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keening for the world…

I don’t usually bump into reindeer herders. I don’t expect to. But I did bump into them last weekend at a Fossil Free UK workshop just before the Climate March in London on November 29th, a march of people that was over 70,000 strong. You couldn’t miss them. There they were, representatives of the Sami people, gloriously resplendent in their traditional folk dress. They looked young -the two women looked radiantly beautiful, and the two men stunningly handsome – making it hard to believe they came from such a remote and physically demanding corner of the world as the wilderness that is the Scandinavian Arctic.


Not only did they talk movingly about how the Arctic climate has changed so much over the last few years that both reindeer and people are struggling to cope with the increasingly frequent extremes of weather and the flip-flopping from one extreme to another. They talked, for example, of both reindeer and their experienced hunters now drowning in lakes whose ice-cover is much thinner than it should be at the times of the year when the reindeer migrate to their new feeding grounds. They showed us a short film about how they live in the Arctic, a film that showed not only the harshness of living in the Arctic but also the inexpressible beauty of nature and wildlife in the unspoilt tundra and the natural rhythms and communal solidarity of the Sami way of life that has existed for thousands of years, long before the nations states of Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia carved out their absurdly artificial borders across the reindeer migration routes.

Then they began singing. Oh how they sang! This was singing like I’ve never heard before. A singing that was part ululation, part chanting, but wholly authentic, wholly emanating from the heart’s deep core. It sang of the Sami love of nature, a love so deep that it cannot be expressed through normal speech. Which is why singing is central to the Sami way of life. I was lucky enough to talk personally with one of the Sami guys, who explained that he was taught to sing when just a toddler, like all Sami toddlers are. And he’s been singing ever since. The Sami love of Mother Earth made me sing inwardly of my own love for the wonders of the Sussex countryside that I have come to appreciate, and images appeared in my mind’s eye of the South Downs I can see from my front window and the ancient sunken lanes in my village that I walk along most days – all part of a landscape threatened imminently by rampant infrastructure developments, and industrial projects like fracking, that the obsession with climate-damaging economic growth keeps stoking.


I saw the Sami folk singers again at the end of the Climate March, outside Parliament. There they were again, in their folk dress, singing their hearts out and patting their chests with their palms to the rhythm of the heartbeat that both guides their singing and expresses the link we all have to the rhythm of Mother Earth, the rhythm of life itself. But this time the singing sounded, to my unmusical ears, too much like keening for Mother Earth, a keening for both the terrible loss of nature and the loss of future climate stability for all humanity. The keening didn’t come from the Sami but from deep inside me, a keening that wells up from the sadness I feel for the tragedy that is befalling humanity as catastrophic climate change gathers pace.

That is not to say that I have no optimism that the catastrophe can be limited in scope if we make the right calls now, if the UN climate talks taking place in Paris right now makes the urgent decisions needed to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible. But that optimism, reinforced by the rapidity of the global clean energy transition away from fossil fuels, co-exists with my inner knowing of what we have already lost, and are losing, day by day. The singing of the Sami resonates too closely with the sorrowful keening in my heart, creating a curiously harmonious discordance that is both awesome and awful, an awesome nightfall, a terrible beauty that echoes through my brain as I ruminate the dry pronouncements and technical analyses emanating from the COP21 talks in Paris. The bureaucrats and the diplomats, the politicians and the pundits, may prattle away, but for now all I hear is the plangent pathos of the plain singing of the Sami reindeer herders of the high Arctic, and all I see is the windswept wildness of the white, frozen tundra in all its stark, awe-inspiring, and fragile beauty.

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