[Graywolf Press; 2022]
Tr. from the Danish by Caroline Waight
Dorthe Nors’s A Line in the World, a volume of history, memoir, and travelogue spins a remarkable and untiring account of the author’s travels along the western coastline of Denmark. Invited to do this work by a group of editors, Nors shares her experiences along the six hundred–mile coastline with gusto and deep knowledge of the area. The “line” (of the title) is not straight. Far from it, the jagged coastline carries the power of the ever-raging waters along its edges. (Nors describes its outline as a figure wearing a silly cap and a big nose, looking east. Study the helpful map offered after the title page and you will see this playful Jutlander staring across the page.)
The volume is organized as a sequence of essays: Some center on ancient frescoes found in white-walled churches, some address the changing shapes of sandy coastal dunes, some, the stalwartness of Danish seafarers or the hardiness of their womenfolk at home. Nors uses a variety of approaches in her essays. One visits shipwrecks and the often tragic accounts that wash up behind them. Another tours a disturbing chemical factory. Another begets the magnetism of bird migrations. Another enters its subject by way of records found in local churches. These accounts do not read as essays, but rather as lovingly told stories sifted through Nors’s vivid imagination and concrete experiences. They display her deft use of descriptive language, even as read through translation.
Nors’s familiarity with the geographic territory is trustworthy. Her family once owned a cabin on the deserted dunes of Vedersø, where they often vacationed. It was there she and her mother nearly drowned, pulled in by an initially harmless wave that quickly became a “Valkyrie wave,” as Nors describes it with Nordic drama. The frightening experience left mother and daughter scratched, bloodied, and clutching each other for dear life. That Nors describes this event at the start of her volume is important, for it draws the reader into an ongoing awareness of the fierce potency of the seas. Whether visiting a lighthouse with the author, or a seaside museum, one always senses the nearness, vigor, and life-endangering threat of the churning waters.
Nors’s “Secret Place” is at Harboøre, near Thyborøn, in the marshes and on the salt meadows. “I know this marsh like I know my own breath. Same goes for the beach, the dam, the sky, and the raised seabed on which I stand,” Nors writes. In this segment, she depicts the little cabin where she and her family spent summer vacations throughout the years. Their dwelling with its surrounding two acres offered a view, straight across the dunes, of the troubling Cheminova chemical plant and to where, at Breakwater 42, poison had been buried underground.
“But when the lights are on at Cheminova, I don’t think about poison,” she explains. “When darkness falls, the Secret Place on the salt meadow is transformed into a cave, and those of us who sleep in it into foxes . . . It’s childhood I find here, memories stored . . . It’s my oldest brother digging up lugworms on the beach; it’s my second-oldest brother flying kites on the outhouse roof.”
Nors has tried to forget that in 1962, a storm breached a hole in the outermost dam, releasing chemical waste into the sea. “The fluid part of the depot drained into the sea: birds died, fish died, and Breakwater 42 was closed.” Subsequently, the poisonous waste was dumped farther out on the edge of the peninsula, and Breakwater 42 was covered with a layer of asphalt. Nors comments on these developments: “Easy solutions, long-term problems. The things you’d rather not recall, the things you bury, they take on lives of their own beneath the ground, but the truth will out! William Shakespeare knew it, and as for Cheminova, nature itself has played a part in outing the truth.”
In her chapter “Winter Solstice,” Nors is at Thyborøn preparing to ferry across the Linfjord to Agger, farther north. Here’s another example of how her family experience blends with her reporting:
My grandmother once claimed to have driven straight across the water. They’d been on a senior citizen’s excursion to Thy, just across the channel from Thyborøn. The bus driver went right over, she insisted. At the suggestion that this could not be true—it’s at least half a mile of water—she merely snorted. She was probably keeping half the bus entertained.
I have sailed across . . . often, and it’s a good thing you can still take the ferry. How else could you experience the great tug of the channel? Over time, the inland waters were closed off to the sea by a thin strip of sand . . . But every now and then, the spit of sand was broken by a nasty storm, opening up a passage to the North Sea. The Vikings could slip out into the world that way . . . The channel as it exists today, broad and sucking, appeared after a storm surge in 1862, and it’s quite something. The ferry rocks violently halfway across if the tidal currents are going in or out. [Tourists don’t know, but] we know: the fjord arches its back out there. A river is embedded in the water’s inner nature . . . Somewhere to the south: my grandmother on the bus, shooting through the waves, over the herds of seals, back into the current, and I would wave to her, but today she’s long since dead.
These passages show us Nors’s deep connection to the land and locations she depicts. Her first-hand accounts always add interest in the telling. For example, in another segment, to explain the canal and lock system at Hvide Sande, a city midway up the coastline, Nors finds it necessary to begin in Amsterdam.
Working for a season in Amsterdam, she’s concerned about two things: first, about language and the way she can communicate so freely with the Dutch even as an outsider, as compared with the taciturnity of her own peoples. Secondly, she reflects on the Dutch canals and the engineering efforts needed to control the waters in both countries. She blends these two threads into a marvelous exposition in her segment, “Amsterdam, Hvide Sande.”
The Dutch have had to build ever higher dams and she worries about the stability of their canals, whereas, in Hvide Sande, though the waters are wilder, she feels safe. A double lock system at Hvide Sande has solved the problem of flooding, allowing the once-dammed River Skjern to run its natural course into the Ringkøbing Fjord. This enabled the city to grow on the northern side of the fjord and has stopped the problem of clogging sand on the southern side. The town now experiences a booming tourist trade and continues to grow as a fishing community.
But in an unusual incident, Nors speaks against the possible danger of wolves in the territory. (Interviewed for a national radio broadcast on the wolf question, Nors disdains the thought of the wolf threat.) The locals, convinced of the threat to the area, hold resentments toward Copenhagen and those in power. Due to this broadcast, Nors becomes a “stranger” to the locals. She asks a friend, “How long am I to remain an ‘invisible’ here?”
I was invisible for a year and a half, and by the time I gradually turned visible again, I had decided my voice was more important to me than being present in the local community . . . of course I love the landscape, I love the dialect, the humour, the helpfulness, but when I need to talk I drive to other parishes, to speak to other people . . . I journey out into the world.”
Indeed, this volume makes me glad Nors has allowed her voice to journey out into the world. The collection, like other accounts that inform readers of the great natural powers of our earth and of the cataclysmic forces of oceans, reads like an adventure. A Line in the World recalled to me the kind of excitement experienced in reading Thor Heyerdahl’s travels in the Kon-Tiki in 1947. Nors’s vivid descriptions of the waters along the Danish coastline leave indelible impressions.
Carole Mertz is the author of Toward a Peeping Sunrise (Prolific Press) and Color and Line, a collection of ekphrastic and other poetry (Kelsay Books, 2021). She is a graduate of Oberlin College. Now, a semi-retired musician, she reviews for Dreamers Creative Writing, and other journals, and is Poetry Editor at The Ocotillo Review.
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