Making hay with Vikings by Shane O’Reilly
At about the age of twelve I recall my mother explaining to me the reason for algebra and how, suddenly, the penny dropped and its usefulness became clear. I experienced a similar moment on a trip to Norway and the Naturforvendbund annual gathering to carry out a “Hesjing”.
We are fortunate, at Wimpole, to have flower meadows and vast expanse of grassland to mow; I have also tried to mow at Mucheleney on the iron weed they call grass and so thought I understood the what and the why. So when the opportunity to mow in Norway arose, Jayne jumped at the opportunity and I was dragged along. I knew what mowing was about, you cut the grass and stacked it up, where’s the difficulty in understanding that.
Per-Øystein Klunderud had sent explicit instructions; how to get to Rygsetra, a small community 50 kms north of Oslo, what to bring and a programme of events. It worked like clockwork. We were met off the train by Kjell and then realised we had been travelling with about 6 others also attending but we were in the wrong carriage. The motor transport promptly dropped off at the site where Per-Øystein showed us our accommodation and let us settle in. But we weren’t allowed to relax, Gunnar appeared on the scene and insisted on us viewing the grass meadow that we were to mow the next day.
A 5 to 6 hectare (25 acres?) expanse of light grass and flowers, set on a steeply sloping hillside and surrounded by thick birch, pine and other woodlands. With a farm at he bottom of the hill and a lake beyond that, the setting was idyllic and in my limited knowledge of the country seemed typically Norwegian. Gunnar was not there to show us the grass to cut, oh no, he wanted to show us his pride and joy, the Gentianes. He had discovered a patch of these blue beauties and had carefully cut around them and marked them with posts so that they would be spared the butchery that was to come. His enthusiasm and friendliness set the tone for the weekend.
As we toured the site with explanations of the various flowers and constant references to a large tome of wild flowers we were joined by other members of the group and our informal tour was only brought to a close when a bell sounded for dinner. A selection of salads, Norwegian cheeses and meats followed by cake and coffee outside where we were introduced to each other and began to attach names to faces. We were a group of approximately 40 and of those, most were from Norway, Sweden or Denmark and spoke a common enough tongue.
At breakfast the next day we were divided into 2 groups Norwegian and English speaking, of which the latter group was composed mainly of Swedes, Spaniards and us 2 lonely English. Our group had a session with both flora and fauna experts, Arne and Evan, and toured the meadow examining all the various habitats and their inhabitants. The explanations included how to find insects from the plant behaviours and what to find where. After lunch we swapped over and our group became the mowing debutants.
First was the safety lecture, followed by how to sharpen both types of scythe blade, hard by grinding and soft by peening and then blade and snath set-up. With that we were sent out onto the meadow with instructions to ‘dance’ and breathe but it was more like havoc. Little by little we all fell into the beautiful rhythmical method of mowing taught by Mats with him giving instruction and encouragement. In my case this included showing my faults on video taken on his phone (sneaky Mats). So I had to mow with a ball of grass under my left arm to stop it swinging out wide.
After dinner most retired and slept the sleep of those who had done a hard days work, especially as the next day was an early start – 6 o’clock prompt – to get the meadow cut in time for the open day show in the afternoon. With the mountain dew still heavy on the light meadow grass, the group set to. Newly learnt techniques were being put to the test as metre by metre the uncut area was reduced. As the newbies were mowing, the old hands set to on the “Hesje” (pronounced Heshay) making. Lines of posts were driven into the ground and a steel wire strung between them about 250mm off the ground.
Once secured, the helpers layed cut grass onto the lines and once the entire length was laden, a second wire was strung about 100mm above the first layer. And so it continued until the poles were fully laden to a height of about 2 metres. As the mowers moved to newer areas, so the helpers moved and erected new Hesjes. Eager to learn, some mowers also began to fill the wires and quickly gained the knack of laying on an armful of grass so that it didn’t slide off to either side. Not easy when the lines were being loaded from both sides. Quickly the hillside was being denuded of its lushness and more Hesjes were taking shape as helpers and mowers continued their work. More poles and reels of wire were brought out from the farm barns as required and the holes in the ground located by probing, as the grazing sheep of the previous year had closed them over. Due to the calcareous geology (yes I was listening) the hard ground required re-using the same holes every year. The early start meant we had to halt for breakfast and to make our own packed lunch as we were to work through until all mowing was complete. All ingredients were provided even the wrapping paper and a pen to record your name on the packaging. The organisation was incredible and us newcomers learnt by watching the regulars or were given instructions on how to wrap a lunch (thanks Sidsel) properly. Then it was back to work on the hillside, taking turns mowing, raking and stacking.
By way of a break, demonstration of tree pollarding for animal fodder was given. A large elm was selected and after instruction the group set about demolishing its branches. It was the one moment that I felt limbs (human) were in danger as men up ladders flailed bill hooks in all directions. Happily there were no fatalities. The severed branches were tied up with elm bark and piled onto an old farm trailer which was dragged down to the open day site. I hadn’t seen this before but apparently it provides good nourishment for livestock.
The other extra curricular activity was the bread and cake making. “Look out for the oven smoke” we were told as this signalled the making of the bread. Sure enough the smoke puttered up into the clear air and we all trouped down to “assist”. Under instruction we allowed to knead the bread and stack it alongside the now increasing heat of the oven to prove. Cake was also prepared and I am grateful to Aud for letting me into her kitchen and help. The smell and atmosphere were both incredible and just added to the potency of the day prior to guests arriving to witness the ceremonial “mowing charge”
Lunch time loomed and our pre-packed parcels were brought out to us. We ate in the field with a musical accompaniment on the fiddle, such a great feeling of work and play coinciding. Nothing can beat eating a door-stopper sandwich on an open hillside with Norwegian jigs wafting over the now warm air, washed down by Norwegian coffee. Being a bit of a lightweight, I had to dilute mine 50/50 with hot water but once I discovered this I quickly became addicted to it. Just as well as we were forced to have ‘coffee and cake’ at every opportunity. By lunchtime the meadow was cut apart from a lower hillside section that opened onto the Open Day arena, this was saved for the Open show mowing “charge”.
With the public seated at the lower level, mowers formed up with the Romanian contingent in national costume leading the charge. As the first mower cut enough ahead the second would start behind and so on until the whole hillside was filled with a phalanx of mowers. Instructed to stop and sharpen when the lead mower did, the effect was one of a team working in unison and harmony. Indeed I felt completely relaxed and was enjoying the way my blade followed the terrain running over obstacles and leaving bare earth in its wake. As each mower finished their cut at the bottom of the slope the spectators broke into applause and the mower returned to the top of the slope to start another row at the far end of the charge.
To celebrate the end of the mowing, that evening we had a dinner with specialities brought from Spain and Rumania alongside more traditional Norwegian items such as Rummer Grot and a brown cheese. I didn’t quite attach myself to these delights as much as my hosts but I’m sure that’s because of my bad taste and not that of the food. To top the day off, we were all invited to sit around a campfire up in the meadow and having started at 06.00, yours truly finally called it a wrap at midnight leaving the others gossiping under the semi daylight that is Norwegian summer.
Sunday, the final day, the last chance to finish the Hesje and the cleaning of the rooms before a farewell lunch and departures. We also managed to squeeze in a dip in the lake, bracing but memorable. It was then as we returned to work that I had my moment of Epiphany, the whole event seemed to gel, I got it. That grass meadow mowing and tree pollarding provided much needed winter fodder and were not just stand alone activities, they were part of the whole picture. The drive to finish the Hesje before departure was like completing the summers activities before winter set in.
If you are lucky enough to take part next year, I hope that like us, you will enjoy meeting some lovely people and relish the completeness of being in a team where the only competition is to finish the Hesjing and make hay like the Vikings.