What Denmark’s North Sea Coast Can Teach Us About the Virtues of Respecting the Planet

The Danish writer Dorthe Nors’ new book, “A Line in the World,” chronicles a year’s worth of travel along the treacherous–and threatened–North Sea coastline.

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People enjoy the sunset on the beach of North Sea near the village of Lakolk, Denmark, on Sept. 3, 2022. Credit: Sergei Gapon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
People enjoy the sunset on the beach of North Sea near the village of Lakolk, Denmark, on Sept. 3, 2022. Credit: Sergei Gapon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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When the writer Dorthe Nors was a little girl in Denmark, she had a formative encounter with the North Sea, a moment that would stay with her for the rest of her life. “I was holding my mother’s hand,” she writes, in “A Line in the World,” her book of essays about the North Sea coast that was published in English in November. “As we walked along the beach, letting the waves splash around our ankles, one of them dragged me out.” 

Her mother’s quick instincts saved Nors; she was able to grab her daughter’s leg in time, anchoring her to land and to safety. Sitting on the beach after they’d escaped, her mother refused to let go of her hand. 

The incident taught Nors to fear the sea’s strength; now she calls those dangerous, sudden swells “Valkyrie waves,” after a figure in Norse mythology who carries the dead into the afterlife. “They’ll take you out to sea if they can,” she writes. “I’m afraid of them, and every time I see them, I remember love.” 

“A Line in the World” explores the contradictions that Nors captures so sharply in this scene: the harsh landscape of the North Sea coast embodies both fear and love; beauty and terror; continuous change and generational memory. It is at once a gateway to the wider world and a vast graveyard, a horizon teeming with possibility and the source of swift and staggering grief.

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Climate change hovers at the edges of “A Line in the World” like a specter. Global warming fuels the violent storms and surges that the region is famous for, making them more intense and more frequent. On the North Sea, change is a constant; its beaches and isles are always being remade by wind and water. For centuries, the sea has swallowed iconic landmarks, houses, ships’ cargo, whole towns. But climate change has ushered in an era of artificial extremes.

Nors’ book chronicles a year’s worth of travel along this treacherous, dazzling coast, to islands, towns, beaches, churches and trails that stretch along Denmark’s western boundary from north to south and into Germany. She recounts stories of traditional fishing villages, Viking routes, religious frescoes, shipwrecks, hurricanes and an area called Cold Hawaii that attracts crowds of thrill-seeking surfers. 

Nors’ wanderings incorporate history, language and culture, though her central subject is place and the natural world: she is concerned with untangling the knotty, fraught relationship between a specific strand of shore and the people who live there. 

As an adult, Nors moved back to this rural coast where she grew up, after spending years in Copenhagen. “I decided to take the chance that the landscape would take me back, and it did,” she said recently, in an interview on the podcast “Across the Pond.” She writes about the innate longing that compelled her to return, a profound wanting that she couldn’t shake: 

“I want a north-west wind, fierce and hard. I want trees so battered and beaten they’re crawling over the ground. I want beach grass, lyme grass, crowberry stalks and heather that prick my calves until they bleed, and salt crystallizing on my skin. I want vast expanses, wasteland, wind-blasted stone, mountainous dunes and a body language I understand.”  

Nors returned to a landscape that never wears one face for long; it is a place with an ever-shifting expression. “You carry the place you come from inside you,” she writes, “but you can never go back to it.”

This is a riddle that runs like a current through the book; attachment to a particular place can define your identity, even as that place is in the process of becoming something else. For Nors, this is literally true: she describes how her childhood home was demolished to make space for a highway, forcing her parents to move after 40 years.

At the same time, “A Line in the World” illustrates how nature can be read as a record of the past. At Bulbjerg, a limestone cliff crisscrossed with footpaths, Nors concludes that the “landscape is an archive of memory.” Each path was worn into its current shape by thousands of people and animals over many years. “Someone wanted something there, and their wanting was an etching,” she writes. Places contain the memories of all that wanting, she writes, all those fleeting memories of days in the sun and time spent with loved ones, of jellyfish stings and kites and storms. When landscapes disappear, the memories they hold do, too. 

Though climate change looms over the North Sea, Nors has said that she didn’t want crisis to take center stage in the book. “I really wanted to write about this place and its beauty with love, instead of saying this place is already dead because of the apocalypse,” she said on “Across the Pond.” “Because if you start seeing nature and the world like that, there’s no reason to save it.” 

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Nors’ book is a field guide for cultivating love for the landscapes that we take for granted, for celebrating the gifts of rootedness instead of the modern conveniences of transience. The stories she tells about nature are about affection and intimacy and connection, but they are also about respect. 

In the same interview, looking back at her childhood memory of the beach and the unpredictable waves, Nors spoke about the respect she still pays to the sea. “I go into the water, but I don’t like swimming in it,” she said. “On a hot summer day, I go into the ocean and I find a place where it’s safe. I read the beach, and then I just stand there and let the waves softly move over me.” Most Danes, she said, behave similarly. Tourists, however, swim out into the water, reckless in their ignorance.

Although this book is grounded in the local, the questions at its heart have global implications, because “A Line in the World” is a poignant reminder of the virtues of respecting the planet, both its wonders and its awesome power. On the North Sea, it’s hard to forget that nature is indifferent to human whims like political boundaries, dams and walls; our attempts to control it are only temporary restraints. “Nature is beautiful, but it has a will of its own,” Nors has said. “The ocean is always the strongest. No matter what you do, it will win.”

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