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The Good Birch

Updated: May 12

A visit to a polar legend's home



The 31 bus in Oslo dropped me off on a sharp corner of glass and steel office buildings today. We’ve been experiencing hot weather, as Europe is suffering a record heat wave. After walking on a pedestrian passageway under the noisy highway, and taking a left at a small overgrown sign, I found myself on a green path with low hanging branches and wooden cabins covered in sod roofs and tiny pine trees. Another bucolic and quiet couple of blocks and I found Fridtjof Nansen’s estate Polhøgda, or the “Polar Height”.


The building was built in 1901, designed by Nansen himself after he rejected all the submissions for this architectural project and he decided to just design it himself. By 1901 Nansen was a national treasure, a true hero of the Golden Age of Polar Exploration and his home is a reflection of that. It is decorated with wallpaper designed by the great Norwegian painter Erik Werenskiold, along with Werenskiold’s beautiful mural in the dining room illustrating the fairy tale Liti Kjersti, the story of a young girl, kidnapped by the elf king and forced to drink a drink that made her forget about the natural earth, but who is eventually reunited with her mother to everyone’s great relief.


I had arranged this visit some weeks ago, to do research on my project Nansen's Pastport. I asked Hilde, my reserved and cool contact here, if a lot of Nansen fans come to the house. Maybe students?


“Not really,” she says.


Today, Polhøgda houses the Nansen Institute, an organization focusing on arctic research and climate change issues. The grand bedrooms are now offices, and the dining room hosts conferences. The foyer where Roald Amundsen famously asked Nansen for the use of his ship Fram after his successful Northwest passage expedition, seems vaguely corporate now, with a table of books and brochures and doors to the restrooms. Out the large, arched windows to the garden you can see Nansen’s grave in dappled light under his favorite tree “God-bjørka”.


“Do you want to see his studio,” Hilde asks.


Does a polar bear shit on the tundra?



She takes me up 3 floors of rabbit warrens to the tower of the castle-like building and struggles with a key as I stand there feeling like I won the lottery. She opens the door to a vaulted room, filled with a globe, countless books, a polar bear pelt, a stuffed bird, and lots of brass, scientific equipment. Cases of tiny bottles of water samples from his expeditions. Recording equipment and rolls of wax. Sun glasses carved from wood, by Inuit design. A bust of the author Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson which is rumored to have joined Nansen on Fram.


A small carved wooden frog on the desk is worn smooth from petting. It is the Eva Padde, the Eva Frog, named for Nansen’s wife, who died long before him and which he would pet lovingly as he was in his office working on his drawings and scientific journals. When she died, she was cremated. Her ashes are now gone, and no one seems to know or remember where they are. Some suspect they rest with him under the great “Good Birch”.


Hilde is visibly encouraged by my enthusiasm. Clearly they don’t have a lot of passionate Norwegian-Americans asking for tours of the home. She asks me if I would like to see the basement. She apologizes ahead of time that it might be a bit of a mess.


Yes, I say. I don’t care if it’s a mess.



She leads me downstairs to a cellar with a floor painted bright red, littered with binders, boxes, and papers. At the far end is a metal door that looks like a freezer vault door. Hilde opens it and inside it is cool and dry, the unseasonable Oslo heat shut out completely.


Inside the room are some framed prints, a random sleigh, and a fancy granite gravestone for Nansen’s dog Johnnyson, who was born onboard the polar ship Fram. There’s an inferior headstone, who Hilde says is for a cat who clearly was not nearly as popular.


“And over there is a Nansen passport,” Hilde says. My heart stops. This is just the thing I was hoping to see.


In a corner nook is the refugee passport, the eponymous Nansen passport that would go on to rescue countless stateless persons, created by Nansen as the High Commisioner for Refugees for the League of Nations, in 1922.


“Look who it belonged to,” Hilde says, but I’ve already discovered the bearer’s name.


It is made out for Marc Chagall.


I left the house shortly after, shaking hands and making promises to let Hilde know how my project goes. She’s warmed up considerably.


I go out into the hot June day, back to catch my bus by the glass and steel buildings. I walk past the old wooden houses with the pines on the roof, the houses that look like they have grown right out of the natural earth. ****** See more about the fine press project Nansen's Pastport, published by Two Ponds Press in 2020. Below: Watch a film about the book

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© 2020 by Anneli Skaar