Andy Meyer, Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway

Month: March 2016


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so, as ever, images.



The lights from underneath.

The lights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carved into the painted stone.

Carved into the painted bricks.

Scraped into the painted wood.

Scraped into the painted wood.

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

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

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

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

Due north from Nordkapp into the Barents Sea.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

So, a couple images from my Norwegian hjemsted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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