Hidden in Plain Sight
“There!” I said and pointed left. Standing less than 10 meters from us was a Roe deer. She was frozen, save her large black eyes that blinked enough to betray. A flicker of a tail betrayed her companion. There were two. We paused to look, to gaze with a little wonder. The three of us almost walked right past those deer, their gray coats and stillness were near perfect concealment. Miss G. noticed the third animal, bedded, now standing. They walked away about five meters and then turned back. They waited, we walked on, we had almost missed them.
In the damp late autumn woods, golden leaves plastered the forest floor like the aftermath of a mad session of wine and painting from a ladies night out. Everywhere else was the sulking grey and brown of a landscape yielding to winter. The party is over, summer is gone, it is time to sleep. Mist and low clouds pressed down from the heavens, the damp coldness squeezed my sides.
I intended to write about the smells of Horten, the smells of food cooking. My first night in Horten I took a run through the town and neighborhoods, it was supper time. I ran through the smells of the world vis-a-vis food in this remote corner. Horten smells delicious.
My gastronomically inspired lines were superseded by a transplant who did something that transplants are uniquely suited to do: point out what is hidden in plain sight. Miss G. was neither, “not from around here,” nor was she even Norwegian, accordingly she had a keen awareness of “neat stuff” around Horten that too many locals seem to take for granted. What was the obvious secret? Viking burial mounds!
Vikings! Just the word is enough to send most peoples’ minds whirling with fantasies and fear. The romance, the allure, the medieval violence, and the extinction makes Vikings an almost perfect topic of interest. Miss G. said that she and Banksy’s mom would like take me for a quick look at the most important site of Viking Burial mounds in Scandinavia, she didn’t have to ask twice.
Like the stereotype of any extinct people, the Vikings were far more complex and diverse a culture than popular culture allows. Think about how singularly the free Sioux, or Romans, or Ancient Egyptians are portrayed, the name Viking conjures an idea of a single and uniform people when in fact the truth is stranger than fiction. What we don’t know about the nuances of Viking civilization is perhaps one of their most compelling qualities.
The core of “Viking” culture spanned about 400 years. The culture, with its nurseries in modern Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, exchanged with and adapted from other cultures, like any modern vibrant people would. Styles of Viking art changed over the course of generations and centuries, reflecting a dynamic culture. Do American politicians still sport wigs, ponytails, and tights?
Sometimes I pity the Vikings, we have essentialized them so much as to almost make them into a joke. But I suppose that is human nature too. The defeat at Stamford Bridge is often noted as the end of the Vikings. But like any influential culture, they really never go away. Their cultural habits and nuances find ways to persevere. Maybe they persevere in words like “ransack” or in successor groups like the Normans who, in 1066, won England. How will contemporary Norway and America persevere culturally?
The third thing I saw was a mound. The grass was still green, this mound had a prominent cleft, maybe the scar of looters digging up the treasure. In the background the highway noise faded, not because of distance but because of focus. My mind was focused on the milieu of slumber these vikings had. Who did the labor? How long did it take? Where were the camps of the workers and the mourners? What were the names of the people whom walked on these paths before me?
From the informal parking area we walked into the sanctuary. There were several people with dogs on leads of various lengths, but stillness was the main presence. I was both attracted and repelled by the mounds. I wanted to run up and touch them, maybe stand on one in a triumphant pose? I wanted to stop and stare. Miss G. picked a mushroom.
But I also wanted to keep walking. This wasn’t an amusement park, this was sacred ground. Human beings were in those mounds, their flesh giving way to time until maybe only teeth remained. These were privileged people but I know they had hard lives. How dare I disturb their slumber.
We walked to the fjord. The ladies wanted to show me the prison island, the fog overruled them. These shores were cruised by longboats. The crafts plied this fjord for trade, for war, and I suppose for pleasure too. The mounds were here because it was such a visible spot. In one way the departed were supposed to be noticed, to invite stares. But that was a thousand years ago and I’m not a viking.
The second thing I saw as we neared the Borre Site was the visitors’ center. I was a melange of concrete and wood. The architecture intended to say something, alas I couldn’t make that translation. It was closed, maybe the inside style explained the outside?
From the coast we took a path, the goal was to the see the Guild Hall. Woods are magnificent places to talk and walk, but also to just walk and not having to say anything at all. Both behaviors are welcome, though the latter is best. There was an audible wonder from Banksy’s mom if we were on the right path; we decided to march on.
Modern churchyards and cemeteries, monuments to the dead. Why? For Whom? The dead don’t care. Ego? Perhaps, but it is the living that erect and protect the memorials to the dead. My opinion is that funeral rituals are actually about the living and their extant identity in the guise of homages to the departed.
Mound builders in the Americas predated and postdated the Vikings. The mound building period in North America spanned almost 5,000 years. Famous mounds exist in the wet side, like the modern states of Ohio, Illinois, West Virginia, and Iowa. The mounds in Iowa are a National Monument, one notch of distinction below a National Park. The American mounds skewed symbolic, such as manifestations of bears, or birds or snakes. The Viking mounds had a more concrete purpose in memorializing and protecting a dearly departed.
The first thing I saw was a counterfeit. The recently completed Viking Guild Hall, it was a recreation of an ancient Norse building. It looked impressive but also too good. Upon closer inspection the perfectly straight lines of modern saws and milling sucked the life out of the building. The roof covering was beautiful but also too perfect The wheelchair ramp was a modern necessity and a disruption of the theatre. Maybe pastiche or maybe pop art?
My bias is towards the story of Vikings as people interested in trade and exploration, the mundane. Thinking of the Vikings as hardscrabble Adventure Capitalists seems more believable to me than Vikings as bellicose men in long beards intent on imposing their ideological will on others. I’m sure vikings complained about their spouses, and children, and taxes. They were just people like the rest of us.
During our walk we talked about dogs at several intervals: shepherds that wanted to herd the children, spaniels intent on chasing squirrels up trees, and an Elghund that just about gave Miss G.’s arm an independent ride through the forest. And then we came upon the Roe deer.
The deer had been there the whole time. Certainly they heard us coming from far away. No doubt they smelled us and felt our footfalls vibrating through the earth. The deer have been here for thousands of years. My experience with deer in America said that any moment their tense and powerful muscles could alight their bodies and disappear with distance in an eye-blink.
And yet, they waited, rather monolithically, immutably, and eternally. The trio waited for us to look and then move on. In a way, the deer were like living manifestations of the mounds. There are here, they’ve always been here. And like the mounds if you don’t pay attention, then you might not see them.