The Dowager Countess was adamant in fighting for control of the local hospital. She had a good reason, her blue blood carried a genetic marker for territorialism. The wounds from the battle were severe, she even had to take flight to another country to convalesce. She was lucky, most of us just have to fight to the death.
There have been battles in Norway that never make the news abroad. Yet, they are as deep and hard fought as any you will find in a civil nation. The battles are over the will of the people, the dictates of a distant capital, and the struggle to maintain a sense of place in a dynamic world. There is an obligation to follow the law in a constitutional democracy. But some laws hurt or threaten, is there is an equal mandate to resist?
If you think Norway is a rich counry with no problems, then you are mistaken. Does the Kingdom of Norway have wealth? Yes, of course. But the pressures of modern governance, that is the dual thrusts of neoliberalism disruption and conservative parsimony, have assulted the small towns of Norway. As an Iowan, so many of struggles and fears I hear from people around Norway sound uncomfortably similar to those I know in the Hawkeye State.
In the south of Norway, Agder, I commiserated with teachers about the pressures of school consolidation. Theirs was a small school but proud, with a rich history and an intimacy between faculty, staff, students, and the community for which I’m envious. “But according to the numbers…,” starts the explanation, the per pupil costs were too high (I personally find it galling when we attribute agency to inanimate things like numbers. Numbers never say anything, only people do. Someone used judgement and claimed the per pupil costs were too high. But if you have been convinced that numbers speak then it is difficult to resist, no one has ever won a debate against a number). So their cozy school is doomed. Can policy makers account for per pupil happiness?
In north-central Norway I experienced more distressed conversations. Here the battles were two. One was a change in airport priorities, one town would get the upgrade and another town’s airport would be closed. Additionally, the medical facilities were facing back-biting economic strangulation to force a change. In the arrangement, the medical specialties were purposely divided between three communities instead of being housed in an “efficient” single location. The small towns rightly understood that hosting a medical specialty was a statement about their right to exist in a world where efficiency was a new god that directly challenged their ancient god of community.
Recently in the Arctic I got to experience the outpost of Vardø, please take a moment to find it on map. Vardø is hard to get to but it has a remarkably long and important history in a nation full of towns with long and important histories. In some ways Vardø reminded me of so many towns in the Midwest and Great Lake States. Maybe you’ve heard the slur, “Rustbelt?”
On the edge of Norway, on the edge of western civilizaton stands Vardø. Outposts naturally hold perilous positions. In Vardø the weather is mercilessness. The Russians are next door. And the updowns and downs of the fishing industry have left their marks on a town that is a shell of its glory days, think Fort Dodge, Iowa, 1978 and today.
Vardø weathers literal and figurative existential storms. Like so many other small communities in Norway, or Iowa for that matter, Vardø resists. They resist having more of their administrative duties and positions reallocated to central locations. They resist going quietly, in Vardø the Norwegian flag flew longer in defiance in than anywhere else in occupied Norway. They also resist through art.
The art of Vardø is compelling and surprising. The handiwork of God and man is evident, the latter being more sublime than the former. Vardø resists through declarative street art, most sanctioned, some guerrilla, none kitsch.
When the Hurtigruten makes a port of call, the passengers have one hour to cross the gangplank to see what they can. The most northern fortress in Europe is a predicable stop. While it certainly is a meritorious visit, solitary tree notwithstanding, there is so much more that cannot be seen in an hour. In fact it would be an insult to try.
The memorial to the witch burning is best visited alone. You need to hear and feel the wind, not the voices and footfalls of others to appreciate the magnitude of despair. The street art too necessitates serendipitous viewings. To walk with no plan in mind other then to be confronted with a work that is familiar but strange at the same time. Do I know that face? Have I heard that phrase before? Those were typical questions that came to my mind.
The small communities of Iowa and Norway are homes. Of course they are home to people but also potential. In our plethora of small towns exists infrastructure, utilities, housing…present but underutilized. We spend tax dollars to subsidize the building up of infrastructe in larger cities where it seems like they don’t need it while we wring our hands that our small towns are dying.
In a democracy you get a vote and a voice in the process. But even in peerless democracies like Norway, there are many who feel like they are ignored or worse exploited. There are options: vote, lobby, organize…or fight. In defending her attempt to vote, Susan B. Anthony testified that she would not pay the fine, she would fight. She enligsted a Quaker maxim to her defense and said, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” Many small towns complain. in Vardø, their obedience is to their centuries old community. Putting up a fight might be common, but in art, their resistance is special.
This week has been the best of a typical Norwegian spring: early sunrises, budding flowers, and snow showers.
New birds: 1, Journey to date: 65
Siland (Mergus serrator)
For our future
A dinner table conversation brought up the topic of air pollution. One of the boys fingered China as the main source. Despite the epically dirty air of eastern China, I had to correct him. We are the source.
His screwed up face demanded an explanation. I had to give a little lesson on other sources of pollution such as carbon dioxide. Trying to get an eight-year-old to comprehend an invisible gas as a source as pollution, global warming, was a heavy lift. It’s a heavy lift with adults too.
This was a big week in news. Earth Day was earlier this week. But the biggest news, the news that hopefully our children will study in future lessons, was the signing of the Paris Climate Accords. Sadly and predictably, the news cycle was dominated by stories that didn’t amount to a pebble in the mountain of significance of the Paris agreement.
There was a green spined book I kept in my personal collection at school. The students were welcome to browse, but no one picked that book. It was the environmental almanac of 1991. And while obscure, it was a treasure of wonder for me, a snapshot of what was, a reference for how things have changed.
The most humbling section of the book dealt with greenhouse gases. The authors noted the 1991 situation, trends, and predictions. They made strong claims that global warming was in progress and worsening but that slow yet steady adjustments could be made to life to forestall or even stop the catastrophe.
Twenty-five years later we are still gnashing our teeth. Two decades on, the predicted effects are visible and visceral. A generation hence, we can see we’ve done almost nothing. Imagine how easy it would have been to have made incremental change?
The Paris accords give me hope for a better world future. I don’t think climate change, global warming, or whatever you want to call it, are the right names. This is a people crisis. People in Dhaka, people in Miami, the folks in Chicago or Antwerp, people are at risk, all people. The climate will always be here, as will the earth. But will we? Will we and our civilizations perish from the earth?
I feel a great sense of responsibility for global warming. I should, I’m an American, we are the biggest CO2 contributors on the planet. But I also feel a great sense of opportunity to make a difference. That also makes me an American.
When my children are grown and having those suppertime conversations with their families, what will they say about our world, our civilization? Because of the Paris Climate Accords, I feel better about them having a thankful conversation about our present human community than I have in a long time.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The first four birds listed below are from Week 14. But you know, when it comes to gulls, they are just darn hard to tell apart. I had to spend a little more time than I wanted comparing my photos and notes to my books. Plus, gulls are not my thing.
New birds: 5, Journey to date: 64
Gråmåke (Larus argentatus)
Fiskemåke (Larus canus)
Polarmåke (Larus hyperboreus)
Krykkje (Rissa tridactyla)
Snøspurv (Plectrophenax nivalis)
There is a call in the wind
Back from my hike to the top of the island it was time to rest. I dropped my backpack at the birding shelter and contemplated my experiences. I recalled the old maxim, “Take only pictures, leave only memories.” Check, I even managed to take a couple pieces of trash. As I reached to rummage in my rucksack I noticed something else I would be taking with me, a healthy bird dropping on my bag. The dried remains will become a prized artifact of my visit to Hornøya.
I beg forgiveness because I know it’s a sin to covet, but I wanted a booking so bad to Varanger. And like something you covet, it is usually unattainable. I wanted to get to the end of Norway for many reasons. One, because it was possible given my job. Two, I really could say I had visited with Norwegian pupils from every corner of the kingdom. Three, it would be cool. And four, there was a rare duck that was predictably in the area. Feel free to speculate on my priorities.
My booking for teaching in Vardø was perfect. Mid April would be soaked with sun but still good light with shadow and richness. My target bird would still be in the area. I would get to meet a birding inspiration. And the pupils would still be far enough away from “Russ” time to pay attention in class.
Kautokeino was hard to get to last week, nobody goes there by mistake. Vardø is a little easier. Following my day at Samisk VGS I hopped the evening bus to Kirkenes by way of Finland. I saw a lot of trees and two wandering cariboo. Vardø has a commercial airport and is also a port of call for the Hurtigruten. But it is still an island in the far north so there is a balance between the exotic and the accessible
Vardø and the greater Varanger area are anomalies. Theirs is the only true arctic climate in Europe. Trees are rare, on Vardø there is only one, it is in the special protection of the Norwegian Army at the Fortress. Speaking with a resident who’s been to Nome, he said the places are very similar but that the water around Vardø doesn’t freeze shut. Snowmobiles appear to be a necessity.
But the birds, Vardø is about the birds. Exotic arctic birds that might cost your life or fortune in other parts of the world are right here. You can fly in, take some pictures, spend some time in a peaceful and safe Norwegian village and then go home. Maybe it’s too easy?
As a birder I will admit to my sloth and idiosyncrasies. I would do my best but I wasn’t going to risk my life to see everything possible. Besides, I only needed to see one bird to be totally satisfied. Of course, a duck.
The key draw to Vardø is the amazing bird breeding island of Hornøya. It is a small rock located just northwest of Vardø, a boat ride of less than 10 minutes. But the moment you cross the breakwater in the harbor you are entering another world. A world of big cold waves. A world of rich marine life. And finally, a world colonized by multiple species of seabirds, theirs friends, and their predators: Hornøya.
The cliff face is visible from town but it gives you no sense of the density of birds living, flying, squawking, and crapping there. Walking up the gangplank the noise was the first tell, the smell was the second, this was a foreign country.
I was the only person on the island, the only noon rider on the ferry. I felt undeservedly proud of myself. The pilot would return in 3 hours. I was dressed for the weather, no worries.
Goal number one was to find a Lunde, a Puffin. 30 seconds, check. They are curious little birds, a color scheme designed by a kindergarten class and the terrestrial habits of prairie dogs. My camera is the best we have, the truth is I also covet a more powerful lens.
Across the cliff face were the species I had prepared to see, it was so hard to take it in because I could not focus. If there had been one special bird or one special nest in a distance spot, then it would have been easy, everything else would have faded into the background, the great blur of life.
But here everything seemed exciting and important. My eyes needed that special panoramic lens and a sharp memory to take it all in. Overwhelmed by stimulation I went for a walk.
The island has a restricted pedestrian area to ensure the welfare of the birds. I took the path that would lead me south along the cliff face to climb up and over the island to visit the lighthouse on the other side.
The walk afforded me the opportunity to move and change my perspective, as well as get scared to death. I heard an avian commotion to my left, but paid no mind. All these birds were in breeding mode. It was war on the cliff over mates and territory, like the worst of a honky-tonk getting visited by the battalion on the first night back from extended training.
And then they hit me. A pair of gulls in full tussle fell off the cliff on TO ME! More apologies to God for my language. Unfazed, the combatants continued their struggle down the hill. They found a moment of detente and then flew back to the nesting area only to begin the struggle again. I wasn’t going to wait for a repeat performance.
Ducks are my thing, and in Varanger one can safely predict seeing the rare Steller’s eider. It’s a color looking duck with a neat story. They spend winter in the area and then in May return to the melting lakes of Siberia to nest. It was almost noon on Sunday and I was waiting for the boat to take me to Hornøya when I noticed a raft of ducks in the harbor.
Ah, common eiders. Cool ducks in their own right but not too exotic; I saw this group yesterday. But what could some new pictures hurt, digital shots don’t cost nothing.
Click, click. what! I switched to my higher magnifying binoculars and saw it, a steller’s, no two, no three! Two drakes and a hen in the group of Commons. I know there was the grin of an 8-year-old boy on this middle-aged face.
I was more than satisfied with my time on the island. I got sun, I got snow, I got to see fantastic and unusual birds up close and personal. I think three hours would be the minimum a person would need on the rock if they had any abiding interest in birds. The raptors were absent, that was a small bummer but not a disappointment. My day had already be made.
Later in the week I tried different location on the islands. The firm Biotope designed birding blinds around the islands, they are the only architectural firm in the world devoted to birding. They have an international presence but their goal is to turn Varanger into a destination birding location. I think they are well on their way.
On my last day on Vardø, the sun was shining again on new snow. The sun rose at 3:52, I managed to stay in a bed a little longer. My morning stroll on this working island of fishermen was to the area called Skagen. I scored one new bird species, the Snow buntings were present but shy. Additionally, the striking scenery was just humbling. I took pictures of what I could but it would just be better if you paid this special place a visit. There is a call in the wind: take it!
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 14: Long Water Brought Low
Thanks for your patience, another late entry. A joy of spring is flowers. In particular, the little flowers that dare to risk the frost. They are not too fragrant or fancy but they are courageous. Maybe we should all strive to be spring flowers.
New birds: 7, Journey to date: 59
Gulerle (Motacilla flava)
Fjæreplytt (Caldiris maritima)
Stellerand (Polysticta stelleri)
Lunde (Fratercula arctica)
Lomvi (Uria aalge)
Alke (Alea torda)
Polarlomvi (Uria lomvia)
Long Water Brought Low
The Niagara Falls are famous, of course they are. Geology and promotion cooperated to make the sight familiar to every American whether you’ve been there or not. The volume of water is astounding at Niagara. However that is such a nebulous idea that the height of the falls are the most important. How tall? Like a mountain scorecard, the height is the key. There are higher falls. Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite is three times the height of Niagara. Thursday I traversed my tallest water-fall to date in Norway, and you’ve never heard of it. In fact no one has.
Sea level, the great equalizer of the world; the standard. In Alta Norway you are at sea level, 0 M.O.H. in Norway. That is zero Meter Over Havet, “Havet” meaning “the sea.” At almost 0 M.O.H. I unwittingly started my experience with this most tall movement of water. In fact I didn’t realize I surmounted the great height until after my journey.
Alta is connected to the inland town of Kautokeino with the Alta River. It’s a world famous destination for summertime anglers seeking large salmon that are searching for their natal sites. My destination was Kautokeino. It is a Sami-centric town deep into the Finnmark plateau, closer to Finland than the coast. Kautokeino sits at 306 M.O.H. My journey on the road upriver would follow for the most part the intended path of those piscine athletes.
You see, it is a waterfall. The water does fall from the highlands to the sea. But instead of a dramatic crash over some precipice this descent is attenuated, almost unnoticed. If you choose to, then you can notice all sorts of new things.
Finally, after three hours of cooling my heels in the Alta airport, the bus to Kautokeino was away. The estimated time was two hours and 15 minutes, about 185 kilometers, they failed to advertise the elevation. The middle of April in Arctic Norway means there is still snow, plenty of snow. But there is also the sun. The sun now has enough height and strength to melt the drives and raise the temperature. The snow puts up a fight about the temperature, it melts, slowly; it shrouds the land with vapor, a shield against solar missiles. According to the bus monitor, the water closet was open and the external temperature was 0 centigrade.
Like any respectable river the Alta forms a delta where it reaches saltwater. Here, that means the Alta fjord, the roiling waters of the Norwegian Sea wait in the distance. I find the playful bends of a river slowing delightful. Maybe the river is trying to be coy, or play with the ocean. Does water flirt? Thank you Google Maps for indulging my imagination.
It doesn’t take long to leave Alta sentrum, however I wish I got more than a glimp of the spiral-staircase spired church. We are three, two mature men, friends, sitting at the front and me, amidships and port. The surface was Highway 93, but this would be no drive from LaCrosse to Eau Claire. Time was 15:10.
In Arctic Norway there are birch and pine trees in some combination. Of course there are other genera present but your line of sight is dominated by birch and pine; usually Scots pine (pinus sylvestris) and Silver birch (Betula pendula). At 15:25 the bus was paralleling the river, only a few kilometers from the confluence. The surrounding land was covered in trees, pine and birch that reached for the sky, looking like perfectly normal second growth forests.
This highway is a major road, but even in a prosperous land it is but two lanes, today it’s mostly snow covered. The low leaden clouds have been spitting all day, mostly drops but sometimes flakes. There is little hope for photography.
Mountains hulk over road the road, were they sirens for the engineers? Perhaps, Norwegians love their mountains. The road leaves the main river for a branch that winks upstream through cleavages. 15:42, the canyon is tight and twisted, borderline claustrophobic. Icefalls cling to the cliff faces. Many are blue, in bad light they look good, to think what they look like in good light.
The driver and riders are talking freely. Earlier I was sure they were discussing me, the driver and I shared an amiable conversation before the ride. If not their conversation then it’s the hum of the bus or the radio, there is no silence within to match the silence without.
15:49, we are out of the tight canyon and in a defined valley, still with walls but not confining. The trees have changed, the pines have become few to none. Birch covers the land, dull gray limbs on white snow. The birch are curious in that they are short and thin, as if malnourished.
I learned that the birch are indeed malnourished. 16:00, we are in a land of barely rolling hills, the plateau – Finnmarkvidda. Two forces are afoot, conspiring against trees: elevation and distance. The elevation is of minor concern, but when leveraged with distance from the warming water of the coast, then trees struggle to survive. The lack of enough days above 10 centigrad condemns trees, even the hardy birch and aspen yield.
60 kilometer from Alta and about 70 to go. The stunted forest is spread thin as far as the eye can see. Time, 16:15.
The fish migrating this far would have to be strong and committed. They love “the motherland” and are fanatical about their mission to spread their seed. I wonder if the creators of the Netflix show, “The Americans,” liked to fish?
The star of the Norwegians rivers, and the star of the star river, is the Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar). For over one hundred years this muscular beast has enticed anglers to venture north. Connecting with a brute fresh from the sea must make one forget all about the cloud of mosquitoes and gnats that are attracted to the tourists. The Alta River is highly regulated, the Gallatin River is a free for all by comparison.
“Uurr,” that feeling in your gut when a vehicle lurches. The bus caught another pile of slush on the starboard side. The resistance slowed the right tires and made the bus groan.
“Salmon” is a name that invokes wonder. It’s a fish that occurred outside the centers of civilization. A food stuff reserved for the affluent, a sport controlled by the kings. Growing up, the idea of eating salmon was something reserved for the most special of occasions. Plus, I don’t think anybody dared cook it at home. A salmon fillet isn’t something you deep fry.
The men have been silent, 16:20. Perhaps they are tired? Maybe the vastness of the landscape finally caught them? Here one is really alone, there is no need to speak.
The trees are shorter and more narrow, still thinly spread to the horizon. These little birches appear darker. The snow covered landscape is covered by the dark pricks, in the low light it reminds me of an ostrich skin cowboy boot.
The coach leaves the main road to swing through the settlement of Masi. No one waits for the bus. A good number of the homes here have large animal hides tacked to their sheds and small skins hanging on porches or roofs, protected from crows and stray cats by fencing and mesh. Just driving through this land it would be easy to dismiss that much wildlife lived here, clearly the locals have found otherwise. My eyes were peeled to the windows but only crows betrayed their presence. If crows were tasty or had a good skin, then they would be hiding too.
Atlantic Salmon are a curious fish. As a Midwesterner, my idea of salmon was totally formed by childhood lessons and TV shows about the heroic salmon of the West that fought 3,000 kilometers of elevation and thousands of river kilometers only to die. If only Homer knew of this fish. But Atlantic Salmon don’t die! Their bodies change to survive in the freshwater so they can return to the ocean to gorge again. Several years later they can make another run.
The driver broke the silence. I guess he couldn’t take it, the silence from an audience. The three resume their discourse on the all the world’s problems. 17:06, on of the passengers asks if there are always so few riders for such a large bus? Yes, plainly responded the driver. The rider had a follow up question, “Why not a minibus?” This must have been an assault on the obvious and a breach of the cultural norms because the driver gave a verbous and emotional lesson as to why the large coach. He talked so quickly all I made out was something to do with having a toilet onboard.
We dropped off of Highway 93, a one lane road through the outskirts of Kautokeino. 15:13, the men leave, loaded with backpacks they walk up a side road towards some adventure. The driver beckons me to sit up at the front. I oblige, how could I resist?
We wait and watch the men walk away. Then the driver confided in me that they were from the city, he felt obliged to talk to them, to tell them about the area and make them feel at home. Lonely cultures have strong hospitality rituals.
My journey ended at the Thon, I was greeted by a fleet of hotel snowmobiles for rent. I was too tired to be interested. Little did I know I traveled a water-fall of 306 M.O.H. Such a stand alone thing would be famous throughout the world. The Finnmarkvidda in general, and Kautokeino in particular are hard places to get to, harder still to live. Here, so far and so high from the sea, the fish are visitors, the trees are unwelcome, and people do what they must.
Distance and elevation make for water to fall. With a little creativity, you can see the wonders of water-falls most anywhere, even in a place like Iowa. Let’s share stories when I move to America.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 13: Words from the wiser
New birds: 1; Journey to date: 52
Svartmeis (Parus ater)
Words from the wiser
I am late again with this week’s edition. I’ve been occupied with other writings so I’m going to let the words of one of our greatest voice speak instead. I picked the introduction to “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson. “Silent Spring” altered American history, for the better.
This April I have keep the doors and windows open despite the cold because the birds are singing. This spring has been a riot of song and feathered chatter. With that in mind, “Silent Spring.”
Rachel Carson. from “Silent Spring” (Houghton Miffin, 1962).
A FABLE FOR TOMORROW
There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.
Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the road- sides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The country- side was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.
Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Someevil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.
There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.
The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer Rachel Carson visited them, for all the fish had died.
In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams.
No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.
This town does not actually exist, but it might easily have a thousand counterparts in America or elsewhere in the world. I know of no community that has experienced all the misfortunes I describe. Yet every one of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them. A grim specter has crept upon us almost unnoticed, and this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know. …
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.