Time which antiquates antiquities, and hath an art to make dust of all things, hath yet spared these minor monuments
- Thomas Browne, Urne Buriall
In times of chaos and uncertainty, I often find comfort in looking for permanence and the slow changes in the world. In this blogpost, I combine this quest for slowness with a yearning for home, as it is unclear when I will be able to go back to the fjords again. This blogpost is the first in a series in which I will shed light on aspects from the history of my home village, Hyen, in Western Norway. Hyen is a small place in terms of its population. We are about 600 on a good day, and those inhabitants are scattered across a wide geographical area comprising numerous valleys, mountains, rivers and lakes. However, history is resilient, also in these small places, and several minor monuments that testify to the work and life of our older generations can still be found in the landscape, sometimes even in surprising places.
I begin these histories of home in one of the many uninhabited places of the village, namely a valley called Skordalen. The name translates to cleft or narrow gorge (skor - with a possible etymological link to the English "scaur") + valley (dal - cf. dale). It is a narrow but relatively deep valley that empties out into one of the two main valleys of the village. From mouth to end takes about a forty-five minutes walk along a track that is comprised of animal paths and man-made tracks.
To the best of my knowledge, the valley has never been inhabited. The winters are very harsh and the valley fills quickly with deep snow, making any kind of permanent living very difficult and indeed dangerous. Yet the valley has been in use for generations, and the farmers in that part of the village - which is the part where I come from - have gathered grass for fodder, cut timber, hunted, herded cattle and picked berries throughout the ages. Several buildings have been built to store hay for the winter months, and of these we can still see the stone foundations. Similarly, the track through the valley has been fortified by stonework, and various other remnants can be found as witnesses of the life that has been lived in the valley. This blogpost is about one of those remnants.
The wilderness of Hyen is populated by a wide range of animals, some of which are more territorial than others and some of which have established their territories in Skordalen, such as stags, foxes and martens. Nowadays, the hunt is mostly for deer, but until very recently there was still some trapping for fur as well, and even as I was growing up we prepared traps for minks and martens.
The heyday of fur trapping, however, was in the early decades of the twentieth century. In this period, especially in the 1930s, the Norwegian government paid prize money for pelts of predators, in an attempt to minimise their populations. These prizes turned many people in the districts into trappers, as farmers were often poor. The main target was the mink, introduced into Norway from North America by fur farmers, with several individuals fleeing from the farms and establishing populations in the wild. In Skordalen, however, where there are no shores and lakes of the typical mink habitat, the animals that were hunted for their pelts were chiefly martens and, above all, stoats.
The Norwegian word for stoat is "røyskatt", which literally means scree-cat (røys=scree), a name it has earned because it often hides in the screes and stone walls. For this reason, the stoat traps were placed in the screes and amidst larger stones left by the retreating ice as it carved out the valley millions of years ago. The stoat traps were typically of two categories. Some consisted of a stick propping up a heavy stone, with food attached to the stick so that when the stoat came to grab the food the stones would kill it. The other kind of trap was aimed at catching the stoats alive. These were cages with an open door in one end, and this door was connected with some sort of thread ending in a hook with food attached. The stoat was led into the cage, and as it grabbed hold of the food the door would fall down behind it. These traps allowed the trappers to fatten the stoats before killing them.
The traps themselves were made of wood, often with one wall made out of chicken wire so that the trapper could see what they had caught. These traps were then covered by moss and branches to camouflage it. One challenge could often be, however, that in this condition the traps only appeared as open holes. While the stoat was familiar with navigating the dark holes of a scree, they might often be alerted a gaping blackness that didn't belong to the scree. It is most likely for that purpose that the trappers built stone gates that would lead the stoat into the trap by a seemingly natural entrance. Such a stone gate can be seen in the pictures below.
This particular trap gate can be found in a small heap of rocks at about the halfway point of the valley. I do not know when it was set up, or by whom, but its purpose is unmistakable. And although most of the historical details about it are, and will remain, unknown to us, it nonetheless testifies to one of the aspects of human life in this uninhabited valley, and as such it is one of the minor monuments of a resilient history of little things.