Monthly Archives: March, 2016

Scotland: “Aye” is for independence

Scotland: “Aye” is for independence

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“In Scotland, the people are sovereign.” Draft Scottish Independence Bill, Part 2

 

Many Scots would have rathered we not had visited Edinburgh. No, not out of rudeness but out of pride and patriotic fervor. Our week in Scotland was to be the first week of Scottish independence in centuries. If all had gone according to plan, then 24 April 2016 would have been a day of national exhilaration. Lads and Lasses from around the world would have descended on the ancient city to join the celebration. Clearly there would have been no room at the inn. But room there was as independence there was not.

Castles are built to fight, palaces are built to please. In Scotland the former are more common than the latter. In four days of travel in Scotland we got to see the ruins and remains of contests over land and sovereignty. The most ancient of fortresses have been lost to time and improvement. Those that remain vary in condition from defeated to resilient.

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The remnants of Urquhart Castle are straight out of a Grimm fairy tale. It think seeing it on a bonnie day would defeat the effect. Luckily, our visit was on a typical spring day, neither too wet to prevent ogling nor too windy to hold a steady camera. If the walls could have talked, then I think they would have moaned and wailed. There was nothing gentle suggested by the ruins or its perch on Loch Ness. Urquhart was crippled to defeat any hopes of the Jacobite rebellion’s campaign for freedom.

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Stirling Castle welcomed us with uncharacteristically inviting March weather, thank you. Atop a volcanic crag, Stirling lords over the countryside. The Battle of Bannockburn was fought under its shadow. I think the Scots view Stirling Castle with a sense of ownership and symbol of independence more so than any other, the evidence is the impeccable condition of the buildings and grounds. Greater still are two monuments without the castle walls, a statue of Robert the Bruce, and a monument to William Wallace. In contrast to Urquhart, I rather think the sun did a great service to the mood. With the sun at 32º, the stones were aglow, a signal of energy and life to future generations and future struggles.

IMG_7565The ancient rocks upon which Edinburgh Castle were laid witnessed many an assault. According to the castle guide, the castle was the most contested in all of Britain. And while ownership changed crowns many a time, the castle itself never succumbed to a siege. IMG_7690The Union of the Crowns by James VI was a bittersweet victory for the Scots. Their king now laid claim to England and Ireland but that necessitated his relocation to London, an unbroken tradition. A century later the powershift to the south was completed as Parliament in Westminster assumed taxing and trade rule for the land north of Hadrian’s Wall.

As a monument to the past, Edinburgh Castle was the glory of the Scottish kings and queen. As a working fortress it defends the sacred royal regalia and the memory that inspires a future. A future that nearly came to be.

“That sovereignty lies with the people will be the fundamental political, constitutional and legal organising principle of an independent Scotland.It is a principle charged with historical resonance, affirming the ancient Scots constitutional tradition that Monarchs and Parliaments are the servants of the people.Sovereignty of the people was clearly set out as early as the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, refined in the writings of George Buchanan in the late 16th century, declared in Scotland’s first Claim of Right in 1689 and proclaimed again for modern Scotland by the Constitutional Convention in 1989.” (Explanatory Notes, page 27, for the Constitution, Part 2, Section 2)

The countryside of Scotland is a memorial to the struggle for self determination. The geography of Scotland makes it easy to appreciate the zeal of independence. People at the edges of civilization and people of steep country are naturally resistant to conquest. Not that any people wish to yield their sovereignty but some places are just easier to dominate than others. Consult your history lessons for examples.

Thus bold, independent, unconquer’d, and free,
Her bright course of glory for ever shall run:
For brave Caledonia immortal must be;
I’ll prove it from Euclid as clear as the sun:
Rectangle-triangle, the figure we’ll chuse:
The upright is Chance, and old Time is the base;
But brave Caledonia’s the hypothenuse;
Then, ergo, she’ll match them, and match them always.

last verse from, A Ballad for Caledonia, by Robert Burns

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Scotland’s Parliament lies next to a graveyard

Scotland: “eye” is for what one can see

Scotland: “eye” is for what one can see

 

Brand (he comes up the track, starts to descend, pauses halfway on a projecting crag and looks down into the depths)

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Glen Coe

Now I recognise the spot!
Every boat-shed, every plot,
land-slip bank, the fairway birch,
that brown pile there, the old church,
elders by the river-side, —
childhood memories that abide.
But I fancy it’s more grey,
smaller, too, than in my day;
and the over-hang, protruding
more than it had ever done,
shaves another sliver, gaining
on the strip of sky remaining,
leaning, threatening, dark and brooding, —
stealing yet more of the sun.
(sits and scans the distance)
The fjord. Did that seem, to my mind,
quite so ugly, so confined?
Patch of rain. A yawl ahead
running on a homeward reach.
South, the part the outcrop’s shading,
there’s a shack, a quay for lading,
then a farmhouse, painted red.”
From “Brand” by Henrik Ibsen, Act I.

If you like Norway then Scotland’s not too much a stretch. Pines, cold lakes, and small fishing villages hugging the rocky coasts, so much was familiar. In fact we took an epic one day bus tour (12 hours) and got to see pretty much the representative sample. Perhaps it was akin to the Norway in a Nutshell? The different was that in 12 hours you could drive over a remarkable breadth of Scotland that I don’t think would be possible in Norway. However, the payment was a thorough lashing of the kidneys on roads so rough they would be unacceptable in the Kingdom of the North.


Our small coach held about 30 passengers. The driver, Kenny, was also host, tour-guide, mascot, and hall monitor. Don’t be the last to board! Traveling North from Edinburgh we quickly bid adieu to the lowlands and began to climb. Our international party went higher and deeper into the Highlands, west of Cairngorms National Park. I was surprised how quickly most signs of human habitation atrophied. The customary cabins of Norwegian wilds were absent in like terrain; the difference between a landholding nobility and not.
The River Sprey was a welcome sight, not as visually impressive as the mountains but more famous. Scotland’s highest distillery straddled the river, like so many others that turned the swift water into spirited water.

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Loch Ness lived up to its reputation. The sky was mostly cloudy though the sun managed to sneak in a ray here and a beam there. The effect on the vistas was delightful. The 90 minute stop facilitated a 60 minute ferry ride; 30 minutes to Urquhart ruins and back. A monitor in the cabin showed the depth and sonar images. Only the incredibly deep bottom with a few blips of salmon registered on the screen. Later, Kenny lamented that we were but six minutes late in seeing the monster. I’m sure he always says that.

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Paralleling Loch Ness, towards the southwest, I could have been forgiven if I thought I was back in Norway, driving along the lake Mjøsa. However the absence of tunnels to smooth the route reminded me I wasn’t home in Norway. Perhaps evidence of the Scot’s legendary thrift?
On to the sea we drove. Another lake, Loch Lochy, a scale model of Ness. As we lost elevation so did the cloud deck. At the rain capital of Scotland, Fort William, we stopped for a break. In the mists hid the upper reaches of the tallest mountain in all of Britain, Ben Nevis. A formidable hulk, the mountain recently claimed two experienced climbers. Their bodies were recovered during our stay.

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Red Deer grazing in Glen Coe

Refreshed and back aboard the coach, we climbed again, to the famous Glen Coe. A valley famous for epics sights, of crying mountains, beasts, and of backdrops for Harry Potter. But also infamous for the Campbell massacre. No place is fitting for a slaughter, yet the horrors of that winter morn seem too fantastic were not they true.

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Climbing more, we reached the plateau and an alien world of peat and heather. The earth protested human incursions by wrinkling the road so as to rattle my teeth and test my spine. And finally as the sun fell behind the mountains so did we. Kenny steered down the river valley past Tyndrum and eventually back to the lowlands.
It was a rather melancholy ride from the lowlands to Edinburgh. The music selection was mornful; darkness fell over our route. Few of the riders were chatting, many appeared to nod off. The culprits were weariness, a smooth road, and stimulation capacity. Sad too was the end because it was over; that is, my stellar views and experiences with the family had just become memories, the past.

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Loch Ness

 

Scotland: “i” is for imagination

IMG_8157Scotland: “i” is for imagination
“And the fleet of little boats moved off all at once, gliding across the lake, which was as smooth as glass. Everyone was silent, staring up at the great castle overhead. It towered over them as they sailed nearer and nearer to the cliff on which it stood.” (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Chapter 6)
Scotland is layered with human history atop human history. I have joked with Norwegian teachers that in Iowa if a building is 100 years old we consider it ancient, and they think it’s relatively new. Some added to that play by noting that when they travel to the UK they might mention to new colleagues that their school in Norway is over 100 years old only to be told by their British hosts that this school is over 500 years old.
My holiday to Scotland was centered in Edinburgh, a most fabulous city. Arriving to Edinburgh airport my first introduction to the city was thoroughly modern. The conspicuous air-traffic control tower announced a commitment to high technology and progress. The double-decker express bus to the city center was then a journey back through time, 30 minutes to travel over 1,000 years.
An interstate highway pierced the first layer, post-war modernity. We cruised past dull buildings that passed for businesses. Too typically festooned with garish signage to attract attention that the architecture could not. LCD displays relayed GPS information, we neared the Gyle Shopping Centre.
Continuing forward to go back in time, turn-of-the-century row houses lined the way. The homes were tidy and compact stone or brick structures with ad hoc parking for cars; satellite dishes hung like peculiar and forgotten christmas ornaments. Edinburgh was a working city, a destination for displaced farmers from the Lowlands and crofters from the Highlands. People moved here to continue life, to move forward. And so did our bus.
Harry Potter was born in Scotland, Edinburgh specifically. J. K. Rowling took inspiration from her surroundings and experiences to create that most magical world. We ate at the cafe where she wrote the first book. Like Scotland, Rowling wove a story that wed the ancient, the fantastic, and the modern into a compelling tale. As it did for Rowling, Scotland invited me to do the same.
Our bus entered Shandwick Place circle and another era, Georgian Britain. The German-bred kings of Britain reigned over a period of industrialization and wealth. New cities were plated to both capture and reflect the prosperity and philosophies of the day: right-angle city streets and uniform architecture. The West End and New Town of Edinburgh exemplify the ambitions of those long since passed Scots and their wisdom; the old buildings still stand and thrive in a modern world.


Owen and I took a walk through New Town later in the week. The straight streets and din of traffic were familiar but the aesthetics of the buildings were not. I could imagine the wide streets free of autos, and instead traversed by horse drawn carriages. The sound, and certainly the smell would have been different. I didn’t ask Owen what he imagined, I regreted that.

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Cruising east on Princes Street we passed the Scott Monument. It was a fitting transition between the New Town and the Old Town to which we were about to enter. Bus #100 reached the end of the line on the bridge and our journey back in time was nearly complete. We crossed Market Street with our backpacks to ascend Cockburn Street. The curved and climbing street took us back in time further still. The twists and turns, nooks and crannies of Rowling’s Diagon Alley were here. Cars were clearly out of place yet had muscled their way onto the street through brute force and threat of violence, taking cues from the countless public hangings in the neighborhood.

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High Street, also known as the Royal Mile, denoted the journey’s end. The route was a riot of architectural splendor. Our apartment on the street has hosted souls for hundreds of years. And at the end of the street, actually the beginning, rested Edinburgh Castle. It was perched on a crag and protected the Chapel of St. Margaret. The diminutive house of prayer was built in the 12th century, the oldest building in Edinburgh.


From the ramparts of the castle all of Edinburgh was visible. Our visit was extra special in that the sun was present, illuminating a city that needed little help to amaze. The view from the primordial rock went back again through time: from Old Town and a Royal and Independent Scotland, to New Town and the cusp of the industrial revolution, and on to the horizon where a new bridge over the Firth of Forth will commemorate the 21st century.

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Inspiration for the imagination, is that the old Celtic meaning for Pictland? It has inspired so many authors, Rowling most famously as of late but also Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Alan Ramsay, and Elizabeth Melville. We agreed that Scotland in general, but Edinburgh in particular warranted a return visit. Who can resist a place of such creativity that made the unicorn its official animal?

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 12: March is a long month

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 12: March is a long month

Week 11 got a pass, I had a full week of teaching and then skied the Birkebeiner. I planned ahead of time not to write an installment. I needed my energy and focus elsewhere.

New birds, 5. Journey to date, 50

(Buteo buteo)

(Turdus pilaris)

(Frangilla coelebs)

(Troglodytes troglodytes)

Tjeld (Haematopus ostralegus)

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I hated March when I was a boy, it was the worst month. The snow was gone but the grass wasn’t growing, it was still too cold. The roads were coated in sand and grit from the winter, the April showers hadn’t yet washed them. To bicycle was to risk your skin on every corner. Besides, Mom and Dad wouldn’t take the bikes out of storage until April anyway.

Fishing? worthless or dangerous. The water was too cold for success with my spinning gear and any ice remaining was too thin for standing. Even I wasn’t that foolhardy. There was no hunting in March, plus the fields and forests were goo.

By March school was dragging and nothing was on TV. What did I do all those days? Heaven only knows how many video games I subject my poor eyes to. The cries of boredom must have been agony for my parents. Tis a pity that youth is wasted on the youth.

IMG_7988March is now among my favorite months. Oh the reasons abound like springtime optimism: The fever of gardening comes. The vernal equinox guarantees the arrival of summer. Mosquitoes, what mosquitoes? And birds.

My maturity and interest in most things avian have paralleled. I no longer look towards the March skies with derision. They are welcome old friends. Below is a poem/song I wrote taking inspiration from Rabbie Burns, the bard of Scotland.

 

The Ballad of March. Sing quickly

 

When you’re a little boy,

your worry is for toys.

But now that you’re a man,

live life as full as you can.

 

Ya give me 12 hours of day.

Ya give me 12 hours of night.

March is a long month,

but it feels just right!

 

The ice is thin,

the field are mud.

March may be an ugly child,

though can’t deny that it’s in my blood.

 

Ya give me 12 hours of day.

Ya give me 12 hours of night.

March is a long month,

but it feels just right!

 

Come Vernal wind,

come Vernal sun.

Your messengers have returned,

now it’s time to have some fun.

 

Ya give me 12 hours of day.

Ya give me 12 hours of night.

March is a long month,

but it feels just right!

 

A riot of color,

and a riot of of sound.

The storms and the birds from the god of war

make you wish to leave the ground.

 

Ya give me 12 hours of day.

Ya give me 12 hours of night.

March is a long month,

but it feels just right!

 

Thank you Mother Earth.

Thank you Father Time.

I see things more clearly now

in this world of mine.

 

Ya give me 12 hours of day.

Ya give me 12 hours of night.

March is a long month,

but it feels just right!

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Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

An Unexpected Award: the gold I earned at the back of the pack

An Unexpected Award: the gold I earned at the back of the pack

 

I followed the arc of the sun over the day while outside, it was a long day. Nearing four PM many things were clear. One, my body was suffering. Two, the sun will set. Three, I was determined to finish. And four, I was trying to enjoy my gold at the back of the pack.

“Dear Dr. Hanson, It is a pleasure to inform you of your selection by the Board of the Fulbright Foundation in Norway and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for a grant to teach in Norway. This grant is made under Public Law 87-256, the Fulbright-Hays Act, the basic purpose of which is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through educational and cultural exchange.”

This letter set into motion the fulfilling of dreams. Among the many dreams to be realized with a year in Norway was the opportunity to ski in the Birkebeiner, the “real” Birkebeiner that is. As a boy I dreamed of the birkie since I first read about it in an old copy of Wisconsin Trails magazine from the mid-70’s that my grandparents had (I have it now). I skied the Kortelopet (half-Birkie) first, because of my age, and then skied the full race several times. But the lore of the American Birkie in Wisconsin was tied directly to the legend and race in Norway, so naturally I pinned for the original.

Within a fortnight of arriving in Oslo I was registered for the Birkebeinerrennet, 19 March 2016 couldn’t come fast enough. We had brought our skis so I felt confident that I would get enough on-snow training to be ready. The goal of the Birkebeiner also sharpened my ambition to run, and run, and run all over Norway, wherever my travels and teaching took me.

I was excited and apprehensive that Saturday morning. The thrill of joining the ranks of finishers got me out of bed at 4:29 AM with ease. The concern that my shoulders would give out and general skiing readiness clouded out excessive optimism. Plus, it was dark and early, there is no sense in being too happy at that time of day.

The dark morning was mild. By 4:41 I was awaiting the taxi for a 4:50 pickup. A white Prius from Norges Taxi arrived at 4:49. As I got in, another taxi, a navy wagon from the same company, pulled up. They double booked, not me.

At the Oslo Bus Terminal drop off I was happy to see many fellow skiers, just follow the herd. The locals led me to the bus and by 5:10 I was seated, port side against the window and amidships. There were a lot of middle aged white guys aboard the coach. When did I become a middle aged white guy?

IMG_7464The driver did a silent head count at 5:21, the sky was inviting a blue suggestion of sunrise into the dark heavens. In addition to the usual suspects there were 4-5 women aboard. Among the riders there were eager conversations, quiet routines, and bodies trying to get just a couple more minutes of shuteye.

The cabin door closed at 5:29 only to reopen for a man rushing in with a coffee and the grin of a cheshire cat. The lights went out and we pulled away. 5:30 AM, right on schedule.

An early morning bus ride awakened memories of college band trips and drill weekends in the Marines. By 7:12 AM there was a steady parade to use the toilet across from my row. The good, the bad, and the ugly.

Version 2“Good morning Rena, Norway,” I thought as we stopped to unload. A stream of contestants coursed towards the welcome building. It was like a large pole shed that housed the race packet pick up as well as a small vendor fair and cantina. I passed on an early morning hotdog.

I weighed my backpack at the hall. All racers must carry a 3.5 kg pack to mimic the weight of the baby viking king carried by the original warriors. I boarded the shuttle bus to the starting area, a 3 km journey. We left at 8:46 AM.

The sky was overcast but the mood was merry at the start. The portajohns were aplenty and the wave-by-wave starting zones well designed. Ebullient commentators broadcast enthusiasm and well wishes and for all the intrepid. I just wanted 9:35 AM to hurry up. The temperature was hovering at the freezing mark, we were burning daylight and Wave 18 was chomping at the bit. “Boom!” went the starting gun, finally.

I predicted a demanding day, the warm and course snow would be a challenge for glide and grip. But I didn’t predict the condition of the course would be so bad. In classical skiing, the track is the key to happiness. The tracks for Wave 18 were in sad shape where they existed at all.

I passed the sign, “53 km to finish” and knew I was in a for a long hard day. My skis defied physics, they had neither glide nor grip. The worse was the lateral slipping. I fought and fought to keep my skis underfoot. Soon my adductors were burning and my feet were getting bruised in their boots.

IMG_7481The clouds thinned and the breeze increased. The atmosphere of the event was a fusion of RAGBRAI and a Big Ten football tailgate party. The river of brightly clad skiers flowed through the woods and up the first mountain pass. Along the way, hearty revelers who camped in the woods were now basking in the sun atop their sofas of snow. A fire to grill meat and warm the spirit was ubiquitous, as were the spirits. The Norwegians make up for their work-a-day sobriety on vacation, today was the start of the Easter Holiday. I seemed to notice a bias towards Carlsberg for beer and Jagermeister for liquor. Aside from being happy to be on vacation in the glorious nature I think most of the spectators were pleased they weren’t skiing.

I got a reprieve at 10 km, the groomer made a pass and laid 4 new tracks. My stride was still labored but at least I wasn’t fighting the splits. The gift was temporary though, after about 4 km the groomer doubled back and we were all forced back to the trampled tracks of thousands.

It was a beautiful and sunny day. I managed a moment or three to shed my backpack and take pictures. There was an invisible force that none of my photos captured though, the constant headwind was an unwelcome companion.

The Birkebeiner in Norway differed from the the American copy in several ways. One, this race was classic technique only. Two, the climbs and descents were sweeping and long. Three, most of the route was over three mountain passes and quite exposed.

Some people from later waves passed me. I passed some from prior groups. But generally I found myself skiing among an increasingly familiar cadre. But I wasn’t the only one suffering. The lack of banter was but one indicator of the demanding conditions. The long lines at the aid stations were another.

Oh, the aid wasn’t for thirst or hunger, it was for skis. Techs from SWIX worked feverishly to treat the skis of the needy to give them some traction. I paused once to apply a little klister; in a battle you make arrows from any wood.

IMG_7498By the highpoint of the race I was two-thirds to the finish and approaching Sjusøen and the complex of trails spreading from Lillehammer. Relief. I had been on these trails before and the course would lose about 400 meters of elevation to the finish; that is, mostly downhill.

Relief soon gave way to panic as the descents at Sjusøen were steep and curved. Compounding the treacherous course was the windrows of loose snow over an icy surface, the result of thousands of snowplowing skis.

I survived the hills and I do mean survived. At this point in the journey I was not sure I would be getting up from a hard crash. And then back into the deep woods and silence as there were no spectators. Just the weary and the goal, and the gold.

Skiing into the lowering angle of the sun gave us slow movers a gold medal of our own. The solar angle was 16º The snow absorbed the warm energy and reflected a most wonderful color, a very bright and yellow gold at the edges. It was like Mother Nature and Father Time conspired to reward the back of the packers with a visual prize commensurate with our persistence.

I shuffled into the stadium grounds, 1 km to go. On the last little descent I fell for the third time, this time with a full face plant in front of a couple of ladies. Only my pride was hurt. If the announcers called my name, I didn’t hear it. I just needed to finish, I was done in so many ways.

Time! 5:03 PM. I crossed the line and managed a smile as I accepted my finisher’s pin. My official time was 7:28:31 I had hoped for five hours but I was very happy I just finished at all.

Off came my skis, uff! Somehow I managed to touch the klister and then wipe my mouth. Don’t ever let klister touch your lips! My attempt to quench the burning with a hotdog in lefse was unsuccessful.

The stadium shuttle took the smelly and bleary-eyed to Håkons Hall. I changed, retrieved my finishers diploma and wolfed down the bag of cookies I carried on the race. At 6:22 PM my bus to Oslo was underway. Too tired to rest, I watched the countryside fade away into nightfall. My mind replayed the day, all the ups and downs, but most especially the gold I earned at the back of the pack.

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 10: A Contemplative Life

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 10: A Contemplative Life

The forecast in the Arctic for novel feathers was discouraging. My local source in Hammerfest said all was quiet save for gulls and crows; I don’t get excited for gulls or crows. Returning from teaching one afternoon I thought I spied a small raft of diminutive ducks in the harbor. A quick retooling and I was walking the harbor promenade when I saw an odd loner, my catch of the week. Satisfied. In Nordkjosbotn I saw either Parus palustris or Parus montanus. Oh so close to claiming the latter, I am so close to certainty…but, close to certainty isn’t good enough.

New birds: one
Teist (Cepphus grylle)

A Contemplative Life
IMG_7276“On the road again
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again”
Being on the road, riding the rails, and plying the currents of the skies, is to be a Roving Scholar. Also, to be a Rover is to be somewhat exhausted, the travel connections, the new hotels and the new pillows, the same breakfasts…all are the glories and grind of travel.

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An unadvertised element of these job has been time to think. Without a car, I am a rider, a passenger, someone who waits. Be it waiting at a bus stop or airport gate, waiting to arrive, or just my hotel room, I wait. I wait a lot in Norway. And time to wait is time to think, if you let it.
As a luddite there are some tech habits I resist more than others. One is going about in public with earbuds or headphones. I just hate it, I think it looks ridiculous, as if one is plugged into a troubling messaging system that is delivering instructions from afar. Two it’s dangerous because you can’t hear cars or people overtaking you, to say nothing of the fact that you can’t hear the birds.
Instead of tuning in, I tune out. And when I tune out I get to hear something precious: my own internal voice, my conscious. Travel has made this possible in ways I’ve haven’t experienced before, not to this degree. Being able to tune out because of travel compliments my go to method for tuning out, running. Accordingly I have been able to do a lot of thinking in Norway. Sometimes I even get to think about thinking.
This thinking about thinking (people in education like to use the term “metacognition” here, generally the one big impressive sounding word they can get away with using) got me to wonder about how our ancestors thought as they lived. They lived out of doors and interfaced with the natural world so much more than our sealed building and cars permit. Were they all big thinkers?
A woman at her cabin loom, attending to a familiar pattern, she hears the wind without the walls, the groans and creaks of the trees. What did she think?
Sitting but not resting, watching but not looking, the collier may have been the ultimate philosopher. His thoughts smoldered like his work, energy transforming and emanating from a central core.
So many other jobs, so much other work, lost work that were handmaidens to contemplation. I don’t envy their poverty. Would they pity my modern distractions?
I run to think. And on lonely roads my footfalls quickly fade, replaced by the sounds of nature and my own internal dialogue. Maybe a live action brain scan could show me actually having a conversation.
IMG_7199“What animal tracks are those?” “A hare, but why would it cross here?” “No clue, though they lead towards that mountain.”
“The stratum of that mountain reveals its thrust and displacement from the level.” “Yeah, but wouldn’t it be cool to climb?” “There are a lot of mountains in Afghanistan.” “Hmm, when will they have peace in those mountains?”
And so it goes. A small sensory detail or stimulate flows and winds, curls and blooms into new thoughts and topics, paths of logic and discourse I never would have imagined. But because I had the time/space to think, it did.

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In week 10 I got to a lot of time to think. My time engaged in travel was sufficient for a post of its own. Fortunately I was able to match the contemplative time engaged in fossil-fueled transportation with meaningful runs in the deep fjord. I might be ready to make a claim that the deep fjords are the most thoughtful spots. But such a declaration will have to wait until my travels are done. Until then I will keep my senses open for the offering of nature and the blessings of a contemplative life.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.

 

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Heavens Reflected on Earth

Heavens Reflected on Earth

For such a famously violent sea the waves lapped gently at this rare beach of sand. It was a short drive from Hammerfest to the fishing village of Førsøl. But in a climate as challenging as this, on the cusp of the Barents Sea, even a small drive over a low mountain pass can turn into an unwelcome adventure; there are reasons for the gates to close the road (remember they don’t use salt in norway and barely plow).


I regret not touching the water, I could have but I didn’t give myself permission. The aquamarine colors were beguiling. Those are the colors that adore fancy photos of exotic locations where the beautiful people holiday. The playful, mostly green but maybe wispy and blue colors are a reason to holiday in Arctic Norway. But those who seek the colors are looking up, they are seeking the Northern Lights.
imageIn February I saw the Northern Lights, they were weak and minimized by the light pollution of Tromsø. Yet the lights were clearly visible, mostly green but vaporous, with perhaps some colors from the cool spectrum present. But I also saw those same colors in the waters near Tromsø. My flight over the Arctic this week helped me make a connection to the beauty of the heavens being mirrored in the beauty of clean water.
My descent Sunday into Tromsø was a real treat. On the approach we dropped from a high cloud deck to a remarkably clear view. It must have been special because the pilot announced he would make some added S-turns so everybody could get some good looks. What a mensch.
imageThe views were magnificent. Mountains, real mountains robbed in white with a speckling of black where the granite was visible. Something like the royal ermine but more nobel. However my eyes were drawn to the sea. The coasts of the islands and fjords were ringed where the water met the land. The colorful water was almost playful in contrast to the stark massifs. Or was the water rebellious, calling attention to itself, upsetting the established order? Perhaps the water was acting as a fine necklace of precious stones, ringing a sublime beauty?
I choose to believe all three can be truth. Over many waters a jet has carried me, these waters were among the prettiest. And aren’t they just as unusual as the Northern Lights? Aren’t they worthy of celebration and tourism broadsides? Yes, but looking down doesn’t have the same cache as looking up.
Last night I was looking up in Hammerfest. The report was for a strong Northern Lights show. I got a wild hair and decided to take the ferry to an outer island and back, a hasty unguided tour. The three hour ride would get far away from light pollution than even a small city like Hammerfest can dish out. Alas, the internet let me down because at the terminal there was no ferry scheduled for the night.
For no reason I decided to linger on the harbor promenade, I was already here and all ready to endure a little cold. The magic of appearing stars always surprises. The sky takes on a rich, velvety darkest blue and then, there’s one, and then another. Stars, stars coming into focus like a filmmaker resolves from an unclear image to sharp focus. What was particularly fun was that I had my binoculars at hand. The added power of eight revealed layers upon layers of extra stars invisible to the naked eye. A current of ethereal green glided into my field of view, from left to right. It was weak but present nonetheless, the Northern Lights. Locals scurried past, ignorant or inured.
I retreated to my room on the seventh floor of the Thon. Over Skype, Meghan said to set my alarm for midnight, the predicted strongest hour. Sloth and a warm bed being too powerful, I decided to go again after our call.
Now about 8:30, I waited once more on the promenade. Looking up I saw the Big Dipper and almost directly overhead, Polaris. Where will they be when you look up tonight? My wonderment of the positions of celestial bodies came to an abrupt end when the cooly colored phantom reappeared. Now, the visitor was strong and arching, moments of color that suggested an isolated rain shower. Then over the mountain to the north, splashes of intensity, instances of amber. Fireworks for the conscientious. Worn from such a display, the colors dimed and then left.
So wonderful but I was a little annoyed at the light pollution, what might had I been in a truly dark place? Tonight finds me at the foot of Balsfjord. The village is small and the skies are clear. I hope to get just one more look at the Northern Lights. My earlier inspection showed brilliant stars. Cassiopeia dazzled. The Big Dipper had moved a bit from Hammerfest’s position, the clarity plus my binoculars gave me an added treat of seeing the Little Dipper.
What color is your water? How is your light pollution, what stars can you see tonight? When I return to the arctic in late spring, I know there will be no Northern Lights. But I take comfort, and anticipation, in returning to those lovely waters and seeing the heavens reflected on earth.

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Post script: I went out again and was dazzeled. A broad ribbon filled the sky from west to northeast. The northeast segement became animated with multiple dendrils of glowing light streaked with colors from the warm spectrum. My poor mobile phone camera just could not capture a thing.

I turned to go several times, I was gettying cold, but I just couldn’t leave. Would this be my last show in Norway…I can wait one more minute. Finally the calculus of pain overcame the pleasure of the spectacle and I retreated to my cabin. I wish you could have been here with me, that would have been extra special.

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 9: Signs and Trails

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 9: Signs and Trails

Top of World! I’m writing these words from our planet’s most northern city, Hammerfest. This is my new record for latitude and longitude. Sun had set by the time I landed so the wonders of this oasis in the arctic will have to wait another day.

New birds: zero

(Raphus cucullatus)

 

Signs and Trails
imageWhoosh, I’m trying this at home, err…on my skis. I suppose I feel at home on my boards. The speed, the wind in my face, the sights flashing past my eyes, and the occasional rumble of my skis. I feel so free.

But upon reflection, I was not free. No, not barreling down that hill, not at any time during the entire jaunt, never free. As testament to how contrived my run down the hill was, this was actually my second run. During my first descent I realized this would be cool to film skiing down past the Olympic stadium, so up I climbed to run it again (note, the “short” video was too long to load).

The Friluftsliv beacons me as a concept; it’s an ideal. And yet, the pursuit of Friluftsliv probably isn’t attainable for me. Perhaps it is more analogous to a journey than a destination. Yet, pursue I shall, mediated by signs and trails.

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I dragged my skis along on this trip to Lillehammer. This visit was much anticipated. One, I would get to give lectures to education students at the local university. Two, I would give the lectures with my friend, brother-from-another-mother, and fellow Rover, Andy. Three, I was glued to the television in 1994 watching the Olympics and eating up everything Norway that NBC was willing to dish out. My heros skied in Lillehammer, and now I would too.
For 30 kroner I caught the city bus up the mountain, I think that’s pretty good as lift tickets go. My destination was the Birkebeineren stadium, but in true Norske fashion, the bus doesn’t actually take you there. Too decadent perhaps. Rather, you literally got dropped off on the side of the road, at a seemingly random blue sign, into a snowbank. Next, clamber over the bank onto a trail, and then to ski to the stadium. Still a small price, and frankly a much more romantic way to get to the stadium and the faded echoes of olympics past.
My arms were still killing me from last week but Lillehammer called and I was damn sure gonna answer. The sun had fallen behind the mountain but there was plentiful light to take a small lap around the Abbortjernet lake loop. I just had to get back to the road in time to make the 6:30 bus or it would be a very dark and long walk to the hotel.
People were skiing but not too many, just the way I liked it. I skied out of the stadium area and onto the Birkie trail. Let’s chalk this up to research. A familiar “Powerline” stretch and a series of right turns took me back in due time. Homework complete, I only had to wait for Thursday for my longer effort, and hopefully with more functional arms.
Later than intended but outfitted with spiffy new skiing glasses with the tilt-up lenses, I paid my 30 kroner and ascended to the stadium again. We were three on the #6 bus, I was the only skier. What do the locals who don’t ski do during the winter? The noise and vibrations from the chains on the tires were comforting, a bus on these roads demanded confidence.
The heavy overcast probably looked flat and especially cold, unless you were on skis and reveling in the surroundings. A couple of young men were practicings biathlon. There was no special fencing or warning. In Norway they trust you to make good decisions and then live with the consequences; i.e. if there are guys shooting guns then keep your distance. There would be no one to sue if you got shot.
My new app, Skisporet, helped me plot a reasonably adventurous course up and around a mountain. However, my ability to read maps (when you’re out of cell-phone range) has been found to be God awful in Norway. My apologies Senior Drill Instructor Sgt. Dominguez.
Despite my effort to read the signs, the trail seemed to take me where the trail wanted to go. On I skied. A light snow of large wet flakes hushed the woods and gave me a sense of solitude to a greater degree than was accurate. Within 20 minutes I had stripped off my windbreaker and heavy wool sweater. Without wind, a wool undershirt sufficed to keep me warm enough.
The signs pointed me towards Sjusøen and I followed. I skied at Sjusøen in December, I didn’t realize how close it was to Lillehammer. On this side of the valley is a world of well-groomed and interconnected ski trails. My head spins at all the possibilities of adventure, I lifetime might not be enough.
I stayed on the trail. I kept to the right side of the wide groomed surface bordered by parallel lines for traditional skiers, coming and going. Frequently I met a senior citizen from the other direction, I always gave a smile and I always got one in return. Several times I was passed by a silver-haired streak, that made me smile too.
The trail split, to the left was towards Sjusøen, higher and farther from Lillehammer, but with an aura of mystery and potential. Right was clearly a more direct path to my starting point. Discretion being the better part of valor, I skied left. The signs and the trail were clear.

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I was lucky I missed my turn for the higher mountain because this area of trails rested on a shelf. So while on a mountain, the trails were paradoxically level. The trails were well marked and I supposed if you had to ask for help then it would come freely.
There were signs and trails that contrasted with the manicured scene. On occasion a narrow path darted into the woods, a sign to seemingly nowhere: an ungroomed trail.
While Ola Nordmann may have a reputation for taking to the wilds, at least here those side trails were usually covered with untrammeled snow. Are they really trails if no one takes them? Do the signs matter?

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Another sign that caught my attention was a antler rubbing on a young pine. The orange of the bruised tree called out amongst the common backdrop of evergreen and white. This was a sign, but to where? The trail had long since been covered with snow. Did the perpetrator stumble upon this opportunity for dendographic violence or was this tree on a path, its destiny decided?
Trails in the woods, paths for exploring, and accompanied by signs, do they set us free? Thousands of people will pass point X on this trail this year. But how many people will ply the snow just 10 feet off the trail? Probably none.
Norwegian language has a wonderful way of combining words rather matter-of-factly to create a new word. So, Friluftsliv was created from three words: Fri, free; luft, air; liv, life. The Free Air Life was an apt neologism, and spoke to the ideal and ambition of people to live large in nature. But the word hides in plain sight a limitation, the impossibility as a mortal human-primate to achieving the goals of Friluftsliv. The air is the domain of birds, and we are stuck to the ground with our feet. In three dimensions and without trails or signs birds alone may come the closest to living Friluftsliv, the rest of us will continue to dream and to rely on signs and trails.

Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.