We crawl out of bed at 5am. It’s a long drive to the forest where the Winter Gathering will be held and we’ve been told to arrive in daylight as we’ll be crossing frozen ice. I for one am very excited about this part.
We jump-start ourselves with tea and smoothies made from boxes of fruit and veg skipped the night before. We load the van up and pile in, wedging Jatta in the back between boxes of skipped food, backpacks, bikes and blankets. She climbs into her sleeping bag and curls up between the tat. Jim is back with us too.
Pete starts up the ignition and a high-pitched screeching-whirring begins. Shit. We forgot all about that.
We make it out of Malmö and onto the motorway, but the engine overheats so badly we have to pull over. Pete looks under the bonnet. He bought a new drivebelt in Copenhagen but saved 1,000DKK (about £120) by fitting it himself. Has he done it right? We don´t know. What we do know is that this belt is longer than the old one, but seems to fit fine. Pete oils it again and we drive slowly but loudly back onto the motorway. No good. We´re going to need to get this looked at.
Helsingborg is the first and last big town for some time. We drive around it mechanic-hopping, trying to find somewhere open at 8am on a snowy holiday season morning and willing to take a look under Princess’ (the van’s full name is Princess Irulan II) bonnet. After being directed and re-directed several times we finally find someone. Yep, Pete fixed it wrong. The guy can´t even understand how he managed it, but it turns out the photo he took to remember what it looked like was upside-down. Whoops! We need to buy another belt as this one is too long, but they don´t have the part. We need to drive to Halmstad. It’s not on our way.
In Halmstad, Pete sets about fitting the new belt while the rest of us go to buy, skip and steal some food.
Finally we’re on our way. We now have no hope of arriving in daylight and so decide to take the scenic route. It´s a long dark drive. We entertain ourselves by watching the snow by the roadside thicken with each passing kilometre and listening to Derrick Jensen recordings. To keep himself awake, Pete periodically stops the car and slaps ice on his face. One time, without warning, he pulls up, jumps out the van, runs and jumps into the snow. He lies there a while on his back, then gets up and makes a guarana concoction before driving off. It´s a shame I can´t drive.
Ed sends a text from the forest saying since it´s getting late we should stay with a friend of his for the night in a town not so far away.
Pär lives in a one-room apartment, but is very accomodating and we all squísh in. He has a variety of foraged herbs to make tea with, lots of Jensen and Zerzan on his bookshelf. A bow he carved himself hangs above the kitchen.
The following day, Princess impresses us all by climbing her way up the icy track to the parking space Ed told us about in his email. It´s *very* cold. I´m increasingly worried about the chesty couch and infernal wheezing that have plagued my last few days.
Ed arrives, looking very much what he is: a man of the forest. I remember the Ed I met back in Brighton a year and a half ago: shy, quiet, maybe a little nervous looking. More public schoolboy than Man of Forest. This Ed has a frosty beard, longish wild hair and looks confident and at home in his frozen environment. He’s carrying a length of rope and a large empty backpack, which he fills with skipped food from our van. He and the other two guys following him have knives dangling from their belts. They advise us we should do the same. We’re going to cross the frozen lake. If the ice breaks and we fall in, the best thing is to stab the ice with a knife and pull yourself out. How very reassuring. Pete and I pocket some whistles too, just in case.
When everyone is loaded up with food and blankets, we set off into the forest. Everything is crisp, white and beautiful. Shafts of sunlight fall through the trees and reflect off the ice. Then we reach the lake. The whole thing is frozen solid, despite the sun which still shines bright above. It’s so beautiful. We begin walking across. I’m nervous at first, but relax more as we go. A powdery layer of snow covers the solid ice and our footprints mingle with those of birds and other animals. We’re not the only ones taking advantage of this frozen shortcut.
We arrive at the winter shelter Ed built over the summer. It’s basically a bender with walls insulated by a thick layer of mud to halfway up the outside. Inside, walls are insulated with birch bark, which doesn’t get damp and mouldy like blankets. The ceiling is covered by a transparent sheet of plastic, which lets in a lot of light. There are a few blankets where the bark ran out and a big green tarp covering the outside. Ed stresses it isn’t finished yet.
But there’s a problem. Last night four people slept in the shelter and it was a squeeze. Tonight we’re expecting at least nine. There’s a tipi too, with a fire, but it doesn’t store heat and won’t be a pleasant night’s sleep.
We put the food away in the food store – hanging baskets made of interwoven sticks hanging from a piece of polyprop rope, tied between two trees. A tarp hangs basher-style over the top as a roof. Large plastic pot-ends each end of the rope stop mice and other woodland foragers from crawling across to the baskets.
As night draws down and more people arrive, we all huddle into Ed’s winter shelter. A place crowded with four now has seven bodies squashed in. Cosy.
We want to cook some food on the fire. Pete goes out to hunt in the food store with a torch. Next problem: there is one pan big enough to cook food for this many people. Unfortunately, Matias has left it outside and dirty, with a frozen deer head in it. You really couldn’t make this stuff up.
Ed retrieves the pan and puts it on the fire to thaw. Meanwhile, more people arrive, bringing the count up to ten. People are now visibly uncomfortable, contorted into yoga positions. The atmosphere is both tense and jovial, if you can imagine such a thing.
While the head is thawing, Pete and Jatta get on with some chopping. I hold a tin for chopped veg in one hand and use the other to steady the chopping board, enabling Pete to balance it on his knee. A faint meaty aroma begins to fill the shelter.
When the head is thawed, people decide it’s better to eat it than throw it away. It’s just a skeleton really, but some people are happy to eat the broth it’s now sitting in. Pete, clearly tempted, asks how old the deer head is. He’s handed a bowl and told it’s been out there for a couple of weeks. He takes a small sip and passes it quickly on.
When the broth is eaten, Ed removes the skeleton from the pan and puts it on the stone slab above the fire. It stares at me with it’s empty eye socket. I try not to look at it. Ed cleans the pan out with snow and spruce twigs. Aware that I’m vegan he asks if it’s ok to use now. Ed’s trying to be sensitive but I don’t really know what to say. Soap does not exist in the forest. It will have to do.
Finally we get the rice on to cook and soon after the veg goes in, enabling everyone to breath a sigh of relief as they can now stop holding onto plates full of chopped pepper and tomato and attempt to change position.
Food is almost ready when Ed gets a text asking if we can pick someone up from the train. That in itself is a bit of a joke, but this person is known to Ed through an email conversation in which he was extremely unpolite. He’s also known to other people in the group as someone prone to unpredictable violent behaviour. Oh goody. Food is postponed while we have a meeting about whether this person should be allowed to come. At this point M and A arrive from M’s shelter a few minutes walk away. Somehow they squeeze into the ever-tightening space and are brought up to speed on the situation. M sees no problem with this guy coming, but T is livid, saying if he comes, he’ll hit him himself. At any rate, it’s discovered this guy has sent the message from the internet and there’s no way to reply to him. It’s decided that if he phones, Ed should speak to him and politely but firmly dissuade him from coming.
Finally we can eat. It’s late by the time we finish and everyone’s knackered, but there’s still the problem of who’s sleeping where. Ed’s shelter will sleep five at a push, M’s four. This means at least three people have to sleep in the tipi. Ed and Matias volunteer to give up their shelter and sleep in the tipi. We just need one more volunteer. But then M decides he doesn’t want to share his space. He’s obviously still annoyed about the violent man not being allowed to come, but says it’s because he sometimes likes to sit up and read at night. It’s -14 outside. A lot of circuitous talking ensues, culminating in lots of people volunteering to sleep in the tipi just so it can all be over and done with. I’ve lost track of who is where, all I know is I want one decent night’s sleep to try and get a bit better, but when everyone leaves, only three of us are left in the shelter. How did that happen?
We sleep fitfully. T because of the cold, me because of the smoke, and Pete because of me wheezing in his ear.
It’s almost midday by the time we force ourselves out of sleeping-bags and into the cold crisp air. We’re about to go to the tipi for breakfast when Jim and Jatta appear. They didn’t get much sleep in the tipi at all. Jatta has decided to leave and Jim’s thinking about it too.
An hour later I decide to leave as well. I’m becoming increasingly irritated and snappy. There’s no space anywhere to just sit or read a book. The shelters are overcrowded and outside is so cold even walking is painful, let alone sitting. My breathing is getting worse, not better and more people are due to arrive today. I will go to Stockholm with Jim and wait for Pete there.