The following essay, “The Tracks around Bulbjerg”, is from A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast. by Dorthe Nors.
It’s exposed as a stump of tooth. Snapped at the root, where the nerves are laid bare. It should have been bristling with birds out there, potent, a landmark above a Jutland where nothing is as hard as rock. Except right here, where the bryozoan limestone has erupted into bird cliff. To the right of where I stand is Bulbjerg, the Shoulder of Jutland, towering 150 feet above me. White, hard and mighty, in a cloud of kittiwakes. A bulwark.
Below the kittiwakes is another bulwark. This one consists of bird photographers. They have Saturday meet-ups, and they have camouflaged lenses. Some wear clothes that help them blend into the vegetation. They have one foot resting on a piece of limestone, their telephoto lenses collectively erect, all the better to lean under Bulbjerg with. They aren’t rare, the kittiwakes, but they’re rare in Denmark. The photographers follow them doggedly. I wonder what they think, the birds, about the other flocking species down below. They seem indifferent, but maybe, if you got close enough, you’d see in the kittiwakes’ eyes that they miss the proud column of rock that once jutted out of the sea: Skarre Cliff.
It was shaped like the bragging bow of a ship, and the Vikings must have seen it as a sign. For thousands of years, it held its head high. Now it’s just a little stump of limestone in the sea, gnawed down. But before it fell, it adorned postcards and stamps. It was a mystery and a place for day trippers. It gave west-coast Jutlanders faith that the sea did not take everything. Something, no matter what, was still standing. And then, one night in 1978, my dad pauses in front of the television. It’s the news he’s watching, and strictly speaking I’m supposed to be in bed. But something has happened. They’re talking about the storm sweeping across Denmark. They’re showing pictures of Skarre Cliff, and then they cut to an empty sea. Where Skarre Cliff had stood, now there is nothing.
My dad grew up in flat, potato-growing country. That’s why we go to Norway in the summer: we go to see the massifs. We go to experience what it’s like to stand somewhere high up in the landscape and look down on it at the same time. When it comes to mountains, Jutland doesn’t have much to offer. That’s what my dad says, looking down his nose at Sky Hill, the highest point in Denmark. That heap of earth. But Skarre Cliff and Bulbjerg stand firm. We’ve been on excursions out there, and they’re not going anywhere.
And then Skarre Cliff did, after all. It’s like the sea gently pushed it off its pedestal overnight.
My dad doesn’t say anything, but I can see him crumbling in front of the television. Now my mum’s there too. Her arm around my dad. He’s crying because Skarre Cliff has fallen. And he’s crying because his big brother, my uncle Erling, died in a car accident not so long ago. I’m in my pyjamas, and I feel grief spawn. A loss is final, I understand in my nightie, and the losses are piling up around Skarre Cliff.
But the kittiwakes fly. No matter what. They simply transferred from the snapped-off bird cliff to Bulbjerg itself. That’s their nature: they let time pass through them, egg by egg. It’s summer now, roughly forty years later. Lyme grass whispers behind me. Uncle Erling is still dead, and Skarre Cliff will never rise out of the bay again. But the rest of us are still here.
‘Gripping!’ scream the kittiwakes. ‘Gripping!’, and I straighten up. I want to head round to the other side of Bulbjerg, where you’re backlit at this time of day. The backlighting reduces the kittiwakes to meaningless shadows, so the photographers prefer not to stand around there. Bulbjerg protrudes over the sea, white and dripping. Along the beach are smooth-honed limestone cliffs. They look like the bones of a giant. Now I’m standing on a shoulder blade. Now I’m stepping over a pelvis. Then I’m walking down a sandy track away from the beach, up towards the great skull of Bulbjerg, chalk-white and covered in low vegetation.
I’m in my pyjamas, and I feel grief spawn.
THERE ARE PATHS ALL OVER THE PLACE AROUND HERE. They crisscross up and over the big chalk skull like sutures. They branch off, drawn by living feet, in and out of the undergrowth. They find their way.
‘The track begins where the grass has bent. Summer after summer. Under soles and hooves and weight, the action is repeated, until at last the blueberry stalks come know it and to bend,’ writes Kerstin Ekman. ‘A network of paths, veins, vessels of memory…’
I once learnt that quotation by heart. It combined two of my passions: literature and paths. For at the end of the path, there was always something hiding. The path went there for a reason. Someone wanted something there, and their wanting was an etching. Sometimes it was a little house, a fjord, a flowering tree or a sea hidden at the end of the track. Other times it petered into nothing, but nothing was also something. You could stand and look. Or sit down, reflect or carry yourself to some new place. I have a fondness for the routes few people take, but here at Bulbjerg the paths are well trodden. Tourists scurry over the limestone like perpetually hoarding mice.
My feet choose a path on the south side of the cliff. I clamber upwards. When I turn around and look down, I see other paths trickling into the countryside. Maybe they were first used by a marten, then by a fox, then a deer, then a badger, then a person, then another person, until at last they were bit deeply into the landscape. There are paths everywhere, up and down the coastline. A path is drawn in the sand, perhaps, and then a storm wipes it away, so the feet find another. Maybe the track is used mainly for practical purposes, and so it’s paved. Then come the bicycles, the buggies, civilization; and civilization shores up the stories it tells about itself, while these feet-laid paths shift easily from year to year, until perhaps one day they’re gone. One of my most secret paths along the coast is the one that led down towards the east side of Ringkøbing Fjord, hit the beach, and continued out onto a rickety jetty with a clear view over the lighthouse on the other side of the water. The lighthouse was flashing, unbreakable in my memory, with all its questions about direction in life. Another path I love is the one that goes from our little summer cabin, the Secret Place, onto the amber beach, past the old tar barrel, and finally down into the water, where Oddesund Bridge quivers like a mirage in the distance. At the end of that track are geese, golden plover, curlews. There is amber in the east wind, and the memory of bonfires with those I love, that’s out there too. Yes, I prefer living tracks, ones that talk to the landscape this way. ‘Vessels of memory,’ as Kerstin Ekman writes. ‘To be led along. To move with the slowly pulsing water and yet be still. Like the plants in the brook, like the hornwort and the water lobelia.’
This eternal, fertile and dread-laden stream inside us. This fundamental question: do you want to remember or forget? Either way, something will grow. A path, a scar in the mind, a sorrow that you cannot grasp, because it belongs to someone else. All that must be carried alone. All that cannot be told. Your story emerges in flashes, or as ripples on the surface, before diving down again. Your memories want you and do not want you. Your story is the one you share with others and the one you must live with, in yourself, and no matter what, you are led along. You are moved, transported, forced to wander down all these tracks, into the light, into the dark, into nothing.
Once, at a book fair, I met the Norwegian author and neuropsychologist Ylva Østby. Her job is to understand these vessels of memory. She gave me one of her books. I don’t have it with me at Bulbjerg, and right now it would be great to ask Ylva. And, indeed, I can ask Ylva, always. She told me so. Now, standing on a path on Bulbjerg, I message her.
‘Hi Ylva, I’m standing on the only thing in Jutland that’s remotely like a mountain. There are loads of paths round here. Would you say that paths and memories are similar?’
Ylva lives on the other side of the strait and works at the University of Oslo. She’s often online, so it’s worth taking the chance. I sit down on a tuft of heather and gaze out at the stump of tooth. The water is lit by a glimmer from below, like chalky light. Before long, I can see Ylva is typing.
‘Sounds like you’re somewhere beautiful,’ she writes.
‘Not exactly the Trolltinden Mountains,’ I reply, ‘but it doesn’t get any bigger here. Am I on the wrong track?’
Ylva thinks in Norway.
‘When a memory pathway arises in the brain,’ she writes, ‘it can be similar to the way a path forms over time: two neurons keep stimulating one another, and gradually a stronger connection develops between them.’
I’m not used to neurons, but I respect them, and I can see that Ylva is elaborating.
‘Plus our surroundings help us to remember,’ she writes.
‘Our surroundings?’ I ask.
‘Yeah,’ says Ylva. ‘The paths through the landscape are a feat of memory that we create with the landscape and with the other people who have walked and are walking through it.’
A kittiwake flits past above me, then another. The bay is a cone of blue.
‘Many paths are thousands of years old,’ says Ylva. ‘They knit places together in a way that worked well for the people who lived before us. They work well for us too, so we don’t have to find the same paths again.’
That’s civilization for you, I think. A track becomes a path, the path becomes an old road, becomes a country road, becomes a main road, becomes a motorway; but once it’s become a motorway it has long since stopped talking to the landscape, I know. Ylva continues:
‘The landscape still bears traces of individual human beings’ experience of it.’
That’s infinitely beautiful, I think, and Ylva writes:
‘Your memories of a particular landscape are stored in a network connected to all the associations you had when you went there for the very first time. When you go back, it activates that.’
The edges of the harbour quay, the presence of death, I think, and write: ‘The landscape is an archive of memory.’
She answers with a smiley and points out that nature also permits certain culturally determined associations. It’s important to remember that.
‘For instance, I see trolls when I go down to the woods,’ she writes.
‘You see trolls, Ylva?’
‘I do, yes,’ she replies. ‘The trolls are something the forest lets me see, but the fact that I see them is also due to the cultural heritage I bring with me into the forest.’
I ask Ylva if that’s why I’ve never seen a troll in Norway, even though I’ve been there a lot. ‘I mean, is it because Danes don’t bring trolls with them—they’re not part of our cultural associations? Unless you’re from Bornholm, I guess.’
Ylva confirms this, and I decide to end the conversation by boasting that I once saw an elk in Norway. After that, Ylva has to go. I thank her for her time, and then I’m alone on Bulbjerg once more. Ylva is embedded here now. I can never cross Bulbjerg again without thinking of Ylva Østby.
The landscape is an archive of memory.
I SIT THERE FOR A WHILE, TAKING IT IN. Thousands of other people’s memories coexist here: memories of a summer’s day, of a stinging jellyfish, of a storm. Memories of blind man’s bluff. Memories of violence. Of people who came and went, of houses that once stood but stand no longer. People on foot, people on horseback, and now the sky is high with summer. Behind me is the green countryside: hills, cliffs, trees and paths, meeting and diverging. They must look like nerve cells from above, and once upon a time, there was a seaside hotel on the top of Bulbjerg. I believe it was the Germans who pulled it down. They were afraid such a big white thing would attract Allied bombs. So they burrowed down into the skull instead.
I try to imagine the time before the war. I use my collective culturally determined memory to access the associations: over there is the hotel. It looks like a castle with its tower. The upper middle classes stroll around in white dresses and summer suits. I see straw hats. I see privilege. I see lolling guts, and I see the author Thit Jensen. Yes, Thit Jensen. Small and plump, she traipses back and forth in flowing clothes. Her husband is busy painting the hotel dining room with local motifs. Meanwhile, she wanders, drawing inspiration. She has no children, and is notorious in the press for this and that. Partly it’s this dereliction of her duty to reproduce; partly it’s that her husband is eleven years younger than her. She makes no bones about being an advocate for abortion, women’s liberation and other dangerous things. She is the sister of Johannes V. Jensen, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, whom everybody is obliged to love and honour. But brother and sister do not get along. He is fascinated by machines, she by women’s rights. The sibling bond breaks, and no, Thit has no children, but she is a spiritualist, so she has the dead, and she’s especially enthralled by the area on the other side of Bulbjerg. It’s called Dead Man’s Flat, and if she’s drawn to the place, it’s because she has met a spectre there. She communicates with the ghost, and that, too, is a feat of memory. While her husband is painting at the Seaside Hotel (or while he’s screwing her best friend), she goes to speak to the dead man on his flat. It’s a sailor of the world who’s buried there, most likely. She imagines a member of the British aristocracy. Noble, with a dog, possibly a greyhound. But he can’t find peace, and nor can she. She talks about that to the dead man, the restlessness. He doesn’t answer, but he hears her out. The spirit of the greyhound roams across the flats, and she goes back to the hotel and wishes the living dead. I imagine this, just as I imagine that precisely where I’m standing now, on top of Bulbjerg, is where the idea came to her for her novel The Erotic Hamster. The Erotic Hamster is embedded in the landscape. It ran off with her husband, that hamster, and her anger has seeped down here too.
Our surroundings help us to remember.
I GET TO MY FEET AND WALK THE PATHS down the northern side of Bulbjerg. I let myself branch off along the way, resting on the natural plateaus along various trails. Eventually I reach Dead Man’s Flat. There is no living thing here besides me. In the dead man’s domain, there is silence and limestone on the beach.
About my uncle Erling, I remember he was fond of horses. That he was kind to children. That he was fairhaired, but bald on top. That his girlfriend smoked cheroots. That he struggled to commit. That one winter’s day he hit a slippery patch on the road, and left deep sorrow in his wake.
I take a stone from the beach; it’s warm in my hand. According to Thit, you’re supposed to throw it onto the dead man’s grave to stop him rising. But I don’t know where he is. Like memory, he is a tenacious ghost. A stray animal, I think, remembering Uncle Erling holding the horse’s bridle. He had a cat too, as I recall, and I weigh the stone in my hand. Then I toss it gently in the direction of Skarre Cliff.
“The Tracks around Bulbjerg” from A Line in the World: A Year on the North Sea Coast. Copyright © 2021 by Dorthe Nors. English translation copyright © 2022 by Caroline Waight. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.