The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde recently put up a gallery of images of their craft. (Link no longer available.) It’s an evocative series of images with flashes of the deep past interspersed with present day details, all set in the pale weak light and heavy frost of a Scandinavian winter. One particular image draws my eye. It’s of a thole pin – I think – silhouetted dark wood against a white background and encrusted with rime ice wherever the lee has kept the sharp wind from eroding it away. It’s impossible for me not to see the dorsal fin of an Orca, and from there to see a similarity to Pacific Northwest Native American sculpture, carved wood evoking an animal spirit. There is the same clap of simultaneity, it is wood – in every fiber and weathered bit of exposed grain. It is also a carving – the tool felt and expressed in the shape, the form it has created. It is also the living animal it represents – the way a Bison in a cave painting is rock and soot and clay, AND a living breathing creature floating in space before the wall.
I’d love to show you the image, but its protected and I won’t go out of my way to go against their wishes.
Another element of this collection is the juxtaposition of dry grasses curling under the weight of ice, and the pressure of a remembered wind, full with the curves that make up the shapes of the boats nearby.
CAD showed me the link between the bending of a batten and the expression of a mathematical algorithm. This takes the connection one step further. It shows us the experiential roots from which our ability to perceive such shapes, and value them, is tied directly to their appearance in nature. Our boats not only curve because we bend material in three dimensional forms; but because we are the result of a half a billion years of experience of these forms. Forms which evolved; as our abilities, our senses, and our perception; evolved alongside them; fed by their example. They nurtured us so we came to expect them to be beneficial, to be beautiful.
We tend to think of Viking craft as symbols of a warrior culture. It’s easy to see the courage and valor of their builders and those who set off in them on long voyages, pitting themselves and their fortunes against the forces of a wild sea and whatever human adversaries their wanderlust brought them into contact with. There’s another kind of courage residing in the sinews and shapes of these boats. It has to do with a power to see, and a willingness to celebrate the wonders of a world from which we have come into being much as the rime ice, or the evanescent shades of a polar twilight. – There are wonderful rhymes here too in these images between the colors of wood and water and sky, and the bands of subtle color painted on these boats in simple homage and decoration. These people were alive. They were aware. Their builders paid their debts to the world that made them. The world that presented them with wonders they responded to in everything they did. No one “phoned it in.” No one was looking for a short-cut. No one could long suffer a misplaced sense of their own superiority to the forces and creatures that made up their world.
This is a fine example of what nourishes us when we look with open eyes at boats and what they have been, what they have meant, to people across the globe and throughout our span on earth together, people and boats. This is what Boats for Difficult Times should celebrate, to concentrate our attention on these examples and to work at unflinchingly adapting our ways, denatured as they’ve become, so we may at least feel the gap, feel the loss of what once was.