It’s funny what you remember about a trip. When I went to Norway, I didn’t expect to fly 8,000 miles, jump in a kayak in icy water and paddle through the rain in a fjord beautiful enough to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site, only to come home eager to tell my friends about a bunch of goats.
I live in a country where cheese “product” is as common as cheese itself. Feeding a population of 311 million people has become an industrial affair, a mass production in which animals almost seem incidental. So a scene that can be described as “pastoral” suddenly becomes noteworthy. It’s doubtful any of us want to be a shepherd or a goat herder, yet any time we see pretty groups of sheep, cows, or goats, we race to Instagram them.
If you held your arm out, thumb pointed down, Norway’s Aurlandsfjord would be your index finger and Nærøyfjord, the narrowest fjord in the world, would be your thumb. The Atlantic Ocean would be your chest. From the bottom of both fjords, the steep green hillsides rise 3,000 feet into clouds and dozens of Yosemite-quality waterfalls drop 400, 500, 600 feet into the flat fjord water. And goats live on your index finger, grazing the steep hillsides of Aurlandsfjord, the only domestic milk-producing animals athletic enough to hang on without rolling or falling into the water below.
We paddled along in sea kayaks at the bottom of Aurlandsfjord, necks craning, and all I could think was if I had to be a goat, I would want to be a goat here, a view around every corner that would be a national park in my home country.
A few miles away, the village of Undredal is famous for geitost, the sweet brown goat cheese produced by the traditional process: They take the whey left over after cheese production and heat it until the milk sugar caramelizes. Undredal’s population is around 580: 80 humans and 500 goats. Up until 1988, the only way to access the village was by boat. So the cheese tastes exotic, to say the least. A craft cheese made from the milk of goats who hang on a lush green hillside above a finger of water that feels close to the end of the world is in a different universe than something that comes from a “food manufacturing plant” in New Jersey.
But does the cheese really taste that good? Or is that a story we make up to tell our taste buds because we like the idea of goats wandering free on hillsides in a postcard landscape, because we miss the days where we didn’t have to stamp “free range” on our food to know if comes from an animal that can take more than two steps in any direction? Or we like the idea of a cheesemaker who doesn’t wear a cleanroom suit to crank out hundreds of pounds of product onto a conveyor belt.
Or maybe we’re just jealous of the goats.
Declination is other places, other spaces, and the things that happen there.