Luxury Anthropology

Bear Grylls once said, “Being brave isn’t the absence of fear. Being brave is having that fear but finding a way through it.”

I just ran out of coffee.

To prepare for fieldwork is to prepare for the unknown, for adventure, for boredom, to be disappointed, malleable and mindful. To holiday in other people’s lives.

Through our questionnaires, games, interviews and chats, we are catching glimmers of facts, like so many butterflies (or, more aptly, like so many mosquitos).

Jon Mikkel and I bowl into people’s homes, drink their coffee, ask some questions and retreat. Some people want to natter for longer than others, and a few have woven intricate stories of their past and their now and the future of reindeer herding.

Through the past three weeks, I’ve learnt much about cooperation among Saami herders (the purpose of my being here) as well as people’s reactions to interference from previous researchers, slaughterhouse politics, traditional handicrafts, marriage ceremonies (much like British weddings but extended into a three-day binge), indigenous feminism and verdde (a special relationship, loosely translated as guest-friend). I’ve even been treated as a verdde myself, lodging in family cabins for short trips and being fed the traditional foods, from choice hunks of reindeer back to dried shanks to blood pancakes.

Still, I am very much the outsider, very much outside their lives. As if to reinforce it, I’ve lived, mostly in solitude, on a husky farm. A husky farm, in the woods, by a river. This is my home:

Cabin in the woods

Sven Engholm – a former champion sled dog racer – started to build up the farm in 1979. Legend has it (also, his website says) he decorated and furnished each log cabin himself. If I could construct anything more advanced than Lego, it’d be this.

Grasses and fireweed grow on the roof. My bed is made of tree trunks. There’s a homespun candelabra with a wrought iron douter. The coffee table is a slab of what might be Norwegian slate, suspended by ropes over a rug of something dead’s fur.

Various parts of mammals hang tastefully from the walls. Moose antlers become light fixtures. Skins of weasel-y things and furry hides are decorations (and possibly pillows). Lord know how many moo-ing, bleating, squeaking and grunting things laid down their lives for my comfort.

Inside my cabin
Inside my cabin, circa midnight

There is no plumbing, just two metal buckets: drinking water and slops (or what Germans delightfully call schmuddelwasser). Every time I fill the kettle, metal pans clang and boing like a Saturday morning cartoon.

Between the cabin and my Lexus, this is undeserved, luxurious anthropology. I am no Bear Grylls, no Indiana Jones, no matter how hard I pretend…

Indiana Jones?

People come here for the fishing: the salmon and grayling in the river Tana, the trout, pike and char in the lakes. The woods lead to down to a bank covered in beach – as in, sand. The only thing preventing me from stepping into my finest beach suit is the Lapland Air Force.

I’m still a bit obsessed with the sky. Walking down by the river at noon, the sun was on the wonk. It doesn’t hover straight overhead – it’s at a funny angle. It still never sets, which means the roosters don’t know when to crow and since the hutch is near my cabin, I’ve gone off roosters.

Working on the farm alongside Sven are a skiing, climbing, horse-riding guide with piercing ice-blue eyes, a French biology student taking a summer break, and a former archaeologist who prefers outdoors to academia. The place attracts people who believe you need to know someone in nature to really get to know them.

The wonderful nature writer Barry Lopez wrote: “I thought about the great desire among friends and colleagues and travellers who meet on the road, to share what they know, what they have seen and imagined. Not to have a shared understanding but to share what one has come to understand.”

Back in Tromsø, I passed some evenings with a sea eagle ecologist named Igor Eulears. Igor is a man who likes a slow, thoughtful pint, and will watch pretty much any film going, no matter how ludicrous or awful or both. When I met him, he’d just spent a few weeks climbing rocks in Finnmark, scouting for nests.

He said, up here he feels more like himself. He said how it’s important to live somewhere just long enough you don’t take it for granted.

He told me how the people at home and the people gone away, they change at different rates. He asked me, where do you feel more like yourself?

A fine question – one to ponder in the woods, sometimes. A question that requires more coffee.

Karasjok, Norway