I’ve never been asked that hackneyed question of writers “where do you get your ideas?” or, at least, it’s been asked in a more subtle way. I don’t really think about it any more, because I’ve learned that ideas come from anywhere, at anytime. Ideas are the opportunistic catch of the fishing mind and they are malleable, furtive, and everywhere. You just have to be ready with the net.
One story idea was handed to me on a platter on a trip to Norway. Naturally, there’s a smorgasbord of material when you visit a beautiful European country with mind-boggling scenery, a storied Viking past, and not unattractive women. And, of course, those ideas went into the journal I keep when I travel. But it was the unexpected parts that stuck.
I’d made plans to visit Vik, a small town on the Sognefjord. The word “vik” means bay and it’s where the word Vikings comes from, but the reason I wanted to travel there was to see the Hopperstad stave church, one of the ancient wooden Christian churches that are iconic Scandinavian. They’re the narrow, spooky-looking towers that look less like churches and more like dragon boats that have been put up on end and made into buildings (which they should, as most were erected by the same boat builders that had constructed the dragon boats in earlier times).
The setting was fascinating. Many of the stave churches—of which only 28 of 1,000 remain—are a millennium old. They were built in a harsh age, but are dark, foreboding buildings almost by accident: the swirling animalistic decorations were part of the culture (granted, a fairly warlike culture), but they’re black because they were covered in pitch to protect them from the elements, not to increase their intimidating look. Inside, the buildings are modest and humble.
The lore was equal to the setting. One gruesome tradition was that there was no cemetery for many years (centuries?) because the hamlet’s dead were placed under the floorboards of the church. Not buried, mind you; simply wrapped and laid under the floor. The tradition continued until the smell became so bad that alternative arrangements had to be made. Less repellent and more touching: children who had died in childbirth—and so were denied baptism—were not allowed burial under the church. Mothers were said to sneak to the church in the middle of the night to slip the bodies of their stillborn babies under the floorboards in an attempt to get them into Heaven.
But perhaps the story that stuck with me the most was when our guide almost casually described how, as the churches aged, the great wooden pillars that supported the structure (the “staves”) had to be replaced. These were single, enormous oak trees that were grown, tended, and harvested in a special grove to be the replacement supports for the church. This in and of itself I find amazing.
Here’s the story in between, though: for both strength and looks, each tree was trimmed of branches and shoots the minute they appeared so that all the growth would occur straight up the trunk. By the time it was ready to be harvested, each trunk was a perfect wooden pillar. When this tidbit was related to my tour group, most everyone nodded and moved on.
But I was stunned. Simple math and a little bit of knowledge reveals an amazing story. Oaks of the size and strength needed for the church’s staves take decades to grow. In an age where few people lived to age 40, the groves had to be tended by someone their entire life or, what seems more likely, two or even three successive generations. That is an incredible act of community commitment–on the order of building of cathedrals. Yet it received a few seconds’ mention on the tour.
Who tended the trees? Did they pass on the responsibility to their children? What happened when a tree died of disease or accident or even vandalism? What was the status of the person or people who tended the trees? What happened to them when their grove was cut down for its very purpose…the building of a new church?
A small thing, and maybe I have the calculations wrong or have even misunderstood the significance of the tale. But I’d prefer to think that there’s a brilliant story buried in the simple facts, waiting to be teased out and caught.