A Father’s Day at Fagerdal

My Father’s Day arrived a two weeks early this year while I was in Sweden visiting family and friends.

This was my first trip there in ten years and I wanted to return to some of the places where my great grandparents had lived before emigrating to the United States in 1868. Americans rarely know much, if anything, about their ancestors from the ‘old country’, let alone know exactly where the family resided before packing up and moving to America.  I am one of the fortunate who do.

About 30 years ago, my family learned from my mother’s cousin (with help from Bo, the Swedish cousin of my aunt by marriage), that my maternal great grandmother who had left for the States as a child with her family had lived in Småland. The family dwelled in the Swedish province of Småland on a beautiful, but rocky, piece of land near a lake. They were contracted for 49 years to the farmer who owned property.  It was, as the man who currently owns the farm explained: “a very bad contract.”

You can see the wooden fence that ran along the familyäs property in this photocopy of the original photo. My great grandmother's family was contracted to work the land for the farmer for 49 years.
You can see the wooden fence that ran along the familyäs property in this photocopy of the original photo. My great grandmother’s family was contracted to work the land for the farmer for 49 years.

Like so many others at the time, the family fell on hard times when a famine hit the country. Nearly 100,000 Swedes emigrated to the U.S. between 1868 and 1873. My great- grandmother was among them. My great-grandmother, in a letter written when she was 70 to the family ‘back home’ wished she could return and see her old home once more. But as she was 70, she never made the trip. (Click here to read more about this in my blog post of May, 2015.)

My great grandmother's family from Sweden. My great grandmother is one of the two little girls standing on either end but I can never remember exactly which one she is.
My great grandmother’s family from Sweden. My great grandmother is one of the two little girls standing on either end but I can never remember exactly which one she is.

Instead, my aunt, Hazel, and I made the trip for her, visiting the ‘homeland’ together in 1991. We went with Bo to the farm in Småland at a tiny spot known as Fagerdal. It was an emotional visit as we walked around what was left of the foundation of the farmhouse and explored the nearby root cellar. My aunt recalled stories her grandmother had told about being a little girl there. Then Bo beckoned us over to a juniper bush and upon parting the branches, revealed to us the stationary paper-sized copper sign attached to a post. The inscription, in Swedish, commemorated the fact that my great-grandmother’s family had lived there from 1853 to 1867.  Tears welled in both our eyes as we read the words.

Two years later, my mother and father travelled to Sweden to visit the family, as my aunt and I had done. They too drove with Bo to Fagerdal where they met the farmer and his mother living there and went down to the pasture to see where the house had once stood and to view the sign in the juniper bush.

Our family friend, Bo, made a map for me to follow to Fagerdal when he was unable to make the trip with us.
Our family friend, Bo, made a map for me to follow to Fagerdal when he was unable to make the trip with us.

On this trip, I journeyed alone to Fagerdal with my husband. Bo was unable to join us but he had mapped out the route for me and written instructions as to how to find the place. I hoped to see once more that farmstead in the field and the sign that had so moved me 25 years previously.

We turned off the highway just outside Åtivdaberg and headed south on a two lane, well-paved country road.  Although early evening, we had a few hours of daylight left as the summer season is one of very long days in Sweden. The countryside was lush and particularly verdant in the late day golden light. It was difficult to imagine that this area at one time had suffered such a famine that families had to leave in order to feed their children.

Our rental car had a GPS to help guide our way, but Fagerdal is such a small spot (if not just the name for the farms there), that it didn’t even appear on the electronic map. As we drew closer, I stopped at a ‘sommar stuga’, or summer cottage to ask if we were on the right track. We were. After asking for directions twice more, and pointing to the map that Bo had made, we arrived at a cluster of farm buildings sitting at the end of a drive at the top of a hill. An elderly woman shuffled in the yard apparently checking on her flower garden when I hopped out of the car with my map.

The current farmer and his mother, shown here, were warm and welcoming. She invited us for kaffe.
The current farmer and his mother, shown here, were warm and welcoming. She invited us for kaffe.

She spoke no English. I did my best to explain to her in Swedish why I had pulled unannounced into her drive. The woman had a sweet smile and kind eyes but she couldn’t understand my request. She called to “Stefan,” within the house and in moments her son, a man about my own age, appeared. He spoke some English so between my Swedish and his English he figured out my reason for the unexpected visit and offered to take us down to the field. I was ecstatic.

I stand on the stones where my grandmother's family home once was.
I stand on the stones where my grandmother’s family home once was.

We followed him in the car along a rutted road down to the place where I had been so many years before. Together we walked up the little hill to the spot where the house had been and over to where the stone walls of the root cellar were still intact although now a tree was growing up from the center. Then I looked for the sign, the thing I had hoped to see once again. The farmer knew it, had seen it but search as we did, we could not find it. He was mystified and couldn’t understand why it was not in the bushes, now grown into small trees.  We walked all around the area, looking in the tall grass in case it had fallen or been dragged off by the cattle who had grazed there. Perhaps, the farmer ventured, someone had taken it. Taken it? Why? How? Where? These were questions to which he, nor I, had any answers. As disappointed as I was, I was nonetheless thrilled to stand once more at the place where my great-grandmother had been as a child. Tears again came into my eyes.  As much as I would have liked to have stayed longer, dusk was settling in and we had further to go that evening.

The stone walls of the root cellar remain intact where the family stored their vegetables.
The stone walls of the root cellar remain intact where the family stored their vegetables.

I had fulfilled one of my goals for the trip by visiting the farm once more. The farmer and his mother were warm and welcoming. She even asked us to stay for ‘kaffe’ afterwards, an invitation that I had to decline because we had to yet to drive to our hotel further south. But before we followed her son down to the farm field, he disappeared back into the house and re-emerged with a large, manila envelope from which he pulled a few papers.

My great grandmother's family farm in Småland, as it appeared in 1916 seen here in a photocopy of the original picture.
My great grandmother’s family farm in Småland, as it appeared in 1916 seen here in a photocopy of the original picture.

Among the papers were photocopies of photos of my family’s farmstead, as it appeared in 1916, when relatives who came after, still lived there. I had never seen these photos before. I did my best to photograph the copies so I could show Bo and my family back in the States. I had just finished snapping the photos when the farmer picked up the other papers from the envelope that he had placed on the porch bench. A little slip of paper fell out.

I instantly recognized the handwriting. It was that of my own father’s.  My Dad had torn a piece of paper from the little pocket calendar that he always carried with him and had written upon it his name, address and phone number. The date at the top read: September 1993. “Det är min far,” I exclaimed. “Det är min far!” (That is my father!) Tears welled in my eyes at the sight of it.

My father had written down his contact information when he and my mother had visited. He had left it with the farmer and his mother who had kept it all these years in the envelope with the photos and other information about Väster Lund, as that farm was called, perhaps just so that it would be there when I returned.  Now, 23 years later it was as if my Dad was saying: “Remember, we were here too,” and sending me his love simply with this slip of paper. It was my Father’s Day in Fagerdal.

 

A City Stops the Coal Train in its Tracks

June 10th marks a day of both great tragedy and great celebration in my small city of Bellingham, WA.  That’s because 17 years ago on that date, a pipeline carrying gasoline from a refinery north of the city and that runs through our Whatcom Falls Park, in the middle of the city, exploded.

The fireball that erupted when the Olympic Pipeline ruptured sent flames down the park’s stream burning everything in its path, including three boys, an 18-year-old who had just graduated from high school and who had gone to the park to fish and two 10-year-olds who were playing downstream in the water. 

Whatcom Falls Park is a popular place for locals and visitors alike in Bellingham where the pipeline exploded 16 years ago.
Whatcom Falls Park is a popular place for locals and visitors alike in Bellingham where the pipeline exploded 16 years ago.

I was just about to leave with my own 10-year-old at the time, for his baseball game in a school ball field located not far away from the park. As I was standing by my car, I suddenly saw a giant plume of thick, black smoke curl up in the sky and over the general area where we were headed.  Although I had no idea what was the cause, I recognized it as some kind of oil-related fire because I had seen one exactly like it when the pipeline ruptured and exploded near my home in Los Angeles as the Northridge earthquake in 1996, just three years previous.

Family members of two of the boys killed by the Olympic Pipeline explosion in Bellingham gather with Lummi Naton members for the unveiling of the 'healing' totem, carved and dedicated by the Lummi Nation in 2007.
Family members of two of the boys killed by the Olympic Pipeline explosion in Bellingham gather with Lummi Nation members for the unveiling of the ‘healing’ totem, carved and dedicated by the Lummi Nation in 2007.

I, like hundreds of other residents, instantly turned on our radio in hopes of learning what was happening. And I told my son that we were in no way going to the baseball field. The news was spotty and unconfirmed but one local caller to the station knew exactly what it was: a pipeline explosion in the park.

We learned later that was precisely what had occurred.  A faulty valve at a pumping station located 30 miles south failed to open. Workers, thinking it was yet again the faulty valve, overrode the controls to close the valve, causing the pressure in the pipeline to build and burst in the park.

My son, Matthew, says the day of the Bellingham pipeline explosion is a day he will never forget. Here he speaks at a 2012 public hearing on the coal train shipping terminal in Bellingham.
My son, Matthew, says the day of the Bellingham pipeline explosion is a day he will never forget. Here he speaks at a 2012 public hearing on the coal train shipping terminal in Bellingham.

My oldest son, Matthew, then 14, says he “remembers looking up to see the plume like it was yesterday. I’ll take that image to the grave.” As will many who were living here at the time. It was a day that awakened the residents of Bellingham to the potential dangers and disaster, both for the environment and in human life, that unmaintained and unrestricted pipelines carrying gasoline, trains transporting noxious coal and tanker trains loaded with flammable oil can have on a community. We learned that lesson long before the accidents that occurred in West Virginia, Quebec and most recently in nearby Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge just this month.

An estimated 2,000 people lined up in the rain to attend and speak at one of the first public hearings on the proposed coal train terminal.
Nearly 1,200 people lined up in the rain to attend and speak at one of the first public hearings on the proposed coal train terminal.

I have no doubt that it’s one reason why companies wanting to place a shipping terminal just 20 miles north of here in order to send coal to China encountered such strong opposition from local and state residents. Building the terminal would have meant that as many as 25 trains a day would have rolled from Wyoming, across the farms and ranches of Montana, Idaho and Eastern Washington, up the coast of Western Washington, through Bellingham along its waterfront and past neighborhoods with houses standing less than 100 feet from the rails. It would have meant that the fishing grounds, where the Lummi Nation people have harvested salmon for hundreds of years, would have been jeopardized and likely threatened all the sea life dwelling in that deep water area of the Salish Sea.

The salmon became a symbol for signs calling for the protection of the Salish Sea during rallies against proposed coal train terminal.
The salmon became a symbol for signs calling for the protection of the Salish Sea during rallies against proposed coal train terminal.

Five years ago, environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben spoke at rally at the Village Green to kick off the campaign against the coal trains. At that time, he told the crowd of approximately 1,000 that “Bellingham, by sheer accident of geography, is the front line in the global battle against the use of coal.”

Environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben makes a presentation at Western Washington University in 2014 during of several visits to Bellingham. McKibben was one of the first to acknowledge Bellingham's crucial role in the coal campaign.
Environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben makes a presentation at Western Washington University in 2014 during of several visits to Bellingham. McKibben was one of the first to acknowledge Bellingham’s crucial role in the coal campaign.

This past Friday, June 10, an estimated 1,000 people gathered again on the Village Green. But this time, they were there to celebrate the recent decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to uphold the Lummi Nation’s treaty rights and deny the permits required to build the coal terminal as well as the announcement by the state’s Department of Natural Resources that it had denied the land lease also required.

An estimated 1,000 people gathered on Saturday, June 10 to celebrate their victory over the coal shipping terminal.
An estimated 1,000 people gathered on Saturday, June 10 to celebrate their victory over the coal shipping terminal.

Some warn that the project is still alive until the local permit application at the county level is denied but those at the Village Green on Saturday were jubilant with these latest turn of events and what they hope will put an end to the coal terminal.

And those of us, who, like my son and myself, remember the June 10 of 17 years prior, also paid our respects for the event and lives lost that sparked the debate here and derailed the coal train terminal.