Nature Nut: Norwegian ancestors met challenging environment

September 2, 2018

After four great days on Norway’s Lofoten Islands, we headed south to Oslo, then west to the Telemark region, where water was not quite as dominant, but mountains still stunning. I was once again glad to not be staying around Oslo, as it was way too crowded and “modernized.”

We were seeking out relatives of my wife, Linda, a trip we had hoped to take her on in 2016 before her cancer struck. But, with the many Norwegian contacts my daughter, Jenna, made during the past four years, we decided to go this year, and were treated to three days of “walking back in time.”

Our late afternoon arrival at an historic guest house in the Telemark mountains was soon followed by a visit from Solveig. She was one of the descendants of Gunhild, one of the sisters to Helga, who had immigrated to the Lyle, Minn., area in the 1800s, and ultimately led to my wife’s mother, another Helga.

Ancestral adventure

Solveig, who spoke excellent English, had been my daughter’s main contact. We learned from Solveig that the Helga who came to Lyle was my wife’s great-grandmother. She had two sisters who remained in Norway, thus the connections to many of the people we would meet the next day when Solveig pretty much turned the day’s plans over to Gunnar, a local historian.

So, the next morning we began the day’s adventures by meeting Gunnar and another dozen relatives, with names I rarely attempted. That included Bjorg Oseid Kleivi, Gunnar’s wife, who spoke excellent English and had been to the States many times as a traveling Rosemal artist of worldwide fame. I enjoyed talking with her about her many travels, including trips to San Diego and Decorah to teach Rosmaling.

Our first adventure began at a farmhouse in the mountains, where we headed up a rough trail to the site of the Svein Nuten farm. It was an area now covered with timber and rocks, but Gunnar was able to find and show us the stone remnants of the approximately 8-by-10-foot house Svein, one of Helga’s ancestors, lived in.

Rocky paths

I marveled at how someone could live there, with the walk to anywhere being many difficult miles. I also realized my wife’s descendants were not the rich farmers living and farming on the valley floors. I figured those who decided to escape this difficult life by going to America were the risk-takers.

Although a challenging hike on my new knees, I was motivated to keep up, as I followed a petite 89-year-old woman who moved over the terrain as if she were a mountain goat. My grandchildren were especially excited to find some relics of the past at the Nuten homesite, including a metal and wood fork Gunnar said was more than one hundred years old.

Our next stop was at an historic church, where one of the group sang Norwegian tunes for us. From there, it was up another hill, again to a place I couldn’t envision anyone squeezing a living out of. I especially liked our third stop at another homesite, featuring the discovery of a “thatch ant” colony, a dome of pine needles 4 feet high and 6 feet in diameter. Based upon the numbers we saw on the surface, I suspected perhaps millions of ants could be found in the mound and sub-surface tunnels.

Although pretty much “ancestored out” for the day, we had two more stops, plus a trip to Gunnar and Bjorg’s home where we were all treated to a Norwegian porridge called Risengrynsgrøt, another name I couldn’t pronounce. It was very good, and filling, with sugar and cinnamon on top. They couldn’t believe we hadn’t eaten it at any of the family or church Norwegian dinners back home.

Our final stops that day were two cemeteries, with many graves dating back hundreds of years. I was most impressed at the second cemetery where Gunnar showed me his parents gravestone, which he had gone into the mountains to find. It was an unpolished stone, about 4 feet by 2 feet, that was flat on both sides. He found it on a hike and then retrieved it that winter on his snowmobile.

The next day we finished our Norway adventures with a trip to the farm where Gunnar grew up and his daughter’s family now lived. While my grandchildren enjoyed the sheep, I found a 600-year-old grainery and farm relics most interesting, including an all-steel axe used by the Vikings, along with a stone phallus. It was one of about 50 unearthed throughout Norway, supposedly to symbolize fertility by pre-Viking inhabitants.

I left Norway, glad to get home, but also glad to have finally seen the country from where many Minnesotans originated.

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