the bitter Ice Age, slackening
Like a frost giant from Norse myth, the Ice Age reigns for hundreds of millenia, devouring all life in its vast realm – in places reaching halfway from pole to equator. At last it turns away from Earth's midlands, pulling back to mountaintops and polar regions.
Don't mistake its slumber for extinction. Like the breath of a sleeping giant, glaciers advance and retreat in cycles lasting thousands of years.
the chilly Stone Age
High on a headland one bright summer day, Embla gathers cloudberries into a willow basket. Down below the pine-crowned bluff, sunlight blinks on a paddle's splash. Her husband Ask aims his spruce dugout back to shore. With a good haul of fish, she hopes as the cold wind tugs at her furs.
Embla's forefathers moved northward by stages, following new hunting grounds opening up as glaciers withdraw from their stranglehold on the northlands. Old folk still tell multi-generational sagas of trekking around the Baltic Sea to this mountainous land.
Embla catches a whiff of musk on the chill breeze and sidles upwind through a screen of scrubby birch. Her eyes widen. Reindeer graze on tundra at the glacier's feet.
She scurries downhill to tell Ask and the other hunters. Their stone-tipped spears stand ready for such a piece of luck.
the steamy Copper Age
Gefn stacks firewood against a cliff, while at a fallen oak nearby, her husband Njord swings a heavy copper-bladed axe. It's warm work for a sweltering day near the end of a four-thousand-year hot spell. There will still be snow in winter, wet and thick and early-thawing, and plenty of cold hours when a raging fire in the hearth will be most welcome – but the balmy summers encourage the growth of warmth-loving deciduous trees.
Gefn lays out a lunch of hazelnuts and dried meat, then finds the waterskin empty. She refills at a creek nearby. The water is pleasantly cool, fed by springs among the pine- and birch-crested mountains of the Hardanger-vidda plateau. Glaciers? Just a fable from the old days.
When she returns, she finds Njord lolling in the shade of the cliff, black hair hanging limp with sweat. While he cools off, he idly scratches with his knife blade at the rock wall.
Gefn grins at his creation, a stick figure on skis. When short winter arrives, they plan on skiing to the coast to trade furs for copper. Lush, jungle-like summer growth makes travel difficult the rest of the year.
the cold Bronze Age
During the short cool summer, Frigga helps her husband Yggr repair the haybarn. Their goats and cattle will likely finish off the meager stash of fodder long before winter ends. A poor substitute of birch twigs and bog moss must bridge the gap until thaw comes in late spring.
Frigga fetches a pail of water. Below the Hardanger-vidda plateau, all streams flow milky-white with glaciermelt. In the northwest gleams the bright flanks of the Nupsfonn snowfield, born in the last millenium.
Later in their log cabin, Frigga tends a bronze cauldron suspended over the central hearth, steam from reindeer stew mingling with cookfire smoke. Yggr ducks in through the doorway, his bronze sword clanking on the doorpost. It never leaves his side, for outlaws turn to raiding in these hard times.
100BC and 100AD:
warm, then cold again
Tora squelches behind her husband Bjørn through an upland peat bog, searching the muck for pea-sized granules of bog iron. Bjørn forges on ahead, hacking at the peat with a wrought-iron turf knife, pulling the spongy mats aside.
The weather has warmed to some degree. Glaciers edge back from their furthest reach, but still reign in the heights. Icy streams from Nupsfonn glacier to the northwest run through iron-rich sediments, then filter through peat beds where the acid environment
works a chemical transformation. Incoming seepage bears traces of iron that turn insoluble and "rain" out of the water. Then an underwater bacteria concentrates the mineral compounds as part of its life process.
Bjørn and Tora won't return to harvest this stretch of bog, but their children will, for the iron granules replenish every twenty or thirty years.
As it turns out, their great-grandchildren don't have time to gather bog iron. They toil through summer, cultivating barley and rye, the only grains that tolerate the cool climate, for temperatures have plunged again. Glaciers expand from their mountains fastnesses.
In lands far to the south, harsh weather forces Celtic and Germanic tribes out of old territories, and they beseige the Roman empire.
the warm Iron Age
At a spacious hall down the dale below Nupsfonn mountain, Lady Ingebjørg greets a guest with a drinking horn of mead and a loaf made from wheat grown on her own lands. She calls for a sleigh, then takes her visitor to find her husband, ruler of Upper Telemark and nephew of Sweden's King Eirik.
Aslak Anundsson is at the smithy a few miles away, overseeing the polishing of a superb sword: high-carbon and low-carbon iron rods twisted together, heated red-hot in the forge, then hammered into one blade. The high-carbon iron gives the sword its flexibility and strength, the low-carbon steel its razor-sharp edge.
Demand is high for well-crafted weapons in this age of viking warriors who need swords, battle-axe blades, arrowheads and spearpoints. Northmen venture far on the berg-free seas of summer, pillaging and returning, or settling distant shores.
1743 and 1843AD:
the frigid Industrial Age
Eighty kilometers downstream from Nupsfonn's spreading snowfields, Åe creek carries icy meltwater past the fields of Aslak Åmundsson, distant descendant of Telemark's earlier ruler. The wealthy landowner worries over poor harvests. His prosperity, and very survival, depends upon the crops. Glaciers grow all over Norway. In 1743, Aslak hears about Nigardsbreen glacier -- 400 kilometers to the north -- devouring a whole farm.
In 1843, one hundred years after news of the farm-gobbling glacier, Aslak's great-great-granddaughter Gunnhild sets out for America with her five small children.
Her husband Såmund awaits her on their new farm in Minnesota. Too many years of summer frosts have driven them from Norway's dales.
During the voyage, Gunnhild and her children goggle at smoke-belching factories on Europe's and America's shores. The Industrial Age dawns.
On a warm midsummer day I walk the farms where my great-great-great-grandmother Gunnhild lived. A few days later I travel across the Hardanger-vidda plateau. In the distance Hardanger-jøkulen glacier glimmers under the blazing sun. Like most glaciers in the Northern Hemisphere, Hardanger-jøkulen is shrinking once again as the climate warms.
Global temperatures are higher now than during any of the last few decades – but nowhere near as warm as the Iron Age when my viking ancestors sailed the seas.
The Ice Age inhales in its sleep, sparing us its frigid breath for a few more centuries before it exhales another long icy gust. One day within the next few thousand years, the frost giant will wake and wrap all the northern lands in its frozen grasp. Then we poor mortals must flee south again, longing for the blessed, warm days of the giant's slumber.