By Barbara Sjoholm
In Denmark there’s a legend that the Limfjord, the great inland sound of North Jutland with outlets to the Kattegat and the North Sea, was created by an enormous pig, Limgrim, who dug up half the peninsula with his snout, so the water could flow in. Off the southern coast of the Limfjord, a four-minute journey by a small car ferry, is the fossil-rich island of Fur.
It’s been inhabited since the Stone Age; the Vikings left traces there, and so did medieval monks and nuns. In 1670 the whole island, twenty-two square kilometers, was confiscated by the Danish king and turned into a hunting estate. Later it became a farming and fishing community with several small villages, among them Nederby, Debel, and Hvirp. The population has been in decline for some time; about eight hundred residents now live there, half of whom have only holiday homes. There’s a white-washed church with a bell tower, St. Morten’s, built in the early 12th century, and a museum, housing the fossils that make Fur famous, at least among geologists and amateur rock-hunters.
I first came to Fur by chance, while busing and biking around Jutland with a German friend one September in the mid-1980s. Ingrid and I stayed in the youth hostel in Nykøbing on the island of Mors; one day we crossed the bridge on our bikes and cycled along country roads fringed by golden barley and bright yellow rapeseed until we reached the ferry to Fur Island. We didn’t stay long on the island; we had a picnic and took photographs of ourselves in the church. Then came the long cycle back to Nykøbing, a large stein of pilsner, and a rubbery feeling in my legs after we returned the rental bikes. But the memory of Fur and the district of North Salling stayed with me. Many years later when I began studying the life and work of the Danish artist and ethnographer Emilie Demant Hatt, I realized she had grown up on the shores of the Limfjord, in the village of Selde, and had been to Fur Island many times.
Emilie Demant Hatt first visited Lapland in 1904 and returned in 1907 to live with Sami reindeer herders in Swedish Lapland in the early 20th century. She learned the Northern Sami language and translated the first work of literature written in Sami, collaborating with the wolf-hunter Johan Turi. She wrote her own adventurous and enthralling narrative, With the Lapps in the High Mountains, about living in a tent with Sami families and going on migration with them over the glacier-covered mountains of Sweden and Norway. She was an expressionist painter of note, who left a large body of paintings, many with motifs from Lapland. But that’s not all. When she was fourteen she formed a romantic attachment with the twenty-two-year-old Carl Nielsen, at the start of a career that would make him Denmark’s greatest composer.
Some twenty years after my first accidental visit, I began to go back to the district around the Limfjord for research, and eventually I made my way to Fur. In addition to writing about her art and ethnography and translating With the Lapps into English, I decided to tell a fictional story about the young Emilie—Nik, as her family called her—and her relationship with Carl Nielsen. This eventually became the novel Fossil Island and its sequel The Former World, which take place from 1887 to 1891.The novels are set in Copenhagen, Odense, and Selde, where Emilie’s parents owned the general store; some important scenes take place on Fur, on fossil-hunting expeditions. The novels were partly inspired by Emilie’s memoir Spring Waves, which she wrote in the 1940s and which wasn’t published until 2002, two years after it was discovered in the manuscript collection of the Danish Royal Library. The memoir tells the story of meeting and falling in love with Carl Nielsen and their eventual parting; it includes letters that had never been seen before by Nielsen scholars, who indeed were unaware of Emilie and her family at all.
Spring Waves is a kind of fossil too, from its unexpected rediscovery, as well as its words and memories, preserved from 1880s Denmark. One of the themes of my two novels is time, and what could be more suited to the subject of time than fossils, formerly living things petrified and encased in stone, objects that geologists have long used as clocks in determining the age of the earth’s layers and movements.
The southern part of Fur Island is flat, a tidal shoreline, the middle is a mix of drained bog and upland, and the north is sharply ridged with cliffs above the coastal beach. These exposed coastal cliffs are made of moler, or mo-clay, layered with black volcanic ash. In some places the layers are quite horizontal, but in many others the grayish white of the moler and dark of the ash have been shoved into rippled synclines and anticlines. The moler is a marine sediment from the Eocene, 55 million years ago, at a time when Denmark lay under a warm and shallow sea.Periodically, volcanoes in the North Atlantic, around the Faroe Islands, would erupt and ash clouds float over the seas to fall on the marine sediment below. The Fur Formation, as it’s called, is quite particular to the Limfjord; the moler sediment is made up of diatoms, a microscopic plankton with an opaline structure living near the surface of the sea. The silica in the water preserved the diatoms and the volcanic ash, and the marine sediment in turn preserved a wide variety of fauna and flora from the Eocene.
Most of the flora fossils are tropical or sub-tropical trees, ferns, and flowers; many still thrive on earth, though rarely in now much-chillier Denmark, like the gingko or the redwood.Many of the 200 species of insects preserved in the Fur Formation are more familiar—mosquitos, dragonflies, grasshoppers and cicadas, their delicate wings miraculously sketched on limestone. The majority of animal fossils in the collections of the Fur Museum are sea creatures: turtles, sea snakes, crustaceans, mussels, sea stars;tiny salmon, mackerels, tuna, and herring, their bones long ago replaced by minerals, creating hard and unyielding skeletons. Some fish are just the same as the fish we know now; others are an earlier version—Fur Museum has a perfect specimen of a snake mackerel, from snout to tail, as well as a well-preserved knogletunge, a bony-tongue fish.
Avian fossils are more rare, but in the Fur Formation are thirty species of birds, some almost complete, down to feathers and beaks. All are terrestrial birds most probably blown off track in a storm, like the kingfisher that fell and drifted down to the bottom of the oxygen-poor water, where it was covered in sediment and locked in time, until the waters dried up and the sea floor was thrust up again. Other birds, now found in the tropics are hornbills and hoopoes, wrens and tree swifts; the larger birds are similar to cranes and ostriches, suggesting that the land near the shallow sea was savannah and wetland. The Geology Museum in Copenhagen, which houses particularly valuable fossils, known as Danekræ and protected by law since 1989, has a beautiful specimen of a bird’s head from the Paleogene, with a nice stand-up ruff of articulated feathers on its crown; it’s described as a vand høne, or waterhen.
The fossils are not found in the moler itself, which is rather soft and dusty, but in calcite concretions, or “cementstones,” so hard they need a good hammering to be split open. You can sometimes find these limestone concretions, shaped like large beans, lying around the shore at the base of the striped ash and molerbluffs in North Fur; more often they are pried out of the cliff sides themselves. They’re occasionally discovered in the quarries of Fur, where the diatomite is commercially extracted and sold for use in filtration systems, insulation bricks – and even cat litter.
Before a regular car ferry service was established, people who wanted to get to Fur from the mainland sailed, rowed, or were rowed across by ferrymen. In Spring Waves Emilie Demant Hatt describes putting up a flag on one side or another to alert the ferryman to come fetch passengers. Old photographs show people being carried out through the shallows to the boat on the backs of these sturdy men, so as not to dampen their feet.But I crossed in the usual way, one sunny but cool day in March a few years ago. The bus I’d taken from the district’s main town of Skive drove on to the ferry and then around the island, so I was able to hop off in Nederby near the small flat I was renting for a few days to do my research. After settling in I walked a mile down to the main street of the harbor (one supermarket, two restaurants and a few shops, mostly closed for the season) and found the woman who ran the tourist office. Like a number of middle-aged Danish women, she smoked a small pipe. We’d been in contact by email and she’d helped find me just the right place to stay. Now she loaned me a bike and gave me a little local advice. I set off up the hill on my bike and cycled around for a while in the middle of the island.
Spring in agricultural Denmark—and there were farms here on the island—is the smell of heavy-duty fertilizer and pigs. There were windmills, but not the old romantic kind; these steel turbines whirred high above odorous brown fields, creating energy as they disturbed the sky. Still, two miles or so uphill from the harbor I could see the Limfjord’s blue-green dazzle and the sunlight was clear and fine: The island effect. After a while I came to a strange landscape of ravines and quarries that gave the hills a surprisingly desert-dry and bony look, especially with the whitened moler, streaked with dark ash and reddish earth. There were dusty roads and earthmoving vehicles. This was nothing like I had imagined for the scenery of my historical novel so, like most writers who wish to keep their vision intact, I turned my bike around and left.
The woman at the tourist office had told the curator of the Fur Museum, John Brinch Bertelsen, about my interest in Emilie and he was eager to meet and introduce me to a friend of his. Bertelsen is an archeologist who also acts as a bus tour guide in warmer months for day-trippers and rockhounds. He was born on Fur and is blind; he first began losing his sight at eighteen. He suffers from what was once a common genetic condition on the island, the eye disease Retinitis Pigmentosa. There was too much intermarriage, Bertelsen told me cheerfully. Fur became an island of the half-blind. Later I would read that Bertelsen is well-known for his bus tours around the island, often making jokes about where things are and which way to look. He liked to introduce himself to the driver in front of the passengers by saying, “I haven’t seen you before.” He knew Fur and its landscape by touch and memory and was a fountain of knowledge about the island and the old ways. We were joined for coffee by part-time resident Karen Klitgaard, who teaches media studies at the University of Aarhus, and who offered to take me on a spin around the island in her car, especially the north and northwest, where the cliffs are.
Karen and I parked and walked around the headland of Knuden (the lump or bump or knot), on the rubbly coastline of Lille Knudshoved (Little Bumphead) and Knudeklinterne (the Lumpy Cliffs), places that I’d described from photographs and maps in the draft of Fossil Island,but that I hadn’t yet seen in reality. Karen walks the beaches often and finds fossils easily; she picked up several small fossilized sea urchins, the size of large gray gumdrops, and gave me one.The striations of the cliffs were reassuringly just as I had imagined them, ripples of alternating whitish clay and dark ash, shoved up and down in rhythmic patterns. We walked up and down the beach in the cooling afternoon, Karen looking for more fossils and me remembering, inventing, and thinking how best to work my new knowledge into my pretend world on paper.
Carl Nielsen was no geologist, nor was Emilie Demant Hatt, but they came of age in time when natural history collecting, fossilizing, and geologizing were popular pastimes. Darwin was translated into Danish in 1872, but the first articles about him had come out in Danish newspapers in 1860 and his evolutionary theories were debated for several decades. Danish scientists contributed to the discussion on zoology and geology in the nineteenth century (as well as allowing Darwin to borrow barnacles from the Zoology Museum in Copenhagen), though none produced theories as groundbreaking as those in Scotland, England, and Europe. Still, Denmark could boast of at least one important early geologist and philosopher, Steno. In 1669, Steno published a short work in Latin, “A preliminary discourse on a solid body contained naturally within a solid.” He created drawings of geological sections to illustrate his principles, one of which is that it is was possible to note whether it was the rock or the fossil that had first been solid. For the most part Steno discovered it was always rocks that had formed around the fossils. Steno theorized that layers of rock would have formed horizontally, as different sediments were laid down, with the oldest rocks at the bottom. Changes in their layering, which pushed older rocks up and buried newer rocks, must have come later, one of the foundations of the field of stratigraphy.
The writer, searching for metaphor, could hardly be faulted in seizing on such an obvious parallel to the layers that build up in an individual life and in the life of families and youthful sweethearts. Geology is always about time, and so is music and, very frequently, so is the novel. I gravitated to books about geology to flavor the background of my novels and found myself entranced with theories spun over the centuries about how long the earth has existed and how old the rocks and fossils are and how everything came to look the way it does in the landscape and under it.
In the early 1600s the Bishop James Ussher of Ireland painstakingly worked out a chronology that precisely dated the creation as the night preceding Sunday, 23 October 4004 B.C. The Scot James Hutton, an early scientist of the Enlightenment, suggested in 1788 “we find no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end." Speculations and models included Neptunism and Plutonism, the one hypothesizing that rocks precipitated out of a primeval ocean and the other maintaining that volcanic eruptions and intrusions, followed by eons of exposure, had shaped the earth’s surface. Another theory, called Catastrophism, gave way to the model of gradual change, Uniformitarianism, as described at length by Charles Lyell in Principles of Geology, from 1830-3, which held that "the present is the key to the past." Lyell was a great influence on the young Charles Darwin, who sailed off on the Beagle with a copy of the Principles.
All these theories make an appearance in Fossil Island and The Former World. What is plot if not eruptions and cataclysms in the midst of more gradual change; what is character if not the result of past events; what are fossils if not whole and fragmented memories buried in layers of stone and then thrust up again to the surface from time to time? An invented family in the novels, the schoolmaster, natural historian, and widower Harald Strandgaard and his four children, are all inveterate rockhounds, especially Joachim, who eventually goes on to study in Edinburgh, and Sophie, who dreams of attending Cambridge and finding dinosaurs. Their manor house near Selde is full of fossils they have found on Fur and Strandgaard’s library holds volumes with images of geological landscapes and fossils from Cuvier and Buffon and Buckland, illustrating everything from ammonites to “megalosaurs.” The Strandgaards and Emilie find no large-boned fossils on Fur, but they do find everything else that is there.
A novel can have its origin in a flash of inspiration or coincidence or it can slowly grow. Most often, fiction results from a combination of both. There is my old memory, of bicycling around the Limfjord and the island of Fur, joined to my much later fascination with the woman who became an artist and ethnographer, but who began as a girl into whose life a young stranger came and changed everything. There was the memoir she wrote in her seventies that conjured up an adolescent love, a typescript lost and found again. There was my interest in women’s rights and the morality debates in Denmark in the 1880s, and my admiration for Nielsen’s music. There was my curiosity about what it would be like to write a historical novel that blended real people and real events with those I invented. Most of all there was Fur, a small fragment of land in the Limfjord, an island that surfaced in recollection, was transformed into fiction, returned to reality during my visit there, and then, once again, became a fossil island of memory and imagination: the fossil island of a book.
For more about Emilie Demant Hatt, see www.emiliedemanthatt.com, with information about the two novels, Fossil Island and The Former World, as well as her own book, With the Lapps in the High Mountains: A Woman among the Sami, 1907-1908, first published in 1913 and in my translation from Danish in 2013.
Barbara Sjoholm has written about other islands in the North Atlantic, from Ireland to Norway, in her travel narrative, The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea. She is also the author of The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland. She lives in Port Townsend, Washington.