Dark clouds hang heavy over the fields that reach down to the marshlands and the flat gray waters of the fjord. A line of stunted trees, their thin branches bent by sharp winds, leaned against the field, roots grasping at the hedgerow’s stony darkness. Flurries of snow blew through the low thickets and tumbled into black furrows of steaming earth. A flock of gulls, silent in the cold winds, followed the old Massey Ferguson, swooping down to feed on grubs then circling back upwards, marks of white dancing and crying in the darkness of cloud and wind.
Behind the gusts and the growling of the tractor’s old motor, there was a silence that reached down to the fjord and its long, sloping fields, as though the Great Sea had already brought its vast brooding spaces to the land and made the new plowed earth wet with its pale salty taste.
Hours later, the last furrow cast, I returned to the barn. The hazy warmth of the farm kitchen gleamed from its windows onto the path outside. A deep visceral experience of peace and comfort.
I was shivering from the sudden heat, ice melted from my beard and steam floated in small smoky wisps from my bare fingers. I managed to get my heavy wooden shoes off in the scullery, tracking snow and mud on the stone floor. The aroma of fresh baked bread mingled with the pungent ashy smell of heat, wafted through the cracks of the kitchen door.
Gudrun, the wife, mother, and the voice everyone listened to, looked on with the good-natured patience and a sharp humor. She had been born on the narrow strip of world between sea and fjord, and knew its ways in her blood.
She insisted that I needed a drink. That usually meant kaffepuns, a heady concoction of sugar beet snaps in thick black coffee without which, the joys and tribulations of daily life in the fjord lands could not be properly celebrated or tolerated.
This time however, something else was required. I didn’t need anything that would set me right with both Man and God, she said, but a cure for an impending pneumonia that anyone with a half an eye could see coming.
I just stood dripping on her newly washed floor while she regaled me in the soft rolling Hanherred dialect with a long tale of the woes that would befall me if the chill wasn’t driven from my bones. She set a glass in front of me, took a bottle off the top cupboard shelf, ceremoniously uncorked it, and poured a good portion of a golden green liquid into my glass and beamed as I downed it. Certainly an acquired taste.
She solemnly informed me that this earthy magic was as old as the fjords themselves. The heady green fluid, hyldeblomstsaft, juice made from Elder flowers, aged and mixed with honey, guarded your health on the fjords and the fields of the northern coasts when the West Winds blew.
In early summer, as dawn reclaims the land from the cold banks of salty mist that drift in from the sea, the landscape blooms with vibrant sprays of a delicate white lace. The Elder stands strong and withery among the wind bent trees of the hedgerows, at farmhouse doors, along lanes, and brightens the low fertile lands of the fjords.
Within a few days of their blooming the women and children are out in the lanes picking Elder flowers, one of the most important ingredients in every rural home apothecary. Hyld, is known as a healer and rejuvenator from time beyond memory in the countries where stony coasts and long fjords meet the sea.
Denmark, like all European countries, has its traditional folk doctors who practice medicine with knowledge that is millenniums old. Though not academically trained, their understanding of the body and the alleviation of its suffering, make them an important part of current medical practice. Their knowledge of herbs and natural substances is often deeper and more profound than that of conventional doctors or herbalists. They skilled in interpreting the language of nature, be it in the symptoms of the body and mind, or the deeper medicinal virtues of plants and herbs.
I had been suffering for over ten years with a dry rash that covered much of my neck and torso. This was very uncomfortable and seemingly incurable. Throughout the years I had been to a number of dermatologists, MD’s, and skin specialists, where I was put through various diagnostic procedures, had taken a number of prescribed medications and numerous topical ointments with no effect what so ever. I had given up, and hoped that someday it would just go away.
Then one afternoon, I was called away from a class I was teaching at the art school, to help Holger with the birthing of a calf.
The stall was low and shadowy, motes of light filtered through air heavy with grain dust and damp heat. The cow was having difficulty expelling her calf. We stripped down to our pants and boots. Holger tied a length of rope to the hooves of the calf that were just showing from the birth canal, and we sat down on the old loft ladder using the rungs to brace our feet. Then we pulled. We strained and strained, the calf would be half out then slip back again, we lay back, pulling with our whole bodies- suddenly the calf flopped out on the stall floor; the mother looked around as if to say, well finally, and began licking the wellborn. After pouring a bucket of water on ourselves to cleanse the grime, my rash now raging red from the exertion was plainly visible; you ought to go to the klogkone, the Wise Woman, he said.
Afterwards, Holger, Gudrun, and I, sat around the kitchen table, grateful for our calf birthing triumph. We were drinking our second kaffepuns, and the subject of my rash came up. I told them that I had been to the best medical doctors and hadn’t received any help but didn’t really have much faith in some supposed ‘doctor’ that might be ‘wise’ as the word said, but untrained in any medical science. I carefully avoided using the term ‘witch doctor’.
With the traditional good-natured respect Danes give to those who are too ignorant for their own good and therefore not entirely responsible for the misery that is often visited upon them, Gudrun said- that’s perfectly all right, but tomorrow afternoon we’ll go to the klogkone so you can be rid of that.
I could hardly refuse.
We turned off just before the vejle, an ancient causeway that crossed the tidal marshes of the fjord, and followed a dirt road close under the shelter of the hedgerows. The fields were heavy with grain, and shadows of the barrow mounds rose high on the horizon. There ancestors rested deep and kept watch over the low lands of the fjord. The wings of an old windmill on the edge of the fens showed black against the sky, reflected in its flat, still waters.
The farms out here were often old and poor and this one seemed to be ancient, lost and hidden in a lane of blooming Hyld, leaning into the Fjord’s long memories, its thatched roof speckled with moss.
A small parlor functioned as waiting room. A farmer with knotted arthritic hands, a mother with a child that had large swollen glands, and a pale young girl with blank eyes. I felt very out of place, no compass for this land.
The klogkone was a small woman somewhere between the age of forty and sixty, depending on how the early summer light played across her face. She had long dark hair with graying strands that flowed across her shoulders. Quiet, almost distant, her eyes seemed to hold images and dreams much older than herself.
‘Let me see’ she said. I opened my shirt a couple of buttons- ‘Oh yes’, she exclaimed, as though this was all quite obvious. I hadn’t really counted on a diagnosis- but then I had heard many words before, both in Greek and Latin about my rash from the medical profession and at least she felt confident. It couldn’t hurt.
She wrote a note to the apothecary in town that would make up her prescription. I was to take ten drops of an herbal tincture three times a day, wash my body with salt water from the fjord once a day, and afterwards rub sheep tallow into my skin. You will be well within two weeks she said. Right- how unlikely is that, I thought unkindly.
The tincture tasted awful enough to be effective and the seawater baths and sheep tallow seemed to be comforting. In three days my skin was like new, the rash was gone and has not returned in the intervening forty years.
I had often heard about ancient healing sites around the fjord that were associated with these folk doctors. They all have their origins in a helligkilde, a sacred spring, found on the heath, in villages, in farmer’s fields, or dark green forests. Places where God and Creation meet to bless the people.
In the fields of the fjord lands, farmers carefully grow their crops around these scared springs so as not to disturb them. Even when the grain stands tall in the late summer it is custom that a single path be made through the crops, so that anyone can come and collect the spring’s waters.
The winter had come and gone. The drifts, as tall as a man, filling the tracks from the low thatched farms to the sea, had become small swathes of white hiding under a thicket or trapped in a sunless ravine. The sun showed pale through the green mists rising in the wind from the seas breaking on miles of rocky, deserted coastland. I found myself at last on an empty and seemingly endless reach of moor that stretched far away, down through sandy patches of gorse and purple heather to the great Western Sea.
Following the instructions on a map drawn by a local farmer, I found a path leading up from the heath to the headland above. The path was not always easy to distinguish as it wound through thorny thickets of wild raspberries, sea buckthorn, and dog rose, penetrating deeper and deeper into the dal, a steep ravine that was entrance to a timeless and magical world.
Light filtered with an unusual golden warmth from high overhead, down through the boughs of lichen-gnarled trees, making the path glow as it wound along a brook running with a clear and shining water. The air was still and pungent with the odor of plants and flowers that grew everywhere, spraying the shadowy light with intense color. Vor Frue Kilde, ‘The Spring of Our Holy Mother’, surfaced in a small patch of sand beneath an ancient oak tree and became the brook that wound through the dal, its bright path disappearing into the far moor, to finally meet the sea.
For centuries, people had come here, even as they still do, to drink of the water that has been blessed through the centuries and gather wild herbs they will hang from the loft beams of their homes to dry. These will be medicinal teas and poultices that fend off the dark cold of the winters between sea and fjord.
The old people tell me that there are plants and herbs growing in this dal that are not found anywhere else, that the temperature is always a degree or two higher than the surrounding temperature and that its waters never freeze. They seem to know something else- something that cannot be said in words, the sound that silence makes as it flows whispering through the dal.
I drank from the spring and gathered the pungent herbs to bless and heal the challenges of the coming year.
As the years go by, and I become just another story hidden along with the nameless generations that have looked out over the sea, I often return to the dal to feel the presence of a deep memory we all have in common. A memory that bears us in the sure hand of a Longing that is greater than our understanding, and more beautiful than all of our desires.
David Russell OFS,