‘We used to have elders’, wrote Anthea Hejlskov in her piece for Issue 9 in 2016, ‘Certain people have disappeared, just as the wildlife has.’ In ‘The Loss of Function’ Hejlskov unearths and brings into the forest’s half-light something that contemporary Western culture rarely concerns itself with: obligation. What I found utterly refreshing, returning to this piece again after six years, was her lack of self-pity, earthy black humour and her description of the Scandinavian land and soul as ‘not soft’. In this piece, Hejlskov vividly evokes being called by her peers to be the volva, (seer and storyteller) and the humbling, sometimes wracking, adventure of such a task.
It is uncommon these days to speak of function rather than identity, but through working physically with the Earth itself, the heart and mind are educated, along with the hands. It’s a mud thing, she says, not a fine, artsy thing. Years spent living with her family in a hut in a remote Swedish forest, accepting and shedding an archaic role within her community, finding stubbornness a gift, all lead her back to her ancestors, the lost elders she doggedly sought. And what did they have to tell her? Not what she expected: read on and find out. CR
The Loss of Function
We used to have elders too. Someone to go to, someone to come to, for advice. Deep breath, clear vision. Someone to speak of compassion and pride.
Certain people have disappeared, just as the wildlife has. I don´t quite know what happened, other than it was a grand tragedy. It was a loss.
And now I don´t know how to do some things. Some things are supposed to be passed on and told through tales. The situation reminds me of stanza five in the thousand-year-old Norse poem Voluspá. The last volva spoke. A man, a monk, inscribed her words onto paper, it was the last we heard of her. In stanza five she speaks about a time before the world as we know it was created (my poetic translation):
The sun came from south
sister of moon
on her way along heaven´s rim
to find her place
The sun did not know
where to be
The stars did not know
The moon did not know
Nobody knows anymore.
Where to sit, where to stand, who to be, where to hang.
I can´t do this without elders, without volvas; I can´t face the destruction, the end of the world as we know it; I can´t ‘sit with it’, I can´t grieve, I can´t accept. For a while, sure (and I cry), but not in the long run. Not forever.
This… not knowing, not doing, not trying… this negation bothers me. Maybe it´s my Viking warrior blood, maybe it´s a thousand years of female suppression and following female insistence, this roar from deep, deep below.
‘I WILL NOT SURRENDER’
I will not cave in. I will not break.
So I went looking for my elders. I went to the woods to meet the volva. This is my story. Here you have it.
I went looking for my elders. I went to the woods to meet the volva. This is my story. Here you have it.
First you must know who I am.
I am a woman who has lived several lives, nine at least. I am a mother. I am a writer and speaker. I live off grid and primitive in a little cabin in the wild woods of Sweden. We built it ourselves. Rewilders, doomers, preppers, permacultural neo-hippies, environmentalists, radicals. My kind has many names.
I am also asatru. This means: I believe in the ancient gods of my forefathers, I study the pre-Christian Scandinavian worldview.
Many years ago I was initiated by my peers. ‘You are the volva,’ they said and then gathered in a circle around me and gave me gifts: a staff, a cloak, amulets and other items.
First they had sent me to the woods alone. I fell to my knees, face down in the mud, I lay there for a long time. There is more to say about this. One day I might say more.
Then they came and fetched me, broken. That´s when they gathered around me in a circle and told me what my job was. I wasn´t quite sure. I didn´t quite know but I told them: OK, if you say so.’
I tried to be the volva, I wrote several books, I told several tales. I danced around in front of the cameras, they told me to go stand in the bushes. ‘Look natural!’ they yelled. I would follow the threads on social media, braid and weave. I would speak up and whisper, always insisting on ‘the personal‘ (since we lost control of ‘the political’ a long time ago), ‘Come, let’s take our stories back!’
I polished my craft. I became better. I still wasn´t quite sure though. I didn´t quite know.
After a while I realised that being the storyteller is the opposite of freedom. What I thought liberated me, my sanctuary, actually made me dependent, not only on the listener/reader but also on society. My focus, my hyper-attentiveness to social codes, the unsaid, the structures, the taboos – the very things that I wanted to get away from when I ran to the woods and built my own log cabin. The disillusionment was grand, grand as the great loss.
Burned and scolded, self-loathing and shame.
‘I am merely a slave!’ I said to myself, and then I went and hated myself some more.
I tried to stop being a storyteller. I deleted all of my accounts, all of my blogs, stopped writing for the newspaper, said no to interviews, did not say yes to one single speaking arrangement. ‘I don´t want to be the storyteller, I want to be free, free as the stars!’ To live in the wild and be liberated.
Then came the big sigh. It was during the big freeze. I sat in the chairs for months.
One day I went walking in the forest where no one can hear you scream and I yelled out loud until I lost my voice.
‘I am no volva,’ I whispered to the trees.
‘I can´t do this,’ I groaned.
The Scandinavian landscape and hence the Scandinavian soul have never been soft. This is the land of rocks and mountains, pine, spruce, juniper. All of the trees are stingy, all of the forest lakes are infinite, there is nothing to hold on to here besides… stubbornness.
So I went out again, this time I came better prepared.
‘I demand to speak to my elders,’ I said, as I tried to light a fire. The fire would not light. ‘I´m not giving up,’ I said, and marched back to my cabin (crossing the bridge across the river for the second time), fetched more birch bark, more matches, more stubbornness (crossed the bridge for the third time) and that’s when it happened.
I stepped into another world.
The ancestors didn´t necessarily believe the spirits to be residing in some ‘other’ world. Actually they seem to have been speaking with the spirits on a more daily, regular, secular, mundane basis, but let that lie, I was now surrounded by spirit, the whole forest was alive.
POINT OF NO RETURN
‘Pull yourself together,’ they said. ‘You have a function,’ they said. ‘Do what you have to.’
The wind suddenly rose around me like a whirlwind, it held me, like a mother, caressed my chin. I have only one word for this.
Then went the high ones
and the holy ones to counsel
to debate and to converse
and give nature names
They named the night
morning and midday
afternoon and evening
and counted the years
Are we gods? No. Are we high and are we holy? Ha! But then again we might have been fooled into believing the godly are almighty. But this is not the case. My gods die. My gods fuck up. My gods have relationships with humankind. All relationships are weird. Fragile. Relationship is negotiation, debate, counsel and conversation; nothing is supposed to be silent, nothing is supposed to be holier-than-thou. I don´t know why we were led to believe that something finer existed: individual freedom, a detached kind of paradise, silently free-floating in space. The world as we know it is based on debate. Having a function is not some super-delicate, fine, artsy thing. It´s a mud thing. You have to know your place and rarely is the place about you, as a person, more often it is about your function.
The storyteller has a function: to touch the untouchable, to go first, to dare. Not for her own sake (I thought it was) but for ‘the others’, and I really don´t like ‘the others’, I kind of wanted to get away from them. But then the elders said, ‘Get a fucking grip!’ and so I did. And that´s the story. That’s it. Lastly I want to say that I think we should hold counsel now, debate and converse, engage and…
(I´d like to throw a word into our conversation)
It’s a word
In the forest where no one can hear you scream.
IMAGE: Julie Williams
Sculpting in the Pyrocene: A Disappearing Act
Within a eucalypt forest the artist performs a collaborative ritual with a burned tree. The tree central to the work was sculpted by bushfire on a mountain plateau; its deep roots remain steadfast, anchored within the regenerating landscape. The duo sculpt with a light filled net to unravel memory and history, poetically conjuring the past to the present to envision the future. They expose our vulnerability as a species in a collapsing world.
Julie Williams is a photo-media artist living in the Vale of Clwydd, New South Wales, Australia. She utilises self-portraiture to immerse herself within the landscape to highlight tthe search for reconnection. Her work queries the spirit of place and how humanity can inhabit a place more fully. juliewilliams.art