A trip to the tiny Danish island of Tisvildeleje.
The Danes haven't a whole lot of land in their island country, but what they do have is cared for, kept clean and treated with respect. The same is true of their homes, their art, people, cities and churches, castles and museums...
The sea is never far away, with miles of coastline and minimal tides. Houses can be built close to the water despite bitter storms. The ocean stays where it belongs, not crashing over your house at high tide as sometimes happens around Long Island or Southern California. Danish homeowners protect their beach fronts from being washed away by installing concrete and boulder breakwaters.
Land is mostly rolling farmland with large patches of forest scattered throughout. All the forests are planted, with most trees the same height in each stand. All the land has been touched in some fashion by man, right to the waters edge.
The pattern for farmhouses and villages, established long ago, before the 15th Century, say, was good enough to keep through the 20th Century. Open air abounds in parks and private courtyards, all well-groomed and colorful. Ponds and canals add quiet and peace and invite wild creatures. A typical farm home rises around a central courtyard with exposed timbers and thatched roof. Animals are sheltered in one section, people in another. Maintenance equipment, for wheel wrighting, candle making, forging and weaving, is contained in a third. Some habitations keep animals and people close together for warmth. Solid and tightly built, most homes are decorated with flowers inside and out as well as with orchards and crops.
Near Tisvildeleje, sand dunes along the beach give way to a gnarled pine forest which stretches along the coast. It was planted in the 17th Century after an extended period of sand-drift buried the entire community and its little Tiberke Church. The village, located northwest of Copenhagen, was picked up and moved - but the church lay buried until the forest grew and protected its site. Dug out and restored, it sits on a knoll in the farm country surrounded by trees. garden and an ancient cemetery. Danes built the granite church between 1120 and 1130 on a site used for ancient pagan rituals. As the Reformation took hold during the 16th Century, Tiberke church became Protestant. The original altar-piece from 1475, once Catholic, now Lutheran, has been returned from the National Museum at Fredriksborg. Hanging from the white arches within is a ship model, a constant presence in all Danish churches since Viking times.
Everyone rides a bike, or walks, enough so that alongside every road through the country runs a well-maintained path. The path wanders through woods and fields and sometimes takes off cross-country, away from the highway. On a fine day, bikes, baby carriages, wheelchairs and hikers move along the path. Bikes carry sleek, managerial types, blue collar nature lovers, old folks, kids and housewives. Bikes with baskets line the walks until 5 p. m. when everything closes up tight; even shopkeepers live a normal life.
The early morning destination in any town is the bakery, full of pastries, rich warm breads of every variety, marzipan delicacies, cakes, tarts, pies, all fresh, all mouth-watering. Danish recipes all seem to start with a pound of fresh butter. Yet obesity is uncommon and the kids have lovely complexions.
Out at sea, the only motorized traffic consists of tankers, tugs and the Danish navy. Everyone else uses sail,fishermen included, striking out from the ancient harbor at Gilleleje, North Sealand Island, within sight of Sweden. Everyone sails, it seems: with powerful steady winds it might be fine to motor-downwind, but tacking back home on imported gasoline would break the bank. With a fairly calm sea close to shore, binoculars will show a mainsail on the horizon nearly disappearing behind a sea swell at one moment, then a clear view of a keel leaning high across a wave at the next.
The Viking heritage of cooperation with sea gods has not been forgotten. Tomorrow's sailors take to the waves with wind surfers after swimmers have gone for the day, or for the winter. Late, as winds and swells rise, the experts try their skills further out to sea.
At Tisvildeleje, the sun sets across the water. Local residents hurry out of the woods with a few more grams of the delicious chanterelle mushrooms and find shelter from the rising wind. They watch transfixed as the sky lights up in glorious color, reflective in calm water or choppy and wild with whitecaps, brilliant clouds to the west and pastels to the north. They make a wish and, if the sun remains completely visible as it sinks into the ocean, their wish is granted.
MG won 2nd prize Essay 1996 Writer's Digest Competition
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