Two weeks ago today I started my first day of work on a small organic farm in Norway. The farms name is Skifterud and it is situated in the region of Tinn in the county of Telemark, up on the side of a mountain. The valley is wide and opens down to Tinnsjø, a large lake that could as well be a Fjord. It is up to 460 meters deep and the mountains on both sides fall steeply to its shore.
My hosts are Gaby and Rupert. She is from the Faroer Islands, he is from Germany, but both have been living in Norway for close to 40 years. They met in Christiania in Copenhagen. Rupert was engaged in the anti-nuclear movement in Germany but wanted to leave for Scandinavia in search for a new place to live. Norway seemed like a good country: Clean air, clean energy, and enough space to live in freedom and according to your own set of beliefs. Gaby had already been working in Norway for two years back then. They came to this area with some friends and several horse wagons. The village people, as one can imagine, were not amused by this bunch of long-haired, long-bearded, colorfully dressed hippies with their horses, pictures of Indian gurus, their meditation practice and their dreams and ideals of another society. Rupert, Gaby and their friends stayed outsiders for a very long time.
Whereas when I arrived here, I was welcomed in the most amazing way. I came with a lot of ideas in my head, about farming, about community, being outdoors, working with my hands. I was also extremely nervous, doubting my decision to come at all. Before, I had been living in Berlin for seven years, and I knew for quite some time that it wasn’t the right place for me anymore. Still, you can put up with a lot of things. You make the best of it and over time you even loose your hunger for change, the trust in something new. I feel lucky to not have given in to this.
No police sirens for two weeks
On my first morning here I awoke before everyone else in the house. I could hear nothing other than natural sounds. Some distant river whooshing, a light breeze that hissed in the spruces. The wind chimes. That was it. Not even the rooster was awake yet. Later, when we went to the stable, Gaby was very clear that she didn’t expect anything from me. I couldn’t know a lot of things and it would take a lot of time to get to know them day by day, she told me. She has been repeating this a lot and it has been the best possible advice. It doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t get exposed to heaps of new tasks, work procedures, and duties. A lot of it is great fun: like hand-milking the goats Susi and Philippa, feeding them, playing with them, learning about the distinct personalities of them and the other two goats Philipp and Snella. If they get petted they forget to eat. They will just let their heads sink into the hey, in total surrender, eyes closed, muscles relaxed. Every day I wait for them to start purring like cats.
I already learned about two different ways of making cheese: the complex and lengthy procedure of making brown cheese, the infamous Norwegian brunost. It takes two days and we cooked it over an outdoor fire, at night, in the snow. And another type of white goat cheese, that is more like a semi-firm Halloumi. We make it fresh almost every day and it is absolutely delicious.
Another day I worked with Rupert in the forest, felling dead trees to make firewood. He did the felling, I stood like a red light on the road – high-visibility vest and orange construction helmet on – air-paddling wildly with my arms and blocking the very few cars passing by. After felling, we hooked the trees on to a sledge that was then dragged back home by Snøblomst, one of our working horses.
A mouse trap is a mouse trap is a mouse trap
Other tasks are more ordinary, the million things that need to be done on a farm: working in the garden, making fire, cooking, repairing, wood logging, chopping wood, remodeling, washing, baking bread, making yoghurt, organizing the selling, paying bills and so on. A big part of Ruperts and Gabys life is in fact cleaning. Because they are producing cheese and eggs, they take great care of hygiene. There’s a ton of rules. Rules on the clothes we wear for certain tasks, on the containers we use for the dairy products, the brushes for washing the containers. We have about ten different brushes hanging over the kitchen sink, and each is exclusively for either vegetables, dairy containers, ordinary dishes or pots and frying pans. We wash with cold clear water, then with hot soap water, then rinse it again cold. Also drying the containers is a big concern, no towels, just drying over the warm oven. There are rules about how to move between the outside and the inside of the house. Because the house is very old and has all these nooks and crannies we spend a lot of time sweeping and washing the floors, the walls, and I don’t know what else. I have not seen many farms but I feel that this one must just be the tidiest one. For instance, I have never seen a tidier outside toilet (utedo) in my life. Cleaning things for sure is not my favorite duty, but I have come to see it just as much as a part of farm life than caring for the animals or working in the garden (of course this time a year there is not much garden work).
The landscape is incredibly beautiful, weather and light are ever changing, so I often pause in the middle of a task just to take it all in. The daylight takes a long time to disappear, around 1,5 hours in the afternoon, and especially during the blue hours there is all sorts of stunning colors in the skys. At night you can see all of Milky Way. Working in a beautiful setting for sure teaches you one thing or another about mindfulness.
Come in, come in, with peace and the right intentions
So far, for me the biggest adjustment is not the manual work but the living together with other people. Before coming here I actually didn’t give too much thought to the communal living aspect of my new life and how I would feel about it, how I would find my place in it. Far and foremost it is just a huge change to the way I used to live before. I enjoy it big times. Rupert and Gaby are sweet and welcoming and they have been working with volunteers, wwoofers and work away-people for thirty years now. We have guests over for dinner a lot, two of the three grown-up children are here often and I find myself enjoying the company of all of them very much. The food is exceptionally good, all the products, every grain, every walnut, every shampoo is organic. It very much feels like the slogan on the board next to the door says: Skifterud is an open house, as long as you come with peace in mind and the right intentions.
When it comes to the farm work I feel that there is still a flood of new information and too little time to process it all. Much of it though is routine, I guess. Some things you have to learn fast. Like the mechanism of a mouse trap. No need to get your finger jammed in it twice. Also, all the knifes in this house are sharp as hell. Also, wood splinters can be nasty, just as much as having to go to the outside toilet at two in the morning.
After one week of work, I suffered from a minor but howlingly painful lumbago (hekseskudd). I was in the stable, made a wrong move and all of a sudden could neither walk nor breathe. Funny enough the goats must have sensed that something was off, they were totally quiet and not as usual demanding loudly their hay delivery. Somehow I made it back to the house and crawled on all fours to the bed. I felt miserable, both from the pinching pain in my lower back and from sheer disappointment. I came to help and after only one week people that I hardly know had to help me, take care of me.
Fortunately it wasn’t too bad. Instead of lying around and becoming stiff (did that the last two times I suffered from a lumbago) I slowly and mindfully kept moving. I wandered through the house, up and down the stairs, did the dishes, did some mini yoga movements, and so on. The first two nights were very painful, I couldn’t turn and just lay there, like a beetle turned upside down. But my back has been healing way faster than the last time. Besides some feelings of minor discomfort in some movements I feel like myself again. It was a fair warning though: to take it slow, giving my body and mind some time to adjust. After all, this really is a new beginning.