If you travel as often as I do, you’ve probably had this happen. Every now and then, strangers welcome you into their homes. And amidst all the hotel rooms and restaurants on all the trips you’ve taken, these are the occasions that stand out. These are the rooms you remember, the meals you savor, the stories you tell.
While at the World Food & Travel Summit in Gothenburg this fall, I met Liza Vikström – a nutritionist and “mattant” (a great title that translates roughly as “Food Dame”). We met looking for the coffee and immediately hit it off. When I realized she was from the island of Gotland, I liked her even more. I asked her if she knew of any interesting food trends or Gotland specialties worth writing about. She told me that years ago, some farmers discovered a treasure chest of ancient grains on a farm in south-central Gotland. They later formed a cooperative called Gutekorn and today they grow those grains and sell flour milled from them.
A real treasure chest sounded cool. I didn’t need a better excuse to visit Gotland, but I didn’t have much extra time on this past trip and I definitely didn’t have the money to stay in a hotel for multiple nights.
“You can stay with me,” said Liza.
“Be careful,” I warned her. “I just might take you up on it.”
I thought surely she was just being nice. The day after the conference I received an email from her saying that she was serious about her offer and that I should come.
I sing a song of Gotland
I’ve always resonated with the line in Out of Africa when Karen Blixen asks that if she knows a song about Africa, does Africa know a song of her? I love that her question is really an admission of a longing – to be known by a place, to believe that she’s left a mark. At the same time, it’s a love song.
Most of the time I feel like a passer-through on this planet. I’m as rootless as they come. It is unlikely that any place will ever know a song of me. But there are a few places of which I will sing, places to which I feel a compelling, inexplicable attraction. Gotland is one of them.
Every Swede knows about Gotland and I would wager that a large percentage have stepped foot on the island. But when I spoke with Liza, I learned that although Gotland’s population doubles in the summertime, only 3-4% are non-Swedes. In other words, almost everyone else in the world has no clue that it exists.
I first traveled to Gotland in 2001, with a woman I barely knew and have no contact with today. Her name is Nicole and at the time she worked for Nike as a product designer. She was spending time in Sweden working for an industrial designer I knew. Nicole and I rented a Rent-a-Wreck from a hut down by the ferry terminal, then we drove around the entire island. We stopped at every burial site, rune stone, labyrinth, church and rauk we could find. At one point we happened upon a limestone quarry where we got a history of the island’s quarry work in German (the guide did not speak English and neither of us spoke much Swedish). I don’t know what made us pack our bags and head out together but after that, whenever I had a visitor from the U.S., I aggressively advocated making the trip.
I’ve never seen the island at high season, when the city of Visby is overflowing with partying tourists. But I’ve seen it in winter, when the ground below the walled city’s dome-less cathedrals is covered in snow. (I once took some friends to the tiny island of Fårö off Gotland’s northernmost tip in mid-winter, determined to show them a particular stretch of coastline – not realizing that basically no one goes there off-season. The roads weren’t plowed and we got caught in a heavy snowstorm. We took the floor pads from our rented 80s model Volvo and repeatedly situated them under the tires in order to get back to the main road.)
Fall has always been my favorite time to visit. This time, as I sat with Liza in her hot tub on her back porch, drinking beer and listening to cattle lowing nearby, I felt the way I always feel when I’m on Gotland: that part of me belongs there.
When Liza invited me to stay with her, she said I needed to come before Saturday because she and her husband would be leaving then for Stockholm to take her daughter for her first surgery. “Long story,” she added parenthetically, “I’ll tell you over a glass of wine.”
I assumed it couldn’t be too serious. Gotland is after all an island with a population of about 60,000. Maybe their hospital couldn’t handle complex bone fractures or minor facial stitching? I didn’t do the math. I didn’t realize then that the word “first” didn’t refer to the fact that Liza’s daughter had never had surgery before. It referred the first in a series of surgeries.
In fact, Liza’s second daughter, Natalie, has a rare genetic kidney disorder. Her kidneys overwork, essentially filtering out all the nutrients and antibodies a human being needs to survive. She needs a new kidney and until she gets it, she is surviving on daily dosages of nutrients and antibodies, pumped into her little body through a permanent access tube.
For some mysterious reason, Liza and her husband Niclas let me into their lives. I haven’t told many people about my time with them. Those few days are sacred for me. I live for such moments of connection. Maybe all of us do. They remind me that even though we’re all fundamentally alone here, bumbling around, looking for meaning in a universe that can seem callous and even malicious, there are moments that take us out of that, when we can actually touch each other’s soltitudes and become conduits for love.
In Annie Dillard’s book, For the Time Being, she visits a maternity ward and she references a book about babies born with defects: “A chromosome crosses or a segment snaps, in the egg or the sperm, and all sorts of people result.” Dillard is a Catholic. She believes that there is a greater force out there tying the universe together, but she never stops asking the question: if there’s a God, how can there be massacres? Why did one wave come along and wipe out 80,000 people? How can children be born with defects?
“An infant is a pucker of the earth’s thin skin; so are we. We arise like budding yeasts and break off; we forget our beginnings. A mammal swells and circles and lays him down. You and I have finished swelling; our circling periods are playing out, but we can still leave footprints in a trail whose end we do know… Buddhism notes that it is always a mistake to think your soul can go it alone.”
Her answer is not a solution so much as a resolution: love, anyway.
Back to the land
I stayed with Liza and Niclas for two days. The first day she arranged a meeting for me with one of the farmers in the Gutekorn cooperative, Curt Niklasson. Curt and his wife have a farm in southern Gotland where they raise a kind of sheep that is unique to the island. (Liza and Niclas once raised them, too, but due to Natalie’s precarious health, they had to slaughter their herd.)
Curt and Lotta welcomed me inside. Liza cradled one of their many kittens in her arms and told a story about how her oldest daughter Vendela, precocious and wise beyond her years, desperately wants a cat.
Over strong coffee and crispbread made from Gutekorn’s flour, we talked about the history of wheat and about the state of agriculture today.
When I first read Wes Jackson’s writings about soil depletion and crop rotation in the 1990s, it made me aware of the problems of large-scale farming. In 1998 I worked for the Dean of the College of Natural Resources at Berkeley and saw how money from Monsanto was paying for the university’s labs and therefore directing research. But these matters remained intellectual for me until my trip to Gotland. During my time in Sweden I spoke with bee farmers, dairy owners, sausage makers, owners of beef farms and millers of mustard seed and although every one of them is doing interesting work and making good food for the rest of us to eat, this was the first time that learning about farming made me truly depressed. The picture they painted of the future of food production is bleak.
The story was the same wherever I went: it’s too costly to produce a superior product; consumers won’t pay; genetic superiority is creating a dual dependence on monocultures and pesticides; pesticides are killing the bees; we’re running out of phosphorous; our stomachs have become averse to the new, complex genetic make-up of today’s crops; and the list goes on.
Last week I was watching an old episode of the West Wing in which President Bartlet goes off on a tangent about dwarf wheat. Having just finished writing an article about Cure and the Gutekorn cooperative for the magazine, Modern Farmer, I sat up in my chair as Bartlet praised Nobel Prize winner Norman Borlaug for creating the dwarf wheat that more than quadrupled wheat production in India and Mexico.
“Was it a hybrid?” asks the President’s Chief of Staff.
“What am I, Farmer Bob?” asks the President, “It was wheat, and there is more than there used to be.”
What irony. Borlaug, “father of the Green Revolution,” hailed as “the man who saved a billion lives,” in having created a miracle wheat initiated a dependence on seed producers, fertilizers and pesticides. Not to mention the fact that many people, including Curt Niklasson, argue that the complex DNA of dwarf wheat has made it harder for us to digest – therefore explaining the increase in gluten intolerance.
The problems seem insurmountable. But then there’s Curt, starting from scratch – literally taking one seed of ancient grain and re-growing it until he has a field full.
After our visit to Curt’s farm, Liza had arranged a truffle hunt. We met up with Olof Thomsson and his dogs on a road somewhere in the middle of the island. We hopped over fences and walked through cow pastures to a glade of hazel and oak trees. On Gotland there are dozens of spots like this, where a unique combination of flora and fauna creates the ideal growing conditions for truffles. How and when truffles came to Gotland is a matter of speculation, but because of the island’s prime location on the Baltic trade route, much of its agricultural history was shaped by early seafarers.
Olof wasn’t sure we’d find anything. It was his first hunting day of the year. Within a minute the dogs were at it, digging away at the base of the trees. We could hardly catch up with them before they would unearth a new find. If we didn’t catch up with them, those truffles quickly became the most expensive dog food on the planet. In about a half hour Olof had collected a bagful, most of which he planned to turn into truffle products since they weren’t quite mature enough to sell to chefs. As we parted ways, he left us with a handful.
That night I cooked dinner. The day before Liza and Niclas had defrosted a backstrap from one of the lambs they had slaughtered. I salted and peppered it and put it in the oven. I made a salad out of whole spelt from Gutekorn, with tomatoes and cabbage from an organic farm called Lilla Bjers. We’d also stopped at the parish festival that day and picked up a bag of locally grown Jerusalem artichokes. Liza put those in the oven with carrots and roasted them. Then we took the handful of truffles Olof gave us, grated them and whipped them together with butter. When the lamb was finished we lathered it in the truffle butter. Then we sat down together for dinner, grateful and happy for all that the day had unearthed.
When I got back from Sweden in October, among the odds and ends I pulled out of my rucksack were a bag of Gutekorn flour, a rotten truffle, and a photocopy of an old recipe for Gotland saffron pancakes. This past weekend, when my article in Modern Farmer was published, I took out the flour and as I made bread, I remembered Gotland.