On the importance of darkness and bugaboos
posted by Cynthia Blanchette on 29 March 2023

It is the dark season that I have come for. I am to spend the year doing artistic research on wetland swamps, and as they are currently fast asleep shrouded in a blanket of darkness, I arrive on the arctic tundra and permafrost swamps around Kilpisjärvi to investigate the sister outcast of swamps, the dark of night.

It is January 17th, my first morning in Kilpisjärvi, on this day the sun is to rise for a matter of minutes before setting again. As I look out the window I am surprised by the light already present. I dash outside, worried I have somehow miscalculated the sunrise, arriving on the lake I find myself engulfed in the most intoxicating blue environment, the sky is blue, the snow is blue;  the light is blue and the darkness I was expecting is blue. As this new calming enlightenment settles into me, the sun pops up and right back down again, leaving me again alone in an oasis of blue dusk.

The expected darkness saturates the blue environment by four in the afternoon. At eight the pitch darkness I had anticipated was in full bloom. I set out feeling empowered to tackle my nyctophobia. But at the edge of the lake I find to my disappointment a pole lamp lighting up the surrounding area, forcing me to move further onto the frozen lake in search of the darkness. The perturbing sounds of the ice shifting on the lake tremble through the air. It is not long and I feel I have gone as far as I can bear to go from the pole lamp, its presence now reassures me with its glowing symbolic safety. I am acutely aware of my uneasiness out here, I can not help but wonder why I never choose more comforting research paths. I had been surprised to find out on my arrival that this mystic month had not enticed any other researchers or artists to the arctic research station. But suddenly I am propelled out of my self-pity at the realization that I am no longer alone, hovering just above the lake surface I see a fog glowing in the distance. It is big like a cloud that has come down from the sky, and unsettlingly illuminated. It is across the lake, no it is closer now, ‘what the fuck?’, it is moving towards me rather quickly. I turn and run from the natural light towards the safety of the artificial illumination, ‘no, no, no, I did not come all this way to run from the shapeshifters in the dark!’ I stop and turn to look across the lake once more but nothing is there, as I once again stand in the glow of the pole light.

As the following days unfold, I wonder what I may have seen, was it the dark spirits I was told about as a child in rural Saskatchewan (Treaty 6) that manifest as northern lights, dropping down from the sky and chasing one when called upon. Or was it a mirage, manifested by the darkness creeping into my imagination. Either way, I am glad I saw it, and I did see it, that I know. It is the pervasive safety of artificial illumination that is smothering out all the spirits and bugaboos of the world. And I believe this is a saddening loss, not only because of the drab boringness of constant comfort and safety, but also for the loss of understanding and respect for the dark and different stuff of the world. Only a few moments of pure darkness breathes life back into these ancient life forms, assuring appropriate fear and respect is revitalized. It is in the darkness that the best stories are told, when the creativity of the imagination is set free to imagine the majestic. 

The majestic is gloriously abundant in this dark month at the Ars Bioarctica residency. I find myself amazed by the vast varieties of ancient lichen thriving in this arctic darkness, alongside the bugaboos. Furthermore breathtaking are the pearl clouds (polar stratospheric clouds) found only at this time of year when clouds freeze in the stratosphere, turning the sky into an iridescent wonderworld.