Midsummer in the Stockholm Archipelago and I’ve finally become accustomed to falling asleep in daylight. Important to blanket windows, shut eyes tightly, and dream about water and land washing, breaking each other. It’s about four in the morning when I wake to light and silhouette, and what can I do, emerging colors call me out and I step, somewhat blindly, out of our cabin.
Time to explore our new island. My son has already discovered interesting architecture–a stone monument which our hosts found mysteriously constructed a few years back and has withstood rain and wind. When we visited Ireland, Demian and a friend built small stone monuments in a graveyard on the Aran Islands. Not a surprise he’s found one here. An Icelandic-English Dictionary lists bautarsteinn as stone monuments of the olden age, esp. in Denmark and Sweden. Orð of the Day offers memorial stone, stone monument (“bow (rhymes w/ ‘now’)-tar-stain”) #OldNorse #wotd. Folk-etymology by the Rev. Palmer Abram Smythe provides, The word is most probably only a corruption from brautarsteinar “road stones.” The water-roads through the archipelago must contain many bodies. Who has lived on these islands? Fredrik Sjoberg lives on Runmarö collects hoverflies (shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale) and is the author of The Fly Trap. He’s also written on Tomas Tranströmer’s insect collection. According to Felice Vinci in his book The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, Agamemnon and Achilles, Odysseus and Penelope, Hector and Helen gloried and died on these islands. And Ingmar Bergman lived and filmed on the island of Fårö off the coast of Gotland. Through A Glass Darkly shot on the island offers a perfect desolate, striking landscape for a young woman and her family dealing with schizophrenia. Here is a scene showing all the layered emotion and tension that Bergman and his actors brought to the screen.
A stillness reigns on this island. Sound decreases to mosquitoes, gulls, egrets, occasional swaying of the pines, a churning of water as a boat passes. Yet so much pours into our eyes. Varieties of green with a shock of orange.
Grön: color between sea and sky. For instance, pale green or jade, the color Odysseus turns in Hades when he senses the Gorgon approaching; dark moss green, think of greens and whites twisting and turning in Cy Twombly’s Untitled Part VII hanging in the Cy Twombly Gallery in Houston;
and then pine green, which on the Crayola list of colors rests between Middle Blue Green and Maximum Blue Green, between the Baltic sky at dawn and mid-afternoon light. There’s a sound as well for pine-green, for pines sylvestnis. Read Tomas Tranströmer evoking tones from its branches,
The wind walks in the pine forest. It sighs heavily, lightly.
In the middle of the forest the Baltic also sighs, deep in the
forest you’re out on the open sea.
The old woman hated the sighing in the trees, her face hardened
in melancholy when the wind rose:
“You have to think of those out there in the boats.”
To follow breaths in Swedish of the first three translated lines is to find why pine green rubs against the color of sky and sea.
Österjön susar också mitt inne på ön, längt inne i skogen är man
ute på öppna sjön.
As you walk under the pines, the East Sea [Österjön] rushes [susar] in the middle of the island [mitt inne på ön] washing over you. Deep inside the forest you’re out on a lake [längt inne i skogen är man ute på öppna sjön], all around the sound of men out on boats. No door closes and locks between branch and tide on an island–the wind walks through a forest as it swims through pine needles, as it wings far under blue. The Scottish poet Robin Robertson’s epigraph to his selected poem collection Sailing The Forest is a verse from an old Scottish song,
The flowers of the forest they ask it of me,
How many strawberries grow in the salt sea?
And I answered to them with a tear in my eye,
How many dark ships sail the forest?
Here is the same evoking of sound as in Tranströmer’s lines, vibrations that blur distinctions between rock and water, sea bed and forest floor, clouds and forests. Listen to the above lines in I Loved A Lass, sung by Ewan McColl.
Tranströmer’s sea and forest frame an old woman thinking of lives lost out on the sea; Robertson’s use of one stanza from I Loved A Lass, exhibits again the transforming of the world in wind and wave; and then the original ballad sets the reader again in loss, this time a young man pining for the woman he still loves who is marrying another. Time to walk on.
Shifting tectonic plates, glacial fingers digging into rock, mineral and organic particles settled and weighted in place dating back to the Cambrian period as much as 541 million years ago. Sweden’s bones are old crystalline and metamorphic rocks (the Baltic Shield), layered over hundreds of millions of years. A very old skeletal structure featuring gneiss, granite, granodiorite, sandstone and marble. More walking. Hail Siliniez, a wood god of the Baltics to whom moss is sacred–only it may burn in fires to him.
Bryophytes (moss, hornworts and liverworts) grow on rocks, cliff sweeps, downed logs, burnt stumps, tree trunks, and tree branches. Moss species growing on or under trees are often very particular about the trees they cover, such as preferring conifers to broadleaf trees. Walking on moss is like walking on a thick carpet. As the great conservationist Aldo Leopold notes in his journal from 1925 on traveling through Canada, moss on a rock offers a much-needed piece of furniture: the rocks form a fine fireplace, tables, easy chairs, and landing, while a flat rock in an opening is covered with deep dry moss and duff forming a ready-made bed. (619)
Moss glitters, feathers, clones itself across the island. They aren’t alone in this, let’s consider lichens. Often mistaken for mosses, they lack stems and leaves, and are children of a happy marriage between algae and fungi. Over the last few years, Nordic chefs have featured lichens and mosses on their plates. Magnus Nilsson serves a dish entitled Capercaillaie and Coniferous Forest at his restaurant Fäviken. Pluck, butcher a wood grouse, and then,
Now brown the breasts (still attached to the breast bone) evenly on both sides over burning pine wood charcoals, and then place them skin side up in a cast-iron pot over medium heat, resting on moss, leaves, and branches from the forest where the bird used to live.
A little later on he adds,
Glaze the lichens very rapidly in a warm pan, adding a little butter, and arrange few pieces on each plate in the same way as you would arrange delicate mushrooms, such as black trumpets or morels. (96)
In a section entitled “Wild Plants” from his restaurant book Fäviken, Nilsson lists the particular lichens and mosses he uses–Lichens: Iceland moss and reindeer lichen. Mosses: Glittering wood moss, Splendid Feather moss, Common Haircut Moss, and Green Peat Moss.
The Danish chef and gastronome Rene Redzipi has a recipe using lichens: Crispy Reindeer Moss, Cep Powder and Crème Fraîche.
Dehydrate porcini mushrooms then blend into a fine powder. Reindeer moss soaks in water for hours, then blanch, refresh in ice water, drain, dry, then fry. Spoon crème fraîche on a small plate. Lay down green pillow moss, decorate with pebbles, bark and branches, then center the fried reindeer moss on top, sprinkled with cep powder. A poetic air surrounds these recipes, consider Nilsson’s Rose fish, coarsely chopped pieced of its liver and raw langoustine stirred with really good butter and a broth of forest floor.
What makes up a broth of forest floor? Prepare a light forest broth from dried mushrooms, autumn leaves and a little moss, keeping some moss to use later (126). In his recipe for Crispy Lichens seasoned with dried egg yolks and very lightly cold smoked fish, lightly soured garlic cream, Nilsson ponders the lichen.
Some lichens have always been eaten in difficult times; they have been made into porridge (oatmeal), used much like pine-bark flour to make wheat flour go further and they have been made into jelly.
Lichens can contain ploysaccharides, and in survival situation they have been known to keep people alive for quite some time, even when they are pretty much the only source of food available.
Lichens are a fascinating symbiosis between two organisms, a fungus and a blue-green algae. (202)
We walk further into the forest, following a path linking vacations of brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces of the one family who owns this island. Levels of rock, soil, moss, ferns and trees create a labyrinth circling the island, slowly moving inward to a house. A damp path zigzagging like those of my childhood to a secluded house where a sinologist waits to be murdered as in Jorges Luis Borges‘ The Garden of Forking Paths or a house,
to the white dew
and the milk white sunrise
kind to the eyes,
of silver fish, mouse,
big moths; with a wall
for the mildew’s
in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem Song for the Rainy Season or maybe an ancient house with a grotesque carving lavished over the front, and especially about the principal door; above which, among a wilderness of crumbling griffins and shameless little boys, I detected the date “1500,” and the name “Hareton Earnshaw” from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
We’ve reached the other side or as my inner compass tells me, the southern edge. Land steadily drops to the sea. Past the beaches, cliffs and pines there are more islands–Nämdö, Bullerön, the open Baltic sea, then Fårö and Gotland, and tacking to the east the edge of Latvia and Lithuania. more forests and houses, and rooms looking out on waves rushing through pine trees.
Let’s move back to the interior of our island.
We walk between walls of old rocks and the ever new mosses and lichens painting green, brown and red. Here it feels as though we are intruding on an ancient conversation between winds carrying the smell of brine and the slow breaking down of everything once solid and permanent. Words found in Theodore Roethke’s poem Moss-Gathering.
To loosen with all ten fingers held wide and limber
And lift up a patch, dark-green, the kind for lining cemetery baskets,
Thick and cushiony, like an old-fashioned doormat,
The crumbling small hollow sticks on the underside mixed with roots,
And wintergreen berries and leaves still stuck to the top, —
That was moss-gathering.
But something always went out of me when I dug loose those carpets
Of green, or plunged to my elbows in the spongy yellowish moss of the marshes:
And afterwards I always felt mean, jogging back over the logging road,
As if I had broken the natural order of things in that swampland;
Disturbed some rhythm, old and of vast importance,
By pulling off flesh from the living planet;
As if I had committed, against the whole scheme of life, a desecration.
And that’s when we find it. A chair.
Wooden, painted black in the middle of the forest near where two paths meet, the middle of the island slides away and through the pines someone sitting could see who approaches or that nothing and no one will and that’s just fine with them. It’s a chair for quiet, the kind of calm and stillness Pascal thought we may be better for, and I can see myself sitting here in the middle of the island, mitt inne på ön, listening to the sea in the pines, the moss at the bottom of the Baltic. There will be a time when I leave, the long walk out of a life, book by book dismantling a world I lived in, who I was and what I did, when that time comes I will have a seat on an airplane, a ticket for a bus down to the dock, and coins for the ferryman crossing me back into the Baltic and to this island, where I will walk and sit in this chair, looking out and expecting nothing and no one, watching pine branches sway and listening to the Baltic’s breaths, and like the dreamer in Franz Kafka’s An Imperial Message, I will sit in this chair long into evening and dream all I’ve written.