A Norwegian town shrouded in shadow for half the year has found an ingenious way to get a bit of sunlight. But why go to such extreme measures? As Linda Geddes discovers, the Sun has powerful effects on our minds and bodies – and it changes us when it’s absent.
By Linda Geddes From Mosaic
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 factories 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.
What is it about the flat, gloomy greyness of winter that seems to penetrate our skin and dampen our spirits, at least at higher latitudes? The idea that our physical and mental health varies with the seasons and sunlight goes back a long way. The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Medicine, a treatise on health and disease that’s estimated to have been written in around 300 BCE, describes how the seasons affect all living things. It suggests that during winter – a time of conservation and storage – one should “retire early and get up with the sunrise… Desires and mental activity should be kept quiet and subdued, as if keeping a happy secret.” And in his Treatise on Insanity, published in 1806, the French physician Philippe Pinel noted a mental deterioration in some of his psychiatric patients “when the cold weather of December and January set in”…