Anthropology Magazine
Poem / Dwelling

The Spring a Time for Calving and Cleaving

A poet-anthropologist joins Sámi reindeer herders in Norway who are preparing for the spring migration. As an outsider, he feels a longing to connect, even as he remains “outside the fences.”
Two people wearing dark clothing hold a green tarp and separate a herd of black, grey, and white reindeer. Snow covers the landscape behind them.

Gwynfryn Thomas

This poem was partly inspired by my first foray into the world of Sámi reindeer herding back in 2013. In this new year of 2022, I’ve been reflecting on some of my experiences doing anthropological fieldwork in Norway and thinking about separation and separate-ness, prime emotional territory given the social distancing of the past two years.

But this isn’t a pandemic poem. Nor is it purely a reindeer poem. In times of great disjuncture, the meaning-making impulses of our species often come to the fore. The narrator of this poem is, in these glimpses of a moment, contending with distance and longing for connection: with people, with the land, with gods—with something beyond the self.

My entry to this moment came through initial connections with colleagues at the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research. I turned up in a Sámi community in Norway’s northernmost county in time to watch (and attempt to help) with the separation of reindeer bulls from cows, ready for the spring migration—armed with a brain full of Sámi ethnographies and studies, but naïve to the reality.

Needless to say, I was a bit rubbish at reindeer herding and felt very much the outsider. But this trip—the experiences and the people I met—proved a vital foundation for what would become my fieldwork.

As anthropologists, we never quite belong, sometimes on purpose. At several levels, we remain somewhat separate—in our observations, in our interpretations, and in our telling of what we’ve experienced. Do I feel somewhat on the outside of things because I’m an anthropologist, or am I an anthropologist because I constantly feel I don’t quite belong?

Regardless of the answer, maybe this poem is a reflection on how I found myself in what turned out to be the right place at the right time. Either that or I’ve constructed a memory of feeling I was in the right place, when I needed to find myself there—however much the outsider, however much I still seek meaning and connection.

Calving and Cleaving - Listen
2:44

The Spring a Time for Calving and Cleaving

Tarpaulin smacks the air behind
men moon-hopping the snow-scape,
billows of fabric funnel reindeer to the corral.
They snort and shoal centrifugal, stick
to the edges, avoiding herders
in their midst with needles and knives
and plans of separation.

My shutter clatters beyond the fence,
funneling their lives through my lens,
extracting memories. I will refine this raw
material, this ore into richer fuels
but for now—and maybe this is all
it is—

a brother bellows avalanches
of laughter across the sludgy tundra
having absolutely stacked it, as we say
in my vernacular, arse over tit;

a brother scribes, aside from the others,
accounting the wealth of heads, keeping score,
bouncing his pen across the white sheet
like an arctic fox nosing the stillness for prey;

a brother plunges a syringe into steaming flanks
to stave off the pests of summer.
They tell me about a time a warble fly
sang into a friend of a friend of someone
or other’s eye its eggs, how they tweezed
out a grub as long as a fjord.

Then I am called to take part:
A man of twenty wrestles a cow
to the floor in front of me, instructing
as he grasps for nearby equipment
to just get on.

Astride the heft and stink of this beast huffing
wisps of steam, antlers disarmed by my cheap
mittens, I see in ultrasound grainy winks
of a life within her. In this, my rebirth,
I am now more child than ever,
defined by staying outside the fences,
defined by my lack.
I hold no means of staying
alive outside the herd,
despite the sun’s eternal swerve,
despite the bounty of this melting land.

There exist no spirits of the land
I can invoke. If ever I call out,
what gods call back, what portals
open for me a connection
to ancestor or cosmos,
every cairn merely a stack of stones,
every prayer no more than a lullaby

Gwynfryn Thomas

Gwynfryn Thomas is an anthropologist working in the nonprofit sector in London. He is also a columnist, with Djuke Veldhuis, for SAPIENS. His poems have appeared in Haque, Pomegranate, SAPIENS, and Vocal Solo. Follow him on Twitter @matthewgthomas.

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