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A Voyage Long and Strange
Rediscovering the New World
By Tony Horwitz
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2008 Tony Horwitz
All rights reserved.
VINLAND FIRST CONTACT
There was now much talk of looking for new lands.
— The Saga of the Greenlanders
THE STORY OF America's discovery by Europeans begins with a fugitive. Eirik the Red fled his native Norway, the sagas say, "because of some killings." Settling in Iceland, Eirik took up farming and feuded with a neighbor, Filth-Eyjolf. Then he slew Filth, as well as Hrafn the Dueller. Banished for the murders, Eirik moved to islands off Iceland's coast and lent bedsteads to a man named Thorgest. When the loan went bad, Eirik killed Thorgest's sons, "along with several other men."
Exiled again — this time by the Thing, or regional assembly — Eirik headed west, like so many outlaws a millennium later. He sailed from Iceland to pioneer a glacial frontier he called Greenland, "as he said people would be attracted to go there if it had a favorable name."
Greenland today has no arable soil; three-quarters of its surface is sheet ice. Eirik, however, arrived during a long warming trend in the North Atlantic. Greenland in A.D. 985 wasn't a garden spot, but nor was volcanic Iceland or the treeless Faeroe Islands, another extremity the Vikings had settled. Eirik and his followers raised stock along Greenland's coastal fringe, founding a colony that would grow to several thousand Norse and carry on a lively trade with Europe in luxury goods, such as polar bears and walrus tusks.
Eirik seems to have mellowed in Greenland, or at least stopped killing. The only strife following his arrival was domestic; Eirik's wife converted to Christianity and refused to sleep with her pagan husband, "much to his displeasure." By then, the couple had several grown sons, including Leif, who was large, strong, "and wise, as well as being a man of moderation in all things." Eirik the Red also had an illegitimate daughter, Freydis, who took after her hotheaded and homicidal father. Her moment comes later in this saga.
There are two versions of what happened next. Both tell of mariners who became lost while sailing the North Atlantic (the Norse word hafvalla, meaning "disoriented at sea," appears often in the sagas). In Eirik the Red's Saga, known in abridged form to many Americans, Leif Eiriksson left Norway for Greenland and "chanced upon land where he had not expected any to be found." He gathered wondrous plants and on his way home rescued shipwrecked sailors. "Afterwards he became known as Leif the Lucky."
But The Saga of the Greenlanders tells a fuller and less gallant story. In this version, it was a storm-tossed mariner named Bjarni Herjólfsson, who, while sailing for Greenland, first stumbled on a shore unknown to the Norse. For five days, Bjarni sailed along the coast, resisting the entreaties of his men, who wanted to go ashore. "No," Bjarni replied. "For this country seems to me to be worthless."
Even without a thousand years' hindsight, Bjarni's instincts seemed suspect. "Many people thought him short on curiosity," the saga says of Bjarni's cool reception upon reaching Greenland, "since he had nothing to tell of these lands." Leif, a more intrepid soul, bought Bjarni's ship and sailed with thirty-five men to explore the mysterious territory. He arrived at a mountainous shore where a "single flat slab of rock" ran from glaciers to the water. Leif hadn't yet developed his father's flair for salesmanship. He named his find Stone Slab Land.
After a second stop, at a wooded shore Leif called Forest Land, the Norse reached an island where "they found dew on the grass, which they collected in their hands and drank of, and thought they had never tasted anything as sweet." Nearby lay a headland and a river full of salmon. The Norse built "large houses" and settled in. "It seemed to them the land was so good, that livestock would need no fodder during winter. The temperature never dropped below freezing and the grass only withered slightly." To Nordic eyes, a terrestrial Valhalla.
Forays inland revealed another marvel. A man called Tyrkir, who hailed "from a more southerly country" than the Norse, wandered off and returned "pleased about something." At first he babbled in German and made strange faces. Then Tyrkir reported in Norse that he'd found grapes. From the description of his mood and manner, it seems he'd somehow become drunk on them.
"Are you really sure of this?" Leif asked about the fruit. Norsemen loved wine but lived too far north to recognize the plant it came from. "I'm absolutely sure," Tyrkir replied, "because where I was born there was no lack of grapevines and grapes."
Leif put his men to work collecting the fruit, cutting vines, and felling trees to load his ship. Then he sailed for Greenland. "It is said that the boat which was drawn behind the ship was filled with grapes." Leif also carried home an appealing name for his discovery: Vinland, or Land of Wine.
When the fog lifted, fifteen minutes' drive from the airport, I caught my first glimpse of the newfound land. A sign appeared by the Trans-Canada Highway, bearing a pictograph of a huge antlered beast looming over a crushed sedan. "Caution: Moose May Wander onto Highway." The road dipped into a swale between two lakes, and fog enveloped me again. It was 4:30 A.M., dawn in midsummer Newfoundland, and rush hour for moose. For the next fifty miles, the only vehicle on the road apart from my rental car was an ambulance streaking the other way, its siren screaming. Sleep-deprived after my flight through the night, I imagined a moose-crushed motorist inside.
The next sign I saw was for the "Dildo B & B," and then a road marker, reporting the distance to the nearest town: 170 kilometers. Strange that the first territory in America discovered by Europeans should become, a millennium later, among its least inhabited. To keep myself awake, I turned on the Canadian Broadcasting Service, which filled the early-morning hours with English-language broadcasts from around the world. I tuned in just in time for Radio Sweden and a program on Nordic cuisine.
The show opened with a woman yoiking, then segued to an interview with a Swedish Jew. "Do you eat moose?" the host asked.
"I am not certain it is kosher," his guest replied. "But most Jews will eat moose if they feel like it."
A Saami followed, talking about reindeer tongue. Then Swedish radio gave way to Czech radio and then the BBC, carrying me through to the breakfast hour. Finally reaching a sliver of civilization, I slowed beside a small restaurant and store. The sign in front of it read:
Like moose being kosher, cods having tongues wasn't something I'd ever considered. Opting for coffee, I drove on, past another warning sign, recording the alarming toll of "Moose/Vehicle Accidents" over the past year. Snowcapped mountains rose in the distance. Then I saw what I'd come for: a sign decorated with a logo of a longship and the words "Viking Trail." Steering onto the trail, I headed toward the most northeasterly point on the continent reachable by car: L'Anse aux Meadows, site of the first European settlement in America.
"Saga" stems from a Norse word for "say." It refers to spoken accounts of the Viking Age (roughly, A.D. 800 to 1050) that were later written down by medieval clerics. Sagas tell of real people, real places, and real events, typically feuds. The prose is matter-of-fact. But sagas also inhabit a twilight zone where the normal and the paranormal intersect.
In Eirik the Red's Saga, a woman heads for the outhouse, only to find her way blocked by ghosts. In Vinland, a Viking is slain by a one-legged man-beast wielding a bow and arrow. "There was a man named Ulf," one saga begins, "son of Bjalfi and of Hallbera, the daughter of Ulf the Fearless. She was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-troll from Hrafnista."
Needless to say, such passages have cast doubt on the sagas' reliability as historical sources. Adding to the doubt is the way sagas were transmitted. The Christian scribes who first recorded them, several centuries after the events they describe, thought little of massaging tales about their pagan forebears. Later editors and translators added their own spin, differing on the sequence of scenes and the meaning of Norse phrases. In short, the sagas we read today are many generations removed from the stories first told around hearths in the far North Atlantic a thousand years ago.
The sagas also have a history of inspiring romantic fictions. When English translations of the Vinland sagas reached a wide American audience in the 1830s, evidence of Vikings suddenly began surfacing across New England. Antiquarians declared that a mysterious stone tower in Newport, Rhode Island, was actually Norse-built, and that a nearby grave containing both bones and metal belonged to an ancient warrior. "I was a Viking old!" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote of the grave in his popular poem "The Skeleton in Armor."
Later in the nineteenth century, the locus of Viking finds moved to the upper Midwest, home to Scandinavian émigrés who were eager to elevate one of their own as the continent's founder. (America Not Discovered by Columbus was the title of a popular 1874 history by a Wisconsin scholar of Danish descent.) The most renowned find, the Kensington Stone in Minnesota, bore a runic inscription that told of Goths and Norwegians who journeyed there from Vinland. Countless other runes cropped up across the heartland, as far away as Heavener, Oklahoma. How and why the seafaring Norse had traveled to landlocked states was never made clear.
Nor did any of these claims withstand close scrutiny by scholars and archaeologists. The Newport tower turned out to be a seventeenth-century windmill, and Longfellow's "Viking old" a Wampanoag Indian, buried with a colonial English kettle. The Kensington Stone was exposed as an elaborate fake, carved by the Swedish stonemason who "found" it on his farm in 1898. Other runes were determined to be Indian petroglyphs, glacial scratches, or marks left by farm tools.
It was, therefore, with considerable skepticism that scholars greeted news in 1961 of yet another discovery of Norse remains, this time by a Norwegian. Helge Ingstad, a lawyer by training and adventurer by avocation, had embarked at the age of sixty on what seemed a quixotic mission. Following vague clues in the sagas, as well as ecclesiastical records and old maps that mentioned Vinland, he set off to survey the entire northeast Atlantic coast for traces of Norse visitation a thousand years earlier. This quest eventually led him to Newfoundland, which juts so far east that it almost crosses into Greenland's time zone. If, as the sagas seemed to suggest, Leif Eiriksson sailed the far North Atlantic and then coasted south, he would have bumped into Newfoundland's northern tip.
Traveling by boat, Ingstad heard about ancient house sites near the remote fishing village of L'Anse aux Meadows. Landing at the village dock, he followed a fisherman to a grassy plateau that bore the faint imprint of vanished dwellings. Locals called this "the Indian camp," but to Ingstad the setting was reminiscent of Norse farmsteads he'd seen in Greenland.
The next summer, Ingstad and his archaeologist wife, Anne Stine, commenced excavations. Over the next eight years, they and an international team uncovered dwellings and artifacts like those found at known Viking sites. Radiocarbon dating and other tests put the remains at around A.D. 1000. And so, in 1978, UNESCO named L'Anse aux Meadows its first world heritage site, the only confirmed Norse settlement yet discovered in America. The sagas, it turned out, had been right.
The Viking Trail ran for hours along a bare coastal plain. The few settlements I passed were functional to the point of austerity: tidy unadorned houses, plain churches, and Soviet-style groceries with signs saying "Food." The only radio station I could pick up issued fisheries broadcasts from Labrador. Even the moose signs disappeared.
Exhausted and bored by the daylong drive, I started to feel sympathy for Bjarni Herjólfsson. If the coast he stumbled on looked anything like this, he could be forgiven for thinking America "worthless." Later visitors concurred in his judgment. Jacques Cartier, who coasted Newfoundland in 1534, called it "the land that God gave to Cain."
At the top of the island, the road cut east through stony rubble, peat bogs, and glacial lakes. Then the Viking Trail forked and I followed one branch to its end at a seaside cliff. Stepping from my car, I was greeted by a frigid wind and a view of sheer rock enclosing a narrow inlet: a fjord. Sheltered within it was what looked like a sinking cruise ship, huge and white and listing. It took me a moment to register "iceberg," a thing I'd never seen outside an IMAX theater.
The Viking Trail's other fork led to L'Anse aux Meadows, a name that sounds deceptively lovely and lush, like "Flanders fields." It's actually a corruption of the original French: Anse à la Médée, or Medea's Bay, after the mythological Greek murderess. I passed another iceberg and patches of snow. Then the few stunted trees vanished and the view opened up: subarctic heath rolling down to the sea. It was beautiful but bleak, and so cold even in summer that my breath clouded as I stepped from the car.
The road ended at a wharf and a dozen or so homes by the water. At a gas station an hour earlier, I'd learned that a man named Tom kept a tour boat at L'Anse's dock. This seemed a nice way to start my exploration, viewing the coast from the water, as the Vikings had done. But the only person at the dock was a man in a parked car with a cap pulled low on his brow. I tapped on his closed window and asked where I might find Tom and his boat.
"No icebergs here," the man replied, barely lowering his window.
"I don't want to see icebergs," I said.
"What do you want to see?"
"Where the Vikings came in."
"No Vikings here, never were," he said. "No sir. That's all bullshit. They'd a found a better place than this. In the winter it's not fit to live in." He rolled up his window and drove off.
Across the way, I saw an old man emerge from a small home and walk over to pet a goat. A sign in his yard said, "For Sale Wool Socks," which I realized I could use. Wandering over, I commented on the chill.
"This is a hot day, today," he answered, lifting his wool sweater to reveal a sweatshirt, flannel jersey, and T-shirt beneath. "Almost naked, I am."
The man was Job Anderson, one of the locals who'd helped the Ingstads when they started excavations in the 1960s. "Work was scarce, so I said yes," Job recalled. He mentioned that his grandfather was Norwegian, and I asked if this had given him any sense of identity with the Vikings whose homes he'd helped unearth.
"Too far back," Job replied. "I can't tell you no lies. I never ran with them. I'm old, but not that old." Then he broke into song: "Born here in the morning, quarter after two, with me hands in me pocket, and me old ragadoo." When I looked at him blankly, he said, "A ragadoo's a coat."
Job patted his goat. "She'll live till she dies, this one." I nodded, bought a pair of socks, and retreated to my car, bewildered by my first contact with Newfoundlanders. Were they having fun with me? Or were they all barking mad?
In the sagas, little is told of Leif Eiriksson after his voyage to Vinland. But his siblings took up where he left off, leading several follow-up expeditions to the Land of Wine. First, a brother named Thorvald sailed west and wintered in the camp Leif had established. During a summertime tour of the surrounding waters, Thorvald sailed up a fjord and found a forested cape with a sheltered cove. "This is an attractive spot," he declared, "and here I would like to build my farm."
Then the Norse noticed what looked like three hillocks on the beach. "Upon coming closer they saw they were hide-covered boats, with three men under each of them." The sagas devote only a few lines to this epochal moment: the first recorded encounter between Europeans and Native Americans, two branches of humanity that had been separated so long they barely recognized each other as kin.
When and how the first people reached America is a subject of keen debate, roiled by recent archaeological finds and new genetic and linguistic evidence. It's generally believed that early humans migrated out of Africa some fifty thousand years ago, with one stream eventually reaching northeast Asia, at about the same time and latitude as others settled the northwest corner of Europe. Near the end of the last Ice Age, roughly twelve thousand years ago, hunters crossed from Asia to today's Alaska before spreading across the Americas. Then another eleven thousand years passed before the family of man reunited — or, rather, collided — on a beach in eastern Canada.
In the sagas, the word for "native" is Skraeling, an archaic Norse term that is variously translated as "wretch," "ugly," "screecher," or some combination of the three. Natives are also described as short, dark, and "evil-looking," with coarse hair and broad cheekbones. Of course, we only hear one side of the story. To native eyes and ears, the Norse — pale, hirsute, long-faced, and speaking a strange tongue — must have seemed like ugly screeching wretches, too.
Excerpted from A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz. Copyright © 2008 Tony Horwitz. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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