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.
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