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  • Jamie Ramsay

A Box of Skins

Post sauna dip in the Norwegian Sea. Photo by Moa Björnson

I am standing on the north end of Husøya, Træna’s main island, 33 nautical miles off mainland. I have ended up here on a quest for bark - well, today, in this spot, at least. Staring toward the top of the world, nature is confronting me. It is shouting. The wind is so loud. The volume makes it hard to stand still. Even puddles have ripples like ocean waves. I could talk back. But really, I am finding it wants me to listen.

Winds blew me to this archipelago, this remote cluster of culture and grit and initiative. Breezes of intuition had whispered that this was where I needed to be, where I could find my next step, where something would land, take root and grow strong, despite harsh elements. Initially, the exact message was barely audible, but gut prompted me that I’d caught most of it. I just have to listen as the winds pick up. Now they are shouting. I walked in the direction the gusts favored. It lead me to a pile of birch logs, with a little bit of bark still on them.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Last Saturday evening, as the rain began to drizzle, my phone buzzed with a message. “The fishermen from Sweden just called Erik! They have prepared a box with skin for you!” was my message from Moa.

Before this starts to sound morbid, the “skin” was fish skin.

So, back it up. Moa is the head of business/cultural development for the area and the link to all the innovation projects here. Erik is her boyfriend. The evening before the skin message, Moa, Erik, Håkon (an architect up from Oslo, who is also developing some fascinating projects on the island), and I had all decided to partake in a sauna by the sea. Erik, also an architect, had helped build the sauna not long ago, when he was here for an artist residency. We sauna-ed, sweat, conversed, learned about Moa’s rock, and jumped into the 45F Norwegian Sea - a few times.

After our bodies could no longer tell hot from cold, we headed to the one local pub, conveniently adjacent to the sauna, Havfolkets Hus, to have one more beer before calling it a night. That’s where we met the Swedish fisherman, who were coincidentally from Erik’s small hometown in northern Sweden, and had struck up conversation. We were talking about my project for Life on Mars, and they offered to donate some of the skins from their catch to my research. We had all had a few. It was nearly 2 a.m. (and STILL bright outside!) I hadn’t counted on much of an outcome.

But when the wind blows your way, you listen.

It was starting to pour. I was given a satellite screen shot of a map with a pinpoint of this mystery box of skins’ location. This is a wild island, not really marked by grids and street signs. Now it was pouring. But, if I was going to see if I could tan a fish skin into leather, I had to act. Bacteria begins to decompose a fish as soon as its out of water, and the skin cannot sit more than a few hours if its going to but tanned - at minimum it must be salted or frozen. I had no choice but to head out. This is a about a 5 km walk round trip, up some hills, around some bends, through sheets of water.

Guided by a screen shot on my phone, the whole trip took me a little over an hour. From the ground, in the rain, you cannot really tell what this ariel view looks like. I wandered around industrial machinery, poked around some docked boats, and might have tripped some alarm because I kept hearing a radar-type blip, but there wasn’t a person or box of skins to be found. There were crates everywhere in this area of the island. After about 20 minutes of looking, out of nowhere, the man I remembered from the bar appeared. He opened a door to a cabin where at least 100 lbs. of fish sides were waiting for me. They’d been filleted, but there was still heavy tissue attached, so suddenly, my haul, back in the rain seemed a little unmanageable by foot. He gave me a black garbage bag, I selected just a few, maybe about 20 lbs. worth, and slung the black sack over my shoulder. I thanked him profusely for remembering the random bar request of a stranger.

The sun shines at least 22 hours a day at this time of year, but if it’s a storm or cloudy, it can get dark. So, in the dim light and pelted with rain, I sat outside my temporary apartment, extracting the skin from the extra tissue, using all that I had on short notice: a butter knife and a fork. When I got through one, I realized my resources were limited, so I would just try one skin. It would need to be cured and I could look for bark (to boil for a tanning liquid) in the morning. I had a black garbage bag full of half-fish skins. I couldn’t leave them outside. Even in the cold, they would smell by morning. In the now drizzling storm, I found my way to the ocean and dumped the rest for circling seagulls. My jacket hood cinched tight, I felt like Dexter dumping body parts. As I slid them out the bag, a few fish snagged on the rocky shore, and I had to climb down and kick them in. I cannot image what it looked like. Fortunately, there are only 500 people on this island and no police station to call!

And that’s how the hands-on part of my materials research here began: bolting out to hunt down fish skin from a stranger on a Saturday night.

In the days that followed, I hiked around collecting materials to make the tanning solutions, and added a specimen of seaweed to my tanning experiments. Now, I wait and see what boiled tree bark does for these gifts from the sea. Now I wait and listen to where the wind blows me next.

The days prior have been full of catalytic meetings and inspiration is spilling out of every interaction. More on those and bark bath quests in another post…

God Natt from magical lands... See more of this magic and my trip on my Instagram page!

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