Witnessing the Rune Stone

A little over a two and half hours’ drive from Oslo—near the village of Tuddal and under the towering impression of Gausta, Telemark County’s highest peak—there is a rune stone that stands high on a mountain path.

If you are leaving from Oslo, to get there you head west out of Norway’s capital past Bærum and Drammen, in the direction of Kongsberg—a town built first on the back of silver mining and later on munitions. Passing through Kongsberg you next arrive at Notodden. Once a booming industry town, it was part of a hydroelectric network that powered much of this part of Norway. The hydroelectric plant, which sits right on the water, is now part of a UNESCO world heritage site celebrating industry. Notodden is also famous these days for its annual Blues festival. There is also the Blueseum—a museum to the history of blues music that also serves as the main public library for the people of Notodden. From here you begin the swing away from the water and start to head inland.

Past Notodden you reach Heddal, an innocuous looking village with a star attraction: a twelfth-century stavkirke (stave church), a type of square, high wooden church that is unique to Norway.

After the stavkirke in Heddal, you come to Sauland, the administrative heart of Hjartdal kommune, where further on the road you find the long stretched out village of Tuddal. Tuddal’s “centre” has all you would expect of a small rural village in Norway. There’s the local Church of Norway church in its white wood paneling, the local school, a kro—a kind of canteen and inn—a little museum and arts centre, and because we are so close to one of Norway’s most popular mountains, a camping site and small restaurant that operates in the high season.

To get to the rune stone you drive through the village before taking a turn up right onto a steep road that corkscrews in a variety of hairpin bends before finally, thankfully, flattening out. To your left there is a large body of water, Toskjervatn as the locals call it in their nynorsk dialect, or Toskjærvannet as it is in bokmål. About two kilometres along this road on your left-hand side, you will find the Tuddal høyfjellshotell. Built in the nineteenth century and beautifully decorated, this wooden hotel is part of a network of hotels (høyfjell means high mountain) that sprung up in Norway in the 1800s to give people a place while exploring the natural beauty of their country, all a part of the nation building Romanticism and enjoyment of sublime nature that marked this period.

A little beyond this hotel you will come to a group of very old, much less grand buildings on the side of the road. This is the old summer seter,  a series of buildings used in the same way as a shieling, where it was possible, at one time, to get farm fresh milk, cream and cheese from the locals. The real hunt for the rune stone begins here.

Hiking out from this spot, you first go through grassy land that—in the summer at least—is rich in crowberries, blueberries, juniper berries and blueberries. As you move along you come to a birch wood forest. You begin to hear the burbling of a strong stream that comes from a waterfall down from the mountains above you to your right. Crossing over the stream, which runs a reddish colour because of the iron in the rocks, you make a steep ascent that doesn’t take long but is intense. Once you reach this small peak, you start along a series of winding paths through small foothills that are also covered in beds of various berries. Following a well-beaten path you curve around the base of two mountains known collectively as the knees of the much taller Gaustatoppen. As your path snakes round, you come into more open and windy ground. With the knees to your right and slightly behind you, the peak of Gaustatoppen should now be visible nearby. It is here, along this path, that you will find the rune stone, slanted slightly but upright.

***

The first time I hiked up here in search of the rune stone, I walked straight past it. I mistook it for an old milestone marker along the path rather than for what it was: a piece of living history that stretches back around 1000 years.

        Standing upright with the help of other stones at its base, the rune stone is about four or five feet tall. The side facing outwards is covered in dead and living moss, centuries old. It is along the left-hand side of the beautiful piece of stone that you will the runic inscription:

ᛡᛅᛁᛚᛆᛍᚽᛆᚦᚢᚮᛐᛂ

Which has been written up as: Hæila se aþ uote. This means “rock slab/stone be as a witness”. This gnomic phrase immediately begs the question: witness what?

        There are several theories as to what the rune stone was erected as a witness to. One local history recounts the story of a beautiful local woman who died up there in the unforgiving open ground while waiting on her lover whom she had arranged to meet in this spot. A more prosaic explanation of the rune stone’s job is to stand as a witness to a boundary between one area and another. Although the boundary has shifted somewhat over a thousand years, it is believed that this was its original function: to set, literally, in stone an agreement about where one area of land ended and another began.

        It’s hard not to think that both explanations have equal weight. Perhaps both are true. Standing up here in the pass, it is difficult not to imagine it as a perfect meeting spot for two lovers seeking some privacy—especially if it was a secret love. This spot is the backdrop that gives rise to ballads. If we accept the more prosaic version, that it is simply a boundary marker then it is still remarkable that it was marked in this way. A stone carved with a phrase that was both specific and nebulous, inviting questions.

***

        One thing you will notice when examining the runic inscription is that the runes are very nearly faded. They now form a part of a palimpsest of text on this rock. A palimpsest that bears witness not just to the death of a lover left waiting, nor of a settled dispute over land boundaries. Instead, it speaks to the human desire to say I too was here: I lived once and stood on this spot, looking at the same view as you who came before me and those of you yet to come after me.

        This rune stone is no museum piece. Therein lies its power. There are few monuments that are a thousand years old that we get to experience beyond temperature-controlled glass, not as part of an exhibit, nor with accompanying text. Understanding them requires seeing them in their place. Standing in front of the rune stone here below the knees of Gaustatoppen is to stand in front of human history. It forces us to imagine and to ask questions. Who put this here? What kind of lives did they lead? We have some answers of course, in the inscription, in the location. There are also other questions to be asked.

This is because this rune stone is covered in graffiti. Not graffiti as we now know and understand the term, but a different kind of graffiti from the 18th and 19th Centuries. As you read along the rune stone making out the fading lines of the runic inscription, it is the initials or the years carved into the stone, sometimes right over a line from the original runes that strike you.

My first reaction to this was a kind of horror at the desecration of this historic artefact. Yet, the more I thought on it the more I understood the impulse, of these people from 1776 and 1800, and other years since, to make their own mark on this rune stone. It is an intensely human need to show that we were here.

        The rune stone, which, based on the kind of runic alphabet it uses, dates most likely from some time in the 9th or 10th Century has stood in the same spot since a person or group of people decided to lift it from the ground, place it in its spot, and etch into it “rock slab be as a witness”. It has been witnessing ever since. It has witnessed more than a thousand cycles of the seasons. People and animals have crossed its path hundreds and thousands of times. They have died but it remains. Their lives, if ever remembered, now forgotten. The rune stone goes on witnessing.

        Standing next to the rune stone, contemplating it, running my fingers along the outline traces of the original runes you begin to understand something: that the boundary the rune stone really marks is the one between life and death. Between the short span of our mortality in the face of its near-permanence. This is the lesson of history: we are here for a short time, much has gone before us and something will surely follow after us. It is our job to witness this, to be aware that we will pass on one day, but this rune stone will likely still stand, here along the mountain pass, witnessing the next cycle of seasons, and all that comes with it, after us.
Notes: My main sources for the apparent meanings of the runestone and it’s gnomic inscription are the Aberdeen Skaldic Project, and Ivar T. Dahl’s Glimt av Tuddal før i Verden (1998) and Magnus Olsen’s Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer. 2 : V. Buskerud fylke ; VI. Vestfold fylke ; VII. Telemark fylke (1951). The latter especially was indispensable.

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What’s in a mile?

A mile, as many of you probably know, is a unit of measuring distance derived from the Roman period, when it represented a distance of one thousand paces. Earlier today, I went for a hike up to the  Solar Observatory in Harestua (which now acts as a kind of education resource centre about the solar system but also the surrounding countryside), and along the way I noticed a placename sign. It was an area called milsteinbotn. 

Milstein, to my ears, sounded fairly similar to the English compound milestone – a marker of a mile travelled. But a mile – replaced in most places now by the standard measurements of metres and kilometres – is a notoriously unreliable unit of measurement mainly based on the fact that the length of a mile depends on the size of a foot, and this varies from place to place. An old Irish mile was longer than the equivalent English mile: It was said that four Irish miles was equivalent to five English miles – hence placenames like Twomileborris or Sixmilebridge in Ireland. An Irish mile was equivalent to 2240 yards, which is approximately 2048 metres. According to the  Oxford English Dictionary definition of a mile

“The length of the mile has varied considerably at different periods and in different localities, chiefly owing to the influence of the agricultural system of measures with which the mile has been brought into relation (see furlong n.). It was fixed by statute at 1760 yards (viz. 8 furlongs of 40 poles, each pole being 16½ feet) in 1592 (Act 35 Eliz. I, c. 6, s. 8), and in Britain is also called a statute mile. This is also the legal mile in the United States. The obsolete Irish mile was 2240 yards (approx. 2048 metres), and the Scottish mile (obsolete by the late 19th century) was 1976 yards (approx. 1807 metres) although values probably varied according to time and place.

While the differences between an Irish, English or Scottish mile were relatively small, the differences in the use of the term here in Norway are significant. An old Norwegian (or Scandinavian) mile was the equivalent of about 10km today. Despite being a Scandinavian mile, it was a unit of measurement only used in Norway and Sweden, and not in Denmark. The distance of ten kilometres apparently derives from an older unit of measurement of a “rast” or rest, which was considered a fair point at which to stop on a long walk, every 10km or so.

Meanwhile, botn translates as a corrie or cirque of glacial rocks – which were in plentiful supply right by the placename sign. Such glacial debris, which is carried by a glacier or ice sheet as it moves and known in English as moraines, or morene in Norwegian, gives the road I live on it’s name – moreneveien.  So in that simple compound placename we find a history of distance travelled on foot and the ways to measure such journeys, and a much older geological history of the area – this botn, this corrie, of glacial debris that reaches back into a time when probably no human foot left a trace in the land around this valley.

Books of 2016

As I did last year, I am going to list off the ten books I’ve read in 2016 that I think are worth hearing about. Many, if not most, are – like with my 2015 list – not actually necessarily published in 2016. I just happen to have read them in the last year. As it was with 2015, what I’ve enjoyed reading in 2016 has been motivated in part by the fact that I have once again moved countries; this time from the Czech Republic to Norway, and so some books I’ve read since coming here and have been using to help me learn more about my new home are present.

As usual the struggle with reading is tied up in the struggle with writing and the constant struggle to widen the horizons of the kinds of books I read. Such a list is also affected by the fact that it’s easier for me to recall what I’ve read probably in the last 3-6 months of the year than in the first half, but here goes.

Claire Louise Bennett – Pond

I’ve already written a long piece on the blog earlier this year after reading this book. A string of connected short stories, Pond is a powerful examination of secluded living. Absolutely essential piece of fiction.

Karl Ove Knausgård– A Death in the Family

The biggest name in Norwegian literature there is at the moment, Knausgård’s six-volume autobiographical novel, Min Kamp (My Struggle), a title which self-consciously invokes comparison with the title of Adolf Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf, is anything but. A Death in the Family is the English-language title of the first book in the series and, broadly speaking, revolves around Knausgård coming to terms with the death of his father although that hardly begins to do the novel justice. The fifth volume has just come out in English, and the sixth is on its way. The series has cemented Knausgård’s reputation and many more books are available in Norwegian and English of his. I am also currently reading his Home and Away, a series of letters he wrote with a Swedish author friend around the 2014 World Cup.

Neil Gaiman – American Gods

A book I’ve been vaguely aware of for years, I read this in the first few weeks of moving to Norway and I enjoyed it immensely, I read it just after finishing the next book on the list, and the centrality of a character named Wednesday, in homage to Odin, suited my new surroundings well. It is, I think the first piece of fantasy I have read in many years, and it was a thorough page-turner. A party I’m very late to, but glad to have arrived at nonetheless in the end.

Robert Ferguson – The Hammer and the Cross

Ferguson has just released a new book, Scandinavians, which reflects on his many years experience of life in Norway and the other Scandinavian countries. I picked up this book, The Hammer and the Cross, to get some better historical bearings on the viking period and the shifting sands of Norwegian and broader Scandinavian history. An excellent read, it provides a great overview of the impact that Viking invasion had not just on the countries they invaded but also the impact those places had on Viking belief systems in turn. A good companion book is Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, a history of the world from the point of view of the North Sea.

Mike Savage – Social Class in the 21st Century

This Pelican introduction book, which was based in large part on the recent Great British Class Survey was assembled by a team of sociologists. It is an extraordinary attempt to map class as it appears in modern Britain (with parallels for Ireland and elsewhere). Attempting to define class in an age when someone may be economically less well off while having significant cultural and social capital is difficult but this book makes a fairly successful stab at asking questions around what things like the precariat really are and how it is that new forms of cultural capital actually operate.

Stephen King – On Writing

In an effort to spur myself into writing more again, I picked up this hugely entertaining memoir that while offering advice on writing in parts, is really the story of how to build writing into your daily life regardless of the motivation for that writing. It’s not a style guide or a strategy to write your first novel, but as a well-written book about the craft of writing, it provides its own fine example.

Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Spurred on by the positive experience I had with Gaiman’s American Gods, I finally went on to read this book which has recently been adapted as a TV series by the BBC. Among the most fun aspects of the book are the copious footnotes and the entire world of magical scholarship which Clarke builds into the narrative.

Alberto Manguel – Curiosity

The first Alberto Manguel book I bought a few years ago was The Library at Night, a book which many of my friends will know, is among my favourite works of non-fiction. Here in Curiosity, Manguel uses Dante’s inferno and his guide in Virgil as the basis for an exploration of different forms of human curiosity. As you’d expect from Manguel if you’re familiar with his writing, it is erudite, philosophical, playful and ultimately affirming.

Robert MacFarlane – Landmarks

I had several years ago considered buying MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, his walking tour of Britain’s lost, old or obscured roads and routes but put it off. Living in the Czech Republic and now Norway, my interest in walking, and the kinds of knowledge it gives has only increased. So, when I saw this book by him which considers the words-we-don’t-use-much-anymore to talk about landscape and features of nature while out walking, I couldn’t resist. Although it focuses on words and names related to the British Isles, it is such a treasure trove of writing, and a brilliantly curious book, that it will make walking anywhere – through any place name – a much more interesting experience.

Frederic Gros – A Philosophy of Walking

As I continue to do more walking, and to think more about the pleasures of walking and hiking, this book provides an excellent overview of some of the philosophical aspects of what different kinds of walking mean. Whether you are keeper of assiduous habits always walking the same route at the same pace at the same time daily, are an ambler, stroller, parader or conqueror, this book will give you pause for thought about what it is we are doing, what we are actually after when we go out walking.

Are any of these in your top books of 2016, or any time? Anyway, here’s to a year of good reading and to a year of good reading to come in 2017!

A walking stick

At its edges, the floor of the forest is a lively green bed of moss and the sun is bursting down. It’s early September and I am walking in the woods near Harestua. In the woods. Through them. Across them. Zig-zagging up and down between rocks and rotten tree stumps. I spot mushrooms and thick bushes of blueberries. On some rocks, standing entirely alone, there is moss like thickset hair, springy to the touch and knotted in a network of life. I poke my walking stick in front of me, to judge the softness of the ground as I move forward, unsure of my footing. I place it on the stump of an old, moss-covered tree stump, and the bottom of my stick goes straight through the soft and rotten bark, silently. I strafe this way and that. The top of my walking stick glued to my hand with my own sweat. Who hath not one horse may on a staff ride.

I like my walking sticks to be about shoulder height. This gives you more to lean into going up and coming down. With each walk of the woods, I pick sticks up and test them.

Walk with them a while to see how they feel in my hand. Gauge the grip. It is a strange kind of communion with the dead. Bark hard and dry, knots smoothed only by sanding.  It takes weeks. Patient waiting. The drying process. The removal of the bark. It is best to do in springtime when bark has not yet dried in and a stick is easily shorn. Then you must treat the wood. There is a process to bring the branch back to life.

I picked the walking stick up early on my walk, spotting it among some felled trees. It seemed sturdy and just the right thickness. It didn’t feel brittle like some of the branches I tried first to make my walking stick. It was definitely serviceable for this walk. As I walked here and there through the woods close to the Solar Observatory, I thought about what it meant to call it my walking stick. When does a walking stick taken from the forest floor become yours? Does it ever become yours? Why imbue this dead piece of wood with meaning? To what end? To give life back to it? To extend your own inner life out to one more object that contains a piece of you?

Walking sticks have long fascinated me. As a child, I consider them a sign of infirmity. I couldn’t understand why a person who was fit and healthy would want or need what I thought of only as a kind of crutch. Walking sticks were not then fashion items to me. Nor something for the fit walker who wants to walk further, more expansively, through forests say, or up a steep hill. When I think of walking sticks, I immediately imagine the deep black knottiness of a blackthorn stick. I have always loved the look of a blackthorn stick. I can’t think of them without thinking of a song I once heard sung by a Scottish singer in An Spailpin Fanach at the Singer’s Club in Cork: Erin Go Bragh. A switch of blackthorn I held in my fist / And round his big body I made it to twist / And the blood from his napper I quickly did draw / And paid him stock and interest for Erin Go Bragh.

I also have a vague memory of a blackthorn stick that my dad had for a while, which he kept in our garage. Cut a stout blackthorn to banish ghost and goblin. And of the walking sticks that I remember in my aunt Breda’s house, in the corner of the hallway. I remember running my hands over the knots and the smooth top, fascinated. Walking sticks are close cousins to the wizard’s staff in my mind. I think of Tolkien’s Gandalf and his staff. I think of Merlin. I wonder did Sweeney Peregrine have a stick or a staff on his wanderings.

As I placed my stick in front of my leading foot through the forest I thought more and more about the magic of the walking stick.

The magic that resides in the meaning we affix to things. By itself, this stick was the branch of a chopped down tree. In my hands, it is a weapon – of defence and attack – it is a portal to a world of wizards and magic. It is something once a part of the forest now guiding me through the same place from which it came. The walking staff comes out of the Book of Exodus to us. Moses had one. In Old English it was a stæb. A stave. Staff. Isaiah prophesied that the staff of the mighty would be broken and the earth would be at peace. In the grip of the church it became a bishop’s crozier.

In Co. Clare, it was recorded once that no one would make walking sticks from the white thorn tree. This is because Christ’s crown of thorns were said to be from that tree. No one in the district would cut a lone white thorn tree because it was said that the tree would be in your bed that night. The berries of the tree were understood to be drops of blood, being red. A switch of blackthorn is better for wrapping around the bodies of your enemies anyway.

Elsewhere, to bolster your walking stick, we are told that a rams horn is got and boiled in a pot of water for about two hours. Then, it is taken out and twisted while hot into any shape required. This head is fitted to a hazel stick and secured with glue. In this way, a very good walking stick is made.

My walking stick was plain and seemed strong. It guided me between the pines, across the mossy floor of the forest. I rested it against the same rocks I rested. To let a walking stick fall when setting out on a journey is believed to foretell disappointment. Men have made whole tress their walking sticks to fend off giants. They have walked the land to talk to the king of Leinster and to cheat death with branches shorn of twigs that took them across their country. Over land and mountain, through hedge and thicket, forest, bramble and briars. Hermes, mercurial, walked with caduceus. Shepherds tend flocks with a crooked walking stick. Sometimes as I walk the woods near Harestua I hear the clanking of a bell around a goat’s neck. I have never seen a shepherd but they are safely ensconced in the forest and its paths. I have walked man made paths and I have walked those beaten by the goats. I have walked paths that only I have created. Created topographies of my own. I have done this with the help of a walking stick I took from the forest floor.

What still moves when it is dead? A walking stick.

A branch of a tree cannot be a walking stick before it first dies. Some people take down a tree to make a walking stick. Deciduous trees are best. Sturdy and strong, their bark is hard, not wet like evergreens. You can use Ash. Here in Norway Ash was the first man. Ash and Elm, Adam and Eve. Two trees given life. Then from the throng did three come forth, from the home of the gods, the mighty and gracious; two without fate on the land they found, Ask and Embla, empty of might. Soul they had not, sense they had not, heat nor motion, nor goodly hue; Soul gave Odin, sense gave Hönir, heat gave Lothur and goodly hue. Yggdrasil, the world’s tree, was made of ash. It reached the heavens and the depths. The oars of the Vikings. The spears of Odin and Thor too. Healer and aid, the ash tree is magic. Gandalf walked in Tolkien’s world with an ash stick. Der Berggeist. He could easily have been Krkonos. Walking sticks aid and abet journeys of all kinds. As my feet drift in one direction, my mind drifts in another. Drifting feet and mind have their anchor, arm’s length and shoulder height ahead.