on to the deeper and more condensed magic of Jokkmokk. I will treasure this week in the Arctic Circle like a nugget of gold, embedded within the broader MSLS journey. And I will need much more than the four days of walking slowly to process all that I have gained from our stay with Laila. It resounds throughout my depths and has stirred things into motion. For months and years to come I will be feeding off this journey. And the ripples it has cast in my water, who knows what they may give rise to down the line.