It was 1910, 103 years ago, when a grandfather I never knew packed up all that he had, bought a ticket to America on a ship called the Lusitania and left his home, never to return.
He died long before I was born and that’s why I never knew him. And I never really had the opportunity to travel back across the pond, as they say, to get to know his homeland. But this fall, I got to make the trip, and by seeing his country I think I learned a little about both him and his home.
The home he left in Norway was a mountainous valley called Hallingdal, and the place he came to in North Dakota was a significantly less mountainous valley along the Mouse River. The ship that Syvert came over on would become famous five years after his journey in a sinking that would eventually bring the U.S. into World War I, but when he was on board, it was just another long, hard trip to Ellis Island to add his name to a long list of immigrants seeking a life less hard in America.
His trip took weeks just to get to New York, mine took about 12 hours of flying time on three jet planes to get all the way to North Dakota. Syvert never got to see his family again. When I was in Norway, if I wanted to see my family, I simply found a wireless internet connection for my iPad and dialed them up on Skype.
I didn’t get to Hallingdal on this trip, but I saw a lot of Norway, and I saw a lot of beautiful country. It’s a place that has always been beautiful, but, in 1910, Syvert knew you couldn’t eat scenery, so, along with what would be 900,000 of his countrymen and women over a 100 year period they struck out for places with more land and opportunity.
I was in Norway to study the lessons of their policies and practices in the area of oil extraction as part of a fellowship that I was awarded. In an interesting turn of fate, the country that was so poor that one third of their citizens had to leave its shores less than 100 years ago is now one of the world’s wealthiest, with vast pools oil and gas beneath the waters of the seas they’ve sailed since the time of the Vikings.
Syvert left a poor country that became a wealthy country with oil. He moved to a state that had plenty more opportunity, but was still a hard place to survive, especially through the years of the Depression as a small farmer with a wife and seven children. And now that state is becoming wealthy with oil. The place he left has handled the prosperity pretty well, committed to the gifted windfall being a long term benefit to its people for generations to come.
They’re the same people who ate sheep’s head, “smalahove,” because they didn’t waste anything. Know that, and it’s easy to understand that one of the first hard rules they laid out when they started granting permission for companies to drill for oil in their sea was that there would be no flaring of natural gas.
It’s like eating the sheep’s head. They weren’t going to light a match to perfectly good natural gas and put it up in smoke. They waited for the pipelines and the plants, they used it or they reinjected it, pressurized the wells and got more oil. No waste.
I learned a lot in the short time I was back in Norway. And even though it was my first time, it felt more like a homecoming than a maiden voyage. I wasn’t just a North Dakota cowboy roaming Norway. I was the grandson of Syvert from Hallingdal, the great grandson of Hans and Ragnhild from Gudbrandsdal. And I ate the gamalost and the lutefisk, and, if it’s put in front of me, I’ll raise a skol of aquavit and try some smalahove. ❖