Andy Meyer, Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway

Category: Observations (Page 1 of 2)


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.


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).

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.

Ro i landet

I’m sending love and care to the terrorized people of France, also thoughts of rest—as well as anger on their behalf—and a sort of deep, deep, generalized frustration, unsure where it ought to land, about the persistent why of such suffering, the origin and taproot of its ideologies that seem always to lie a little deeper than we’ve been able to dig.

And I’m sending the same love and care to people terrorized all over the world, no matter their nation.

I can’t understand it, and I do not envy the politicians, the heads of state, the commanders of vast instruments of destruction, the cultural leaders, their position right now. But I do join many others who’ve spoken already in their call to respond with care and the deepest compassion we can muster. Many are afraid of how Western leaders will respond, assuming more violence, more insult, more sabre-rattling, more fire-stoking, etc. It will again be easy to conflate the completely fucked up hate-work of ISIS with the vast majority of Muslims, who are humane, loving people, like (I believe on my best days) the vast majority of Americans, many of whom ARE Muslim or the vast majority of the French, many of whom ARE Muslim. It will again be easy to forget the depth of violence carried out in the name of Christianity (and I don’t mean way back in the Crusades, but today), and in the name of Democracy. It will, in other words, again be easy to justify violent response, both on the part of nations and on the part of their private citizens, to versions of “difference” that fit conveniently into simplistic narratives of “us” vs. “them,” and drum up the easy but dangerous pleasure of bias confirmation. I hope we move further into this inevitable mire more thoughtfully than that.

The bulk of my role as a Fulbright Scholar this year is to be something of a representative, a sort of cultural ambassador, for the ungainly, cumbersome, not-altogether-easy-to-love nation of the United States, its ogre of a government, its irreducible multitudes of people. But I’m in no way responsible or expected to know something special about international governmental relations, or to have any sort of official opinion about anything at all. Indeed, the disclaimer on this blog demands that I’m but a private citizen (as tangly as the term “citizen” is). Still, in the wake of last night’s terror in Paris, I’m trying to think through things. And as I do so, my thoughts are full of care and love for the people terrorized, the families of the dead and injured, the people of France, and my own friends and companions who are in some cases directly affected by this horror.

And there are of course other thoughts—thoughts of a more political nature—that this kind of event stirs up. They aren’t new ones. They’re all knotted up (a metaphor I feel like I’ve turned to so often lately) in the seemingly intractable tension between the “West” writ large and what- or whomever is not the West. I wrestle with my own thoughts. I think of J. William Fulbright’s notion that I recalled only recently in this blog, that the purpose of international exchange is to “convert nations into peoples and to translate ideologies into human aspirations.” I really do value this way of thinking because it is an attempt to demonstrate by interpersonal relationship, communication, empathy, and care, that the acts of nations are not reducible to the acts of the manifold people who bear those particular political labels (and neither are the acts of people reducible to those of the nations that claim them). This is vital when you’re an American abroad, given the less-than-positive view much of the world has of the activities of the US worldwide since WWII. I do believe that much good has been done, but much damage also. And I don’t know if the balance tips either way. So it seems to me that, somewhat simply, the failure of vision that gives way to acts of terror is the failure to see people as something more than nations, something more than pure products of ideologies. This has always been my frustration with the logic of war: that human beings become absolutely expendable as mere appendages of a political or religious ideology. That in the context of political or religious conflict, humans temporarily suspend their own humanity, despite the lingering truth that politics and religion are supposedly enterprises rooted in the very idea of what it is to be a human. At the risk of seeming glib, I think of the illicit address to the camera by manager at Stan Mikita’s Donuts in Wayne’s World in which he asks, “Why is it that when you kill a man in the heat of battle it’s called heroic, but when you kill a man in the heat of passion, it’s called murder?” This is the facelessness, the inhumanity of war and terror alike.

And to be sure, international educational exchange has its risks, not least of which is the fact that human personality, which I’ve been preoccupied with the last couple years, is knitted right in there: the “person” whom the “other” encounters, no matter the direction in which the encounter occurs, may well be an ass or a fool. In other words, people are people, in the last analysis, and the image of the people that someone gets via any particular person may well not be a positive one that generates more empathy. But it will be an avenue to hope. Fulbright wrote in The New Yorker in 1958 that “The exchange program is the thing that reconciles me to all the difficulties of political life. It’s the only activity that gives me some hope that the human race won’t commit suicide, though I still wouldn’t count on it.” A glimpse of his realism, there, in the heat of the Cold War. Power, I guess, is also part of humanity. How do we hold that problem in our hands?

But all this raises the question of how successfully people can really escape, even for a moment, the conditions of their political identity. How able are we, really, to suspend the baseline of the lifeways and the habits of thought against which we are wont to measure our socio-cultural expectations, the assumptions against which we measure difference and compare ourselves to “others.” No matter how deeply we cultivate our empathy, our willingness to imagine how others see the world, it’s nearly impossible to unhitch our self-centeredness. Western media is right now obsessing over the terror in Paris last night. I watched and read and listened as it unfolded last night, until I was too tired to continue; I was reading multiple news outlets this morning and listening to the non-stop coverage and discussion on Norwegian public radio (NRK) all the while (even while I did the crossword—people continue to live their lives in the midst of horrors), and the front pages of every Western media outlet are entirely consumed with Paris. I came home after being out for several hours and NRK was still in the midst of nonstop coverage on its main channel. Yet, as many writers (and social media friends) have already pointed out, a similar terrorist attack was carried out in Beirut only two days ago, killing 43 and wounding upwards of 200. Every morning I read the New York Times and listen to NRK. I glance at newspapers in cafes and on the streets or in the (idyllic) breakfast halls of the hotels I stay in. Yet I hardly heard about the acts in Lebanon. It was a level two or three headline. One story among several others. It was certainly not the whole front page of any Western paper. “We,” in the West, feel that attacks on the soil of Western nations are attacks on our own. We almost expect such violence on, say, Middle Eastern soil, because most of us secretly believe that violence is more “natural,” or at least more usual, there, that “those people” are somehow more liable to violence, given what we (think we) see of their societies. We too often see the people in those nations in the same way we imagine people under the logic of war: as appendages of a foreign political or religious ideology. Because of the acts of a few, and too often a highly powerful and highly corrupt few, we temporarily suspend our belief in the complex humanity of the people who really live there. We imagine a little too quickly that the norm of political life in the West is peace and the norm of political life elsewhere is violence. Erna Solberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister, said in her response that “we do with words what ‘they’ do with weapons” (a rough translation from memory). And indeed, she is specifically talking about ISIS, but I fear how quickly the fringe gets conflated with the whole when it comes to these things. President Obama insisted that this was an attack on our “shared universal values” (and again, no such response to the attack in Beirut, as though we don’t share universal values with ‘them’). It’s as though ‘they’re’ used to violence in those other places. As though it’s not quite news. I don’t like that assumption. I don’t like how it feels, even as I catch myself making it. I want to practice thinking differently, cultivating a different kind of empathy.

And indeed, millions wouldn’t be fleeing their homelands to places like Sweden, Norway, or Germany, or wherever, if they were “used to it,” if the violence currently wracking the Middle East was somehow to be expected. And I get it: I certainly will admit that, two years ago, when I was stranded for 48 hours in Khartoum, Sudan, on my way to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to teach in a summer program, I was a little taken aback by the highly visible, almost unremarkable presence of assault weapons on the street or carried by everyday security guards. The same is true when we take students from The Northwest School to El Salvador. Even in Addis, the security guard who was stationed at the entrance to the school was a super-friendly fellow with whom we made jokes and gave hi-fives and big smiles each time we came and left. He carried a very large assault weapon. So it’s easy, thoughtless, even, to make assumptions about what a “normal” level of violence is given what seems so plain to see. But then, how many school shootings do we need in the United States before we acknowledge the limitedness, the selectivity of our vision? How many shootings of young black men, however “violent” they may be towards the police (who harass them unevenly, compared to their white neighbors)? How many abuses and sometimes murders of people of alternate sexual and gender identities and expressions? I don’t write these things to denigrate the US. In fact, I love being American, in my way. I value the sort of freedom and opportunity my nation affords me more highly than most things. But I’ve learned to recognize that I am afforded these privileges in part due to my skin color and heritage. That they are not shared by all, even in my own nation. The theory is so beautiful. The practice has not been so. Our struggle is, as ever, to close the (arguably huge) gap between the idea we celebrate and the lived experience that bears it out, which has so far excluded so many more human beings than “we” like to admit.

One of the exercises in my US Constitution workshop for Norwegian high school students is to have them translate the preamble into Norwegian. My own grasp of the language allows me to help them understand or ask interesting questions about the translation choices they make. I’m always particularly struck by their translations of these two parts: “to ensure domestic tranquility” and “provide for the common defense.” In Norwegian, there are at least two words for “tranquility” that work here: ro and fred. The former means “rest” or “calm” (e.g., the phrase ta det med ro means “take it easy”; the adjective rolig means “peaceful,” as when the barista at a cafe called Oslo K yesterday said this spot is more rolig than the busier cafes over in Majorstuen, with the glut of high-end boutiques and foot-traffic there). The latter, fred, means, more aptly, “peace.” Fred is the word you’ll see in Christmas carols that sing of peace on earth, and it’s the word that is more commonly used as the opposite of war. Thus, it has a little more political valence than ro. Yet, Norwegian students offer one about as commonly as the other in their translations. “Domestic tranquility” becomes either hjemmelig ro (“homely rest” or “rest at home”), ro i landet (“rest in the country”), or innenriks fred (“domestic peace”). Likewise “common defense” becomes felles forsvar (“common defense”) or felles beskyttelse (“common protection”). Constitutions are, naturally, self-centered: they don’t provide for ro i verden—”peace in the world”—but ro i landet, peace limited to the artificial political boundaries we draw around ourselves. This is to be expected. I’m not trying to say this is wrong-headed somehow (i.e., I’m eliding the question of whether the very idea of a nation-state is or isn’t wrong-headed), only that self-centeredness a natural part of nation-building (in my Civil Rights workshop, I ask students to define the terms “ethnicity,” “nationality,” and “race,” which always raises really good questions around the issue of civic self-centeredness). At any rate, certainly a constitution that aimed to ensure ro i verden or utenriks fred—that is, “foreign peace”—would provide for quite the global disaster. And yet, laying implicit claim to a political ideology that assumes peace as the norm, the West, as the self-styled pure products of the European Enlightenment, too often sees itself as the sole agent, or sole proprietor, of ro i verden.

Moreover, at the same time, I’ve been giving a presentation on the history of American Civil Rights. If there is a way to give the lie to American domestic tranquility, our record of civil rights and equal protection of the law is perhaps the best way. I include in my Civil Rights presentation the litany of racially motivated cases of violence against (especially) young black men by (mostly) white perpetrators (whether police officers or white-supremacist kids) and some of the startling statistics of incarceration that reveal something about the motives of our justice system during the past, well, hmm, during the past 394 years, since the first slaves were brought to Virginia in 1619. These facts offer somewhat of a challenge to the success of “ensuring domestic tranquility” in the US for all those who dwell “domestically.” Despite the United States’ myriad successes in building a concept of a peaceful, humane society, our nation and the people who bear its label, have struggled mightily to figure out who belongs in the category of “domestic” and who is included in “common.” Who, really (and this is a cliche, I know) constitutes the “We” of “We the People”?

Many of us have it really good. Many of us have never had to ask whether or not “we” are part of that “We” that so meaningfully opens the Constitution. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an essay in the New York Times op-ed section a few years ago in which he made a comment that really got to me. You may disagree with his larger point in the op-ed, but his comment, I think, is profound: “We,” he says, meaning African-Americans, “were never meant to be part of the American story.” I think he’s right. We wouldn’t have been so thrilled, or so surprised (even those of us who voted for him), when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America, if it weren’t so. To be sure, black Americans are, and always have been, a part of the American story, just not the one that is told and retold under the rubric of “Freedom, Opportunity, Democracy, Equality,” etc., etc., and all the beautiful things we celebrate about ourselves. If we’re going to mean it when we celebrate American democracy in the twenty-first century, the the first truly global century, in which human beings will doubtless need to begin to tell a new story as a changing climate forces us all together, we will need to be able to look at ourselves and our secret assumptions, even in the midst of what appears to be outright, unadulterated evil perpetrated by a fringe group proudly claiming a label and so dragging so many millions of unsuspecting, innocent human beings into the mud with them.

The great challenge is knowing our own limits of tolerance, and knowing how and when to change those limits. I admit I have my own struggles, even with moderate Islam. I believe, and I dare say universally, in women’s rights, and I haven’t yet been able to see parts of Islamic practice, as it’s carried out today, as anything other than denigrating to women. I am appalled by the hatred spewed towards LGBTQ people worldwide. But then, that’s not unique to Islam. So my point is simply that we be careful. I cannot stand the things that are carried out by the force of ideology, of belief. I hate what has happened in France. I fear that similar things may happen in places even closer to my homes. It’s so very difficult to get out of it. But I only mean to say that it’s important that we remind ourselves that we all have one or another ideology. That none is immune to it. That our greatest challenge (and I mean this for all “sides”) is to imagine the experience of others, even others whose radically different appearance, worldview, ideology, is unrecognizable to us, is wholly foreign to our own. President Hollande called the terror attack on Paris “unprecedented.” Maybe that’s true, if he means attacks by foreign ideologies. But we must remember, however long ago, that other “Terror” that came absolutely from the inside, at the dawn of the French Revolution. Enlightenment thought has long been highly prone to violence. “Terror” is not unique to foreign ideology. It is almost always the product of a few shockingly committed humans seeking power at all costs, based on the depth of their commitment to, their inculcation in, an ideology. So we must always examine our own ideologies when we are in the moment of casting harsh judgment on others whose lives we don’t quickly recognize as “familiar.”

I don’t know what the right solution is to ISIS. They seem like a truly evil force in the world. I fear sweeping military action because of the inevitable collateral damage. The unwitting numbers who sacrifice their lives in a flash. I fear the tendency toward suspension of habeas corpus, the suspension of human rights, the suspension of the very values we implicitly defend when we heave our righteous anger towards threatening ideologies like ISIS. So I hope we step carefully, all of us, into the swamp to come.

Strangely, and maybe a bit ironically, I’m drawn to Thomas Hobbes, speaking of Enlightenment. I think his articulation, in 1651 in Leviathan, of the reasons human beings band together to form societies, is beautifully put. He says, early in the text, that the “Passions that encline men to Peace, are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them.” Commodious living! How lovely a concept. But it’s that last one that I like. We live together because we have hope that our creativity and our care are enough to make the world not just inhabitable, but inhabitable well. We are going to need to figure out how to do that together more and more urgently.

The Fulbright quotes, as before, came from here: J. William Fulbright Quotes.

En av mange sirkler

For so long as I can remember, I’ve been magnetized by the farthest north. I’d spin our family’s globe and pore over the islands of northern Canada, the icy mass of Greenland, the Russian isles in the Arctic, Norway’s Spitsbergen, and so forth. I remember specifically being transfixed by the town of Resolute, Nunavut, known as Qausuittuq (though when I was looking, Nunavut had yet to be formed). I was obsessed by the question of how people lived there, in the northernmost settlement named by the map we had. What did they do? (A question many people in various elsewheres were asking of my home in rural Iowa, too, to be sure.) In my childish mind, I imagined whole lives transpiring in a moment in a landscape nearly void of trees and, somehow, always covered in snow, the horizon barely noticeable. My imagination was surely conditioned by my own experience, by a subtle sort of cultural condescension rooted in the particular kind of civil privilege I’ve been afforded my whole life. But really, curiosity was, and is, the primary driver of my interest in the deep north.

Twenty-odd years later, I’ve just crossed the Arctic Circle—Polarsirkelen på norsk—for the first time. I think often of circles, and so I think of the opening of “Circles,” my favorite of Emerson’s essays: “The eye is the first circle,” he says, “the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.” Throughout the essay, Emerson works the figure of the circle into a sort of chain of reminders of the limits, the incompleteness, of our understanding. “Circles” is, to me, the essay most dedicated to the concept of humility, especially given Emerson’s notorious ego, his “overman”:

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.

When I crossed the Arctic Circle, I thought of Wallace Stevens’s ninth way of looking at a blackbird:

When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

I’ve always thought Stevens was gesturing toward Emerson in that line. Especially considering he also begins with the eye:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Not unlike Emerson’s circular eye, I think. So I marked my own passage over one of many circles by thinking a lot about the limits of our manifold “places” in the world. The world we all build around ourselves are a sort of partially shared response to the particular place from which we emerged. I from Iowa, the people I meet in the Arctic (say, Narvik) from the Arctic (say, Narvik). Our knowledge of the world—and, I might argue, of the experience of others—is a kind of repetitive forgetting. “The man finishes his story,—” Emerson writes, “how good! how final! how it puts a new face on all things! He fills the sky. Lo! on the other side rises also a man, and draws a circle around the circle we had just pronounced the outline of the sphere.” I’ve been thinking so much about the American tendency to fear what’s outside of the “American circle,” especially watching the circus (!!) of the primary races going on, darkly entertaining as it is, and the extended bonkers joke of Trump and Carson (imagine having to try repeatedly to explain to the wide-eyed Norwegian high school students—and teachers—how those clowns are taken seriously for one second on a national stage!). In any case, lest I wander off into the thicket of political opinion, as exciting as that forest can be, I’ll just quote my benefactor, J. William Fulbright, in saying that exchanges like this “convert nations into peoples and to translate ideologies into human aspirations.” ( I’d add that exchanges also turn maps into people, and, moreover, into the sort of wondrous integration of people and place that a map represents. The imaginary Arctic of my youth is, as it ever was, a living place, and now newly.

According to the trusty crew at NOAA’s SWPC (Space Weather Prediction Center), a solar storm made for a stellar (!) show of Northern Lights . . . but one only visible to those rare dwellers above the week-long clouds that hung low over Narvik, which sits at 68°N, during my stay. In any case, I got off the plane at Harstad/Narvik Lufthavn Evenes, and walked into a sharp, gusty north wind and rain (a sort of romantic entry, really), and made my way to town on the bus. A welcoming school, and a great visit, including some great discussions with teachers about classroom technology, and a wall of post-it notes full of one class’s feedback on my environmentalism presentation. Gonna remember that! Narvik, my host Fiona told me, is a relatively young town by Norwegian standards, and is built on the iron ore industry. Trains of ore cars were constantly rolling in and out of a huge industrial processing facility. It felt a lot like the Mesabi Range in Northern Minnesota—a sort of Duluth-y feel, only smaller (and, y’know, a tad farther north and a liiiittle more mountainous). My visit was, as is my wont, a walking one. I love walking towns, and though the daylight arrived and escaped with surprising speed (in fact, the sun rose 18 minutes later and set 17 minutes earlier on the day I left than the day I arrived; thus, Narvik is losing close to 40 minutes of daylight a week about now), I managed to carve out time for a good stroll up Narvikfjellet, the small mountain that rises right over the town and serves as a sort of ski paradise when there’s enough snow. Pictures below, of my wander into the clouds, where, despite the unseasonable warmth, some snow clung to the hill.

These last few weeks have been fuller even than Narvik, though, with two weeks on the west coast in Sandnes and Stavanger, Norway’s oil-town, beforehand, including a presentation on my ol’ favorite Ursula K. Le Guin at the ASANOR Conference (American Studies Assoc. of Norway). Due to the oil industry, I’ve harbored a sort of quietly bad attitude towards Stavanger (call it a Houston-prejudice), but although Stavanger is “Norway’s Houston,” my is it a pretty town! I walked and walked Stavanger (and Ryfylke, the mountainous region across the water towards the famous Lysefjord, among countless others) and made a point to spend some time at the Oil Museum, which is quite good, and, somewhat surprisingly, dedicates a lot of space and time to criticism of the nation’s dependency on oil money for many of its social privileges, both from within and without Norwegian society. I confess I was impressed (both by the critical dimension and by the technological immensity of the oil infrastructure out in the Norwegian Sea). The long stay in Stavanger was sweetened by a reunion with some of my oldest, dearest friends from Luther (it did not take us long to reach the point where we were doubled over in laughter). Nathalie, my teacher host, graciously lent me her car so I had the chance to hop the ferry (which, being a Washingtonian, threw me into a rare but minor fit of nostalgia) to Tau and on to the infamous Prekestolen (or Preikestolen, in the western dialects). Speaking of dialects, it was a healthy challenge for me to adapt my ears to Stavangersk for such a spell, all the kor‘s and kva‘s and kordan‘s where hvor‘s and hva‘s and hvordan‘s usually live. Uff!

In any case, on to the images. I’ll keep up with the panorama theme, with a few exceptions, given the timespan (and the nature of my adventures). First a few from the phone, then a couple from the camera.

This the view from Dalsnuten, looking toward Sandnes as the sun set. The Atlantic in the distance.

This the view west over Gandsfjorden from the top of Dalsnuten, looking toward Sandnes as the sun sets. The Atlantic in the distance.


My first sight of Prekestolen. Lysefjord below. Is that man taking a selfie or doing tai chi? (Notably, the Norweigans have developed the term "fjellfie," or "mountain selfie"; I admit I think it's cute.)

My first sight of Prekestolen. Lysefjord below. Is that man taking a selfie or doing tai chi? (Notably, the Norwegians have developed the term fjellfie, or “mountain selfie”; I admit I think it’s cute.)



Prekestolen over Lysefjorden. October is the time to visit here, I say! Google Preikestolen and you’ll quickly see how crowded it gets in the summer. Plus, that color! Those gnarly branches!



I waited and waited, and got a relatively rare image of Prekestolen sans tourists (save the one with the eye).



Narvik from Narvikfjellet. The dramatic mountains were here & there visible as the clouds broke up & reuned. The farthest north I’ve yet been.



Inside the cloud on Narvikfjellet.



Same view, just under the cloud, for a spell.


These next few, from the real camera, are from my hike back down from Prekestolen. There is something about that autumnal grass, its auburn glow against the evergreens and the stark indifference of granite. It’s no wonder trolls hide here.

DSC_0957 DSC_0963 DSC_0974

The Emerson text I quoted from is the Library of America edition of Essays and Lectures, ed. Joel Porte, published in 1983.

Tettsteder / spredtsteder

The calendar said so, but you can’t really know it until you’re in it (the ol’ “you can get your head around the mountain from afar, but once you’re on its face?”). The roving has begun in earnest!

But first and foremost, Happy Back to the Future Day! It’s finally here, despite the host of hoaxes over the years. This is the day to which Marty McFly and Doc traveled from 1985. And in a wonderful twist, the Cubs (as improbable then as now) won the World Series . . . and lo! Look at the NLCS! Go Cubbies!

But back to the present . . .

From the vantage point of late September, the series of red bars, each as long as Monday is far from Friday, looked constant. And indeed, it is. From here to mid-December, I rove. The destinations, fleeting as they are, are manifold and full of wonder. Norwegians have all these designations for places: a city is a by (so towns celebrate, in a way, when it achieves “bystatus“), while a small town in the country is called a tettsted, literally “tight” or “close place.” The thing I love about this sort of travel (the same can be said of bicycle touring) is that every little tettsted becomes a little magical. Places barely on the map or conveniently omitted by all the tourist guides glow a little more, take on a sort of aura that the quotidian would otherwise overshadow. Not many tourists visit Elverum in fall, for example. But I found yellowing birches there, along Glomma, and stands of stark, straight pines to wander through. Likewise Hønefoss: one teacher there said Ringerike (Hønefoss’s kommune) is “Norway’s best kept secret.” The view from Kongens utsikt (The King’s Overlook) out over Tyrifjorden was spectacular.

Up in Trøndelag, in the little industrial town of Orkanger in Orkdal kommune, southwest of Trondheim (nobody goes there for vacation!), I asked after the local hikes. One teacher told me of a road just past the school that leads up the (small) mountain to a farm on the hill where you can look down over the town. I discovered a trail into the thicket a bit beyond the farm, though, and ended up on a several hour hike through an absolutely gorgeous network of trails permeating the mountainside, running through various ecosystems in miniature: a dense stand of pine here, a spindly aspen grove just beyond, a thick mat of clover in here, a broad grassy knoll (and, doubtless, a troll or two), and autumnal paper birches scattered throughout. I found my way to Raudhåmmår’n, an outlook over Orkdal valley and Orkla, its river, all the way south to the mountains of Trollheimen.

Earlier this week I was in Sandnes, a town passed by in favor of its northerly neighbor, Houston—oops, I mean Stavanger, Norway’s oil capital, and the gateway to the highly sought out natural destinations like Preikestolen. Sandnes is a lovely town, with a healthy population of resident swans (plus a fine little bookstore). A teacher there recommended a hike to Dalsnuten, from where one can gets a hell of a view over Rogaland and the greater Stavanger area. I hiked up one side, around a smaller peak called Øvre Eikenuten, and down the other side to the semi-abandoned town of Dale. I had to wait an hour for a bus back to Sandnes, as it got dark (we are losing light—or gaining darkness—fast up here), and next to what appeared to be a grand hotel, totally empty and standing stark beneath the shadow of Dalsnuten. I found out later that the place was once an asylum. It was creepy enough in the moment, standing there in the darkening scene, silent and brooding. But it was creepier yet to hear of its history (though I admit the asylum bit I got only through hearsay, and who doesn’t love a story?). Shiver-making. Jaiks! (That’s the Norwegian spelling, by the way.)

Teachers often ask whether this job is exhausting, travelling constantly, meeting hundreds of new people, teaching all day, giving the same presentations repeatedly. As for that last part, well, I chose topics I care about, and looking at the state of American things, I’m more than happy to offer the same presentation about Civil Rights again and again, since that’s what it seems to take. As for the rest, indeed, there is a lot of a particular kind of energy to meeting so many people so quickly, but I am my mother’s son, for those that know her, so I’m lucky to have a genetic predisposition appropriate for the job. Moreover, I tell teachers that one of the best parts of the job is that it’s all teaching and no grading. Even if, time to time, I have to swim against the current of janteloven or, as a teacher in Trondheim put it, “swim through syrup,” to get some (not all!) groups of students to talk. My job is thus concentrated in the part of teaching that generates energy (being with students), and it minimizes the draining parts (being with papers). So, after a full day of visiting classes, talking, giving workshops and lectures, wherever I am I ask (or hunt) around for a good walk, and do it. Ut på tur. And, as poet Mark Strand put it so well, wherever I am I am what is missing, and that’s an awfully nice privilege, whether a backwater tettsted, a thickety spredtsted (I made that one up), or an urbane and fashionable by.

Maybe, before the photo-dump, it’s worth quoting Strand’s little verse, which fits the roving life well, I think. The poem is called “Keeping Things Whole”:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

We all have reasons for roving, I might say, where I am. But I think the answer is about the same.

And lastly, to document two minor changes I see in myself:

  • My Norwegian gets constantly more practiced. I had the privilege to spend a couple evenings with Anne Sine, a relative in Trondheim. She and another relative, Ingvild, who lives closer to Oslo, have been wonderful, gentle teachers, willing to correct my little mistakes! I can get by, at this point, pretty well, and make myself understood without much comment. But truly, y’won’t get better after a certain plateau without someone willing to correct you with care. Little mistakes in noun gender and word order will pass un-marked. But with such thoughtful teachers, I’m lucky. Another friend in Oslo, Einar, has been likewise willing to help me hone my language skills. Goodness, I’ve had an awful lot of great teachers in my life. Plus, I’ve been practicing the hard, Norwegian ‘L’ characteristic of the eastern, Gudbrandsdal dialect of my ancestors, just for fun. And it’s a whole other challenge to better understand the southwestern coastal dialects, Stavangersk? Bergensk? Jaiks!
  • I miss the newspaper—the physical paper one, so I can do the crossword on paper in pen. A deep, daily pleasure in that, for me. In lieu of that option, I broke down and subscribed to the digital NYT Crossword. This means that A) there’s a timer, and B) I know whether I’m correct. While the pleasure isn’t quite the same as the paper version, I confess that the digital version has, I think, made me a little better. Begrudgingly. It’s also made me far more critical of crosswords, which I’m not sure I like. Thanks a lot, Rex Parker. But I have begun to wonder if I could craft a puzzle or two . . . I’ll keep ye updated.

Ok, to the images. This is the first time I’ve had a phone camera that can take panoramic images, so I’ve been having too much fun with that. So this is Tettsteder/Spredtsteder, Pano Edition:

Elverum in Autumn

Skogen over Orkdal

Orkanger and Orkdal from Raudhåmmår’n

Trondheim, Nidelva (med solskinn)

 Trondheim, Nidelva (uten solskinn)

Nidelva, Nidaros, og Lerketre (Larch!)

Utsikt over Stavanger området fra Dalsnuten

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