“A Walk Through the Vale of Tawansetha,” by Anonymous

“In the Vale of Tawansetha,

In the green and silent valley,

Stands the grove of singing pine-trees,

Green in summer, white in winter

Ever sighing, ever singing”

from The Song of Hiawatha by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Walking toward the trees at the bottom of the hill near Aaker House, admiring the beautiful autumnal leaves covering the ground; I cannot help but wonder what this place was like in the past.  I walk along the man-made road, bulldozed years ago so that wanderers like myself don’t have to walk on rough ground.  To my left, further along the path, lies Norway Valley, formerly known as Norwegian Valley and before that, called the Vale of Tawasentha. The backside of Regents Hall of Natural Science directly in front of me dominates the scene, with Old Main sticking up behind it.  These two are a huge part of the environment now; Old Main seems like it has been there forever and Regents all but has its own gravitational pull.  But what did students one hundred years ago, walking much as I am now, see?  What about a thousand years ago, when St. Olaf was not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye and European settlers had not even dreamed of the Midwest?  What was it like then?

Once I enter the woods, Regents’ presence fades somewhat and the trees engulf the sky above me. I begin making my way up the slope, following the curve of the rock-lined path. I see a rabbit run across the trail ahead of me and wonder how long his kind have lived here. Following the end of the last major glaciation until the Little Ice Age, the area in which Norway Valley lies had been mostly prairie with trees here and there, their expansion controlled by frequent fires.[1]   Lightning strikes in the forest and tall grasses ignited natural fires and Native Americans burned the land to maintain hunting grounds and agricultural areas.[2] Fire renews grassland and helps keep the ecosystem in balance.  Before just over 1000 years ago, prairies would have been filled with rabbits and rodents, darting in and out of the grasses and trees in search of food.  An autumn walk through Norway Valley at that time would have been much more dynamic, with a higher chance of encountering a fire or wild animal, and trees much smaller than the ones I look up at as they tower over the valley surrounding me today. Native Americans hunted beaver in the Cannon River, cultivated the land and promoted burning to refresh the soil.[3]  Beginning around 1250 AD, the northern hemisphere saw dramatic cooling, and fires became less frequent, causing an expansion of wooded areas and development of the Big Woods.[4]

The Big Woods once covered most of Wisconsin and South-Central Minnesota, but there are few patches left today, for example Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park.  In the 15th to 18th century, my walk would have included many of the trees I see now, beautiful hardwoods and deciduous trees, shading the undergrowth against the morning sun. Farmers and colonists cut down the majority of the Big Woods’ hardwood trees for lumber in the early 1800s, making huge profits and building their houses with the wood.[5] So by the time that students were coming to the Hill, not many large trees were left.  The plethora of animal life and old trees remained only in the small parts of Big Woods that were untouched, not in this area.

The College purchased Manitou Heights in 1876 and the area already bore the mark of colonists – most of the hill had been logged for its hardwoods, leaving only deciduous trees and thick underbrush.  When Manitou Heights was first considered as a location to construct a college, students of St. Olaf’s School (soon to become St. Olaf College) described the grounds as “impossible for the ladies” to walk through – “wild and difficult to access.”[6]  Early campus was dominated by forests and visitors rarely failed to mention the beauty of “the forest background which gives it a picturesque appearance.”[7]  Many students wrote of walking among the trees, much as I am now, thinking about their courses, life, and other things.  Deep brush, but no big trees, filled the Valley at the time of its purchase in 1889, as a poem in March’s Manitou Messenger states: “The destructive axe has marred the beauty of the valley a little west of college by cutting down the”[8] large stand of Maple trees which had been there previously.  Students called the Norway Valley “the Vale of Tawasentha” because of its likeness to the place described in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Hiawatha.  However, there were originally no “singing pines” as the poem described, so the school planted them as part of 1000 evergreens cultivated to reforest the area. The Norwegian students recognized some of their home in the Vale and began calling it Norwegian Valley, which eventually became shortened to Norway Valley.

Cresting the hill, a view of the farmlands and Malt-O-Meal comes into sight, reminding me that the valley’s air is not as it once was, because on the wind are the smell of cookies and chemicals.  Before Malt-O-Meal opened its doors, students wandering through Norway Valley would have been confronted with a glorious view of farmland through the trees beyond the cliff. The air would have smelled of earth and grass and the only man-made scent the crisp air would carry might be from a meal being prepared in the cafeteria. Erosion has doubtlessly changed the shape of the south-facing cliff face; a hundred years ago it would have been much less steep, and a thousand years ago the difference would be more dramatic still.

One final twist of the path and I am at the 150,000 gallon water tower, in sight of Hilleboe and Mellby Halls. The water tower is a known nest for several of the peregrine falcons in the area. In 2001, the Biology department noted that there were three who used the water tower as a favorite perch. In the forest between the tower and Larson Hall lie two mementos of the past:  Fugleskjel Memorial and the remains of the live-action-role-player’s (LARPers) castle, the sublime juxtaposed with the ridiculous.

Ole Fugleskjel is also known as the Lost Ole. After graduating St. Olaf College with the class of 1894 he went on to Luther Seminary and then served as Reverend at a small mission church near Spooner, Wisconsin.  On December 6, 1909 he became lost in the wooded wilderness on his way to the mission and perished in the cold.  In 1910, Luther Seminary gave this memorial to St. Olaf as a gift to recognize his life and service to the Church, and for years it was in the area where Holland Hall stands now.  It was moved to its current spot when Holland Hall was built.  Standing in front of the granite structure now, it makes me think of how this small wood in Norway Valley serves as a replacement for the woods and the wilderness on a larger scale. The memorial is in this forest to symbolize the forest Ole Fugleskjel was lost in, and it serves as a tangible reminder of those who have come before me and those who will come after to these woods in search of a little bit of nature.

Peering farther into the forest, a relic from the not-so-distant past might catch your eye, but only if you look closely. St. Olaf was home to a community of LARPers from 2007-2010 and they would stage large battles in this wood, with a modified, downed tree as their King’s castle. The LARPers were a group that the majority of students on campus would “marginalize and exclude” but at the same time they held “an almost obsessive fascination.”[9] They were notorious around campus for being weird and intriguing, a mysterious sub-culture in the St. Olaf community that is so often marked by compulsive over-achievers and perfectionism.  LARP involves a complex series of battles as well as a serious story-line with many characters, strategy, luck and diplomacy, so the game involves much more than battles. The LARPers met in various places around campus to play and build their role play, but their spectacular battles occurred in the woods of Norway Valley. This is where other students would see them and fantasize about their activities. For the LARPers and the general student body who encountered them, Norway Valley was romanticized as a great wood where epic battles were fought; once again it served as a symbol of wilderness here on campus.

Finally, the path drops me off in a parking lot in front of Hilleboe, and life returns to normal. Walking through Norway Valley and considering the history of it makes me question what we consider natural. Norway Valley is part of St. Olaf’s “Natural Lands” and it is held up as a place of beauty and wildness in our hyper-controlled lives, a place where students frequently get away to think or talk, perhaps read a book in silence or observe the changing of the seasons. We put a high value on places like this, places of “nature” that we can escape to easily, but how natural are they? Norway Valley is not very natural, but we dub it as such. The foliage we see today was planted to resemble the forest described in a poem, and stands as a beautiful symbol of forest on campus.  The 15 acres are meant to represent the “big woods”[10] without mentioning the near impossibility of recreating such a complex ecosystem that existed hundreds of years ago and covered vast plots of land in a small area surrounded by houses.  The better question then is not what Norway Valley tells us about nature but what it says about our values. St. Olaf students obviously value the environment and want to bring it closer to them, but through projects like Norway Valley they are continuing a long tradition of romanticizing values of nature. But is that a bad thing? We attempt to preserve an idea. Through this preservation of the idea of nature, we preserve a lot of things, but mainly, we intimately tie ourselves to those who came before us and those who will come after.


[1] Umbanhowar, Charles. “Big Woods of Minnesota: A Brief History.” St Olaf College, accessed May 16, 2013,

http://www.stolaf.edu/people/ceumb/research/MinnBigWoods/BriefHistory.htm

[2] Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 88.

[3] Krech, Shepard. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999), 71.

[4] Umbanhowar, Charles. “Big Woods of Minnesota: A Brief History.” St Olaf College, accessed May 16, 2013,

http://www.stolaf.edu/people/ceumb/research/MinnBigWoods/BriefHistory.htm

[5] Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 150-180.

[6] Shaw-Olson Center for College History. “Up to Manitou Heights” St Olaf College, accessed May 16, 2013,

http://www.stolaf.edu/collections/archives/scripts/asitwas/ch3.html

[7] The Manitou Messenger, Editorial, page 51. Northfield: St Olaf College Students, April 1889. ST Olaf College Digital Archives. Web, http://contentdm.stolaf.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/mess&CISOPTR=9582&REC=3 (May 16, 2013)

[8] The Manitou Messenger, Editorial, page 41. Northfield: St Olaf College Students, March 1889. ST Olaf College Digital Archives. Web, http://contentdm.stolaf.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/mess&CISOPTR=9582&REC=3 (May 16, 2013)

[9] Koch, Jake. “Reality and Ridiculousness: Live Action Role Play experience at St. Olaf College.” Sociology Department of St. Olaf College. Accessed May16, 2013, http://stolaf.edu/depts/sociology/major/373/373final_papers_2008/larp.htm.

[10] St Olaf College. “Woodlands.” Natural Lands. Accessed on May 16, 2013 http://www.stolaf.edu/academics/naturallands/woodlands/

Works Cited

Cronon, William. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991).

Krech, Shepard. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1999).

Manitou Messenger, Editorial. Northfield: St Olaf College Students, April 1889. ST Olaf College Digital Archives. Web, http://contentdm.stolaf.edu/cdm4/document.php?CISOROOT=/mess&CISOPTR=9582&REC=3 (May 16, 2013)

Shaw-Olson Center for College History. “Up to Manitou Heights” St Olaf College, accessed May 16, 2013, http://www.stolaf.edu/collections/archives/scripts/asitwas/ch3.html

Umbanhowar, Charles. “Big Woods of Minnesota: A Brief History.” St Olaf College, accessed May 16, 2013, http://www.stolaf.edu/people/ceumb/research/MinnBigWoods/BriefHistory.htm

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