The path led from the ferry slip along the shore and through a stand of young birch, past the narrow, church-like building that she told me was the old bowling alley, cut between the shore and the large house that had been built over a century before for the mill’s owner but was now a hotel—at that time, mid-September in northern Sweden, already closed for the season—and joined a straight, unpaved lane between rows of identical brick houses.
Each of the houses was actually two symmetrical halves, she explained as we walked, one for each family. They had been built for the skilled workers who’d been brought out from the Västerbotten mainland to labor at the steam-driven mill, which at peak production before the war had been one of the largest in Europe. Norrbyskär wasn’t one island but many, an archipelago that had been unified by causeways and landfill so that the mill and drying sheds and commissary and machine shops could be constructed. It was a company town in a place accessible only by boat, with the illusion of being self-contained, and in many respects had been as much a machine as the millworks themselves.
The owner, she’d told me, had been deathly afraid of diseases borne by cattle, so none were allowed alive on the islands once he bought them. All the red meat had to be brought freshly slaughtered from the mainland.
She also told me that he was so afraid of fire on the island that, even though the large house, now a hotel, had been built for him, he never spent a night in it. Instead, at the end of every working day, he’d return by boat to his even larger home on the mainland. Despite his fears, or perhaps precisely because of them, the building in the end never burned.
We walked to the end of the lane, light whispering and moving under the birch trees. Most of the brick houses, which had been sold individually to private owners when the mill finally closed in the fifties, Sweden’s lean postwar years, had also been shut up for the season, although on the overgrown lawns of some there were toys, kayaks upturned on sawhorses, or folding plastic furniture. Some had small gardens, thickets of stalks and dead leaves, the harvest gone.
The lane left the houses and looped around a kind of lagoon, once a channel between the two largest islands of the archipelago, and across a causeway. On the far side of the lagoon there were massive jetties of deeply bleached and seasoned wood, half-collapsed and sinking slowly into the water. Moored against them were the hulls of equally massive wooden barges that had once ferried timber from or lumber to the ships that would anchor in the deeper water of the bay. The barges, warped and broken and sitting on the channel’s silty bottom, the sludge of a century of sawdust, looked like miniature biblical arks. Not much is left of the mill itself, just the outlines of foundations and lines of granite blocks that ran like prehistoric dolmen through the woods and that had once supported sluices or conveyor belts or some means of moving lumber from one part of the millworks to another. A new building stood in its place, housing a summer café and restaurant.
Almost all of the archipelago had, at the time the mill was built in the 1890s, been clear of trees. Before the owner bought it, envisioning the ease of moving timber in from Västerbotten’s endless forests and milled lumber out to Stockholm or ports elsewhere around the Baltic or even farther, and in addition the company town—completely non-unionized—that would make of the islands a single, living system, Norrbyskär was inhabited only by free-roaming cattle and the small number of herders and their families who cared for them.
Even though the earth and the sky are a couple, it’s been said, the wind blows between them. There’s nothing at all unusual about that, or about this specific day on Norrbyskär, in the Gulf of Bothnia. The path we took past the church and schoolhouse, where workmen were preparing the buildings for the winter to come, led over the roots and underneath the crowns, first of birch and then of thicker spruce or fir that at times turned afternoon to twilight. The lines of granite blocks like dolmen crossed the path at points and I imagined what their design had looked like from above, the land still clear not for cattle but for the mill’s operations, what had rested on those blocks and what its purpose had been, tethering the rest of that space.
The path would take us, she told me, to the third and outermost island of the archipelago, where low granite sheets slid under the gulf. There was a particular place she had liked to go to when she worked years ago on Norrbyskär as a tour guide, a place that no one else seemed to know about and where she could be alone during the busy summer months. Where sometimes she would swim, where even in the summer’s height the water was cold enough that her heart felt like it would stop.
Photo Essay: "September on Norrbyskär," by Eben Wood