A Geopoetic Pilgrim — Quarterly Letter 3

In the face of a rational, scientific approach to the land, which is more widely sanctioned, esoteric insights and speculations are frequently overshadowed, and what is lost is profound. The land is like poetry: it is inexplicably coherent, it is transcendent in its meaning and it has the power to elevate a consideration of human life.-Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams


Dear Readers,
I am in between river journeys now, a perfect time to write about what these last months in the wintery north have held.
The Torne River flows in a landscape of taiga forest marked by the Baltic Sea to the south and the pitched mountains along the Norwegian coast to the north, a region dramatically affected by glaciation from Earth’s most recent ice age and is today frozen half the year. When I met Kjell Kangas who grew up in the region, he told me that he thinks of Tornedalen, Torne Valley, more as archipelago than river valley. Over the heaths and bogs of land still upwelling, lightened from the weight of billions of tons of ice, flow five large rivers — Torne, Kalix, Lainio, Tarendo, and Muonio. Each river is connected to the four others as if the water is weaving a web around the taiga forest, and most impressively, none of these rivers has a dam. 
In winter, Torne is a 550 km blanket of snow covering a foundation of blue, crystal ice that in many places will support the weight of a tractor. Elsewhere, long tumbling rapids prohibit the ice from forming, and the black river bursts through its icy ceiling, raging white over stones and reminding the traveler of caution, that this is indeed a lively river. 
For 200 km, Torne marks the boundary between Sweden and Finland, and many of the Tornedaleners who generously invited me into their homes and shared stories of the place, told of the compelling history that entwines itself through the borderland. Linguistically, Tornedalen is home to Swedish, Sámish, Finnish, Miënkieli, and most recently English. Miënkieli literally means “our language,” and it is a form of antiquated Finnish that has absorbed some Swedish over the years. It is the living, breathing reminder that just over 200 years ago, there was no boundary in Tornedalen, and the residents were northern Finns, Sámi, and Kvener, not Swedish speakers, living within the Swedish Kingdom that maintained sovereignty over the region since the middle ages. 


Then suddenly in 1809 Russia annexed Finland from the Swedish Crown, maintaining influence until the Russian Revolution when Finland took the opportunity to become a sovereign nation in 1917. Through the Great Wars and the rest of the last century, Tornedalen evolved under the auspices of neighboring nation states, at once being torn apart and maintaining a quiet unity across the water, probably aided by the fact that the river becomes lined with ice roads from bank to bank for six months of the year when ice dominates its surface.
My experience in this region cannot be summarized easily, and the reflections will last a lifetime. I was confronted with fragments of nature, myself, and human society around every corner. The fundamental state of this river — a clean, damfree, fishfull, peaceful boundary water — is an uncommon circumstance, and it hosts the largest salmon run in western Europe. It is truly a sanctuary for life. 
After I finished skiing, I taught in the Pajala school, midway along the river’s course, grades 4-9, thanks to Kjell who works there. When speaking with the students, telling them about the dire situation along the Ganges River and its tributaries in Nepal, I asked them to consider what it would be like if the Swedish city upstream, Kiruna, was home to 10,000,000 people instead of 20,000 and had no proper sewage treatment. This gained some exasperated reactions, especially when I showed them an aerial view of Varanasi and one of the sewage drains into the Ganges. But in that moment it occurred to me that it doesn’t take 10,000,000 to pollute a river. Kiruna’s 20,000 people could make Torne’s waters ripe with harmful bacteria and protozoa, at least enough to make the water not potable, while now it is. 
A thorough and regulated mode of processing sewage and strict regulations for pollution and on damming can maintain the abundance of life in a river and keep it pure enough to drink right out of the flow. For many of the Swedish born students in Pajala, the reality of Torne River’s purity was an unimpressive fact. But in the school are many refugees, and the students from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan could not believe the bounty of fresh water when they arrived. 
A river is not unlike a person; if confined by artificial boundaries, literal like prison bars or figurative like debt, one is stifled even to a tragic degree; if overwhelmed with toxins — sugar, alcohol, drugs, chemicals — the body will unravel dispelling potential for life, especially without modern medical convenience. If one attains the nebulous yet rich heart of freedom, there is opportunity to flourish and to carry others in the wake. I am not trying to say that a dirty river cannot be free, or for that matter a person who takes drugs or is in prison cannot be free, but that perhaps we can form an ideology that places the very land, water, and resources that sustain us in a position of power, with rights, as a gift to ourselves.


Is not freedom the heart of worldly attainment, the foundational goal of so many of our collective ideologies? Is freedom just for us, or can a river be free, a forest, a mountain? Freedom is not achieved alone, but as part of a web of life. Can we work our way in a global world to at once engage our hunger for technology and imbue ourselves with morals embedded in nature, imbue the landscape with its own rights and economy? In a world fissuring at the folds of religion and polarized by nationalism, there is one place that human spirit lies which is common to all of us, in nature.
These journeys are showing me how to rewild myself, my vocabulary, my interactions; how to unlearn the manicured social contracts, lawns of the imagination, that I have with the earth in order to see with fresh eyes that there are bountiful opportunities for us humans to reconnect with one another and our shared landscapes. It’s a matter of revaluing “sense not cents” and thinking like a river, like a bed of soil, to think of gardeners as the aristocracy of connectedness, those who understand the relationships that enable life.
I’ve recognized something about my project that is fitting to close this letter. In many ways I am a pilgrim, searching for everything and nothing, partial only to the path of the river and nature, and the people who happen into my life as a result. I am not trying to unearth anything in particular, to inform a literal map of any area, but rather I will my conscious effort into a rivercentric perambulation that is trying to get at the poetry of land that Barry Lopez writes about, at the heart of nature, that strives so intently to pursue a natural flow, a force among forces. 
As I move about, letting the ineffability of the landscape and other people fill this time, I cannot express the gratitude I feel for the opportunity. Thank you.
From the flow,

Galen

Skiing the Torne River, Kukkolaforsen to Risudden

The river valley: Tornedalen
The waters: 

Torneälven in Swedish

Tornionjoki in Finnish
The vast river

At the center of two lands
Is it

Dedicated to an ancient king

A king made myth?
Is it Tor’s River?

I feel a rooting in this valley unfamiliar to my wandering feet. Today passing through the town of Korpikylä I visited Hulkoffgården/Butiken på Landet on the banks of a bay at the base of the rapid Matkakoski. 
I skied in on the old railway line and coming in from the back I saw a big farm with two yellow houses and two red barns laden with snow. I was hungry and had heard that there was a country store, so I went in search of coffee and food only to find out that things weren’t so open and maybe the owners were out of town.


I was heading back to the rail tracks when the reindeer caught my eye, four gentle creatures in a pen, and while I was saying hello, Pia, an older woman with bright blue eyes came down the way. She already knew who I was, word having spread of the skier named Galen (which means “crazy” in Swedish) coming up the Tornedalen, the Torne Valley.


We took up conversation fast and Pia said that the reindeer are new to their farm being that this area is one of the only areas in the country where it’s permitted having them domesticated. Here and the Kemi River area, mostly in Lapland where herding reindeer is a traditional way of life. Pia and her husband also keep cattle, and she voiced proudly that they feed them only real good food, grass grown on the farm and some extra barley for protein.
Pia said that the place has been farmed and lived on by their relatives since the 1700s and has been occupied and farmed longer still, perhaps much longer. This reminded me too of Kukkolaforsen, where the Spolanders have been for many generations.


Pia took me inside what I thought was a second cattle barn, but how wrong I was. The ground level used to be a cattle barn–it was built by the generation before who handmade the bricks. Now it is made gourmet eating house with beautiful settings and a wine bar.


 I asked Pia why the business had two signs and she said “you’ll have to see upstairs,” beaming. We went up, and I couldn’t believe my eyes, a proper fashion boutique in rural Norbotten County with beautiful wool coats and furs, hats, knives and scarves and boots. Of course!! “Butiken” read the sign.


I immediately thought of my grandfather, Charles Willard Olson III whose friends called him the Swede. Our family, as did many Swedes, emigrated to the US sometime around the turn of the 20th century. This movement recalls how dynamic our world is, how people everywhere at some point have moved, we are not trees, we are a fluid culture. Standing there in Butiken På Landet I felt the power of my ancestors who left these lands to go to America, “the promised land.” Charles, Grandpa Chuck to me, was a very fashionable fella, he would have loved this store and this country. I told this to Pia, and smiling she brought out a Swedish “fika,” coffee and sweets. 


As we spoke she talked entrancingly about Tornedalen, among many other things. She explained her son’s deep interest in the history and mythology here and of the potential links between this area and Celtic peoples who came here long ago, long enough to see the receding glacier from the ice age which shaped these lands and to meet King Tor and contribute to the myths that are so enchanting to my wayfaring mind. Tor’s River, Thor’s River?, I thought, feeling the weight of this incredible story forming landscapes upon my mind.
I am curious about the veritability of these stories and how they can be added to. If you know anything about it please write to me, ghecht@coa.edu.
As I said goodbye to Pia feeling a profound sense of belonging here, I got back on the trail, floating the kilometers towards Risudden, my destination for the night. 
I thought of another enthralling conversation yesterday that blossomed out of an act of great generosity in Karungi just beyond Kukkolaforsen. As I was skiing into town, a snowmobile, here “snowskooter,” pulled up behind me and a girl hopped off the back waving. This was Victoria and her step dad Lars, come to greet me and Victoria wanted to ski. Just what I was hoping!! On top of that they brought me oreos, a beer, and a Norbotten hat! Reminding me that I am still in Norbotten, not yet Lapland, I’ll be there soon though.


Lars laid down some ski trail with his skooter, an act he does for the community as well, laying ski track around an island in the river. Then he headed back to his duties as a firefighter for the town, but not before he told me that Karungi used to be a booming place because it hosted the post office where East and West met during and after World War two. Now it’s a quiet little place, but before tens of thousands of letters came through everyday.
Victoria and I skied away talking about all sorts of things like her wonder at how the USA is not going through upheaval and revolution (which I think we may be, and not just the USA, more on that later). She also told me about her work in Norway with the outdoors as a follower of “friluftsliv” which translates roughly to “fresh air life” and exists in conjunction with the “freedom to roam” laws in Sweden, Finland, Norway, and many other countries where wandering about the countryside is permitted pretty much anywhere that is not obviously private.
Friliftsliv is a way of living with nature and respecting it without exploiting it economically, and it is founded in outdoor recreation and exploration. I asked how she would describe it best, and she replied “basically what you are doing, living in nature.” I was moved to hear this, and hopeful that it is true, also very excited to know that this school of thought is vibrant here. In some ways friliftsliv and freedom to roam maintain the common lands and waters as commons to be explored and appreciated in the ways that they have been for centuries, and it thwarts land greed to some extent as well by providing equal access.
Victoria turned back after some kilometers and left me feeling pensive and alive, curious and calm, hopeful for something I cannot describe. I was so grateful to this place, and I felt at home, wading through snow. 
Galen Winchester Hecht

My name
Charles Willard Olson III

My grandfather

Passed on now

But made of Swedish stock

Northern blood 
In these the Norbotten woods

I feel as I am meant to feel

Wake as I am meant to wake

Brother of the frozen brooke

Son of the tireless snows

Wondrous with birch and fir
I think I will add to my name
Galen Winchester Olson Hecht

Peaks–Sand–Snow

Floating on cloud trail

The snowy peaks landmarks

On blank sky


Leaving Nepal I watched the Himalayas descend into the earth and the Karakoram burst up only to fall away again into the sea. Over Pakistan I thought about everything going on below and the Indus River, tumbling away to the south. I wondered if I would ever go there. 
As the Arabian Peninsula neared the plane, out the window a straight corridor of lights appeared. The road linking some of the United Arab Emirates blazed in the sandy night, giving an eerie, sci-fi quality to the earth below. 
A few cars danced their steady, linear choreography along the asphalt, and the plane went lower and lower to the ground.
A place forsaken by fresh water

Made inhabitable

By a ceaseless flow

Of gulf oil

Compressed dinosaurs

Rich as rich

Generous enough

To buy everything

In the Emirates
My trip to the UAE was surreal in many ways. My dearest friend Lucas Olscamp was offered study at New York University’s Abu Dhabi campus four years ago. He was admitted as a theater student, and his prowess in this art amazes even his closest friends. One day I blurted out that I thought he extroverted himself well. Explaining my words with words, I said that he shapes the world around him in beautiful and inspiring ways, even the spaces of his friends minds. And this is true.
Studying at NYU Abu Dhabi means travelling the world and working with professors and practitioners at the edges of their fields, people doing truly extraordinary work. The campus is just outside of the city proper, and like everything in the UAE, it rises out of the sand and sea, a futuristic island of cement and glass, light and grass that punctuates the abyss around it. The Louvre is building a satellite museum nearby and the Gugenheim as well. Across the water the sky rises glisten in the Arabian sun and the turquoise water laps quietly.


We went with one of Lucas’ courses on a short kayak through a mangrove forest. The beauty of these seabound flora being their unique adaptation to saltwater environments. In the UAE they are some of the precious few spaces abundant with plant life and are increasingly threatened by rising salinity in the waters, for like nearly all of the gulf states, the UAE must desalinate its drinking water. Without need to augment the national income selling salt, they dump it back into the sea. Next to the salty mangrove rises immense smokestacks from a desalination plant.
The country has a vaguely Las Vegas like aura to it, with loads of lights and a spectacular presentation that ignites the hearts of visitors and stirs up a curiosity and foreboding that always accompanies me to the desert. Visiting Lucas, I saw how entangled are the arts, money, oil, environmentalism, and all sorts of institutions, even the most well meaning.


I recalled the many Nepalis I had met who worked in the gulf, in Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi, or the UAE. I thought about the irony that in the USA we call these countries oil rich, and in Nepal they call them rough countries.
I left from my four day layover elated at having seen an old friend and his good work, confused by the contradictions of the world and the value of wealth and resources.
I flew away over Iran, Kazakhstan, Eastern Europe and the Baltic Sea to Finland. Arriving in the winter world of Oulu at 65 degrees North, I met another old friend, Sanni Kuutti, who is studying intercultural education at the University there. 


Sanni hosted me for five days of furious preparation for long my ski through Lapland as I gathered materials and made plans. Over meals and in the evenings we talked about education in Finland, about how the country is dealing with newcomers, people who need homes, who have left theirs out of necessity. How can the education system help weave them into society as welcome neighbors? How can childhood learning inspire dramatic changes in a whole nation? What is the power of experience and exploration in learning?
I ask these questions about my own journey to. Today I am on a bus with a sled full of food and supplies and ski equipment. I am heading to ski the Torne River, 500 kilometers of Lapland, from the Bay of Bothnia to the mountains that divide the Baltic watersheds from the Atlantic ones. In cooperation with the Heart of Lapland, a local office promoting this area, the ski will be an exercise in place based storytelling as I collect tales from people along the way to bring out the rich heart of this north country.


I am nervous for what lies ahead, and I find solace in the epigraph from the book I just finished, The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen:

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