Author blog of William A. Young; journeys through the mythology of the northern fringes of Europe
“We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny. But what we put into it is ours. He who wills adventure will experience it- according to the measure of his courage. He who wills sacrifice will be sacrificed- according to the measure of his purity of heart”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1950
The path commences some 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, on the edge of the great mountain range that divides Sweden from Norway. From there it curves across a further 105 kilometres of Arctic tundra and mountain passes, passing in the process beneath the ice-bound form of Kebnekaise, Arctic Europe’s highest mountain, and through the ancient forests of Abisko National Park. It is a route that covers some of the most beautiful and extraordinary wild country that the European continent contains; a taster of all the icy wonders that Lapland has to offer.
The path is called the Dag Hammarskjöld‘s Leden; the Way of Dag Hammarskjöld. It is named after a man who loved this landscape and whose writings are permeated by its spirit; one for whom such a path is a fitting memorial. He was a writer of great note, the second Secretary General of the United Nations, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. In the 1950s, Hammarskjöld used his role at the head of the UN to adopt a radical interventionist strategy, personally involving himself in many of the world’s major conflicts in an effort to promote global peace. He attempted to turn the UN into an honest broker in a world of cold-war factionalism; a pole of moral authority that stood above the partisan national interests of the super-powers of the era. In so doing he antagonised both the USA and the USSR, making himself some very powerful enemies with a reach that extended into some very dark places. In 1961, while attempting to resolve a civil war in the Congo, Dag Hammarskjöld died when his plane crashed under mysterious circumstances. An investigation at the time concluded that no foul play was involved- but a number of procedural aberrations and inconsistencies in the evidence presented served to cast doubt on the integrity of the investigators’ findings.
This remained the state of play until the 1990s, when the fall of the Apartheid regime opened up the secret archives of the South African intelligence services. In 1998, Archbishop Desmond Tutu revealed that the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission had uncovered evidence within these archives that implicated both the CIA and MI5 in arranging the ‘crash’. In 2013, an independent commission tasked with reviewing this new evidence recommended that the investigation of Hammarskjöld‘s death be re-opened. The CIA maintain that the documents are Soviet forgeries, planted during the Cold War for the purpose of discrediting them. To date, the investigation remains dormant; it appears that the powers-that-be hope that, with time, Dag Hammarskjöld will be forgotten.
In this, it is likely that they will be disappointed. In the aftermath of his death, it emerged that Hammarskjöld had left behind an unexpected legacy; a gift that was at once epitaph, accusation, and a signpost pointing towards what he believed to be the right way through life. He had kept a journal, and left it behind in his house along with a letter giving instructions for its publication. In 1963 it was published in Sweden under the title “Vägmärken”; in English, “Waymarks”. It is now recognised as one of the great classics of Swedish literature. In no conventional sense was it a diary; rather, it contained a series of aphorisms and anecdotes that served to lay down in concentrated form the fragments of insight around which he had constructed his life. It revealed in the clearest terms, from the mouth of the man himself, that Dag Hammarskjöld had expected for some time to be slain. It also revealed the origins of the peculiar spirit that had allowed him to face that fate with equanimity; and the role the wild, solitary places of his homeland played in shaping a spirit that could walk forward and face such a destiny with eyes wide open. It is a text of considerable profundity; and its words are now inscribed on the very rocks of the land that gave birth to them, in a form that will take centuries for time to erase.
The Dag Hammarskjöld‘s Leden was opened in 2004. Along its route lie waymarks; stones inscribed with quotations from Hammarskjöld‘s sole text. They mark spots of particular significance and beauty; places to halt and to think. In 2012 I walked the route, and in the aftermath I acquired the book and spent a great deal of time in its company. This is the account of that journey, undertaken during a summer when the Arctic weather hammered Lapland with some of the most extreme summer weather it has experienced in recent years. Interwoven around my account are portions of the work of Dag Hammarskjöld, and some attempt at interpreting their meaning. I hope you enjoy it.
“I am being driven forward
Into an unknown land.
The pass grows steeper,
The air colder and sharper.
A wind from my unknown goal
Stirs the strings
Still the question:
Shall I ever get there?
There where life resounds,
A clear pure note
In the silence.”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1925
I flew into Lapland in midsummer, at a time when the sun ignores the normal requirement of setting and, instead, describes an irregular arc around the heavens, bathing the tundra in an eternal day. I arrived initially in Lulea, a port city on the northern fringes of the gulf of Bothnia, where ice-breakers rest in the harbour in expectation of winter, and where the soil of offshore islands are inscribed with mysterious labyrinths left behind by indeterminate ancient inhabitants. From there, I headed northwest along a rail route known as the Ore Line; a ribbon of industrial civilisation coursing through the primordial pine forests of the north to the city of Kiruna. Along its route lie scattered stations of a unique character, their architecture of brick and swirling wrought-iron fixings imbued with a fin-de-siecle, steampunk aesthetic that sits nicely against the rising grandeur of the enveloping boreal nature. In Kiruna itself the reason for the line’s presence is revealed, amidst a landscape profoundly reshaped by a century of activity in some of the world’s largest iron mines; mines whose activity have transformed the forested hills into bare ziggurats of bleak, dark stone. The Ore Line is the conduit for the iron to make its way to the coast and the world beyond, feeding industrial civilisation with the melted bones of the Lapland mountains. Industry squats amidst the wilderness, scattered islands of productivity clustered by the iron road; beyond, a world still pristine.
From Kiruna, a bus takes me to the fell-station called Nikkaluokta. On the journey between the two, the industrial world is shed, and I enter the Lapland that existed before it. Emerging from what will be my last wheeled transport for many days, I find myself in a tiny settlement of red-painted wooden houses, scattered with the paraphernalia of reindeer-herding. Here there is the sense of a frontier reached.
Nikkaluokta is a Sami settlement first and foremost; a village of the aboriginal inhabitants of Lapland, whose language and heritage are linked more closely to the inhabitants of the Siberian taiga than they are to the dominant culture of the Nordic Swedes. Their flag flies here, prominently; a bright sequence of colours, red, blue, green and yellow, that is shared among all the Sami clans scattered across Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. They are some of the world’s most fortunate indigenous races, their rights now respected and enshrined in devolved parliaments set up to represent their interests. Their case is a prime example of the generous, inclusive spirit that has come to characterise the Nordic nations– and a stark contrast to the lot meted out to their counterparts in less fortunate parts of the world.
At the Fell-station in Nikkaluokta, supplies may be purchased and cooked meals consumed. Beyond it, the path leads away westward. Here, it is broad and well-beaten; this is the hiking route that leads to Kebnekaise, highest of all Sweden’s mountains. Urban Swedes flock here in numbers to ascend it, seeking to claim one of their nation’s peak experiences as their own. Beyond lies a land far emptier, a place where solitude still reigns supreme. I gather together my things, and begin to follow the trail.
“Alone beside the moorland spring, once again you are aware of your loneliness- as it is and always has been. As it always has been- even when, at times, the friendship of others veiled its nakedness. But the spring is alive. And your sentry duty remains to you.”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1955
I spent a few days off the path, camped in the birchwoods by the side of a rushing torrent named the Cievrrajohka (Chee-evr-ra-yoh-ka) that pours snowmelt from the eastern fringes of Kebnekaise down into the valleys below. I pitched my tent on a spur of moraine above the river, and spent my time among insects buzzing around the wildflowers, drinking ice-cold water and looking at the mountains rising over the tops of the birchtrees.
I was at the mid-point in a long, solitary journey. I had already spent two months hiking across the Highlands of Scotland; between now and the Autumn I was to spend another two roaming across Lapland. This was the start of the Scandinavian portion of the trip, and I wanted to take some time to get used to the feel of the place
After a few days, suitably readied, I made my way onwards along the valley of the Laddjujohka (Lad-dyoo-yoh-ka). I passed through ever thinning woods of twisted birch, interspersed with bogs and lakes, while around me the rocky forms of the mountains climbed into ever higher and more barren escarpments. By the end of the first day of hiking, I had climbed up into the higher reaches of the valley, and reached the point where the woods faded entirely away and were replaced by the open tundra. The ground-cover here is not grass, but rather a low-lying garden of herbs and scrub alien to anyone used to conditions further south. For all its unfamiliarity, however, it is a terrain that affords the hiker easy progress, and to which you rapidly become accustomed. I departed again from the path, and clambered uphill to wild-camp on a hillside overlooking the high valley. After pitching my tent, I sat out in the day that occupies the night-time hours, and watched the shadow cast by Kebnekaise under the midnight sun arc its way across the valley. Silence reigned.
“Where does the frontier lie? Where do we travel to in those dreams of beauty satisfied, laden with significance but without comprehensible meaning, etched far deeper on the mind than any witness of the eyes? Where all is well- without fear, without desire.
Our memories of physical reality, where do they vanish to? While the images of this dream world never grow older. They live- like the memory of a memory.”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1951
The next day I drop into Kebnekaise Fell-station, the launching point for assaults on the mountain. There is a very substantial food-hall here, a self-service place with an all-you-can eat policy. I feast on roasted meats and lingonberry juice, enjoying my last large meal for a week. Thereafter I depart and head west, following a path now much less-trodden into a high mountain pass.
Beyond the Fell-station, the land ascends to just over 800 metres. The surrounding mountains steepen into sheer walls of jagged rock, while the last traces of underbrush depart from the tundra. The only sign of life is the occasional scuttling lemming; fat, hamster-like creatures, coloured in black and yellow stripes, who have overcome the limitations of their own innate absurdity to occupy the position of dominant mammal over much of the tundra. It is a dominance they are keen to assert; encounter a lemming on the path, and there is every chance it will decline to get out of your way– or even launch an attack on your boot. Such an assault is more likely to cause amusement than it is concern, given the distinct lack of fighting ability inherent in being a small, fat hamster. Improbable odds are no deterrent to the lemming mind, however; as their periodic leaps from cliffs and attempts at oceanic migrations well testify, these are hamsters that laugh in the face of danger.
At the western edge of this jagged region I clamber up onto the surrounding slopes to make another high-level camp. The next morning, I rejoin the path; a path which now arcs northward, descending into the Ceakcavaggi; the valley of the Ceakca River (Chay-ak-cha). Before me a roadless, desolate world opens up, a world surrounded by snow-encrusted mountains, through which a broad river loops across a plain of glacial moraine and immense erratic boulders. It is a landscape made for trolls and for lemmings, unamended by human ‘improvement’. I descend inwards and press on, northwards.
“Never let success hide its emptiness from you, achievement its nothingness, toil its desolation. And so keep alive the incentive to push on further, that pain in the soul that drives us beyond ourselves.
To where? That I don’t know. That I don’t ask to know.”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1950
I have brought with me on my journey the minimum of necessities. I am limited to only what I can carry in my backpack, and so am compelled by the exigencies of space to leave behind all but the key requirements for venturing into a wild land. I have a tent and a sleeping bag, waterproof clothing and a number of warm layers; the necessary armour to keep the climate at bay. I also have insect repellent, maps and compass, some soap, toothbrush and toothpaste to maintain some basic level of hygiene. The rest of the space in my rucksack is devoted to food; sachets of dried, instant meals, high-calorie sweets for an energy boost, and a few tins of fish and apples to provide essential nutrients. The existence possible on such supplies is basic in the extreme.
Choosing to live in such a way will seem to many utterly absurd; painful, uncomfortable, cold and miserable. It rather flies in the face of what is conventionally perceived as pleasurable; living, as we do, in a society where success is often measured by the acquisition of luxuries and status-symbols, taking part in a pastime that involves the abandonment of all luxury and the shedding of all status-symbols can come across as faintly ludicrous.
And yet, hiking remains a reasonably popular pastime. There are a great many people who are quite devoted to the practice, and will spend all their available free time venturing into remote places with supplies just as limited to mine. They give every appearance of enjoying the experience- and there may be more to this enjoyment than initially meets the eye.
Science has a great way of undercutting long-held assumptions. We now know a lot more than we did one-hundred years ago about the evolution of the human race, and the circumstances in which our ancestors lived. We also know a great deal more about the human body, and the ways in which it generates our emotions. This knowledge is starting to percolate into the broader cultural consciousness, but has not yet really taken over mainstream thinking.
We are, at bottom, an organic thing. Our moods and our pursuit of happiness are all produced by organic compounds produced within the body. A new car doesn’t, obviously, make us happy because ‘happiness-chemicals’ transfer from the car into our body when we purchase it; rather, the happiness results from a hit of dopamine, a neurochemical released when we attain something we have desired. Dopamine is, however, only released around the initial point of attainment; hence the reason a child’s Christmas present, so beloved on the day it is first opened, will often be relegated into insignificance within a few days.
Dopamine is not the only chemical involved in happiness; a range of others are also involved. Of these, two are the endorphins and the endo-cannabinoids; compounds which are produced as a side-effect of strenuous physical activity. Another, oxytocin, is occasioned by human bonding, while serotonin is a more obscure chemical associated with confidence, achievement and sense of purpose. Gamma-aminobutyric acid is a calming compound, associated also with the development of muscle-tone; it has been experimentally demonstrated that meditative practices stimulate its production. Its antithesis is adrenaline, the more widely known compound secreted in extreme circumstances, whose role is to enliven the consciousness in times of danger.
Examining this neurochemical suite, it becomes easier to understand the popularity of hiking. The physical exercise involved releases endorphins and endo-cannabinoids, while the regular attainment of goals, a natural part of the progress involved in a journey, stimulates serotonin and dopamine. Adrenaline arises when intense physical challenges are encountered; while the opportunity for lengthy contemplation that arises on a long walk facilitates the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid. It is only oxytocin that solitary hiking fails to stimulate.
That this should be so makes, from an evolutionary perspective, good sense. The human species evolved as a hunter-gatherer organism, moving around the African savannah in pursuit of food resources. Our biology evolved under the pressures of this lifestyle, crafting our physiological make-up with its exigencies in mind. Humans whose moods and motivations made them perform better in a wandering lifestyle would be more successful, and would pass on more of their genes. It is from these genes that we are all now still constructed; put simply, we are an animal that evolved to enjoy walking.
Viewed in such a light, some of the incongruities that divide the hiking lifestyle from modern civilisation start to make sense. It is notable that the considerable advancement of wealth over the last couple of centuries has not had the impact on human happiness that might have been expected. Depression and mental illness are commonplace in the modern west, despite its affluence. The majority of us periodically use chemicals- alcohol, nicotine, drugs- to simulate the impact of missing neurochemicals. For those at the top of the social scale, the presence of regular new attainments and pleasurable social interactions do allow for serotonin and dopamine to circulate freely, and a healthy degree of happiness is indeed possible. This is not the case further down the hierarchy, however. Despite the fact that a British council-house resident today owns vastly more material luxuries than even a wealthy man in previous eras, misery is everywhere in poor communities. Deprived of both attainment and an active lifestyle, the material commodities become hollow, value-less. The same applies around the middle of the scale, also; how many office workers do you know who, despite sitting in surroundings the envy of most of the Third World, will spend a great deal of their time fantasising about winning the lottery in order to escape from their oh-so-comfortable cages?
Modern neurochemistry enables us, for the first time, to explain and to quantify why this should be so. Science is beginning to reveal the superstition that lies behind consumerism, to suggest that imputing into objects the power to produce happiness is an action of superstition no less irrational than the ancient imputation of idols with the power to control the weather. We desire that it should be so, and our society tells us that it is so; but this doesn’t necessarily make it so. Human history gives us plenty of examples of people building societies around endeavours that now appear absurd. Why should our own be any different?
While the science supporting this assertion is new, the actual practice of taking a different path is not. Dag Hammarskjöld articulated the view in 1950, writing;
“A heart pulsating in harmony with the circulation of sap and the flow of rivers? A body with the rhythms of the earth in its movements? No. Instead: a mind, shut off from the oxygen of alert senses, that has wasted itself on ‘treasons, stratagems and spoils’- of importance only within four walls. A tame animal- in whom the strength of the species has outspent itself, to no purpose.”
He was by no means alone in choosing to absent himself from civilisation, to pursue happiness into the wilds, into a world more in tune with the demands of body and brain. History is full of such figures; Indian yogis retreating into the forest; the Navenad-nikim wanderers of Hassidic Judaism; John Muir in the Americas. That many have emerged from their efforts feeling they had something to teach the world is no surprise; that they did so in the terms of the diverse religions of their places and times has perhaps served to obscure the considerable similarities in the nature of their actions and their insights. Assertions that have often been consigned to the category of mysticism and superstition may instead, in many cases, represent the fruit of the practical investigation of a lifestyle better designed to induce a happy, peaceful state of mind than that of the cultures they chose to leave behind.
Dag Hammarskjöld retreated to the wilderness to find peace and to clear his mind. He built a meditation chamber in the UN headquarters so that the employees of his organisation could have a space in which to do the same. In his writings he alludes repeatedly to the Christian mysticism of the middle ages, and mirrors in the content of his thought much of the anti-materialism contained in their thought and in that of similar renunciates from all across the world. In the end, such anti-materialism may prove to be the most material of ideologies; a belief rooted in the material of our blood & bone, in the fabric of our genes. Whether this is so can be tested by experiment; simply by putting down your things and starting to walk forwards, to see if another world, another you, lies beyond the frontier. The door to the cage is not locked.
“Now. When I have overcome my fears- of others, of myself, of the underlying darkness: at the frontier of the unheard-of.
Here ends the known. But, from a source beyond it, something fills my being with its possibilities.
Here desire is purified and made lucid: each action is a preparation for, each choice an assent to the unknown.
Prevented by the duties of life on the surface from looking down into the depths, yet all the while being slowly trained and moulded by them to take the plunge into the deep whence rises the fragrance of a forest star, bearing the promise of a new affection.
At the frontier-”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1951
The Ceakca (chay-ak-cha) valley is a broad, barren landscape. This season it is an unusually wet one; the thaw has come late to Lapland, and there is far more snow scattered across the landscape than is typically the case. As a consequence, the streams are engorged with snowmelt, surging out of the surrounding mountain valleys to fatten the winding rivers. Marshlands are full, the ground boggy; the going underfoot is more difficult than is normally to be expected.
Not everyone is unhappy with this state of affairs, however. At one point I pause by the riverside, and look up at the mountainside beyond. Partway up the slope, on a steep stretch of scree, a small herd of reindeer can be seen perched perilously upon one of the residual patches of snow. Later, I discover that it is the habit of the reindeer to stand upon snowfields when not about the work of eating, the reason being that the reduced temperatures there reduce the ability of cold-blooded flies to bother them. Such flies are the bane of life here in the north; whenever the temperature rises above about ten degrees, they appear in large numbers and become furiously active, attempting to suck the blood from any warm-blooded creature they can drive their voracious beaks into. Insect repellent is a necessity for any human attempting to progress through such a land; for lack of it, the reindeer make do with their precarious snowfields.
As I head northwards and the valley rises, I find the remaining patches of snow growing ever thicker and more frequent. At the northern tip of the valley rises the Ceakca Pass, the highest point on Dag Hammarskjöld‘s Leden, and also the highest point on the famous Kungsleden, another long-distance path which, from this valley onwards, follows the same course as Hammarkjold’s Way. I had been warned back in Kiruna that the snow was still lying thick around the pass, and that the going would be treacherous. Some hikers within recent weeks had developed snow blindness in these parts, having discovered a world still in the grip of a winter for which they, in July, had been sorely unprepared.
These warnings I found, upon reaching the pass, not to have been exaggerated at all. The Ceakca Pass reaches 1,140 metres; an altitude which, in a mountain, would be sufficient to earn the title of Munro in my Scottish homeland. At such northerly latitudes, the impact of an increase in height is far greater than it is further south, and I find myself battling through snow-fields metres deep, in a world of barren white. Without winter footwear the going is more treacherous than I’d like; but I make use of the trails left by hikers who have come before me, and slowly hack my way upwards. On reaching the summit I halt at the refuge hut constructed there, grateful for the opportunity to hide momentarily from the biting cold of the wind. Before I enter, I look back down the valley from which I have just ascended, and am met with an ominous view. All day the clouds had been thickening and dipping lower, merging with the mists that coil around the cold meanders of the river. Now, the river of cold air that had been swelling them was drawing unmistakeably closer; before me, I could see the southern reaches of the valley vanishing into the embrace of onrushing rain-clouds. Their darkness, deep and grey as the stones of the valley, suggested that rainfall of an unusual intensity was on its way, a rainfall that would supplement most fearsomely the snow-melt already swelling the watercourses. It appeared that some more challenges were coming my way.
“Sun and stillness. Looking down through the jade-green water, you see the monsters of the deep playing on the reef. Is this a reason to be afraid? Do you feel safer when scudding waves hide what lies beneath the surface?”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1955
Dag Hammarskjöld was elected Secretary General of the UN in 1953, at a time when the Korean War was drawing to its conclusion. He was seen as a competent administrator, who lacked a bias towards any of the dominant ideologies of the era; a safe, neutral pair of hands who could be trusted to perform his duties impartially.
His Swedish nationality was an important component in Hammarskjöld’s suitability for his role. Sweden stood aloof from the alliances that had come to dominate Europe, maintaining a position of neutrality amidst rising tensions between the eastern Warsaw Pact and the NATO alliance of the west. Maintaining a market-based economy, but with control of its principal industries lying in the hands of the state, Sweden bridged the gap between the capitalist and the socialist ideologies, drawing inspiration from both, but falling into the camp of neither.
During Hammarskjöld’s term of office in the 50s, the world experienced enormous changes. Our conventional view of the era is one dominated by western popular culture; the era variously of Mad-men style smart suits, bubblegum and Elvis Presley. It was a time of stability and conventionality, of recovery from the terrors of the great war that had riven the previous decade. Out-with the west, however, the story was very different. Here, the 50s were a time of great upheaval. The great colonial empires that had been established during the 19th century were slowly falling apart; in their wake arose new states, dominated by national liberation movements strongly opposed to European dominion. Many of these movements were to fall under the influence of the Soviet Union, which aggressively promoted its own doctrine of socialist revolution among groups striving to free themselves from imperialism. America and its allies responded in kind, arming and training anti-Communist factions amenable to their own economic agendas. As the struggle for influence between the two factions increased in intensity, armed conflicts broke out; struggles known as ‘proxy wars’, in which the local allies of the two superpowers fought it out using weapons and money supplied by their overseas backers. The most famous of these conflicts is the Vietnam War, which began in 1954; but many other, less well-publicised struggles took place across Asia, Latin America and Africa.
Hammarskjöld’s neutrality was meant to guarantee a lack of partiality in this great conflict. In fact, however, his lack of sympathy for either faction ended up making him something of an opponent to both. He worked to promote peace, and to resolve the conflicts stoked up by the superpowers; and in so doing, he opposed the national interests of both the USA and the USSR. Had his opposition remained purely rhetorical, confined to the diplomatic chambers of the UN, it is likely that he would have incurred far less of their wrath. Hammarskjöld, however turned out to be a man of action as much as a man of words- and a singularly effective one at that.
In 1956, the Egyptian nationalist government of Gamal Abdel Nasser moved to nationalise the Suez canal. This vital commercial conduit connected the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, carrying tankers laden with Middle Eastern oil to Europe. It had previously lain under British control; even after Egyptian independence, British troops maintained a garrison there, with the operations in the hands of a company owned jointly by French and British interests. The two European powers were unwilling to accept the Egyptian takeover and consequent diminution of their own authority. Assisted by Israel, they launched an invasion of Egypt.
The Suez Crisis, as it came to be called, created a major flashpoint in international relations. The Soviet Union backed Nasser; and the United States, fearful that opposition to the invasion in the Arab world might push neighbouring nations towards the Soviet camp, responded by condemning the actions of its allies. The resolution of the crisis called for the intervention of a neutral arbiter, aligned to neither side; and the United Nations was the vehicle chosen.
In 1956, Dag Hammarskjöld oversaw the creation of the first UN Expeditionary Force; an army drawn from the soldiers of non-aligned nations, which moved into the war zone to assert the right of the Egyptian government to control of its own territory. The tripartite alliance withdrew in advance of its arrival, ceding the territory they had taken in the face of concerted international pressure. The expeditionary force remained in place after the war along the Egyptian-Israeli border, ensuring that no further aggression occurred. The success of the intervention, and the maintenance of peace in its aftermath, marked the death-knell of Britain’s standing as a great power. It also established the United Nations as a new kind of authority in the world.
The establishment of the Expeditionary Force set the precedent for all the subsequent UN expeditions that have taken place since; recent examples supplied by the warring states of the former Yugoslavia, and the war-torn nation of Rwanda. The precedent of intervention was one Hammarskjöld followed again in 1960, when the newly independent Republic of the Congo descended into the first of its many civil wars. The Congo Crisis, as it came to be called, pitted the allies of the USSR and the USA directly against one another, with the former backing the central government, and the latter secessionist rebels in outlying regions. The conflict swiftly became bloody, eventually claiming over 100,000 lives. Hammarskjöld saw the restoration of peace as the primary task of the UN and, in 1960 dispatched a UN army to block further bloodshed. Eventually, there were over 20,000 international soldiers on the ground under the aegis of the UN; a formidable obstacle to the triumph of either faction.
It was during the course of trying to broker a ceasefire in this conflict that Dag Hammarskjöld boarded his final flight. His efforts at ensuring neither side triumphed had drawn the ire of both superpowers in equal measure; and his demise helped smooth the path of their respective pursuits of dominance in the African continent. The legacy of their endeavours is the Africa we know today; a continent riven by internal conflict, sorely under-developed, and famed for nothing quite so much as the suffering of its people. It is a terrible legacy to have sprung from the initial bright hopes of the post-colonial era- and one which Dag Hammarskjöld was willing to give his life to prevent from taking shape. His failure is a tragedy of global proportions.
That Hammarskjöld had seen his death coming is attested many times in the pages of ‘Waymarks’. He had already experienced intense pressure to resign his post; that his enemies were closing around him was clear. Nevertheless, he chose to press on with his purpose, committed enough to his goals to surrender his fear. In 1961, mere months before his death, he wrote the following words in his journal;
Where they have placed me,
Nailed to the target
By their first arrows.
Again a bow is drawn,
Again an arrow flies,
– and misses.
Are they pretending?
Did a hand shake,
Or was it the wind?
What have I to fear?
If their arrows hit,
If their arrows kill,
What is there in that
To cry about?
Others have gone before,
Others will follow.”
“Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for.”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1952
Beyond the Ceakca Pass I descended through a midsummer winter-land of expansive snowfields and barren, vegetation-less dirt. For some miles it seemed I was passing through a relic of the ice age, a land where the retreat of the glaciers had not yet permitted the tenuous shoots of life to intrude. Slowly, however, the tundra reasserted itself; the snowfields retreated once again into pockets and broad plains opened out, filled with swollen rivers and the green of immense reed-beds. The valley floor expanded around the waters, broad swathes of yellow-green ground punctuated with fields of scattered boulders. The going became easier beneath my feet; now, however, the rain had arrived. When it broke it swiftly rose into a torrent of water gushing from the heavens with an intensity equal to that of the torrents streaming down from the hillsides.
I pushed on swiftly as I could, passing the night on a moraine bank overlooking one of the watercourses. In the morning, there was no respite from the downpour; the mountains disappeared behind swirling eddies of cloud, and even the flies vanished from the air, driven into the vegetation by swarms of raindrops more voracious than they. By evening I had passed along the valley of the Aliseatnu River (a-lis-ay-at-noo) to the fringes of Alesjavri Lake (A-less-yav-ree); here I raised my tent early, finding refuge among some shrubby vegetation that formed a makeshift windbreak. I was singularly aware that the sheer intensity of the rainfall threatened to send water seeping into every corner of my gear, leaving me soaked and chilled. I hoped that a night would provide time enough for the downpour to abate, and permit me more comfortable going in the morning. I laid down to sleep, lulled to sleep by the staccato lullaby of water drumming on the roof of my tent.
In the morning, I awakened to find that the rain had, if anything, intensified. The lake had burst its banks during the night, and its waters now lapped the bushes a mere dozen metres from my campsite. The hue of the lake itself had changed. Where the night before it had been the cloudy blue colour typical of lakes in the region, half of it was now dyed a rusty red by topsoil swept down into its waters in overflowing streams. The blue and the red sat discrete from one another, a clear boundary line visible between the two; a murky echo of the blue and red colours that dominate the Sami flag. I packed up my things and made my way onwards, aware that this was not going to be easy.
In fact, it got rapidly worse. The often substantial watercourses that cut across Dag Hammarskjöld‘s Way are bridged where necessary by wooden footways formed of wooden planks. These are basic constructions, sitting quite low over the waters; and, as it turned out, the level of the streams had risen so high, their currents become so strong, that every single one of these bridges had been swept away. I spent many hours painstakingly fording the swollen torrents, wading through ice-cold water that reached up to my thighs. At one point I was compelled by the depth of a stream to construct a makeshift ‘bridge‘ out of some particularly long swept-away planks; were it not for the assistance in this endeavour of some Danish hikers trapped by the same stream, I would have been compelled to undertake an extensive detour up into the mountains to the north.
Eventually, after a day far longer than I had envisaged, I tramped away from the shores of Alesjavri towards the descent into the birchwoods of Abisko. There, I knew that the forests would provide some shelter, while the presence of a Fell-station would enable me to find something hot to eat. Between me and this promised land lay merely a stretch of flat country, and a descent down a pass. In theory, it should have been easy. When I arrived at the edge of the little plain, however, my heart immediately sank. Stretches of marsh extended across parts of the low ground, marsh which was ordinarily bridged by boardwalks. Now, however, after the downpour, the stretches of marsh had been transformed into small lakes– and the boards could be seen floating on their surfaces.
This was a problem. I walked down to the edge of the first, to see what could be done. I swiftly discovered that much of the path was still intact, though submerged beneath a little less than a foot of water. The planks that were floating were often still attached at one end to their moorings and, with a little manipulation, might still serve their purpose. Where this was not the case, I could make out enough patches of higher, unsubmerged land to suggest that a brief circuit around the obstacles might be possible. I elected to take the risk, and waded in.
I slowly inched my way along submerged planks, using my weight to push those that had come loose back into position. A combination of this slippery endeavour, combined with tactical detours where higher ground presented itself, allowed me to make a slow but steady progress. There were awful moments where I was balanced on a single plank above the dark waters; and I must confess that those occasions were distinctly alarming. I took my time about my task, however, and didn’t take any excessive risks. In the fullness of time, I made it to the further shore; damp, but successful.
“At every moment you choose yourself. But do you choose your self? Body and soul contain a thousand possibilities out of which you can build many I’s. But in only one of them is there a congruence between the elector and the elected. Only one- which you will never find until you have excluded all those superficial and fleeting possibilities of being and doing with which you toy, out of curiosity or wonder or greed, and which hinder you from casting anchor in the experience of the mystery of life, and the consciousness of the talent entrusted to you which is your I”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1945
Beyond the boggy morass a path down a steep defile drew me down out of the tundra, into the fringes of the woodlands of Abisko. The trees here are birches; small, silvery things that twist upward from the thin soil, eking out a living in conditions too extreme for even pine–trees to survive. When the Ice Age departed from Europe, the birch trees were the first to return to the continent. They were the pioneers, the fore-runners of a wave of green that slowly crept northwards, pursuing the ice back to the top of the world. In the wake of their thin, straggling line came the pine and oak forests that were to characterise the European wilderness for the next few thousand years– until mankind grew more numerous and swept them away. Here in Lapland the birch trees remain still, standing sentinel upon the limits of the green world, at the border of a land where the ice still holds sway.
The streams among the woods are fat and full of water; but here, entering into the limits of Abisko I am once again entering a region popular enough with hikers for more substantial footbridges to have been constructed. These bridges arc high above the torrents, elevated sufficiently that the floodwaters cannot sweep them away. The advantage to my feet is considerable; no longer do I endure a soggy, squelching march. The paths broaden, and the going speeds up. Soon, further evidence of infrastructure appears; a fell-station, set beside Abisko Lake. I pause, gratefully, for a hot coffee, and am even permitted a spell of sunshine in which to drink it. Small mercies mean a lot after such a walk.
From the Fell-station at Abisko Lake, the path follows the Abisko River down to the small settlement of the same name that sits on the shores of the great lake Torneträsk. This region is one of Sweden’s most popular hiking destinations, experiencing a considerable footfall at all times of year. As a consequence, it has a little more of the feel of a managed wilderness than the regions through which I had previously passed. This is a double-edged sword; it ensures ease of access, but at the same time breaches the wall of solitude behind which so much of Lapland hides. I soon find myself walking with other people, talking and exchanging stories. The companionship is by no means unpleasant- the Swedes are a wonderfully friendly, interesting people- but the feel of a land beyond the edge of civilisation is lost. In an effort to recapture it, I head off the trail, to wild camp for a few days on the hillside southeast of Abisko. Here, a few days pass as I consume the last of my supplies, and spend my time alternately wandering in the birchwoods and, when the temperature rises too high, hiding from the flies in my tent.
The days in the woods I spent doing nothing more than thinking. Why I should have chosen to do this, rather than heading for the warmth and companionship of the Abisko hostels, may not be immediately obvious. Given the opportunity to recover from the cold and my exertions in the company of friendly, curious, Swedes, the choice of spending several days in silence in the forest may not seem overly appealing. But yet, once again, the counter-intuitive is not necessarily wrong.
The immediate, day-to-day world around us channels the form of our personality in directions determined not by our own choice, but by the requirements of everyday existence. Like the meltwater stream pouring off the mountainside, our course is constrained by the lay of the land around us; our route, form and intensity determined by the obstacles our environment places in our path. For the river, the channel is determined by contours, boulders and moraine; for the mind, it is defined by the demands of our work upon our consciousness, by the need to maintain our relationships, and by our interaction with the habitual enjoyments and pastimes with which we fill our time. Our lives control us and direct us, filling our minds with thoughts that are reactions to our circumstances rather than freely arising choices. Free will is, in a sense, a delusion we project onto a terrain that is itself the determinant of our actions.
In solitude, however, beyond the influence of the conditioning factors that softly besiege us, the everyday self begins to fade away. Once the thoughts of the day–to–day have been worked through to the point where they lose their interest, other things can arise from within you to take their place, selected not on the basis of their applicability to your immediate purposes, but by virtue of the importance they hold in the greater scheme of your life. When you have forgotten the pursuit of the latest kiss, its place is taken by the memory of the kiss that meant the most- and in the recollection, we recover the reasons that it meant so much in the first place. The thoughts of the most immediate are replaced by the thoughts of the most important; the mind begins to reorganise its recollections, delving back to the incidents and lessons that are, in fact, the well-springs from which our personalities derive. Reinvigorated by a new surge from its source, the river boils over its banks and begins to reshape the landscape through which it runs, cutting through the surrounding ground and carving out a new path for itself, born of its own force and its own direction. This lesson of memory, of the course of the stream of consciousness, applies in a certain measure to all the experiences of life; and it is only in solitude that we have the opportunity to apply it. The spring lies in the mountains.
Persist down this path long enough, as Dag Hammarskjöld did, and it may be that you will arrive at a place very different to that from which you started. My own journey was not long enough- even at 4 months in duration- for me to catch any more than a glimpse of this. I eventually walked out of the wild in early Autumn– after many further adventures further north- having come to understand a great deal about myself, and with a different perspective on much of the life I had led. One of the key realisations I found was, however, that there is much, much further to go; that all I had done really represented just the first steps along a path. In Dag Hammarskjöld‘s writing I see some indication, perhaps, of what the destination of that path may be.
The singular fact of Dag Hammarskjöld’s life is that he was a man at peace with himself, who was willing to die in the service of others. It seems, from his writings, that the root of his peace in fact stemmed from his willingness to be sacrificed. The contradictory notion is asserted that surrender of the self is fact the route to its fulfillment. In 1961 he summarised this thus;
“I don’t know Who- or what- put the question, I don’t know when it was put. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer Yes to Someone- or Something- and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that, therefore, my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.
From that moment I have known what it means “not to look back,” and “to take no thought for the morrow”.
Led by the Ariadne’s thread of my answer through the labyrinth of Life, I came to a time and place where I realized that the Way leads to a triumph which is a catastrophe, and to a catastrophe which is a triumph, that the price for committing one’s life would be reproach, and that the only elevation possible to man lies in the depths of humiliation. After that, the word “courage” lost its meaning, since nothing could be taken from me.
As I continued along the Way, I learned, step by step, word by word, that behind every saying in the Gospels stands one man and one man’s experience. Also behind the prayer that the cup might pass from him and his promise to drink it. Also behind each of the words from the Cross.”
These words were written only a few months before he was nailed to his own personal cross. That his story ends in death may seem no ringing endorsement of his path; for what are we here for if not to live, to enjoy our lives? This, surely, is the objective of the pursuit of happiness I have spoken of previously– that we should find a measure of peace in the world, rather than being forced from it.
The answer to this contradiction lies in the nature of the catastrophe to which Hammarskjöld refers. There is in every life a catastrophe lying in wait; the catastrophe of death is the one certainty that we face. In these days of clever accountancy even taxes can be evaded; but death remains an inescapable certainty of our biology, a basic ingredient that must be accomodated in any understanding of what it means to be alive.
Hammarskjöld, a man far older than I, thought a great deal about death. The horrors of conflict that he had witnessed made it an immediate companion; and on the course of his journey he learned how to face it. It appears from his writings that the process of thinking through the nature of life and death led inevitably to the conclusion that a real purpose can only exist in service to something greater than ourselves. Our own selves will pass away, so to serve them exclusively is ultimately a futile, hollow endeavour. Yet if, as neurochemistry teaches us, all that is required to find happiness is exercise, contemplation, companionship and clear objectives, then the service of a greater good can fulfill that desire just as well as the pursuit of our own ends. It can, in fact, do so better. If the service of the self ceases, then the fear that haunts life ceases with it; for if the self no longer matters, why live in terror of its passing? Why not live in equanimity, and follow the purpose greater than your own, that will outgrow and outlive you? Why not then be able to look death in the eye, and walk out to meet it?
I do not know if this is so. I am not even a fraction of the way to being able to answer, with conviction, that question. I do know, however, that the week I spent walking along Dag Hammarskjöld’s Way, at some risk to my own physical well-being, meant far more in the greater scheme of my existence than any number of weeks spent in safety and security. I also know that Hammarskjöld is not the only great man to have come to such a conclusion. Civilisations have been erected on the premise that the goal of existence is the abandonment of the self, the submerging of the ego in something greater. The exact nature of that greater thing has varied according to time and to place; but in them all, the action of surrender remains the same.
I am left with the hint, deriving both from the writings of Dag Hammarskjöld and from my own experience of the Way that now bears his name, that two of the very well-springs of human happiness may lie in solitude and in self-sacrifice. It is an idea that carries implicit within it the notion that to do good is, ultimately, for your own good. It may be that, at a moment when our understanding of what it is to be human is changing at a very considerable rate, that these ideas will find their time has come again. If that should prove to be so, I cannot help but feel that it bodes well for the future of this troubled world. We could do with more Dag Hammarskjölds.
The final words Hammarskjöld wrote in his journal before his death were these, on August the 24th, 1961. They offer a fitting conclusion.
“Is it a new country
In another world of reality
Or did I live there
Before Day was?
To an ordinary morning with gray light
Reflected from the street,
But still remembered
The dark-blue night
Above the treeline,
The open moor in moonlight,
The crest in shadow.
Remembered other dreams
Of the same mountain country:
Twice I stood on its summits,
I stayed by its remotest lake,
And followed the river
Towards its source.
The seasons have changed
And the light
And the weather
And the hour.
But it is the same land.
And I begin to know the map
And to get my bearings.”
– Dag Hammarskjöld, 1961
Hiking maps of Lapland may be accessed free here, courtesy of Sweden’s Lantmateriet.
Dag Hammarskjöld’s “Waymarks”, published in English under slightly inaccurate title “Markings”, can be ordered from your local bookshop. It is published by Vintage Books. Some interesting material on the subject can be found here & here.
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