Is the dark really making me sad?

Is the dark really making me sad?

How do Scandinavians deal with long, dark winters? And what might this teach us about the relationship between our moods and sunlight?

The inhabitants of Rjukan in southern Norway have a complex relationship with the sun. “More than other places I’ve lived, they like to talk about the sun: when it’s coming back, if it’s a long time since they’ve seen the sun,” says artist Martin Andersen. “They’re a little obsessed with it.” Possibly, he speculates, it’s because for approximately half the year, you can see the sunlight shining high up on the north wall of the valley: “It is very close, but you can’t touch it,” he says. As autumn wears on, the light moves higher up the wall each day, like a calendar marking off the dates to the winter solstice. And then as January, February and March progress, the sunlight slowly starts to inch its way back down again.

Rjukan was built between 1905 and 1916, after an entrepreneur called Sam Eyde bought the local waterfall (known as the smoking waterfall) and constructed a hydroelectric power plant there. Factories producing artificial fertiliser followed. But the managers of these worried that their staff weren’t getting enough sun – and eventually they constructed a cable car in order to give them access to it.

When Martin moved to Rjukan in August 2002, he was simply looking for a temporary place to settle with his young family that was close to his parents’ house and where he could earn some money. He was drawn to the three-dimensionality of the place: a town of 3,000, in the cleft between two towering mountains – the first seriously high ground you reach as you travel west of Oslo.

But the departing sun left Martin feeling gloomy and lethargic. It still rose and set each day, and provided some daylight – unlike in the far north of Norway, where it is dark for months at a time – but the sun never climbed high enough for the people of Rjukan to actually see it or feel its warming rays directly on their skin.

As summer turned to autumn, Martin found himself pushing his two-year-old daughter’s buggy further and further down the valley each day, chasing the vanishing sunlight. “I felt it very physically; I didn’t want to be in the shade,” says Martin, who runs a vintage shop in Rjukan town centre. If only someone could find a way of reflecting some sunlight down into the town, he thought. Most people living at temperate latitudes will be familiar with Martin’s sense of dismay at autumn’s dwindling light. Few would have been driven to build giant mirrors above their town to fix it.

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Source: Mosaic Science

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