Look Back on Happiness, by Knut Hamsun

Chapter III

There is nothing like being left alone again, to walk peacefully with oneself in the woods. To boil one’s coffee and fill one’s pipe, and to think idly and slowly as one does it.

There, now I’ll fill the kettle with snow, I think, and now I’m crushing the coffee beans with a stone; later I must beat my sleeping bag well in the snow and get the wool white again. There is nothing in this of literature or great novels or public opinion; does it matter? But then I haven’t been toiling just to get this coffee into my life. Literature? When Rome ruled the world, she was no more than Greece’s apprentice in literature. Yet Rome ruled the world. Let us look too at another country we know: it fought a war of independence the glory of which still shines, and it brought forth the greatest school of painting in the world. Yet it had no literature, and has none today. . . .

Day by day I grow more knowing in the ways of the trees and the moss and the snow on the ground, and all things are my friends. The stump of a fir tree stands thawing in the sun; I feel my familiarity with it grow, and sometimes I stand there loving it, for there is something in it that moves my soul. The bark is badly broken. One winter in the deep snow, the tree must have been crippled, and now it points upward long and naked. I put myself in its place, and look at it with pity. My eyes perhaps have the simple, animal expression that human eyes had in the age of the mastodons.

No doubt you will seize this opportunity to mock me, for there are many amusing things you can say about me and this stump of a fir. Yet in your heart, you know that I am superior to you in this as in everything else, with the single exception that I have not your conventional accomplishments, nor have I passed examinations. About the forest and the earth you can teach me nothing, for here I feel what no man else has felt.

Sometimes I take the wrong direction and lose my way. Yes, truly this may happen sometimes. But I do not begin to twist and lose myself outside my very door, like the children of the city. I am twelve miles out, far up the opposite bank of the Skjel River, before I begin to get lost, and then only on a sunless day, with perhaps thick, wild snow coming down, and no north or south in the sky. Then you must know the special marks of this kind of tree and that, the galipot of the pine, the bark of deciduous trees, the moss that grows at their roots, the angle of the south and north-pointing branches, the stones that are moss-covered and those that are bare, and the pattern of the network of veins in the leaves. From all these things while there is daylight I can find my way.

But if the dusk falls, I know it will be impossible for me to get home till the next day. “How shall I pass this night?” I say to myself. And I roam about till I find a sheltered spot; the best is a crag standing with its back to the wind. Here I collect a few armfuls of pine needles, button my jacket tight, and take a long time to settle. No one who has not tried it knows anything of the fine pleasure that streams through the soul as one sits in a snug shelter on such a night. I light my pipe to pass the time, but the tobacco doesn’t agree with me because I haven’t eaten, so I put some resin in my mouth to chew as I lie thinking of many things. The snow continues to fall outside; if I have been lucky enough to find a shelter facing the right way, the snowdrifts will close in over me and form a crest like a roof above my retreat. Then I am quite safe, and may sleep or wake as I please; there will be no danger of freezing my feet.

Two men came to my hut; they were in a great hurry, and one of them called to me:

“Good morning. Has a man passed this way?”

I didn’t like his face. I was not his servant and his question was too stupid.

“Many people may have passed this way. Do you mean have I seen a man go by?”

So much for him!

“I meant what I said,” the man replied surlily. “I’m asking you in the name of the law.”

“Oh.”

I had no desire for further conversation, and crawled into my hut.

The two men followed me. The constable grinned and said:

“Did you see a man pass by here yesterday?”

“No,” I said.

They looked at each other, and took counsel together; then they left the hut and returned to the village.

I thought: What zeal this policeman showed in the execution of his duties, how he shone with public spirit! There will be bonuses for the capture and transport of the criminal; there will be honor in having carried out the deed. All mankind should adopt this man because he is its son, created in its image! Where are the irons? He would rattle the links a little and lift them on his arm like the train of a riding skirt, to make me feel his terrifying power to put people in irons . . . I feel nothing.

And what tradesmen — what kings of trade — we have today! They instantly miss what a man can carry off in a sack, and notify the police.

From now on I begin to long for the spring. My peat hut lies still too near to mankind, and I will build myself another when the frost has gone out of the ground. On the other side of the Skjel, I have chosen a spot in the forest which I think I shall like. It is twenty-four miles from the village and eighteen across the fjeld.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38