The Japanese tradition of hanami – the celebration of the transient beauty of flowers, observed through enjoying a nice picnic in the shade of a cherry tree – is a brilliant concept that lends itself very poorly to Norwegian weather.
Three hundred days of bloody hell, starting today, a century ago.
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them
– Ezra Pound
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most costly battles in human history: the Battle of Verdun. Some 300,000 died over the course of 300 days. Another half a million were hurt or lost, all in a battlefield covering less than 20 square kilometres.
I visited Verdun last summer. I saw the village of Douaumont, or what was left of it: a forest, with inscribed stones indicating where houses had once stood. The rest had been reduced to rubble by months of continous artillery fire. More impressing was the graveyard and the mausoleum.
L’ossuaire de Douaumont is a necropolis. 16,142 graves, dead soldiers, mostly young men, names written on white crosses, white Stars of David, white muslim tomb stones facing Mecca, row upon row on a sleek hill among green trees and red flowers.
And on top of that hill: the mausoleum, the bone house. Built over those not identified. Through small outside windows you look in on the skeletons, the bones, of 130,000 people, combatants of both nations. 130,000 men! The population of a small city, reduced to skeletons, in heaps.
No names. Just bones.
See also my photos from Arlington cemetery.
This Saturday we celebrate Skull Sunday.
In two days time I’m leaving for Spain to not celebrate Christmas. This is an attempt to make the Christmas holiday an actual holiday (also to escape Norway’s soggy winter darkness). But before ditching all traditions, let’s observe some traditions.
Skull Sunday is a perversion of old traditions observed through need, transformed into a celebration itself. I’ve touched upon the topic before: It’s the annual eating of boiled sheep heads.
Bremanger is the island where my father grew up. The default weather here is shite. This close to winter solstice daylight lasts only for a few measly hours. The dark grey landscape is regularly lit with vulgar Christmas displays. Neon santas riding neon reindeers through neon snow are out of place in more ways than one. Mostly because this doesn’t feel like winter at all. Outside temperature was close to 13 centigrades when I got up at nine this morning. That’s a nicer temperature than we had mid summer.
Winds are rocking the old house, darkness is creeping in, half eaten half heads of lamb are piling up on the kitchen table.
It all feels very wrong in just the right way.
Portraits of dead Russians.
“For centuries, everyday existence in Russia was a strenuous battle for survival; the life of the common Russian was grueling, and worry became entrenched on their face as a permanent reflection of their hardship.”
– From the WikiHow-article “How to Understand a Russian Smile”
Russians do supposedly smile – just not at strangers. Spending a vacation week in Moscow recently, that ocean of faces void of any emotion made me want to make a series of stony-faced Russian portraits. Seeing that there really wasn’t time for it – and that I don’t speak much Russian either – I choose not to, but turned instead to a different set of stone faces: those of proper stone.
These are photographs from the Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow.
Pics from a drive through Western Norway some six months ago, forgotten until I got stung by a wasp yesterday (which in late September is kind of an off-season event. The off-season-ness is the key here. It’s not that arbitrary. Really).
A hundred years ago today Martha died. She was a passenger pigeon and the last of her kind, the final living specimen of a race of birds once so numerous that their flocks would black out the sky for hours on end.
(And commemorating her, here are my photographs of zoo enclosures without animals.)
Extinction is natural. Species go extinct every day. But few species go extinct with such catastrophic vehemence as did the passenger pigeons.
When the Europeans arrived in the new world, there were billions of them – but not evenly distributed. No, they traversed the continent in a few enormous flocks. One flock observed in Canada in 1866 was said to count 3.5 billion birds. That one flock would have been 1.5 kilometres wide and over 500 kilometres long. And it would have darkened the sky for 14 hours or so. But even at that point the species had been in steady decline for over half a century. The decline was slow at first, but from 1870 to 1890 it was catastrophic.
Their numbers meant they were easily hunted. One double barrel blast of a shotgun could net even an amateur 60 birds. When pigeon meat was commercialised as cheap food for the poor, hunting became a massive and mechanised effort. Birds by the tens of millions were killed in the Midwest and shipped east on trains.
Combined with habitat loss as European settlers hellbent on manifest destiny deforested vast areas of land, the birds who only laid one egg at a time couldn’t make it. In March 1900, an Ohio-boy names Press Clay Southworth killed a bird with a BB gun. That bird was the last recorded wild passenger pigeon. A few still survived in captivity. But on September 1, 1914, the very last died at the Cincinnati Zoo.
Here’s to Martha.
These photographs are from San Diego Zoo, carefully framed not to show the animals.
Caution! Danger! Stop! Keep off! Do! Don’t! Warning: this blog post may contain words and pictures.
It’s the little things. Travelling the US, there are of course quite a few things that sets the country apart from the one you call home. Like the fondness for melted cheese, Jesus and fireworks, for example. Or that strange belief in guns.
But when asked what’s really different in the US, I think of the little things. Like why are all shower heads wall-mounted and not fitted with a hose? And how come it’s so hard to get a small coffee? (12oz is a third of a litre and in no reasonable understanding of the word a small portion.)
And then – of course – you have that tendency of micromanaging banalities – that overwhelming abundance of useless signs.
Don’t get me wrong. I do appreciate a good sign. When my girlfriend and my GPS are having one of their usual arguments, I very much appreciate an easy-to-read sign telling me the directions to where we’re supposed to be going. Or a proper warning sign, warning me of dangers I’d otherwise be ignorant of. Yup, they’re good. So sure, a useful sign is useful, no surprise there.
But oh so many aren’t.
noun \ˈde-zərt\ a barren area of land with little precipitation, hostile living conditions and lots of casinos.
This was the second year in the row we spent one month in the US. Last year was sort of a trial run. We did the East coast. And the Midwest. The South. And, yes, a bit of Canada. One lesson learned: driving 5,000 miles on the Interstates in a big SUV is boring. Also: plans are bad. I started this piece of writing while we were waiting for our laundry in a laundromat in Fort Bragg, North California. Where we were going that evening, we didn’t know, except that we should probably end up somewhere in the Bay area. That was our modus operandi for over four weeks. We arrived in LA knowing we would pick up a rental car for a month, that we should avoid the Interstates at all cost and – that’s basically it. Chance, coincidences, would bring us on from that. And having spent no time in LA at all, we went straight for the desert.
“I can’t for the life of me understand what appeal the desert holds with you guys,” said a casino employee in Nevada. I don’t know exactly what group of people he was referring to with “you guys,” except that I somehow belonged to it. Then again, I can’t for the life of me understand what appeal a casino holds with anyone either, so I guess we were on much the same level in our not understanding each other. Well, each to his own. Some prefer
air-conditioned slot machines. I prefer a lonely heatstroke.* A breakfast cook in California thought she had an explanation for this: “It’s the topography,” she said. Whether she meant the actual topography of the desert, or the mental topography of the Nordic traveller, I am not entirely sure, but I suspect it was a bit of both. She was the sort of breakfast cook that had a special understanding of those things.
* Not really.