Driving along the Norwegian coast, you're bound to pass some the many spruce forests dotting the countryside. You'd be excused for thinking that these are naturally occuring features, but in fact they are the wild remnants of man-made plantations. Spruce gardens for the lumber industry. Imported from Canada, it is estimated that some 500.000 acres worth of sikta spruce were planted in the 20th century. Much of it in the years following the second world war, when the rebuilding of the nation raised demand for timber to new heights.
For this, the sitka spruce was a well suited material: It grows fast, straight, and tall. It has excellent strength-to-weight ratio, and more importantly, it thrives in Norway's thin, nutrion deprived coastal soil. There is a sad irony to this, but also a familiar pattern seen wherever the short-sighted decission is made to introduce a new species to a foreign environment.
In a sense, you could say that sitka forests have quite a literal dark side. As anyone who ever set foot in their forests will know, they tend to be dark and lifeless places. The sunless forest floor, though it makes for excellent mushrooming ground, is invariably covered in nothing but spruce needles and cones. If the sitka spruce demands little, it strangles all competition. Considering that most of these plantations are abandoned, they are allowed to spread without regulation. The qualities that made the sitka such a desirable source of timber, have turned it into a monster, and the scheme to meet lumber demands became a sort pact with the devil.
A new threat to an ancient landscape
Conservationism comes in many forms. In the past, overgrowth was kept in check by traditional livelihoods. A flock of sheep or goats was all you needed to keep the landscape open. With the decline of subsistence farming and rural lifestyles, saplings that would have ended as treats for livestock, now live well into maturity. With landowners uneager to finish the work their grandparents left behind, you can imagine the result. Trees are left as they are, even if they ripe beyond their years for logging. Sooner or later, a gust of wind will tip them over, and their shallow root systems will rip up the soil. This leaves an ugly crater or bare mountain. If a tree grows on a burial mound tips over, which is certainly a realistic scenario, it can ruin the mound forever. And since they they tend to grow in dense concentrations, they'll often take their neighbors with them when they fall. It's not unusual to see huge clusters of fallen trees after winter storms. Sometimes eradicating old pathways.
Landscapes that would have been just as familiar to an Bronze Age sheep herder as they would have been to a 19th century fisherman, are quickly disappearing. Ancient shrublands and pastures are dwindling away in the shadow of an invasive species. It outcompetes local flora, and rips through the innumerable ancient sites along the Norwegian coast.
Today, the sitka spruce is a recognized ecological threat, an unwanted species. It should have happened much sooner, but the fact that it made the national blacklist at all, is probably thanks to a national awareness that has come over time, much through the effort of a few individuals who have gone beyond the call of duty to save our pastures, moors, meadows, and monuments from the sitka's sprawl.
Enter Augvald, vigilante spruce killer
Arguably, the most infamous character in the saga of the sitka spruce, is the mysterious rebel activist going by the name of Augvald Granbane - the spruce bane. Nobody knows who the person behind the name is, only that he (or she) has haunted the ancient landscape of Avaldsnes, on the West Norwegian island of Karmøy, since 2003. His mission? To completely rid the heritage site and its vicinity of the hooligan spruce, as he calls it.
Avaldsnes itself was allegedly the main estate of Harold Fairhair, Norway's first, Viking Age unifier, and forms part of one of the most find dense archaeological areas in the entire country. Including two ship burials from the 8th century, several massive Bronze Age mounds, standing stones, hill forts, and the 3rd century princely burial of Flaghaug, which contained a 600g solid gold torque, among other things. It is also a recurring, important area in the kings' sagas, and was mentioned in mythological Eddic poetry.
Taking his title from the mythical king that gave Avaldsnes its name, Augvald's nom de plume is not a random choice. In a sense he has written himself into the rich mythology of Karmøy's history soaked moors and mires, taking as his emblem a sketch of a lost, local bronze artifact. Coming and going, issuing updates on his latest activities, leaving a trail of mutilated sitkas in his wake. Emerging every now and then to make statements remniscent of a guerilla leader taking responsibility for an assasination or kidnapping.
But Augvald's intent is not to instil fear or subvert the law. If anything, he seems see himself as a necessary evil against bureacratic passivity. Killing spruce trees at night, and writing by day. His resin stained hands elegantly steering his pen, loaded with literary wit and sarcastic remarks. Demonstrating passion, interest, and understanding of the unique value of Avaldsnes and its surroundings as an archaeological smörgåsbord, which covers the entirety of Norwegian history, from the Ice Age to the Oil Age. Having absolutely no mercy for local politicians without skin in the game, it is hard not to see this anonymous rebel as an example of the great Norwegian archetype of the subversive underdog who sticks it to the big man. As you can expect, not everybody is too thrilled about his vigilante conservationism. Even in the local history scene, he remains a controversial figure.
This is close and familiar ground to me. I grew up around the area, where I spent my formative youth reenacting the Iron Age, eventually working as a seasonal educator and guide at the Viking Farm open air museum, and the Nordvegen History Centre on Avaldsnes. Which in turn led me down the path I find myself on to this day. Augvald had a sort of spectral presence there, I recall, as I would spend the hours after drinking and walking from burial mound to burial mound with my friend Aksel, musing and meditating on the mysteries of the past. Very often, Augvald's signature cutmarks adorned the overgrowth around us.
It was obviously just a matter of time before I reached out to Augvald Granbane for an interview. The rest of the article, I dedicate to our conversation.
Confessions of a reluctant archaeo-activist: Augvald Granbane
Brute Norse: It's not every day one gets the honor of questioning a living, local legend. I think it would be most prudent to let you describe yourself in your own words. Who exactly are you, Augvald?
Augvald: Living legend is a flattering exaggeration. Shady instigator with a narrow, and local agenda is, perhaps, a better description. I've arranged civilly disobedient operations on Avaldsnes since 2003. This is done to demonstrate my severe dismay with a situation where the invasive sitka spruce was allowed to dominate – exceedingly – a cultural landscape, one that has always been clear and wide open, ever since people first began to keep pastures along Karmsund [That is, a narrow strait between the isle of Karmøy and the Norwegian mainland]. I've done this anonymously, and as an eye-catcher for websites where I have published my thoughts and observations under the pen name Augvald Granbane.
Brute Norse: The core of your activism seems rooted in the fact that spruce forests are an anachronistic and destructive element, unfitting in a protected historical landscape such as Avaldsnes. Reading your statements, it seems the spruce has become somewhat of a symbol of some overarching bureaucratic tendency. Perhaps you could you elaborate on that?
Augvald: First of all, sitka spruce is a concrete and obvious foreign element on Avaldsnes. That these trees were allowed to grow in peace for half a century is bad and difficult to comprehend. Personally, this situation became unbearable when the trees were still standing a decade after this mistake was pointed out, loudly and clearly. And all while the spruces kept growing, vast resources were spent on building a reconstructed viking farm in the middle of the spruce forest on nearby Bukkøy, and a history center up on Avaldsnes itself. For my own part, the invading trees became an increasingly potent symbol of a nonchalant, restricted, and embarrassing display of historical ignorance among those people whose responsibility it was to take action.
Brute Norse: The sitka spruce is a blacklisted, invasive species, and is considered a terrible nuisance in other parts of the country as well. Is Granbane's mission primarily cultural historical, or is there an element of ecological conservationism as well?
Augvald: My actions were motivated by cultural history from the start. Eventually, the WWF and other environmental organizations have also begun to combat the «hooligan-spruce». Their methods are clearly more effective than mine. In some places along the coast, there's a real ongoing struggle against these invasive forests, which were planted in the post-war era. But unsurprisingly, this trend has not reached our local backwater.
Brute Norse: You've become somewhat infamous for your weapon of choice: So-called girdling, in which you cut a groove along the circumference of the tree, thereby severing the tree's access to water and nutrients, which slowly kills it. I have to admit it's been a bit eerie stumbling across these girdled trees over the years. This has been a sort of trademark and signature of your presence, but I understand you went through a more experimental phase in your early days, when you used poison. Beyond visibility, are there any other perks to girdling that a budding tree-killer should take note of?
Augvald: Girdling, also known as ring-barking, requires patience, but it's simple and effective if you do it right. In the growing season, poisoning the tree with glyphosate will do the trick in about two weeks. Girdling on the other hand won't take effect until the end of the second growth season. With my long-term perspective, it's okay to wait two years. Besides, if you're going to put down another man's spruce, you might as well do it in a way where you cannot be accused of hurting the environment.
Brute Norse: Absolutely, I imagine pesticides would be somewhat counter-productive to your image in the long run. Do you think your ghostly presence has had an impact on local development, say, in terms of environmental intervention?
Augvald: That's hard for me to determine, but anybody can go there and see for themselves that not even a single spruce remains on Avaldsnes itself. Those involved would of course claim that the trees were due to be removed anyway. That may be partly correct, but obviously they've been forced to deal with a somewhat unpredictable, anonymous figure. A recurring fly in the ointment.
Brute Norse: That's for sure! I know one mutual friend of ours reached for his saw and lopper to clear up a Migration Era hillfort outside of Åkra [a small town South on the island], certainly inspired by your own efforts. Do you hope to inspire others to do similar acts in their own local area?
Augvald: Absolutely! But the fact of the matter is, that there is rarely a reason to do this anonymously and illicitly anymore. On the contrary: Combating «hooligan-spruce» and other examples of overgrowth has by far become accepted as a necessity. There's a lot you can do, and today it's even possible to apply for public funding.
Brute Norse: There must be room for some hope with that sort of development. I think it's fundamental that we teach the public to see these sitka forests as the run-amok plantations they are, and not as natural occurring forests. How do you think the situation is a hundred years from now?
I hope the sitka spruce is gone from the entire North and West Norwegian coast, but I am a realist. I expect it will continue to be very dominant in the landscape. Keeping it away from selected areas is a realistic goal, and Avaldsnes is obviously one such area, but it seems it's certainly here to stay. The hope of eradicating this foreign element must necessarily lie in some (bio)technological solution, and that doesn't exist as of today.
Brute Norse: As one would expect, there's no shortage of speculation surrounding your identity. Personally, I think the power of Augvald Granbane's activism lies in all the uncertainty, which seems to give it an element of folklore. Like some sort of modern outlaw, shrouded in hearsay and legend. For example, the story of Augvald ties in with the occasion where Olaf Tryggvason, by many considered one of Norway's great tyrants, was subverted by the god Odin. In a sense, the old taking back from the new.
Do you think Augvald would have made the same impact without the evocative imagery, and the mythology surrounding his name? Is he just a mask for you to hide behind, or do you consider him a being with ambitions of his own? I can imagine such a character taking on a life of his own.
Augvald: The pseudonym was, originally, a purely practical device, and it's served this purpose well. But regarding both the name and means of expression, this was a conscious strategy I chose in order to make the message I wanted to convey a topic of discussion, questions, rumors, and at best even jokes among a local audience. I had a pretty concrete and longstanding plan at the base of it, but it took a while before I came to realize that Augvald Granbane also had a more mythological potential. On a day to day basis, Granbane plays only a marginal and passive role in my real life, but after 14 years it's safe to say he's left his mark on me. Maybe I've even contracted something of a personality disorder? At least he's certainly developed a few stances and values that somewhat differ from my own, and I've grown strangely capable of distinguishing between his opinions and those of mine.
Brute Norse: Speaking of which, the name Augvald Granbane is frequently uttered in the same breath as the terms «vandal» and «eco-terrorist», but many consider you a kind of folk hero. I suppose I am guilty of this line of thinking, too. Do you keep track of all the speculations and characteristics projected onto you?
Augvald: No... Well, I've obviously heard a variety of more or less puzzling guesses and peculiar commentaries, but for the most part I just let Granbane's reputation go wherever it pleases. But I found an exception relatively early on in his career, when there was an overabundance of rumors about my identity, and some of them were quite unfair. I found it best to contribute with some simple facts to dispel a few of the most imaginative and paranoid theories. Hopefully, this served to clear the names of certain people who were unjustly accused, who may unfortunately have felt it as a burden.
Brute Norse: The area around Avaldsnes, actually the entire region, is unbelievably rich in ancient and historical monuments, yet, in the local branding, we see that it is the Viking Era and Harold Fairhair that steals the show. Hence the local slogan «Homeland of the Viking Kings», which is probably the first thing people see when they land at the local airport. What are your thoughts about this «viking circus», as you like to call it?
Augvald: «Homeland of the Viking Kings – Norway's Birthplace!» was the most outrageous version. An undocumented and obviously unreasonable claim. Made even more edgy by the fact that it was presented in English only - from the very beginning. As if it would become more true or trustworthy if one could avoid expressing this hollow nonsense in the native language of the primary audience.
Initially, I think it's absolutely great that the municipal council of Karmøy, and other local institutions want to shine a light on cultural heritage. My complaint is that this is done in a narrow, historically ignorant, short-sighted, clumsy, stale, and partly destructive way. All the while the cultural landscape and the real historical sites go for lye and cold water [a Norwegian expression: to suffer in neglect], get overgrown or outright ruined, unless antiquarian institutions or private forces intervene. Local politicians and municipal bureaucrats have barely any understanding of the fact that the landscape forms an entirely central part of cultural heritage. Their attitude seems to be, that only the Viking Age is worthy of interest, and that it is better to construct new and completely artificial Viking cultural sites, than it is to take care of the actual and far too dull monuments, for the simple fact that they too often belong to the wrong period. The remains of the amazing ship burial Storhaug [A late Merovingian/Vendel Era find, straight north of Avaldsnes] is perhaps the most depressing example of this. Not many years ago, Storhaug was conveniently «forgotten» by the local council, and almost ended up as an industrial site. Today, what remains of the mound is wedged up against, and probably partially within the industrial zone. Storhaug was by no measure a lesser mound than those which hid the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, neither in terms of content nor size. Some persons of influence should reserve a field trip to Vestfold and see how the ship-mounds are taken care of there. On the plane back home, it would be nice if they could find a moment to silently contemplate the state of things, and the verdict that will be passed on them by future generations. Do they think that our descendants will favour their efforts to fund construction of «real» viking houses in the spruce forest on Bukkøy, while at the same time letting actual historical sites – some of them world class – be destroyed by industry, roads, and real estate?
Sadly, it is my impression that the occasionally extreme commotion about the Viking Age locally, is a product of a collective inferiority complex, need for attention, awkward search for identity, and a dream of great economic profits when all the tourists start flooding in to experience these constructed delights. A proper mess, in other words. Let me tell you: Pointing this out won't make you popular...
Brute Norse: A firm statement. There are numerous other examples of such local hypocrisy. When they renewed the road to Saint Olaf's Church on Avaldsnes for its 700 year anniversary, they actually removed several burial mounds to save themselves a few extra truckloads of stone! In 1950! Anyway, I guess the last word is yours. Is there anything you want to add?
Augvald: On my homepage, I've explained the prelude to my actions in detail, as well as the development up until today. It's a long and winded saga about delays, narrow-mindedness, and hopeless ignorance of history. The angle is rather localized. Even to readers who understand Norwegian, but lack a local connection, it's probably difficult to pick up all the details. Google translate works badly for this text, and to a non-Norwegian reading audience I'm sorry to say that only the pictures offer some impression of its content.
Apart from this, I'll keep my action firm. Going in the same tempo, and with the same goal and strategy in mind as before.