You could say that Tim Severin is a historical re-enactor, but that would conjure all the wrong images, of renaissance fairs and Colonial Williamsburg. At nearly 80 years old, his accomplishments are better described as experiential archaeology, recreating legendary journeys to prove they could have happened. His historical adventures are based on years of upfront study, working with scholars to decipher ancient texts and find period-appropriate technology and materials. I only recently learned about Severin’s work, through his 1978 book that documents a fascinating early project called The Brendan Voyage.
I didn’t go outside much during the last two weeks, and I’m guessing that neither did you. COVID-19 is ravaging the world, and we’re only just beginning the strange solidarity of fighting it together, by staying apart. In the best of times modern life can be racked with anxiety, so in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and accompanying economic collapse, how do we stay sane?. We need a Happy Place: somewhere that makes us feel calmer just by thinking about it. That place for me is the Faroe Islands, and while the country is asking people to avoid visiting right now, I found the next best thing by staying inside and devouring The Land of Maybe: A Faroe Islands Year by Tim Ecott.
I could fly to the Faroe Islands right now. It would take a few connections from Pittsburgh, but soon I’d be looking out the window of an Atlantic Airways flight and trying to name the islands, if I could make them out through the fog. But that accessibility is a modern phenomena, and for most of its history the tiny archipelago was a distant place, a significant sea journey from anywhere. Isolation required self sufficiency, which led to a unique food culture, distinct even from its Scandinavian neighbors. Fermented lamb, boiled pilot whale, braised guillemot, puffin stuffed with cake. These dishes bear the imprint of the landscape itself. Faroese food is the creative output of natural constraints, defined by both what was missing (fertile soil, salt) and what was plentiful (steep bird cliffs, grassy mountains, deep ocean inlets).
This blog comes from a fascination I have with people and places of the North: isolated islands, extreme landscapes, remote villages, and people that have found a way to live and even thrive in those environments. I find inspiration in travel, but also in the stories that other people document and share about these places. I recently discovered a book that could not be more perfectly aligned with these interests: Faces of the North by Ragnar Axelsson. Through stunning black and white photographs, and richly concise essays, this book documents the lives of people in Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland.
Off the west coast of Scotland lay the Outer Hebrides, a chain of islands that look almost like a shield being held up by the mainland to protect itself from the rugged North Atlantic. Beyond that, a full 40 miles further west, are the lonely islands of St. Kilda, a tiny archipelago forged by volcanos and sculpted by violent winds and waves. It’s not exactly a convenient place to live, and yet these islands were occupied for nearly four thousand years, an incredible testament to subsistence living and human perseverance. The story of life there, and the eventual decision to evacuate, is the unlikely subject of an illustrated children’s book called Child of St. Kilda by the British author, illustrator, and printmaker Beth Waters.
The concept behind Lawrence Millman’s book Last Places: A Journey to the North is such a perfect fit to my interests, and this blog, that I knew I had to read it. Millman endeavors to follow the trail of the Vikings, traveling from Norway to Newfoundland via Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland, mostly via sea and foot, camping along the way. It’s a personal travelog, from an opinionated and seasoned traveler with lots of stories to tell. It’s not his first time in any of these locations, which is perhaps what frees him up to seek the most remote, difficult, or forgotten corners of these already far flung islands.