Friday, October 05, 2012

How Much Wood Could a Woodchuck Chuck if a Woodchuck was on the Interstate?

Since moving back to the US, I’ve been in graduate school in a Scandinavian Studies program. For the most part, I study identity questions and what it means to be Swedish or Scandinavian. It keeps me busy. It also keeps me on the road every now and again as I drive around the Midwestern United States interviewing old Scandinavians.

Generally, these folks are second or third generation. Sometimes the interview is in English. Sometimes in Swedish or Norwegian (and hopefully one of these days Danish). Sometimes, these people, despite being born in the United States, grew up speaking Swedish. In these cases, they usually didn’t learn English until they went to public school for the first time. It’s always amazing to me that there are people in their 80s and 90s who, despite not using Swedish on a regular basis at all, still have the language in there somewhere. They are usually super excited to sit down with people like me who want to interview them and record them.

Just the other day, I was on one such fieldwork trip in the Upper Midwest. I found myself with a group of Norwegians and Norwegian speakers speaking to second and third generation Norwegian Americans who had grown up speaking Norwegian. It was a great opportunity to hear the language spoken, hear the different dialects preserved, hear the different Norwegian-American words being used. I sat, mostly quiet, considering they had a hard time with my Swedish. Not surprising really.

We got to hear about Norwegian being used at work in the area up until the 1940s and ‘50s. We got to hear about Norwegian being used in the church and eventually discontinued. And we got to hear about the continued love for lutefisk in the region. All in all a very interesting trip.

But the trip got even more interesting on the drive home. As it so often does whenever I leave home, potential disaster follows. Or at least delays. My friend (and research partner), DN, and I were driving home on the interstate following a semi-truck as he passed a slower moving vehicle to our right. We were at a safe distance, the requisite two second buffer. We had recently been commenting on the guy in the minivan who seemed to be on his cell phone as he drifted in and out of the lane next to him before realizing a large truck was trying to pass him. All in all, we were pretty aware of our surroundings. And that’s when it happened.

Out from under the semi-truck in front of us, a piece of wood came flying up in the air. It was maybe two feet long, a piece of planed lumber. Think a two by eight. A solid chunk of wood. And it was flying right for us. Which is unfortunate. There’s not a whole lot of time to react in such a situation. DN was driving. I turned my head towards the back seat. Despite my awful eyesight, I apparently felt the need to protect my baby blues. Or browns as they are.

DN seemed to slow down. I’m not sure. I never asked him. The wood hit the front of the car with a thump. Or a thwack. But it was loud. As I realized the thump was a thump and not a shatter, I turned back to see the piece of wood split in two and tumble through the air over the car. Had he sped up, there was a good chance that piece of wood was coming right at the windshield. And I know windshields are designed not to shatter, but I really didn’t want to test it.

As the heart rate returned to normal and the adrenaline dissipated, we drove on. Safely. Slowly. In the fight between wood and metal. Trees and cars. Nature and man. We won. Thankfully.

Welcome to Swedish America. And the dangers of fieldwork.

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  1. Glad you're all right!

    As a Swede who's been living in England for the last few years I've been thinking more and more about cultural identity. I'd be curious to know more about these expats and how they feel about their culture and to what extent I recognise myself in their stories, in case you feel like writing more about it.


  2. I'm an undergraduate Scandinavian Studies major in California :)

    Just curious... what does one do with Scandinavian Studies? I'm also majoring in City Planning, which I plan to apply to my future career, but not sure what to do with SS. I'm super interested in speaking with Norwegians or Danes, I love the crossover and my attempts at understanding the two similar, but obviously different, Scandinavian languages.

  3. Well, I would advise against graduate school. But there are a lot of things available to people with humanities degrees. Everything from government jobs to museums to private sector business jobs. In fact, many businesses are now starting to hire humanities majors because of their writing and critical thinking skills acquired from the major. Hope your degree went/is going well!