The Nordic White Nights of Love
by Petri Liukkonen

The Hudson River: Crest and Canyon

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The Nordic White Nights of Love
by Petri Liukkonen

Midsummer is an old solar festivity and the most pagan and erotic of all Nordic festivals. But its pale white nights have not produced a great profusion of love poetry, and nothing that can be compared to Shakespeare's wish-fulfillment fantasy, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Actually, Shakespeare's play was set in May. At that time in the Scandinavian countries, the weather is still too bad to practice sex outdoors. But you can drink wine on the veranda, like the Finnish poet Paavo Haavikko: "There are times, in the Summer, when the red wine on the / garden table / gets too cold. / I ask myself, / does all of this really serve the eternal truth? / Is the world, in this way, steadily improving, or what? / The children get furious." (from In the World, 1974. Transl. Anselm Hollo)

Midsummer celebrates flowers, greenery and fruit. The night is devoted for love magic and fertility rites. I myself have never seen naked young women rolling in the dewy grass, an old custom, but I wish I had. Eila Pennanen's poem gives comfort for all those, who are not in the mood or are just "ageing, like wine" as Paavo Haavikko put it. Pennanen wrote her poem at the age of 54.

On summer night
sun burns the windows,
sleep without motion,
a moment's recollection: talk and listening.

At dawn
I shift the curtains:
mist gently strokes the earth,
treetops emerging dimly.

(from Thank You for these Illusions, 1970.
Transl. Anne Fried)

Thomas Kirschmayer, an English writer of the sixteenth century, gave in The Popish Kingdom three great features of Midsummer celebration: the bonfires, throwing flowers into the fire, and the custom of rolling a rotten wheel down a hill. Nowadays, the highlights of Midsumer are sauna, dances and bonfire. All these small rites are basically a hopeful foreplay for vigorous love-making. This separates Midsummer from all religious, political, or national holidays of Europe, and it is a small miracle that the sober Lutheran church never managed to forbid it. In the extreme North, during June and July, the sun does not set for over 60 days. When the laws of nature are reversed in such a profound way, one can't expect life to go on normally. A Finnish poet, Pentti Saaritsa, demonstratively mentions working--writing, in this case--through the night. Perhaps it was his late contribution to the May Day labor march.

All this summer night
I've been translating, and now that the universe
has made the lamplight invisible
and the work has seasoned awareness, an eye opens
on a greenish horizon, childhood,
who stares trustingly
over the tangled thickets of youth
at this desk-hunched dawn-watcher

(from Savour's Salt, 1978.
Transl. Herbet Lomas)

Midsummer is the most popular time for weddings. In Norway, a midsummer bride chooses a bridegroom, and for the time being the two are regarded as man and wife. Peer Gynt, the hero of Henrik Ibsen's play, leaves his home and his mother to go find a woman. Edward Grieg's "Morning Mood" (1875), composed for the play, is the most romantic interpretation of the northern summer light, but has little to do with the virile aspirations of Peer.

Who's that? Was there somebody laughing behind me?
I was certain I heard... No there's nobody there.
I'll go home to mother.
(He starts to go up, but pauses to listen
in the direction of the wedding party
They're playing a dance!
(He listens, staring, as he moves nearer step by step.
His eyes shine, and he rubs his hands down his tights
What a swarm of young girls!
Eight or nine to a man!
Oh, death and damnation, I must join the party!
But what about mother, up there on the mill-house?
(His eyes wander downwards again;
he leaps up and down, laughing
Hiya! Look how they're dancing the Halling!
Ah listen, that Guttorm's first rate on the fiddle--it ripples
and sighs like a stream at waterfall.
And then all those girls--how they sparkle and glitter....
Yes, hell and damnation, I must join the party!
(He hops the fence and goes down the road.)

In calendars, Midsummer marks the turning point of the year. The sun sets out on its downward journey and the days gradually get shorter. Of course, this celestial phenomenon offers a nice allegory of life which has been used by many, many writers. In a poem from Invitation to the Dance (1980), Pentti Saarikoski drops the image casually into the middle of the lines. "Days get longer / the thread gets shorter / I go where my head takes me." The poet doesn't submit to his fate, rather, he follows his own path but feels that his "thread of life" is shortening. In Roman mythology, Clotho, Atropos, and Lachesis were divinities of the duration of human life. Clotho was represented with a spindle--she was said to cut the thread when life is to end. Paavo Haavikko said the same thing as Saarikoski but with different words: "Trees, nights are little by little longer, / a little, not enough to notice. / And the dark doesn't diminish the swishing in the trees." (from The Trees, All Their Greenness, 1966. Transl. by Herbert Lomas)

Felix Mendelssohn wrote his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream in the glorious summer of 1826 in the family's Berlin garden. He was seventeen. The whole work, with its Wedding March, was finished in 1844. In the third song of August Strindberg's (1849-1912) prose poem "Stadresan," a cantor-organist plays the famous march pompously, hardly bothering to hide his scorn. After the ceremony, he rushes home to his piano, and releases his feelings through Beethoven's Appassionata. The window is open and his music attracts listeners who applaud and cry "bravo." For a moment, the cantor enjoys respect. The whole poem is wrapped up in the tranquillity of an idyllic midsummer Sunday.

Högsommarstillt är i luft och i löv, på vatten, på marken; br> söndagens frid den är lyst på jorden, och tystnaden råder,
när ifrån klockstapelns tjäll till sabbatsvilan man utringt.
Kvarnhjulet stannat, och ån står stilla i loppet och sinar;
dragarna vila i blås och spiltor, fria från selen.

Nobel Prize-winner Per Lagerkvist (1891-1874) unexpectedly identified white nights with death in his poem, 'Det sörjande Norden' from Sång och strid (1940). Lagerkvist wrote the poem in the doom-laden atmosphere of 1940. Its "brotherland" refers to Finland and Finland's struggle against the Soviet aggression during the Winter War (1939-40). "Silent is the summer's banqueting hall, / and the wind has forgotten its song." The powerless poet cannot even reach out his helping hand: "Silently mourn the Nordic flowers / in the short nights of midsummer."

Ej lyfter glädjen sin cymbal
att livets ljuvhet prisa,
tyst ligger sommarns högtidssal
och vinden glömt sin visa.

~ .

Vem gläds åt marken när ej fri
den är där längre borta.
Tyst sörjer Nordens blommor i
högsommarnätter korta.

In his classic work, The Golden Bough, the English scholar James Frazer connects bonfires to ancient observations about "the courses of the great lights across the celestial vault." However, great fires are not kindled any more on Whitsuntide, but rather, on Midsummer Eve. Aleksis Kivi's (1834-1872) ode 'The Whitsun Bonfire" could tell about all bonfires.

In the spell-binding gleam of the flames tonight
To see a maiden face
With a burning now many a lad can feel
The fire of first love
In the blaze of the bonfire on Whit Sunday night
High on the flaring hilltop.

(Transl. Keith Bosley)

The story comes to an end when the maid, a brunette "with breasts so round and full", has danced in a boy's arms. "On the bridge where the bird cherry blooms they / stand / Beside the sparkling stream / In the death of the bonfire on Whit Sunday night / There on the silent mountain."

(Petri Liukonnen is the creator of a hugely popular site which contains detailed biographies of thousands of authors from all over the world. He lives in Finland and writes often on literature for this and other magazines.)

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The Hudson River: Crest and Canyon

Called Muhheakunnuk by the Mahican Indians ("great waters constantly in motion"), the Hudson is a diurnal tidal river which in fact flows both ways, north and south, at a force of 20,000 cubic feet per second. From its source in tiny Lake Tear of the Clouds, a 2-acre pond on the side of Mount Marcy in the Adirondacks (4,293 feet), it extends over 320 miles at depths of up to 216 feet to the estuary of New York harbor where tidal churning becomes 425,000 cbs, and thence pitches off the Continental Shelf into the 539-mile long, 15,000-foot deep Hudson River Canyon. Vital to commerce since namesake Henry first plied it on the Half Moon in 1609, its designation as an "American Heritage River" is testament to its obvious historical and romantic significance. Termed a "drowned river," which dates from the last ice age, geologists find the one-time fjord endlessly fascinating. Its underwater canyon, which resembles the Grand Canyon, has recently also captured the imagination (and funds) of the government's oceanographers.

The river's character and appearance change once it leaves the Adirondacks at Fort Edward. Locks and dams reduce its flow for forty miles to Troy, as barges move in and out of Lake Champlain and New York State canal system, descendants of the Erie Canal. For the 70 miles of rolling countryside between the State capital at Albany and the Highlands below Newburgh in Westchester, Dutch names (Kinderhook, Claverack) prevail, culminating in the 9-mile long Tappan Zee Bridge amid the Palisades, heavily forested cliffs the Algonquin Indians called "weehawken" ("rows of trees"). The West India Company's system of Privileges and Exemptions allowed patroons Van Rensselaer, Bronck, and others to buy vast holdings. When the English seized New (Amsterdam) York in 1664, Livingston, Philipse, and Van Cortlandt did likewise--until Columbia County farmers revolted against these lords of the manor in the 1840's.

In 1776, the Hudson "pointed like a long, vengeful sword at the heart of the renegade American colonies" (Saratoga, Richard Ketchum). Fully aware of the river's strategic importance, George Washington established forts at Constitution Island and at West Point (still a military academy). To thwart the British plan of dividing upriver from down, his men forged and strung a chain of iron links across its width. And at 100 pounds each, the links weighed quite nearly as much as most of them. Thus, the pivotal battle of the war was fought upriver at Saratoga in 1777, a victory for General Benedict Arnold against an army of 10,000--for all its glory not enough to match his infamy as a traitor.

While its banks were once the commercial and residential showplaces of Vanderbilt industrialist patrons and politicians, the river's modern heroes are the environmentalists who conducted a successful campaign to convert the waterway that Robert Kennedy in 1965 called "little better than an open sewer" to a source of New York pride, pleasure-boating, and the best potable wet of any major city. That not enough, preservationist and scuba diver Mark Peckham says the Hudson contains hundreds of sunken treasure ships. "It is a river that humbles you."

-- MH