Penitentes Brotherhood of New Mexico


Penitentes Good Friday Ritual, photo Charles Lummis 1891

“A click; the room was darkened; and suddenly, on the screen above the Master’s head, there were the Penitentes of Acoma prostrating themselves before Our Lady, and wailing as John had heard them wail, confessing their sins before Jesus on the Cross, before the eagle image of Pookong. The young Etonians fairly shouted with laughter. Still wailing, the Penitentes rose to their feet, stripped off their upper garments and, with knotted whips, began to beat themselves, blow after blow. Redoubled, the laughter drowned even the amplified record of their groans.”

“But why do they laugh?” asked the Savage in a pained bewilderment.

“Why?” The Provost turned towards him a still broadly grinning face. “Why? But because it’s so extraordinarily funny.” (11.54-6)

Huxley, A Brave New World

Traveling the back roads of New Mexico can be disorienting. The Old Pecos Trail and the Old Santa Fe Trail may pass through the outskirts of Santa Fe, but before I know it, the narrow roads can suddenly turn off to a dirt road winding through six-foot high walls of tumbleweeds, sagebrush and mesquite. I am lost! I punch in Google Maps in the I phone, my campground destination, and the calming, confident female voice guides me back to home base. Amazing.

However, in two recent journeys to El Santuario del Chimayo, as country roads wind through Indian pueblos and old Hispano villages, I come to a cross roads with no directional signs and my digital guide through unfamiliar territory goes blank. The phone works, but no voice and the map on the phone makes no sense. As I look back now, I understand.  I have entered mystical spiritual territory where I must carefully feel my way intuitively toward my destination.  God give me a sign!

On Highway 76 (The High Road to Taos), we are driving north of Santa Fe through the Carson National Forest. On this warm spring day the dry, thin air is fragrant with the scent of pinyon pine and juniper.  There is a village ahead, Las Trampas, and we turn off for a rest stop at La Casita Café. Warm frybread coated with cinnamon and sugar compliment spicy pinyon coffee.  I am listening to conversations around us: English mixed with Spanish.  I am fluent in Spanish and have a challenging time understanding until I catch some antique phases that remind me of the “thee” and “thou” in the old Episcopal Spanish prayer book.  Now I understand.  Local people are speaking in an 18th century Spanish colonial dialect, vestiges of four hundred years of Hispano occupation in these isolated New Mexican villages.  As we pass the Church of San Jose de Gracia, I see an obscure square adobe building next door which I later found out is a morada sanctuary for the Penitentes or Brothers of Light.

We travel on looking for some direction toward Chimayo, but some unseen power has again disabled the GPS.  We pass through Las Truchas. I recognize the market and other buildings from my favorite film by Robert Redford, The Milagro Beanfield Wars (1987).”  When I play music from the film soundtrack, it captures the spiritual powers in this place, where villagers regularly consult with santos and angels in their daily life.

God give us a sign! And there it is! At this midpoint in the holy season of Lent, I can see just ahead of me four men walking together, barefoot, following a bearded young man, jet black hair flowing freely to his waist, carrying the heavy beam of a huge wooden cross. Penitentes are walking toward Chimayo.  I should get out and walk behind them to find my way. Just then I hear bells. Church bells. It is noon. The 11am mass has just ended. I must be near my destination.


Good Friday Penitentes RItual, Charles Lummis 1891

Students of cultural anthropology will have studied the penitents of New Mexico, Los Hermanos de la Fraternidad Piadosa de Nuestro Padre Jesus Nazareno  (the Brothers of the Pious Fraternity of Our Father Jesus the Nazarene).  Popular media through the years have observed the strange rituals of flagellation and crucifixions.  The  1937 film “Lash of the Penitentes”, which is mocked by the Etonian students in Brave New World, derides the primitive rituals as “horrible” and “abusive”.

Perhaps some of the best photographs of the Penitentes in New Mexico were taken by Charles Lummis.  In his book, The Land of Poco Tiempo, Lummis wrote

“so late as 1891 a procession of flagellants took place within the limits of the United States. A procession in which voters of this Republic shredded their naked back with savage whips, staggered beneath huge crosses, and hugged the maddening needles of the cactus”. (p. 56).

Ironically, Lummis fostered trust in order to photograph these private rituals in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and used his images to feed an insensitive, critical Anglo press which fostered a sensational stereotype of the Penitentes.

The curious rituals attracted many spiritual seekers.  However, they belittled the primal practices of the Brotherhood.  Visitors to New Mexico were enchanted by the Hispano-pueblo culture. But when they reported back about their experiences with these local spiritual rituals, it seemed to come from a disconnected realm of reality.

Pulido shares:

“What is critical to remember is that Lummis’s work would establish the framework for the hundreds of popular and scholarly publications that, like his own work, ignored the importance of penitente understanding and thinking about the sacared in their lives.”

P 37 The Sacred World of the Pentitentes.

However, the procession of the cross which I witnessed on the side of the road is a vestige of a profound spirituality deeply imbedded within the hearts of the people who live in the pueblos which dot the lands around Sanctuario del Chimayo.

The roots of the ascetical practice of flagellation go back more than a thousand years to Spain and Italy, identifying with the Flagellation of Jesus during his Passion. Ascetical practices were a very early part of Christian spirituality.  The Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, as a Roman Catholic monk in Erfurt, Germany, had a whip hanging on the door of his cell for regular mortification. The Roman Catholic Church suppressed the practices in the 14th century, but as we will see, the Church cannot put a damper on popular piety.

The Spanish ascetical traditions came to New Mexico. After Mexican Independence in 1821, the Church replaced the Franciscan, Jesuit and Dominican missionaries with Diocesan priests.  But as today in Mexico, there were not enough priests to go around, and little villages, like the ones around Chimayo, might only see a priest once a year.

Marta Weigle reflects:

“(a) century or more of improvisation in religious expressions, necessitated by the lack of ecclesiastics to minister in time of need, and to celebrate the important events of the Christian year, may well have resulted in a varied conglomeration of lay practices, prayers, penances and procession.” (Weigle 1976: 51).

Thus, the Penitentes filled this spiritual vacuum.

But the spirituality of the people is still vibrant.  The men of these villages banded together for mutual support and community charity.  Walking in the way of Jesus in his Passion on the Cross led these men to gather in moradas, enclosed adobe meeting houses. Is this a connection to Indian kivas? The village would know when the men were worshipping by the vibrant sound of their alabados songs. Their piety peaked during Lent and Holy Week with private flagellation rituals in the moradas and public processions of the cross.

The institutional church historically seems to have been very nervous about mystical experiences and this kind of popular piety.  Archbishops Lamy and Salpointe tried to suppress these ascetical practices in the 19th century during the “Americanization” of the Church. The public rituals of penance and flagellation threatened traditional Catholic orthodoxy. As you would expect, this drove the brotherhood underground, becoming a secret society.  There was a breakthrough in 1947, when Archbishop Bryne opened a new relationship with the brotherhood.

However, Enlightenment culture, which had pushed spiritual experiences off to the backroom closet in the assertion of human Reason, still had a fascination with this kind of popular spirituality.

Today at Santuario del Chimayo I could sense the powerful presence of the brotherhood and its continuing influence in villages of the Upper Grand Valley.

Jeffrey S. Smith writes:

“Not only have the Penitentes been the spiritual leaders of the community, but throughout the year they have provided services that might otherwise have gone undone.  They have cared for the sick and poor, interred the deceased, organized wakes and rosaries at funerals, assisted the widowed, and administered the law and order within the village”

  1. 73.

From the early history of the Christian Church, these actions describe the ministry of the Order of the Deacons.

Alberto Lopez Pulido offers a deeper understanding of the brotherhood in The Sacred World of the Penitentes. He brings the reader to the inner heart of this spirituality, which includes care for those in need, prayer and meditation, and modeling Christ-like behavior. Pulido shares the personal stories of members of the brotherhood, whose familiar roots go back many generations.

Pulido contends that writers and historians, in their insensitivity to things spiritual, have undermined the primal place that the Penitentes have had in popular piety.  As he shares personal testimonies from members, his book reveals the passionate Christian spirituality which infuses their rituals.

In Carl N. Taylor’s Agony in Mexico (1936), we find an example of a negative narrative. He witnesses the brotherly solidarity of this spiritual movement within the life of the Hispano pueblos in the area.  But he was upset by the flagellation and crucifixion rituals.  This reinforced Euro American negative stereotypes about the Penitentes.

The “canary in the gold mine”, is a metaphor coming from the California goldfields that relates to social injustice.   The miners of ’49, as they dug tunnels deep into the Sierra Nevada,  carried little bamboo cages holding live yellow canaries.  Because the moist interiors of the mine tunnels often exposed poisonous gases, the canary in the cage was a first sign of danger.  Dead canary, run for your life!

In the prophetic tradition of the Jewish scriptures, how the community cares for the widow, orphan and sojourner was the “canary in the gold mine” for the People of God.  Oppression of the poor and vulnerable would bring God’s punitive judgment.

The Brotherhood of the Penitents inherit this Biblical consciousness in their attentive care for those in need in the community.  This is a core value for them, “an act of charity.”


Fr. Brad Karelius with Miguel Conniff, Via Crucis, Santa Ana, CA, Paul Rodriguez OC Register

Walk with me as we follow a procession on Good Friday evening, moving slowly on the city sidewalk in downtown Santa Ana, California.  We wait at the signal for dense homebound auto traffic to stop and we follow the direction of the police officers as we cross the street.  Latino mothers, wearing dark head covering, gather little children hand in hand as a nurturing mother hen gathers her chicks.  The sudden rain shower from an hour ago has cleared. Wispy steam rises from the street.  Thunder in the distance is the last sound from the departing spring storm.

As you gaze ahead to the start of the long procession, you see a long-haired man bent over, carrying a heavy, huge wooden cross.  The crowd beings to sing

Perdona tu pueblo senior

The procession stops at the front door of the University of California Clinic.  A short step ladder is set up. A woman climbs with assistance and begins to read one of the Stations of the Cross. At the end of the mediation she offers her own prayer:  for those incarcerated at the Orange County Jail near by and for her own son, who has been there for the past month.

The Procession of the cross, Via Crucis, proceeds, winding through the busy streets, singing penitential songs on this Good Friday Night, praying the fourteen Stations of the Cross.  Men and Women alternate, carrying the heavy burden of this cross.


Via Crucis Procession, Good Friday, Santa Ana, CA, Paul Rodriguez, OC Register

As you imagine this scene, how do you think it would be received if it were passing through the main street of your home town today? Surprisingly, as the procession carefully walks through the dense streets of downtown, families out shopping or going to dinner, pull aside from the sidewalk, and reverence the procession by removing hats and making the sign of the cross.  This Good Friday Procession with a large, heavy cross reminds these Latinos of their hometown pueblos, where the same procession could be happening on this night.  Some of these observers interrupt their evening plans and join the procession as it winds its way back to my parish.

In this Via Crucis, participants walk with Jesus in his passion toward the cross and crucifixion.  This was a spiritual practice spread throughout the Western world by the Franciscans.

In another chapter on El Sanctuario del Chimayo, I share the moving experience my wife Janice had with our disabled son Erik at the shrine of the healing sand.  El Sanctuario at that time only had the sacramental part-time presence of a very old priest.  However, one layman was the guardian of the shrine of the healing sand.  It was he, who with tender compassion, guided our son to stand within the sacred hole from which the healing sand is taken.  He laid his hands on Erik’s shoulder and prayed for him.  The pastoral, deaconal charism of that man convinces me that he was a member of the Penitentes brethren.


Lash of the Penitentes, directed by Roland Price & Harry Revier (1937) – excerpts

The Sacred World of the Penitentes, Alberto Lopez Pulido. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000.

Edge of Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

The Sacred World of the Penitentes, Alberto Lopez Pulido. Washington:  Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000

“Roads to the Real New Mexico”, by Lawrence O’Toole, New York Times, November 8, 1992.

Brother of Light, Brothers of Blood: The Penitentes of the Southwest, by Marta Weigle (Santa Fe, NM: Ancient City Press, 1976)

The Land of Poco Tiempo, Charles F. Lummis (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1969)

Los Hermanos Penitentes: An Illustrative Essay, Jeffrey S. Smith

The North American Geographer, 2 (1), pp. 70-84, 2000.

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Eyes to See

lone-pine-02-06-0231.jpg“Sometimes you can see a whole lot of things just by looking”

Yogi Berra

“Nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. If nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I mean by the love of God would never had existed.”

C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves

“You are next, Father Karelius,” the nurse barked as she wheeled another patient into surgery.

Warm blankets created a cocoon effect over me, as the IV dripped and my heart raced. Eye surgery! It was hard for me to conceive of how they surgically could open my eye and operate on it.  I had had several serious surgeries involving long stays at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. But eye surgery; what would it be like? This vulnerable part of my body is the “window to the soul.”  One of my students at Saddleback College who was in the nursing program confessed that she would trade a clinical in eye surgery for gastro intestinal surgery any day. Eye surgery: too gross!  What would eye surgery be like for me?

I am wheeled into the operating room, and our friend, Dr. Paul Prendiville, speaks in a low, quiet, calming voice. Anesthesia takes effect and I am watching a kaleidoscope of vibrant, flaming, luminescent colors turning and twisting, like a Tibetan Buddhist mandala.  The movement of crystalline colors slows and I can hear voices again: Dr. Paul and my wife: first in the distance, then very close.  I awaken with a patch over my eye.  Everything was successful.

Over the next seven days, sight slowly returned to the right eye and I could see again.

Annie Dillard writes:

“When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw ‘the tree with the lights in it.’ It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forest of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I am still spending the power. Gradually, the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”

  1. 33-34, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.

There is a seeing that involves the delicate body parts that create the eye.  There is a deeper seeing, called illumination, that is an inner, mystical seeing that cannot be conjured, mentally directed or manipulated.

Annie Dillard writes:

“….the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and total surprise.”

One of the reasons I have written these chapters on spirit places in the desert is to invite you to enter, walk, wait, and watch.  I have found that with fatigue from long hikes during desert retreats and several days of silence and solitude, aha moments of intuitive insight flash into consciousness.  This Southwestern landscape is a doorway into mystery and wonder. The gift often involves a Benevolent Presence offering peace, joy, hope and love.


Erik in a field of wildflowers

Interstate 40 out of Kingman, Arizona, flies across high desert chaparral into a vast sea of sagebrush, twisting and climbing through volcanic and granite mountain passes, heading east toward Flagstaff.  As Janice, Erik and I travel this route every October, I am still amazed at what I see: a rainbow of wildflowers bursting from the sandy soil: violet puffs of Arizona lupine, and clusters of white desert chicory and desert sunflowers.  Back home in Orange County, California, the hillsides around our home are blowtorched dry in the absence of rain.  But here in Arizona, speeding past ocotillo, cholla and saguaro cactus, Cruise Control set at 75 miles an hour, I watch the dramatic landscape flash by like an IMAX movie.

At 7,000 feet the highway straightens, as we pass through a windswept plateau of deep green range grass, sustaining hundreds of sheep and cattle. Not a tree in sight.

These desert and mountain journeys through the American Southwest bring us into vast open spaces of  geological wonder.  But after the first 50 miles the Vastness swallows up our vision and becomes familiar.  I confess, I can be walking through the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, trying to slowly savor the colors and textures of great artistic masters. But after a while a malaise and sensory overload possess me. I am done. This same malaise sets in, as we pass through amazing beauty that has become familiar.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Our perennial spiritual and psychological task is to look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again.”

Seeing means more than good eyesight.  We can do a lot of looking at the world around us without seeing much. Our eyes can be wide open, but we see nothing.  How can we look at the familiar until they look unfamiliar again?  We need help to see through this familiarity that surrounds us in order to see  into wonder.

Guidance comes to me through our disabled adult son Erik and the Jewish mystic Martin Buber.

After our arrival at J and H Campground in Flagstaff and setting up camp, Janice, Erik and I head north on Interstate 89 a few miles to Loop Road, which leads to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.  In one mile we park at the Ranger Station and walk into a pine forest.  I hold Erik’s hand, as we walk the winding path around dense piles of pine needles.  Erik’s eyes are unfocused, gazing off into nothing.  His significant brain damage from encephalitis in 1987 has meant years of suffering and our struggle to minimize his seizures. His far away gaze could be an absence seizure. But as we walk, this handsome young man, mentally four years old within a strapping six-foot adult body, slowly awakens.  I pick up a pine cone and he feels the sticky pitch, the sharp spines and senses the sweet sap.  We walk further into the dense wood. I call his attention to sounds of squirrels fighting over another pine cone, squawky blue jays and the distant yelp of a coyote. “Listen, Erik, what is that? A bird? Squirrels fighting? A coyote calling to her children?”  I call Erik’s attention to sense, sound, touch, smell and taste and he is becoming more alert, more present to this natural world.  As I do this, the familiar sounds and sights become unfamiliar again to me.  There is a slowing into which Erik is pulling me, a slowing of time and space. And I am present to him and he to me.  We reach the edge of the forest and encounter a vast meadow of  wildflowers, clusters of bulbs that have burst forth into four-foot high columns of yellow and orange.  Erik sees the shapes and colors and begins to walk into the meadow, passing his hands over the tall tubers.

I found also help in seeing nature in a new way through the Jewish mystic Martin Buber and his book I and Thou (Ich und Dich).  He shares his personal experience about how encounters with Nature can be transformative and can lead us into deeper communion with each other and God.

Buber contends that we have two ways of connecting with the world around us.  The world of reason and science has shaped our consciousness to approach the world around us with the scientific method to collect information, analyze and classify it and create theories. Buber calls this mode “Experience” and we approach creation as a detached “it” from ourselves and can apply this information to some project.  But there is a detached distance between us and creation (I-it). Reality is found in a material world.

Buber helped me to understand that there is another way to connect with the world around me. He calls this “Encounter”, wherein we enter into relationship with the object we encounter.  I believe this is why the setting of the American southwest is helpful, because the tribal Indian and Hispano traditions invite a porous receptivity to animate and inanimate creation.

Through his personal experience in meditating on a tree, Buber experiences the dissolution of distance between himself and the tree and a merging into oneness

“I consider a tree. I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background. I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—-and the obscure growth itself.”

I and Thou, p. 14.

As Buber contemplates the tree and its descriptive qualities something changes.

“I can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer an it.”

I and Thou, p. 14.

Living only within the world of I-It has psychological fallout like anxiety about the future, loss of sense of meaning and chronic dissatisfaction.  You know that feeling when you awaken at three a.m. and can’t go back to sleep.

If we allow our porous selves to open up to encounter nature, and like Annie Dillard we are receptive, the tree with the lights in it may visit us.  We cannot force the encounters, but we can be ready. And we are never the same after this encounter.

Buber reminds us that all of these encounters are transient and that soon the I-thou connection will change, by our reflection and analysis, back into I-It.  The lasting I-thou relationship, Buber confesses, is in the state of love and wwith God. We call this Revelation.

You and I visit this Southwestern landscape as children of  Enlightenment Reason.  We have been tutored into the I-IT world and to discount mystical and spiritual experience.  The gift of this desert land, nature’s creatures and the people who have lived here for centuries is that the place will work on your inner self, as patiently as sand and wind wear down a massive granite boulder.  If we are open and searching, transformative encounters may visit us.

Here is one memorable encounter from psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:

“I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep — the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the

unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with He who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit

with His. The ordinary sense of things around me faded. For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exultation remained. It is impossible fully to describe the experience. It was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the

listener conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not anymore have doubted Hewas there than I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.”


Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (New York, Harper and Row, 1974)

I and Thou, Martin Buber.

Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, John R. Stilgoe (New York: Walker and Company, 1998)

What is Landscape?, by John Stilgoe ( Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 20150

The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James.

Communing with Nature: A Guidebook for Enhancing Your Relationship with the Living Earth, John. L. Swanson.

Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World, Paul Krafel.

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Searching for Treasure

lonepinevolcano“(George Lewis of Independence reports) the richest gold ledge ever found in this or any other country….Every piece of the quartz is said to show free gold.”

Inyo Independent, June 7, 1895

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”

Matthew 6:21 (King James Version}

The volcanic lava flows towards me like a slow moving luminescent crimson and yellow river, halting briefly, building up mounds of molten liquid, exploding, sending meteor-like projectiles toward me.  I can sense the intense heat and the choking sulfur fumes.  I stand upon a mountain of smoking volcanic debris, looking across at the volcano.  My imagination rests and I return to the present moment, as I gaze across the Owens Valley toward the Inyo Mountains to the east.  The volcano and the lava flow are frozen in time, a vivid visual memory of an event that took place 2,000 years ago.

I stand on a high point in the Poverty Hills, fifteen miles north of Independence, California, Mount Whitney behind me and Highway 395 far below.

All around me are the foothills created by several huge volcanoes, which have covered the desert with a vast lava flow and clusters of volcanic rock.  It is this volcanic activity millennia ago that cooked precious metals like gold and silver and forced the liquid through cracks in quartz to become veins of precious treasure imbedded is these Poverty Hills and the Inyo Mountains.  The history of the Owens Valley beginning in 1860 includes treasure seekers searching for gold and silver.  Today as I hike the old mining trails that wind up and down these hills, I can easily identify dark lead Galena rocks, with crystals of silver ore. With a magnifying glass I can see specks of gold.

lone pine cabin

Rock Walled Miner’s Cabin

Fifteen miles north of Independence, CA, Highway 395 meets the cross road of Elna Road, leading toward the Owens River.  At that intersection turn left toward the Sierra Nevada and into the Poverty Hills.  High clearance SUVs do best here.  At a turn in the road, on your right is a rock-walled miner’s cabin.  The walls are intact, protected by a tin roof.  A stove pipe projects from the back of the cabin. As you enter the cabin, you can see how the miner chiseled into the base granite rock in the mountain and created something that looks like a fireplace. But I think it could be some kind of primitive furnace to process ore samples.

Returning to the dirt road, I chose to leave my car and walk up hill.  The road climbs steeply into the hills, and I Can see to my right and left evidence of “rat hole” exploration pits and further up.


Let’s practice some elementary mining archaeology together.  As we walk the winding uphill trail, we will need to stop and rest occasionally, as we adjust to the 4,000 feet altitude.  Where do you think they searched for gold and silver? Look for mounds of excavated dirt.  The size of the mound is a clue to the depth of the search.  You will find some open mine tunnels (adits).  Stay out for your safety.  Where do you think they would have had a tent cabin? Look for leveled space at the base of the hill and explore the debris: bottles, cans and nails.  If you find a square sided nail, you will know that this site was from before 1900.  Where do you think the privy/outhouse would have been?  Look for excavated pits with lots of tin cans and broken bottles around the site? Bottle hunters have been digging there for intact bottles to sell on Ebay.  As you explore, you will see some of the equipment used in the expensive mining enterprise: heavy cables for hoisting the ore or supporting a tramway; rails for ore cars; pipes bringing water from Birch Creek three miles to the west.

George Lewis’ discovery in 1895 of a gold vein six inches wide, worth about eighty dollars a ton, sparked a gold rush into the Poverty Hills.  But the “million dollar” discovery faded away.

In 1902 Alonzo Casler of Ohio bought several mines in this part of the Poverty Hills that we are currently exploring. As this Buckeye Mine project developed, Casler invested thousands of dollars into mining. It was low grade ore and the most economical way to access the ore was using a steam shovel taking the material out as at a quarry.

lone pine mill

Mill Ruins in Poverty Hills

As the project became more complex, a mill needed to be constructed near the site of the mines to lower the cost of processing the ore. Over $100,000 was invested in building the mill, piping water three miles over the Poverty Hills from Birch Creek to the east.  The mill only operated for about year and then only intermittently through World War I.

Walk with me toward the hillside southwest of the dirt road leading into the Poverty Hill, across from the stone cabin, and we will find extensive ruins of the mill for the Buckeye/NeverRest/New Era mines.

Janice Emily Bowers writes:

“At the mill site: concrete footings for mill equipment, stone cabin with corrugated metal roof; concrete pad for small building; abundant detritus including milled lumber, metal cable, disassembled telephone poles, water heaters, vehicle gasoline tanks, metal buckets, etc. At the powerhouse site: cement walls along ditch in bottom of Birch Creek ravine:”

Fish Springs and Black Rock: Forgotten Towns of Owens Valley, Janice Emily Bowers, p. 274

These Poverty Hills and the Inyo Mountains to the east are pocked with hundreds of mines following the lust for gold and silver.  But the mines never lasted. More often investors will spend more money than would ever come out of the mine.  But the whispering hint or rumor of another strike would set off a frantic frenzy of searching and exploration for buried treasure.

The stories make excellent material for western movie scripts, many of which were filmed 30 miles south in the Alabama Hills, between 1925 and our present day. However, as you hike in the breathtaking beauty of the landscape, highlighted by geological wonders, the silence and solitude work on our inner selves, our souls, in a porous action, penetrating our busy mindsets about tasks and concerns from the past and future. This silence and solitude in this desert place pulls us down into a deeper space asking us: where are you searching for treasure?

We are forever restless and searching for someone or something that will bring us a sense of security, peace, serenity.  But no one and nothing seems to satisfy.  We are haunted by endless dissatisfaction.  I can divert my disappointment by working harder, creating new projects, or taking or drinking substances to give me short term tranquility or buzz. But nothing lasts. And if you walk this vast empty land for any amount of time, the silence and solitude will work on you just as the wind and sand and water work on the boulders around you.  But this penetrating process is nothing to fear.  I have welcomed it, because my years of walking in these desert spaces have brought me to the Treasure, a Benevolent Presence.

Ron Rolheiser writers:

“At the center of our experience lies an incurable dis-ease, a disquiet, a restlessness, a loneliness, a longing, a yearning, a desire, an ache for something we can never quite name. For what are we longing? What would satisfy our restless energy?”

“Anne Frank, in her famous diary, asks exactly this question:

‘Today the sun is shining, the sky is a deep blue, there is a lovely breeze and I am longing – so longing – for everything. To talk, for freedom, for friends, to be alone. And I do so long … to cry! I feel as if I am going to burst, and I know it would get better with crying; but I can’t. I’m restless, I go from room to room, breathe through the crack of a closed window, feel my heart beating, as if it was saying, ‘can’t you satisfy my longing at last?’ I believe that it is spring within me; I feel that spring is awakening. I feel it in my whole body and soul. It is an effort to behave normally, I feel utterly confused. I don’t know what to read, what to write, what to do, I only know that I am longing.’”

The Holy Longing”, Ron Rolheiser,  11-23-2008

What is the treasure that would satisfy our restless hearts?

 The story is told of a man named Isaac who lived in Cracow. He was very poor, so when he dreamed three times in a row about a great treasure buried under a bridge in a distant city of Prague, he set out on a journey to find it. But when he arrived in Prague, he discovered that the place he had seen in his dream was patrolled day and night by the king’s guards. He circled the spot, watching it from a distance, until finally the guards noticed him. When the captain called to Isaac and demanded to know what he was doing there, Isaac told him about the dream.

“You mean to tell me that you believe in such dreams!” laughed the captain. “If I believed in them, I would have to go all the way to Cracow and find some man named Isaac, because I have dreamed that a great treasure lies buried beneath his bed!” Isaac thanked the captain, returned home, pushed aside his bed, and dug up the treasure that had been there all along. (A Hasidic story).

For forty years, I have made spiritual retreats to the desert spaces of the Owens Valley, Death Valley, and other spirit places in Arizona, Utah, Nevada and New Mexico.  I found these words from Ron Rolheiser helpful as an invitation to those who seek spiritual treasures:

“The desert does this for you. It empties you. Hence it is not a place wherein you can decide how you want to grow and change, but is a place that you undergo, expose yourself to, and have the courage to face. The idea is not so much that you do things there, but that things happen to you while there – silent, unseen, transforming things. The desert purifies you, almost against your will, through God’s efforts. In the desert, what really occurs is a cosmic confrontation between God and the devil; though this happens within and through you. Your job is only to have the courage to be there. The idea is that God does the work, providing you have the courage to show up.”

The Desert: a Place of Preparation, March 12, 2000.


 Fish Springs and Black Rock: Forgotten Towns of Owens Valley, by Janice Emily Bowers (Big Pine, CA: Three Gardens Press, 2014)

The Holy Longing, Ron Rolheiser,  11-23-2008

The Desert: a Place of Preparation, Ron Rolheiser 11-23-2008

The Diary of Ann Frank, Ann Frank (Modern Library 1958)





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Mansholmen: Our Family Island in Sweden


Text Erik Eriksson Photo Karl Erik Törner

Translation Lena Ekman


View of Mansholmen

(This is a magazine article translated from Swedish about our family island in Sweden. My mother’s family came from here and my daughter Katie and I visited the family in June 2016. Access to the island runs through another island, Musko, which is the site of a “secret” deactivated underground Swedish Navy Base, which may soon reopen. My cousins Sven Lindstrom and Britta Haglund still live on the island during the summer. There are some gaps in the translation)


Cousin Sven Lindstrom rows us to the island

Jan-Erik is busy repairing his wooden fence, now he stretches his back and walks once more along the fence to ensure that all the flaws are repaired. It’s the end of April, spring is early this year. The ice has melted and it’s warm, you might even let the two cows out to graze in just a couple of weeks, and this is why Jan-Erik has hastened to get the fence ready in time.

Walking back home he crosses the hill, stops for a while at the top of Månsholmen and lets his eyes wander round the little island in the beautiful spring evening. Beneath him is the little cow-house, connected to the barn and threshing-place. Close to the shore of the lake sits the cabin, where there is smoke from the chimney. Mother Anna is cooking their evening meal. By the Stone bridge beneath the cottege the two row-boats lie on land. North of the cottage the wooded North point stretches like a long arm. Jan-Erik calls the wood ‘Månsholms Storskogen’ (the big wood, or forest, of Månsholmen). His eyes wander further to the East; there in the North Cove his grandchild Nils, a sturdy youth, is taking down some fishing nets from the wooden racks. Nils swears at the ‘albrommen’  ̶  the alder cones  ̶  that have got stuck in the yarn. From the North Cove there is a path eastwards past the well to the ‘Östra Läggningen’, a field that is to be sown with oats in the spring. Close to the ‘Östra Läggningen’ there is a small bog, which Jan-Erik calls ‘Månsholms Mossen’ (the Månsholmen bog). His eyes go to the south, over the big field ‘Södra Läggningen’, that stretches along the west side of Månsholmen down to the South point. Outside it, in the Södra Fladen, a couple of mergansers draw two dark lines on the calm surface of the water.


Original Family Farmhouse

Jan-Erik lingers for a while on the hill, looking out over his domains. This is his world, a miniature world, to be sure, but in possession of all that the big world owns, and he is the master of it all. He gets up and walks slowly down to the cottage and the evenening meal that is waiting for him.

Today Mother Anna has cooked a more substantial meal than usual, she is serving boiled roach and boiled potatoes. It is customary in the archipelago, when the ice is broken and the waters are again open, to lay out a couple of nets and catch ‘ismört’ (ice roach) as it is called. Especially the yellow roe is delicious, but otherwise roach is not valued a lot as food, but ‘ice roach’ is always eaten a few times every spring. Now the three people are sitting round the table enjoying the meal with an appetite. It is generally Nils who is doing the fishing, he is a fisherman and a hunter  ̶  on the wall he has his two guns, one modern double-barreled gun and one oldfashioned shotgun with one pipe, a so-called ‘enskottare’. They go to bed early after the meal, tomorrow they have to rise at dawn to sow the ‘Östra Läggningen’.


My Aunt Mary Ann, Great Grandfather Sven Erik, my Mother Linnea Burman, Great Grandmother Anna, and Grandmother Ingerborg 1922

The cultivated area at Månsholmen is too small for them to afford a draft animal like a horse or an oxe. For plowing and harrowing they have to hire a man with a horse. This morning the neighour Ersholmarn (which means ‘a man living at Ersholm’) will come with a horse and a harrow on the Arbottna ferry which has been borrowed for the transport. Ersholmarn harrows all morning and by midday the field is ready to be sown. But first you go inside the cottage to eat. Mother Anna serves a dinner of sea-fowl, she has fried two mergansers  ̶  she is a master of cooking sea-fowl. The mergansers have of course been shot by Nils, the hunter.

After the meal they all head for the field again, now Jan-Erik and Nils have a bushel each with them for sowing. They fill the bushels with oats and hang them over their shoulders so that the bushel is resting on their breast. They walk beside each other with a little distance between them, looking in front of them so that they can go as straight across the field as possible. They walk in step, left foot forward and the right hand swinging to the side in a wide sweep, right foot forward and the left hand making the same movement. It requires a certain skill to sow by hand, to be able to spread the seed as evenly as possible.

When the field is sown, Ersholmarn takes a little harrow that he has brought with him, runs through the field a couple of times to put the seed down and cover it with earth. When all is done they head for the cottage again, to Mother Anna and a cup of coffee. Then they help Ersholmarn to get horse and harrow onto the ferry to row back to Ersholmen.

A few days after the sowing, the field is rolled. They use a roller made from a thick log. Jan-Erik and Nils pulls it by hand to and fro across the field until the earth is thoroughly packed.

After the sowing it is time to plant potatoes. The potato field is dug and loosened up by hand. The furrows are laid with a simple little hand plow. Nils, who is strong, has to be the ‘horse’, Jan-Erik is steering the plow and Mother Anna puts potatoes in the furrows. Then they cover the furrows and can only hope for the Lord to give them enough rain to gain a good harvest.

Now the two cows are grazing in the pasture, a new little piglet it grunting in the sty and Mother Annas hens have started to lay eggs again. The animals are tended by Anna. Apart from the chores of the little farm they fish constantly, setting out traps among the reeds for pike. The fish that they don’t use in the household, is sold. Jan-Erik will row ‘to shore’ as they call it, that is, he sells fish on Muskö (an island), at the manors Ludvigsberg and Arbottna, but also to others who live on Muskö, and who don’t have access to waters to fish themselves. Sometimes when Mother Anna’s hens have laid a lot of eggs, he sells eggs as well.

Time passes quickly during the spring and early summer weeks, and soon it is time for hay-making. One evening Jan-Erik and Nils whet their scythes, and the next morning at dawn, when the dew is still on the land, they set about mowing the ‘Södra Läggningen’. The two men work with their scythes in straight lines, and Mother Anna goes after them with her rake, making a string out of the cut grass. At the end of the day they have mowed the whole field, a good day’s work. They leave the hay in the field for a couple of days to dry. Then they ‘cock’ the hay, they make little pointed heaps of it, ‘volmar’ or cocks, while the people on Muskö mostly pile their hay on drying racks.

When the cocks have dried, the hay must be carried to the barn. As they don’t have a horse they carry the hay on a kind of litter. One morning when the weather is fine they spread some of the cocks, as many as they think they will manage to carry inside during the day. Then Jan-Erik and Nils start to carry the hay, one at each end of the litter. If they are lucky as far as the weather is concerned they manage to carry the hay into the barn in two or three days.

After the hay-harvest Nils begins to watch for ‘bad-idea’ (the ‘bathing idea’) – an idea that each year at the end of July comes from the sea outside and from the bay Mysingen, through Fårfjärden (the ‘Sheep bay’) and further on into all the coves. They swim in great schools near to the surface, and sometimes leap above the water, it ‘bathes’ as they say in the archipelago – thence the name ‘bad-id’.

Nils is on the lookout every day, he brings his binoculars. One day he catches sight of the ides splashing in the waters of Södra Fladen. He runs home to tell Jan-Erik and they both make for the southern point of Månsholmen. There is a cove there, where the bathing ide always go in. Nils has already placed a boat at the mouth of the cove. Nils and Jan-Erik sit down on the shore to wait for the ide. Suddenly they come swimming into the cove, which is soon filled with fish. Carefully they shove the boat, the oarlocks wound with shreds of fabric so that there will be no sound during the rowing. In the boat they already have the wide-meshed net. They lay the net across the mouth of the cove, silently and carefully. Then they go ashore, following the shore to the innermost point of the cove, and there they start to shout and scream and throw stones into the water. The school of fish is frightened off and goes headway towards the net. Jan-Erik and Nils go into the boat and take the net up. Now it is full of fish – 30 to 40 ides of one or two kilos each. A good catch. Then they row speedily to the North Cove, where they have a big corf. There they can keep the fish alive for some time. Once more they manage to get some bathing ides into the net, then the ide fishing is over for this year. Now Jan-Erik sells bathing ides on the island, and he also sends a couple of cases with the Vaxholm boat to Stockholm.

The hay-harvest at Månsholmen is seldom enough for the cows through the winter, their fodder has to be eked out with reeds. The first week of August is the time to cut reeds; Jan-Erik and Nils then take a row-boat each and go out on the water. They cut the reeds with small handwrought sickles, reed sickles. They bind the cut reeds to sheaves with a band, twined from a couple of reeds. When the boat is full of sheaves they row them ashore and place them to dry somewhere where the cows can’t reach them. When the reeds are dry, the sheaves are carried on the hay litter to the barn.

In August they also begin fishing for pike with a ledger-line. First they lay a fine-meshed net they use to catch small roaches used for baiting. Round Månsholmen there are poles for the ledger-lines stuck into the bottom outside the reeds. Nils rows around hanging the lines on the hooks and baits them. When Jan-Erik or Nils row round the little island emptying the hooks they always row clockwise, for luck with the fishing – you never row counterclock-wise, you even avoid turning a boat counterclockwise. The pike they catch are put into the corves, and when there is enough they pack them in cases and send them to Stockholm. The ledger-line fishing continues more or less till the water freezes over.

This month they fish for flounder as well. They use one of the two row-boats, which is built on Aspö, by ‘aspöarn’ (a man living on the island Aspö) – it is the best one for rowing far, easy to maneuvre. Jan-Erik and Nils row, with a pair of oars each, out into the Fårfjärden (the Sheep bay) and lay the flounder nets outside Grytudden at Elvsnabbslandet. The flounder is considered one of the finest fish for food by the inhabitants of Månsholmen.

During the sunwarmed days of late summer, the oats have ripened. Jan-Erik and Nils whet their scythes once more, now to cut, not to mow, which makes a considerable difference. Cutting means that using the scythe and its handle in a swift movement, you gather the straws to a bunch, or ‘lock’ (curl) as it is called. They are laid on the earth in a neat row. Jan-Erik and Nils walk with a little distance between them, cutting row after row of ‘curls’. After the men Mother Anna comes ‘taking up’, that is, binding the curls together to sheaves, or ‘bands’ as they say on Muskö. She takes two or three curls, moves them together to an even heap, takes a small bunch of oat straws and twists them together to a band that she uses to tie them together, a work that demands a certain skill, wraps the band around the ‘oat curls’ and ties them up with a particular knot and throws the completed band in the field.

Harvesting is strictly gender bound  ̶  the men cut, the women bind. A woman is fully busy taking up the straws after one cutter, and as Mother Anna is the only woman, Nils sometimes interrupts his work and does some binding, too. Cutting and binding is a skill and as all small farmers in the archipelago, the Månsholmers master this skill completely.

When all of the ‘Östra Läggningen’ is cut, the oats are stooked. One of the bands is placed on end on the ground, four others are raised around it, a so called ‘fembandsskyl’ (five band stook). The top of the stook is bound together with a twined band. The stooks have to stand there until they are dry and ready to be carried on the litter to the barn.

Besides working in the fields they fish pike with a ledger-line; every day Jan-Erik or Nils, or sometimes both of them, row round the little island – clockwise – to empty and bait the nets. Autumn is a rewarding time for ledger-line fishing.

Toward the first of October the potatoes are dug up, and a few days later ‘Ersholmarn’ is back on the ferry, this time bringing a horse and a plow. He is coming to do the autumn plowing in the estern field ‘Östra Läggningen’, where they are to sow oats next year as well. The potato-field is dug by hand. Then they thresh the oats with a flail, the oats are spread on the floor in the threshing-barn and Jan-Erik and Nils beat the grains out with their flails. Jan-Erik does one beat, then Nils, then Jan-Erik again, in a certain steady beat which is very important to keep. Threshing at Månsholmen is heard far and wide, even to Muskö. Nils is strong, his beats are more powerful than Jan-Erik’s, people listen and when they hear the more powerful beat they say: ‘That was Nils beating!’

When they have threshed a certain number of bands, the straw is raked together and removed and the grains are shoveled into a heap in one corner. They have a little hand-driven machine with which they separate the oats from the chaff.

One early morning when the weather is fine, before dawn, they load sacks of oats in the row-boat to row to the mill. The mill is on the mainland at Vitså, and it is a long way to row, they row with two pairs of oars all the way roung Snappudd (a tongue of land), from where the way to Vitså is almost straight. The mill-rowing takes a whole day.

(This was the translation of the first four pages. The remaining three pages don’t seem to be connected to each other, but it may be that only one line is missing at the end of a page, that is impossible to say. I will try to translate these three pages separately.)

In November, Nils is busy fishing small roaches which he keeps in a special corf. The roaches are meant to be bait for the winter’s ice fishing for pike and burbot. In the winter it is impossible to catch roaches, if you don’t have a seine, which they do not at Månsholmen. Sometimes Nils spreads a few bread crumbs or groats in the corf so that the little fish get something to eat. Then they will keep alive and alert.

The darkness of late Autumn comes earlier in the afternoon for each day, it is getting colder and a thin crisp ice appears around Månsholmen, but still you can break the thin ice with a row-boat. Now is the beginning of a troublesome time för the Månsholmers. One morning when they are on the big island Muskö the waters are frozen over. Jan-Erik and Nils take out their ice club and ice hook from the boat-house. They climb aboard, with the club they smash the ice to pieces in front of the stem of the boat and then they take the long ice hook, fix it into the ice and pull the boat ahead while at the same time rocking it, and this way they coax the boat through the ice step by step. The next day the ice is too thick to pull the boat through it but all the same too weak to walk on. Nils takes the otter pike (a weapon, somewhat like a spear, for hunting otters) and tests the ice over to Näsängen, but here also the ice is too thin. The ice doesn’t break nor bear, now they are isolated, they are ‘fox’ on the little island, as the saying goes in the archipelago.

The cold lingers and after a couple of days they can get over the ice to Näsängen. In the Ersholmssund (name of a strait), where there is always a current, you still can’t walk over the ice. By Christmas there is a change of weather and it is again mild but with a strong south-western wind. The ice in the Ersholm strait breaks up and again it is possible to go by boat. The weather is changing, a couple of cold days, then mild weather, and the Månsholmers have to spend Christmas and New Year more or less in isolation. But on the island all their earthly needs can be filled, they have even had time to kill the pig for Christmas.

Then, in January, comes the severe cold, which in a few days throws bridges in all directions, and they can walk on the ice around the whole island. Jan-Erik and Nils get out the big alderwood crotches, as well as cutting some new ones, for now the ledger-lines are to be put out. The big crotches are loaded to a sledge, which also carries a 50 litre milk bottle of the kind that the farmers use for delivering milk to Stockholm. Nils has got it at Arbottna, it is a discarded milk bottle, a little rusty yet not leaking, and it is good enough to keep bait in. It is half-filled with water, because the bait fish have to be kept alive. And so they are on their way round the little island – clockwise, of course – Nils ‘wakes’ holes in the ice with the ice-pick, Jan-Erik places the little crotch with the fishing-line and the hook with the bait in the lower part of the big crotch, and then they place it all into the water through a hole. There is room for a lot of crotches round the island. The big pike corf is dragged out onto the ice, they saw a hole and ‘wake’ it, and place the corf in the hole.

Twice a day they empty the hooks, in the morning and just before sunset. There is time to spare for other chores: they go to the woods to find firewood for next winter. Some is gathered on the island, but most of it is found at Ekersgarn. They are never idle, in the evenings they all sit mending fishing-nets, Nils is even making a couple of new nets.

… from the wall, cleans and polishes it. Hopefully the weather will be clear. It is, and in the bitter cold of the moonlit night, Nils muffles himself up well with warm sweaters and jacket, takes his gun, puts the ammunition in his pocket and walks in the glimmering night across to Strömsund. There is a place there where the foxes pass. As a lure Nils has brought with him a hen, one of Mother Anna’s which has died, a ‘carrion’. Nils seldom has such a fine lure as a hen, usually he must be content with a pike that has died in the corf and won’t do as food for humans. Nils places the carrion in a place where a fox can easily find it, and then he stands there as hidden as possible. He has his gun ready, he has ‘chalked’ the barrel to make aiming easier. ‘If the fox only passes by, I will get him’, Nils thinks, ‘ there is good light for shooting.’

Nils must wait, time passes and the cold bites, but he is well dressed and manages all right. Suddenly there is a fox standing by the carrion. Nils hasn’t even seen him coming, he aims, a shot rolls in the quiet night and the fox lies there, dead. Fully content Nils trots home again, throws the fox on the landing. Tomorrow he will skin the fox, stretch the skin and hang it up. By spring he will get fifty kronor for the skin from the pedlar who buys skins and who always comes by in springtime.

Nils goes fox-hunting a couple of times during winter, always when the moon is out. But he doesn’t always get lucky, most of the time he goes home without a catch.

In spite of the snow and the cold, winter is a good season for the people on Månsholmen. The ice makes it easier for them to travel. They visit neighbours and also have visitors.

Spring makes a thrush with a thaw and a south-western breeze. In Mysingen and Fårfjärden the ice breaks, after a couple of days the waters are open even in Ersholmssund. Suddenly the Månsholmers have two ways of communication with the outer world, over the ice to Näsängen or over the water to Ersholmen.

All the ledger-line crotches have already been taken up, any day now the ice will break and the winter pike fishing will be over. Nils is getting ready for the spring hunt for sea-fowl, which he likes a lot. He takes out the decoys from the little sea house, checks that they are whole and look good, applies strings where needed.

One morning when the weather is fine, Nils loads his row-boat with decoys and clothes, gun, ammunition and food for one week and rows to the Elvsnabben. There he joins up with two men from Elvsnabben and they all row out in one boat all the way to Grän. They row over the bay Mysingen, through the long and narrow straits between Rånö and Utö, past Ålö and out on the open sea. They have one pair of oars and they row quite fast. They go ashore on Österskär, carry their things to the little cottage there in a cleft in the mountain.

The first day they lay out the decoy for a few hours in the afternoon, and they catch a few birds. At dusk, they pull the boat safely on the island for the night. They have brought firewood in a sack, they make a fire and cook … [ – – – ]

… was or is (perhaps ‘were or are’?) owner(s) of the island, the owner is the landowner at Arbottna since long ago.

Jan-Erik and Mother Anna have a leasing contract for Månsholmen, set up a long time ago by one of the owners, a contract which gives them the right to live there and cultivate the soil and the right to take firewood in the Arbottna woods for the sum of seventy-five kronor a year. The contract was to be valid as long as one of the couple was alive. The landowner at Arbottna, the one who drew up the contract, was succeeded by new owners in a long succession: they all took over the contract and fulfilled its conditions.

Now when Mother Anna and Nils are left on the island, Nils takes care of the payment of the lease, which is to be paid once every third month, as is defined in the old contract. Four times a year Nils strides into the office at the Arbottna farm and pays eighteen kronor and seventy-five öre in lease to the new landowner, in his eyes a young ‘whippersnapper’ (? – perhaps ‘brat’ is a better word…), who has inherited the farm from his father and who at every payment complains of the ridiculously low sum, to which Nils answers: ‘You can’t do anything about that, this contract is older than you and you father.’ Which the young landowner knows fully well, but the same phrases are exchanged every time that Nils comes to pay the lease.

Nils devotes himself wholly to fishing herring, Mother Anna takes care of the home, and in her spare time she likes reading. Nils keeps a daily newspaper. which he goes to collect a couple of times a week, Mother Anna reads and thoroughly follows all the new events in the world. She also reads books, that Nils borrows at the little library in the school. Even at the age of eighty, she reads without glasses.

Mother Anna passed away in 1946, at the age of ninety-two. She had lived on Månsholmen for more than seventy years.

Nils died in 1963 and thus the old life on Månsholmen is finally over. But still the wind whispers in the pines of the Norra Storskogen (the North Forest) and the view from the Hill is just as enchanting and, best of all: Månsholmen today is owned, sometimes lived on and reverentially cared for by grandchildren, great grandchildren and great great grandchildren of the old inhabitants of Månsholmen.





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Swedish Cousin: Lost and Found! Svenska kusin: Borttappat och upphittat

Stockholm5As I remember, it was early autumn, those hot, dry Santa Ana winds blowing in from the California deserts. It made my skin itch and breathing the air was like hot pokers going up the nose. But the smog was gone at least and the majestic backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains was pristine and clear, so clear that Mount Wilson seemed much closer than it really was.

It was 1961 and I was in my world history class, Room 215 in the C Building at newly completed Pasadena High School.  This was a special day as my cousin, Kerstin Lagerstedt, from Stockholm, Sweden, would be visiting my class.  She was staying at our family home in Hastings Ranch, after completing a program at University of Indiana.

Two thoughts come to me as I remember that day.  As she stood in the front of our classroom, sharing her Swedish experience in America and answering questions, I remember she looked exactly like Audrey Hepburn: the same cropped hair and tall, slim figure that you would recognize in the 1961 film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”. The second thought came like a flash as I gazed at her in our classroom: “How I wish I had an older sister like Kerstin.” As a 15 year old, I was having my struggles as oldest child. It would have especially been terrific to have had her friendship and counsel.

We would meet again in 1966. I finished my junior year at University of Southern California.  It was a time of “troubles” for me.  On the one hand, I was wrestling with the call to become a priest.  I had applied to the long, grueling discernment process in the Diocese of Los Angeles. There were many tests and interviews, but it was the encounter with the psychiatrist that resulted in the Bishop’s denial for consideration for postulancy.  In June, after stealing books from the University Library, I was told not to come back to USC.

Meanwhile, a family friend secured a summer job at Heimbs Kaffee, a coffee production company in Northern Germany, where I could further develop my German language skills.

As I set off for several months in Germany, I had no idea about my future. Turned down by the Bishop and kicked out of USC, things looked bleak and uncertain. After my time in Germany, I traveled on a boat from Bremen to Stockholm.

My cousin Kerstin’s mother Ingaborg Lagerstedt welcomed me at the Stockholm train station and brought me to the family home, where I received wonderful hospitality and friendship.  This was also a time of change for Ingaborg, as her five daughters were off to school, careers and marriages; her husband, a distinguished Swedish educator, was leading a program far away in Afghanistan.  So I guess I came into her life at a good time for her also. What a kind friend she was.  We connected to some of my mother’s father’s family (Morfar Burman).

At night a strange illness frequently came over me.  As I remember, it might have started when I was delivering coffee from the Heimbs factory in Braunschweig to a distributor in Berlin. We had to take the truck on the autobahn through East German territory (it was the Cold War in 1966). At a rest stop I went into the woods to relieve myself and I think it was there that the East German tick got me. For weeks after that, a fever would hit me at night and the sheets would be soaked in the morning. I didn’t know enough to go to the doctor.

I remember a weekend when some of Kerstin’s sisters and their boyfriends/husbands took me on a sail boat trip through the waters of the Swedish Archipelago. At night we tied up at an island. In the morning we walked through a meadow near a dense forest and picked soft, ripe, sweet red lingonberries.  I remember eating a lot of sill, the raw, pickled Swedish herring.

At the end of my time in Sweden, I took the train from Stockholm south to Malmo and Lund, where Kerstin was in school and her fiancé Johan Munch was finishing law school.  Kerstin again seemed like the guardian older sister to me, especially in that emotionally vulnerable time for me, as the future was so uncertain.  We toured Malmo and Lund. She was like a watchful mother hen, taking good care of me.

The next year, my brother Mike visited Ingaborg in Stockholm and Johan and Kerstin in Lund. The following year, Johan’s parents stayed with my parents at our home in Hastings Ranch.

But by 1970, after I finished seminary, I lost connection with my beloved cousin Kerstin.  Life became very busy at church and raising a family.

Through the years, I tried hard to reconnect with her, but old addresses no longer worked. Where was Kerstin?  As the Internet became more developed, I tried many searches, but no results. Kerstin had disappeared.

As we developed the planned trip to Sweden that my daughter Katie and I would take on May 25th this year, I made one more try.  I did a search for Johan Munch and saw that he was on Wikipedia.  The young Swedish attorney I had known, through the years had a very distinguished career. For the past twenty years, he was a judge on the Supreme Court of Sweden and the last seven of those years he was Chief Justice. I found Johan on Facebook. He and Kerstin had divorced, but were still good friends and they had a son David. So Johan helped me find my long lost cousin Kerstin, just in time for our trip to Sweden.


Lunch at Skansen with Kerstin and David Munck

On May 27th, daughter Katie and I walked down the marble staircase of the venerable Queen’s Hotel in Stockholm.  In the lobby, waiting for us was my beloved cousin Kerstin and her son David Munck.  What a joy to see her, as she and I age into the seventh decade of life.

One of the signs of true friendship, I have been told, is the ability to be with one another as if the long separation of fifty years were only yesterday.  We are family and that has not changed.

Our first day together was a journey by ferryboat to the historic outdoor park Skansen, across from the Royal Palace. Katie, Kerstin, son David and I climbed the hill to the tree enshrouded cluster of farm buildings, village shops and wooden churches. Some of these buildings were three hundred years old; all had been transported from the countryside and preserved as a living museum.  David was a joy to meet, full of enthusiasm for American rock music and popular culture.  We found that we had similar views about politics and social justice.  Another cousin found.


Skansen Living History Museum

On another day, Kerstin guided Katie and me to Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm.  As we entered the gate leading to narrow medieval streets, volunteers handed out information warning tourists about active, aggressive pickpockting.  Kerstin brought us to the Royal Cathedral, where grandparents Abel and Ingaborg Burman were married in 1900 (morfar and mormor).  Elaborate rococo carved wooden decorations embellished the pulpit and royal boxes.


Gripsholm Castle

On a third day, we journeyed to Gripsholm Castle, outside of Stockholm, with cousin Per Nylen, professor at University of Stockholm, who worked on the development of the flat screen TV in Silicon Valley.  Katie experienced her first royal castle. The English tour brought us into a great hall of royal portraits. The tour guide shared stories connected with each portrait.  King Erik was especially notable, as he and his brothers lived out an intense battle for royal power, imprisoning and poisoning one another.  After Katie heard this she said, “Sounds exactly like the plot for ‘Game of Thrones.’”


Katie Karelius and cousin Kerstin Munck

As we walked back to the Queen’s Hotel, I could hear a sigh from cousin Kerstin. “I am beginning to feel the sadness of saying goodbye to you.” At the hotel lobby, we embraced in gratitude for this precious time together. Cousins once lost, now found, and friendship that will continue.



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Hemlighet Svenska On: Secret Swedish Island

A memory from exactly 50 years ago, when I visited our family in Sweden.


Entering Secret Swedish Navy Base

The tunnel twisted and turned through moist grey granite inside the Swedish island of Musko.   Suddenly a military sign appeared with a warning: “Swedish military base ahead. Access restricted.”   Hans, husband of my cousin Britta, slowed the Mercedes as we approached the security check point with another sign: “Swedish Citizens Only.”

Hans looked at me, seated next to him: “OK. Don’t say anything. Just look Swedish.”

We came to the guard gate. The guard gazed at Hans’ ID papers, glimpsed at me and muttered something in Swedish. We were permitted to go ahead.

Where were we? I knew we were passing through the inside of an island, heading toward our family island of Mansholmann.  But where were we?

We had entered a Swedish underground Naval base on the island of Musko, just south of Stockholm, Sweden.   I found out later from Hans that within this island were underground docks built to receive Swedish destroyers and submarines.  At this time, 1966, during the Cold War, this location was secret, protected from nuclear fallout.

While I was there visiting my family on Mansholmann, the Swedish Navy was searching for a Soviet submarine, which they thought had been caught in a fishing net.  Later, there were rumors that a Swedish official, a friend to the USSR, somehow manipulated things so that the submarine could escape.

Thousands of islands constitute this part of the Swedish coast. Where we were was at the very edge of these clusters of islands.  Beyond us was the open Baltic Sea leading toward Russia.


Cousin Sven Lindstrom Rowing toward the Island

Hans parked the car at the edge of Musko and honked his horn. Soon I could see someone rowing a boat toward us. It was my mother’s cousin Ingrid Lindstrom.  I had dinner with her a few weeks before at her home near the Stockholm City Hall.  Here she was confidently rowing toward us. Soon we were on board and heading to Mansholmann.


View of Mansholmann

When we landed, we walked toward Ingrid’s cottage, painted in the traditional red.  The island was lush with trees and wildflowers.  I had finally arrived at the island where my grandmother Ingaborg Soderberg (mormor) was born and the family had bravely farmed for 200 years, growing barley, potatoes, and vegetables and raised livestock.

My romanticized memory from fifty years ago recalls rowing out in the boat after dinner, brilliant sunshine until 11pm, throwing fishing nets into the water. The next morning we pulled in the nets and caught fish that would be cut up and cured for later use (Swedish Sushi, I guess).


Old cottage home of my grandmother

I met Ingrid’s children, Britta Haglund and Sven Lindstrom, and their children. It was pristine, beautiful Swedish summer.  We climbed a hill, where there was a legend of a Viking judgment circle 1000 years ago.  We walked to the old cottage where my grandmother was born. As we entered, Ingrid told me to reach up and touch the top of a ceiling beam.

“What do you feel?” she asked.

“I feel something like a large coin, but it has been painted over.”

“When your grandmother was a teenager, a young man from the University in Stockholm came here one summer to work on the farm. He fell in love with your grandmother and put that kroner coin up there and said he would come back and get that coin and marry her.”

The coin is still there.

Grandmother Ingaborg married someone else, Abel Burman from Stockholm around 1900 in the Royal Cathedral in Gamla Stan (Old Town Stockholm). They would immigrate to America, where Grandfather Abel would build pianos for Steinway and open a music store in Chicago.  Ingaborg would have eleven children.

Grandmother missed the island very much.  There would be several return trips to the island for months at a time.  My mother Linnea would come to the island. Her older sisters would go to school on Musko in a rowboat every morning.

I never thought I would be able to return to our family island again, as travel became limited due to our care for our disabled son Erik.  But one day after Christmas 2015, Janice suggested that I should take our daughter Katie to Sweden to visit our family. Katie had been working at Fountain Valley Hospital (CA) for three years without a vacation.  Over the months, we created the travel plans and flew to Sweden on SAS on May 25, 2016.

After several days with my grandfather (morfar) Burman’s family in Stockholm, Katie and I took the subway to Farsta.  Ingrid’s son Sven met us at the station and we drove for 45 minutes through the colorful, forested Swedish landscape to Musko.

Now I was worried. How were we going to get through the “secret Swedish Navy Base?”  We entered the familiar granite carved tunnel, twisting and turning through dark shadows.  I looked for the military signs, but nothing.  I asked my cousin Sven about this.

“The Government concentrated the Swedish Navy to two bases at Karlskrona and Berga. So this Navy base was closed in 2004. But now the Russian subs are probing the area again and the Government is talking about reopening the navy base and even joining NATO.”

At the end of the island, we carried our backpacks toward an old rowboat.  I offered to row, but Sven took over. Here was an 88 year old man rowing with beautiful smooth movement effortlessly.


From left: Eva, Helena, my daughter Katie, Britta and Sven.

When we arrived, Cousin Britta was there with her two daughters Helena and Eva.  Imagine, the last time I saw these folks was 50 years ago.  Britta is now 90, but she says she still rows around the island every morning for exercise.

Islands are spirit places with Nature densely compacted. Christian monks sought out islands as places for solitude and prayer.  Henri Nouwen writes about this as he recalls “The Three Monks of Tolstoy”.

(The Only Necessary Thing, Afterward).

“Three Russian monks lived in a faraway island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived he discovered that the monks didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer.”

“So he spent all his time and energy teaching them the “Our Father” and then left, satisfied with his pastoral work. But when his ship had left the island and was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water – in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it they cried, “Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.” The bishop, overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, “But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?” They answered, “Well, we just say, ‘Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!” The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, “Go back to your island and be at peace.”

After a festive Swedish lunch at the home of Sven and Gerd, I sat outside on the porch, gazing at the landscape around us: the ancient cottage home of my grandmother, and the Baltic Sea in the distance.  Late afternoon sun bakes my old bones. This is when the nine hour time change usually hits.


Family bathing spot, Musko in distance.

My mind travels back in time. I see huge wooden Viking warships cruising toward the island for a council meeting one thousand years ago.  I see my great grandfather, wearing a battered blue seaman’s cap, moving a wooden scythe with sharp shinny blade side to side, harvesting golden ripe grain; my great grandmother and grandmother as a young girl on their knees planting potatoes in the moist, tilled soil.  Cattle munch grass in a grove of aspen trees.  I see the seasons: surrealistic summer, golden leaves of autumn, raw arctic cold winds of winter and snow, spring flowers and bursting Nature.  My heart is filled with gratitude to return again on this pilgrimage to our family home.




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At Home in Sweden: Hemma i Sverige

swedem kareliusfamilyAt At At Home in Sweden

Hemma i Sverige


Home is where we start from

Hem är där vi utgår från

T.S. Eliot


One hundred miles from Stockholm, Sweden, a turn off from the main highway leads my daughter Katie and me on to a rough country road, winding through dense, dark forests. The trees are so close together, the woods seem impenetrable.  Most of Sweden is like this, which is why the Vikings had to create formidable ships to travel Swedish rivers.


We listen intently to the faint British accented GPS guide for the next clue to another turn.  But there is another inner GPS sensor within my heart telling me that I am heading home: a primal family home I have only glimpsed in century old photographs. We are heading home toward the village of Lima, center point for the Karelius Clan.


For the next forty miles highway workmen have covered the country road with oil and gravel, which coats our rental car tires, rocks flying off all around us. Very glad we purchased the zero deductable insurance.  Finally, we come to a major settlement, Malung and our hotel base for our visit to our family homeland in Dalarna.


For Swedes, the Dalarna region represents quintessential old Sweden: rustic, centuries old log cabins, majestic rivers and lakes, and thick, impenetrable forests. It is the birthplace of Sweden, where independence was declared in 1523.  During Midsummer and other holidays, visitors flock to this remote cultural reserve of Swedish tradition.


This was a long day, driving 230 miles through unknown territory. Just as Katie and I begin to unwind in our room at Sankt Olof Hotell, there is a knock at the door. I greet a handsome, smiling lady who turns out to be my cousin Elvan Olsson. One of the mysteries of our week-long stay in the Dalarna region is somehow Elvan always knew when we were at our hotel. She invited us to her home across the street, where we enjoyed the best Swedish meatballs I have eaten.


Elvan surprised me by giving me a copy of a precious book: Lima: Bortom Mannaminne, by Sven Johansson.  She wanted to find a copy for me of this out of print book and she made an appeal on the local radio station. And here is the book. As I turn the pages, I see photographs of the people of the village of Lima, going back over a hundred years. And here on page 37 is a full page photograph of my grandfather Albert at the age of 12, with his parents, and brothers and sisters: nine of them.  I can see many photographs of lumberjacks, men cutting wood in the forests.  This is how my grandfather would make his living.  And in this photograph of the Karelius clan around 1900, I see the biological seeds of the huge family of cousins I would soon encounter.  Elvan is the eleventh child of my grandfather’s brother Edvard.  Elvan means “eleven.”


The next day Katie and I drove on a more pleasant country road thirty miles to Lima.  More dense forests, some recently cut by lumber companies.  We come to a little village, whose main offerings are cured animal skins hanging on walls and tables for sale to tourists: reindeer, wolf, moose and bear.


Karelius sausage factory, Lima SwedenI know that we have finally come to Lima, as I recognize the white church tower from old photographs.  We are looking for Karelius and Company, founded by my granduncle Edvard in 1928.  There is a delivery truck emblazoned with the company logo. Katie parks the car and right away my cousin Mikael appears, with a hearty greeting.  I meet my other cousin Sten and we take a tour of one of Sweden’s beloved sausage and meat producers.  Wearing protective covering, we walk through the processing areas where over forty kinds of smoked meats and sausages are prepared: reindeer, wild boar, moose, beef, pork and bear.  Mikael hunts the moose and bear himself. My favorite was the moist and tender Limakorv.


A pattern unfolds, as we are handed off again and again to other cousins.  Cousin Erik Karelius brings us into the home where my grandfather was born. On the walls are photographs of the Karelius clan.  Then we followed his truck on a dusty, rutted dirt road into the mountains above Lima.
“It is only a couple of miles. Not very far to go,” Erik said.  I was going to learn that a “Swedish mile” is really about six kilometers.  Again I was grateful we had the zero deductable car rental insurance.  It was difficult keeping up with Erik’s truck on the bumpy, winding mountain road, but finally we arrived.


sweden limafarmhouse1We We walk toward three ancient log buildings.  Erik reveals that this is where the family raised cattle and horses during the summer months.  Here was the old barn and there an ancient storehouse.  He opens the door to the main house, which the family has used as summer home for two centuries.  The weather-beaten wood siding, ancient, bleached-grey log walls outside mask what we would see within.  Entering, we walked about the polished honey-hued wood floors. It was like walking into a Carl Larsson painting: colorful, hand crafted rugs and table runners. It was all in perfect condition, every candlestick and vase set carefully.  It was difficult for me to figure out if this was preservation of past family history by Erik, who obviously has taken wonderful care of the place.  Did family still actively use the house? I did not have a clear understanding.


No electricity or running water here: century old copper lanterns hung over tables and a stone culvert outside diverted fresh running mountain water toward the house.


As we bid goodbye, Erik opened the old barn to pull out a battered, green lawn mower. As he sat in the driver’s seat, he told us that the grass grows so fast here in spring and summer he has to mow it twice a week or the forest would quickly reclaim the farmstead.


I could not remember how the rustic mountain road brought us here, as there were so many twists and turns. We turned on the GPS and the guiding British voice, which did lead us back to Lima, but in another direction, over a more rutted and difficult country road.


Cousin Sten brought Katie and me to another Karelius home: Sven-Erik and Agnetha Stromgren, who visited us in California years ago.  I recognized their home from a photograph: here was a cluster of four old farm buildings that had been beautifully restored and modernized by Sven-Erik’s construction company.  Downstairs in one small building Agnetha showed us the century old beehive oven where she baked the world’s best knackebrod.  She brought us to the main house with a huge, modern kitchen, appropriate for the Karelius family’s famous cook.  Dinner was served and there was one of Sweden’s most famous dishes: Janssen’s Temptation, a casserole of fresh cream, potatoes, onions, and anchovies.  Sweden’s National Dish.


sweden limalakeThrough the following days, more visits with cousins, and Sten’s summer home by a huge lake.  In a brief boat tour of the lake, he pointed out other summer homes owned by more of the Karelius clan.  The mountain and lake seemed to be dominated by the presence of my family.  It was 65 degrees Fahrenheit, a soft fragrant breeze and brilliant sun. How could a day be more beautiful?  I gazed at the shimmering blue lake, surrounded by family summer homes and I remember my Grandfather Albert.  When he came to California, with his wife Anna and five children, he built a huge log cabin at Big Bear Lake.  The red stained old cabins surrounding the lake looked exactly like the homes around this Swedish lake.  Although Grandfather Albert never returned to his hometown of Lima, he could commune with his memory of Sweden during his days fishing and hiking at Big Bear Lake, California.


sweden limafamilylunch1Our Our last day in Lima was especially powerful with the presence of family.  There was a smorgasbord lunch at the main restaurant in the village.  As I entered with Katie, dozens of Karelius cousins greeted us at long tables. My Cousin Charlotte Karelius, a pharmacist in Salen, was master of ceremonies.  She shared a huge poster of her work to create our family tree.  From the main trunk of my great-grandparents, many branches spread out of still growing family relations.  One of my grandfather’s brothers has 150 decedents.  I met Eli Esther from Tanzania, married to my cousin Tommy Gilleras.  Some of the faces I recognized from Facebook. Cousin Charlotte set the context of our gathering: not only were Katie and I meeting for the first time our huge clan in Lima, but we were the first family from America to visit the village since our grandfather left.  These wonderful, welcoming cousins were claiming us as their family in a powerful embrace of love.


sweden limafamilylunch2After After lunch, Charlotte and other cousins brought us to the cemetery, outside of the Lima Church.  Here are the graves of granduncle Edvard and by great grandfather Ole. For many years, Charlotte’s father was responsible for the management of the village cemetery. And over there was the grave of one of the most famous winter Olympic gold medal winners Sten Jernberg.


sweden limachurch1We completed our last day in the village of Lima with a Fika/coffee at a Karelius home, where even more cousins appeared: good coffee, sweets and several skoals/toasts with pear brandy.


As we said goodbye, the emotions from these intensive days of new family connections began to squeeze my heart and tears did flow.  How grateful I am to be claimed by these good people as their own.


As is my custom, at the end of this day I prayed the Examan from the spirituality of Ignatius. I reviewed each event of the day, remembering the faces of family as best I could, and allowed the spirit of gratitude to flow through all of this.  But the Spirit also opened my heart to those persons, on this very night, who must escape war ravaged homelands and other desperate immigrants who float on dark seas, without GPS, hoping for rescue, shelter and some kind of welcome, and a safe future for their families.



Lima: Bortom Mannaminne, by Sven Johansson.

Walking in Dalarna: the Heart of Sweden, by Paul van Bodengraven.

Modern Day Vikings: A Practical Guide for Interaction with Swedes, by Christine Rabinowitz.

A Taste of Dalarna: the Food, the Place and the People, by Bo Masser.




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