Besseggen, the Razor(back)’s Edge, and an appreciation for my backpack

Besseggen.

My translation, Henrik Ibsen, from Peer Gynt, Act I.

You’ve never seen the Gendin Edge?  A four mile hogback, sharp as a summer scythe.  White glaciers, scree fields dotted with pale heath, landslips, grey morains – all to the left, to the right, stretching ahead to the slumbering tarns, black and sluggish, down, down, down below you into the turqoise deep.

Riding the Edge you cleave the air, faster than any wild mustang can carry you.  Cutting through the rush, the sun seemed to split.  White-tailed, brown-backed eagles sail in the wide, dizzying ether hanging halfway between you and the tarns, floating above the drifting mists.

Ice rushes in heaps into the lake below, too far away to make any noise where you stand.  Only sprites of heady, dizzy, euphoric twisting, an unbidden dance.  You sing, you swing, circling, beyond sense.

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Besseggen lies in Jotunheimen Nat’l Park, named after the land of the giants in Norse Mythology.  And everywhere you look around here seems to be a giant’s playground.  But it only received the moniker in the 20th Century.

So, what did the locals call this place beforehand?  Rangers claim it was a place that only hunters came, a relatively unvisited and unused stretch of untarnished land, high above the fjords, up in the rising hills, far from Oslo or Sweden.  I imagine locals just called it “home.”

When I attended The Steamboat Mountain School (née The Whiteman School), I visited the Devil’s Causeway at the southern end of The Flattops.  Not nearly as high or as dramatic, but you can bet I went down on hands and knees the first time I walked on an edge like that.

I still recall climbing up in the Atlas Mountains wearing a “The Whiteman School” t-shirt, navy blue, block white letters.  Headmaster John Whittum demonstrated to us how to slide down the ice and snow with an axe.  A Moroccan stopped me on the way through a medina – probably Tangiers or Casablanca – smirked, pointed, and said, “What is this, ‘White Man School’, eh?”  It opened a conversation.  (He also invited me to smoke hashish, which got me in trouble with my chaperone when I demonstrated more than a passing interest.)

The edge, the devil’s causeway, that split, that instant of change, that fold in the Cartesian plane of the butterfly wimpling, wrinkling wing.  Both sides are the same cause – passion is the ridge: violence is one scree, fawning is the other.  It takes but a small tip to fall down one side or the other.

Know your ridges.

Finally, one quick tribute to met backpack.  Edko Alpine Designs, don’t think you can find them anymore.  Got him around 1990 or 91, I think.  Has been to 5 continents with me.  Still going strong.  Much thanks to the kind folks at The North Face store in Boulder for giving me a replacement belt buckle after I broke mine.  One elastic strap broke many year ago, but a strip of leather has replaced it for over a decade.  Starting to lose its inner “waterproofing” lining… But I love this thing.

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Norwegian Interviews, Social Frames, Proxemics

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Below, some snippets of interview questions I asked different Norwegians I have met since visiting.  I’ll label them with the last three letters of the Norsk alfabet:  Æ, Ø, and Å.

Æ is a hunter/trapper/expedition guide who mainly lives in Svalbard.

Ø is a waitress from Tromsø who studies in Edinburgh.

Å is a fisher and IT expert from near Oslo who travels extensively.

Have you ever seen a troll?

Æ: A what?

Å: Well, there are different kinds.  Forest trolls, Mountain trolls, and Sea trolls.

Sea trolls?  Where have you seen a sea troll?

Å: In the sea… Were you expecting a different answer?

Have you ever seen a polar bear?  And where?

Ø:  In Tromsø, yes.

Æ:  There are more polar bears than humans in Spitsbergen.

How many tourists do they eat every year?

Å:  It depends, usually, on their hygiene.

Ø: Or on how well they tip.

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What’s the strangest question or interaction you’ve had with a tourist or foreigner?

Æ:  So many.  One was about the midnight sun.  Someone asked me which sun is the midnight sun.  He got kind of angry when I said it is the same sun.  It was as though he didn’t believe me, that it couldn’t be possible.  I really didn’t know what to say…

Å:  Sometimes people ask me if we have salt water in the fjords.  You can guess where these people were from.

Sweden?

Å: (laughs)  Good guess, but unfortunately, no.

How long have you waited outside, in the cold, to see the Northern Lights?

Ø:  When you do see them, you feel so stunned that you completely forget how long you’ve waited.

Why are all the rorbu (fishing huts) red?

Æ:  Tradition.  Red is a very cheap color.  We used to use blood, so it was quite plentiful.

Å:  You see some that are white these days, but white is an expensive paint.  So if you see some that are painted white, usually they are still red on the sides and in the back.

Ø:  Red is a pleasant color for most Norwegians.  Plus, lots of us are colorblind anyway.

Why are they always made of wood?  Why not make them from rocks?

Æ:  Well, they are usually on stilts, and you can’t made rock stilts that are light.  Also, it is easier to keep wood warm than stone.

Ø:  Wood burns, of course, so if you run out of fuel for your fire you can just start burning some of the walls.

Å:  Wood houses are used to throw off the trolls.  The Mountain trolls and many Forest trolls are made of stone, you see, and during the rutting the season the males will mount large rock piles, sometimes.  So, we make our homes out of wood.  That’s also another reason we paint them red, and there’s often sod and grass on the rooftops to further disguise them.

(A note for my friends the Clarkes: apparently some trolls leave a white stone outside their cave, and that means that it is a swinger troll cave.)

Why do Swedes make fun of Norwegians?

Æ:  Do they?

Ø:  They don’t understand our language, but we understand theirs, so… that probably has something to do with it.

Å:  We’re better at everything.  Just jealousy.

Who is more shy?  Norwegians, or Finns?

Ø:  Finns are more withdrawn.  But Norwegians are more shy.

Æ:  When we drink, we say skål, and everyone says skål back, and then we drink.  When Finns drink, they say kippis, and then everyone is paralyzed.  They don’t know… should we drink?  Or should we say kippis back?  It is a sure way to stop a party.

What is the most Norwegian thing you can think of?

Å: Eating reindeer with aquavit at the end of a fjord.

Ø:  Hiking in Honnigsvåg to the top of the world.  Or, feeding the sea eagles.

Æ:  Finding a remote island in the fjords with some trees, some moss, maybe a spring, no electricity, no running water… and build a hytte on it.

Gunnerside, Vitae Vidda, The Dokkalfar War (part the second)

The Vidda stretches for miles in all directions.  Flat, but rocky.  Fields of strewn boulders covered in heather and lichen and now, in the middle of the winter, windswept drifts of deep, cold snow.  Miles above the realms of humans, the implacable hooves of the reindeer roam, stomping through the snow for the lichen underneath.  Muzzles frosty and steaming, racks glistening and wide, none but the bravest hunters venture to the Vidda.  Especially not in the winter.

Which is precisely why Rønne had lead the Kompani here to hide from the dwarfs.  Those stodgy, thick-limbed and heavy-browed dwarfs, lumbering about their towns.  Trodding and crushing and burning to ash everything that displeased them.  Fed by jealously and hatred, bitter and resentful, Hivaldi took sacrosant pleasure in knocking down the houses of men.  In scurrying their flocks.  In tearing up their fields.  In sucking the marrow from the bones of their sheep.

As the winter passed, a grim pile of bones grew in the middle of the town square.  “It is almost time to move,” said Hivaldi, picking at his teeth with a rib bone.  He glowered at Tyrstad.  “Your wife had better have done her job.”

“Oh I’m sure she has,” Tyrstad assured him.

“I’m tired of your sheep.  I want those apples,” Hivaldi said.

“This summer has been warm,” Tyrstad said, clapping his hands together.  “Surely they will be gloriously crisp.”

Hivaldi squinted up into the falling snow.  “Warm summer, eh?” he said.

“One of the more mild seasons we’ve had,” Tyrstad assured him.

“Hrmph.”  Many of the other dwarfs shivered imperceptibly.

Meanwhile, on the Vidda, Bosa and Rønne had spent the winter hunting and preparing.  The nights had been long, and cold.  And everyone was feeling sick of reindeer.  But they had accumulated a massive pile of warm furs and impressive antlers.  Many others were hiding out in the Vidda, but they dare not strike back against the dokkalfar in their towns.  Their oily war machines and all the prisoners made it far too risky – too many lives at stake.  Instead, they had to lure the dwarfs out into the terrain that even the hardy humans found difficult to endure.

A long line of boxy dwarven constructs chugged their way up the steep valleys toward the Vidda.  They rolled over the threes and crushed the earth into a muddy paste.  Smoke and noise and the smell of burning wafted between the leaves of the spruce and birch and fir.  Wet, sticky snow pelted their craggy faces.

“Ah, what a nice, cool summer day,” Tyrstad smiled, rubbing his red nose.  The dwarfs harrumphed.  “Just imagine, soon you’ll have those apples and you’ll turn into humans, inheriting all of Midgard.  And these seasons will seem far more mild to you.”

Higher and higher the black army climbed.  Colder and colder the wind blowed.  Wetter and wetter the snow fell.  It was nearing spring, and heavy, soggy clumps now bunched high on the branches and on the cliffs.

Bosa skied down into the sudden valley, and waited high on a hill, beside the frozen stream.  She could hear the army coming from miles away, and shivered as she waited.  Eventually, they crushed through the copse of spruce, toppling the old trees.  The boxy metal machines heaved and puffed and gushed out black smoke.  She waved to them.

With a clang, their tops opened, and out popped the sooty, creased dwarf faces.  Hivaldi pulled off his goggles.  “Now.  Where are the apples?” he shouted.

“And the mead!?” shouted a chorus of dwarfs.

Bosa scanned the machines until she saw Tyrstad’s head pop up.  She smiled and winked at him.  “Your timing is perfect,” she said.  “They are red and delicious, just ripe enough to pluck and savor.”

High on the ridge above them, Rønne nocked an arrow and let it fly.  Down, down it spiraled, past the eagles and the hawks, and thunked, haft-deep, into the head of a dwarf who died on the spot.  All eyes shot up.  “The reindeer have come!” Bosa said.

“What reindeer?” Hivaldi asked.

“Look, there, on the ridges!” Tyrstad pointed.

Lining the edge of the cliffs were the Kompani of Light.  So high above, they appeared only as silhouettes.  And their heads were crowned with the biggest and most impressive antlers that they had found during the long winter.

“You must fire at them!” Tyrstad called.  Bosa looked at him.  He looked back, but continued to shout.  “Fire!  They will slaughter us here!  Fire your cannons!”

Bosa saw that she could not free Tyrstad from the machine he was trapped in.  So she spun away and skied as fast as she could out of the valley.

The nozzles of the dwarf machines cranked and clanked and ratcheted toward the sky.  With cracks and booms, they fired their shells into the high cliffs, hoping to bombard the mystic reindeer hunters.

With every bang and clatter, the snow loosened more.  All around the canyon, a boom louder than all the war machines firing at once thundered across the sky.  The ice and the snow gave way.  A deluge the likes of which have never been seen before nor since cascaded down that steep valley and buried the dwarfs there, killing them all.

Bosa cried.  They never found Tyrstad.  Rønne and Skinnar and Hauk and Haug found her in the woods, laying over her skiis, exhausted.  They carried her home, where they freed the slaves and liberated their town.

They built a large bonfire and celebrated Tyrtad’s sacrifice.  For freedom is never free.

Lines, Quantifiers, Différance

I crossed a line yesterday.  66 degrees, 33 minutes.  The farthest north I have been on the globe.  We passed a small island, called Viking Island, equipped with a tiny metal globe to mark the spot.  (And the lovely tradition of having arctic water dribbled down your spine by way of ritualizing the experience.)

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I wrote a letter to my nephew which included a snippet about latitude and longitude, and the coordinate system.  Basically, I cheesed a little quiz in there, and gave him some locales by degrees: London, San Diego, Omaha, Oslo… I thought it might stimulate his curiosity of things.

Simultaneously, I wondered about our obsession with measuring, delineating, bifurcating, identifying or classifying.  One way of separating the Lofoten Islands from mainland Norway is measuring the extent of glaciers in the last Ice Age.  The Lofoten chain was never under the ice, so the sharp peaks here were not carved by retreats, but are much older and staggeringly jagged.

But our delineations are never as cut and dry as we sometimes come to believe (read: we compel ourselves to want to believe, to have to believe).  A glance at the geologic map of Lofoten shows that is isn’t quite as simple as saying, “the ice stopped here.”  (One concept that requires frequent disabuse is that the ice remained static; it did not: it stretched out and retreated multiple times in the most recent “Ice Age.”)

Although we can tag locations with coordinate systems and divvy up parcels of our planet, the tectonic plates have been known to shift.  The pathway of the Rhine is more stable now than it has historically been, but as with all rivers, they have been known to frustrate cartographers and argriculturalists alike.  One atom differs from another by the number of elementary particles in its constitution; and yet we had to come up with the term isotope when we dug deeper and found zero-charge particles in differing amounts within the same element.

Things are much more fluid than our rigid thinking supposes.  (Particularly, especially, logical contructs – deferances, deferences, différances, defacements…)

Sexuality is one such spectrum.  And I’m not talking about preference, I’m talking about biological sex.  A division we’ve become used to seeing as a checkbox: M or F.  These exist: hermaphrodites (or intersexuality), androgen insensitivity, hyperandrogenism, gonochorism… The International Olympic Committee has had a handful of these cases to rule on over the years.  Typically, what makes it to popular press are those cases such as Caster Semenya in 2009: an athlete competing as a woman who is found, on a specific kind of scrutiny, to be mis-classified.  No, she’s really a man.  Why?  Because she has no ovaries and produces more testosterone (than we are comfortable with accepting as “normal” for a “woman”).

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These “revelations” are extraordinarily personal, subverting and/or altering a sense of identity.  Lines become points of demarcation.  Marginalizing entities.  Challenges to cultural and socio-economic “boxes” into which we tribal entities prefer things to remain.  They can spur on particularly mean-spirited exhortations and accusations.

Take, for instance, a religious perspective.  The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition might point to statues in Leviticus, or the (perhaps specious) letters of (S)Paul (what if there were letters of RuPaul?).  But those tend to refer to activities in which we choose to participate.  When we’re talking about biology, there is no choice involved.  There is no crime or sin involved in what God has created.  What do rabbis, priests and imams consult in these cases?  There’s no conversion therapy option.

I tend toward the belief that it is not a person’s physical attributes that make them unworthy, nor even their preference (because humans, due to the nature of our unique brain development among the hominids, are a fasincating and nuanced mix of nature and nurture) that makes them unfit.  Perhaps it is those people who get hung up on their justifications for why they are uncomfortable, those whose minds rather than their bodies are the chief cause for their inability to perform their duties – perhaps it is those people who are the ones unfit to serve.

No, not perhaps.  Flip the binary.  No… recognize the spectrum.

Nidaros, Pilgrims, & MET/MET Variants

Niðaróss (“Nidaros”) is an older name for Trondheim, or kaupangr.  (“Mouth of the River Nid,” “Trading City.”)  It is at 63°25′47″N 10°23′36″E (so I’m getting there… getting to the Arctic Circle).  Like numerous Scandinavian port cities, it has its colorful wharf.  Compare:

Nyhavn in Copenhagen, Bryggen in Bergen, and the wharf in Trondheim.  I spoke with a pilgrim near the Nidaros Cathedral, at the end of his route on St. Olav’s Way – although he’s from Bergen, he took the Path all the way from Selånger, Sweden.  (I took the sea route from Oslo to Bergen to Trondheim via the Geirangerfjord.)

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MeHow long have you been traveling?

Pilgrim:  For far too long.

Me:  Where are you from?

Pilgrim:  Bergen.

Me:  I just left Bergen a few days ago.  It was great weather.

Pilgrim:  Normally it is raining.

Me:  How often does it rain in Bergen?

Pilgrim:  On average, 400 days of the year.

Me:  That seems like a lot.

Pilgrim:  Well, it could be worse.  It could rain more often.

Bergen pulls in > 2,000 mm per year.  Or 89in.  And if you unwind all the fjords of Norway, they would be about as long as if you unwound my DNA and stretched it to the moon and back.  (These kind of comparisons have always been rather meaningless to me… because the context is so reductio ad absurdum, or completely lost on us anyway.)  Let’s just say it rains about three times more often in Bergen than it does in London.  And up the entire coast to Trondheim, where the temperate waters and the protective archipelagos and the glaciers that trod their debris into the mouths of the fjords have all conspired to make this a quite unique biome.  And so the firs and the srpuce and the birch crowd right up to the shoreline.

Until you pass Trondheim, and then it starts to look more like the rounded barren and beige skerries of western Sweden by the Kattegat.

Joseph Strauss, the architect behind the Golden Gate bridge, made a small version of a bascule bridge in Trondheim.  And sitting out in the harbor on an outcropping of rock is Munkholmen.  On this little islet, King Olav behead(ed) (sp?) his enemies and demanded that everyone spit on them when leaving as a show of allegiance.  Then he took to spiking heads out there as a general warning to visitors in the well-protected harbor that served as (probably) Norway’s first established trading and harbor city.  So Trondheim has its own mini Golden Gate bridge and mini Alcatraz.  Maybe this is the City by the Bay that Jefferson Airplane Jefferson Starship Starship sang about (and not Denver, as Chazz Michael Michaels reminisces in Blades of Glory).

Regardless, nothing says come hither like a head on a spike.

Which is why, of course, we still have pilgrimages to St. Olav’s Cathedral (where the archangel Michael sits on the highest tower bearing the visage of Bob Dylan).

Pilgrimage.  noun.  a journey to a place associated with someone or something well known or respected.  ORIGIN.  Middle English: from Provençal pelegrinatge, from pelegrin.  From “pilgrim,” ORIGIN.  Middle English: from Provençal pelegrin, from Latin peregrinus ‘foreign.’  See also, “peregrine” (the powerful falcon).  ORIGIN.  late Middle English: from Latin peregrinus ‘foreign,’ from peregre ‘abroad,’ from per– ‘through’ager ‘field.’

(How did this apply to the peregrine falcon?  Because the birds were caught and used for falconry by taking them full grown, not taking them from the nest.)

So apparently “pilgrims” have to be coming from another country, or have to be transgressors who violate property lines.

While traversing through Trondheim, I caught up with a local troupe of bikers (bicyclers).  As we wound our way through the town, I, as per usual, took the rear position.  I have always found myself to do this when skiing in a group, or cycling, or in any kind of collective activity with multiple participants moving around.  It makes me feel comfortable to see everyone ahead of me, to know that they are safe, and that I can be there to help correct their course or tend their wounds if anything goes awry.

Only on inspection did I realize that I probably have the MET/MET variant; i.e.: I have the “worrier” allele, and not the “warrior” allele.  There’s a wide variety of personality dispositions that are chemically affected or predisposed by whether you have a met/met, or met/val, or val/val combination in your genotype, and this variability of the COMT V158M gene has been affectionately termed the “warrior/worrier” gene.   If we consider this on a evolutionary scale, it is likely that these variants came about in animals with herd instincts.  Someone had to lead the pack, some had to protect the pack.  Another interesting indicator of how natural selection as a process doesn’t really care about how we feel: it only cares about how effectively you pass your DNA on to an offspring.

Olav, it turns out, was very effective at stopping people from having offspring.  Take the head.

Fjords, Locks, Ineffability, Old Fishmermen

We struggle sometimes to describe things.  Usually, experiences.  Words fail many of us (if you buy that shuffling of responsibility).  I tend to be one who leans toward words.  Why?  I have tried to rationalize it with myself many times… You might say it is difficult to describe.    …  [/irony].  Probably a hyperactive left temporal lobe.

I find the same argument creeping in my cortex when I try to explain why I don’t really consider film to be a form of art.  Yes, it can be artistic, but is it Art?  Not to me, I suppose.

Perhaps it is the curmudgeon in me railing against the over-privileging of the visual.  I like to believe that my instincts tend to favor the inaginatively engaged.  Words allows us to paint our own picture.  A picture – not so much.

Some media give primacy to the experiencer.  Some just tell you what to think.  Locks – at least the locks I’ve been through in Norway – and fjords fall into this difficult-to-capture realm.  A picture fails them.  But… we try.  We essay.  We assay.  Whatever.

Animated gifs: perhaps they can fill a gap.  Here’s a few shots of what it looks like to drift into the stepped locks of the Telemark Canal in south central Norway.  Typical locks raise or lower you by a meter or two, sometimes three.  This canal has 5 different sets of locks (all manually operated, by the way) each with between three and five separate holding cells.  Some of them raise you by 9 meters(!).

You can see the wet waterline indicating in some of these how high the boat is about to be raised.  Consider that just one of these pictures is one of three in a row.

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A look into the previous level
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Lock closing behind you

Aside from the claustrophobic locks, the canal looks a good bit like the fjords, only not as expansive.

Slartibartfast.  Everyone knew it was coming, so there it is.  When I was a pre-teen, I used to collect all the maps out of National Geographic.  They used to include massive fold-up maps of a different country or region every issue, and I pinned them all to my wall.  Even before I knew about Douglas Adams, I spent hours pouring over the fjords.  I used to recreate them on a gigantic desk-size pad of graph paper.  (I also once froze “Return of the Jedi” on VHS at the point where they project a 3D image of the surface of Endor, and I tried to copy it onto the same graph paper.  I burned a hole in the tape…)

Nothing seems to capture the true feeling of being in the fjords.  Maybe a VR experience… Apple’s “live photos” converted here with Google’s “Motion Stills” app that converts them to animated gifs (and apparently thinks it is cool to slobber their icon on my photos) are the best we can do.  I’ll have to leave it up to your imagination to put yourself in this place – you have to think that everything you see in the picture is not just in front of you, but beside you, behind you, and all around everywhere you go.

Down a dizzying sloop of consistently calm dark water, with the feel of a temperate rain forest from the Gulf Current waters, hard carved granite ripped as far beneath you as overhead, gargantuan cruise ships sloughing past, and everywhere there is a coast line there are red fishermen’s hyttes and remote steads where you can see people saying, “Well, this is where I will live.  And that’s the end of the discussion.”

 

Gunnerside, Vitae Vidda, The Dokkalfar War (part the first)

There is a time between times.  After the time of Ask and Embla, of course.  They were the first man and the first woman.  They were the Ash and the Elm trees that Odin, the All-Father, found washed on the shore in Midgaard, with his two brothers.  They are the trees into which he breathed life, and from whom all of humanity came to populate the middle world, protected by the wall made from Ymur’s eyebrows, to keep out the giants and the monsters and all those creatures who dwell in the great void, Ginnungagap.

And this was the time before Ragnarok, the day of reckoning, when the gods will all die.  And perhaps, everything will start anew.

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This middle-time we call the Time of the Mists, the Time of Men.  The glory of Midgaard, when we chosen of Odin rule.  Although we rule a godless existence.  Thor is perhaps off in Jotunheim or one of the other eight worlds, slaying giants or feasting or drinking.  (Those are the three things he does, of course.)  Odin is perhaps sitting in the boughs of the world tree, his two ravens whispering secrets in his ears of all that is happening throughout everywhere, everyplace and every time.  Loki perhaps is brooding, or scheming, or stealing.  (For those are the three things that he does.)  The truth be told, we don’t really know.  We just know that they are gone, and we are left to our own devices.

But despite the All-Father’s wisdom (or perhaps due to it?), the walls do not keep everything out.  Not the light elves, or the dark.  Not the gnomes or the nisser.  And certainly not the trolls.  So though we rule, we rule precariously.  Ever are our competitors looking for an opportunity to enslave us, to steal our lands, our birthright.  And the gods are not here to fight for us.  So it is best to always heed the words of Rønne, the warrior of the Kompani of Light:

“You have to fight for your freedom and for peace.  You have to fight for it every day, to keep it.  It is like a glass boat – it is easy to break.  It is easy to lose.”

Well, somewhere along the way, we forgot.  As we are prone to do.  Odin may have given us life, but he did not make us perfect.  (And neither is he, of course.)  One day, the dark elves, the dokkalfar, decided to attack.

The dokkalfar, who we sometimes call the dwarfs, are clever with machines, and with crafting.  They forged Mjollnir, Thor’s mighty hammer.  And also Gungnir, Odin’s spear that never misses its mark.  Oaths sword on Gugnir cannot be broken.  They also made golden hair for Sif, the beautiful wife of Thor, after Loki had conspired to cut off her real hair while she slept.  Their accomplishments with metal and stone are unparalleled.  They have always been bitter, forced to hide in the deep and dark places of the earth.  Bitter that they were not the chosen of Odin.  Not like us.  With great jealousy they watched the kingdoms of humankind spread across the middle world, and they brooded, and they conspired, and finally, they acted.

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Hivaldi, a particularly embittered grandson of Ivaldi (whose sons crafted Sif’s hair), had had enough.  It was time for the dwarfs to get their due.  So he raised an army.  He convinced the other dwarfs that they are also Odin’s sons.  That they had fallen so busy with keeping up the orders of the gods, they had forgotten to rule.  So they needed to resurface, and take control of things.

They did this in wondrous and terrible machines.  They crossed under the deep oceans, and flew through the sky.  They crushed mountains and dammed the rivers.  They constructed dark edifices, gray with granite and red with the blood of humans.  They locked us up in pens and prisons, planning to drink our blood.  Some of us escaped, in ships across the western seas.  On skis into the mountains.  In caves and huts hidden in the hills.  Those who escaped sought the help of the light elves, the sons of Frey and his sister Freya, the Vanir who fought with our gods many years before, but who now lived with them in Idavoll, the Splendid Plain.  But the light elves were fighting their own battles, ones they assured us were far more important.  There was scant help to be had by anyone other than ourselves.

A man called Tyrstad and his wife, Bosa, decided to deceive the dwarfs.  As they were led toward a great fire pit where the dwarfs planned to roast them, Tyrstad asked of his captors, “You’re planning to eat us?”

A grim and sour-faced dwarf begrudgingly grunted.  Tyrstad looked at his wife, Bosa, and began to laugh.  Bosa, fearing he had suffered a blow to the head, smiled, and laughed as well.  (But while laughing she checked his head for signs of trauma, or bleeding.)

“Why are you laughing?” asked his captor.

“You’ll never get your fill of us.”  Tyrstad winked at his wife.  “We’re far too small.”

“You’ll need something more nourishing,” Bosa added.

“Like what?” the dwarf asked.  He stopped in line and all the other dwarfs and prisoners bumped into each other at the hold up.

“You’re going to want the apples of Idunn,” Tyrstad said.

Idun-and-the-Apples

“And the mead of the gods,” Bosa said.

The eyes of the dwarfs shifted between them.  “And what is Idunn?” they asked.

Bosa laughed.  Tyrstad said, “Not what.  Who!  Idunn is the one who tends the orchards of the gods.  She feeds them her golden apples,” he said.

“And her mead!” said Bosa.

“And the apples and the mead give the gods immortality.  That’s what you want,” Tyrstad said, crossing his arms.

Ashes drifting up from their grim shoulders, the dwarfs furrowed their brows.  “But the gods are gone,” said one.

“Oh, they gave them to us to watch after,” Tyrstad assured him.

“Where are these apples?” asked another.

“And the mead,” said one, licking his lips.

“Hidden under the Vidda, the great plateau,” said Tyrstad.

“Her trees are watered by the snowmelt coming down into the valley,” Bosa said.

“If you ate of those apples and drank of that mead, surely you’ll change from dwarfs into humans, like us,” Tyrstad said.

“And you’ll inherit the Midgaard, like us,” Bosa said.

They lumbered and they fidgeted.  “Take us to the apples,” the biggest dwarf said.

“Send me ahead,” Tyrstad said, “And I will make sure they are ready.”

“No, send me,” said Bosa.  “You know I am the better skier, and will get there faster.”  Tyrstad frowned, but he knew she was right.  And besides, the dwarfs were going to send her, anyway.

“But you must be careful,” Tyrstad said, just as he watched his wife about to ski over the embankment.  She looked back at him.  “Be careful of… you know,” he said.

“Know what?” his captor asked, tightening his grip on one arm.

“Oh, it’s nothing,” Tyrstad said.

“Nothing that would bother the likes of you and your great machines,” Bosa said.

“Speak!  Careful of what?” the dwarf shouted.

“Of the reindeer!” Tyrstad winced.

FreysReindeer

“Reindeer?”  The dwarf squinted, and then bellowed out a laugh.  All the dwarfs rolled their heads back and chortled, free and rough and loud.  “Reindeer!”  One of them wiped his eyes.  “Reindeer!”  Another clapped his hand to his thigh.

“Not just any reindeer,” Bosa said, hands on her ski poles.  “These are the reindeer of Frey himself.”

“His flock,” said Tyrstad, nodding.

“His very own,” Bosa said.

“Protected,” said Tyrstad.

“You don’t want to upset Frey,” said Bosa.

The dwarfs sobered and sombered.  “What is so special about these reindeer?” they asked.

“They can walk on two legs, like us,” said Tyrstad.

“And fire bows and arrows.  They are the greatest hunters in all of Midgaard,” Bosa said.

“If you harm Frey’s herds, they will come for you,” Tyrstad said.

“Silent like the snow, swift as the waterfall, deadly as the glacier,” Bosa said.

The dwarfs winced.  Then they waved her on.  “Go on, make sure the apples are ready for us,” they said.

“And the mead!” shouted another.

“What is today?” Bosa shouted back.

The dwarfs looked at each other.  Under the ground, in their caverns, where their faces were warmed by their hot hearths and not the light of the sun, they didn’t really know what she meant.  The passing of seasons was a new concept.

“Midsummer,” Tyrstad said.

“Then it will be at least three months before the apples are ready,” Bosa said.

Grubby hands waved her away.  “Then tell them we will come in three months.”

Bosa knew just where to go, and just who to see.  Over the snowy hills and the frozen lakes (because it was not midsummer, of course, but midwinter) she raced.  Up into the plateau, where the reindeer roam.  Across the flat and windswept plains, under the gaze of Mount Gausta, the quartzite lump.  Finally, she found the tiny hut.  She took off her skis, shook her head, and pushed open the door.  Inside sat the men of the Kompani of Light.  Rønne, their leader, Skinnar the Young, Haug and Hauk the two brother hunters, and dozens more.  How could they all fit into this tiny hunting lodge?  Those are better questions for a different age.

After Bosa told them of her plan, the Kompani immediately set to work.  There was much to do, so much to do.

“Don’t forget the antlers,” Bosa said.

“Of course not,” said Rønne.

(to be continued…)

 

Hardangervidda, “Gunnerside,” Myth(ologizing)

Precipitously steep hollers – I mean valleys – gouge through the granite and quartzite, claw rendings of a mountain troll or a feral frost giant.  Spruce, fir, birch, elm, ash, yew… (all unfamiliarly free of beetle-kill) shroud and fuzz the hillsides, the shores, the everywhere.  Where it is flat, it is water.  Deep, dark, still.  I have dived into Colorado summer lakes of the high Rockies and thought my lungs had crystallized from the chill.  But this is something else entirely, like when you first learn of the Kelvin scale. 

The colors are sometimes darker, sometimes lighter than the steep Appalachia of West Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.  Seams and cracks, greys and blacks.  But they shoot up sometimes, shedding their tree lines, like the Alps near Lecco, the Italian lake country.  In places they are smooth and gradual, like the gentle slopes of Spain’s Sierra Nevada.  In others they fall as though crushed by Mjollnir, diving thousands of feet straight down.  These are the hills of Telemark, the region of south central Norway named after the local term for “skiing funny.” 

A year ago, I read through a variety of old Norwegian folktales.  Perhaps because I had (somewhat recently) read “My Mother She Cooked Me, My Father He Ate Me,” I found it an invigorating thought exercise to re-write these tales.  A way to connect with the proto-Vikings.  The pre-Christianized north.  I wanted to re-paganize the fables with a breath of the Æsir and Vanir, the dokkalfar and trolls, the nisser and the gnomes.  And then I read a press release on Neil Gaiman, a new book, publishing in utter and effable hardback in early 2017: “Norse Mythology.”

GaimanNorseMyth

Well, fuck.

The northern end of Telemark rises to a plateau, a “Vidda,” a massive stretch of calcareous bedrock from western to eastern horizons, almost a mile above sea level.  The windy heaths here are strewn with long cracked boulder fields, all spotted with pale green rhizocarpon geographicum (a lichen favored by the reindeer).  In the summer, purple saxifrage and Scandinavian primrose poke out of the lingering ice drifts. 

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Designated a national park (Norway’s largest), this area of fishing and hunting enthusiasts is called the Hardanger Plateau, the Hardanger-Vidda.  “Har” is an old Viking cry, meaning roughly, “Hey!” or some other exhortation for attention.  And “Danger” is from “danger.”  So, it is kind of the “Hey, watch yourself!” Plateau. 

A sometimes forgotten fact is that “Viking” as a term came from a verb: “to go on a viking.  While the noun root appears to have derived from a word describing a creek, or a dwelling place (probably one of the steep fjords where people settled), “to go on a viking” was understood to be cruising with no good intentions for those you come across.    So, early people participating in the act of viking were basically pirates.  But we don’t think of Vikings saying, “Ar, matey,” do we?  What if we re-boot Captain Jack Sparrow as a tawny tow-head Scandinavian in a longship instead of the Black Pearl?  I’m sure Depp is still under contract with Disney for another 20 movies or so, so, why not?

Getting back to myths and folk tales, the Hardangervidda is not only home to some of the world’s last remaining wild reindeer, but also ground zero for a modern day act of incredible fortitude and heroism.  “Gunnerside.”  The saboteuring escapades of the Norwegian resistance in WWII that helped save us all from the Nazi aspirations of beating the rest of the world in the race to an atomic bomb.

In 1939 there was no known way to separate the isotopes UR 235 (92 protons, 143 neutrons) and the more common UR 238 (92 protons, 146 neutrons).  A typical collection of uranium has 7 parts 235 for every 1,000 parts 238.  When bombarding uranium with neutrons (chargeless, unlike protons and electrons, and therefore movement unhindered), 238 tends to absorb them into the nucleus, but 235 tends to split.  This was demonstrated in December, 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, two German chemists: fission.  One Uranium nucleus splitting releases 200 million electron volts – about enough “to bounce a grain of sand.”  One gram of uranium = 2.5 X 10^11 (one sextillion) atoms.  One cubic meter of uranium ore could “bounce” one cubic kilometer of water 27km into the air.

One week after Hahn’s work was published, Robert Oppenheimer sketched a bomb on a blackboard in his office.

What everyone needed was a way to isolate the more fissionable UR-235, and an effective “moderator” to regulate the chain reactions.  Werner Heisenberg in late October 1939 concluded that, with enough uranium and a suitable moderator, “it was simply a question of calculating the machine’s most efficient size (quantity of UR and moderator), arrangement (fixed or layered), and shape (cylindrical or spherical).”  That’s what he presented to Hitler’s “Uranium Club,” the assembled Nazi scientists charged with exploring this avenue toward a weapon.

Effective moderators could be graphite.  Or “heavy water.” 

“Heavy Water,” according to an animated version of G.I. Joe I watched circa 1980, can be found by diving to the bottom of the ocean.  There, somewhere in an old temple of Atlantis, you would find a secret well dug slightly deeper into the earth than the deepest part of the ocean.  In that slightly deeper well, gravity effected water just enough that you could dip a vial into it and extract “heavy water.”  (I wish I could have been in the room when the writers for this episode were fleshing this highly scientific narrative out…)

HeavyWater

True heavy water – the kind which American chemist Harold Urey demonstrated in 1931 and for which he won a Nobel – is water composed of deuterium instead of hydrogen: an isotope of hydrogen that carries a neutron in its nucleus.  Typically, there is one molecule of heavy water for every 41 million molecules of ordinary water. 

For millennia, water collected in the Hardangervidda descended into the abruptly steep Vestfjord Valley.  In 1903, Norsk Hydro funneled the water through eleven steel pipelines 920 vertical feet into turbines, generating 145,000 kilowatts of energy.  A fraction of this water was diverted to a hydrogen plant and into electrolysis cells powered by the deluge of water from the Vidda, splitting free the oxygen from the hydrogen, and re-purposing the hydrogen to make fertilizer. 

A fraction of the remaining water then cascaded through a series of specialized electrolysis cells that terminated in a small basement room in the Vemork hydroelectric power station.  The final product was a minuscule amount of ~10% deuterium rich “heavy water.”  Miniscule, but also the world’s most reliable source. 

What happened next?  We have our target, we have our purpose, we have a Nazi invasion and a desperately paranoid collection of world leaders.  You can pick up a book, watch a movie, or find a documentary… but what if we mythologize this?  What if I re-paganize it…

So I will assay, in this land of the “funny skiers.”  (For next time…)

Cathedrals, Mosques, Synagogues, oh my! (Part 2)

The last time I was in Seville, around 1986, I was visiting the Alcázar.  Among us, 5 high school students and two chaperones.  We plucky teenagers pranced around with our daypacks, stuffed with caribeeners, compasses, flashlights, dry matches and a copy of “501 Spanish Verbs” (from Barron’s Educational Series) – what do you expect from an outdoorsy curriculum?

Pretty sure we all came packing Swiss Army knives, too, as you could travel with them back then.  (Note that Victorinox lost ~40% of their business after 9/11 – they used to be a featured item in Duty Free airport shops – but they didn’t fire a single employee: fun read if you want to look it up.)  We also had a change of clothes as we were on an overnighter.

In the Plaza de España, Mr. Gaul offered to sit and watch our bags as we traipsed about the cobblestone streets, past cafés with hanging legs of drying jamón, steaming cups of café con leche, and decorative Moorish tiles.  When I walked into the plaza a couple hours later, I saw Mr. Gaul bent over the edge of the fountain.  A large map splayed out before him, he was examining it while an unfamiliar man in a ratty white linen shirt gesticulated, pointing and asking questions.

I couldn’t understand what the man was saying.  It didn’t sound like Spanish.  It might have been Arabic, but I couldn’t distinguish those sounds well at that age.  To this day, I’m not sure what he was speaking, though I’m rather confident it was complete gibberish.

The man made eye contact with me, and in a flustered huff like a suddenly shamed rooster, he scooped all edges of the crinkley paper map into his arms, waved at Mr. Gaul as if to say, “So sorry for the trouble, thanks for trying to help,” spluttered out some more nonsense words, and beat a hasty retreat into the crowds of the city.

“Who was that?” I started to ask, as Mr. Gaul turned around, looking at me while taking his seat.  His head swiveled this way and that.  “Oh crap,” he said, eyes shifting and arms spreading wide.  “One of our bags is gone.”

Sevilla para herir.

Córdoba para morir.

¡Siempre Sevilla para herir!

– Francisco Lorca

A crossroads city where the Tartessians, Cathaginians, Iberians, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors set roots.  Where Jews, Muslims, Christians settled.  Where Christopher Colombus embarked (along with Amerigo Vespucci, and de Gama, and Cortéz, …).  Where a monopoly was granted for “trade” with the Americas.  Where the gitanos danced and wooed and… yes, a few shucksters aspired to perfecting the art of the grift.

Such a rich confluence, this city that periodically washed away in the alluvial soil on the banks of the Guadalquivir, also experienced dramatic intermixing of culture, thought, religion, practice, music, architecture, plagues, iconoclasm, iconography… I can’t help put try to peer through the layers of interwoven blending.

Pagan sites became churches, churches became mosques, mosques became repositories of Hebraic knowledge, then became churches again, then became institutions of state government, then became trading houses, then became gardens, became tourist attractions, became graffitied, sighed and lamented and rejoiced all together.

This city founded a Universidad de Mareantes (of the Mariners) around 1500 with faculty teaching piloting, sailing, cosmography, mathematics, astronomy, artillery tactics, military history, navigation, cartography.  These three pictures are details from a massive tapestry hanging in the Alcázar (roughly 40 feet by 25 feet) with the Mediterranean sea at the top and the Atlantic to the east.  Zooming in reveals lots of interesting tidbits.  It may be representative of the jealously guarded Padrón Real.

My favorite place – probably the old Moorish baths underneath the palace:

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Japanish

Anyone have this issue?  Speaking in one language and then changing to another without realizing?  “Code switching” they call it.

Although that is descriptive, not explanatory.  I have a working theory… well, perhaps not fleshed out enough to be a theory.  So, I have a hypothesis – or maybe I should call it a hunch.  I think aural similarity in vowels greases the rails.  Consider:

Japanese Spanish Pronunciation
a a Ah (like “Aha”)
e e Eh (like “egg”)
i i Ee (like “Eek”)
o o Oh (like “Oh sh**”)
u u Ew (like “Ewe”)

There’s virtually (not literally) no difference in short vowel sounds between these two languages.  Also, since Spanish has gendered nouns (and, like biolgical entities, not just male and female, but Spanish distinguishes masculine, feminine, neutered, common, epicene, and ambiguous), many words end in vowel sounds ‘o’ or ‘a.’  Japanese similarly ends most words in vowel sounds.  Hmm…

When I first returned to the USA after a long stay in Japan, old college buddy Jeremy let me sublet a room.  I hadn’t had decent guacamole or tequila in years, and we were headed out one night to reacquaint myself with these Mexican delights.  I said something like…

¡Vámonos, quiero las margaritas!

…What was that?

What?

What you said.

I was speaking Spanish.

No you weren’t.

I wasn’t?

No, that was like…. Banzai Spanish.

Then Jeremy mimicked a sword slice á la John Belushi in Samurai Delicatessen.

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Over the past couple of weeks here’s a few things I’ve caught myself saying (italics are Japanese):

***

Me: Tiene un… cómo se dice en Espaõl no sé, shikashi es para abrir kono botella de vino.

Do you have a …. I don’t know how you say it in Spanish, but it is to open this bottle of wine.

***

Me: Quiere beber Jerez.

A museum guard: Vivir en Jerez?

Me: Iiechigao, bebir.

Guard: A, para allá…

He wants to drink some sherry.

To live in Jerez?  (The fault is my pronunciation of “beber” sounded like “vivir,” “to live.”  And Jerez, the source of the name for the alcoholic drink “sherry,” is based on the town name it comes from, “Jerez.”  She thought I was asking about a place to live in town, not a place to drink some sherry.)

No, that’s not right.  To drink.

Ah, go that direction…

***

I met a Japanese woman eating tapas at a cafe in Sevilla with a woman from the UK.  I told her I used to lived in the Kansai region, and it turns out she’s from Kobe.  We spoke in Japanese a bit, and she actually teared up for a moment.

Her: It has been so long since I’ve been able to speak any Japanese.  I feel so… relieved.

Me: Jitsu wa, Hanshin Daishinsai no toki yo vivó en Kansai.

Her:  Daijoubu deshita?

Me:  Hai.  Pero estaba preocupado por mis amigos.

In fact, I lived in Kansai at the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Were you ok?

Yes.  But I was worried about my friends.

***

This probably doesn’t seem interesting or funny to most people.  But to those of you who code switch, you’re going to laugh.