Author Archives: Micah

Breaking News!

You wouldn’t know it from reading these updates, but I made it to Tromsø today! It’s been tough to keep the writing coming as fast as I can pedal, but there are many more stories to come – fishing in the maelstrom, companions and hosts on the road, and the troll-infested wilds of northern Norway; I’ll get to them all soon. But I couldn’t leave you hanging after accomplishing the goal: 3000 kilometers from Amsterdam to Tromsø. I’m going to take a nap – see you soon,

Micah

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Tromsø + rainbow

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Trollstigen – Rocketing Down Norway’s Silliest Road

There’s not too much to say about Trollstigen, the Troll’s Highway, really. It’s billed as Norway’s most impressive road, with its dozen twists and turns laid out across a mountainside. It’s a silly place, with a modernist visitor center at the top. The designer of this center made the bathroom sinks look so much like urinals that they’ve since had to post signs that say “Don’t piss here.” That should tell you something.

As fun as it was to ride down, I couldn’t help but think that this road, open for less than half the year, prone to rockslides and closures, is as excessive as third houses or gold-plated braces. Quite nice to look at, but really, why? I’m sure there’s more to the story (there always is), but I’m glad that the Troll’s Highway is one-of-a-kind – the world can’t handle too many of these places, and I prefer to wash my hands in a sink, not a urinal.

BUT, it should be said, it was really quite nice to ride down.

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Precision Rainshowers and Rope-ladder farms

Nothing says Norway like a Russian tourist straddling a troll statue in a rainshower. That’s my entry for the new national anthem (it’s ‘yes, we love this land’ right now; mine wins hands-down, yes?). Troll-straddling was the most popular activity I witnessed in my short stay in Geiranger, a tiny community supported by the cruise ships that sail into its fjord. The particular troll in question was a little sheltered from the rain, maybe explaining its popularity.

The rainstorm came in at exactly the minute it was predicted to – Norwegian weathermen must have a closer connection to the sky controls than American ones. I set up a small picnic camp on a covered patio, right in the stream of cruise-ship travelers under umbrellas, who were ogling the diverse troll statuettes and jewelry in the windows behind me. I caught a fair amount of their ogling, too, but they were probably just jealous of my lunch of bread, jam, and Norwegian brown cheese…

Even with precision rainshowers and a crowd of cruise-shippers, Geiranger is a breathtaking place. The mountain road plummets down switchbacks to reach the water; from there, you can see that the town is an anomaly – a slightly flat place in a vertical world.

I opted to take a 3-hour ferry through the fjord, cutting out another big climb up the Ørnevegen (Eagle’s Way) – I left it for the birds and stuck to fish country. The ride was unbelievable, with the rain lifting just as we set sail. Along the walls of the fjord (and they felt like walls – impenetrable at most points), we passed countless waterfalls. The pre-recorded audio guide tried to keep up with our pace, but with Norwegian, English, and German to go through, it lagged behind at times.

As each new language started up, different clusters of people would lean into the speaker to hear about “The Devil’s Hideaway” (a crack in the fjord-wall so deep that he can always stay out of the sunlight) or “The Seven Sisters” waterfall, or the abandoned farms we began to see.

These farmhouses hung onto the tiniest scraps of hillside. Almost all of them relied on goat-paths or cable-lifts to access the fjord. Some had no water in winter, or were built under rock outcrops to protect them from landslides; all of them were extremely beautiful. Also a little terrifying to think about ekeing out a living in such an inhospitable environment. How desperate for land/subsistence must people have been to choose these places to make their stand in the world?

All these farms on the Geirangerfjord were abandoned between 1950 and 1960, when the economy was stirring, cities were growing, and the oil boom was on the horizon. Children began to see life more horizontally, spreading out and away instead of shuttling farm goods up and down, watching out for rock slides and tidal waves. It’s a trend that spread throughout the country, but was especially visible here in the most challenging growing environment in the country.

After the ferry ride, there was just one climb between me and the Troll’s Highway, Norway’s silliest road.

P.S. sorry for the lack of formatting on these photos – haven’t found a good way to stick them into the post from the road.

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A Creation Story – Part VI: Continuity

Want to start at the beginning? Good call.

VI
“A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.” – Welsh proverb

​The story – our story – begins and ends with a seed. Planted long ago in the then-fertile soil of the Near East, it contained a new idea. Hitched to these miniscule things, the story went, we will build a different future. While before seeds dwelled on the periphery of our lives, now we will build our settlements around them. Our future will have permanence and grandeur, bread and barley beer – we will put down roots and thrive in place; we will raise up granaries and monuments to our gods and give thanks for the blessing of a seed; our children will disperse through the land and create their own prosperity. We will become seeds and, by doing so, we will share in their power.

​As stories go, it was a powerful one. But, as the stories of the powerful so often do, it left out all the details and skirted over the realities of a sedentary lifestyle. When people settled down into agricultural life, their nutrition declined; inequality increased, the religious monuments built on the backs of an underclass; and these first agriculturalists of the Near East so abused their land that it utterly collapsed and has never recovered.

​The seed’s own cycles of creation, growth, dispersal, decay are echoed throughout human history. One group of seed-people emerges and grows strong, spreading widely over the land, only to collapse and leave room for the next. Is societal failure inevitable, then, just a misnomer for
decay, one part of a cycle that continues forever onward? Can we see ourselves as the equivalent of annual plants on a different scale, dying away regularly only to slightly rearrange the information of our predecessors and start again? If this were so, shouldn’t we have learned something of ourselves and our environment by now? Perhaps we have. Perhaps we haven’t. Seeds are the story, but we never have grasped the whole story.

​The paradox of seeds – both resilient and fragile, reliable and fickle, lasting and ephemeral, they embody the complexity necessary to exist in and understand this world. From the founding of our culture, we have expected too much and understood too little of them. Of human existence, seeds speak volumes – both of our past, and our potential futures.

​As for pasts – to me, every backward-looking what if question is gratuitous. Those with the most to gain from rewriting the past usually have the least time to consider what could have been, struggling just to deal with what is. That being said, I have my own what if, though I know it is unanswerable: what if seeds as we know them had never developed? Would anyone be here at all?

​The more interesting what ifs, the ones worth more of our time and energy, are the forward-looking ones. The future is wide open, limited only by the gaps in our imagining. From the rooftops of the Welsh coast to the Norwegian arctic expanse, from the Near East to archaic Greece to Walden Pond, from the first settlers to discover Hawai’i to their descendants striving to enliven their culture, humans are, and always have been, trying to shape the future in their own terms. Some are explicit about it; some less so.

​After millions of years together, the past few thousand in close quarters, we are irretrievably dependent on the awesome design of seeds. This is not a bad thing, necessarily – they are graceful, unique, and engaged, qualities worth striving for in our own lives. The lessons they can teach us – to contemplate before taking action; to break free of the soil and change the world when conditions demand it; to know and hold sacred the things that sustain us, protecting them from harmful manipulation; to work in tandem with the environment and all it contains – these lessons are equally important. We haven’t learned them yet, but it’s only been some ten thousand years. The wisdom of a seed works on its own timescale. Our futures unfold together.

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This is the conclusion of A Creation Story, but there will be much more in this vein, published regularly in this space. If you’d be willing, I’d love to hear what you thought about this, or where it helped your thoughts to wander.
 

Up, On, and Over (and then down)

I had no plans to go up over Norway’s highest pass on my bicycle. I didn’t even know it existed – I had some nice ideas to hug the coast, bike along the fjord, then turn north when I ran into the ocean. When I did hear about the Sognefjellet, though – a steep-grade climb from sea level to 1434 meters (4500 feet), I knew I could never do it. Why would anyone choose that way?

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This feeling of certainty that I wouldn’t take the Sognefjell contradicted all the stories I tell about myself. I say I’m flexible, up for anything, looking for the best experience possible I can get out of this trip. But then, when everyone I talked to suggested this different route, I kept throwing up resistance. Is it really that beautiful to go through the mountains? Wouldn’t it be nicer to stay by the water, even if there are a few impassable tunnels I’d have to catch a ride through? Am I fit enough to climb 4000 feet, just like that, then go back down and do it two more times? Or will I wind up on the side of the road, pushing my bike (which, in this vision, has become a twisted metal scrap-heap) uphill forever, butt of some Norwegian engineer’s cruel joke?

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The point here, maybe, is that on a solo bike tour, I’m finding lots of time for internal dialogue, to wrestle with my own thoughts and ways of viewing the world. I’m learning that while I think of myself as flexible and ready to choose the best way forward, I can also get set in one way of thinking. It’s freeing to be able to see that more clearly – when I can see it, I can move around it.

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I took the high road. It was awesome, full of mountain camps, ancient churches, and challenging rides. I met other bike-touring folk along the way and shared the experience with them. I learned that I can, in fact, bike up 1434 meters, and that I’m capable of more than I sometimes give myself credit for. I know more about myself, how I think, what I can do, and where I’m going. And I saw where Ron Weasley made his most recent movie, about a World War II fighter-plane battle. Wins on all counts.

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It rained, of course – that’s what it does in Norwegian mountains. But the ride down from Sognefjell was lovely, and then, after another pass came Geiranger, home of cruise ships, Russian tourists, and the most beautiful fjord of them all. That story comes next!

But I’m curious, too – what stories do you tell about yourself, and when have you felt them called into question?

A Creation Story – Part V: Dispersal

Want to start at the beginning? Good call.

V


“As I went by a pitch-pine wood the other day, I saw a few little ones springing up in a pasture from seeds which had been blown from the wood…In a few years, if not disturbed, these seedlings will alter the face of Nature here.” – Henry David Thoreau, 1860

​By their very design, seeds are earth-wanderers, traveling away from their homes by extremely various means – wind and water, ant and animal, explosion. They follow a biological imperative to disperse, spreading their family’s potential far and wide. The Greeks had a term for this movement – diaspora. Tying plants and people together, its literal meaning is “a scattering of seeds,” which the Greeks were excellent at doing. Long before the days of high philosophy and fluted marble columns, they sent out groups to found colonies from Spain to Ukraine, hugging the coastline of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Every emigrant joined this growing diaspora, transmitting Greek culture to far-flung lands.

​With plants, people, or colonies, after that grace period of transition, support from home always runs out. At this point, seedlings create their own energy through photosynthesis; the Greek colonies began growing food and producing their own pottery. Ceramic styles and shapes diverged quickly from those of the founding city as the members of this diaspora began adapting to their new homes, influenced by their new environment and influencing it in return. Cultural adaptation rapidly changed the faces and the designs of each colony, giving rise to a riotous diversity of the sort nature always creates when given the smallest opportunity.

​Planting a colony is our human way of controlling the landscape, its inhabitants and its processes; planting a seed is our human way of controlling the biological processes of plants. Seeds can and do disperse themselves, as any gardener can attest after long hours pulling up chickweed and quackgrass. This is, after all, one of the problems seeds evolved to solve. Those of lettuce are light and flat, inviting a gust of wind to carry them away. Trillium seeds have a tasty appendage that lures ants into carrying them into their nests, planting them underground in the ants’ nutrient-rich waste piles. But nature’s choices of location are far different from ours. We want to decide where the lettuce will grow, wind be damned, and the vital decision of trillium placement certainly mustn’t be left to ants. Driven by thoughts of order and control, we intervene in the natural process of dispersal. A paradox – this desire for control binds us to nature and the soil, exposing us to forces far beyond our control, vision, or understanding. We become reliant on the natural mysteries that surround us.

​Planting a seed, then, is the supreme act of faith. Its processes are veiled, hidden inside and underneath. This act is the opposite of instant gratification, requiring patience and resolve.

Thoreau had it right when he wrote, “Though I do not believe a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” He wrote it in a fascinating, unfinished treatise on plants, one that combines literature and science so artfully that it makes me wish for those two schools’ reconciliation – his wholeness echoes the beauty of a seed, progressing ever onward from stage to stage.

Continue forward to Part 6, posted here in mid-August.

 

The Impossible Kingdom

I will never be able to capture the beauty of this place with a camera – that goes for all of Norway, maybe, but especially this tiny town on the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest, that I’m staying in. This means that I have only words to describe it to you, which is a terrifying/exhilirating prospect, especially for a so-called writer. Can I convey to you the particular color of the fjord-water – not just turquoise, but the vibrant blue-green that Italian rivers are photoshopped to be in postcards; shifting and alive as the clouds pass over – or the steepness of the hillsides that surround this crazy arm of the sea? Can I make you feel the weight of the glaciers as they grind and gouge their way through the soft rock, leaving behind this giant-bitten landscape? Can you see the way this village sprouts up between the seaside and the mountain, tenacious in its footing, like a tree on rock that somehow finds a way to hold on and grow?

This is Solvorn, Norway – a perfect place in an impossible kingdom. Go there- you really should. Some pictures that don’t do the place justice:

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Thanks to Trond-Henrik and Agnethe at Eplet for creating an amazing place to stay, especially for bicyclists. A hostel/campground combined with an orchard and juice factory? It’s like they read my mind. Plus they have croquet-golf, which is somewhat like the game Super Cricket that I once helped invent.

Thanks to the other bike-touring folks at Eplet for sharing stories, advice, and food. It’s nice to have a built-in community on the road, and to know there are people doing crazier things than me out there.

From Solvorn, it’s all uphill – no, really. Norway’s highest road – Sognefjellet – comes next, then two more mountain passes and the Troll Highway (ominous). I won’t take the suspense away and tell you if I make it or not…

Sauna Pirates and Gypsy Picnics

After a short questioning of the existence of everything, the hills south of Oslo crested and broke over me like a wave, pulling me down, down, and further down, all the way to the sea, to the end of Troll Street, a fitting place to find my friend Etienne. A known Frenchman and suspected sea gypsy, it was a beautiful thing to see him in his seaside cabin – his natural habitat if ever there was one.

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His neighbors had recently salvaged a dinghy from the trash bin nearby – in Norway, or this part at least, appearances count for a lot, and this boat was no longer up to community standards. The neighbors, luckily, had their own standard – does it float?

Why yes, yes it did. Christian and Sara invited us out for a gypsy picnic at sea, and it was a fine, fine evening, followed by a bonfire. There was nothing but a mile or two of water separating us from the capital of Norway, and we could have a bonfire – what a place.

Etienne, through his renowned gypsy ways, also gained access to a sauna up the coast a little ways. Ocean, sauna, repeat until you can’t hold your head up.

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Thanks to Etienne for the best welcome to Norway I could’ve asked for, and for talking me through my existential crisis (afterwards).

Thanks to Christian and Sara for salvaging the boat (known to me as the Sea Gypsy from now on), for tortillas and bonfires.

Thanks to the bicyclist who saw me setting up camp at 5:30 AM for understanding these things.

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And thanks to you, as always, for reading along – updates from the fjords coming soon!

Uphill to The Gypsy Kingdom

On a bike trip, it’s a good thing to get your inevitable existential crisis out of the way as early as possible. For me, that happened on the first day in Norway, at the bottom of a hill.

The day started at dawn, which is the closest thing to dark you can come by in July in Norway. After arriving by ferry at 2:30 AM, I had the whole day in front of me to cover 80 miles, and it was already light out. So I started in on it, propelled on by the empty roads and the last of my Danish salami.

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By 5:30 AM, whatever night power was pushing me onward had left, and I half-pitched my tent in a comfortable-looking bush for a few hours’ sleep. This is totally allowed in Norway, if not totally normal – I think most people a) camp at night and b) go further than 50 feet off the road. The sleep was awesome, regardless.

Several hours and a ferry ride later, I was getting closer to my friend Etienne’s. “Save some energy for the last bit, though,” he said – “it’s quite steep (and all uphill!)”. After biking through the night, seeing the sky on fire with sunrise at 3 in the morning, and arriving back on Norwegian soil, though, I was feeling a bit invincible – on top of the world, even.

So when hill after hill appeared, I cracked a little. After the first few, I wondered what the hell I was doing. Am I cut out for bike riding? Why am I even doing this? Why does Etienne live in such a ridiculous place? I mean, what’s it all ABOUT, man?

I’m sure I’m not the first one to feel this way after the first serious challenge comes along. In the end, a few things kept me going. This was day 1 of a forty-some day ride, for one thing, and I wouldn’t have much to write about if I just camped by the side of the road next to Oslo for six weeks. I also knew that with forward progress, no matter how slow, I would eventually get there, even in this land of impossible uphill treks (author’s note: that was only the beginning).

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A Creation Story – Part IV – Uprising

Back to Hawai’i for Part four of A Creation Story, where we see what happens when dormancy comes to an end and it’s time to rise up.

Want to start at the beginning? Good call.

IV

“As long as there shall be stones, the seeds of fire shall not die.” – Lu Xun (1881-1936), Chinese revolutionary

​The most powerful moment of the spring arrives when the first seedling, planted days before in an act of unmitigated faith, breaches the surface and reveals its first leaves. This particular spring, I watched that first seed push its way upward on a balmy March day, tucked under glass in a hotbed filled with soil and fresh horse manure. Hotbeds have long nurtured uprisings, and I joined that tradition in some small way by giving this seed and its first leaves the chance to grow.

​When a seedling first reaches the light of day, its leaf, coiled inside the seed for weeks, months, or years, finally starts the journey for which it was created. Or so it seems to the above-ground observer – the true beginning occurs days earlier. After some time in contact with the moist soil, during which water streams through the seed coating and swells every cell, the plant inside begins converting its store of food into plant tissue, growing the root that will eventually burst through the seed coat. Before the breakthrough, we call the part that will become the root a radicle, and it certainly is. It breaks free of the safe, protected confines of the seed coat so that its partner can then break upward through the soil. With dramatic action, the seed breaks out of dormancy and reveals its intentions to the world.

​In Hawai’i, the story progresses along similar lines. Not only are the people of the taro real, they are fighting to keep tied to their elder brother. For fifteen hundred years, native Hawaiians have bred taro on their islands. They came with taro tops, clones of the plants grown back home, but it was the tiny, infrequent seeds of the plant that allowed them to breed new types. Starting with one, they bred hundreds of varieties, each adapted to a different environment. From flooded bottomlands to dry volcanic slopes, Hawaiians cultivated their staple plant, allowing plant and planter alike to spread through the islands.

​The islands’ fertility eventually attracted other peoples, ones not familiar with or interested in the story of the taro, how it nurtured, sustained, and shaped its cultivators. These new arrivals had foreign motivations, manifested in the grand plantations they carved out of the landscape. They brought their own seeds to star-daughter’s domain; rice especially conquered and displaced taro, and its younger brother – native Hawai’ians’ control over their indigenous lands waned into dormancy. Today, there are still many dozens of varieties of taro in Hawai’i, but this is only one fifth of what once grew there. Many disappeared decades ago; a taro leaf blight wiped away many more in the early 1990s. Closely related to the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine 150 years earlier, the blight swept through the Pacific with the speed and fury of a typhoon.

​In 2002, the University of Hawai’i acquired patents for three blight-resistant taro varieties they
had bred using traditional methods. Intended to help the Pacific taro industry recover from the devastating disease, which caused Samoa’s taro crop, for instance, to decline 98% in the space of one year, the new varieties could have been a boon to growers. But, in order to grow them, taro farmers had to pay annual royalties to the university, who retained ownership of the plants. In 2003, the University quietly went a step further and began genetically modifying taro strains. When word seeped out, backlash began. Native Hawaiians voiced strong opposition to the research and its implications. Said Walter Ritte, a native Hawaiian and opposition leader, “…we are making it perfectly clear that there is a kapu [ban] placed on all genetic modifications and patenting of our genealogical brother the taro. There should be limits to academic research when it conflicts with indigenous culture. No one can own our traditional knowledge, intellectual property rights or our biodiversity.”

​To take a patent out on a living organism is a sticky business to begin with; doing it on a plant that generations of Hawaiians labored to create, then charging them for its use, is even harder to justify. Many in the islands felt wounds of foreign imperialism reopening, the old question of our seeds versus their seeds returning with a new twist. As a product of centuries of refinement and selection, taro seed stock now transmits the values, beliefs, and history of its people. An attempt to own and control it by anyone has far-reaching implications, further than a university looking to recoup research expenses and make a quick profit wanted to see.

​Spurred to action by the behavior of the University, some Hawaiians began rising up. Human uprisings operate on a different time scale than those of seeds, however, and require significantly larger hotbeds. The movement took a few years to gain momentum and traction, but the info campaigns, activism, lobbying, and protests culminated in 2006. In May, with heavy symbolism, protestors chained shut the doors of the University’s medical building, demanding an audience with the board of regents meeting inside. Later that year, the University withdrew its taro patents forever, allowing free distribution of the varieties in question. Though they have not fully stopped the University from experimenting with taro through genetic modification, the movement has had much success.

​They are not alone. Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike are rising up to protest the abuse of the seed, something many still hold sacred, worth protecting. The Anishinaabeg tribes of the White Earth reservation, ricekeepers of northern Minnesota, have fought to protect their staple wild rice from commercial exploitation, patenting, and genetic modification. Groups of peasants and smallholders around the world are refusing to tolerate corporate tyranny and the trampling of their natural rights. Breaking free of the confines that hold them away from the light, whether they be cultural repression or unfettered capitalism, people are rising up and dispersing their knowledge to ensure that their cultures, and their seeds, can continue to do the same.

Continue forward to Part 5 – posted in early August.