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How to Capture Flow, Week 2: The Upside-Down Landscapes
posted by Taylor Smith on 16 April 2021

Everywhere I look in Kilpisjärvi, someone seems to be digging a hole. The ice fishers and ice bathers, the man fixing the plumbing. Everyone makes a hole with one step in the snow. The researchers from the Universities of Helsinki and Turku, digging for their water and soil samples. One of these researchers was kind enough to even give me a map of the holes they dug, and some of their soil, which carries promises of colorful bacteria for my experiments. Because luckily in Finland there seems to be a map of everything. Funny how this hole-digging phenomenon keeps reminding me of my first impression of the Finnish landscape from above, while landing in Helsinki exactly three weeks ago: all I could see was holes, a paysage troué as it came to me in French. But what are people really looking for in these cracks in the earth?

I find myself now obsessed with these unexpected voids in the landscape, or sometimes in the sky: I see them as treasure troves, sources for my bacteria samples, to grow more colorful pigments. The hole of the frozen Kitsiputous waterfall’s gaping jaws, the inverted holes: rocks that look like meteorites poking out of the snow around Saana, the slowly melting cracks in the ice, revealing hidden communities of plants and bryophytes, snuggling together to keep warm as they dare to open their leaves to the arctic spring air. And the holes I dig in the snow, to place my petri dishes: simultaneously printing images and preserving microorganisms in the frozen tundra. “The natural world is a patchy place” I read in a book at the biological station’s library. Yes, indeed… especially the arctic world.

After my first week in Kilpisjärvi, I asked Leena, our mentor about Sami folklore regarding the landscape. And she told me about the upside-down world. She said that in Sami culture, the landscape has an upside-down side. It’s a sort of paradise underworld (in contrast to the more grim Jabmeaimo underworld) where other beings live beneath our feet. Sàivu, Säiva, or Saivo, I later learned are some variations of how this upside-down world is called, where the dead walk with their feet connected to ours. Birds serve as messengers, flying above and swimming below the “double-bottomed” Lake Kilpisjärvi. Funnily enough, before Leena told me this, I had naturally started flipping my photographs of Malla and Saana upside-down, connecting the “feet” of one mountain to those of the other. It somehow seemed necessary to complete my spherical petri dish compositions, as if these microscopic universes I’m cultivating couldn’t be complete without a reflective underside. These images I made spontaneously, or the echos I hear when I walk on the tundra at night to see the stars— a cracking in the snow that seems just a bit too delayed to be my own footsteps— are traces of this whisper in the landscape, hinting at the existence of an upside-down world beneath the permafrost.

I now take my photographs while upside-down, rolling my head backwards to try and capture an image of Sàivu below the ice, just like I used to draw myself upside-down as a child. Thinking about the beings of the underworld brings to mind bacteria or archaea from Saana’s soil that I see wiggling under the microscope… maybe this conception of the upside-down landscape makes perfect sense, from both spiritual and scientific perspectives.

Now I’m starting to think I can print images not only with the sun from above, but also with the reflected light from below. By putting my petri dishes back into these holes: these portals, maybe I can reflect back the light of Sàivu to those above the surface.