Peace in the field

Fred for jorder

An essay by Anastasia Bogomolova

invadere — to invade

undertvinge — to subdue; to subjugate

udkonkurrere — to outnumber

omringe — to surround

overtage — to overtake; to take under control

New languages open this flank of their vocabulary to me.

gribe til våben — to take up arms

bekæmper — to fight; to combat

slå igen — to fight back; to strike back

Traversing the thesaurus trenches (1), I explore it pit by pit: the firing sector has the most precise meanings, the ammunition bay holds the corpus of figurative meanings; dug corridors link neighboring dictionary entries.

fælles front — united front

i felten — on the battlefield; in the field

frontlinje — frontline

At the end of my rounds, føre krig (to wage war) inevitably awaits around one of the many corners. Thus I discover a new language; I discover Danish, but not through the vocabulary of armed conflict, as one might imagine, but through descriptions of invasive plants. All those words are used to talk about them. They are labeled in the texts I encounter as onde arter (evil species), as uønskede (undesirable); those who fight them are referred to as killer gruppen (killer squads) and kvælerne (stranglers). They had to take up arms (shovels, garden shears, grubbers) to fight as a united front.

The dictionary of invasion I compile on the topic of the common broom (Cytisus scoparius) that is spreading rapidly in Danish Jutland has a corpus of quotations about the shrub selected from online media and newspapers of the Syddjurs Kommune, excerpted from popular science texts seen on information boards for visitors to Mols Bjerge National Park. This dictionary is belligerent, not holding back hostility and rejection. It presents the invasive common broom as something unwanted, breaking through defenses, invading without forewarning. The vocabulary describing invasion within the boundaries of the ecological field seems to become more contrasting as the understanding of the very mechanism of biological invasion becomes clearer: it is a consequence of human interfering, deliberate or unintentional relocation of species into another, non-native ecosystem, the balance and diversity of which are then disturbed and suppressed by an alien presence.

fremmed — alien; noun: stranger, foreigner

The common broom had been introduced into Danish territories many times during the nineteenth century. In the spruce plantations (2) in Kølskegaard, Hallund, where it was introduced by Georg Ludvig Nyholm, it acted as a mother tree; in Spøttrup, farmers planted it as a hedge to feed game (3); in other locations, it diverted animals such as hares (4) from the more “useful” species; it was also cultivated as an ornamental shrub to beautify the heath landscape (5).

For decades, Cytisus scoparius was an adored guest in any flowering garden, a welcome assistant in the field, a friend and protector in forest plantations. But as soon as the common broom crossed an illusory line drawn by man, it became “evil, ” “problematic, ” and “stubborn;” it became a “nightmare” — mareridt. It became fremmed, something truly alien and thus, like any unwanted stranger, became to be perceived as dangerous, harmful, and destructive.

 “The tall bush of the common broom looks oriental. It is green, like the plumage of a prophet: fanatically poisonous green; bristling with tall, slender shoots like minarets, studded with yellow crescents of buds and black sabers of seed pods. Yes, it comes from Turkey.” This is how the Danish journalist Knud Poulsen described Cytisus scoparius in his 1936 essay collection Breve fra Ensomheden (Letters from the Island of Solitude). “These intimidating and curved punishing swords explode upward on hot days with a little snap, with a scalding and energetic crackle and pop, as if a miniature bombardment is taking place…” (6).

Poulsen brings the common broom over from the space of the ecological to the field of culture, of Orientalist discourse, in which the prejudice against all things Oriental (and Muslim) evokes fear. The shrub’s appearance, described as featuring the “intimidating and curved punishing swords” of its seed pods, is therefore meant to be frightening because of its “Turkishness.”

hjemmehørende — native

egentlig — genuine

In fact, gyvel (as the common broom is called in Danish) was growing in Jutland before the more invasive, “Italian” variant Cytisus scoparius was introduced from Germany. The native variant of the plant and the alien one are outwardly difficult to distinguish: the first form is thought to grow more slowly, less likely to cover an area with dense bushes. In practice, however, telling the native gyvel apart from the introduced gyvel is difficult (7). In a sense, this complicates the very construct of the indigenous and alien: the procedure of separating one from the other distracts attention from the need to focus on the more important tasks of biodiversity management. That is why the Danish NOVANA species, birds, and habitat monitoring program has abandoned the procedure of comparing the domestic and “Italian” forms, concentrating specifically on the degree of invasiveness of the plant and its impact on the ecosystem (8).

Another principle obviously requiring revision in this regard is the idea of applying the concept of political borders and demarcation lines to species. Land borders are not natural for the habitat ranges of plants and animals.

Professor Rasmus Ejrnæs, a senior researcher in the Department of Environmental Sciences at Aarhus University, highlights another problematic aspect of the obsession with crossing national boundaries: the migration of species since the last ice age is still in process, and migrant plants from southern territories may prove to be better adapted to the future climate than indigenous plants (9).

bedre — better; verb: to make better

forbedre — to improve

Ellen Dahl, the Danish writer and younger sister of Karen Blixen, more nationally and internationally famous than her sibling, had a different idea of “the better.”

In 1924, she and her husband Knud, a Supreme Court prosecutor, bought the Nedre Strandkær farmhouse in Mols and the adjoining land from the architect Egil Fischer, who designed the nearby Lille Strandkær cozy summer house on a heath land overlooking Ebeltoft Bay in 1927. In a 1950s interview, Dahl confessed that she thought it was the most beautiful spot in the world, even though she had travelled to many other places (10). Apparently, she wanted to make it even better. Between 1927 and 1941, Ellen brought seeds of the common broom to the garden at Lille Strandkær. A lover of travel from a young age, apparently particularly fascinated by the scenery of the south of France, Dahl had seen the lushly blooming shrub on her trips and, wanting to recreate a piece of her favorite landscape that would remind her of her travels abroad, planted Cytisus scoparius near the summer house (11).

In her manuscript Lad Naturen i Fred (Leave Nature Alone), Dahl writes that “the balance in nature is beautiful” and that “human intervention can have completely unpredictable consequences” (12), meanwhile telling the following story: “Experts told me that for the first few years, [the common broom] would do poorly because hares, which were numerous here, would eat the good shoots. That’s exactly what happened. But after three or four years, the common broom suddenly began to grow with such vigor that many of its bushes with thick trunks are now eight or ten feet high, and the dense thickets have smothered the heather and other plants and formed an intertwined maze. If it wasn’t for the winter frost and its ability to extinguish this growth, I would live in the common broom forest” (13).

“My little example with the common broom, ” Dahl continued, “shows what I am trying to get at: great upheavals are not the only thing that can change nature, you have to be careful in every instance you interfere with its course” (14).

In 1943, Dahl would write in the essay Skovene (Forests): “…the tree you plant should outlive you, and perhaps your children and grandchildren, for many years to come; it will see a new Denmark” (15). Not Ellen herself, but the surviving Lille Strandkær and its surroundings did indeed see a different Danish landscape decades later, finding itself in the common broom thickets that cover all the Mols hills.

Alfred Crosby writes in Ecological Imperialism: “Weeds rarely make history, but they also influence our lives” (16). According to Crosby, Old World biota — plants, domestic animals, and pathogens — has enabled the conquest and colonization of Native North America, creating a so-called Europeanized landscape (the same common broom, now in the British Columbia, has substantially changed the appearance of territories). The Danish experience of introduction of Cytisus scoparius is unrelated to the colonial process, but they do share a common motif: orthopedic surgery of the landscape, its improvement, and, in the case of the Dahl summer house, its beautification. “The most beautiful spot in the world” was not beautiful enough; it needed the addition of, say, the common broom.

This isolated relocation case of the species Cytisus scoparius is one of many in its history in Denmark, but perhaps the most remarkable and paradoxical one: in the 1940s, the Danish writer donated both her farm and the land to Aarhus University and the Natural History Museum. On the base of the Molslaboratoriet, these institutions have studied the biodiversity of the region of the Mols Bjerge National Park and have conducted experiments aimed at controlling gyvel since the 1970s, given that the bush keeps sprawling and inhibiting other plants, including by changing the soil composition.

styre — to manage

The rewilding project aimed at returning horses and cattle to the wild is part of this attempt to control Cytisus scoparius.

In the spring, while the common broom is waking up after winter, and later, when it is already in bloom, the animals eat the young plants, gorging on buds and small leaves and thus preventing the shrub from growing its “intimidating and curved punishing swords” of pods full of seeds that once shot out into the landscape can be stored in the soil for up to 30 years.

But since both horses and cows of the Galloway breed in the rewilding program remain domestic in a legal sense, their care must follow the rules laid down in Denmark for agricultural herds. For the animals, this means returning to their natural environment happens within the confines of fences, often made of thin electric wires. Outside these fences, even more conventional than national borders, Cytisus scoparius spreads almost unhindered, uneaten by any animal. Inside the fences, small islands of control and security seem to emerge.

beskytte — to protect; to keep safe

sikkerhed — safety; security measures

The idea of the rewilding program originally linked grazing to the preservation of traditional Danish heath land. In the nineteenth century, scientists and artists were among the first to draw attention to the danger of loss that threatened this type of cultural landscape, which, in fact, was created by cultivating the land. The 7.4 thousand acres of Borris Hede in Central Jutland were the first large heath land area in the country to be conserved in 1903, protecting it from gradual extinction (17). The Danish botanist Eugenius Warming had received a government subsidy a year earlier to buy at least 4522 acres of the Borris Hede area. His bid was approved by the government only after a compromise was reached: the Ministry of Defense would use the heath land to train infantry and cavalry. The acquisition of the Borris Hede for army training meant partly that the landscape would be protected from the formation of marshes and development, and partly that intentional or unintentional arson would be prevented. But it also ensured the renewal of heather: the literal stomping of soldiers in place helped both protect and control the spread of the plant (18).

Ellen Dahl’s father, military officer Wilhelm Dinesen, probably had different ideas about improving the landscape in comparison to his daughter’s approach of orthopedics of space with the help of a common broom. “Nothing embellishes the landscape like soldiers fighting, ” he wrote in 1889 (19). Calling war inhuman, he was nonetheless intoxicated by gunpowder smoke and admired the gleam of bayonets, comparing them to the sparkle of diamonds around a young woman’s neck. His romanticizing stance could only be accepted in one circumstance: if the military were “beautifying” the landscape by fighting to preserve peace on the heath land rather than on the front lines.

jord — ground, soil; earth; plot of land

fred for jorder — peace in the field

In early Danish legal regulations, the notion of fred for jorder emerged in the context of various settlements: with the transition from the open farming of the late Middle Ages to modern farming on closed farms, rules were needed to create fences that would protect crops from damage by livestock (20). Liability for violation was most often imposed on animal owners, and fines were levied not only in cash but also in barley, oats, and, according to earlier laws, in beer. All this benefited the village: coins were used for the purchase of tar, iron, salt, or services useful to the local community (such as inviting a teacher or a shepherd), barley was used for brewing, and beer itself was simply used for pleasure (21).

This system of land preservation changed the Danish landscape: before the fences came into being, it appeared as a collection of close-by villages with vast fields and uncultivated pastures, which horses, cows, sheep, pigs, and geese trampled in search of scarce fodder. With the adoption of the “peace in the field” rules, the landscape took on its present appearance, with many fences around the croplands, houses, and farmsteads (22).

However, rules did not enshrine the design of fences, so stakes, stone or wicker fences, dams, ditches and, finally, hedges were used. It can be assumed that with this tradition of fences made of the most accessible materials, the thriving common broom also began to be used naturally in hedges. Having become the very wall to preserve the “peace in the field, ” later the shrub began to disturb the said peace in a different context. Thus, in the story of the introduction of Cytisus scoparius, fences designed to divide combine an ecological aspect with a cultural one, but not only that: any fence is also a political object, telling a story of exclusion.

våbenhvile — ceasefire

Every spring in the Mols Bjerge National Park, a group of volunteers uproots and burns the common broom that is outside the boundaries of the rewilding project. This procedure is both too expensive and unproductive (young shrubs can regenerate, and “dormant” seeds readily sprout in place of the old ones); nevertheless, this practice continues. In May 2022, at the end of the third month of the full-scale war in Ukraine, students of the Kalø Økologisk Landbrugsskole agricultural school volunteered to take care of the park. They donated their fees to the Danish Refugee Council. “What we are doing now is about peace and species conservation on several levels. We need to keep [our region’s] rare species safe, but we also need to take care of each other. That’s both the biological and political perspective of our work today, ” the students have said (23).

I was reading the report on Kalø Økologisk Landbrugsskole students more than a year after its publication. It was the 467th day of the full-scale war in Ukraine, and every previous day I had hoped for peace in the field. On the morning of the 468th day, it became known that in the occupied part of the Kherson region, the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station’s dam had been destroyed; water was flooding the settlements, taking houses, animals, and trees downstream. There was no longer any need to pretend that I was learning a new language, Danish, through a dictionary describing biological invasion.

krig — war

Each new thesaurus opens its flank to me; the one that has so much war and so little peace in the field.

Because the field has been flooded.

Ebeltoft, June 2023


(1) Hereinafter the meanings of Danish words are given according to the thesaurus of the Den Danske Ordbog of the Society for Danish Language and Literature.

(2) V. J. Brøndegaard. Folk og flora: dansk etnobotanik: bind 3. Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1987. Pp. 201.

(3) Ibid.

(4) C. Nielsen. Bevar vore Gyvel! // Hedeselskabets, № 4, 15 Marts, 1941. Pp. 72–73.

(5) Eigil Kiær. Havens beplantning i farver (farvetegninger af Verner Hancke). Politikens Forlag, 1975. Pp 133.

(6) V. J. Brøndegaard. Folk og flora: dansk etnobotanik: bind 3. Rosenkilde og Bagger, 1987. Pp. 202.

(7) Naturbasen. Gyvel.

(8) Rasmus Ejrnæs. Onde arter er et vildspor, så vi mister blikket på noget langt vigtigere // DM BIO, 3.08.2022.

(9) Ibid.

(10) Ellen Dahl: Mols og litteraturen / Redaktion Morten Vilhelm Keller. Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2017. Pp. 224.

(11) Finn Arler. Det er ikke til at se det: om det fraværendes betydning for aflæsningen af landskaber og deres værdi [manuscript]. Aalborg Universitet, 2004. Pp. 10.

(12) Ellen Dahl: Mols og litteraturen / Redaktion Morten Vilhelm Keller. Aarhus Universitetsforlag, 2017. Pp. 120.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ibid. Pp. 125.

(15) Ibid. Pp. 105.

(16) Alfred W. Crosby. Ecological Imperialism: The Oversea Migration of Western Europeans as Biological Phenomenon // The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History. Cambridge University Press, 1998. Pp. 103–117.

(17) Rita Merete Buttenschon. Den plejede natur // Hvilken natur? [en antologi om natursyn og natur i Danmark]. Biologiforbundet, 2021. Pp. 157.

(18) Borris Hede // Fredninger i Danmark.

(19) Georg Brandes. Samlede Skrifter. Gyldendalske Boghandels Fortlag (F. Hegel & søn), 1899-1910. Fjerde bind. Pp. 206.

(20) Karen J. Friedmann. Fencing, Herding, and Tethering in Denmark: from Open-Field Agriculture to Enclosure // Agricultural History. Vol. 58, No. 4 (Oct., 1984), Duke University Press. Pp. 584.

(21) Ibid. Pp. 588.

(22) Ibid. Pp. 596–597.

(23) Anne Frank Henriksen. Fælles front mod gyvel //, 25.05.2022.