Tag Archives: Norway

Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden

When I was doing research about trees in Norway I found this interesting paper by Douglas Fore Holmes about “sacred trees of Norway and Sweden: a friliftsliv quest” and was of course immediately intrigued. His abstract was very promising:

What began as a curiosity about the traditions and folklore related to trees planted in the center of many farms in Norway, “Tuntre“, and Sweden, “Vårdträd“, led me to a recognition of a tradition that can still be observed in the cultural landscape today. The tradition can be traced as far back as the Viking period, and directly linked to the mythology of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. I have been studying these traditions as they relate to the field of environmental education as an example of mythopoetic stories and folklore that influence moral and ethical regard for nature.

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As I am not a native speaker, and the author is, it does not make sense to rephrase him, so I copy pasted some interesting paragraphs and comment at it:

A special tradition that is shared by many Scandinavians is the planting or the knowing of a special tree in Swedish called a „Vårdträd‟, and in Norwegian a „Tuntre‟; a sacred tree planted in the center of the yard on a family farm that reflects an intimacy with place. The caring for the tree demonstrates respect for ancestors‟ spirits that were/are believed to reside in the tree, and is a moral reminder of caring for the farm or place where one lives. One Norwegian told me that the „tuntre‟ provided a direct connection with the nature spirits that lived underground at his farm.

According to this paper, not many Scandinavians are aware. However, during my stays in Norway, my friend shared stories he heard from farmers who are visited by the “underground people”. I can imagine that in such a forested country where there are places you do not meet anyone but shadows you start to believe in spirits.

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A view from a window was very mesmerizing. We stayed in a cabin in a very remote forest in Norway, which was also called “troll forest” 

Even until the late 19th century, these trees are so holy that no one dares to break or cut so much as a leaf; and to injure or damage them results in misfortune and illness. A long held belief-system tells us that earth spirits and guardian spirits resided in these trees.

For me it is so interesting to hear similar stories in Thailand, like for example about banana tree spirits and the red fanta offerings to tree spirits, and Japan with its mischievous tree trolls , while these cultures were so far from Scandinavia. It seems that many cultures share some roots 😉

The World Tree

The original sources of the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, appear to have been the holy groves where pagans worshiped to the Norse gods. Saplings from the groves were transplanted to the center of the village or the farm and grew into „boträd‟ on the grave of the original farmer.

This practice can also be connected with Yggdrasil, the ash tree in the old Norwegian mythology. In one of my previous posts I wrote about it: Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime

Lonely deciduous trees

Deciduous trees are generally planted as the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, possibly to reflect the cycles of the seasons and of life and death and the return of life in the spring. Long-lived deciduous trees like oak, ash, linden, maple, and elm are common varieties used, while birch and mountain ash replace the more southerly varieties as one gains elevation or latitude.

Actually, next month my Norwegian friend and I will visit Hokkaido, the deep north of Japan, and I am also reading about the phenomenon of lonely trees along the famous Patchwork Road, and how full buses of Japanese tourists stop to take photographs of these lonely trees, often in the middle of the trees. And they are also populars and oaks. Next month I will for sure write about these lonely trees and why they can feel so sacred, for Japanese, for Norwegians, or even for an urbanized Belgian as me.

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Sneak peak of an instagram post next month for my account @wereldwoude-verhalen (only in Dutch/Flemish). 

Environmental education and knowledge

Lastly, the author of this paper , the author wanted to answer questions like:

  • How does the mythology and folklore of a culture influence their perception of place?
  • How does ecological knowledge of a landscape compare with „kjennskap‟, or what is sacred in a landscape?

Kjennskap refers to the “the more intimate ways of knowing that require time, experience, and generational wisdom – „kjennskap‟, that different way of knowing compared with factual knowledge – „kunnskap‟.” He describes the wood carver’s way of knowing. I imagine my friend who is now spending time in pottery and how it will take her years of training and practice to make a bowl. Also in Japan, they really admire craftsmen, and sometimes I wished I had more time to dedicate myself, discipline myself, to become a master in a craft like woodcarving or woodblock printing. It have a lot of admiration too for this kind of knowledge, more than for academic or so called scientific knowledge.

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Knowing your home through its Trees

In this paper, the author also refers to the importance of knowing your home. He believes if people attach more to the environmental knowledge about home, and the knowledge of plants that ripen during different seasons providing a steady source of food, or the location of secret water, or where the wind brings cooling in very hot summers, … that we can be more resilient for the societal and environmental changes. In Japan, I visit and study the country side, and how the depopulation also leads to loss of local/tacit knowledge. Newcomers with post-materials values try to unearth this tacit knowledge, but first they have to gain the trust of the elderly who stayed behind.

As scientists we can propose solutions, but through my own experience in transdisciplinary research -where academic and non-academic people co-design research and co-produce knowledge and solutions- I value a lot the knowledge that locals have about their “home”. I can also agree with the author that being aware for sacred or guardian trees can connect people to the knowledge and signatures written in the nature, and can inspire them to take care of them and the environmental surroundings.

Therefore I like to share a Norwegian poem by Tarjei Vesaas.  

 

What is Home?

Talk of what Home is – snow and fir forest is Home.

From the first moment they are ours. 

Before anyone has told us that it is snow and fir forests.

They have a place in us, and since then they are there,

always, always. Come home. Go in there bending branches –

Go on till you know what it means to belong.

As an environmental educator I think about to design a semester project to students to identify a guardian or holy tree in their home, and dig in the history behind it. We can learn so much about our homes through the history of the nearby trees.

Norwegian Birch Bark

When my Norwegian friend told me about the journey of a two year old Viking heir to the Norwegian throne through mountains and forests by  “birch benders” (his own translation of Birkebeinar), I was intrigued. Birch benders are a rebellious party in Norway from the 12th century which was so poor that they had to make their shoes of birch bark. By doing a bit of research I learned more about the Norwegians’ relationship to winter, the mountains and cross-country skiing and birch trees. I know in other cultures, like the Celtic and Russian, the birch has special roles and meanings, but I do not know that much about the relationship between Norwegians and the birch.

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Do you recognize Kristofer Hivju, famous for playing the role of Tormund Giantsbane in the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones? He was one of the stars in the Last King, a 2015 Norwegian historical drama. The Norwegian title of the movie is Birkebeinar.

The best skiers

I learned more about the “Birkebeinerrennet” or “Birkebeiner Ski Race”, which is Norway’s most traditional cross-country ski race running every year from Rena to Lillehammer. It has been held annualy since 1932, and commemorates a trip made by the birch benders (I use the name of my friend) to save an infant which could claim the Norwegian throne, as they did not like the current Norwegian king. The two best skiers were selected to undertake this dangerous journey. All participants of the current ski race carry a backpack weighing at least 3.5 kg, symbolizing the weight of the then-one-year-old king.

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Birch wood

The birch plays a central role in northern Norwegian life. I saw it being used for fire, but also the postwar houses are made from “this White Lady of the Wood”. So you see the birch in this picture in two forms ;). In Tromsø, I bought some tea infusion mix of black tea with birch bark .

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On January 2, 2019 I woke up at 09.45 am with this view. I am the guest of Norwegian sheep farmers and their 5 lovely border collies 120 km from Tromsø. I am still above the arctic circle.

Birch water

In the region of Norway, the birch trees start to show green leafs, which is a sign that we soon can tap the healthy birch water. Birch sap is collected only at the break of winter and spring when the sap moves intensively. Birch sap collection is done by drilling a hole into its trunk and leading the sap into a container via some conduit (a tube or simply a thin twig): the sap will flow along it because of the surface tension. The wound is then plugged to minimise infection. Some years ago, a friend and I also tapped birch sap from birches in Belgium, and it was really refreshing. It is good for skin and hair. In a Norwegian book about outdoor and cuisine I found also instructions how to tap birch sap.

Back to the birch benders

As my friend explained to me a couple of times, Norwegians are mostly “humble hard working decent human without making too much of a fuzz.” Before they found all the oil reserves, Norway was not a wealthy nation and people were relatively poor and had to survive in severe conditions, being sync with the strong seasonal changes and deal with the ingredients and other resources they found in their land (which explains why their traditional meals are often simple). Birch was one of their resources, and they are very grateful for it, and learned to manage it in a resource efficient way. When people are poor, like birch binders, they can be often very innovative in finding new ways of underutilized resources like birch bark.

For me, while I witness how the temperature increase makes the snow on the tree branches heavier so the snow falls and reveals all the green, to experience the end of winter and observe spring and other new beginnings, retelling the story of birch benders is reminding us to the courage of two good skiers being resource efficient (especially now in this ecological crisis we should return to a higher use of biobased materials)  to dethrone a king. For me, that king of current time is the dominating paradigm of profit-oriented of economic growth and exploitation.

Continue reading Norwegian Birch Bark

Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime

“These yellow flowers are the heralds of spring,” my friend told me in a small road trip in the coastal area of Norway. He pointed to coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) at the side of the road. In his mother tongue it is hestehov

I asked him to stop the car and found myself plucking the yellow wildflowers. I felt back like a child, and it felt right. 

It reminded me also to the ancient-Greek myth of Persephone, whose life really began when she decided to pluck wildflowers. Once she was goddess of vegetation but eventually became the Queen of the Underworld. She was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Her myths explain the change of the seasons, making her a very important part of Greek culture.

The change of seasons

While she went plucking, she got abducted by Hades, who was madly in love with her. Nobody had seen the kidnapping and a frantic search started. Her mother was madly looking for her, and when she found out the truth that even her husband was behind this abduction, she was furious. There was a terrible fight after this and Demeter threatened to make the entire earth unfertile and doom the entire population to a certain death. It was then that an agreement was made. Persephone would be allowed to leave Hades for half the year and stay with her mother. The remaining half she would stay in the Underworld. This is the explanation for the change of seasons. When the earth becomes barren and cold, Persephone is with Hades and her mother is too distraught to keep up with her duties.

A good crime

My friend knows that I work for years on a novel based on the story of Persephone and Demeter, and it had once the working title “When Persephone disappeared” It is now turning into a mystical eco-thriller. I had to think about my own Persephone story, because in this same road trip, my friend had told me earlier that easter time is the time in Norway to buy and read good crime thrillers and I could see the link with spring. 

 I knew before that Nordic countries export a lot of crime stories to the world, and I know about the christianity’s influence, but I had always thought that Easter was more about (re)birth than death. Later, in a shop, he pointed out also to a advertisement of a list of crime books which was decorated with easter eggs and cute baby chicks.

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It felt so weird to see this combination of death and horror with something cute and innocent as a baby chick.  “Don’t you read crime books or bingewatch crime series in this time in Belgium?” he asked a bit puzzled. “No, not really,” I answered. 

However, I started to grasp when I thought about it more. Death and rebirth are intertwined with each other. In matter of fact, Persephone was also the queen of death and the underworld. Every death is a beginning; and easter time is the ideal time to reflect on that.  

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Evening break after a day working, time for reflection

Ash, connecting death (sacrifice) and rebirth

When I consulted my book about the wheel of the year and the related trees I found this was also the time of the ash. The ash is a tall tree of imposing grace and is known in leggings as the tree of life. It branches stretch far out to the heavens, with the earth at its centre, and its roots reaching own to hell. it also appears in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil, the great ash of Odin who hung from it (yes, he died and got resurrected) in order to gain the secrets of the runes and enlightenment. Do you see the similarity with Jesus at the cross, the event remembered during Easter?

Since the winged fruits of the ash looks like keys, the tree itself symbolises a key to the universal understanding of how all things are linked and connected. Like death and life. 

Now it begins

Some hours later, I put the yellow flowers in a vase in his house and took a seat in his sofa where I continued reading “The Sixteen trees of the Somme” by Lars Mytting, which is a mystery (too) about the love of wood and finding your own self. (I had bought the book some weeks ago, because of the promise I can enjoy reading about the love for birches, carpentry and wood carving, and not so much because it was a mystery). The end of the first chapter resonates perfectly with the Norwegian easter spirit. Someone had died, and the main character thought:

Now it begins. 

Norway Spruce, a story about Shaman Claus, mushrooms and fire

Two weeks ago I attended a Christmas Quiz where I learned that the  Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is a Christmas tree donated to the people of Britain by the city of Oslo in Norway each year since 1947 (as a gratitude for their support during the Second World War). According to wikipedia, it is typically a 50- to 60-year-old Norway spruce, generally over 20 metres tall. The tree is cut in Norway sometime in November during a ceremony attended by the British Ambassador to Norway, Mayor of Oslo, and Lord Mayor of Westminster. One week later I embarked on a journey to the far north, and saw so many spruces in the wild. I also bought a book along the trip, that I read when I was 10 years, and 20 years, and as I am almost turning 30 years old, it was time to repeat the “tradition”. As the north of Norway does not see daylight between November 21st and January 21st, it seemed the right time and place to remind me again from where the idea of the “christmas tree” and also Santa Claus really comes from.

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It all started with Fire

When I did know that Santa Claus, or the Dutch version “Sinterklaas” were not real, my father gave me a book “The Secret of Sinterklaas”. I learned that it was all about fire and trees, and about that we, as humans, try to control nature, but actually will never succeed to control it, as we are not above nature, but part of it. In Japan, Thailand and other countries you see still a lot of tree worshipping, but actually in north and west Europe people still do tree worshipping, but they do not know. Before the 8th century, people in northern and west Europe would burn trees in this time to remind themselves to the sacred gift of fire that our ancestors received ten thousands year ago. The oldest myths in many cultures are about that phase in history where mankind started to use fire, because that was the beginning of the exponential technological progress. By burning trees we remind ourselves humbly to the power of nature. It is a time of the year where we should look in ourselves by gazing at bonfires or candlelight. As Thoreau wrote, electricity kills darkness, but candlelight illuminates it.

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Later, the Roman Catholic Church colonised this practice into a christian one and decided Jesus was born in this time. Before that happened, our ancestors called this period  “Joeltijd”. “Joel” is Dutch for “celebrating”. In other languages people would say Yule or Yulda. It is the time for people coming together; eating, drinking, making babies etc. Many taboos would be broken in these days.  However, in the times of inquisition and witch hunts, any form of pagan practice was hidden. Only after the power of the Church weakened during Napoleon’s reign, the christmas tree was re-introduced, and with the invention of lightbulbs in the 19th century we got the tree we know today.

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Shaman Claus and mushrooms

Another story that I read was about mushrooms. The shamans of the old religions of North and West Europe used Amanita muscaria, also known as the Fly Agaric mushroom, or the the Alice in Wonderland mushroom, or as the house of leprechauns we see in western fairytales.  It was held very sacred by these ancient people, and was used by the shaman and others for ceremonial and spiritual purposes.  They only grow beneath certain types of evergreen trees, and I assume that they also grow under Norwegian Spruces. However, I also heard they were originally from North-America and cultivated in Norway for Christmas, but then I read at the blog of Tree Spirit Wisdom that “In Sweden, scientists have found a living Norway spruce named Old Tjikko, dated to be 9,550 years old. It has achieved this age through self-control and by cloning itself thus regenerating new trunks, branches and roots in the same space.” So, I think my assumption can be right.

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These mushrooms and evergreen trees form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree, the exchange of which allows them to grow.  One of the reported ancient beliefs was that the mushroom was actually the fruit of the tree. These mushrooms can have different colours: from brightly red and white to golden orange and yellow, which reminds me to… the christmas decorations of the christmas tree.

Tree of Birth, the Tree of Not Giving Up

In Greek mythology, the Spruce tree was dedicated to Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon, Hunting, Nature and protector of women. The Greeks suggested that the enduring Spruce tree represented constant, eternal life and was labelled ‘The Tree of Birth’; its scented evergreen needles signifying resilience and strength. This is the reason the tree is so associated with Artemis – as renewal, resilience and resurgence are all qualities which this goddess prized above all others. It’s also no wonder that the spruce is our Christmas tree, as Christians celebrate also the birth of Jesus Christ. As the tree is known for its resilience and renewal, it reminds us that perseverance and patience leads us higher. Sometimes we have to overcome darker periods because these dark times gives us a lot of knowledge and tools. We should not give up! While I was freezing in the dayless days in the Far North, looking for the northern lights, I tapped into the energy of the spruce and also told myself “Be Like a Spruce!”

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Spruce Beer from Native America

Spruce trees are mythologically important plants among Southwestern tribes, where they are symbols of the sky and directional guardians of the north. According to Hopi myth, the spruce tree was once a medicine man, Salavi, who transformed himself into a tree. Besides, Spruce “beer” was first brewed by the indigenous peoples of northern Europe and North America as a medicinal beverage. Depending on the time of year and the type of spruce, the flavour varied. By the 1700s, alcoholic spruce beer was common in colonial America and eastern Canada.

Use of Spruce

Not only the mushroom has special properties. They are known for their resins. Resin incenses are typically the dried sap from trees. According to the blog of Druid Garden, “Norway Spruce is another tree that produces a good amount of incense.  I have found that not all Norway Spruces smell the same.  They all have a skunky/musky smell, which can be pleasant but very different than the pines.”

According to Mercola, “Spruce oil is frequently added in soap, air fresheners and household cleaner formulations to lend its fresh scent and act as a disinfecting agent. Because of its pleasant earthy scent, its calming effects and its ability to ease anxiety and stress, spruce oil is also a favourite in meditation rituals like grounding. ”

And talking about patience

Several authors who I adore, like Elif Shafak, Margaret Atwood, Han Kang, David Mitchell and Sjón (ok, the last one I do not know) buried their next book for almost 100 years in Norwegian forest, as part of Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. According to the Guardian, “Starting in 2014, Paterson has asked a writer a year to contribute a book to her public artwork. Riffing on themes of imagination and time, each work has been seen only by its author and will be printed in 2114, when a patch of 1,000 Norwegian spruce trees planted in 2014 in the forest that surrounds Oslo will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts.” I think using a spruce, the tree of resilience and renewal, was no coincidence…

Please share in comments what you know about the Norwegian spruce – or the Christmas Tree.