A spiral of land, cherries and horses
As my life changes, some things break down and new things emerge and grow, prompting me to think about my family ecosystem. This has to do with time and age; not least the fact that my father, Jørgen, is now 83 years and the only elder I have left. I ask him if he wants to go on a road trip with me: to journey back in time and help me connect places and land with stories of my ancestors, the men and women on whose shoulders I stand.
Jørgen is quite a storyteller. He is full of colourful stories from his working life, detailing countless deals done under peculiar and funny circumstances. Stories about a childhood spent on a farm in the post-war years and a life as a self-taught, self-employed entrepreneur with all the ups and downs this entails.
His setbacks include several brushes with death: Jørgen has come close to dying of meningitis, blood clots, two or three serious car and motorcycle accidents and, as a child, falling out of a first-floor window in his sleep. Every time, he has snuck or clawed his way back to life.
Given that several immediate family members, such as Jørgen’s father, brother and sister, died young between the ages of 27 to 57, all of high cholesterol levels, he himself has fully expected to shuffle off this mortal coil ever since he turned 70 (and before, of course, in connection with the many close calls).
We regularly talk about how it could happen at any moment. He not only has high cholesterol levels, but also diabetes, a quadruple bypass, sleep apnoea, oesophageal hernia, oesophageal stricture, high blood pressure and, lately, eyes that degenerate slowly. The brain, however, is in tip-top condition, and that is precisely why I have asked him to speak to me about times long gone.
ROOTED BEGINNINGS: LILLE FRYDENDAL
The car doors slam and Jørgen reverses out of the parking garage. As we leave Holbæk and drive northwest towards Odsherred, I get out my phone and begin recording. Ancestral Road Trip. As we leave the city where he spent his entire adult life and I my entire childhood, the past moves closer and closer. It doesn’t take long. Jørgen only moved a few kilometres in his life. Still, the trip lasts several hours, because as usual he has a lot on his mind.
My father’s personal story is also the story of a society undergoing great change. A society where agriculture, mobility and infrastructure, the economy and trade were all built on relationships, trust, decency and (slow, deep) time. Back then the world did not move quite so fast, and there were other, stronger bonds between humans and the natural world, other rhythms in which our protagonists were interwoven. A time when the work you did and the food you ate were in synch with the seasons and the cycles of the earth.
Jørgen was born in 1938. The following year he moved with his parents, Robert and Marie, and his siblings Vagn, Grethe and Bent from something that sounds like Hell to something that sounds like Paradise: from the Destruction Facility near Nykøbing, where dead cattle were ground up and rendered into fat and bone meal, to Lille Frydendal – meaning ‘Little Valley of Joy’ – in Tuse. The names alone say it all! The animal carcass disposal facility remained in the family’s possession until after the war, and as a child Jørgen loved to jump on the wagon to go on exciting, if smelly trips picking up dead animals on the various farms in the area.
Jørgen and I do not visit Lille Frydendal. We drive quite slowly past. Jørgen points out the route he’d take when cycling to the village school and shows me the field on the outskirts of the farm’s holdings where the trains used to drive through. When entertaining guests at dinners or parties, Robert would call the stationmaster and made him stop the train there so that any departing guests could take the train back towards Copenhagen.
Lille Frydendal was a large farm teeming with life: ten or twelve farmhands and maids as well as pigs, cows, horses, sheep, goats, rabbits, chickens and dogs. There were cornfields and a huge kitchen garden.
Jørgen’s first brush with death took place out of the first-floor window on the first floor, above the doorway. A dream about being chased by an angry big brother made Jørgen flee out onto the sloping roof, from where he fell down. The family subsequently put bars before the windows.
Marie was called Mrs. Robert Olsen in the town, and Robert was a well-known and well-liked man in the local area. He was friends with the count at Løvenborg and some of the town’s leading figures, but also with the local farmers. A cheerful, entertaining man. Marie was a rock, a devout rock, and I remember her as loving, funny and free with hugs and cuddles. She taught me to say The Lord’s Prayer before bedtime. She would listen to the Sunday church service on the radio and served cherry wine as small shots when we played cards.
Marie is the only one of the two that I knew; she died when I was eleven. However, I can still bring her vividly to life in my mind. I remember her flat, the smells, the textiles, the furniture. I remember floors, bedspreads, dentures in a water glass, the old stove, the canary Tweety. I remember the smell of toasted buns and the taste of cocoa with skin floating on top. Lemon fizz and chicken tartlets. I remember the stairwell and the view from the eighth floor, her friend Mrs Nedergaard, the walks to the playground. My sensuous recollection of her world can transport me right back into her company.
Towards the end of her life, Marie assigned a lifelong mission to my father, having seen that of all her children, he was the one who could shoulder the greatest and most important responsibility she wanted someone to take on: taking care of the family. ‘She had a special trust in me and saw something in me,’ he says. ‘Maybe it was because I moved in with her in a flat after Dad died. I lived with her until I was 27, and I took care of a lot of practical things.’ Twenty-seven!?
After her death, Jørgen kept true to his word to his mother. Not without problems, not without upheavals, regrets, conflict and fraying family ties. But long before his (lovingly) patriarchal rule began, this youngest member of the family was often, to his great chagrin, mistaken for a little girl due to his dark, long curls.
Jørgen and his older siblings ate with the farmhands and maids. Only on Sundays were they allowed to dine with their parents in the dining room. A close sense of kinship arose between the children and the farm staff: the maids put the children to bed, and the farmhands were someone to play and tussle with. The kids played cards with the farmhands almost every night. Life on the farm followed the seasons. The many activities included pickling, slaughtering and curing hams in the attic, and all residents took part in the harvest. Jørgen describes all the stages of the work now handled by the combine harvester.
My father’s childhood unfolded itself rooted in this safe, yet unfettered setting, a world filled with pets, fishing in the little river and lots of fun and games. During the war, they lacked for nothing. They were self-sufficient, and friends from Copenhagen came to visit for a bit of fattening up. The war was felt with greater intensity when Marie at one point hid a Jewish family until they could be helped on to Sweden. She received two nine-armed candelabra as a thank you. She kept them for the rest of her life, and I remember them from her flat, large and shiny.
NESTING IN THE WEBS OF COMMUNITY TRUST
For one month a year, during the war and for a few years after, a stocky and cheerful local seamstress would move into the farm to sew all the clothes needed for the rest of the year for the farm’s children, farmhands and maids. The only exceptions were Robert’s suits – and Marie bought her clothes at Siggaards Varehus in Holbæk.
Robert hated paying bills – not because he was parting with money, but the administrative act itself. Accordingly, Marie agreed with Siggaard that they would send out just one bill a year for the total amount. I imagine the growing bill plotted in at some outrageous point on the department store’s accounting coordinate system, poised somewhere along the X-Y axes of cash flow concerns and trust, extending exponentially as Marie added more dresses, lingerie and other purchases to the list. Something similar applied to the supply of fresh fish, where one had to repeatedly ask the fisherman for a bill.
Ties with the local community were close, and of course the introduction of the telephone made it even easier to connect. One unwritten rule of phone usage was that you did not call anyone after eight at night; later calls were a sign that something was terribly wrong. The telephone exchange was located next to the carpenter, and here the telephone operators kept track of the thirty wires connecting the area’s 30 telephones. Our present-day surveillance community was clearly in its infancy even then, because Jørgen remembers how, if someone said ‘Well, I do believe we’ve nattered way for ten minutes now’, the telephone operator would interrupt the speakers and say ‘No – you’ve only done seven minutes yet!’
Such tight-knit affinities in the local community were part of the reason why a word was a word for Robert – and worth more than a written agreement.
Marie and Robert in festive clothes
Marie's paternal grandmother, my great-great grandmother
I ask Jørgen what he has learned from his elders.
‘I learned from my mother that you have to see the best in people until they prove otherwise. And from my father I learnt that honesty is always the best policy.’
Robert also taught him something else. Marie played badminton, and at one point her old worn-out racket was passed down to Jørgen. At that time, Jørgen made DKK 75 a month as an apprentice. He paid DKK 50 for board and lodging at home, and with only DKK 25 left over each month, saving up the 100 kroner needed for a new, precious racket was a daunting prospect.
Jørgen relates that one day, he asked his father for a loan for a racket. The conversation went like this:
Robert put five DKK 100 notes out on his desk.
Robert: ‘What do you make a month?’
Jørgen: ‘Seventy-five kroner.’
Robert: ‘So you have twenty-five left over each month? Can I ask what you’d like to do when you have completed your apprenticeship?’
Jørgen: ‘Be some kind of grocer or merchant, I think.’
Robert: ‘How the hell are you going to become a grocer if you cannot even manage twenty-five kroner?! Well, now you can take what you want!’
Jørgen turned on his heel and left. Without any money for a racket, of course.
He can still see the older man before his inner eye: Robert, sitting there behind his desk. It was a great lesson for him.
Jørgen’s formal education was short from a present-day point of view. Just eight years of school. He changed from the local village school in Tuse to Holbæk Private Realskole, where my sister and I would later go, too. For practical reasons, he skipped a class and showed up in the fifth grade with scraps under his arm, ready to swap with others. Such childishness did not go over well with the older children. Jørgen had to fight to win respect. Quite literally.
He tells me that going on to take any formal education was never really on the cards. He was, however, apprenticed in a clothes shop. When his older brother Vagn died very young, having become the father of two small children, Jørgen changed track and took over his brother’s insurance agency.
ADVICE FROM OUR ELDERS
THE FARM THAT GAVE US ITS NAME: KIRKHOFF, TOLSAGER
We whiz past the farm that gave us our middle name. A name shared by very few outside the family, if indeed anyone else spells it the same way.
The farm Kirkhoff in Tolsager can be traced back to 1664. It belonged to the Dragsholm Estate until the abolition of adscription in 1788–1800. The family can be traced further back, a little more 100 years, and has inhabited the farm all those years – until recently, that is.
My great-grandmother Stine lived here with her husband and two daughters, Kristine and Elisabeth. When her husband died, Stine married his younger brother, Lauritz. The custom seems alien to present-day eyes but would have been quite normal then. It kept the widow, children and farm secure. The new couple had two sons, Robert and Georg. All were given the middle name Kirkhoff.
There are several divorces in the annals of our family history. Stashed away in the attic of my second cousin Anders are some old divorce papers written in Gothic script, pertaining to residents of Kirkhoff. Back then, getting a divorce was rather more difficult than it is today. A good reason was needed, and in the case of this childless marriage, the reason given was that the wife was too keen on playing cards. Just imagine, a gambler in the family! Or perhaps simply a case of a loveless match? Of course, such things do not always end up in divorce. Another man in our family found an alternative solution: he and a friend met at a crossroads out by Lammefjorden to exchange wives.
Divorce and gambling go against the grain of the Mormon contingent of our ancestry. Perhaps that is why they migrated to Utah in the nineteenth century. They lived by Nakke; a ruin still stands there today, and descendants come to visit it every now and then. Other than that, our family remained quite incredibly firmly rooted in the area.
Kirkhoff, Tolsager, Asnæs, ca. 1914
My great-grandfather Lauritz with his two step daughters (also his nieces), Kristine and Elisabeth, and their half brothers / cousins (his sons), Georg and Robert. The girls' father, a handsome man, Mads, loved horses and speed. He died in a terrible accident. His pair of horses ran wild and his cart crashed against a tree.
FIERY HORSES AND GRANDMOTHER
IN A HORSE-DRAWN CART
‘You’re from a family of horse lovers,’ says my father. The information makes me very surprised and happy.
Robert was an excellent horseman. His father, Lauritz, and another farmer were the local horse-dealers and would buy up to twenty or thirty horses from each other without blinking. When Robert was in his late teens, he fell in love with a particularly lively and beautiful horse owned by the other horse-dealer, who told him that if he could ride it all the way home, he could have it. He did. He and the horse even took part in a derby once. Being an untrained jockey, Robert was unable to hold back the horse, so they dashed away from the outset – which mean that his steed lost its breath before the race was through, crossing the finish line at a leisurely walking pace. Even so, they came in third. Later, he had to sell the horse because he got too busy to ride. Sadly, the horse ended up killing woman who bought it.
At Lille Frydendal they had different horses for different purposes: riding, driving and working horses. Horses were hitched to some form of vehicle whenever the family was going somewhere special. Once, the family took the sleigh to church on Christmas Eve. Jørgen also remembers a trip in a carriage to the cinema in Holbæk. Here the horse could be tethered outside, and the trip home with his brother Vagn as driver was magical, with candles set in lanterns. In an aside, Robert’s good friend, the count from Løvenborg, gave Vagn a thoroughbred horse as a confirmation present. A completely extravagant gift.
For Jørgen’s grandmother, Amalie, mother of Marie, a horse was a necessary means of transport. As a widow, she would get on a horse-driven cart and drive 30 km to visit Lille Frydendal.
Amalie holds a very special place in my father’s heart. She and her husband lived on a farm in Hørve, which we drive past on our trip. Here my father would spend a fortnight every summer until he turned seventeen. His siblings did not come along. Amalie was very religious. She and my dad would spend entire Saturdays driving the cart from one graveyard to next, honouring paternal and maternal ancestors by decorating and maintaining their graves. Jørgen’s grandfather was marvellous at telling stories. Jørgen recalls being snuggled up in bed while Amalie served toast and thin gruel flavoured with strawberry juice to accompany the stories.
Amalie’s farm was located quite close to the beach, Sanddupperne. We pass by the place, and Jørgen tells me about the time he and his good friend Jørgen Haupt saved two women from drowning. They were awarded a medal for their deed as well as DKK 1,000.
Amalie and her husband (whose name Jørgen does not recall) are shown seated here. At the back are Marie and Robert with Marie’s brother Anker on the right. The children are Jørgen (in sailor clothes) and his siblings.
Amalie had three children: Marie, Anker and a younger brother. Here my grandmother Marie is seen with her little brother, who drowned in a horse trough.
At Lille Frydendal, one of the people hired by Robert was Hans, who also came from a large family of horse lovers in Southern Jutland and was a skilled horseman. Hans fell in love with the daughter on the farm, Jørgen’s sister Grethe, so the two, Hans and Grethe (the Danish versions of Hansel and Grethel), became a couple, albeit an unhappy one. This in spite of Grethe’s many efforts to live up to the era’s ideas about what being a good wife meant. She had attended housekeeping school in Sorø and went into domestic service at the local pastor. In her marriage, however, infidelity led to divorce and a hard and unhappy life for Grethe. She was alone with her three boys, surrounded by a large orchard.
We drive past the final stop on our road trip. Nygården near Højby has obviously been carefully renovated, boasting a large farm shop, pony rides and a cherry orchard. In my childhood summers, I used to walk among those cherry trees with my grandmother Marie. We ate lots of cherries and would compete to see who could spit their cherry pits the furthest. She always won. I hope we have planted trees that way. Trees where our DNA has become entwined with theirs, conceived in giggles and sunbeams.
Grethe died young of atherosclerosis. The cholesterol thing again. At the end, she faced the choice of having a leg removed or dying from gangrene. Grethe chose the former, but her heart failed during the operation. I remember her sitting in the hospital bed waving goodbye prior to the operation. Grethe was the only one in the family to be interested in art, and so I inherited all her books.
My dad and I at Fårup Sommerland, 1976
For many years, and especially during the ironic and blasé 1990s, I made fun of my name, Birgitte, disparagingly describing it as the name of a ‘real horse girl’. Which I certainly was not. Oh, how I wish I had been called Camilla or Christina! Recently, I decided to say a firm goodbye to my anxieties about horses and took up riding. While I always have a sinking feeling right before the class starts, it feels like coming home. I found that it helps to think about Robert and all the other great horsemen and -women in the family. I simply ride better. I’m from a horse family! It’s in the blood. Now my name finally fits me. The picture shows the Icelandic horse and teacher Mattis and I.
Jørgen never went on holiday with his parents. Marie’s first trip abroad came in 1977 when her son, Bent, moved to Spain. On this postcard sent to me from Spain, Marie informs me that the flight went well and that she has seen a beautiful show in the mountains, featuring fourteen horses that put on a finer display than any circus.
The summers at Amalie’s had a tremendous formative impact on my father, demonstrating just how much of a homebird he was and still is. His siblings preferred other adventures in the summer; tellingly, his brother Bent chose to live in Spain, while Jørgen moved no further away than a few kilometres to the east. As a family man, he was very slow to get involved in any vacation planning, much to my mother’s vexation, and he was always happiest when we were back home again.
My father may have been very unadventurous in a purely geographical sense. But in terms of putting his neck out, staying informed and embarking on business opportunities he shows no restraint. Indeed, Jørgen quickly left the insurance industry at the age of twenty-seven because he felt the pull of life as a self-employed man.
It turned out that his local anchorage and close ties with the community, his openness to others, the lessons learnt from Robert and excellent social skills facilitated an incredible amount of land deals with farmers. He tells me about how holiday cottages really took off in the 1960s and 70s. By this point, holiday homes were no longer the reserve of the most affluent but came within reach of the general public.
The rampant inflation in the 1970s meant that many people’s investment in a plot for a holiday home turned out to make excellent fiscal sense. It was also big business for Jørgen. He remembers putting an ad in the newspaper in 1971 about plots for sale, which led to the sale of 75 pieces of land in just two days – and there was a blizzard on at the time, so the buyers couldn’t even see the sites properly. It was while working on such projects that he adopted his very successful sales technique: ‘I always sold the best plot. Out of those that were left.’
Even though he has subdivided and sold some 2,500 – 3,000 holiday home plots across all of Denmark during his working life, he never saw the point in having one himself.
One of the holiday home districts subdivided and developed by Jørgen, Råbylille Strand on Møn, is home to my second cousin Kirsten, daughter of Jørgen’s cousin. The address of her beautiful farm is Bundgarnet, and it turns out that my father named the road in connection with the subdivision in the 1970s.
Kirsten is an entirely new acquaintance for me. She looks like Grethe and my father, and after two hours of conversation or so, I am struck by how incredibly similar she and I are, despite an age difference of almost twenty years and vastly different lives. There is a feeling of many things falling into place.
EPIGENETICS AND MICROBIAL ECOSYSTEMS
Now that I’ve said goodbye to my previous position and a life of fixed rhythms to pursue other dreams, certain things fall away – old habits, old identities, titles, ways of thinking and patterns of behaviour – and new things emerge and grow. An urge to look back and honour those on whose shoulders I stand has come to the fore. A desire to capture and record the oral narratives before they disappear with my father. A wish to preserve our family legacy, enabling us to find and nurture our roots within the larger family ecosystem of which we are a part and through which we are constantly becoming.
We carry more with us than simply our parents’ noses, heights and predispositions for certain diseases. We also carry their sorrows, traumas and living conditions within us. Their diet and their exposure to pollution. Epigenetics is a relatively new field of research which proves that our genes are affected by external circumstances and that nature and nurture are intimately intertwined. Our ancestors are with us in a very palpable, biological fashion, reaching all the way into the core of our bodies.
In a scientific experiment on epigenetics, a mouse would receive electric shocks while smelling a substance carrying the scent of cherries. The results showed that the mouse’s traumatising experiences with these shocks was passed on to its offspring and, in turn, to their offspring too. After a while, the electronic shock itself was no longer administered, but the mouse still jumped as if shocked whenever it smelled of the scent of cherry. It mated and had offspring that it never met. These reacted with fear when exposed to the scent. Their offspring responded with caution.
The impact of people’s living conditions and experiences is also passed down to their descendants. The famine during World War II in the Netherlands affected not only the hungry, pregnant women, but also their children and grandchildren, making them more susceptible to particular diseases. Holocaust survivors and their descendants have been shown to have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than people who have not been traumatised.
Epigenetics challenges the idea that our DNA is an immutable essence and our lives predetermined by biology. We can modify our genes through diet and lifestyle, and trauma healing is gaining ground. Epigenetics is a kind of missing link between nature and nurture. Epigenetics is about intergenerational ties that connect body, mind and the natural world, reaching back in time to our ancestors and out into the future to our descendants.
But surely, negative traits can’t be the only things that embed themselves in us, I think. What about our family’s outlooks, their joys and optimism, traditions and abilities? For, as filmmaker and author Kalyanee Mam tells me in an online course: ‘We carry inside each of us the jewels and stories of our ancestors.’[i]
We carry the sorrows, relationships and joys of our ancestral fathers and mothers inside us. At the same time, we also carry other species which become a kind of family, too – specifically in the form of 1-2 kilos of microbes, a word which itself means ‘small life’. It is a common term used to describe the various fungi, viruses and bacteria which form unique ecosystems for each of us. Our palms, intestines, genitals and oral cavities each contain their very own system. Every country we visit, the pets we pet, the people we meet and the food we eat all deliver souvenirs to us in the form of small lives that inhabit us. There are so many of them that half of our cells are filled with their genetic material, meaning that our own DNA only accounts for 50%. They help us break down food, and they communicate with our nervous system and brain. They are said to have an impact on whether we develop obesity, depression, learning disabilities and much more. They also contribute to our decision-making. We act as host, partner and pantry to them – and, incidentally, we ourselves add 37 million bacteria to the spaces we occupy every hour, like an auratic love storm of life.[ii]
Working from home in the 1960s
GROUNDING AND DISPLACEMENT
Just before I turned thirty, which is now some eighteen or nineteen years ago, my sense of self was just plain awful, entirely out of kilter. The closer people got to me, the more pixelated I felt. Meaning that I felt non-centred, not whole. In a state of dissolution. ‘Your grounding is completely out of whack,’ was the first thing my psychotherapist said. And then we embarked on the great journey of discovery. She pieced me back together, and little by little I understood more about who I am.
There is trauma in my family and its various generations. Taboos and things I have no wish to share with others because I do not want to expose anyone. That is not the purpose of these words. There are sorrows and premature deaths. Unhappy marriages. Alcoholism. Mental breakdowns, mental illness. Disappointments. Breakups. Narcissism. There has also been love, joy and a relatively high degree of freedom.
You see, my father’s kin were independent farmers, and they did well financially. They had a knack for making various deals as a sideline; they were old-school traders of the kind where it does not really matter what the product is: it can be dead animals, nightgowns, plots of land, dairy products, properties, grain, horses, fruit or cattle. They were good at it. In that sense, and despite various misfortunes and heartaches, there must have been a deep-rooted sense of security and perhaps a certain optimism.
I’m sure their grounding was perfectly sound! They lived by the rhythm of the year. They let things go slowly and take the time required, however long that was. They were surrounded by animals, both living and dead. They were self-sufficient and lived off the land. They were (as I am) named after a farm – not just a town, but an even more local site: a farm. What does having lived that kind of life, so centered on a specific location, do to you?
Their situation certainly stands in stark contrast to the many people who migrate, flee, are or were forcibly relocated, displaced, robbed and enslaved, and who are deprived of their culture, language, communities, land, territories. Of their identities.
At present, I am reading and listening to many stories about severed ties and lost connections – and how the trauma and sorrow of such displacement persists for generations to come. How women took seeds with them to be able to retain, preserve and evoke just a small but important part of their country and culture. How descendants of the many who were robbed now work to remember, heal and restore lost knowledge, traditions and language, to re-establish connections to their ancestors and the land – for example by cultivating the same crops according to the same methods as they did. Through their diet, body, senses and practices they transcend time and feel their ancestors. Keep the memory of what was alive. Honour it.
Marie's maternal grandmother, Amalie's mother, and my great-great grandmother. She and her husband were millers from Særslev, Odsherred.
Rowen White is a seedkeeper from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and an activist for Indigenous seed sovereignty. In an interview, she relates how, ‘Since I was a young woman, these seeds have given me a trellis of hope – in a time when there’s a lot of despair in the communities we live in, there’s a lot of intergenerational trauma that’s unresolved, there’s a lot of unresolved grief that comes from the imposed shame from colonisation and acculturation. […] A big part of my work is to advocate for people to not forget about the seeds, and not forget about our relationship to them. […] If you look at the seed that I’m holding in my hand, it’s this Navajo Robin’s Egg corn; and the corn herself has these blue speckles on this white corn. What they say is that this is reminiscent of rain on dust, that this is reminding us of how important the rain that falls on the Earth is. It’s so vital to our survival as humans. Encoded in these seeds are ceremonies, and seed songs, and stories and lineages, and migration stories.’[iii]
I reflect on my white privilege. On the sense of safety and security the land must have generously bestowed upon my father’s family so that for hundreds of years – and possibly further back – they were never forced to leave their homes. They have been able to stay connected with their human and more-than-human kin – with the plants, the land, the animals.
But even though the family has never been physically displaced, you can get displaced from oneself. On our road trip, I feel no sense of recognition. Instead, I feel my father’s joy in recalling his family through the stories, and that is what resonates in me. I feel the words and the happiness, but I feel no special kinship with the landscapes of Odsherred. I feel no sense of homecoming.
I think that somehow the sense of grounding, the connection to the land, was lost along the way. It was lost with my parents’ generation. Storytelling dwindled away with the ascent of television and its easy entertainment. Life as it was lived at Lille Frydendal no longer exists. Agriculture is now a mechanised industry. Access to food has accelerated hugely, becoming detached from the time it actually takes to grow vegetables, to tend to the cattle. Our diet is different now.
My mother's medallion with a picture of my father from around the time they met.
My mother Carna
My mother’s mother, Elna, is said to have been a fabulous cook and once owned a delicatessen. She knew her way around a kitchen; nothing was beyond her there. But whereas my paternal grandmother was loving, warm and trusting, and my paternal grandfather was entertaining, my maternal grandmother was cold and loveless while my maternal grandfather was gentle and silent. My mother could not recall ever having gotten a single hug from her mother. She learned to give and receive hugs from my grandmother Marie and made the deliberate choice to not become like her mother in that regard.
But she also refused to spend her life the way Elna had spent hers. She proclaimed that she would not spend her entire life in a kitchen, as she put it. Despite being a stay-at-home mom, she grew nothing more than chives and parsley in the garden, and she fully embraced the period’s food trends in her eagerness to be modern. She favoured the kind of industrially processed food that a busy, working woman could make in a hurry. Lemon juice in a plastic bottle. Parmesan as a fine power. Pickled red cabbage in a jar. Although we got lots of berries from Aunt Grethe every year, we never made jam ourselves.
I loved my mom’s food, but I was seventeen before I discovered how mashed potatoes can taste when they are actually made from, well, potatoes. My mother did not want to receive that kind of knowledge passed down from her mother: as soon as she was able, my mother kept her distance to her own mother as far as possible. She did not cut corners in all respects, though. Fortunately, she flatly rejected my father’s suggestion – and he was being quite serious – that we could simply put artificial shrubs and flowers out in the garden so that it would always look neat.
SEEDS OF NEW CONNECTIONS
The advent of an industrially processed diet and supermarket shopping, the changes seen in agriculture and in working life in general, coupled with a sense of rapidly accelerating time overall, means that most of us have been cut off from any real connection to plants, to the land and to animals. Our physical, bodily presence in and interaction with the natural world has been reduced to an absolute minimum.
‘Our senses are a form of glue that binds our nervous system to the larger whole,’ says cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram.[iv] Without engaging in direct, sensory contact, the nervous system cannot relate to or feel the wider ecosystem outside its immediate parameter. You could say that the lost sense of grounding, of being connected with the earth, must be re-established as a very deliberate, active choice. Through one’s practices, body, senses, stories, cognition and overall awareness.
Today, there is an activist, even rebellious air to the act of growing one’s own vegetables (and regrowing the roots, bits and pieces), of foraging, picking seaweed, and stopping to simply listen to birds and other species. By engaging in such behaviours, one turns one’s back on the industrial paradigm of growth, on pervasive ideas of acceleration and productivity and instead establishes a direct rapport with the natural world.
‘Everything comes from a seed. We come from a seed. A whale comes from a seed. A giant tree comes from a seed. Grasses and shrubs. Everything comes from a seed. And your ideas will come from a seed,’ says Jim Enote in an online meeting. He is a traditional Zuni farmer, and works with land and water conservation and the protection of native cultures.[v]
Every meal consists of gifts given to us by the natural world, served up on a plate – and so it also holds the seed of honouring these gifts, of understanding connections across time and connections to the earth as such. Where does the food come from? How is the food produced? How did it end up on your plate? Did you plant the seed yourself, thereby helping you understand the life of each individual plant and its temporality? The rain, the sun, the earth, the care that has helped it grow? The many generations of plants that have brought it here? Can you feel the dizzying, beautiful perspectives fill your heart in just a single bite? ‘Eating is an agricultural act,’ said the environmental activist, farmer and author Wendell Berry. An act that connects us to the earth and to cyclical time.
A seed is the power of the past and the promise of the future. We all come from seeds.
i) For more on Kalyanee Mam’s own family history, visit Emergence Magazine
ii) The Medical Museion in Copenhagen and the Danish newspaper Politiken have created podcasts on microbes and epigenetics in connection with the exhibition The World is in You at Kunsthal Charlottenborg. My section is based on these podcasts.
iii) Read interview with Rowen White
iv) Read interview with David Abram
v) For more on Jim Enote’s work, visit Emergence Magazine