Oda. the Mermaid. the Hunter. the Viking.
Oda Tollan Sørensen harvests sea spaghetti. Scroll to bottom for full slideshow.
I met a mermaid, who was also a hunter, and a Viking, in a mystical, faraway land. She wielded a knife. She sang. And she was shirtless in Arctic waters.
"It's got a story, not a great story, but a story,” Oda remarks as we walk into the kitchen. On the table, there's a knife, in a fancy leather sheath.
A few years ago, Oda was living in a communal house in Lofoten, Norway. A flatmate was going out of town and asked Oda to look after an old, sentimental chair that belonged to the flatmate’s grandmother. Well-worn, Oda decided the chair could use a cleanup, so she thoughtfully set about sprucing it up. Reaching into dusty cushions, she felt a object tucked into the crevasses , which turned out to be the lovely hunting knife. Thinking perhaps one of the housemates had lost it, Oda asked around. But no one claimed it. When Oda’s friend returned, she was grateful for Oda’s diligence in looking after the family heirloom and told Oda to keep the knife, which they guessed must have belonged to her grandmother or other family member. The hunter was bestowed her blade.
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Oda Tollan Sørensen, 26, is one of two full-time seaweed harvesters for the Northern Company, an edible seaweed harvesting company, based on the tiny island of Selvær in northern Norway. Oda is living at the house of Northern Company’s founder, the bubbly and industrious Dane, Zoe Christiansen. For the four months of her company’s harvesting period, Zoe has rented this cozy cottage on the water, just steps from their seaweed processing facility. There are maybe 65 inhabitants on the island, and 500 or so total in the archipelago of which this small island is a part, collectively known as Træna. It’s 33 nautical miles off the Norwegian mainland, on the Arctic Circle. It's remote.
The two were first acquainted three years ago, when Oda’s friend and entrepreneur, Katerina, was put on
Zoe’s business development team for a Norwegian, state-sponsored workshop to help budding enterprises. At that point, Zoe had a mere seedling of an idea to launch her seaweed company, harvesting the abundant sea vegetable resources of this naturally spectacular country. Oda tagged along with Katerina, who eventually encouraged Oda to put her photography background to use by becoming a media person for the burgeoning seaweed project.
Oda admits, “I didn’t have any experience and I didn’t have any reason to be there. I lived with Katerina and she just brought me along. And we started working for (Zoe) in different vegan festivals and working in Mathallen in Oslo - talking to people about kelp and seaweed. It was a good match, we found out.”
Having lived a short time in Træna, myself, I’ve realized the magic that frequently and inevitably transpires on the islands is inextricably linked to music. The islands are home to the world’s most remote and arguably coolest music festival Trænafestivalen. Each July, laid-back festival goers sprout a jovial tent community, ferrying amongst the islands’ concerts on a repurposed, ex-whaling ship that sports a sauna. A self-taught guitarist and singer, Oda had been a passionate about music all her like and an off and on part of a folksy turned psych-rock band called Kalkvatn. It was the festival’s siren song that brought Oda to Træna two years ago, and reunited her with Zoe at a most opportune moment.
“I didn’t really have a lot of contact with (Zoe) for awhile. I got off the (Trænafestivalen) boat, and I met Alex (who had also filmed some stuff for the Northern Company). I hadn’t seen him for six months. What are you doing here out in the middle of nowhere?!” recounts Oda. Alex explained he had come up to Træna with Zoe to examine the kelp situation and see if harvesting there was possible. Oda was floored they had reunited there. At that point, Zoe told Oda, “Possibly next year we’ll have the first pilot project and maybe you can come if you want.” Oda reflects, “If it happens it happens. I didn’t really think about it that much. Around Christmas, I got an email from Zoe, and she was like, ‘It’s happening. Træna is happening! Do you wanna go?’ And I just said: YES.”
The more we talk, the more I realize how Oda is so well tuned-in to the small details around her. At times that can mean others describes her as distracted. But I think what it is, is an ability to observe all sorts of cues, encounters and seeming coincidences, and recognize how to analyze it all. Despite modern trends to focus on being present, I’ve met few people so dialed in to their surroundings and their influence on her. It’s part of why she finds herself in so many felicitous situations.
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“Did you see that?!” Oda exclaims as we’re pushing off from the dock in a small fishing boat. Admittedly, I hadn’t before her alert. It’s a bright sunny day, perhaps around 50ºF, with the sky and the sea mirroring each other in topaz crispness. Mainland mountain peaks in the distance are competing for my attention. Oda points out a seagull overhead that has just plucked a baby goose from its gaggle, tearing off with the shocked creature in its beak, while other geese chase after, squawking. It’s as if the sea has cued up a PSA to heed the powerfully wild territory toward which we’re heading.
Moments earlier, Oda had rushed me into the Northern Company's crew locker room, the attic of a former fishing facility. We had gotten word from her harvesting partner and boat captain, Lars, that the tide was low and we had to rush to take advantage. We both jumped in rubbery wader overalls and literally sprinted to the boat. Waiting there were Lars, an experienced young fisherman and free diver from Nesbyen, Norway, and one of the Northern Company production crew, August, who is joining to help harvest for the day.
The unique thing about Northern Company is that it hand-harvests wild seaweed in Norway, rather than farming it. Quality and sustainability were hugely important to Zoe’s dream for the company. Edible seaweed can be harvested by machine, but machinery cannot be selective like the trained human eye. Machines can also damage surrounding marine life in the process. Zoe’s methods allow for better maintenance of the ecosystem and future propagation.
Oda and Lars's approach is more like that of foragers in a forest. Oda describes herself as hunter. They have a sense for the abundant areas of the half dozen kinds of seaweed they collect. This instinct, and of course some familiarity with the area, sends them out hunting for thick with wild seaweed. They gather orange basketfuls of seaweed, or, in Norwegian, tang, and kelp, or tare. Using large Victorinox kitchen knives, they cut the sea vegetables carefully and in responsible quantities. The work is intensely physical, with baskets weighing 23-40 pounds each, depending on the species harvested. They can haul in upwards of 30 baskets in a 3-4 hour harvest run, over a ton of seaweed per trip. Low tide dictates their schedule so they do not have to free dive for the crop, which they had initially trained to do in the early days of the Northern Company. Being at the will of the tide can mean harvesting in the late afternoon and then, as was the case on the day of our trip, helping wash and pack overnight, and then waking back up at 4am to get another harvest. They work day and night, often seven days a week, following the tides, in snow, rain, dark, midnight suns, wind and serene seas from March to June.
“If you have a weak mental day, you can’t do it (harvesting),” Oda explains to me. We are about four miles from Selvær in the middle of the Norwegian Sea, where seals, sea birds, whales and then stretches of open water, dominate the landscape. We’ve passed uninhabited islands, with nothing but ancient signal torches, the kind you might see atop mountains in Game of Thrones, successively lit to send signals across vast distances. We are but a speck. Some islands we pass are maybe 100 feet long, barely peeking out of the water, and concealed at high tide. We drop August off at one of these islands, with just his rucksack, a knife and a few orange baskets, to collect some sea spaghetti. Oda, Lars and I continue on in the boat to another cluster of tiny islands, scouting the waters we pass for the richest yield.
No amount of yoga or roller derby core training can prepare me for the core engagement I need to summon to maintain my balance on the slimy rocks I must traverse, as we anchor and disembark the boat. The felted wader boot soles help only minimally. Fortunately Oda can read each rock for its precarious parts and helps me up to a dry patch, from where I can photograph. She leaps into the water and begins slicing through long strands of flowing sea spaghetti. It is hard to differentiate where Oda’s blonde locks end and the mane of seaweed that she inspects and cuts, begins. She and Lars have a friendly competition for the speed at which they can fill baskets, as well as one with the ocean itself. When the tide decides to rise, that’s the cutoff for any given harvest trip.
“Everything I am has built up to this. I’m not squeamish. I was always the one in a tee shirt at soccer practice, when everyone else had on two layers of wool,” Oda remarks as she’s cutting. She’s hauled a few baskets back to the boat and now she sheds layers, warming up through the heavy lifting. Sea spaghetti is the heaviest of the varieties they harvest. The waders are insulated, but it is still 50ºF or colder in the water. From my perch atop the gradually disappearing island, I’m regretting not bringing another layer. Oda is now working in just a sports bra and waders, in the middle of the Norwegian Sea. The knife catches the sun and beams golden light on her face and strong arms, all splashed in salt water. Oda’s capable, and more remarkably, has found a way to utilize all her strengths. Who dreams of finding work so fulfilling and perfectly tailored to one's being?!
“I think it came together with the knowledge that I could be outside in the cold. You have to be able to handle being cold and wet for a long time. I’m a really curious person, and I always ask questions. I want to go out everyday and see what’s happening with the seaweed. And I’m physically strong. I don’t think there was a singular moment that I realized (she had a knack for harvesting seaweed). It’s been coming slowly but surely.”
With the boat noticeably heavy with the harvest, we squeeze in where we can. Lars has gone back to pick up August and we’re headed back to homebase on Selvær. Oda is still in her sports bra, reclining on some of the seaweed, occasionally nibbling on it. The harvest team has had to build a strong foundation of trust in these first two seasons of pioneering runs. In the conditions they can find themselves in, looking after each other is imperative. Lars knows his boat, and knows the sea well. He oversees their harvests with discipline and few words, and never puts the crew at risk with too much weight, or leaving too narrow a margin to escape bad weather. Details matter. Oda gleans a lot from his sea experience and reciprocates in her work ethic.
Approaching the processing facility, Lars decides that they are going to pick up a computer that they’ve noticed on a far end of Selvær. It’s a beige 1980s contraption that has been mysteriously sitting out in the middle of this rocky stretch, like something in a scene from Lost. From where this digital relic lies in state, the closest dwelling is a good half mile away, and across a channel. None of them can figure out how the computer got there, but they pass it daily, and they decide today’s the day to fetch it. Oda hops from the boat and runs up the rocks. She’s laughing as she’s cradling this massive antique, down toward the boat. Just steps from rejoining us and our seaweed bales, Oda loses grip on the monitor and it falls and crashes to the rocks. My senses, having been fine-tuned to read signs like Oda, felt like this was one, as well. As if the old machine knew it had no place amidst the commune of nature and sea and handiwork that inhabited that boat, in that moment, I swore it leapt from her arms.
The one thing immediately striking about Oda, is that she’s fearless to try. Not cocky, but eager, bold, enthusiastic... at least that's the woman who she has become. She credits seaweed harvesting, in part, along with performing musically, for cultivating that. She’s smiles and says, “I’m in a new process. I’ve been having some new feelings of confidence. You believe in yourself more. We talked about believing that you can do it, and it’s so obvious. Like the other day, I was carrying a lemon. I was throwing it up in the air, really high, and I just caught it. I was having a conversation with someone while I was doing it, and suddenly I had a thought about something in my life that’s destructive and I dropped it. And in that moment, I was like, WOW! (destructive thoughts) make you so weak. I was walking and I felt really good and I was throwing this like 2-3 meters in the air and I just caught it again. It was an obvious sign that it has such weight, that mental thing. It’s good that you can see it and notice these tiny things, like the knife or the lemon. It’s always a choice - some people can see it, that it’s a sign and it says something or that it’s all random. But I don’t know.”
When we headed to bed that night, a bright pink light washed across the horizon and I ran to my window to see a double rainbow in the light of the midnight sun. I would say, I chose to believe that signs like these, they are most definitely not random.
For more information about The Northern Company, click here.
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