Like most youngsters, I learned about Leif Erikson and his travels in the icy regions of northeastern North America while in school. Then, while stationed at an American airbase in Iceland in 1952 and 1953, I learned even more.
One day while in Reykjavik, the capital city, I saw a statue of Erik the Red, Leif Erikson’s father, on the lawn of a public building. Seeing it sparked an interest in him and his son Leif.
Erik the Red, who founded settlements in Greenland, was an Icelander, so I began reading about his discoveries. Later, after I returned home from Iceland, I kept right on reading, including some of the Icelandic sagas that describe the Viking travels and discoveries as early as the 9th century.
The generally accepted belief was that Leif Erikson was the very first European to explore mainland America; but the details of his explorations were vague and muddled because no one really knew where Vinland was located, although the identity of the other two places he described, Helluland and Markland, were accepted to have been Baffin Island and Labrador.
The location of Vinland (Wineland), Leif’s third discovery, has been postulated by various researchers to have been in places from Newfoundland to New York. The Norse sagas described it as a place where wheat and grapes grew, and where Native American Indians were found; however its actual location remained a mystery.
Erik the Red’s Greenland settlements are gone. They were made possible by the Medieval Warm Period, which lasted from A.D. 950 to A.D. 1250 The Medieval Warm Period was a result of solar variations, as are all warming and cooling eras. The Greenland settlers were never totally self-reliant. They relied on trade with Norway for many essentials. When the Medieval Warm Period ended, Norwegian ships slowly quit coming, Greenland returned to its bitterly cold and uninhabitable condition of today, and the settlers eventually died out.
With them went all direct knowledge of the early explorations, so it was very exciting back in the 1960s when scientists discovered an actual Viking site at L’Anse aux Meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Speculation became rife. The discovery of sod buildings like those in Greenland, along with many Norse artifacts, at last proved that the old Norse sagas regarding a Viking base nearer warmer areas of North America were correct. But was this the fabled Wineland? It seemed unlikely. The area was too cold for grapes.
At last, however, recent discoveries have been made at L’Anse aux Meadows that archaeologists agree are proof that Leif Erikson’s Vinland actually existed. However, as I read about those discoveries a gap in my knowledge left me about as confused as I’ve ever been.
What new evidence did the archaeologists come across? Quote: “The recent discovery of three butternuts and a piece of butternut tree wood at L’Anse Aux Meadows.”
Reading that I asked myself, “What the heck is a butternut tree?” I didn’t have a clue, and it didn’t help when I read that its common name was “white walnut,” and that they grew in both New York and Connecticut, where I grew up and spent much of my free time hiking the woodlands.
I had seen plenty of English walnut and black walnut trees, of course, but had never even heard a mention of a “butternut tree.”
Well, live and learn.
You know what Mark Twain once said, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Next week: I get re-educated.