Monday, May 24, 2010


My trip with Caryl and her cousins to visit their ancestral Nesbo farm in the mountains of Norway last week was very much a pilgrimage for me, too – partly because my own heritage is Norwegian, and partly because for decades I have felt myself to be fully (and graciously) integrated into the Nasby clan.

The ruggedness of the farm’s setting – evoking scenes of back-breaking pre-industrial labor (not to mention the fact that only the eldest son inherited even that) – and seeing the harbor from which Caryl's Great Great Grandfather Assor caught the boat to America in 1870 caused me to reflect on the fact that every human being on earth is an emigrant, a refugee, or a wanderer; that those who are “settled” may be thought of as being settled only for the time being; and that longing for the old country is a fleeting thing until, with the passage of time, it becomes an object of historical curiosity and nostalgia. (I realize that for some there is no nostalgia, no curiosity, no interest in the old country. If I were to write a "part two" to this post, it would be to explore what it is that makes the difference.)

With all the interest in traveling to the place of one’s roots, it is perhaps ironic that the only generation to experience true homesickness for the homeland was the first one (like Beret, in “Giants in the Earth,” who curls up pitifully inside her steamer trunk) – the generation least likely to be able to go home. (And will we ever know how that homesickness must have ached at times – even in such a promising new land?) Then, with a wistfulness like that of the writer of Exodus, who says, “There arose in Egypt a king who knew not Joseph,” we might say, “There arose in America a generation that knew not Norway.”

Wistful, perhaps, but it is, of course, just how it should be. Children are not the ones who look back. My idyllic boyhood in South Dakota was fully American (it wasn’t even Norwegian-American), even though there was only one generation between me and Trondhjem (and Copenhagen). As many have observed, our parents’ generation (or the first American-born) didn’t have the luxury of nostalgia – they were too busy building the very thing they were becoming: America. They succeeded so well that those of us in our generation and the next feel like we’ve been here forever, and so when we take the long look back, as we can, it is with a genealogical nostalgia for the old country that is based in fascination with a land and time receding into a story-book mist, gratitude for the doughty courage of the pioneers who became our grandparents, and an affectionate desire to meet our Scandinavian cousins of today. We don’t “wanna-be” Norwegian, but we acknowledge and celebrate that it’s in our American blood. So we are the generation who, in our wide-eyed discovery of our Nordic identity, have named our children Marit and Bergen and – a name I heard last week in Norway – “Skjalit.” (To our children, Beret and Anna, I say, “You dodged a bullet, there!”)

“Cousin” is the right word for this fond feeling of family affection across an ocean and across the years. And nostalgia is the right word, too: A positive but always unfulfilled yearning. Like any child who asks his parents to tell him “about the olden days,” we want to know how they lived, where they lived, how they did it. And we’re not just historically curious; we want to know it in our bones. We think we might discover something about ourselves by shouting “Who were you?!” into the past. And that’s where we hit a wall – solid as that black rock cliff that looms behind Nesbo Farm. All the traipsing around the “home place,” all the head-bowing moments at gravestones with dates like “1794” on them, all the conversations with our modern-day Norwegian cousins will not penetrate that wall. “Who were you?”

So we need artists, poets, writers. O.E. Rolvaag’s “Giants in the Earth” tells our family story better than all the rummaging I might do through old scrapbooks and trunks. Knut Hamsun’s “Growth of the Soil” and the film “Pelle the Conqueror” depict the life the emigrants left behind. The plays of Ibsen challenge the very conventions of homey domestic myths we may hold about our ancestors. The extraordinary Danish film, “Babette’s Feast,” set at precisely the time of the great Scandinavian migration, is a wry and touching rendering of the encounter between the strict piety of our grandparents and the pleasures of the emerging world.

What a beautiful and enticing place Norway is. I found myself more than once speaking back in time to those who had left their farms and headed off for the harbor and beyond: “What if you had stayed? What if you had stayed…?” But of course the “what if” is that my Norwegian mother would not have met my Danish father. In America.

Photo: New and old buildings on Nesbo farm, near Osterbo, above the fjords of Aurland, Norway. In America, "Nesbo" became "Nasby," my wife's family name. My forebears on my mother's side emigrated from Trondhjem, Norway; my father's from Denmark.

More photos of our trip to Norway may be seen here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010


As Caryl and I prepare for a trip to our ancestral Norway, I have expected an anticipated nostalgia for the homeland; I didn't expect to be nostalgic for a volcano.

In an e-mail, I nonchalantly reported to my sister that we were headed to Norway "if the volcano allows," and with that casual line something in me stirred. At the risk of overstating, a sense of the wholeness of human history shuddered through me as I realized that a similarly nervous statement could have been made 15,000 years ago at the rise of civilization or (grunted?) millions of years ago at the dawn of humanity: "If the volcano allows."

Tolkien would have loved the Eyjafjallajokul Volcano, both for its name and for the way it stands tall and menacing athwart the flight of human progress. His friend, C.S. Lewis, would have embraced it for it's "northernness:"
A vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of the Northern summer, remoteness, severity... the twilight of the Gods... Joy....
(Lewis, in his odd but enchanting autobiography, Surprised By Joy, says that the sense of longing that this "northernness" engendered in him was the definition of "joy" -- a joy that was "the central story" of his life.)

What is thrilling about looking toward the volcano in 2010 is that it's not a metaphor; it's the real thing, as it has been for thousands of years: "If the volcano allows."

My appreciation for what my Scandinavian ancestors left behind to bring me to where I am -- and the tales I heard as I was growing up -- have produced in me my own yearning sense of northernness, and so it is almost as a Norse prayer that I hope the volcano will slumber and let us pass by.

And speaking of nervousness, the fire of Tolkien's Lonely Mountain is actually that of it's ancient resident dragon, Smaug. Where is Bard the Bowman when we need him? 

Explainer for non-nerds: Tolkien was a student and professor of mythology. His "Lord of the Rings" was an exercise in inventing an English mythology. Bard is the archer who slays the dragon, Smaug (who for centuries threatened Lake Town from his lair in the Lonely Mountain), in "The Hobbit."

p.s. A few days after posting this blog, the volcano did, indeed, delay our trip to Norway by one day.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


(Note: This was written a couple of years ago, but the theme came back to to me when I heard someone complain about President Obama's inaugural speech opening the door to "more government.")

Although it doesn’t compensate for having her so far away, one of the advantages of our daughter’s move to distant Massachusetts is the opportunity it provides us – as a part of our visits – to be history tourists. On a recent sojourn Anna guided us to the home of John and Abigail Adams and (in fulfillment of a desire I’ve had since childhood) to Concord Bridge, site of the “shot heard round the world” that began the war-fighting part of the American Revolution.

As we were visiting these and other places in the Cradle of Liberty, I was reading Gordon S. Wood’s “The American Revolution.” Ironically, at the same time, the news was filled with items regarding the “Tea Party” movement. On one radio interview program, a self-described Tea Party member, in explaining the tenets of the movement, said that (among other things) the party was “against government.”

Now, it probably isn’t fair to use the utterance of one person as a foil for the point I want to make, but the comment does, I think, underscore what is to a large extent driving this movement.  The (unformed?) rhetoric coming out of “every tea party lawn concert and misspelled sign regatta” seems to suggest that the Revolution was fought to establish either a militia or a society of anarchy. In fact, the Revolution was fought to establish, precisely, a government.

Over two hundred years later, it is just as stirring to read accounts of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention as it is to follow the cliff-hanger exploits of the rag-tag but disciplined colonists taking on the regimented redcoats. The purpose and goal of both (the conventions and the battles) was to form a government.

The “limited” or “expansive” nature of this government has been debated from the beginning (i.e. in the Federalist – Anti-Federalist Papers), and will continue to be debated, but it is a government. If today some Tea Partiers consider it too “big,” where were they when President Bush oversaw the largest increase in the federal budget since FDR? (Perhaps Glenn Beck speaks for them: “People will ask: Where were you when George Bush was spending? It doesn't matter. I'm here now.”)

I’m a liberal, you may be conservative (and it may be downright impossible to change each other’s minds), but I agree with conservative commentator George Will: “The government we have did not come about overnight, or by accident, or by conspiracy. Middle-class Americans who are the articulate complainers about it are the principle benefiters from it.” And, Gordon Wood adds, “The emergence of a rambunctious middling (middle class) democracy was the most significant consequence of the American Revolution.”

It was the genius of the Founders to establish a government to make this possible.

photo: Concord Bridge today

Books on the Revolution and the Constitution are, of course, legion. Some I've enjoyed recently are: "The American Revolution," by Gordon S. Wood; "The Great Rehearsal: The Story of the Making and Ratifying of the Constitution of the United States," by Carl Van Doren; and "1776," by David McCullough.