You have to be careful about asking a woodworker on the North Dakota-Minnesota border to do a little project for you. Up here, winters are long and folks hardworking, so ideas can get a little out-of-hand. Like, say, building a full-scale Viking ship.
In the late 1970s, Robert Asp, a guidance counselor at Moorhead Junior High set out to construct a 76-foot ship called the Hjemkomst (meaning “homecoming” in Norwegian and pronounced as “YEM-komst”). He plugged away for years, ultimately completing the ship and piloting it into Lake Superior before his death from leukemia in 1980. Not ones to let the dream die, his family sailed the ship to Oslo, Norway, in 1982, and today it’s on display in Moorhead, Minnesota’s Hjemkomst Center.
Out in the museum’s yard is another hobby job with Viking-size ambitions. In 2001, retired scientist Guy Paulson completed five years of work on a full-scale replica of the Hopperstad Stave Church in Vik, Norway. Guy hand-carved endless details into the wooden building, perfectly mimicking the original built in the 1100s. The 24,000 shingles? All cut by hand to match the originals. Explaining his motives, he told Minnesota Public Radio, “(I) grew up in a home where my father was very Norwegian, in a family that was very Lutheran. Probably just as important, or maybe more important, I have just always enjoyed building things.”
Visitors paying attention to details will realize the stave church (pronounced “staav” and valued at about $500,000) portrays an amazing fusion of cultures. Over the altar, Paulson carved the face of Jesus. On top of the church, dragons watch the surrounding Red River Valley. As Christianity came to Norway, church leaders laid out the parameters of what a church should look like. The Norwegians dutifully recorded the requirement for large arched windows near the ceiling, for example, but calculated that it may not be the ideal design for worshippers living within a stone’s throw of the Arctic Circle. So the stave church features solid-wood carvings shaped like arched windows with small portals cut to admit inspiring shafts of sunlight.
Throughout the building, elements like these showcase the efforts of people trying to synthesize two religions. The new belief was built around a merciful savior preaching meekness. The traditional beliefs included, among the highlights, a god who handled problems with an omnipotent hammer. The merger surely had rough patches, but as you stand in Guy Paulson’s opus, surrounded by the scent of pine, it all seems to blend quite seamlessly. Leave it to a northern Midwesterner with an outsized work ethic to show us through wood carvings that differences don’t always have to add up to conflicts.