Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The World of Oleanna: Summer Meadows, Trysts, and National Identity?

The practice of transhumance, or the seasonal movement of people and their livestock between summer and winter pastures, was a crucial part of life in Norway for hundreds upon hundreds of years.

Photo: Leif Ø. Nordang
The summer pasture in Norway is is called a sæter, a name used interchangeably with the cabin on the land used as a summer residence. Due to its geography, the sæter in Norway was often in the mountains, above the treeline. The livestock was moved to the sæter in June, tended for the summer by girls and young women.

In Oleanna, the sæter is a crucial part of the life of Oleanna and her family, and it was actually the first spark of an idea I got for this book: an image of Oleanna standing outside the cabin, basking in the summer sunshine.

Beyond the obvious economic importance, the sæter was a crucial cultural touchstone for Norwegians as well. According to Dr. Ellen Rees of the University of Oslo in her article "Domesticated Wilderness in Two Norwegian Children's Classics" (Scandinavian Studies; Spring 2011)
In the nineteenth century the seter was an enormously productive and evocative literary motif employed by numerous Norwegian writers for adult audiences in a conscious nation-building project...Svale Solheim in particular emphasizes the liminal nature of the seter as a place that was perceived as dangerously close to the supernatural world. During the nineteenth century, the seter was conceptualized as a privileged place, a refugium, an eroticized locus where the national romance could be acted out. (47)
The sæter was also considered a place where actual romance could be acted out, a place outside the day-to-day life of the farm, and away from prying eyes.

So if the sæter is such an important part of Norwegian self-identity, what happened when Norway moved from an industry focused on agriculture, timber, and fishing to one based on shipping, fisheries, hydroelectric power, and oil?

Photo by Paso on Panoramio
Today, some sæters are still being used as summer meadows, of course, with multiple farmers sharing the same sæter. But more and more, the sæters and their attendant cabins are now being used as holiday cabins (hytte) by Norwegians from around the country.

Hytte are serious year-round business in Norway: making the time to be in the country is seen as a birthright and a duty. And just like in the 19th and early 20th centuries, taking time to stay in the family hytte is an expression of pride in the country and the culture, as well as a place completely removed from the stresses of daily modern life.

Can you rent a hytte these days? Definitely--but the term in tourist literature has expanded to encompass any self-catering cottage or apartment. As a matter of fact, you can rent a cabin overlooking Jølster lake--where Oleanna is set.

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