A few months ago, I read you can find trolls in a magical forest in Belgium. Of course I looked up and read that Thomas Dambo, a Danish artist, made rolls with old palettes, recycled wood, fallen trees and branches – with the help of volunteers from the region. On the occasion of the 15th anniversary of Tomorrowland, a famous festival in and from Belgium. Of course this was on my to-visit-list as soon as I would be back in Belgium. Trolls, rescued wood and a forest setting… this is so… me.
This week, when I came back from the “country of trolls” and had experienced also some forest bathing there, I had some time to go “hunting” for trolls in this Belgian forest with my dad. The place of the municipality is “Boom” and could be translated freely as “Tree.” The golden yellow birch leaves sparkled in the evening sun. I also noticed that we were not the only ones who went looking for the trolls on a late rainy Wednesday evening. It feels encouraging when you notice art full of magic and mysticism gets people to nature.
Apparently, Thomas Dambo has made trolls all over the world and calls himself a recycle art activist. Did you see Thomas’ trolls somewhere?
By coincidence, I heard later that a young man in my parents’ street is also a sort of recycling art activist who is building a viking construction in the same forest where I will organise a forest bath this weekend (topic for the next post!).
It feels almost serendipity that I am encountering so many art works inspired by Nordic culture and using rescued wood…
Perhaps, as my trainers and mentors of the Association of Nature and Forest Therapy (ANFT) said in some way, … that from the moment you take the journey of the guide, and deepen your connection with the land, the other beings… that “the right things” come to you… the things which are meant to you.
Last weekend I accompanied my Russian friend on her first forest bath. I had found another guide with ANFT that guides in Ekebergparken in Oslo. Two weeks earlier, I had asked the guide before what was the Scandinavian or Nordic way of forest bathing. So nature gave an answer. That weekend the first snow felt in Oslo. Read here my experiences of a forest bath filled with snowflakes and warmed by bonfire.
Forest bathing in snow
I had not experienced forest bathing in the snow. I tried to dress warmly, because I knew we would be not moving so fast, but I made a mistake with the shoes. So my feet were cold. Fortunately she went for invitations with bonfires and with wandering, and not sitting at the same spot. But the snow added something mystical to it. While the guide introduced us to the land of Ekebergparken, I felt mesmerized by the snowflakes. When we walked deeper into the forest, we shared memories about trees. The guide told us how she communicates with a tree close to her house and how it had told her that he feels sleepy. Winter is here. It is almost time for the trees to sleep and rest.
Oak hill without oaks ?
Ekeberg, the guide explained us, was once the place where political gardening were hold. The name means “oak hill” but as some of you know, oak is a very desired wood. All oaks got cut to serve the lumber industry. Some time ago, they found one oak. They planted fungi and did other measures to revive and help the tree.
The interesting first serendipity is that my friend celebrated here her marriage, because of the view on Central Oslo, where once viking ships landed and left. Later she would tell that an oak in a Russian park was very important for her. It was in the closeness of this oak that her boyfriend-now-husband took her hand for the first time. The oak seems to witness the milestones of her love life. Isn’t that beautiful?
Nordic tea and decoration
The guide shared with us a tea made from rosehips, berries and juniper and also explained the healing properties and other usages or the tea plants. She had decorated the fire with vibrant red Rowan berries. Earlier in this trip I learned these berries and tree have special meaning for Scandinavians. It is too bitter to eat, but they make jams and gin from it. My friend remarked how amazing it is that Scandinavian people can make from some simple things like pine cones and berries a setting which feels so cosy. The guide said that Scandinavia’s land has not so much to offer and is not so fertile, and has short fertile periods, so they learned to do more with less.
Vasalisa the Beautiful
In this Russian fairytale, the young girl Vasilisa is given a magical doll by her dying mother. When her father remarries, her stepmother and stepdaughter are jealous of Vasilisa’s beauty, and they force her to cook and clean all day and night. When the wicked stepmother and ugly stepsisters send Vasilisa into the dark forest to Baba Yaga, a terrifying witch with a taste for human flesh, Vasilisa has no weapon to take with her but her magical doll.
According to Clarissa Pinkola Estes’ book “Women Who Run with Wolves”, the story is about a young girl sharpening her female intuition. The Baba Yaga is for me a wise wild old woman, a sort of archetype, that helps woman to learn how to divide good things from bad things and other necessary skills. I do not see the guide as an antagonist. But I guess the idea that Baby Yaga is frightening for manypeople is because independent women living alonein aforest look strange. Maybe still feel strange and what society does not expect.
When imagination turns into reality
I love the story in such a way that the story was the basic for my own first fiction book (which gets published in several weeks). It was an almost mysticalexperience to follow Vasalisa and Baba Jaga, or my Russian friend and this Nordic elder woman, to a fire and a weird wooden construction along birch trees kissed bysnowflakes.
I shared this experience at the bonfire. It felt like serendipity that I share this experience with especially a Russian youngerfriend. I had not thought before I would encounter Vasalisa the Beautiful and Baba Yaga in this forest bath. But yes… serendipity is something you experience often when you are in the woods 😉
I am back in Norway. Third time this year. If I have an opportunity to go there (this time a conference which I could combine with a small project in Sweden), I will take it. Sometimes I have this idea that my ancestors are Vikings which visited the Low Countries, and that these genes sing every time when I am back in the land of fjords, mountains and coldness. I will leave Norway in some days and my soul is pining already. I promised myself that I will move to Norway after Japan taught me everything what I need to know.
The big pine
I was also invited by my best Norwegian friend to stay in the cabin if his material family. He knows I love trees, and the first morning he proposed for a hike with the dog to the top of a low mountain. Everything was covered by snow. Almost halfway the easy climb, he showed me this big pine tree. She was magnificent.
When he was a child, his grandmother took him there often and this pine would be the destination of a small climb, where she rewarded him with chocolate.
She loved that tree as she used to go there when she was a kid. As a result she made the farmer who owned the land in the area promise he would not cut it down in her lifetime. My friend is happy that the owner is not interested in forestry anymore and that the tree will probably live another 50 years and carry her memory.
The grandmother died two years ago. …
The next day I was alone. He had to work. I prepared some hot tea and planned to have a sit spot next to the tree to connect with the land and the tree. I walked alone. I did not hear any sound expect my shoes in the snow.
When I arrived at the big pine, I heard birds singing. Very welcoming. I shared some tea with the tree and sat there for 20 minutes – until my ass froze 😉.
I felt very welcome there.
I imagine the tree told me to come back.
To deepen my learning journey as a forest therapy guide I started to draw again. As a child I loved it. One reason of staying in a cabin for 3 days without wifi was to rest and to make time to draw again. I decided to draw the pine tree and my friend (I used a photograph I took of them the day before) reflected about the web of interbeing. The pine tree has many branches. Just like a web. I draw it on the side of a big card I send to my elder friend in Vermont, with who I started my forest therapy guide training.
A mirror memory
Then, suddenly I realised, that a pine was also central in my own connection, or loss of my grandfather, who took me also, when I was a child, on hikes and also gave me rewards. A pine tree killed him. Almost 14 years ago I pointed to the pine tree he would fell, when he asked me which tree looked dead.
In many ways; this close friend, maybe my most favorite man in the world at the moment (as I have no boyfriend who could have claimed that) reminds me so often to my grandfather. Only when I was drawing I realised how even more connected we were… because of pine and beloved grandparent memories.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.