Andy Meyer, Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway

Author: Andy (Page 1 of 3)


Into June now, the final month of my opphold—residence—in Norway. I’ve just returned to Oslo from my final school visit of the year, at Flora Vidaregåande Skule1 in Florø, Norway’s westernmost town, in Sogn og Fjordane, which represents the nineteenth of Norway’s nineteen fylker (counties) that I’ve visited as part of the work for this most magical of years. Some up-summing numbers are in order, I think:

I visited:

61 schools (including
11 schools on islands) and
3 prisons in
19 Norwegian counties plus
1 Norwegian territory. Over
135 days of teaching, I gave
315 presentations to approximately
8582 students and approximately
598 teachers. I spent
50 days above the Arctic Circle, reached a northernmost point of
78° latitude, and landed at
11 Arctic airports. I took
32 flights,
3 boat trips (1 on a ferry and 2 on the Hurtigrute), and
2 overnight trains in the course of my official travels.

Here at the edge of June, I grasp wildly among the sea of experiences in vain attempt to capture something that will do justice. I feel a little like Roy Batty at the end of Blade Runner: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Hurricane force winds off the shoulder of Magerøy. I watched Auroras glitter in the twilight near Vesterålen. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears . . . in . . . rain.” Or, with a touch less melodrama, I feel like Inigo Montoya: “Let me explain. No, there is too much; let me sum up.” No matter which way you slice it, a year as a Roving Scholar is characterized by its too-muchness; it stands in excess of description. This is no surprise, of course. But the challenge communicating the experience will doubtless be exhausting as I re-enter an American pattern I once knew—the fair Pacific Northwest, among other mountains, other sounds. That will come soon enough. And nothing for it but to go in.

Meanwhile, in my braincase swirls an infusion of all the senses, reactions, perceptions, reflections, memories, &c. And throughout, there’s the special sense of having sunk partly into this furet, værbitt land, glacier-carved and wind-beaten. For one thing, when I arrived at the beginning of the year, I hesitated to say “I speak Norwegian” without some qualification. I had a good background in the language, to be sure. I could carry on in very basic conversations, though with a lot of guesswork and a limited capability to participate fluidly, especially among stronger dialects or in groups of friends. I took every chance I could to practice, even though it was at times exhausting to keep up. Today, though, I can say I speak Norwegian. I make lots of (sometimes really funny) mistakes. I have a long way to go (and I do long for a second, a third, hell, a twelfth year), but I know I’ve stepped fully into the woods—I feel like I see both the forest and the trees. That’s a really good feeling. And in a way, the language has helped me form relationships that have deepened my sense of the place, and have helped me move, so to speak, partly under the skin (or, maybe better, it’s helped Norway move partly under my skin). The peculiar magic of the place is its fantastic cocktail of people and landscape. They’re knitted into each other. It will not be easy to leave. I’ll soon have crawl out of the land itself, but I sure as the north wind won’t be able to crawl out from under its spell.

Still, much of the wonder of a year like this is predicated on the work itself. A Roving Scholar lives in the best of most worlds, practicing the most rewarding parts and avoiding the tiresome dimensions of teaching. Teachers throughout the country would ask me routinely, “Isn’t it exhausting to travel all the time, live out of a suitcase, constantly meet new people, give the same lecture after the same lecture, the same workshop after the same workshop, move, move, move?” Yes. The answer is yes, it absolutely can be. However (I would say), when the school day is finished, so am I. I have no essays to grade, no homework to track down, very little administrative paperwork, no after-school responsibilities. When the school day is finished, I ask a teacher about the best woods to wander or ski trail to , the best local mountain to hike or island to visit. On top of that, a Rover is, in one sense, an automatic freshness, something new for the students, simply by virtue of the fact that I’m not their usual teacher, whom they see every day. Even the finest teachers cannot thrill their students on the daily; they become normal, customary, comfortable. But a Rover rolls in and is new. That’s a luxury. For my part, that performative moment generates a lot of energy.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression, however; the work was highly demanding. At our final meeting, we three Rovers joked about how you could never do this for more than a year. I was nervous before every single workshop. I was beat by every weekend. I packed and unpacked my backpack like it was my job (but then, it was my job!). And I missed one of the very best parts of teaching: enduring relationships with students and colleagues. The work of a teacher—working with students that you learn to know and in contexts you help to shape over a long run—is especially rewarding, and a year as a Rover, without those evolving relationships, is a palpable reminder of that.

It is, in the end, work that delineates so much of much of culture, so many dimensions of a given society. One of the reasons I became interested in applying for a Roving Scholarship was to try and see first-hand how a nation I had already loved went about shaping its social values, among them a strong sense of community, a sort of dugnad culture, and a thoroughgoing commitment to social welfare. As I’ve written elsewhere, Norway’s social celebration of labor is evident nationwide, but it’s also visible in the schools. Unlike American high schools, the Norwegian videregående education system is divided into several “tracks” or lines of study. Students who choose to attend high school select one of two directions: studiespesialisering or yrkesfag programs. Studiespesialisering (literally “study specialization”) is effectively the standard, generalized “academic” line of study, preparing students for post-secondary education. Students who choose yrkesfag, “vocational disciplines,” select one of many lines of vocational training, such as bygg og anlegg (building and construction), teknisk og industriell produksjon (technical and industrial production), restaurant- og matfag (restaurant and food service), or musikk, dans, og drama (music, dance, and drama), among others. Yrkesfag programs require basic general education (e.g., in history, language, social studies, etc.), but to a significantly lesser degree than studiespes. This division between academic and vocational lines is, to me, the greatest difference between American and Norwegian education, though American students finish high school one year earlier than Norwegians. Norwegian education, to my mind, is much more immediately practical: the yrkesfag lines that are available are, generally speaking, suited to what the Norwegian labor market demands. They change over the years as the labor market changes, and in a nation with a near guarantee of employment, it matters. One of my instinctive reactions is to read the Norwegian model as much more practical and efficient than the American model. There’s (ideally) not a lot of “heat loss,” so to speak, in the Norwegian education system; there’s less emphasis on individual desires, and more on the usefulness of the education system (and the educated citizens it produces) to the whole society. Students who graduate Norwegian high school are, in theory, employable and useful, both in filling society’s various roles and in contributing back (by way of, say, taxes) to the economic livelihood of the nation. In the US, the conventional wisdom of the system is “become what you want to be!” which carries with it some inherent risk of losing people (and potential workers) to the wayside, of creating less useful humans who don’t have a sense of responsibility to the system (and to all the “others” it contains) baked into their ethos as citizens. We create “citizens,” we say, but I’m not sure we really know what that means anymore, especially given the state of the political debate in the US and, needless to say, the current monstrosity of an election, an international embarrassment, a sham, a shame. An unclear, incoherent vision of “citizenship,” a somewhat false story of our national origin which generates what is, to my mind, a bizarre and misplaced “pride” in being American, combined with a relatively vague dictum to “be yourself,” whatever that means: this isn’t the recipe for a deeply effective national education system or a citizenry developed out of a shared sense of responsibility for each other’s well being, each other’s welfare.

Still, while I love Norway’s education system for what it is, I’m not an outright apologist for it, either. I’m not sure whether one system is better than the other; they’re simply different systems adjusted to the socio-cultural values out of which they emerged and which they are, almost by definition, designed to perpetuate. Americans seem to want free public education—or, at least, they expect it—while they refuse, at the political level (and far too often at the individual level as well), to pay for that system, because of a weird tradition of tax-hatred and a culture of consumerist self-interest, combined with a widespread distrust of government in general. The source of those problems is a whole other set of essays I’m totally unprepared to write. And yet, for my part, I love the somewhat inefficient value at the heart of American education: find your passion, and then feed it. Care for yourself. I’m suspicious, for lots of reasons, of too much efficiency (in part because I think there are so many dimensions of a human life that cannot be measured and whose “productivity” or “usefulness” or “output” cannot—and should not—be maximized). But if the value of self-care and “find-and-do-your-good-thing” could somehow be knitted into the pattern of a citizenship based on mutual, social welfare instead of knee-jerk individualism, we’d have something pretty special. But we don’t quite live there.

Norwegians, in many ways, live pretty close to that place. In conversations I’ve had in Norway, I’ve observed how deep the ethic of pragmatism runs, but there are wonderful “clefts and cones” that burst up through the map of the sea floor and reveal those immeasurables. Norwegians are aware of the high cost of their social welfare system and the humane values that come with it (their famous mandatory paid parental leave, for example, and their insane amounts of vacation time, with mandatory savings for vacation money!), and they don’t LOVE paying taxes. Of course not. But they seem, on average, to see it as a cost worth paying so that as close to everybody in the system as possible can ha det bra. That value drives both utilitarian and seemingly more humanitarian behaviors. For example, I visited three prisons this year, and in a conversation with one teacher who works in a prison school in Hordaland, I learned that the system is predicated on the notion that the economic contributions to society that a single rehabilitated prisoner will inevitably make when they get out of prison, largely by way of taxes and labor-value, are in total greater than the cost of paying the salary for a teacher’s hours teaching in prison during their entire career. So alongside the humanitarianism in Norway’s famously humane prison system lies a very practical, almost mechanical motivation for that rehabilitative work. I also saw the marriage between utility and humanity in the students I met and the way their lives are organized. (It’s not, I should say, always a happy marriage.) Because of the grouping of yrkesfag students, certain behavior patterns emerge. A bunch of bygg og anlegg boys (and, sadly, it’s usually mostly boys who choose that line) can become a little echo-chamber of typical boneheaded masculinity, the sort of which I’m not especially fond. And yet I had beautiful conversations with some of those boys. In one school in Nordland, I met with a big group of TIP (technical and industrial production) students. After my workshop, several curious guys stuck around to talk. One of them was going to be a plumber. He asked me, “do you know what the best job in the world is?” I said, “a teacher, of course!” He said, “Nope, it’s a plumber!” A plumber is a teacher, too, he reminded me, when they have an apprentice. And think about it, he insisted, you see those pipes under water across the strait there? Yes, I could. Those are for turbine systems for tidal current power generators. The future of energy. And you know what they need to fit and maintain and understand all those pipes? Plumbers. Here was a young person in a very practical education system who had a natural and genuine appreciation for, and moreover, a thoughtful pride in the work he chose to pursue, and for the usefulness of his work to the society of the future. I want to be clear, though: I don’t think that’s the norm in Norway, even though it’s there. You find the same kind of thinking in the US too, if you’re looking for it. But it’s that genus of thinking that builds so many of Norway’s systems.

What draws me to that student’s story is the kind of pride he expressed, one that emerged out of his clearly having thought about the value of his work, the work he had chosen—presumably after some thinking, or because of a family tradition, or what have you. It wasn’t the kind of knee-jerk pride in, say, “being American” that we see all over the states when people at, say, political rallies or country music festivals or large sports events. In another school in Troms, I met with a group of elektrofag students, studying to become electricians. I gave a talk on diversity and stereotypes in the US, in which I try to give a pretty complex version of some of the factors that inform some of the uglier stereotypes of Americans, followed by the realities of our manifold, multiethnic, multicultural, increasingly urban population. I tell students I’m not a cheerleader for the US. I have a healthy criticism of my native country, I say, and I’m not too shy to tell them what frustrates me or what I find compelling about the US. After my talk, a rather engaged student in the very back of the room asked me a question that surprised me, despite its simplicity: “Are you proud to be an American?” he asked. Uff. In a way, it’s an obvious question, but nobody had yet asked it with such clarity. I didn’t quite know how to respond right away. I thought for a while. And finally, I said, “No, no I’m not ‘proud’ to be an American. But I do love being an American,” I said, “and I feel very lucky to have been born into the situation I was, with the opportunities that have been available to me because of being an American of my particular kind and time and place. But I don’t think ‘pride’ has much to do with that. And I’m not proud of the fact that the same access to opportunity that I’ve enjoyed has never been shared by far too much of the population, despite the stories we love to tell ourselves; I’m not proud of many of the things my country has done around the world over the centuries and today, with the brute force of its oversized military; I’m not proud of what the current presidential election reveals about the state of political consciousness in my country; I’m not proud of the gun culture that seems to have swept the nation.” Ultimately, I said, “I’m fascinated by my country. I think it has some of the most beautiful lands and waters and ecosystems in the world; it is full of endlessly diverse, endlessly different people—a manifold of ideas and ethnicities and values; it is full of untold wonders and possibilities. So I love it. But ‘pride’ has nothing to do with it. I cannot say I’m proud. That’s something different, I think.” By almost any measure (other than various “sizes,” such as the size of our economy, the size of the national budget, the size of our military), we are not “number one.” Not in education. Not in voter participation. Not in “democracy.” Not in income equality. Not in the Human Development Index. Not in happiness. Not in freedom (especially, again, considering how many American citizens do not share in the “freedom” we talk so much about). We are, rather, one nation among numerous free-ish nations in the world. We just happen to be a really big one that has had trouble admitting that the world has changed and is constantly changing and the United States of America isn’t any longer so exceptional among developed, democratic nations. And that, dear readers, is OK! That’s a fine thing to be, especially if we can begin to spend a little less energy on chanting vacantly about our greatness and a little more on electing careful, caring, intelligent, sensitive officials, on developing programs and policies and practices that will serve people and nurture a value of mutual support and care and selflessness and curiosity, and craft a culture that we actually can celebrate, even after we really look at it.

William Carlos Williams took up a similar issue in Spring and All in 1923 that I’ve often used in my American Literature workshop this year. Williams begins one of the poems, today called “To Elsie,” by demanding that “The pure products of America / go crazy.” If you can locate a “product” of the United States that is purely American, whose cultural origins are not from elsewhere (and, based on his examples, not American Indian either), that product, that person or people, that cultural form, will exist in a crazed state, “[w]ith no peasant tradition to give [it] character.” With the important exception of American Indians, most Americans have no ethnicity in place, no long ethnic tradition to stand upon in order to imagine what it actually means to be American, what an American citizen does, what values shape the behaviors and systems that an American citizen enacts. Norway, on the other hand, is somewhat funny in this context. It is a very, very old ethnicity, but a very young nation. Under Denmark for 400 years, and united with Sweden for 110 years afterward, Norwegians have developed a unique sort of nationalism. I recently experienced my first Syttende mai—the 17th of May, Norway’s constitution day—in Norway. I was lucky to be invited to march in the parade alongside students and teachers from Oslo Katedralskole, the Cathedral School (among Oslo’s oldest schools, with a history that dates back to the year 1153). Afterward, I went to a barbecue with friends. Classic stuff. But on 17.mai, Norwegians dress up. All the way up. Those that have them wear a bunad, the traditional regional costumes developed the 1800s, associated with the cultural identities of each region. Those that don’t have a bunad simply put on their finest. There’s no question about it. I realized that on Seventeenth of May, Norwegians dress up, while on the Fourth of July, Americans dress down. Our national costume is jeans and a t-shirt. That’s not a bad thing, but it says something about the relationship we have (or don’t) with ethnicity, and with cultural history. Because of our relative national youth and our thoroughgoing multi-ethnicity, we don’t (and maybe shouldn’t) have a highly specific signal of our “belonging.” But with that comes the risk of not entirely knowing what, exactly, we belong to. That uncertainty can be productive; it ought to generate an openness to difference, to wildness, to the powers of improvisation and adaptation and care, but instead, because of the rotten core of our initial society, and the historical fallout that continues to shape the challenges we face, we’ve given a lot of space and energy to fear, foreclosure, and navel-gazing. That’s another thing that I’ve been struck by this year in Norway. There are problems, to be sure; there are plenty of Norwegians ([cough] Listhaug [cough]) here who are as cold, closed, and fearful as many Americans, when it comes to the question of belonging. There are also Norwegians who get a little smug about their belonging to Norway, who look down a bit at we backward Americans (without actually having been there, having met the millions of truly amazing people that call themselves “Americans”). But despite the strength of their ethnic identity, their traditionalism, their strong sense of Norwegianness, and the centuries-long luxury they’ve enjoyed of nurturing that identity in relative isolation, I’ve also seen and heard and experienced a remarkable willingness to share that sense of belonging with newcomers who have, at a cursory glance, very little natural “belonging” to the Norwegian society. Although it is imperfect, newcomers, immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, are, to a surprising degree, welcomed, protected, and, with a little integration (that’s another essay with many parts), become contributors to something new, even in the outermost places, the farthest reaches, the isolated villages far above the Arctic Circle. In other words, despite its apparent cultural stasis, I’ve been surprised by Norwegians’ general willingness to let the very idea of “Norwegianness” change. We could learn a few things from Norway. But damn, it’s hard. And it’s gonna get harder. What a moment to live in. What a set of possibilities to inhabit.

So, here, at the border between this year-long magical world and that other magic of my usual life, I have a lot to think about, a lot to wonder over. I’m going to be fascinated—and surprised—by my memories for years to come, as they percolate up and take new shapes, push into new corners of my brain, new kroker i skogen (“nooks in the woods,” a little Norwegian phrase I like to think I coined). As I’ve mentioned before, my aloneness on these travels has given a special dimension to these travels. Those that know me know I’m a very social fellow; I thrive on togetherness. But it has been a powerful experience to rove throughout this fantastical landscape alone with my sea of thoughts. I felt, at times, a little like the young sailors in my favorite chapter of Moby-Dick, “The Masthead.” Alone, having clambered up to the crow’s-nest (and, aye, isn’t Norway, or, say, Svalbard, a sort of crow’s-nest on the ship o’ the world?!), that unsuspecting sailor experiences a sort of wonderful vertigo of self:

[L]ulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like . . . sprinkled . . . ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the round globe over.

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror.

Being alone here, with, on the other hand, a peculiar sort of familiarity with the country, having some drop of “viking blood” in my veins, after all, gave rise to thoughts and reflections in much the way that poor sailor seemed to glimpse all those elusive creatures of the deep and begin to diffuse his own identity amongst theirs, unknowable as they really were. That wildness of encounter. In my own diffusion, I fell most in love with Nord-Norge, Northern Norway. I’d always, as I’ve said, been drawn to the northernmosts, and I managed to spend over fifty days “near the bear.” I recently discovered that the word Arctic comes from the Greek arktos, meaning “the bear,” and arktikos, or “of the bear,” referring, of course, to the constellation, the Great Bear, which, to Greek eyes, stands in the northern skies. Thus, to be in the Arctic is to be “near the bear.” A pretty thought, that. And up there, one can easily take the nordlys for another image of those thoughts that continually flit through the mind, lending it an equally fleeting sense of identity, a place.

And so, as ever, images:

The view westward from Keiservarden on my last visit to Bodø. Landegode to the right and Lofoten in the distance beyond.

The view westward from Keiservarden on my last visit to Bodø. Landegode to the right and Lofoten in the distance beyond.

Saltstraumen. The world's most powerful tidal current. Near Bodø.

Saltstraumen. The world’s most powerful tidal current. Near Bodø.

Marching Karl Johans gate with Katta in the 17. mai parade . . .

Marching Karl Johans gate with Katta in the 17. mai parade . . .

. . . with Katta's russ in tow.

. . . with Katta’s russ in tow.

The iconic split peak of Kinnaklova on Øya Kinn, the Island of Kinn, Sogn og Fjordane. (The excellent Kinn Brewery takes its name from the island and its logo from Kinnaklova.)

The iconic split peak of Kinnaklova on Øya Kinn, the Island of Kinn, Sogn og Fjordane. (The excellent Kinn Brewery takes its name from the island and its logo from Kinnaklova.)

Not the world's worst spot to camp. Not the worst at all.

Not the world’s worst spot to camp. Not the worst at all.

Looking southward along the west coast from the windswept saddle east of Kinnaklova.

Looking southward along the west coast from the windswept saddle east of Kinnaklova.

Looking westward from the top of Søre Stauren, the southern peak of Kinnaklova (the point at center is the pointed peak to the right in the images above). Furet, værbitt over vannet.

Looking westward from the top of Søre Stauren, the southern peak of Kinnaklova (the point at center is the pointed peak to the right in the images above). Furet, værbitt over vannet.

1Sharp-eyed (or norskspråkelige) readers will notice the variant spelling: vidare for videre, gåande for gående, and skule for skole. That’s nynorsk, New Norwegian, Norway’s other official language. Flora was the only VGS and Sogn og Fjordane the only fylke I visited that uses nynorsk for all its official goings-on.

Våren (eller, Å hente vann på ski, eller, Æ veit d’ æ veit)

I write this at a koselig bar called Apotekergaarden, The Apothecary’s Shop, in Grimstad, a postcard-worthy Norwegian town along the Skagerrak in Southern Norway. Henrik Ibsen wrote his first work here while he trained to become a pharmacist. I arrived last evening in lovely spring weather—the air was soft and still, the water lapped kindly upon the piers and quays, and long, wispy clouds were lit well by the late-setting sun, hanging in the endless Norwegian spring twilight. I woke this morning to the sound—the sound—of heavy snow dropping on the windowsill of my hotel room, and trudged through several centimeters worth of slush on the way to the school I was visiting. It wasn’t snow that fell in the night, but slush itself, prefabricated in the cloud-factories and slopped into market, jamming up roads and ways (spring weather lulls the overexcited people out of their winter- and into their summer-tires). Teachers and students alike were caught in jams of packed slush-ice and traffic. It is April in Norway. It is indeed the cruellest month.

Above my desk back at The Northwest School in Seattle I usually hang a few spring poems, including a Gerard Manley Hopkins’ paean to the vernal burst of life, but at the moment, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sharp-tongued rebuttal to the most cliched of seasons seems more acute and aptest:

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

Oh, I love that poem! And how well it fits the host of contraditions, the blend (and imagine, here, a blender, grinding up a puree, rather than, say, a finely selected blend tea leaves—though that, I think, passes equally well) of feelings turning my heart as I approach the last months, and my calendar begins to run thin of school-visits, and I turn my mind, with a certain twinge in my neck, toward the homeplace I love, and consider the experience of leaving. Av og til føler jeg meg som den samme slags idiot, som skravler og strør blomster landet rundt. Og snart må jeg forlate landet sjølv.

The weeks since I wrote last have been (predictably) full. In there, påska happened—the Easter holiday. Despite Norway’s very secular society (even before the church was finally split from the state in 2012), its holidays are oriented around the church calendar (which is, for its part, of course, oriented around various pagan events, namely solstices). As with jul, most Norwegians get påske off. A good week of vacation, during which the folk drar til hytta, head to the cabin. Strange and wonderful traditions accompany this moment of rebirth. The very same chocolates, sold in red packaging at Christmas, get rebranded and repackaged in yellow as Easter goods. And the nation becomes briefly obsessesed with påskekrim: Easter crime series on TV (!?). I became good ‘n hooked myself, I happily confess. But out at the cabin, which often means (as it should) no television, the presumable last pangs of winter are satisfied. Sola har snudd—the sun has turned (or, rather, we have), and the days become quickly longer, but up at the hytte, it’s likely there’s yet plenty of snow, so a ski-tour or two (or several, or as many as possible in the run of a week) are in order, if not lawfully obligatory. I, lucky pig (heldiggris in Norwegian, their version of “lucky dog”), spent påske at the cabin with relatives in Rindal kommune in the highlands below Trollheimen in Møre og Romsdal. I hauled my skis on the train up to Trondheim through Gudbrandsdalen (a gorgeous ride), in part because in order to get to their cabin at all in March, you’ve got to gå på ski. I had also the distinct joy of having to fetch water (å hente vann) at the spring every day . . . on skis. The spring lies some two meters under the snow, so to get water, one skis to the snow-hole, climbs down, fills the 10-liter jug, and hauls it in a backpack back to the hytte. Three, four trips is enough for a day. Few things generate as much simple pleasure as such a task, though I recognize well that that pleasure emerges from the complex fact that I don’t really have to fetch water to survive. Simple pleasures are seldom simple. (When I taught writing at the University of Washington, I used to say to students that while it’s often tempting to follow Occam’s Razor, that “all things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the right one,” the problem is that all things are almost never equal.) Still, I cannot deny the particular joy of fetching water. On skis. I’m awfully thankful for those days with Norwegian family, skiing by day, playing games and having conversations by night, with a little sitting silently in the spring sun woven in to the pattern—a healthful pause, some rest, in the midst of a wildly magical and truly wonderfully exhausting year of work.

The week after påske, I headed north again, that earth-deep magnet whose pull I cannot resist, for a week-long to Sortland in Vesterålen, the archipelago north of Lofoten, followed by several days in Bardufoss, in inner Troms, and a couple days in Lillehammer. Vesterålen is less commonly celebrated outside of Norway than its dramatic neighbor to the south, but it is as impressive in its way. Given the lengthening hours of sunlight, I was able to take some very fine solo hikes to the mountain tops surrounding Sortland. The snow remained deep and dreadful in some places, but the crust was largely supportive of my walking (the Norwegians have a good word for crust: skare). Fine, fine feelings in those islands, plus a whole lot of Northern Norwegian. With apologies to my southern-Norwegian friends and family, I admit that nord-norsk is the dialect I’ve grown partial to. The sea is in it. And the sea wind, as I’ve written before. I was swim in it as much as I’m able.

After a full week in Sortland, and a lovely dinner and conversation with one of my hosts, an Englishman who’s lived in Northern Norway for many years, and who learned Norweigan in the north, and so speaks Northern-Norwegian (a little mouse of jealousy crept up in me), I caught the coastal steamer, Hurtigruten, in Stokmarknes and sailed to Finnsnes, where I took a bus to Bardufoss (I was lucky to get passage on the M/S Lofoten, the oldest ship in the Hurtigrute fleet. A beautiful, classic boat, and a welcome remedy to the gargantuans that make up the rest.) Back in Trondheim the week before, I thought I’d had my last ski of the year. But Winter lives long in the inland north. I stayed at Bardufosstun, a regional athletics center with a hotel, and luxurious access to ski trails and skis to rent at very reasonable cost. My itchy legs couldn’t be quieted, so I “walked on skis” for a good 30 km from Bardufoss to Kampenhytta and back, with a nice chat and warm-up in the last kilometer in a lavvo (tepee) along the trail, cared for by the Bardufoss area retirees’ sports association. There is a whole lot of life in the far north.

And so again to Lillehammer, the last direct connection my family has to Norway. I’ve said before that I feel good feelings in Lillehammer, feelings that are doubtless half-invented, but invention is a spirited activity, with the right heart, and I feel reasonably right about Lillehammer. With a couple days, and a little finer-grained sense of things, I sought out what information I could about my family during my visit. Using an old photograph of my great-great-grandfather’s grave as a guide (see below), I sought out the place in the cemetary at Lillehammer Church where he was buried. No stone to be found (no one there to pay for it). So I made my way to the Lillehammer church office in another part of town. I found help there, and the record keeper opened the safe and eventually tracked down the original register of burials for 1906. And there, as the 38th burial that year, stood his name: Gustav Hansen, died on November 6, and buried November 21. He was buried alongside an unrelated child named Karen, who likely lived only some days or hours. The folks at the office told me that that was a relatively common practice for “free graves” in those days—after an infant death, they would wait until the first adult burial in a “free” grave, and lay the child there. This likely means that my family didn’t have much money, which also suggests a good reason for Magnus Albert (my great-great-grandfather) and Emil, Gustav’s two eldest sons, to try their hands in America1, and for the rest of the family to follow later that year. How strange to see that name, once my family’s, written in such fine handwriting by a person who had at least some knowledge of the moment, who may have known (and almost certainly spoke to) my great-grandfather who crossed the Atlantic with little knowledge of what awaited and likely a whole lot of hope. I’m about to make that same journey again, albeit under very different circumstances and by very different means. Still, there will be an uprooting, a heaving-ho, and a sort of leap back in to a sound I know, and though the water has surely shifted while I’ve been away, I suspect I’ll recognize it well.

Meanwhile, I am still here, in Norway. Grimstad represents the 60th school I’ve visited this year (plus or minus a couple), and the 18th of Norway’s 19 fylker, or counties. I fly tomorrow to Bodø, my last working visit to Northern Norway this year. The knot of energy I’ll cary there is palpable, and in the best way. I’ve spent more than forty days above the Arctic Circle this year, and surely—at least I like to imagine—that orientation toward the Earth’s magnetic field has had some effect on the orientation of my own magnetic sensibilities, my forhold to the ground, my balance.

Though they change quickly, the seasons in Norway are long, they merge and knit into one another. Half of spring is still winter, half of summer is spring. I step, still, into the world a little further yet, as it swings toward the sun.

And so, as ever, some images.

Hytta, påska.

Hytta, påska.

Out on a påske ski tour in Rindal kommune

Out on a påske ski tour in Rindal kommune

Looking toward Hinnøya, Norway's largest island, Sortland and Sortland Strait below. Vesterålen.

Looking toward Hinnøya, Norway’s largest island, Sortland and Sortland Strait below. Vesterålen.

Hinnøya across Sortlandsundet from Sortland. BONUS: Underwater pipe is visible.

Hinnøya across Sortlandsundet from Sortland. BONUS: Underwater pipe is visible.

Langøya from the top of Bøblåheia, the highest peak in Sortland's mark.

Langøya in Vesterålen, from the top of Bøblåheia, the highest peak in Sortland’s mark.

Historical photograph of the burial place of my great-great-grandfather, Gustav Hansen, at Lillehammer Church, 1906.

Historical photograph of the burial place of my great-great-grandfather, Gustav Hansen, at Lillehammer Church, 1906.

My reproduction of the same (with phone camera), Lillehammer Kirke, 2016. This has to be the general area . . .

My reproduction of the same (with phone camera), Lillehammer Kirke, 2016. This has to be the general area . . .

BONUS: Lysefjord from just below Preikestolen, in cloud and snow and hail. Old and dear friend Adam visited last week and we trekked up that hill, and well.

BONUS: Lysefjord from just below Preikestolen, in cloud and snow and hail. Old and dear friend Adam visited last week and we trekked up that hill, and well.

1I’ve also recently learned, at last, a little more about my great-grandmother’s lineage. Albert, in Wisconsin, married a woman named Cora Jerdee, whose father, Amund Jerdee, was the son of Ingrid Njøs Gjerde and Peder Larsson Gjerde, who married in 1843 in Leikanger kommune in Sogn og Fjordane, and emigrated to Wisconsin the next year, eventually Americanizing their name to Jerdee from Gjerde. Another project looms . . .


Outermost Finnmark is something else altogether. I’ve said that before, about (many?) other places in Norway. But the land has its poetics, and if Ezra Pound was right that poetry is “news that stays news,” I’d argue that the land is always newer yet. Our languages emerged in response to our experience of it, and our collective (or communal) need to navigate its threats to and demands upon our survival, and eventually, livelihood. But over time, language begins also to make the land, prefigure it, and, as the case may be (or, as the case is), unmake it. Landscape, the land-as-perceived, the image of land, the overlay, eventually comes prior to land itself. Language conditions our experience of land. It generates expectations, it delimits our imaginings of a place prior to our arrival. In a way, then, I think we relish in the surprises, the million little ways the land itself pushes up through the imaginative map the brain had already laid over everything. Maybe that’s one way to think about aesthetics: the experience of a sort of startle felt when the world itself emerges through our expectations of what the world is like. It’s no surprise, then, that these days I often run out of words; as I walk around, I’m sometimes in a constant state of startle; I catch myself laughing aloud to myself, vastly alone on mountaintops or at the outer edge of an outermost island, looking out toward the cold, gray-blue horizon of the Barents. The landscapes that have surrounded me—rather, the lands & waters themselves—have left me so often clambering over the unsatisfying sounds of words that won’t quite do. Even the three cameras I lug around fail to get at it. The eyes are greedy: Look! Look more! And the camera seduces them with its “Take! Take more!” and its “Keep it!” Sometimes I try to disobey those impulses and just stand there and see and listen. Å ta det imot. To refuse to make (and so take) an image. I’m not very good at it. I can resist anything but the shutter.

So I stand there in a flailing attempt to articulate a fitting description, to reproduce an experience, a sensation, a sight. But the thing I’m after lives in the little coves of silence in between the half-words and utterances, between the upheavals of inchoate thought, geologic, almost, as unfinished as the Arctic, with its scarp and stone and shale and snow and no trees at all. And what wind, relentlessly pushing through every nook, every narrow passage, every sound and fjord. Whistling.

In one of my favorite long poems, Tape for the Turn of the Year, A. R. Ammons thinks about how to represent the ocean’s floor by “sounding” it, how deep is it here, and here, and here. He writes:

soundings twenty miles
will approximate reality:
           (tho you could miss
           a fabulous cleft
           or cone):
only infinite (impossible)
samplings could
produce a map symbolic
of the truth:

To my ear, Ammons celebrates the possibility of “missing” that fabulous cleft or cone, those realities that elude our representations, that don’t make it onto the map. There’s a wildness in it, and a strange, if disorienting, comfort in knowing we can’t know everything. In that sense I’m a Romantic. Can’t get away from it. I rove around a Norway half-created, half-perceived. It’s awful sweet.

Outer Finnmark is one of these ytterste places. I’ve spent the last full week in the ytterste steder (the outermost places) of Norway’s fastland. Two days in Kirkenes, the last town before the Russian land-border; two days in Vardø, the easternmost town in Norway, suspended in the Barents Sea, overhanging Russia, at 30°06’38″E; and three days in Honningsvåg, the northernmost town (with bystatus) in Norway at 70°58’33″N, situated on Magerøy (Meager Island), in Nordkapp kommune—the island municipality of North Cape, the northernmost point in Europe proper at 71°10’21″N. This year has thus brought me to both Europe’s westernmost (Látrabjarg in Iceland at 24°30’00″W) and northernmost (Nordkapp in Norway) points (not to mention Svalbard). I treasure these experiences. And how strange the experience of memory will be—already is—alongside the images and photographs, the shadows, duplicitous in the illusion of accuracy they present. How many cones and clefts have I seen? What things and places and people have I encountered that I cannot represent? How wonderful to imagine them, fullest in their lives.

Vardø, in particular, stands out. There’s a sort of magic surrounding that outermost of Norwegian places. I had a remarkably difficult time arranging housing in Vardø; as it turns out, I happened upon the weekend of Yukigassen, the annual Nordic Championship in snøballkasting! (You can guess what that is without translation, I suspect.) Teams from Russia, Finland, and Norway descend on the island each year for this Japanese snowball war. What luck to stumble upon it!

Amid the surprisingly lively stemning of Yukigassen (the Opening Ceremonies, for one, included a hell of a fireworks show), Vardø is permeated with a quietly startling magic. It began with the most shocking nordlys I’ve yet seen. I had taken a four-hour bus tour all the way around Varangerfjorden to get to Vardø from Kirkenes, and for half the way, as darkness fell, I saw the aurora shimmering through the bus’s tinted and winter-grit-spattered windows, pressing my face and hands against them to catch what glimpses I could. Frustrating. Those rare, clear skies, and all. But I got to Vardø, settled into my room, and, with recommendations from my host, found my way toward the water and the Witchhunt memorial (more on that in a moment). The northern lights had neither quit nor dimmed: I stood, in biting cold wind, with stinging fingertips inside my gloves, directly underneath a flush of banners moving as in a gale, motion and light the length of the sky, and wide. Along the horizon, I saw the lights as slowly fluttering flags; but looking straight upwards (the North Star, Polaris, directly above my head), the lights were swirling poles of green, with whorls of white and faint reds in erratic, but holistic motion. Not choreographed; not that. But contiguous, connected. The sweetness of disturbance, the unseen sun startling the darkness of the Arctic sky into a play of half-lights, not quite radiant, but luminous, looming. Very much alive.

I watched these lights some steps away from another set of lights, much smaller: the Steilneset Minnested is a memorial commemorating the hundreds of killings of suspected witches in the 1600s. I hadn’t realized before my visit that Vardø is Norway’s Salem. Despite its remoteness, the town is among Norway’s older places. Long has it had a church. As my host at school in Vardø there pointed out, in those days, when they built a church someplace, it meant serious business; establishing a church was a kind of flag-planting, a signal of dominance over a place, and of its (often strategic) importance to the development of the church’s expanding regional power. And so, out at—beyond, even—the edge of things, the old church hunted the practitioners of trolldom, witchery, dark magic. The monument consists of a “memorial hall” designed by Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, and Flammehuset, The Flame House, a moving installation by Louise Bourgeois, consisting of a flaming chair surrounded in a ring by giant, foreboding vanity mirrors. So much in it. Stunning works. These works are open and free twenty-four hours a day. I first visited the memorial hall at night, with the wind outside, its rush reduced to an eerie howl inside, where I read about those who had been accused and killed by the church, by their neighbors, for trolldom.

Vardø’s origins are in its strategic location as a trading post for Finnish, Russian, and Norwegian goods. Vardø fortress dates from the early 14th century. Predictably, the modern history of Vardø is (like all of coastal Norway) in fish. The Barents is, I’ve been told, among the healthiest fisheries in the world, especially for cod. Late modernity hasn’t, however, been entirely kind. Its population has come and gone in waves, dependent on the fisheries and the whimsical consequences of modernizing the craft of fishing (not unlike what’s happened to once-lively farm-towns in the Midwest). Nazi-occupied Vardø (much like Kirkenes to the south across Varangerfjorden) was bombed repeatedly by the Russians during WWII and was reconstructed. Among buildings in use are boarded up, vacant, dilapidated buildings. A fine house here, an empty clapboard shack nextdoor; here, a wharf, fishing boats overwintering; across the harbor, a rusted out fish warehouse, apparently long abandoned. But I marked quickly the enduring warmth of the people of Vardø. Among Norwegians, infamously reserved, vardøværinger (residents of Vardø) are openly curious and welcoming. I was “warned” I’d be asked about who I was, what I was doing there, etc., if vardøværinger didn’t recognize me. And sure enough, on my last morning, walking down a street, an older man with wizened, weathered features, approached me, and asked outright: “E du kjent?” (“Are you known around here)?” I laughed and replied, “Nei, jeg er ikke kjent her!” (“No, I’m not known around here!”), and so we had a lovely conversation about who I was, why I was there. He was a sjømann in the old days, a sailor, and had, back in the seventies, sailed to the ports of New Orleans, Philadelphia, and New York. He wished me “Lykke til videre”, with a little more verve than the usual. It means “Good luck further along,” and it’s a pretty standard Norwegian farewell that betrays, I think, a rather traveling spirit beneath the seeming homeboundedness of the people.

When I met him, I was looking some of for Vardø’s many works of gatekunst, street art. The island is home to a living collection truly beautiful works, some visible and demanding, open to all passers-by, whether attentive or casual, and others obscured along unwalked ways, in nooks and crannies, overhung and hidden, made to be sought out, almost as fabulous clefts or cones that overlookers overlook, that can’t (and shouldn’t) find their way onto the map. Many of the works are phrases in English—a sort of ambivalent testament to the very force that has pressed vardøværinger these last decades out of their traditional homes and works and crafts. COD IS GREAT. ETERNAL LIGHT / ETERNAL NIGHT. SEA FEVER. Whether word or image, the works comment and respond to a world-in-place that doesn’t want to go away, that refuses, even while the world’s distant markets push and push and push on its livelihood. In that resistance, I found a whole lot of life, a whole lot of human animal warmth in Vardø. A special place, uglemmelig.

From Vardø, I bought passage on Polarlys, one of the Hurtigrute ships, along the northeastern coast of Finnmark to Honningsvåg, on Magerøy. Both Hammerfest and Honningsvåg lay claim to “the world’s northernmost city” (verdens nordligste by). Although Honningsvåg lies further to the north than Hammerfest, it was granted bystatus in a period when the requirements for city-status were lighter (today, a town has to have 5000 or more citizens to count; Honningsvåg has fewer). But it is, in any case, the administrative center of Nordkapp, Norway’s northernmost kommune. I arrived off the boat early on a crystalline Sunday morning, with sun and polar-blue skies. I had the day to live in, so I stashed my backpack and hiked up to the town’s local mountain (something I’ve become accustomed to in my travels), where I stood and stood and stood. One of the special qualities of outer Finnmark is its missing trees: nothing grows there. Nordkapp’s island, Magerøy, means “meager island,” appropriately (though one could pun on “stomachs”—mager—as well). Treelessness makes for startling landscapes, especially, to my sensibilities, in winter. I splurged on a touristy trip to Nordkapp itself, slightly bloated in its cost (you have to pay to visit this northernmost point; to me, it’s among Norway’s few real tourist traps, flying in the face of allmennsrett). But I’ve been longing to stand there at the top of Norway since I was a child. It was worth it, in the end, to stand there, looking due north in (surprise!) the biting wind whips around the stark, barren, treeless, cliffsides. (Notably, the marker, and corresponding toursit chalet, at Nordkapp isn’t the true northernmost point; that lies on a less dramatic point across a small inlet to the west; one day I’d like to hike there. For free.)

Before leaving Honningsvåg, however, I was given the fullness of Finnmark: two days after that gorgeous Sunday, the town was transformed, whipped up into full storm, gale-force winds. The Barents Sea leapt over harbor and haven and salted the air (and the face). Though it wasn’t raining, your face was wetted by a walk in those winds, and once again in shelter, you felt the salt in the corners of your eyes and mouth. The sea was in the air. My flight out of Honnignsvåg was cancelled, so I was put up in a hotel and rerouted on a bus south to Lakselv with flight connections from there to Svolvær in Lofoten, my destination for visits the next day. At six the next morning, as I woke to make the bus, the airport called (a personal call from airport—that’s how small are these outermost airports!). The road out of town was closed. Yes, the road. Not only full storm, but orkan, hurricane-force winds, were measured in the run of the previous twenty-four hours. Wow. I’ll spare you more details, reader (assuming you’re still reading) but I opted to try the early flight out, so hopped a quick taxi to the Honningsvåg airport, where I flew to Hammerfest, hoping to make connections further to Tromsø, and so to Bodø and finally to Svolvær. Having had to cancel one day of a three-day visit to Svolvær (the teachers there were understanding; they, too, are Northern-Norwegians—they, too, live in the wind!), I arrived a little before 10pm. A fifteen hour trip in five airports to travel some 600 km (as the plane flies). That’s the north. And I’m thankful for it.

I’m in love with Northern Norway. How odd to be again in Oslo, with spring arriving, taking full steps on the solid ground with no fear of falling on the treacherous ice, the warmth of the sun suddenly palpable, after months, now, without it, and longing a little after those ytterste, outermost, winter-polished gems of the North.

And so, as ever, images.



The lights from underneath.

The lights.

Steilneset Minnested. Inside, a light burns now for each of the accused witches.

Steilneset Minnested. Inside, a light burns now for each of the accused witches.

Vardø. I can't keep Moby-Dick out of this blog: "Queequeg was a native of Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are."

Vardø. I can’t keep Moby-Dick out of this blog: “Queequeg was a native of Rokovoko, an island far away to the West and South. It is not down in any map; true places never are.”

My host told me that when the artist interviewed the Vardø fishermen, he learned, "De tror på torsk"—They believe in cod.

My host told me that when the artist interviewed the Vardø fishermen, he learned, “De tror på torsk”—They believe in cod.

Carved into the painted stone.

Carved into the painted bricks.

Scraped into the painted wood.

Scraped into the painted wood.

This you have to hunt for. I stood long looking at it.

This you have to hunt for. I stood long looking at it.

Magerøy and Porsangerfjorden. This is treeless Finnmark in the farthest north.

Magerøy and Porsangerfjorden. This is treeless Finnmark in the farthest north.

Due north from Nordkapp into the Barents Sea.

Due north from Nordkapp into the Barents Sea. The true north is visible at the left of the frame.


From the slopes of Hafjell, looking west across Gudbrandsdalen, one sees the Olympic fakkelmann (torch-bearer) carved by very selective deforestation into the other face the valley. Hafjell was one of the sites of the alpine events for the 1994 Olympic Games in Lillehammer (and the 2016 Youth Olympic Games just a few weeks ago), for which the man was created. I was on skis when I took an image of fakkelmannen, having hauled them along on the train from Oslo and with a free day to spend during a visit to Lillehammer. I wanted to get in some alpine runs before winter disappears from Winterland (the forhold was excellent, by the way). I sent the image to my family. “Did you pretend you were in the Olympics,” asked my dad. (Of course I did!)

I would say there’s something about Lillehammer that gets me, as though I couldn’t quite name it. But I can: Lillehammer is where “the old people” came from. My great-grandfather, Albert Hansen, along with his brother Emil, moved from Lillehammer to Wisconsin in 1906, after their father, Gustav, died. Gustav, my great-great-grandfather, is buried today in the graveyard of Lillehammer Kirke (Lillehammer Church). The rest of the family followed the two brothers some months later. Josephine, my great-great-grandmother, and several of the others, are buried at Deronda Church in Wisconsin, along with my grandfather, bestefaren min, Arvid Myhrwold. Emil Myhrvold (mentioned above) is buried in Puyallup, Washington, south of Seattle. This past summer, a friend and I found that grave. The ‘w’ and ‘v’ in the names Myhrwold and Myhrvold are not typos. When they arrived in Wisconsin, my ancestors changed their name from Hansen to Myhrwold/Myhrvold after the name farm they’d lived on, called Myrvold, and there was no standard spelling, and Norwegians (with apologies to my dear Norwegian readers!) have a little trouble with Vs and Ws. I’ve had some trouble locating that particular farm (there are many Myrvold farms in Norway), though I have a good hunch I’ve located the place in Vestre Toten kommune west of Mjøsa, in the old Ås parish. I’ve found one record in the digitized Norske riksarkivet, the Norwegian National Archives, that mentions the Myrvold farm: the 1895 baptism record of Gustav Hansen, my great-great-uncle, brother to Albert. At that time, my family lived at “Myrvold” (bosted, in the record, means “living place”). But by the time they emigrated to the US, they had moved to a district of Lillehammer formerly called Kobberberget, along the shore of Mjøsa, at the Lillehammer side of the present-day Vingnes bridge. I found this out the day after my recent visit. I’d spent some time in person at the National Archives in Oslo back in September, but the archivist and I couldn’t quite place the farm with certainty. Somehow, here at the beginning of March, I stumbled across the right record, from the 1900 folketelling, the census. But where in town did their homeplace lie? Where was Kobberberget?

I don’t believe in fate, or much at all in the way of what we usually call “supernatural.” Cell memory, maybe—one can’t rule out all the mysteries of the world. But here’s a funny thing: Last week, fellow rover John and I both visited Høgskolen i Lillehammer to give talks on American education to college students studying pedagogy. One evening, before we took dinner, I told John I wanted to head down to the water before the daylight fled and take a couple photographs. He gladly obliged. No destination in mind—I figured only to follow the streets to the lakeshore. We wandered our way to the old iron lattice Vingnes Bridge that crosses Mjøsa. A stroll partway across the span afforded a fine view of Lillehammer clad in in its evening lights, and northward into Gudbrandsdal as the day faded out. But here’s the eerie part: I discovered afterward, by digging up a historical 1890 map of Lillehammer (see below), that the Lillehammer side of Vingnes bridge is precisely the area formerly called Kobberberget. I had unwittingly wandered almost exactly to the front door of the last Norwegian home that (some of) my Norwegian ancestors knew. That’s something! These Hansens (later Myhrwolds) were the most recent of my ancestors to emigrate. My great-grandmother, Cora, who married Albert in Wisconsin, was a “Jerdee,” Americanized from Gjerde by her father, who married a woman with the last name Aasen (these are hard names to track; Aasen means Hill, while Gjerde means Fence—not exactly hard names to come by). But that side of the family was Sogning and emigrated earlier. We don’t know much about their history, though I hope to learn a bit before my own miniature emigration back to Seattle this summer. Thus, Lillehammer is my closest tie to the old country, as it were. It feels good to ply those ways, and such accidents have a certain magic to them, a sort of anchor-point for the play of the mind to find purchase.

The mind is a powerful inventor, to be sure; much of my affection for Lillehammer comes from my affinity to the place. My imagination makes an old world there, superimposed on today’s town, that I can walk through even while I apprehend its present reality. Lillehammer—as any town, any bygd, any tettsted or by—is composed of layers upon layers of all the knots and ties and blood and business, all the building, the tearing-down, the carving and shaping; the works of the lathe, the knife, the plow, the ax; the traces of the animal, the skis, the snow, the melt and the runoff; the wildflowers, the turf, the shoreline, the bridge; the comings and goings, the burials, the births; the undoings and the redoings; all the human feeling and resistance that passes through a place, that pushes up into visible space the surfaces that we perceive in our time. It’s a very old curiosity that animates a place in such a way, that populates it with the energies that have given rise to its being, its multitudes. And to sense that one is somehow a distant echo—or a shadow—of that being, a lapping, in a way, of a wave begun on some ocean-far strand, or the disturbance at the top of a spear of grass that makes visible a wind with some distant origin, long removed—that’s a very strange and very good feeling, with a very particular pleasure in it.

And I’m startled, when I contemplate that pleasure, by the notion that it’s not a pleasure equally distributed. I imagine the manifold, the millions upon millions, whose ties to the “old people” were violently loosed by brutal forces like slavery, who ran—and who run still—from conflict or oppression, out of need in various kinds and degrees. I once got into a friendly argument I didn’t have a chance to finish, but that I’ve thought about often. It was about whether it’s still legitimate to bring slavery, so long abolished, into discussions of inequality and social welfare and equal opportunity. I said yes. My debater said no. Take my family, for instance, which came from Lillehammer with very little. Theirs, like many other Norwegian utvandrer, was hard labor, in harsh land—Minnesota’s winter, North Dakota’s brutal wind—and often with very little knack for farming (Norwegians in Norway were a lot of fisher folk, with a few farmers in the east). The utvandrer to America had to shape a new life in a new land out of little more than what they saw in front of them, what they could learn quickly from their bodily engagement with the unfamiliar. Why should we waste that hard earned reward, the argument goes, on helping those who appear unwilling to work for theirs, who just wait for welfare? But imagine the story my ancestors—with their white skin in the white supremacist America of the 18th and 19th Centuries—could tell their children, and those children theirs: Work hard, you’ll make it. But what story could a slave, and then a former slave, tell their children? “Work hard and—?” Survive. Survive alone. What thoroughgoing reason has our New World civilization given people of color and other marginalized identities to believe in the promises of the land of liberty? (And I mean land here in the most literal sense: many of our Norwegian and Northern and Western European ancestors cashed in mighty easily on the Homestead Act—because their skin color did not automatiaclly cast suspicion on their legitimacy as “full members of this society.”) In short, we have a lot of work to do before we get to celebrate, or even name, our nation as an egalitarian society. And our current electoral “process” suggests pretty clearly we’re not doing a very good job.

And thinking about my own ancestry, and the pleasure it generates to do so, brings into stark relief the privilege I enjoy, especially as I have the double privilege of traveling throughout this landscape of my bloodlines, in a country that has done so much in the last century to build and rebuild its politics and its state around an ethos of social, reciprocal care (though for its embarrassment of alabaster, it doesn’t always get it right, either). But Norway does operate on basic premise of welfare: mutual care, regardless of whether we “like” each other, or think our neighbors “deserve” our tax money. The US constitution insists that we promote the general welfare, though the exorbitant privilege people like me have enoyed can blind us to others’ struggle, or even to their simple needs. I got mine, we say (and some of us out loud), so why should they get some of it? But we forget that in almost every single case, “I” got “mine” in part from someone else, from that uncountable mass of fellow folk, whether friend or fremmed, both now and before. We all pay, but some of us get a bigger check, and more often than not, by little more than luck alone. Privilege is powerful. It is beautiful when it’s felt, and folks ought to be thankful for it. But it’s wildly dangerous when taken thoughtlessly. I’m lucky I landed where I landed, and I have specific people at specific points in history to thank. But really, that sort of luck isn’t shareable. Care, on the other hand, is. And that’s a good thought. A sort of torch to bear.

So, a couple images from my Norwegian hjemsted.

After a foggy all-day in Gudbrandsdalen, the sky half-cleared for a few final runs at Hafjell, fakkelmannen across the valley.

After a foggy all-day in Gudbrandsdalen, the sky half-cleared for a few final runs at Hafjell, fakkelmannen across the valley.

Lillehammer in evening-wear, from Vingnes Bridge, a steinkast from my ancestors' last home in Kobberberget.

Lillehammer in evening light, from Vingnes Bridge, a steinskast from my ancestors’ last home in Kobberberget.

Historical map of Lillehammer in 1890. Kobberberget is at the bottom left (and inset below).

Historical map of Lillehammer in 1890. Kobberberget is at the bottom left (and inset below).

Kobberberget, the present site of the Lillehammer side of Vingnes Bridge.

Kobberberget, the present site of the Lillehammer side of Vingnes Bridge.


Nesten alt derfra ligger sørover.

When I left Oslo on February 16, the sun set at about 4:30 in the afternoon. When I arrived in Longyearbyen on February 21, around 2:30 pm, the sun had already set—four months earlier. And it did not rise above the mountainsides that cradle the world’s northernmost permanent settlement during my three-and-a-half-day stay there. The sun has, however, broken the horizon in the farthest north, although for the islanders it remains another fifteen days behind those stark, treeless escarpments—escarpments clawed by ancient waters, both frozen and flowing, with no roots, barely a shoot here and there, no wood to hold down the dirt, no branch, nor leaf nor needle, to disrupt the snows. The resulting (perfect) half-light at this special time of year reveals an embarrassment of blues. Manifold blues. And all is rock. Under snow. The light here has a trillion lives. I wrote in the end of my last post of blåtida, “the blue time”; now I have stood inside that magic. In two weeks, the sun will rise over Longyearbyen, and a mere five weeks from that day, it will stay up all night.

This is the knot of the world. And the North is another West.

I headed to Svalbard as part of a long-anticipated trip, first to Tromsø, toward the northern end of fastlandet, the mainland of the Scandinavian peninsula, and then to Longyearbyen. The latter lies on the island of Spitsbergen, in the Svalbard archipelago, administered as a Norwegian territory since the Svalbard Treaty of 1920. With just over two thousand residents, Longyearbyen is the northernmost permanent human settlement in the world. And with a view from 78°13’N, almost everything lies to the south. I did not want to come south again.

Tromsø, too, has its own magic. I had long hoped to travel here, having heard much of its special place among the world’s towns from a college friend, Rachel, who lived there for seven years. Tromsø lies just shy of 70°N, not a north to shake a stick at (unless it’s a ski pole). The town is mainly on an island, Tromsøya. There are many “northernmosts” in Tromsø: the world’s northernmost research university, the world’s northernmost mosque, the world’s northernmost ski resort, the world’s northernmost botanical garden, among other northernmost things. For a good while now, Mack Brewery in Tromsø has claimed, on its labeling and all, that it is Verdens nordligste bryggeri (“the world’s northernmost brewery”)—more on that in a moment. But Tromsø certainly has the largest selection of beers on tap above the Arctic Circle at Ølhallen. Over fifty taps, many limited editions from Mack. As an enthusiast, I was in a little Arctic Beer Heaven. I was also lucky to get a little tour of the Universitet i Tromsø, thanks to Serina, fellow Fulbrighter and St. Olaf graduate who’s stationed in a lab there studying methane-metabolizing bacteria that could help mitigate the influence of climate-changing gases. I snuck over on Saturday and splurged for a half-day of alpine skiing at the world’s northernmost ski area, Tromsø Alpinpark. Biting wind up there, and mediocre forhold after a recent thaw, but well worth the arktisk utsikt (see below). Tromsø was also the scene of my first real Northern Lights experience. Serina lent me a pair of langrenn (cross-country) skis as well, so I was able to spend an evening on the trails. During my tur, in the midst of a string of overcast days, the skies opened, the waxing moon rose to the east, and around 6:30 pm, in the Arctic dark of February, a ribbon of Aurora stretched the whole length of the firmament. Alone, in the quiet, on skis, below the moon, and the surreality of the most distinct, shimmering nordlys I’ve beheld: there are few finer things to hope for.

One has to wonder what the old people made of it all. A crystalline green banner sweeping over all things—and that without the low hum of industry or the chemical glow of city lights. What to do with such phenomena, pushing on the edges of their philosophy?

But Svalbard.

There is something altogether different. Something altogether different shaping its history—something terribly old, terribly cold, and somehow warm. I added a few more “northernmosts” to the list there, of course: I enjoyed food & drink at the world’s northernmost bar, visited the world’s northernmost museum, stayed in the world’s northernmost hotel, was treated in the world’s northernmost hospital2, taught in the world’s northernmost school, bought an issue of the world’s northernmost newspaper, saw (the entrance to) the world’s northernmost (and only) global seed vault, and, with apologies to Tromsø’s Mack, enjoyed beer from the world’s newly northernmost brewery (which I purchased at the world’s northernmost liquor store, cleverly called Nordpolet3). Svalbard has just last fall taken the northernmost-brewery banner with the removal of an eighty-five-year-old puritanical prohibition against alcohol production in Longyearbyen (it was, it’s said, to try and keep the coal miners sober-ish). After five years of persistence, Robert Johansen successfully petitioned for a change in the law and opened Svalbard Bryggeri. Quite a story, has he (in Norwegian, but a good read). I was fortunate to try a couple of the beers, made with purified water from Bogerbreen, the Boger Glacer, on Spitsbergen. It may well be in my head, but Svalbard Pilsner, in particular, had a awfully special glacial smak.

Walking through Longyearbyen gave rise to a remarkable current of sensations, many of them as intellectual as physical. Or, rather, in a place like that, the intellectual is physical. The brain, wrote Emily Dickinson, is wider than the sky. Not the mind, that abstract heaven of thoughts, but the brain, that electric, melon-sized, fatty mass sloshing around inside the skull. In Svalbard, walking along escarpments, into the fractal of valleys, through the loosely defined streets, immersed in endless configurations of blue and black and white, one can feel oneself thinking. And inevitably one thinks through the deeply human history that permeates the very nonhuman place. The remains of the old infrastructure of abandoned coal mines punctuate the stark landscape. Mostly the wooden towers of the old taubane, or suspended lines that carried coal in buckets from the mouths of mines up on the escarpment banks down to the processing facilities along the water. The harsh climate preserves the wood, it seems, though it is weathered. And those historic structures (which comprise a lot of the structures in the town) are also protected, one of my hosts at Longyearbyen Skole told me, by Norwegian law. It struck me, as I walked, observed, talked, and wondered, that the same forces that shaped the American West shaped the Farthest North. This is winter’s desert (and it is, in fact, a desert climate). The people who built these old things, who pushed themselves through wildly uncomfortable conditions only to reach the limits of the exploitable world, did so for the same reason as the Americans who drove west: wealth and dominance. I expected that Longyearbyen was largely a research town, something like a more inhabited version of Antarctica’s McMurdo Station. But what I found was the Old West of the North. Longyearbyen was built by coal miners. And like the gold-miners of the Klondike, not long before, the dogsled was prominent. I took a dogsled tour one evening, and I fell in love with eight huskies. (Into Bolterdalen we drove, south of Longyear, under the full moon, in the farthest north!) I’ll spare the words, and only say that I understood right quick how easily one can become powerfully avhengig av (addicted to) that mode of going. A new kind of longing. (Avhengig av means both “addicted to” and “dependent upon,” so it works nicely here.) And so the dogsled; the weathered wooden edifices of abandoned mines; the bizarre warmth of indoor spaces, ringed with the furs of every kind of harsh-weather beast, from seal to reindeer to polar bear; the golden glow of firelight; the slosh of winter ales; the prevalence of heavy boots; the pipes that run above ground, because the permafrost otherwise pushes them up (as it does buried corpses). The tales of the old adventurers—Barentz, Nansen, Nobile, Amundsen—that hang on the walls and the old photographs that accompany them. And yet, Longyearbyen is its own place. The wood one sees is a false presence: there are no trees on Svalbard. There are no trees at all. There is drivtømmer—driftwood—washing up from Siberia from time to time, but hardly enough to shape but a rude hovel. Svalbard offers nothing of itself for our kind. Nothing but coal. And now a kind of knowledge, or its promise. And, in case of Ragnarok, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which I’ve long and long been hoping to see, stands in wait on an escarpment above the (world’s northernmost major) airport. A scant few people in the world are authorized to go inside, and I’m obviously not one of them. So, along with some images, I gathered some sound of the exhaust fans at the entrance:

The fans come on and off, regulating the air deep inside that special hvelv. The Western push that helped build the industrial world also builds the promise against its self-destruction. Where to put that in one’s sky-wide brain?

My favorite passage of The Great Gatsby comes when Nick, towards the end of his tale about New York City, confesses, “I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—[we] were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” There is a drive implicit there to forsake the familiar, even if one fails, ultimately, to adapt to what one finds “out there.” But the irony is profound. Just as Nick (much less the North Dakota-born James Gatz) escaped the Midwest to find some sense of the larger world, he worked in the heart of the capital of finance that made the Midwest possible, and, arguably, made it worth leaving. The same spirit is in Ishmael’s opening monologue in Moby-Dick (which I’ve referenced before in this blog; I can’t help it, and I encourage you to read on if you please):

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

Like Nick’s, Ishmael’s longing is to escape the depressive, bone-soaking trappings, the too-much-ness, of the culture he knows too well. The ocean is as opposed to Ishmael’s land as the East is to Nick’s West. And like Nick’s, Ishmael’s longing drives him to participate in one of the very enterprises that makes that old culture go—in Ishmael’s case, it’s whaling, and the then-inexhaustible market for whale oil. (It’s still oil, today, that pushes us, but our whale is the earth itself.) So it was with the drivers of Svalbard. Whether it was the November in the souls of their various homeplaces that drove them to the farthest north, or other, more pedestrian forces (like, say, moneylust), I’m not sure. But Svalbard has a special place on the map of irony: the coal that gave it a human life is, of course, a significant factor in the changing climate, whose changes are uniquely perceptible in Svalbard. The far-northern latitudes feel the force of warming more fiercely, and faster, than the rest of the world sørover. Thus the late shift in the Longyearbyen’s heart from mining to research turns, in many ways, almost precisely upon this fulcrum of irony. The North is another West. The West is another North. And both, of course, are simply points on one of many circles.

However, the human history of Svalbard gives it something that the American West doesn’t share: when Europeans “explored” the Americas, there were, of course, people there, people that the Euro-American societies, insatiable for growth at whatever cost, either decimated or absorbed, and we live today in the giant wake of that catastrophic disturbance. Svalbard, on the other hand, had no inhabitants, save the bears. And the stocky-legged Svalbard reindeer. And the seals. But no people. Thus, the human presence on Svalbard has always been international, multi-cultural, and in some sense, cooperative. I felt some of this difference in the school. Longyearbyen Skole is a Norwegian school, to be sure. But it is both an international community (there are, for example, a surprising number of Thai families there) and a multi-Norwegian community. One of the dimensions of my travels around Norway I love best is listening to all the regional dialects. Students in a given school on the fastland largely speak the regional dialect of that area. But Longyearbyen’s Norwegian students come from all over Norway, and thus there is no Svalbard dialect: it is a mash, or a mosaic, of all of Norway. There’s something joyful in that. Another bonus is that, since there’s only one school in Longyearbyen (i.e., the ungdomskole, or lower-secondary, is not separate from the videregåendeskole, or upper-secondary school), so the Roving Scholar who visits Longyearbyen gets to teach at both levels. As a videregående teacher, it was an absolute thrill to work with younger students, ranging from 9-10-year-olds to the 16-year-olds I’m used to. Such curious, lively young people! Such wonder! They gave me as much of a workshop as I gave them. I’m really, really thankful for that opportunity.

And so, I find myself again in sørlandet. I tore myself from Spitsbergen (also: my plane was leaving, so, y’know, I had to go). But I did not want to leave. In the last hours of my stay, I had the chance to take a short tour into Adventdalen on a snøscooter, or snowmobile. Again, the irony, the fossil fuels burn and the island opens up to one’s imagination so much more quickly, so much less resistance. Such power is dangerous—I am no way impervious to its lures. I secretly loved it. In the farthest north, there are realities we can’t absorb. To borrow a phrase from A. R. Ammons, Svalbard is, for me, a collection of images for longing.

Enjoy the images.

1Unrelatedly, that’s the same year my great grandfather, Magnus Albert Hansen (later Myhrwold) moved from Lillehammer to Wisconsin.

2Leave it to Andy: on my first night in Longyearbyen, I discovered that the hotel has a sauna. I am a sucker for saunas. Especially when there is snow nearby. Remarkably, I had the place to myself. After a short sit in the outdoor hot tub, in the polar night, I got out, hopped down the few steps off the deck and into the snowy backyard of the hotel. I rolled around a spell in the snow, to get good and cold, so as to deepen the little joy of stepping into the sauna. I clamored over some rocks beneath the snow to reach the steps back up to the deck. I entered the sauna, splashed some water on the coals (surely it was glacial water in that wooden bucket), and sat down on the upper seat to begin my warming. Moments later I looked down to my feet. Blood. everywhere. Well, a good pool of it on the bench under my left foot, in any case. And a trail of it leading out into the main room and out towards the outside door. And it kept coming. I had cut the side of my foot good and deep, apparently on the snow-hidden stones in the yard, rolling around like a (happy) fool! Trying to stop the bleeding with paper towels, and without a phone, an unsuspecting Norwegian family poked their heads in to check out the scene. Imagine the sight: a hairy American in a Euro-style bathing suit, hopping around on one foot while blood drips from his other, and trails of blood now in the floor in so many directions. I sheepishly asked if they could alert the front desk of my sudden plight. Which they did. For some reason, they didn’t come back to enjoy the facilities. I’m not sure why . . .

The front desk attendant fetched the first-aid kit, and cleaned up the scene while I cleaned up the wound. She called the legevakt, the emergency nurse, on duty that Sunday night at Longyearbyen Sykehus. She could have called the doctor in to have it examined, emergency services which would have cost between 300 and 400 NOK (about $35-45). To save money, and since I had stopped the major bleeding, I decided to wait until the next day to see the doctor. Monday, then, I did so. He thoroughly disinfected and cleaned the cut and elected to use tape, rather than stitches, while we discussed the American election (he and the nurse were both, surprise!, appalled at what’s happening in the US). All finished, and I paid 142 NOK (about $17) for a doctor’s visit to fix up a reasonably significant gash, and this at the edge of the inhabited world, without being a part of the Norwegian healthcare system. Seventeen dollars. Imagine what such a visit would cost in the US. And without insurance. It’s embarrassing, frankly, to think about how we got so backwards.

3Nordpolet, for my English-speaking readers, is a fun play on words: the state-owned liquor stores in Norway are collectively called Vinmonopolet, literally (and hilariously, to the American ear) “the wine monopoly.” Nordpolet is thus “the North-opoly,” but the play is also on nordpolen, which means, of course, “the North Pole.” With the -et ending, rather than -en, polet is shorthand for vinmonopolet. So there you go. (I know, I just explained a joke in way too much detail, and thereby killed it.)

Tromsdalen and Ishavskatedralen (The Arctic Cathedral) from the Tromsø Hurtigruta Port

Tromsdalen and Ishavskatedralen (The Arctic Cathedral) from the Tromsø Hurtigrua pier

Looking north over Tromsø from atop the world's northernmost ski area

Looking north over Tromsø from atop the world’s northernmost ski area

Looking west over Tromsøya from the same

Looking west over Tromsøya from the same

Looking south into Longyeardalen

Looking south into Longyeardalen

Such are the Svalbard escarpments

Such are the escarpments of Svalbard

Spisshusene i Longyearbyen, opplyst i blått

Spisshusene i Longyearbyen, opplyst i blått

Svalbard Globale Frøhvelv / Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Why do I stand that way?)

Svalbard Globale Frøhvelv / Svalbard Global Seed Vault (Why do I stand that way?)

Where I was.

Where I was.


I’ve grown fond of the Norwegian word for “relationship”: forhold. And like many words in this language, it runs well in many kinds of weather. Relationships are indeed central to the work I do as a Roving Scholar. Many of them (most, I’d say) are quick, short-lived; some run quickly more deeply, some lean towards longevity. I’ve met—and will meet—literally thousands of Norwegian high school students and hundreds of teachers. I fold quickly into the communities of the schools I visit, and often unfold just as quickly, hoping to have left something useful or beautiful or simply something good behind. But what I leave there is dependent on the relationships that are made, the conditions in which what is left will continue. My grandpa, as some of my readers will know well, used to say “Relationships are everything; not just one force among many, but everything.” In one sense, this feels a little overstated, but it’s not just about social relationships: the relationships between things—sub-atomic, interpersonal, solar-systemic, and deep-spatial things—could (arguably) be said to shape our understanding about just about everything. Descriptions of the universe, however small, are, in a way, predicated on relationships between discrete (or not so discrete) things (there’s a whole other post somewhere about the word for thing, ting). So, relationships are something like everything.

The word forhold catches this broad sense. It means “relationship” as much as it means “conditions.” But I’m especially taken with what happens to the word forhold in the winter. Snow conditions, in particular, are often described in terms of “forhold.” Say one wants to go for a skitur. In order to ask “Are there good conditions on the trails?,” one asks Er det bra forhold i løypene? But in a way, this is asking “Are there good relationships on the trails?” It’s almost as though in Norwegian one thinks about trail conditions in terms of the relationship one has with the snow, which is to say the relationship between the body and the ground one moves across. A sort of beautiful friction.

I’ve just returned home to Oslo from the annual Fulbright Ski Weekend, which includes both a day-long seminar during which all twenty-odd Fulbright scholars, students, and teachers in Norway this year share their work with each other in ten-minute spurts, in conference form, with questions and answers. What a day! Truly fascinating to confront the range and depth of work being done under the big Fulbright tent, from research on climate-relevant methane-eating bacteria, or ice cores under the Greenland ice sheet, or the mossy life-worlds that congregate around Arctic springs. I was reminded of one of my favorite lines of Ammons, imagining “green mechanisms beyond the intellect.” Others are studying the contours of doctor-patient relationships (!), or the loss of the feminine grammatical gender in some Norwegian dialects (happening now in Tromsø’s dialect, already gone in Bergen’s), or the status of lay juries in Norway, or, or, or! I feel awfully lucky and honored to be among such thinkers, working such wonders in and on the world.

The seminar was followed by a weekend trip to Skeikampen, a ski resort north of Lillehammer. I have a special relationship to that area, as my oldefar, my great-grandfather, came from Lillehammer to Wisconsin in 1906. And so, as winter has (for now) abandoned Oslo again, we sought it up-over in Gausdal, and had a weekend on the snow. Og forholdet var kjempebra. On the evening of our arrival, fellow Rover John Hanson and I decided to gå på ski around the mountain—a 13 km trail. In brutal, ruthless, icy wind. I had Aesop’s fable on repeat in my head, about the competition between the North Wind and the Sun over which of the two was strongest. I suspect John and I would agree that the North Wind won that day. A fantastic tour. Days two and three I spent on, rather than around, the mountain. I’d waited long and long to get up on my skis, having lugged that corpse-heavy bag of skis (and sweaters . . . and books) across continent and ocean and through Reykjavík’s tiny airport to get here. A happy day! Saturday’s gray, north-breezy morning was followed by a bluebird afternoon off-piste with Kris, a fellow American literature scholar, with whom I’d shared my panel at the Fulbright seminar. Sunday’s bluebirds sang early and all day, and Ashley, who studies ice core samples, and I took to the backcountry again. þæt wæs god skiing!

So, the forhold was quite alright, these last few days. And soon enough I’ll give again to that magnetic north, first to Tromsø, and then to long-longed-for Longyearbyen, seventy-eight degrees above the line. It’s worth noting, given our species’ relationship with this, our home planet, that during the last thirty days, Svalbard’s average temperature is a full 10.5°C (18.9°F) higher than normal. It’ll be cold, to be sure, but this weekend at Skeikampen was significantly colder than what’s forecast for Longyearbyen during my visit. That’s an oddity (especially on the heels of a bonkers above-freezing anomaly early last month). There is much cause for concern.

But I’ll be there in late February, just before the first rays of direct sunlight (there’s Aesop telling tales in my brain again) return. In Northern Norway, the term mørketida, “the dark time,” describes the sunless months. But here, towards the end of that stretch, I’ve heard mention of blåtida, “the blue time,” where the daylight rises, though its source doesn’t. All is blue in that half-light. And so, here’s an apt Kay Ryan poem to think through, before a few images of these snow days.

Winter Fear

Is it just winter
or is this worse.
Is this the year
when outer damp
obscures a deeper curse
that spring can’t fix,
when gears that
turn the earth
won’t shift the view,
when clouds won’t lift
though all the skies
go blue.

Skeikampen rundt with John and our friend, Northwind. We Rove!

Skeikampen rundt with John and our friend, Northwind

Skeikampen backcountry with Kris

Skeikampen backcountry with Kris

Bra forhold.

Bra forhold.

Ashley studies ice (and snow).

Ashley studies ice (and snow).

Æ e i Å

I am in love with winter. Of course I have my limits—winter wears on us all. But I am in love with it, wild blizzard and what have you. I’d rather shiver than sweat. I’d rather ski than walk—though, as the Norwegian language would have it, the two, walking and skiing, are cut of the same stone. Unlike English, there’s no Norwegian verb “to ski.” In Norwegian, you “går på ski,” or “walk on skis” (unless you’re going downhill, in which case you “står på ski,” or “stand on skis”). Thus, in Norway, you walk all the year through—always a tur to , but sometimes you use shoes, sometimes skis, gå på sko or gå på ski, only a shift of medium. So I am in love with winter.

One of William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell” says that “Eternity is in love with the productions of time”—and something about winter, especially winter up here where I write this, some sixty-eight degrees above the equator, towards the outermost islands in the Lofoten archipelago, brings the productions of time into stark relief. Here is a winter tightly knitted to sky and sea, and to the darkness in both. Everything is slower, and somehow sweeter. Cold honey. And with the Norwegian Sea pressing in, ancient and forbidding, on all sides, it’s not the deep-frozen, stock-stillness of Østlandet, shielded as it is by the mountain-spine of the norðrvegr. Lofoten in winter is (based on my scant few-days-worth of impressions) a place suspended between freeze and fluid. And fesk overalt (in the northern dialects, fish are fesk rather than the fisk so many Americans recognize in words like lutefisk). And today, the hard, hard life of the fisherfolk has been transubstantiated into tourism. Fish is still the fulcrum on which Lofoten’s culture turns, the heart of Norway’s traditional fishing identity—like what Seattle is, perhaps, to contemporary American coffee culture. Indeed, visually, if you were to pluck up Norway like a fish from the map, you’d likely grab it by the Lofotens, jutting out as though they were the country’s gills, breathing seaward. But the reality of that old life, persistent, has been transformed into images—compelling images, to be sure. But in a sort of quantum-physical way, realities that develop in isolation are altered fundamentally by outsiders’ observation. Ferries packed with visitors disembark & stay in picturesque villages. In a conversation last night with my host here in Leknes—add him to the list of generous Norwegian hosts—we spoke of the tourism that now buoys up this string of fishing villages that grow increasingly isolated as one moves vestover. Each waterside Lofoten hamlet is nestled always between the sea and the toothy spires that fly up out of it like titanic whales, frozen mid-breach. In each, tourists can find lodging in these rorbuer, little networks of cabins, suspended on stilts over the water along the shore. Rorbu, my host suggested, is best translated as “fishing shed,” as these were the historical sheds that the pre-industrial fisherfolk slept in between long, long days out to fesk. These sleeping hours were raw and low, only enough space to host some precious few hours of sleep between attempts to carve some sparse living out of the hard, hard sea. But the term, he noted, really comes from “rowing”—the fishers rowed out for the daily catch. No industrial fishing boats. Not even a fifteen-horse Evinrude to drive the hunt for the torsk—cod—hiding below the merciless chop of the surface. Imagine it. Just imagine. Rowing sheds, they were. Bare, brawny boat-houses. What night-thoughts inhabited those huts? What had they seen, those days out to sea, in rowboats, on the whale-road, looking for cod?

For almost a year and a half I’ve been waiting to visit Lofoten. I looked at images of one such idyllic fishing village called Reine. Surreal, it seemed (and I saw it, mostly, in summer, they way it’s most often presented in that other ocean, the Internet). As with Ísafjörður in Iceland, Reine seemed to beckon me from its place on the map. But Reine’s winterclothes I’ll take any day. Snow gives to rock something special. Something summer, with its ease—its gab, even—and its loitering, can’t offer. Something rarer. But for all its uniqueness, Reine lies further inward than its neighbor, Å. When I came to Norway and began practicing Norwegian as often as I could, I learned from friends of a special Norwegian sentence, which serves as this post’s title: Æ e i Å, æ og, which, in the northern Norwegian dialects, means “I, too, am in Å” (literally, “I am in Å, I too”). If you’d like to try to say it, the Æ is like the ‘a’ in ‘bad’; the e is like like the Canadian “eh”; the i is ‘ee’; and the Å is a little like the ‘oa’ sound in the name ‘Roald.’ Æ e i Å. I said that sentence in Å i Lofoten, I did. It was good. Standing in Å, outermost of the Lofoten settlements (though Værøy and Røst lie out further yet), felt a little like Skálavík in Iceland. And like Skálavík, I had to fight myself to leave. I could stand and stand and stare seaward, listening to the roar of the Norwegian sea. But I pulled myself away (the darkness helps discourage looking after a certain hour). I spent that evening, then, at the home of my host. We walked on skis (my second evening skitur in Lofoten) on lysløyper, and under nordlys, shimmering faintly, but perceptibly, behind the thin layer of wintercloud, and bluer for that barrier. Something else, altogether. Something else.

And how lucky to have this strange, strange opportunity. How unsettling, at the same time, the luxury of travel. How unequally accessible. I’m glad in the work, at least. I’m glad it’s the work I love that brings me here.

Reine wearing winter

Reine wearing winter

Å i Lofoten, beyond the road's end. Værøy visible in the distance.

Å i Lofoten, beyond the road’s end. Værøy visible in the distance.

Klima og Vær

Some time’s been spent since my last post—an apology for that lapse is probably appropriate. But I’m not terribly sorry, in the end; I’ve been uptaken by an unexpected surfeit of things to do with other humans in, y’know, Norway.

In the middletime, though, some things happened: jul happened, the Paris Climate Agreement happened, the deflating, heart-grinding (and sadly unsurprising) Tamir Rice decision happened, the turn of the year happened, and vinterbading, winter-swimming, with it, the state of the union (or the address of the same name) happened, the Iran Deal happened, the national embarrassment on display in the American GOP primary race continued to happen, and the ceaseless becoming of seven billion odd lives the world over continued to happen forth. Among other happenings too numerous to list. (I’m no Whitman, after all.)

And snow, at last, in Oslo (and elsewhere hereabouts) happened, which gave rise to my first skiing here in the heart of this ski-going land, amongst this ski-going people.

I decided, when I left the US to live here this year, that I would not, barring emergency, return for the whole calendar. I’m gonna be there, I said; no pond-hopping for the holidays & such (unless we’re talking about real ponds on sidewalks or mountainsides in Norway). And so I stayed over the holidays, that most family-y time of year. But I’m fortunate to have friend & folk here, and so I had an ordentlig norsk jul, first and foremost—a “proper Norwegian yule.” In some ways this wasn’t so different from a proper American Christmas in my family, but with some substitutions: my (little more distant) Norwegian family for my American family; ribbe and pinnekøtt for the lutefisk and empanadas I’m accustomed to in the Midwest; Norwegian for English; among a few other things. But because I offered a lot of words to julestemning in advance of jul itself, I won’t dwell long on the topic (and indeed, in Norway, it seems the anticipation of juletida is as exciting as the day—or run of days—itself. It’s a very fine time, at any rate. Or, rather, not at just any rate, but at just that rate, just that unhurried, rounded, pine-scented rate at which it transpires, bathed all in that particular amber light only such an angle to the sun offers. The 60° solstice of the north. As my fellow Rover John Hanson likewise observed, the winterdark wasn’t so challenging as I had expected. That rare quality of light was more than enough compensation (and notably, the sun doesn’t entirely forsake Oslo as it does the Arctic parts).

Despite the latitude, though, and the expectations that it encourages, no snow fell on this Norwegian jul. A “brown” Christmas, with Charlie or without. This, it turns out, isn’t entirely unusual in these parts. Iowa’s like that too. But winter is coming, they kept telling me; just wait for January and February. All but guaranteed. Yet, I was skeptical, as a witness to last year’s absurdities in Washington state—snowless Cascades and bare Olympics the winter long (a gravelly run in February was all Mt. Baker, with its world-record-for-snowfall, had to show for it). But winter has come, generally speaking, to the north, and in some places (as in Bergen where I write this), moreso than usual. Bergen, as I think I’ve said before, is a sister-city to Seattle, and for good reason: same famous fish market, same-ish landscape, same sort of just-off-kilter counter-cultural attitude (combined with a secret hyper-participation in mainstream consumerism, let’s be clear), and same climate. Not a lot of winter snow in either town; rather, a lot of winter rain. But Bergen has been below freezing for a couple weeks now, and I arrived here to a winter wonderland, which Bergen isn’t wont to witness. A whiteout hike up to the highest of Bergen’s seven peaks, Ulriken, proved a rare treat (see below). Only one slip, though, despite the preponderance of ice (and a little knee-blood for proof).

And Bergen isn’t the only coastal city offering a season’s special: I paid a visit to Kristiansand, where snow tends to fall, but not in the quantities this year’s provided. I took my skis along and had my first go of the year, which was also my first ever ski with that special feeling, half-invented, that comes with skiing in Norway, heightened, surely, by the sense of being among people whose ancestors, some of which are mine, too, are partly credited with the invention of the modern ski. Even in Kristiansand, a place hardly known for skiing, the park was chock full of folk & families out on the trails. Toddlers, too, trying their feet with startling skill (I gladly confess I was passed more than once by a little guy skating gracefully along while I labored, unpracticed, in the classic traces). But in Østlandet—the eastern, snow-covered part of Norway—the prevalence of skiing is almost joke-high. I’ve been gently tormenting a ski-going friend in Seattle with images of all the people I see carrying skis on the Oslo subway on my way home from a this or that, all hours of the day (and on Saturdays and Sundays, on the 1-line out to Frognerseteren or the 6-line out to Sognsvann, you’d think you’d the “skiers-only” sign). To boot (pun intended?), Oslo kommune maintains a network of lysløype, lighted trails, that skiers can enjoy well beyond the few hours of winterdaylight. I put in my first go in Oslo the other night, before this two-week stint away—14 km, entirely after dark. And though I wasn’t alone by any means, I evaded the thick crowds that jam the trails on weekend middays. Instead, I skied at my own pace, from Holmenkollen to Ullevålseteren and down to Sognsvann, amid pine and spruce, laden with snow, with only the occasional hei hei to skiers-by and the squeak of the well-below-zero snow (°C, that is), along with the sweep of easy wind, av og til, and (I’m can’t resist) downy flake. You might say I stopped by woods on a snowy evening, with frost (literally) in on my mind—and in my beard. But whose woods are these? I didn’t have to think; I knew. No villager in some distant house owns these trees. These are the people’s woods, farmhouse near or no. All this but a ten-minute train away from the heart of the Viking capital. A lovely way, I think, to winterize.

Meanwhile, “outside,” the world rages on. The Paris Climate Conference culminated in a (supposedly) landmark international agreement, necessitating a welcome update to my environmentalism presentation. President Obama gave his final State of the Union address (surprise!, it’s “strong”), as well as a pretty interesting interview, in some ways, with NPR’s Steve Inskeep, despite the latter’s indecipherable cause (by which I mean his series of very strange facial expressions), and the expected-but-nevertheless-dispiriting decision not to indict the officers responsible for the shooting death of Tamir Rice. I have comments on all of these, but I’ll spare most of them for other times; I will say something about the Tamir Rice case, though. And it’s this: I can’t understand it. The Grand Jury, at the (unfathomable) recommendation of the county prosecutor, decided not to indict. I guess I’m not entirely certain, really, what the fundamental task of a Grand Jury is, but it seems to me that theirs is not the same as that of a trial jury; theirs is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to determine if the shadow of doubt is long enough to warrant a formal trial, in which guilt or innocence can then be named. I am absolutely baffled by the conclusion that there is insufficient tension between the statements of the Cleveland officers and what’s visible on the security videos. Not even a handful of seconds transpire between the aggressive arrival the police car and the end of a twelve-year old life. Nobody else nearby. Nobody under direct threat. What is it that motivated the police response that drove a cruiser up over the curb, onto the grass, but feet from the “potential” threat, rather than a slower, more spacious approach, even a half-hearted attempt at discerning the reality of the situation from some distance safer for everybody? It appears to my untrained eye that the conditions of a perceptible threat (mistaken or genuine, but let’s grant that the officer really did feel threatened) was precisely generated by the arrival and push of the officers themselves. I recognize we have an incomplete, choppy, uncertain video as evidence; I realize that in the moment of duty, with deadly weapons potentially at play, the decisions that police make are pressurized and difficult. But I’m running the scenarios through my head in which the officers may have attempted a humane approach to the situation, grasping for some imagined version of the timeline in which what the officers say somehow holds together. But I come up empty. I can’t understand it. I can’t get my head around it. And in reading about the case again, I was reminded of John Crawford III, whose name gets lost amid the Garners, Rices, Browns, and Grays. Similarly “armed” with a toy gun, similarly escalated by a highly aggressive, unquestioning arrival of deadly police force. It seems like we’re long beyond the time when we ought to have reassessed what we mean by “police,” reevaluated the power we give such people with so much less consequence or comeuppance than we give civilians, reconsidered the supply of get-out-of-jail-free cards that seem to fall out of their blue sleeves in droves (not to mention the embarrassment of put-others-in-jail cards that are more numerous still). I’m not in any way anti-police. A just and well-trained police is absolutely important for a modern democratic and, if we’re gonna have it, capitalist state. But I’m certainly not convinced that what we have, on average (there are, of course, serious and meaningful exceptions) is the police culture befitting a democratic republic such as ours. Even so, I tell Norwegian students that I have hope, that the conversation about police reform, about racial profiling, about becoming aware of our implicit biases, about retraining our forces toward de-escalation rather than reaffirming the knee-jerk lapse into aggression and intimidation (i.e., escalation) that we’re used to, and that we not-accidentally celebrate in film and fiction (I write this as a big fan of The Wire)—these conversations are happening in ways and at levels we’ve not seen in some time, thanks in part to #BlackLivesMatter. Still, I wonder what, say, fifty years will show. What sort of police culture (and, by extension, community culture) will we have built? What will we have affirmed?

All this in the context of a political primary season that defies the understanding. My routine message to Norwegian students (and teachers, moreover) who wonder has changed over these three, four months. In September, even into mid-October, I kept chuckling as I confidently asserted the imminent disappearance of that monster who leads the GOP pack. A clown, said I; a side-show. Not long now and he’s gone. Then November. Still (though a finger in my collar now), I held the same tack. So December. Then that embarrassing, despicable call to ban all Muslims from entering the country (nevermind those millions who live here already?). That’s the line, thought I. No one will stand for this who has a mind to think, or, at the very least, a heart to care—or half a heart, even a sputter of empathy in one’s bloodstream. And yet, if you’ll pardon the glib Princess Bride reference, he gains. Nothing for it now but to remind ourselves that this is still the primaries. That man is not running for president. He’s running to run, I tell them. The people responsible for this moment are a sliver of the manifold population, the mangfoldig befolkning in Norwegian (a rather poetic term). The whole, ungainly, irreducible population will never elect such a monster.

But my skin still crawls a little, and some days more than others. I had written a longer, drawn out reaction to this deepening embarrassment, but I’ll hold it back for other times and places. I was getting too worked up, a little too acidic for my purposes in these writings to comfortably ask you, dear readers, to keep reading. It defies description, in any case, and I tire somewhat quickly of the smell of a fire that rages on that sort of fuel. Better to build a birch fire, or toss in a pine-knot to scent the air. Evasion? Subterfuge? Perhaps. I’ll live with that for now. So, like Inigo Montoya, I won’t explain; there is too much. Let me sum up: I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know how the American populace has become so permeated with anti-intellectualism, with an excruciatingly high tolerance for ignorance (almost a celebration of it in some quarters). One theory I have is that Americans, in startling numbers, walk the country with an insufficient understanding of their own government, of its (necessary) complexity, much less the complexity of the world beyond our borders. We could say it’s the result of inadequate education. And it likely is, though I’d like to believe that even the most basic high school education ought to be sufficient to loosen the calcified deposits of fear in the veins. I had a decent enough education in my rural Iowa town, all things considered. Yet, at the same time, I graduated with zero sense of the politics of our time. I didn’t develop any thoroughgoing understanding of government or the political parties and apparatuses that help shape the lives of people until well into my college life. So certainly more can be done in many isolated places (like the one where I grew up) to encourage engagement. But then, my teaching philosophy has long been based on a belief that effective education requires willingness, and willingness (to learn, to ask, to apply, to wonder, etc.) may flow from another source, something more deeply interfused, whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, and so forth. (Pardon that Romantic intrusion.) But I do mean that it’s as hard to locate, much less name, the source of the rampant anti-intellectualism that has gripped such broad swaths of the nation as it was for Wordsworth to name that feeling, or that form of knowledge, that he felt in memory and landscape. And in the case of the US, the grip of this almost (or fully?) willful form of ignorance is showing itself to have profoundly dangerous strength. I really don’t know. I had scratched out a lot of thoughts about the utter failure (in my opinion), in many parts of the nation, of churches and religious leaders to root out the almost open-faced bigotry that has gripped that mysterious and large group of voters who take the name “evangelicals,” but my strong feelings on that matter didn’t feel appropriate in this container. There are deeper, uglier reasons, I think, for what’s happening. They are tentacles of fear, especially fear of difference. Fear, frankly, of facing the reality of life outside of the halls of white-supremacy, whose walls are crumbling, however slowly. In my presentations I use a couple of quotations from writers who’ve helped me think through the depth of our struggle in the US. In one of them, Claudia Rankine reminds us that the “American imagination,” which is to say the American society, began in white-supremacy. “We” Americans don’t like to think that way about our own glorious history of equality and liberty and bravery and pluckiness. But it’s absolutely true: white-supremacy was in the original fabric, the raw materials, as it were, and it needs, I think, to be remembered so that we can recognize its legacies today and dismantle them. The other is by Ta-Nehisi Coates, who commented in The New York Times a couple years ago that “We,” by which he means African-Americans, “were never meant to be part of the American story.” It was a story written by white people for white people. Though from the beginning, Africans were there. So we need a new story. We know we need to re-write the American story (and we need to, and do, do it daily). The old story, false as it ever was, is slipping away, and with that slippage come the desperate gasps of the class that has inordinately benefited from the exclusivity of that story—an exclusivity bestowed only by birth, and the maintenance of a profoundly unjust system that favored that class of births, for no self-evident reason. Birth, that obvious mystery, unintelligible.

There are, to be sure, real threats at large, no matter what cross-section your slice of America reveals. There are. But without willingness to encounter difference (turns out, it takes a ton of work), we’re lost, we’re distracted, we strip ourselves of the ability to witness, and so to adjust. No one to drive the car. The pure products of America do indeed go crazy. It’s dangerous to live in a padded room.

And here I am, in Svolvær now, midway along the Lofoten archipelago, well north of the Arctic Circle, in January. (I’ve roved in the run of this writing.) I was up “early” to see the sun crawl up over the distant island peaks to the south . . . at about 10:30. It set around 2:00pm, and climbed, in its transit, only far enough over the horizon to lose its orange and gain a golden glow; no offer of that full spectrum of naked light in the noons we know to the south. I walked out to the end of the road (I’m drawn to the ends of roads), where a sculpture stands on an islanded pedestal some meters out into the water from where I stood. Fiskarkone, she’s called: the fisherman’s wife. She looks away from where you stand, raising her hand in a gesture of either farewell or longing. Or, if we were to glimpse the reality in the minds and hearts of the women of Lofoten over the ages, long and long, I suspect we’d see gestures far more complex than either farewell or longing can communicate. And far more powerful. And how marvelous that the statue looks away from the viewer—from the fast-land, one cannot see her face. Something to that, there is. Meanwhile, as I look over her shoulder to the ice cold Norwegian Sea, codfish dries behind me in droves, even in the sharpness of January, on long A-frame racks called fiskehesje, scattered throughout Svolvær. And into my mind wanders Elizabeth Bishop, who also once plied her trail toward the fisherfolk and knew something, almost, by dipping her hand in the ice cold seawater, something elusive that I think is helpful to consider:

It is like what we imagine knowledge to be:
dark, salt, clear, moving, utterly free,
drawn from the cold hard mouth
of the world, derived from the rocky breasts
forever, flowing and drawn, and since
our knowledge is historical, flowing, and flown.

And so, some images of these winterdays as they pass:

After a whiteout on the way up Bergen's Ulriken, the sky opened up on the way down.

After a whiteout on the way up Bergen’s Ulriken, the sky opened up on the way down.

Bergen wears winter well.

Bergen wears winter well.

Svolvær i januar. Ubeskrivelig.

Svolvær i januar. Ubeskrivelig.

Fiskarkona, seaward.

Fiskarkona, seaward.


The season’s word in Norway is stemning—or, more specifically, julestemning. It’s all over (both the word and its meaning): the streets, the advertisements, the hashtags. It means “atmosphere”—stemning does, and julestemning means “Christmas atmosphere,” or, maybe closer to our American usage, “Christmas spirit.”1 The latter doesn’t quite capture it, though: julestemning is somewhere in the quality of real space, the physical atmosphere at this special time of year in Norway, when the daylight hours are few (and fewer) and the quality of light is, in general, permeated by a soft (and softening) blue. It’s also permeated by a whole host of candles—Norwegians seem to be quite taken with candle-lighting as December rolls in like a fog. If ever you leave the house this time of year, you’ve got to check every corner in case you (or some nisse) lit a candle there. Or there. Or over there. Julestemning is, indeed, intentional: it’s a mixture of our collective will with the characteristics of the earth—a collaboration, of a sort, with the natural forces of the deepening season, the seeping (or gale-force blowing) in of winter. Julestemning is, in other words, the resulting atmosphere of our effort to bend the spaces we inhabit towards the koselig. And the way it feels, in my experience so far, is not so much like a battle against the dark and cold (though the latter has, sadly, been awfully mild so far this year). Rather, it feels like a sort of dance with the physical realities of winter. (Thought there’s bound to be a spat & a quarrel here and there.)

And Norwegians seem to turn, in a way, with the arrival of December. I’ve been roving now more or less non-stop for three months. I’ve spent a lot of nights alone in hotels all over the norðrvegr—the northern ways2. This isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, despite myself, I’ve really enjoyed this sort of extended solo meditation (and have, along the way, had plenty of fabulous conversations and time with the teachers and people I’ve encountered). And yet, since December has begun, I’ve enjoyed a much more social side of the Norwegians I’ve met, from my first (and second) julebord to home-baking pepperkaker with Christmas music late into the night (and note, it had already been dark since 3pm). In Rørvik, a small coastal fishing town in Nord-Trøndelag this week, more than one Norwegian approached me unbidden as I sat at the hotel bar reading Sigrid Unsedt. One man, walking past on his way back to the restaurant, even cozied up right behind me and asked over my shoulder what I was reading. This doesn’t happen in Norway. And Julebord, by the way, simply means “Christmas table” but it is a huge tradition in Norway, it turns out; really, a julebord is a very big party party—with very decked halls—with all the very traditional Norwegian holiday foods that I didn’t grow up with (pinnekjøtt, ribbe, etc. No lutefisk3). So good. Like, real good. To play on a line from Beowulf: þæt wæs god julestemning.

So it is. The air, the light, the natural abundance of pine, fir, and spruce, snow (if we believe hard enough [cue sad Charlie Brown music]), and a couple thousand years of enduring the relentless elements that beat and batter this upheaved coastal land leaning long into the deep north. They seem to come together, all these things, around the turn of the solstice. And that makes all the sense in the world. Animals that we are, in our best moments, we respond to this northern dome of the earth as it rolls away for a spell from the sun, and imbue our experience with something that expresses our physical relationship with the changes that this rolling effects. That expression is julestemning. Hopefully we’ll do it with skis on soon enough.

But the julestemning this year is being carved out of the northern winter in the midst of a larger stemning: an atmosphere permeated by fear, ignorance, and insecurity. I’m utterly exhausted by the ugliness, the bigotry, the racism, and the willful historical ignorance that is bubbling out of what seems to be a surprisingly significant sector of the United States (and Europe is not immune, of course). I’ve been convincing myself that what I’ve been able to see from afar is the result of an obsessive (and often dangerous) media machine, as well as a few monstrous plutocrats, and the small but loud group of far-right Tea Partiers and their ilk. But alongside the horrendous and cripplingly repetitive acts of violence—and let us be clear: acts perpetrated by all kinds of people (as I type this, a headline lit up my phone about the motives of the Planned Parenthood shooter)—that we have witnessed these past several years, I’m becoming more and more dispirited and dumbstruck with the breadth of these voices of hate, voices that openly suspect all Muslims, much less call for large scale acts of fascism (or cheer for those calls or post wantonly anti-intellectual and hateful memes in social media outlets). Or, as may have happened here in Norway, burn hotels and living places for incoming asylum-seekers and refugees.

These acts, too, generate stemning. This atmosphere, on the other hand, is a sickening air. It sickens and abuses human beings who have chosen to follow the Muslim faith (along with one and a half billion other people) or who have brown skin or Arab heritage. It is a toxic cloud made of the breath of some people who would claim love as their god. Like julestemning, this other, larger stemning, this atmosphere, is the result of our choices. It is a mixture of our collective will with the physical, social, and political realities that surround us. For my part, I’m deeply concerned. Scared, even. Our culture has, of late, shown itself to be capable of unconscionable things, unconscionable thoughts. And out in the open air. Things that many would ascribe to the culture of “the enemy.” Shameless, violent, and inhumane things. Even as some monsters (and this force of ISIS is clearly, purely monstrous) claim to act in the name of a religion, if we have minds to think and eyes to see, we must recognize how far these monsters are from the reality of Islam for the vast, uncountable majority of Muslims. And thus we must not only do what we can to offer help and safety to those who seek refuge, but we must also make as many choices as we can that create an atmosphere, a stemning, that acknowledges the humanity and the dignity those in need in these unfathomable times. We must, I say, dance with the reality of people in need of help; we mustn’t stomp on it.

Julestemning is contagious. You want to come into it. In fact, there’s another beautiful Norwegian phrase I’ve learned that’s appropriate here: å bli tatt inn i varmen—”to be brought into the warmth.” That’s the origin of julestemning. I think we ought to try to make it the origin of everything.

1ADDENDUM: I also want to note how wonderful the word jul is. It’s translated most commonly as “Christmas,” and that’s been its primary usage for a couple of centuries. But it’s important, I think, to remember that jul, the cognate, of course, of the English “yule,” is of heathen origin and so predates the Christianization of the pagan celebrations of the winter solstice in December. The OED etymology reads thusly: “The modern form descends from Old English geól, . . . Christmas day or Christmastide, and in phrase se ǽrra geóla December, se æftera geóla January; corresponding to Old Norse jól plural a heathen feast lasting twelve days, (later) Christmas. An Old Anglian giuli, recorded by Bede as the name of December and January, corresponds to Old Norse ýlir month beginning on the second day of the week falling within Nov. 10–17, and Gothic jiuleis in fruma jiuleis November” (bold type mine). In other words, jul derives from a tradition other and older than the three warring global religions that currently define our struggle, and contribute so frustratingly to the unwelcoming, unhospitable atmosphere in almost every place where one of those religions is dominantly practiced. Thus, julestemning, to my mind, is etymologically welcoming.

2Hence the name Norway; though I just heard a special on NRK the other day suggesting that the name could also have emerged from a reference to the narrow ways—the endless series of narrow inlets and fjords all along the coast.

3Norwegians today do eat lutefisk, though not as universally as we Midwesterners tend to assume. Moreover, those that do eat it (the ones I’ve spoken to) mix it with bacon and a sort of mash of peas. So there y’go.

Fengsel og folket

The past couple weeks have been memorable—and travelt, the Norwegian word for “busy,” which is especially appropriate for this job, what with all the travel-ing! Planes, trains, and automobiles this week, plus busses, and all along the west coast. Early last week I visited Åsane videregående skole in Åsane, a sort of suburb just north of Bergen (Åsane means “the hills,” which I think is appropriate, given Bergen’s landscape). The school building is, the teachers told me, a former umbrella factory (which is also appropriate, given Bergen’s climate). Then to Ålesund, self-proclaimed prettiest city in Norway (I’m not going to argue [see below]). Then a stint in the quaint town of Gran, snug in the historical district of Hadeland (winter did a little work in the valley while I was there, though it’s since taken a pause). Lastly, I paid a visit to a few rain-beaten islands off the west coast near Haugesund: Stord, Bømlo, and Karmøy.

Åsane sticks out in this visit, for a special reason: I went to prison. Along with their usual curriculum, Åsane VGS has the responsibility for the education program in Hordaland’s prisons. I’ve been lately thinking about prisons a lot, what with the sort of renewed focus on our American “criminal justice” system effected by the racial violence and all of the forces that have given rise to Black Lives Matter. In fact, my Civil Rights presentation is called #BlackLivesMatter and in it, I pay some attention to the deeply troubling statistics of the American prison system. So it was a timely and rewarding opportunity to visit two Norwegian prisons—especially in this context, as a teacher. I visited both Bjørgvin Fengsel, a low-security prison, and the high-security Bergen Fengsel.

My experience was inspiring. For the sake of privacy, I won’t, in fact, say much about the specifics of my visit, but the teachers I worked with were wonderful and the inmates I encountered seemed genuinely interested in the topics I presented. Talk about rewarding.

Americans, in the main, find Norwegian prisons shocking in their humanity, it seems. Yet, Norwegian prisons are often lifted up as an example of “how to do prison right.” (I just googled “global prison recidivism rates” and the first page of results contained numerous articles about the comparative success of Norway’s criminal justice system.) Norway has a reputation of treating its inmates humanely, as members of communities (and, notably, as tax payers) whose have suspended their right to participate fully and freely in open society because of their decisions, or, of course, actions. Thus, the motive that determines the operations of Norwegian prisons rehabilitation, as much as it is to punish. In the US, our system is primarily a punitive system. You do a bad deed, you go to prison, you feel bad, you maybe get to breathe fresh air sometimes, lift some weights, say, etc. You “do your time”—sometimes a lot of it—and then, if you “behave,” you come out into the world again. And if film and TV have anything to say, you also get threatened or abused by other inmates while you’re there, especially in higher security prisons. I had some really great conversations with teachers, on the other hand, about the motivations that govern Norway’s “correctional” system. First and foremost—først og fremst—as a collectivist (as opposed to an individualistic) society, Norway’s concern (I feel like I’m a character in Hamlet, talking about “Old Norway”) is that members of the folk, or folket (our “We the people”), are full participants in Norwegian society. There is a national interest, for example, in populating the whole country, even the distant north. Compare northern Sweden, for example, to northern Norway just across the border, and you’ll find quite a difference in population density. This extends to prison: if you’ve done something that warrants suspension of your full participation, i.e., if you’ve broken the social contract, the goal is to help you repair it. And if you provide something that resembles (even while it is, by definition, an exception) civic life, with work to do, intellectual questions to explore, vocational skills to practice, social changes to learn about, inmates, especially if they’ve served longer sentences, will be less likely to find the “outside world” an alien, unwelcoming place, with an inhumane learning curve. I don’t have to describe all of this, to be sure; there are plenty of articles and resources that take on these issues. And I want to be clear: prison in Norway is still prison. You don’t want to go there; it’s not a cake-walk or a mere slap on the wrist or thoughtless tsk-tsk. It is a prison. It’s just that it’s less demeaning and dehumanizing than what we’re wont to imagine in the US.

But it’s worth adding that, as it turns out, the reparation of the social contract also means you contribute economically to the nation. That may smack of opportunism, but when full participation also means paying taxes again, and when those taxes are used to provide a real, humane social safety net for those in serious need, well, that’s a pretty good thing. Moreover, it is, both here in Norway and in the US, wildly expensive to keep an inmate in prison. So getting people out of prison is wise by several measures, whether you’re a humanist, a capitalist, or a socialist. That’s something to think about. To be even a tiny, tiny part of that process of rehabilitation (and, to be honest, rehabilitation aside, to have great conversations with interested people in a particularly complex situation) was, for me, an honor. I will value those moments long and long.

There’s certainly a lot more to say about prisons, and about my (brief) experience there (I didn’t even talk about the fantastic bike maintenance program a teacher at Bjørgvin fengsel is running!), but I’ll save those deeper reflections for in-person conversations. As for the rest, I’ll leave it to a couple of images that capture my lucky pair of days in Ålesund. The first was a pitch-perfect morning, and I had just enough time before heading to school to clamber up (ok, it was a very sleek staircase) to the fjellstue on Aksla, a hill overlooking the town from which many of the famous images of Ålesund are made (a sort of Ålesund-ian version of Seattle’s Kerry Park). The late-morning sunlight rendered the city in stunning detail, with that half-golden hue only angular northern light imparts. The next day shocked the scene into snow, and hung that unmatchable blue over all things. I suppose it’s normal for these parts. But then, each place has its normal, and for we, the visitors, a glimpse of that normal startles the sensibility.

But then, I hope the initiated never lose that startle, either.

Day One: Ålesund from Fjellstua Aksla.

Day One: Ålesund from Fjellstua Aksla.

Day Two: Ålesund from Fjellstua Aksla, under afternoon's snow.

Day Two: Ålesund from Fjellstua Aksla, under afternoon’s snow.

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