The Primstav and Brøytestikk Mark the Seasons
A week ago, a Norwegian friend informed me that the “rain problem” in Norway had been solved.
“The state meteorologists have admitted they’ve been using a faulty model. All this time they were forecasting too much rain,” he said evilly. “So it was just a software glitch. They’ve fixed it now. We’re having fantastic weather.”
Having experienced May rainfalls at his home near Åmli, Aust-Agder (and having heard about June’s), I have no problem associating this news about the predictions of Yr.no – the globally renowned Norwegian meteorological site, translated as “drizzle” – with the actual downpours. It seemed my friend got not only every millimeter they predicted but a few extra, however far over the actual rainfall they were elsewhere. (One day in that area, Yr insisted there was no rain at all, even as the nearest weather station was reporting to them that it was pissing down buckets.)
The difficulties of predicting weather in Norway may account for a recent article on Yr that recalled older methods of forecasting: from the conflicting predictions of snowfall given by large crops of rowan berries to the more accurate reading of halos around the sun as meaning coming bad weather. Heading the piece is a reference to the medieval primstav: a wooden stick with a summer side (starting 14 April) and a winter side (starting 14 October).
Coincidentally, I saw a version of this at my friends’ home outside Kristiansand, on the same trip.
By the way, the weather was much better there, on the whole.
In its fashioning, the primstav, or prime staff, has certain connections to the pre-Christian Runic calendar that marked the cycle of the moon over 19 years, as these, too, were often carved on wooden or bone staves. The earliest primstaver in Norway depicted saints’ days the Catholic Julian calendar, marking the year by these festivals. After the Reformation, and in the folk traditions, many of the religious symbols took on different meanings as saints’ days dwindled in observance.
Hence, Store Norske Leksikon tells us, the glove or mitten, associated with clerical garb, originally marked the feast day (14 October) for the martyred Pope Calixtus; but in post-Reformation and folk tradition, it heralded the start of the cold season of winter. Thus the mitten starts the “winter side” of the primstav – the time of the year when harvest is gathered and consumed, in contrast to the planting and growth periods of spring and summer on the reverse.
Other preparations in certain locales also became associated with saintly symbols. For instance, the knife that symbolized the skinning alive of St. Bartholomew coincided with deer season’s start (late August), while St. Andrew’s fishhook symbol reminded folk of the pre-holiday fishing (30 November). As years went by, agricultural symbols – scythes, rakes, and hoes – took their place among the saints’ symbols, or instead of them.
The oldest primstav still existing in Norway, in the Norsk Folkmuseum, dates to 1457. With adoption of the Gregorian calendar in Norway in the 1700s, primstaver dwindled in usage, though in outlying areas they remained into the 1800s.
I have a fondness for evaluating seasons and weather by sticks. When the United American Indians of the Delaware Valley still held their annual powwow in Fairmount Park, one vendor offered for sale a Native American weather device that consisted of a rock, a stick, and a feather tied to the stick. The directions indicated:
- If the stick throws a shadow on the rock, there is sunshine.
- If the feather is fluttering, it is windy.
- If the rock is wet, it is raining.
It seemed pretty comprehensive to me, and at least comparable to our local forecasters – though probably a great joke on white people eager to snatch the thing up as a piece of tribal wisdom.
This year, though, even the primstav was a little off in the “summer side” – at least in Sørlandet, which includes Oslo and points south. May 10 found me sitting in drizzle outside Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport, congratulating myself on resisting the urge to rummage in my bags for a hoodie to add to my tank top, light sweater, fleece jacket, and windbreaker. Still, my eyes kept straying to the side pocket of my duffle, where gloves and a hat were lodged.
The only problem was, I’d have to remove my free hand from my jacket pocket to get to them.
A middle-aged man sporting a Pink Floyd T-shirt (under a parka) grinned at me. “Kaldt?” he asked.
“Litt,” I admitted.
He nodded, frowned at the rain that was picking up, and pronounced deliberately in English, “Spring. In. Norway.”
And with snowfall as late as Easter this year, spring in Norway indeed came slowly in 2013. Hence it was another stick – or rather, its disappearance – that proved the most accurate forecaster of the weather.
That would be the brøytestikk.
I first saw these poles in a photo my friend took on the Hardanger plateau (Hardangervidda). I thought they looked like trolls’ walking sticks, left stuck at random spots along the highway. Brøytestikker mark off the road so the snowplows, and others, can see where it is. Reaching around two meters in height, they testify to the severity of Norwegian winters.
I visited Norway this year from a Philadelphia that, after a whole winter with less than two inches of snow, had been blooming gloriously – from crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, and forsythia to cherry blossoms, magnolias, dogwoods, and finally azaleas and tulips. On arrival at Åmli kommune, while the home owner stacked some more logs in the stove, I scouted for spring flowers.
A few daffodils had showed up, a couple grape hyacinths, and a lone tulip. Every day thereafter I cheered the last of these along in its progress.
I think I stressed it out.
But toward the end of a week, the fascinating brøytestikker removal truck came by to gather up snow poles no longer of use. Robotic machinery has replaced the manual method (another friend used to be a “brøytestikker girl,” one of those who went out to collect the poles in the spring), and watching the plucking arm of the truck pulling up and depositing the poles in the back is like something out of science fiction.
As, perhaps, is the news that winter actually has ended.
This year, the brøytestikk celebrates its 85th anniversary. Invented by John Gregoriusen Aase, it made its debut in 1928 in Jølster, Søgn og Fjordane, where five years ago a monument to the founder and his invention was unveiled. All over Norway, the placement and removal of brøytestikker herald opening and close of winter.
On the back wheels of the brøytestikker truck came the Syttende Mai weekend, when Norway celebrates the signing of its constitution and the beginning of its existence as a separate nation.
Lo and behold, there was sunshine. And the tulip opened.
I’ll take the stick method of forecasting any day.