A Portrait in Kokelv

Today, we’re sewing fences.

With a big old smile, Johan Mathis Eira drops a brand new pair of work gloves on the coffee table. A few minutes later, I’m dressed somewhere between a children’s TV clown and a videogame plumber.

Working Matt

We are staying in Kokelv, a bay area on the coast of the Norwegian Sea, where the main roads run out. This is the summer home of my interpreter’s family.

The last great, classical ethnography of Norwegian Saami – written by the late anthropologist Robert Paine – is based on fieldwork from the 1950s. The exotic Saami lives, the sense of otherness depicted in this book, no longer exists – not as it was.

This is not even a pretence to an ethnography. What I tell you is undoubtedly full of my own biases and more than a little good, old-fashioned narcissism. I’ve already included myself in over half the sentences so far.

Arriving late on a Friday, we settle in for a traditional Norwegian family evening of watching rubbish TV. Johan Mathis greets us then returns to his leather recliner: the prime spot in the middle of the living room, fit for a patriarch. The evening’s delights range from substandard American sitcoms whose names thankfully don’t linger in the mind, to a flash-mob-based reality show called Mobbed. I’m not even going to link to it, it was so dreadful. Look it up yourself.

Johan Mathis is a man of considered, almost indistinguishable gestures. He leans back in his recliner, barefoot, wearing maroon tracksuit bottoms and a musky old navy jumper, while we explain how the interviews are going so far. Every now and again, he hums in a thoughtful way.

With subtle affection, Johan Mathis presents his youngest son, my interpreter, a gift of new socks. Jon MIkkel chucks the old dog-eared pair in the woodburner. Recycling, Saami-style.

Tonight we rest; tomorrow we work. Per Anders, one of the older brothers, back from a long day in the mountains, strips off his workpants and slouches on the sofa. He once played darts at championship level in Oslo. Earlier in the year, he took part in the reindeer cull on the island of South Georgia.

Most of the family is now gathered. ‘Siida‘ refers to a group of herders who marshal and shepherd their pooled reindeer, build fences and ward off predators together. These cooperatives are family affairs, traditionally. This is the summer home of Rávdol siida. A father and three of his sons.

We eat, and we eat well. Johan Mathis fills the dining table with a dish of reindeer – cuts of saddle slow-roasted for two hours – accompanied by baked potatoes, cloudberry jam and a gravy concocted from the fats and juices, flour, butter and brunost.

We dive in. To the victor go the spoils, to the dogs go the bones.

It’s a simple affair. The meat is unseasoned and the pure flavours speak for themselves. The gravy adds a sweeter, almost toffee taste.

As soon as you’ve eaten your fill, it’s time to retreat back to the TV. Dinnertime is a time to exchange banter about the day while stuffing your face. The entire ritual lasts only 15 minutes.

Breakfast is an altogether different beast – every animal for themselves. It’s hard for someone so stereotypically, repressively British to dive into another family’s refrigerator. Pro tip: get out of bed just after somebody else and they’ll cook your breakfast. I didn’t figure that out until too late. I sip coffee and browse the Saami newspaper. I still learn nothing.

. . .

The All-Terrain Vehicle (or quad bike to you and me) roars, sputters and churns up the hill, towards the fences.

When I was a younger and less bearded man, I earned my keep one summer as a labourer on building sites in Essex. I didn’t know what a wet-vac looked like and I’d never heard of a palette, save for in gastronomic contexts. In the end, my best ploy was sheltering in distant flats of the new, tastelessly modern estate, singing Elvis songs while sweeping and sweeping and sweeping the floors.

It may be clear I’m no handyman in either the ‘handy’ or the ‘man’ senses. I couldn’t even start my rental car by myself.

Up in the mountains, it’s T-shirt weather. A light breeze keeps the worst of the mosquitos at bay. Jon Mikkel and I are dressing holes in the fence with stretches of wire mesh, patching them on with annealed tying wire. We’re sewing fences. Johan Mathis checks our handiwork with more thoughtful, considered hums.

Johan Mathis and Jon Mikkel mending fences
Johan Mathis and Jon Mikkel mending fences

. . .

More family has arrived by the time we return. They seem unquestioning and accepting of strangers (or at least bearded anthropologists) in their midst. The living room fills with an expansive, comfortable silence. I strip off my workpants and slouch on the sofa. One of the mongrel dogs comes to say hello. She is gorgeous: long, gold-and-black hair, possibly part husky – what Per Anders calls the ‘original straight mix’. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.

Saami pastoralism, as a way of life, has been forced into many corners over the past century. The Nazis scorched the earth of Finnmark. Up until the 80s, various governments attempted to ‘Norwegianize’ indigenous groups including the Saami. Nowadays, the government mandates new laws every few years – some beneficial to herders, some (to put it politely) less so. Outside interests are prospecting the land. The Arctic is heating up faster than the rest of the planet, elongating springs and autumns, changing the landscape. How people like the herders in this room respond to all these pressures will be key. The families, the pastures, the tools, the breeds of dog, they all change.

. . .

Tonight we feast upon pan-fried cod coated in flour and pepper, served with fried onions, more baked potatoes and a thick buttery sauce. One of the advantages of not being able to converse in the language of the dinner table is you can just shut up and eat and eat.

Sunday morning is a slow morning. Summer is more restful for the pastoralists: the reindeer graze the fertile pastures as they wish. Outside, it rains and today Johan Mathis won’t go to the mountain.

We expect close families to work well for one another, when we hypothesise about human cooperation. Hard work rewards hard work – we expect that, too. I won’t go into the minutiae (just yet) of evolutionary theories of cooperation, but from this story of broken fences I see the heart of my project and I see questions. How free are herders to choose who they work with, to move away from family if they can do better elsewhere? Why would you move away from one siida to join another? Are small, family groups more stable, more successful? What else is going on?

Jon Mikkel and I drive back to Karasjok at a touristic pace. Every photo opportunity for me is a chance for Jon Mikkel to get back to Facebook. He can’t wait to watch his friend’s band play at the Midnattsrock music festival this coming weekend. But right now, he wants to go home and play a new zombie apocalypse game.

So much for alterity, eh?