Words by Hal Keelin, Travel and Culture Editor
Feeling claustrophobic and bored by my day so far spent behind a laptop, I set out for the Viking mounds again. The season had changed. Autumn colours were now in full fruition. Earthy browns had seeped into the dirty yellows. Mushed leaves pile beside the verges and the air smells damp. I explored a new route to the mounds on my bike, this time around the back of the football field, passing the Mosque on my way. In Gamla Uppsala (literally Old Uppsala), two girls’ football teams jogged beside the touchline, warming themselves up in the cool air. I climbed a hill and took the path that bridged urban with rural. Field, path and hedgerow replaced town, tarmac and brick. Tires crunch the soft gravel path below.
The mounds were to my right, great humps of earth emerging out of an otherwise flat terrain. I imagined lying on top of them, with my head to the sky and eyes closed. I wanted to feel the sensation that Nan Shepherd describes once in the Living Mountain, to lie atop the earth, stilling time, forgetting self and the world for a few minutes. I was blocked from doing so. A sign located beside the largest of the burial pits indicated that, due to the number of visitors that had walked over the burial mounds, the topsoil had eroded.
Another typically plain-spoken Swedish sign read thus:
“If you want to walk up the mounds please feel free to contact the museum for a guide”.
A copse of trees drew my eye up ahead. They were huddled together on an otherwise visually dull plain. Why was I drawn to this particular group of trees? On ascending the next hill, a patchwork of agricultural plots extended far out to the horizon, while a grey sky hung oppressively above. I had the strange sense that no secrets lay in this vista. There was nothing to be explored, there were no bends, no twists, no burrows. It was as if it was somehow… empty. I soon felt exposed, my spirit crushed by the homogeneity of what lay out before me and at the first chance of leaving, I did so.
Another gravel path lined with overgrown hedges beckoned. The earth to my left collapsed and became a wide depression, flanked on its southerly side, the mounds. A stone church was visible amidst the pastel colours of the treetops and I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Tiny birds made a racket in the branches above and I inhaled the perfumed aroma of ferns.
Ahead, leaves gently gave way from their branches, spiralling as they fell. They drift naturally, as part of the world, in complete trust and without resistance. I find a spot to sit down in and gaze out at the mounds before me.
I tried to picture the men at work on an average day in the 6th century AD. I attempt to see for myself if the great author and classicist Marguerite Yourcenar’s inclination is true, that we possess the ability to ‘contract the centuries between us at will’.
A troop of men in procession carry amulets, combs and glass beakers; the brilliantly decorated gold of a Frankish sword glints. The dead noble is dressed wonderfully, in a garment gilded in thread. The beat of a drum accompanies the shuffle of a crowd as they gather in place. People from across Upland, this county of Sweden, have come to watch the cremation of their King. A great furnace lays at the centre of the field and people crowd round. I imagine the sheer force of the heat and I watch the flames dance in the twilight. All that remains of their fine king for archaeologists in the 19th century will be dust…
I look out and I think about how the mounds are like those Roman statues which still stand across Europe, as grand sentinels to the past. They are too great displays of power, triumph and ownership over people and land. Yet no matter how grand their allure, and their statements and their offerings, it is striking how all of this faces an inevitable evanesce with time. To borrow a few phrases from Yourcenar once more, they now stand with a ‘motionless survival… still living in a past time, a time that has died’.
To see in such time, such space, we may feel our own lifespans are compressed like a mere dot on a boundless timeline. It does not have to be so negative, however. Indeed, looking at landscape this way – as suspended in the vastness of time and the infinity of the spatial – allows us to transcend ourselves and look beyond the narrow confines of the separated self. Under such a re-calibration, the world can be better appreciated in its mystery, its sublimity, and its vastness. Imagine, for a moment, that you are standing in a field in Britain and watching the years roll by on fast-forward. Then pause: re-imagine what immense weight of experience the landscape we walk upon has been witness to over the centuries. We forget self in these moments and albeit unawares at the time, we know when looking back that we felt an almost incalculable pleasure.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in his latest book, Underland, having a ‘deep time awareness’ might help us to ‘see ourselves as part of a web of gift, inheritance and legacy [that] stretch[es] over millions of years past and to come.’ I like this phrase “web of gift” particularly, it announces the way that these structures from the past are in many ways the offerings of past civilisations. An offering to the dead in the way of a burial pit is also, in a way, an offering, or a way of thanks, and gratitude given out to the universe more broadly. It is also a culture announcing their time on earth, and the leaving of a trace for others to find.
“Sand and stone are earth’s fragmented memory”
“the past and its landscape lie close. They linger in eroded, scattered pieces…”
( Extracts from: Lauret Savoy, Trace)
If we think in such a way it is then quite comical to see how distorted, how confusing the world becomes if we only approach in “shallow” time. Shallow time is how the mind would usually operate, where everything in our immediate vicinity is understood without its proper context, without a care for how Nature, understood here in its temporal and spatial totality, operates. Shallow time is a selfish understanding of time, where the self imposes itself on its surroundings. Yet, it is hardly a unique experience when one, in solitude or in the company of friends, feels a putatively paradoxical alienation from nature in the experience of awe-inspiring natural beauty. In other words, this is ‘the crushing sense of Nature’s utter indifference toward the human’, a common sensation felt by hill walkers, and announced more pressingly when nature’s elements are against them. When one is caught in bad weather for instance, when there is no slack, no rest bite granted. These moments are reminders to see less shallowly. In deep time rather, to paraphrase Macfarlane things “come alive that seem inert…” the world as opposed to being static, is instead ‘eerily various and vibrant’, but crucially perhaps we see that ‘ice breathes, rock has tides, mountains ebb and flow, stone pulses’. In deep time we would see that we live, if only for a moment, ‘on a restless earth’. And we should think this was brilliant.
Macfarlane, R., 2019. Underland. [London]: Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books.
Savoy, L., 2015. Trace. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press.
Shepherd, N., Macfarlane, R. and Winterson, J., 2011. The Living Mountain. Canongate Books ltd.Yourcenar, M. and Frick, G., 1959. Memoirs Of Hadrian. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.