Exploring Norwegian rural life
Odden’s Rural Life Tours
Odden’s Rural Life Tours
Some people are born to search, to see what is around the next corner and over the next hill. Some folks are compelled to understand the lay of the land and how the land affects the people, their lives, and their art. As a professional woodcarver in the Norwegian tradition, these impulses have driven my adult life’s purpose.
My wife, Else, and I met at the Hjerleids carving school in Dovre, Norway, over four decades ago. Else was interested in weaving and decided to branch out to learn furniture making and carving. I was driven to learn to carve wood. After two years of handwork school, a mystical traditional Norwegian wedding ceremony, and some uncertainty for the future, we moved back to the rural area in Wisconsin where I grew up. At that time we decided to chase our dreams of building traditional Norwegian furnishings with carved ornamentation. We named our business Norsk Wood Works in 1979.
The rich woodcarving traditions of Norway span well over 1,000 years, starting with the intricate carvings of the Viking Age. These fantastic carvings can be seen on the Viking ships and burial gifts displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. When the pagan religion of the Vikings gave way to Christianity, the Norsk people continued to use richly carved ornamentation in and around their medieval stave churches. There were possibly 2,000 stave churches at the time the Black Plague ravaged Norway in the mid-1300s, reducing the population by as much as 60 percent.
After the Black Plague, it took several hundred years before there was enough energy in the population and the land to support and develop a new woodcarving tradition in Norway. The population got a lift when the humble potato became established in Norway. All things come from the sun and the land and the toil of the people. From around 1750 to 1850, the rural districts of Norway experienced significant growth due to better nutrition and living conditions. During this period, the folk arts of Norway flourished—notably the carving of rich ornamentation on wooden objects, especially in the more isolated rural mountain communities in Gudbrandsdalen and Telemark. Woodcarving, rosemaling, music, and dancing inspired by the magnificent mountainous natural world blended together into a rich rural cultural heritage.
It took nearly 40 years of travel back to Norway and years of research to inform the work we do today. Along the way, we fell in love with the Norwegian Fjord Horse, a national symbol of Norway, bred and raised on the spectacular mountains and fjords of Norway’s west coast where Else grew up. Else and I have been raising, breeding, and training Fjord horses for over 20 years. Over the years, we have come to know many people in Norway who share our love for the Fjord Horse.
When we are able to understand more of the culture of our ancestors, we learn more about ourselves. Learning the lay of the land means learning how people live on the land and what motivates them to live and work as they do. Through the folk arts of Norway and through the Norwegian Fjord Horse, Else and I have developed and maintained a number of contacts with artists, farmers, and small-business people living and working in rural Norway. We wanted to share this knowledge of our cultural heritage with our family and friends, so in 2011 we established Odden’s Rural Life Tours to help Americans explore authentic Norwegian folk art and the rural life culture of inland Norway, coastal Norway, and parts of Sweden.
For us, learning to understand the lay of the land has become life-long learning. We enjoy enriching people’s lives with authentic Norwegian folk art and meaningful travel. In return, our lives are enriched through the wonderful people we meet along the path.
Phillip Odden and Else Bigton live on a farm in northwestern Wisconsin with eight Fjord Horses and a couple dogs. You can see their wood carvings and horses and read about Odden’s Rural Life Tours on their website at Norskwoodworks.com or you can reach them by phone at (715) 468-2780.
This article originally appeared in the January 25, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.