(paintings by Margaret Florence Ludwig)

THIS LAND OF LIGHT: An Artist in the Midnight Sun

To see the world like an artist, spend time with artists. Years ago, I was asked to contribute a chapter to a National Geographic Society book on the national parks of Canada. I chose to write about the parks in the far north in general and Ivvavik National Park specifically for two reasons: the way the midnight sun of high summer glows on its beautiful jade green river called the Firth, and because I would be able to travel through this land of light with Canadian landscape painter Margaret Florence Ludwig. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter:

“One thirty-seven in the morning. Still, some of us have not yet gone to our tents. We sit alone or in small groups talking, reading, or just watching hillsides painting themselves with shades of pink in the Arctic summer night. This far north the sun does not dip below the horizon between May 25th and July 15th. Like a stone skipping across a tundra pond, it bends low along the horizon and then bounds back up into the sky. The long slow path of the sun bathes the land in honey-colored light that picks up even the slightest hue – the blush of fireweed, a streak of orange lichen on the rocks, the wisp of a fishing line as one of the guides casts for Arctic char alone upstream.

The endless sun touches us as well. No one wants to sleep. We eat dinner at midnight, go off on hikes at all hours, and then sleep until the heat rouses us from our tents. It is difficult to close your eyes to it all. Hours into the sun-fringed night, I sit on a hill by the river watching the light and watching Margaret Florence Ludwig, an oil painter from Ontario, working a small palette nearby. How do I write about this light, I think to myself watching her brushstrokes deepen the color as the light changes before our eyes? What names are there for the colors swirling in the water where it ripples over the shallows and then goes deep and still in pools behind the rock?

I have watched Margaret lugging her lap-sized paint box and easel up hills and across creeks this whole trip, and, wondered how her painter’s eye perceives the light. But I hesitate to ask. Such questions are difficult to phrase. Finally, drunk perhaps on the sweet Arctic light, I decide to walk down to where she is painting and try.

“You noticed it too!” she says, stopping in mid-brushstroke as if seeing me for the first time. “I thought I was the only one.” She launches into a dissertation on light as if my tentative question has loosed a torrent in her artistic sensibility. “This afternoon, during our hike, everyone seemed to be looking for birds or staring at wildflowers while I was fascinated with the light. The mountains, did you see, were a kind of coral pink and undulated in the heat.”

On the easel in front of her, I see how her brush translates that light to canvas. It is soft, the lines between the ridges and sky indistinct, the rolling hills thick with earth tones and the light in between casting it all in an ancient, timeless feeling.

Looking at Margaret’s art unfolding before my eyes, I realize how foolish it is to believe that a landscape can be summed up by simply putting names to its peaks or numbers to the reach of its borders. Landscapes like Ivvavik National Park have an effect on the human spirit far beyond the reach of numbers and statistics. They inspire. “This fragile, extraordinary land deserves to be appreciated,” Margaret says when I voice that thought. “It should be respected and valued, not just for its material resources but for the simple beauty and wonder of its existence,” she says, never taking her eyes off the light, never stopping her brushstrokes across the canvas.

By now, the sun is salmon-orange on the high peaks. The light is changing fast. Uncaptured and uncapturable. For a long time, we stand in silence just watching – the artist still painting while down by the river the fishing line is still flickering like a thin strand of lightning out and back over the dark green surface of the river. And me, in between, wondering how I will ever put it all into words.

(for more see my chapter in the National Geographic book EXPLORING CANADA’S SPECTACULAR NATIONAL PARKS)