Chapter  7

For the crows to pluck

Today is Monday April 14th. Yesterday my partner in life and I went for a three hour’s walk in Larkollen. We participated in a guided tour arranged by the small historical museum in our municipality, Rygge. I think I know my community well, but there are always new things to learn about its history. We were in a group of twenty people, mostly oldtimers.

         Larkollen, on the Oslo Fjord, is not really a village. A Frenchman would not call it a village because he would not find a bistro in its centre. Larkollen lacks a centre. Houses are spread out along the Larkollen road. But we have a school, a small wooden chapel that was recently upgraded to a church, a grocery store, and a hotel situated on the waterfront. The hotel survives by being host to conferences of various kinds.

         In wintertime a quiz competition is arranged every second Monday in the hotel’s bar. I’m proud to announce that the team I belong to, which has a Swedish name, ”Dödaren ” (The Killer), has been the winning team in the two first seasons of the quiz. Members of the team are a psychiatrist, Espen, two teachers, Arvid and Øyvind, a social worker, Bjørn, and myself.

         On every quiz evening there are questions about local history. On the guided tour, conducted by Else Mehren Olsen from Rygge Historielag (Rygge Historical Society), I picked up some information that may be useful in the quiz when it starts again on October 6th.

         If I live that long. Of course I’ll live that long!

         On a couple of occations during the 17th century Larkollen played an important role in Danish-Norwegian history. The beach under a very small fortress was used as a landing place for soldiers sent from Denmark to protect Norway against Swedish attacks. Now, after the tour, I know that as many as 7000  soldiers were landed here in one of these operations. Little Larkollen with only a hundred inhabitants – fishermen, sailors, pilots, small holders and subsistence farmers  – must have been seething with life. A mighty fleet of ships from the Danish navy was anchored at the strategically important anchorage in the Sound of Larkollen, between  the island of Eldøya (Fire Island) and the mainland. When the soldiers departed and the ships lifted anchors, Larkollen fell back into its slumber and poverty. The extra money earned by the population during the influx of soldiers and navy sailors had not made Larkollen rich.

         Today it is rather a rich place, as part of the Norwegian welfare state. Here are a few millioniares. But most people have regular incomes, in the upper end of the wage scale. Quite a few are retirement pensioners.

         When foreigners have come to our house and garden in springtime, they have been astonished by all the birdsong. Norway, way up north, is not a country that foreigners connect to birdsong. The country – if it is known – is known for its snowy winters, glaciers and long, silent fjords. But because of the invasion of migratory birds in spring the birdlife here is quite rich, to the joy of us who live here and the surprise of visitors from southern countries. Many of the birds that come here from Southern Europe and Northern Africa are singing birds.

         On Sunday eve I went out in the garden and listened to the song of the blackbirds, robins and willow warblers (”svarttrost”, ”rødstrupe” and ”løvsanger” in Norwegian.)

         In the background I could, as always, hear the hoarse shriek of the crows. I do not like the crows much. In fact I am a bit afraid of the crows. I have inherited this from my grandmother. She detested crows. When she saw one at close range, she would clench her fist,  lift it against the big black and grey bird and call out ”go away, awful crow!”

          I listened to the crows and suddenly felt a sharp pain in my left elbow. Nothing scary?

          I have had rheumatism in that elbow ever since I smashed it falling on a ship’s deck in a storm when I was a young sailor. It is nothing permanent. The pain comes and goes, depending on the weather.

          Did I mention that I had a serious heart disease some years ago? Early in the yar 2002 I was very close to getting a heart failure. Maybe I even had a cardiac infarction, a socalled silent thrombosis. A doctor from Poland, a heart specialist working at the local Moss Hospital, found out trough examination with supersonic equipment that a cardiac valve of mine called the aorta valve malfunctioned. It was leaky.

         I was sent to the National Hospital, Rikshospitalet, in Oslo to undergo surgery. On the 6th of April 2002 my leaky valve was replaced by a mechanical valve. It is a big operation, much like a bypass operation of the kind former US president Bill Clinton underwent when his heart failed.

          My operation was successful. My rehabilitation also proved to be a success. After some months I was back to normal life, started to swim again and felt fit for fight. But everyone living with a mechanical heart valve has this small, persistent fear that it would stop working, and that a heart failure may be the result.

The first signal of an infarction of the heart is often a pain that spreads from the left arm to the chest.

         ”It is nothing to worry about,” I said and slapped my left elbow. I stood still as a mouse, as we say in Norwegian, ”sto stille som en mus”, and listened to my heartbeat. The mechanical valve makes a clicking sound. At night I sleep with a fan in the bedroom. The sound of the fan drowns the sound of the valve.

         Standing in the garden listening to my heart, I found that the clicking sound was as normal as ever.

         ”Don’t bother to come any closer,” I called to the crows. ”I am not going to drop dead so that you can come and peck in my body.”

It is this dream I sometimes have, that i drop dead in the garden and the crows come and....

         In my family we like to listen to the songs of Billie Holiday. All mye four daughters are Billie fans. I appreciate her song ”Strange Fruit”, but the picture she gives of lynchings in the Deep South of the USA also scares me profoundly. I see the young black men hanging from the brancehs of the trees. I hear Billie sing about their eyes, that they are ”for the crows to pluck”, and I feel a shudder pass through my body.

         Five years after my heart operation, I got the news that I had cancer of the prostrate.

         I have been tried, I dare say. Of course I have developed hypochondria to a certain extent. But I do not consider myself a complete hypochondriac. I fight my hypochondria as well as I can.

         I do not hate the crows. They are part of nature. They belong to the landscape I live in.

         But I think they are to many, now. They come in bigger flocks than before. In the local newspaper Moss Avis I have read the worried comments of bird-loving readers who complain that they think the amount of singing birds has diminished during the last decades. I have wanted to reply that I think the crows are to be blamed for this because they plunder the nests of smaller birds. I have wanted to advocate a shoot-out of the crowds. But I have kept silent.

         One should be a daredevil to speak loudly about the shooting of crows when living in the vicinity of Moss. The crow is the symbol of Moss. In the town’s coat-of-arms (”byvåpenet” in Norwegian) there is a crow. This heraldic crow in the shield of the municipality is not sacred in the minds of the people of Moss. But it is thought positively of.

         The citizens of Moss are called crows of Moss, and often call themselvs crows of Moss (”mossekråker” in Norwegian).

         Moss Fotballklubb (Moss Football Club) is now playing in the second division. The supporters of the club hope to see the Moss team playing in the first division again. The most eager of those supporters  have organized themselves in a group called The Crow’s Wing.

         I think it would be much to the chagrin of The Crow’s Wing if I publicly say that I would like to see the local stock of crows dramatically reduced. After such a statement, I don’t think I should show myself in the stadium of Moss Fotballklubb, especially not on the stand where The Crow’s Wing dominates.

         So I shut up.

          But I would like to remind my readers that in the old days, when I was young, there was a reward for shooting crows in Norway. The crows were thought to eat the grain on the fields in autumn. My grandmother – and my grandfather, on this they agreed – had the firm opinion that crows ate chickens in our chicken coop. They supported the men who came with shotguns to shoot at the crows gathering on our neighbouring fields and in the groves of oak.

          The crow reward was not very high, perhaps as low as five or ten kroner. It was a fraction of the fox reward, which, if I remember it correctly, was a hundred kroner. Foxes, the notorious chicken thieves, had a hard time in my youth. They were shot and trapped, the poor creatures.

          I love foxes. After a bad period of fox pest, the foxes are now plenty around here. I see them along the road. This winter a large and very red specimen passed slowly through my garden, as if it was parading in my honour.    

         I’m sorry to say that this chapter so far has contained nothing about the big questions about life and death in a religious or anti-religious context, but only a few glimpses of my fear of  physical death. On the other hand, one should write about the phenomenons close to oneself. And the crows represent such a phenomenon.

         Monday is one of my swimming days. I went to the pool and swam the best I could, but it was not good enough. 15.27, 15.36. This was an inexplicable result. Or perhaps the reason for my slow swimming sas the tensions in body and soul?

         I was disappointed with myself. Why couldn’t I think positively about the fact that I manage to swim rather well, my age and health taken into consideration? It’s a mantra of our time that one should ”think positively”. I do not fully accept that mantra. I give to myself the right to think negatively, and thus prepare for the bigger disappointments that are to come, with old age. And the biggest disappointment of them all, death itself.

         To true Christian believers death should not be considered as bad at all, but as the gate to afterlife. Why, then, is it that many of the Christians I speak to seem to fear death as much as I do? It may of course be the fear that they are going down to the wrong place, not up to the right place. As a non-believer I should feel lucky to have now such  fear. But- alas! - it is not that easy. The conceptions of Heaven and Hell are within me, as part of my cultural heritage.

         I try to get rid of those conceptions, to put the ideas of salvation and doom away. But the thoughts pop up, both when I am awake and when I sleep. I have terrible images of perishing in strange places that I experience during sleep, and that scare me when I wake up. I know in my rational mind that these images are products of my imagination, but I feel them to be actual sensous experiences.

         Did I write terrible? It is not the right word. Ghostly is a better word for my nightmare visions, that mostly are visions of deserted cities where I do not understand what to do, and feel helpless like a lost child, and were devilish phantoms appear.  These visions obviously are connected to religion, to the religious sentiments that were planted in me when I was a child attending shool, in my first school years. Our lovely, old teacher Miss Haug at the Smestad school never scared us with Hell and Devil, but from what we read in the Bible and in the Cathecism (”Katekismen” in Norwegian) we pupils could make our own dark visions. These visions have shown themselves to be very tenacious. They still live in me.

         After a sudden rain shower the sun shines again. I go out to take a breath of fresh air. A squirrel leaps along the stone fence which I have built on our plot of land along the Larkollen road, to protect us from the view of bypassers and from the noise and fumes of traffic, which is quite heavy on the road.

         It is a fat and fine squirrel, in good shape after winter. We have had a very mild winter, good for squirrels, foxes and roe-deer, of which there are plenty in Østfold. Maybe the mildness of the winter is related to the global climate change. The climate change is good for something, then!

         The squirrel comes to a stop at a point where several stones have fallen out of the fence. The condition of the fence is giving me a permanent bad conscience. It should have been repaired a long time ago. It’s a shame the way it looks. But after I had the heart trouble, I did not have the power I had before to struggle with the big stones in the fence. I have asked a gardening company to repair it, but the company never showed up. Now I cannot ask the company because I need the money I have saved to get the house painted.

         The squirrel jumps, and I applaud it, and try to forget my bad conscience about the stone fence. I envy the squirrel. One should have lived the simple life of  a squirrel, with no thoughts about death. Well, the squirrel has its problems. Nowadays its deadly enemy the marten (”mår” in Norwegian) have returned to this landscape after having been long gone.

         I have observed a marten in the garden once. It had a brownish-black colour and was  much bigger than a fullgrown cat, and had a long, bushy tail. The marten jumped over the fence in one mighty leap and disappeared into the woods.

         I fear a lot, but I do not fear the marten!

         Of all the things I have a bad conscience about, one is that I have never completed reading Richard Dawkins’ book ”The God Delusion”, which I have in a Norwegian translation, ”Gud – en vrangforestilling”, published in 2007.

         Over the last years we have seen a revival of atheist literature in Europe on the USA. I consider it a countercurrent to the revival of religion. I’ll have to come back to the American atheist authors. Their concern is not only the growth of Christian fundamentalism, but also the expansion of Islam.

           The British author Dawkins is a front figure in the atheist revival in Europe, where he brags that his book has sold nmore than a million copies. He is really an outspoken atheist and has a wonderfully clear mind. I started reading him, but put his book away half-read. Why was that? Dawkins is in favour of the theory of evolution, and so am I. He is witty and ironic, and a learned man, a man of the world. I am a man of the province, even if I  - on a good day – do not find myself utterly provincial.

           Oh, his work was brilliant! In the beginning I found great pleasure in it. But while reading more of Dawkins, I got a strong sensation that his cool atheism was not my atheism. My atheism is of a more desperate and vulnerable kind, I think.

         I consider myself to be an intellectual, and so do my fellow Norwegians. But my atheism is not so much an intellectual affair as it is an affair of emotions. I do not really belong to the intellectual atheistic countercurrent in Europe.

         I do not belong anywhere when it comes to religion and anti-religion. My atheism is a lonely business.

          My great compatriot Henrik Ibsen wrote, in my translation, which is maybe a bit clumsy:  ”The man who stands alone is the man who stands strongest.”

          Well, well. I do not have the feeling of standing strong when it comes to belief and disbelief. Sometimes I have the feeling that my atheism is built on sand.

          Ready for tomorrow. The result of the blood test.

          Did I hear the crows laughing?


       Chapter  6

Chapter  8