Author Archive: John Lawrence Hanson, Ed.D. jlawrencehanson@gmail.com

Final Post: Tusen takk

Final Post: Tusen takk

fulbright-logo2

 

And I was called John the Lucky

And I was called John the Lucky

Eiríks saga rauða

  1. kafli (http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda)

Leifur svarar: “Það ætla eg ef sá er yðvar vilji.”

Konungur svarar: “Eg get að svo muni vel vera. Skaltu fara með erindum mínum að boða kristni á Grænlandi.”

Leifur kvað hann ráða mundu en kveðst hyggja að það erindi mundi torflutt á Grænlandi en konungur kveðst eigi þann mann sjá er betur væri til þess fallinn en hann “og muntu giftu til bera.”

“Það mun því að eins,” kvað Leifur, “að eg njóti yðvar við.”

Leifur lét í haf þegar hann var búinn. Leif velkti lengi úti og hitti hann á lönd þau er hann vissi áður öngva von í. Voru þar hveitiakrar sjálfsánir og vínviður vaxinn. Þar voru og þau tré er mösur hétu og höfðu þeir af öllu þessu nokkur merki, sum tré svo mikil að í hús voru lögð.

Leifur fann menn á skipflaki og flutti heim með sér og fékk öllum vist um veturinn. Sýndi hann svo mikla stórmennsku og gæsku af sér. Hann kom kristni á landið og hann bjargaði mönnunum. Var hann kallaður Leifur hinn heppni.

 

My brother has a favored quip, “it’s better to be lucky than good.” Apropos to that. Good is a pretty high standard to cross, but just about anybody can trip forward over a low bar. In a perfect world I would be lucky and good, in the real world I ought to be satisfied with the former rather than the latter.

The Roving is over. The wool is packed away. My bug bites have bug bites, sweat is no repellent. I guess now is the time to think, to reflect. Perhaps, yet the time to savor will come later. It’s too hot to savor anything now.

Did I learn anything Roving over Norway? You bet! But the problem is to articulate it in a way that dignifies the magnitude of the experience for me and my family without bloviating. Last night I heard Terry Tempest Williams speak, I know she could do it. My self confidence isn’t quite there yet.

So many of the lessons from Norway are already in this blog, I would rather re-read than re-write. The contrasts are what’s new now that I am in Iowa. To be knee deep in a Middle Border summer from a year in Norway is to crave a respite from the worst of America and revel in its best.

I have been driving a lot and I don’t like it. I don’t like it how the default is to drive. I don’t like it that our collective memory has been erased; roads were once the kingdom of walkers and bicyclists. The cars drove us to the ditches where we remain. The cult of cars is unsustainable, understandable, and unavoidable until the next crisis. Father Time is undefeated.

Where are the people? The heat keeps us in, the cars keep us apart. I have felt quite isolated in the short time we’ve been back even though I’m in my home culture with my home people. Summer break exacerbates this problem, but the remedy approaches.

I had fast food for lunch, it was glorious. I have had a lot of fast food lately. America is food. Food in giant portions. Food in cosmic variety. Food in endless quantity. The thing I most craved was food. Now that I’m in the breadbasket all I want to do is eat. Food is America.

The presidential race will start in earnest Friday. The battles between the champions, the skirmishes amongst the auxiliaries, the participation in the world’s greatest ongoing political experiment, it is a spectacle and a thrill.

Fulbright challenged me to travel to Norway and teach about America. The journey was long. There was wind and rain. Snow and ice both stimied my plans and stimulated my body. Dark days and then light-filled nights confused my mind. It was an adventure. The new birds and new people captivated me. My crew survived with nary a scratch. I taught my lessons and took in some too. I don’t know if the natives will say that I was good, but I sure was lucky.

 

Saga of Erik the Red

Chapter 5, an excerpt (http://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en)

Leif answered, “I should wish so to do, if it is your will.” The king replied, “I think it may well be so; thou shalt go my errand, and preach Christianity in Greenland.”

Leif said that he was willing to undertake it, but that, for himself, he considered that message a difficult one to proclaim in Greenland. But the king said that he knew no man who was better fitted for the work than he. “And thou shalt carry,” said he, “good luck with thee in it.” “That can only be,” said Leif, “if I carry yours with me.”

Leif set sail as soon as he was ready. He was tossed about a long time out at sea, and lighted upon lands of which before he had no expectation. There were fields of wild wheat, and the vine-tree in full growth. There were also the trees which were called maples; and they gathered of all this certain tokens; some trunks so large that they were used in house-building. Leif came upon men who had been shipwrecked, and took them home with him, and gave them sustenance during the winter. Thus did he show his great munificence and his graciousness when he brought Christianity to the land, and saved the shipwrecked crew. He was called Leif the Lucky.

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 28: The Stars Return

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 28: The Stars Return

New birds, journey total: 82

My bird count is corrected and closed. I had a Big Year. Highlights? I think Polysticta stelleri was the top score because I had so hoped and then anticipated that duck. Birding can be quite a sickness at times. Other important gets were Grus grus and Cinclus cinclus. For some birds it was the company and setting that made the sighting important, as was the case for Haliaeetus albicilla. Every bird on my list evokes a memory, enriching my life everyday thereafter. The birding will continue, just without the language barrier.

 

The Stars Return

 

The low of a powerful yet distant train approached. As it passed it tore the trees and homes and whomever was unlucky enough to be outside. At 5 am, only the paper boys and campers had to worry. I shut the windows to keep out the wind-driven rain and went back to bed to await the day. It was dark, and I was no longer in Norway.

Well, it is the heat and the humidity. The continental summer of Iowa is in full effect with a  forecast for truly scorching temps by the end of the week. What planet am I on? So recently my life was ensconced in cool daylight, wool undershirts, and midnight sunsets. My shift from the moderate climate of Norway to the Midwest was speed by intercontinental air travel. There was no time to acclimate. I wonder how my ancestors took in the difference?

I am typing these words shirtless in a warm house – air conditioning is the necessary evil I hope to avoid for as much as possible. If I need a taste of the high latitudes, then I’ll retreat to the basement.

Meteorologists in The Gazette wrote this week about the warming effects of corn and soybean crops. Their “evapotranspiration” measurably adds to the dew point and humidity of Iowa, making it hotter. That is, it’s costing you money because everybody has to run their AC more. Where’s my tax break for that!

My preferred reacquainting with the community has been by foot and bicycle.  I was accosted by Red-wing blackbirds while jogging along a doomed gravel road. That’s my type of welcoming committee.

The nature of the Iowa is sublime to Norway’s drama. I do miss my long views with distant mountains and forests. I can close my eyes and still relive the excitement of fjord and ocean as dynamic natural generators. Where is the raucous chatter of the Skyære?

But don’t fret that the roses have thorns, rejoice that the thorns have roses. Driving west of Dubuque last night I was treated to that awesome show that is sunset on the prairie. The fields were lush and thick with crops, the light gave them a pride missing from noon-time ilumination. The star of the show was our star in fact, dissolving onto the broad horizon in a splash of true pink.

The Ringdue and Gråtrost calls have been replaced by the Robin and Goldfinch. Currently, the chorus of the cicadas are drowning out everything save some distant lawnmower. Tis the season.

Daylight is shrinking both here in the Midwest as well as in Norway. Come September we will briefly share a resolution. The first natural phenomenon that made me pause was the return of the heavenly bodies. I ascended the stairs from the basement and caught the door window framing a celestial scene of the early evening. Looking up and south I saw a crescent moon above a single bright point – probably a planet. I stopped mid-trip to look, to stare, and to wonder. And slowly but surly, like the changing length of days, the scene changed and one-by-one faint stars appeared.

Oh course, they had always been there but the daylight kept them hidden. The Norwegians will have to wait a while longer to get reconnected to their constellations. Iowa noted my return with stars.

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

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 26: A Badge of Honor

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 26: A Badge of Honor

New birds:9, Journey to date: 83

Heiðlóa (Pluvialis apricaria)

Stelkur (Tringa totanus)

Kría (Sterna paradisea)

Hrossagaukur (Gallinago gallinago)

Sandlóa (Charadrius hiaticula)

Spói (Numenius phaeopus)

Duggönd (Aythya marila)

Súla (Sula bassana)

Skúmur (Stercorarius skua)

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Ponies graze west of Reykjavik

A Badge of Honor

 

Audie Murphy, Chesty Puller…John Hanson? I have no business being in the same sentence with those men. Their tally of medals could have been used to plate a car. My time in the Marines earned me two medals. Well, I think I really only earned one. My first medal was the National Defense Medal. On the heels of the the first Gulf War, anybody in service earned it. If you get a medal for just being present, a medal everybody gets, then maybe the standard is too low. My second medal was for several years of “good conduct,” that is, I didn’t get in any egregious trouble. I guess being on your best behavior was a matter of historical significance in the Marines. This week, in the act of birding and plain ole happenstance I earned a new commodation, a badge of honor.

My lexicon was tested this week. We have now left Norway on our way back to the prairie home. Our flight hubbed through Iceland. As a strategy to improve tourism, Icelandair allows you to break up your trip with an extended stay in this extraordinary land at no extra charge to your flight – Sold!

I heard many descriptions of Iceland before we traveled, two that stood out were, “other worldly,” and “bonkers!” I have a preference, you’ll have to read on to learn which.

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Reykjavik from Alftanes

A powerful memory I will always carry from Iceland was the free-of-charge stroll I took on the first night in search of new birds and images of the landscapes in the rich, low light. Selfishly, those two-and-a-half hours made my whole trip. I tried my best to be the amenable dad in repayment to my family for the duration of the stay, they deserved it.

Earlier we walked the beach, it was a nice chance to stretch our airliner legs and take in the fresh ocean air. I thought our area of lodging would be rich with shore birds, and I was right. Within the hour I added two entries to my log. My plan was hatched for a solo sojourn after the gang went to bed. With sunset at midnight that was both an easy and hard task.

Iceland resists categories, typologies, and superlatives. Maybe you need to speak Icelandic to fully explain this place. But then again, how do fish describe water?

Day Two was behind the wheel our rental to take in the “Golden Circle.” Three stops were planned as was the willingness to follow our whims to seek additional sights. Iceland didn’t disappoint.

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Approaching the National Park from the west

Stop One, Þingvellir National Park. The drive foreshadowed the epic vistas to come. Gems abounded in the park: Iceland’s largest lake, the sight of the original lawmaking and legislative assemblies, a sacred river, and the boundary between two continental plates. Pre Reading about the specialness of the place would have helped me to better enjoy the park. As a professional student I rather enjoy homework, perhaps I should retake the class?

I overheard a local guide comment apologetically to his group that the site was so busy with tourists. I’ve been to Rome and Disneyworld – this was not crowded. But when you are a country the size of Virginia with the population of the Denver suburb Aurora, you might think that a small group of people is quite the gathering.

I made my way out the house about 9:30 pm with a bright sun suspiciously high in the sky, lingering. I thought the walk would take an hour, I should have known better. Oh, you don’t care about birds, well you’re in luck because Iceland is bursting with wildflowers and plants. Then there are the mountain, and glaciers, and geothermal features. Huh, still not impressed. How about tracing over a thousand years of history from the Vikings? Nothing? Well, too bad for you.

The flowers and the skyline turned my walk immediately into a wander. What luck! While I like to make plans, serendipity is a treasured companion.

Along the sea path and next to a farm pond in a marshy meadow, the locals squaked and bathed, and carried on. Despite the commotion I noticed a new presence, and by ear, not

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Circling for another run

by sight. I knew that “winnowing” sound because it was cool. I wonder if it’s been used in sci-fi movies – it would be a neat effect.


The aerial performance by the testosterone charged male was right up there with Maverick’s ariel showboating in “Top Gun.” He climbed in large spirals only to strafe the meadow with his sonic swoon for the unseen female below. Over and over, had that been the entertainment for the evening I would have been quite pleased. But there was more trail to explore and I was greedy.

Our small rental was part of a greater pilgrimage of tourists taking their turns on the route considered de rigueur. Stop Two was “Geysir,” but I had my doubts. I have been to Yellowstone so my bar was pretty high. Thankfully, as a father I can look through the eyes of children to see the geothermic oddities and appreciate the wonderment as it was for the first time. It was a cute and compact area and the geyser flared with great regularity, much appreciated by the short attention span crowd.

Pied-faced shore birds flocked ahead of my on the trail. Rather than fly off at my approach they scurried farther ahead. I supposed a little game of cat-and-mouse can be fun. Little did I expect they would lead me to my favorite score of the evening.

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Gullfoss and canyon

The third stop made us successful pilgrims. The “Gullfoss” waterfalls have stunning views with an equally impressive origin story. The cascades were destined by a foreigner to host a hydroelectric dam a century ago. But a local woman was a juggernaut of protection, even threatening to martyr herself in the waterfall less it be killed with a dam. She was crazy but she was right. Today the falls are the most visited site in Iceland and she is viewed with admiration. Dams are just a damn shame!

There was a fence and stile at the end of the causeway and a welcoming party waited on the other side. I had no inclination that a war party also waited, just beyond. Next to a new friend from earlier was a Whimbrel, unmistakable and awesome. Birds like this used to nest in Iowa by the tens of thousands, today not a one. That bird had my full attention.

I crossed the red steps and entered a peaceful meadow bordered by a brackish lake and the sea. It was a serene scene with the shelf life of about five more steps. The first squadrons to attack totally caught me off-guard. The opening salvos were unnerving, but retreat wasn’t an option; the battle was joined.

Big waterfall checked off the list, all that remained was the drive home and extemporaneous stops. A historical marker sign gave us a 500 meter warning. I slowed, we passed, and then agreed if not now than never. A u-turn and stop gave us waterfall number three, “Fraxi.” If this cataract was in Iowa, then it would be the show stopper and absolute must see. In Iceland a handful of people enjoyed the view. Such poverty, such wealth.

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Crater and lake

The procedure was repeated for the next historical marker. This visit demanded a trespass fee. Yielding to our original mantra we paid the Crowns and approached Kerið, think Crater Lake, Oregon on a much smaller scale. It was here that I was reminded that treeless Iceland had a lot more trees than you would think. A man-made forest swept the backside of the old volcanoes. These hand planted labors of love confounded. My reaction was that they were just counterfeits in this austere landscape. But then I had to accept that the sheep, horses, and people were just as phony to the authenticity of the island. Mankind loves to tend a garden.

The stretch of low grass was a nursery of Arctic Terns. Their precious nests, although unseen, were everywhere. Birds boiled out of grassy patches to take part in the harassment and attack of the audacious bipedal intruder. I had on my beaver skin fedora that Meghan hates. The protection of that hate from the swooping birds earned it a permanent place in my wardrobe. I walked quickly, to run would show fear, only emboldening their campaign.

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Fighter and Bomber, Tern and Whimbrel

The journey back to Reykjavik on Highway One was a fine way to conclude the journey. It was a road that invited contemplation. West of Selfoss the road climbed and climbed to a plateau. Here was nothing. I got the sense of space travel and uncomfortable remoteness. There was a familiarity in driving a car and the look of the road but to the right and left were old lava fields, barren hills, some vegetation but not too much. The scene did not welcome me, I felt a sense of hostility from the land. It was almost like the place was accepting my rubbernecking but would not tolerate a stop and visit.

A tern hovered in the air in front of me, a little to the right, chastising, taunting, and deceiving. It worked because I didn’t even realize that the real attack was coming from my left. The bomb was dropped from 11 o’clock and score a direct hit on my shoulder. The splat surprised my ears as much as my skin. I was hit, but the only chance you have in an ambush is to press on.

By the time I crossed the meadow the contents of the liquid ordnance began to dry, freezing the pattern in stark contrast to my black jacket. IMG_3877I stopped to take of picture for posterity, little did I know I did so in front of the President’s home. Did I have psychic idea that he would come out to fete my deed?

The balance of the walk back was uneventful and mostly through a suburban development. I carried a camera full of new images. I carried a mind rich with new memories. And I carried a white emblem on my chest, a badge of honor.

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

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 25: The Sun Always Rises ; or, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 25: The Sun Always Rises; or, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

New birds:1, Journey to date: 74, and a correction

Svarthvit fluesnapper (Ficedula hypoleuca)

The Uke 23 entry noted the Varsler, I was mistaken. I did my due diligence uncovered the true identity, the habitat and warning call were the keys to the mystery.

Møller (Sylvia curruca)

Varsler (Lanius excubitor)

 

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A “No Fishing” sign at Lysaker Brygge, always a lure

The Sun Always Rises; or, When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

As I held out my hand a tiny gray flake alighted. Even for Oslo, a snowflake in June is a rarity. Ah, but this was no snowflake. This was Sankthansaften – Saint John the Baptist’s Eve.

My time in Norway was getting shorter, just like the nights. Sunset at this latitude and month is so slow, the angle so oblique, that the transition from direct sun to twilight is unnoticeable. The light of the just hiding sun lingers, as if the sun feels there is too much living to be done. I go to bed late, with visible light and wake to a sun that has been up for many hours. The analogy to my time in Norway has been obvious.

I have no personal tradition of celebrating Sankthansaften. My Midwestern summers accepted earlier and complete darkness in comparison to the high latitudes, perhaps in exchange for unrelenting heat. But when in Norway…

Sankthansaften also marks the end of the school and anticipation of summer holiday, the 5-6 weeks in Norway when EVERYBODY is on vacation, preferably at a coastal or mountain cabin. Side trips to America are allowed. For Scandinavians, the evening is properly observed with sea-side bonfires, maybe a speech, and revelry. I went fishing.

My catch in Norway has been zero although my satisfaction has been great. Remember, it’s called fishing and not catching for a reason. Tonight seemed like a fitting reason to whet a line – it’s nice to invent a special reason – and give it one last go.

The species of interest now in Norway is Atlantic Salmon. The mighty swimmers are coursing from near shore feasts to natal rivers. Their transformation from saltwater creatures to freshwater fish is nothing short of amazing. Their transition back to saltwater following the spawn squares the wonder.

I would not be fishing for salmon. To fish for salmon would require a car and a special fishing license, and probably a trespass fee. I fished the sea, a free right to all in Norway.

I expected nothing in terms of a piscine catch based on previous attempts, this was no different. Contemporary fishing is about the effort, the experience; I was really trying to catch a future memory. For that that there is no daily quota.

There is nothing odd about riding the bus in Oslo with fishing gear. I like Oslo. My ride on the trusty #32 Kværnerbyen dropped me adjacent to Lysaker Brygge, it was a short walk.

Merrymakers were visible in their preparation throughout the day. I saw an unusual abundance of shopping bags marked with the distinct logo of the state liquor store, the night demanded provisions. Others disembarked the bus with me, much better dressed and destined for an overtly social occasion. I headed for the docks.

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Brethren with rods in action preceded me. Long rods were their symbols of legitimacy and purpose. My kit revealed my status as an interloper, but also as no threat to their efforts.

These anglers favored floats and live bait. They seemed to me like non-native Norwegians and truly interested in catching supper. A family left with a bag of fish. I found a solitary spot and cast.

Two days earlier was the Summer Solstice. I marked the low sun of the evening with a last photoshoot of the new US Embassy and birdwalk along Lysaker River. The meteorological differences between the Iowa home and Oslo were more striking than simple statistics suggested.

Daylight in Linn County was 15 hours, 15 minutes; Oslo logged 18:50.

Sunrise CR, 5: 31 am     Sunset CR, 8:46 pm

Sunrise Oslo, 3:54 am   Sunset Oslo, 10:45 pm

 

But the truer measure went beyond the gross metrix of sunrise and sunset. Dawn awakened at 2:10 AM in Oslo and dusk at 12:29 AM. If there were stars over Røa, then I missed them.

With the abundant light it was difficult to make out all the fires that I knew ringed the fjord. The ubiquitous smell of smoke confirmed to my nose what I eyes couldn’t see. Clearly, Ola Nordmann across the bay from me was no master of a healthy flame. That “bonfire” finally smoked me out and caused my retreat.

A new location, closer to the hungry anglers and a couple of last casts for good measure. A man hauled in mackerel, scrappy and lean they were soon brained and in the bucket. I took down my pole and pit stopped at the corner market on my way to the bus. Instead of fish, I would be headed home with mineral water and candy. I was sure Meghan would be happy with my catch.

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

The Gates of Rome; or, Walls are for the fearful

The Gates of Rome; or, Walls are for the fearful

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Hello? A view from Lungotevere Farnesina

“Now Jericho was straitly shut up because of the children of Israel: none went out, and none came in.”

My upbringing was in an open society. The Midwest of America is home to grid-pattern cities and small towns. Highways and byways meander along rivers and ancient bison traces to connect them all. The streets have sidewalks, I could walk in front of the homes of the poor and affluent. Material wealth or lack-there-of was easily evident from the street. Some homes had fences, usually short and decorative. A high fence aroused suspicion, a compound suggested deviance.

My first contemplative exposure to gates, fences, and cordoned communities was near Atlanta, as a man. I was the guest of a wedding party at a guarded and gated community, home to the local rich and famous as well as a PGA hosting golf-course. With our permission slip we drove into the suspiciously normal looking streets but we were now inside the wall. Further, there was another, secondarily walled neighborhood. The manicured lawns and flowers did little to make me feel welcome.

I have since seen and read about walled and gated communities across America. I find they are a phenomena of the South and the Desert Southwest. My analysis is that the walls are manifestations of fear, mostly perceived of “others.” The “others” of course being fellow American citizens. The South and Desert Southwest have the highest rates of social inequality, that is, the gap between “the haves” and “have nots” in America. I don’t like gated communities. From my Midwestern, Yankee, Union, and Scandinavian background they seem un-America. They exist in opposition to our motto, “E pluribus unum.”

IMG_2609The monuments of Rome tell a fraction of the city’s ancient history. The lavish villas, monuments, and art are the remnants of the most upper levels of society. For the remaining 99% of society their traces are harder to find, even harder to celebrate. The normal residents and citizens of Rome get remembered in their frozen horror at Pompeii but seldom elsewhere.

For all the glories of Rome, Republic and Empire, it was a society founded on inequality. Rome relied on inequality to feed its growth and to build up the wealth of the most powerful of the powerful. Limited franchisement, slavery, colonization, hereditary privilege, normalized violence, and a fetish for “order” combined to make what must have been a rather fearful existence for all persons, free or otherwise encumbered.

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I noticed the remnants of that fear in Rome with so many walls and so many hardened entrances. Our first hotel was like a mini-compound. A massive steel door slid open on tracks to allow our driver entrance, four small apartments opened to a courtyard. Louvered shutters and doors of steel covered our openings, locked in I felt like we were impenetrable.

In the city center we stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood. The pattern was narrow streets mixed with apartments and small shops. Barred windows were the norm for the street level apartments. We needed a key to gain entry to the outer door to use a different key for our inner apartment door. The double key was not so strange, its how we live in Norway, but the bars were.

The Vatican has famous walls. For that matter so does Paris, Dresden, Beijing, and countless other cities around the world. Do walls come with time for civilizations? Like a long-lived home that gets decorated, remodeled, and embellished to the hilt, are walls just something we always wanted but couldn’t afford at the time of construction. Is America still that young?

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Inside the walls of Rome there are additional gates. A few are monumental and for celebratory use only. Most gates guard an entrance, some with famous guards. The conspicuous Swiss Guard man the gates to the Bishop of Rome. A polished soldier protects the president. Less polished soldiers guard parliament. Armed or not, polished or plain, guards are not welcome mats.

There have always been walls, even in the equitable Midwest, but they took other forms. Most commonly was the form of a detached suburb, the lack of sidewalk or distance from town substituting for the wall. I have to look no further than the greater Hunter’s Ridge et al. developments of north Marion for an example.

I regret that in the last generation, actual gated communities and “private” developments have proliferated in the Midwest. Are they benign indicators of changing tastes or troubling signs of growing inequality?

IMG_2467“And it came to pass, when the people heard the sound of the horn, that the people shouted with a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they took the city.”

“When the walls come tumblin’ down
When the walls come crumblin’ crumblin’
When the walls come tumblin’ tumblin’ down
Yeah yeah yeah” (John Mellencamp, “Crumblin’ Down)

 

 

Note: all photos filtered through “Instant”

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 23, #2: There’s No Room to Share

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 23, #2: There’s No Room to Share

Bonus Sunday Nature Call this week. My walk just got me inspired, I had to write.

 

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There’s No Room to Share

 

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Marisdalsvannet, Stay Out! And have a nice day.

A hen Goldeneye flew low and fast upstream, I was now on the downhill part of my walk on the upper reach of Akerselv, the river that flows from Maridalsvannet. Marisdalsvannet is a special lake and off-limits because it is a source of drinking water for Oslo. I volunteered to take #2 son to a nearby birthday party. One, maybe I could passively-aggressively use it as leverage at a later date. Two, I could walk the river in hopes of seeing some new birds. The latter point being more important than the former.

Moments later the duck had reversed course and landed with a unusually loud splash about 50 meters ahead. I would expect a female duck to be far more furtive. It took until the next bend in the river for me to understand the cause for such a scene.

Akerselv is a thoroughly modern river. I say that because it was used by early Oslo citizens for water and simple economic uses. During the Industrial Revolution, the river was put to task in a form of wage slavery that surly matched the working conditions of the laborers. As the factories took in raw products they created finished goods for profit, and waste. The profits went up to the villas and corporate offices, the waste was left to stew in the river.

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A birthday party on the banks of Akerselv

As the factories were ultimately abandoned it seemed like the Akerselv was as well. A tired and worn relic from an older time. Yet today, the river is a prized public possession and in quite good health.

Thankfully the Akerselv had one thing going for it, it was in Norway. In particular it was in Oslo where there was an existing movement and mindset for conservation and public use. The banks, once denuded, are vegetated. The water, formally filthy and devoid of most life, is vibrant. The people, historically exhausted, now walk its lengths for salubrious effects.

The river source is 149 meters above sea level, the length is 8.2 kilometers. Walking to the fjord on the additionally meandering paths will take you longer. If you only measure your life in quantifiable distances, then you’ll have know idea how far you’ve gone.

As a modern river this river is neither wild nor enslaved. The water volume is managed to prevent flooding. The streams sides are naturalized, landscaped, and hardscaped. Its lower watershed is urban run-off. But there are wild creatures, some of which are local and other migratory. Some of the migratory beasts come from the fjord, others from West Africa. They are people from all corners of the earth enjoying its riparian charms.

All this use means sharing. There are beaches for people, and turtles if they’re reckless. There are pools for fishing but with limits. Most of the banks have paths, but not all. Some sharing is difficult if not intolerable. Beavers are present but only with the overt toleration of the management. Moose, as amazing as they are, are not welcome.

Despite the lifetime of lessons in Kindergarten, sharing is a tough thing to practice. To share is to trust, to empathize, and to take a risk. I think I need to go back to my little country schoolhouse and get some more lessons from Mrs. Fritz.

Aldo Leopold wrote that our time of an Abrahamic view of the world must end. That own-consume-destroy-relocate zeitgeist must be replaced with an acknowledgement of the permanent damage that people can do to the world. Instead of owning the world we need to share it, with the living and the unborn. His words came in the afterglow of the atomic flash. I can think of no more profound genesis.

Extant American conservation champion E.O. Wilson recently published words calling for a radical idea that will not be considered that radical in the future. Wilson believes that we need to set aside half the earth for nature. The half that remains needs to be shared with other life as well. For Wilson, like Leopold, sharing is necessary, hard, and probably an unachievable goal in full but one that must be pursued.

Reserving space for wild creatures is an easily appreciated sentiment and a difficult practice, consider the moose of the Upper Midwest. PreColumbian Wisconsin had moose, pre-settlement Wisconsin had moose. For a period in the 20th century moose were absent. Today a handful inhabit the state. Unlike Whitetail Deer, moose do poorly around people and disturbance.

Sure, the climate of the last generation is now warmer than the past 500 year, the heat is hard on moose. Of course there is far less unbroken cover in the Great Northwoods, everybody wants a cabin and a couple of acres, moose don’t like neighbors. The Fish and Wildlife Service just accepted a petition to initiate a study for the moose of the Upper Midwest (Acles access anderson) to see if they qualify for protection under the Endangered Species Act.

The moose are strong candidates for protection, how hard could it be? Here is where it gets really hard really fast. I thought about what habitat is most endangered and vital for the moose, especially in a warming world: water. Moose need unmolested access to shallow lakes and bays on larger lakes to feed and especially to lounge and “beat the heat.” But the lakes of Badger state are developed, unfettered recreation is a god. Would people be willing  to share access to the lakes with moose? Could society tolerate retarding the develop of remaining tracts? Moose are cool, but if you don’t know them, then it’s hard to share.

The duck took a long and low position on the water, fairly mimicking an alligator. It was a sight I’d never seen. Slowly and then with a burst of speed she rushed towards the bank and the shadows. I heard the commotion but still didn’t see the object of her ire.

Large fluffy balls scattered on the water. A hen mallard gave kurt quacks to her chicks. The Goldeneye approached again and snapped. I’ll be a monkey’s uncle if it wasn’t like an alligator attack!

IMG_8907She returned to the center of the river. Victorious and proud she dipped and flailed her wet wings. It was a display of authority, and in the low light a luscious sight. Topping off the exercise were fits of aggressive calling, something like a rolled “R” three times capped with short and hard “R!” “Rrrr, Rrrr, Rrrr, R!”

The Mallard made a beeline for me on the opposite shore and hauled out at my feet. I never imagined that a duck would ever see a safe harbor in me. I guess your enemy’s enemy is you friend, genus and species be damned.

I was perplexed. All this work, all this flying for a hen Goldeneye without young. Was she angry for loosing her clutch? A gull flew overheard. The Goldeney called with rage and display her wings. The gull flew back and the hen gave a stunted chase. And then I finally saw a small fluffy ball swim from the shadow of the bank to the hen, she was a mother.

I was heartened and saddened. The little guy was really cute, the marking with white and dark feathers were surprisingly conspicuous. Yet, she would have laid about 12 eggs. To think that only one survived to this point, maybe less than a week old: nature seems too cruel at times.

Her loud calling continued, though the tone was a little different. And then I saw a second chick, near the first. Ah, two, good. A chick needs a sibling. Wait, there’s number three!

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Hen, foreground right. Chick, upper left, under shrub (iPhone)

Three is a reasonable number for survival in the city. With all the house cats on the prowl it’s a wonder she has any survivors. Happy, I left my vigil to continue downstream. But wait, here comes number four to the call, it was all the way on the other side. What an unexpected dispersement. And then I saw number five also swim out of its hiding spot on the far bank. Five, five is a good number, a prime number, I’m sure she can keep track of five.

The Goldeneye didn’t want to share the river with the Mallard, the Mallard didn’t mind me. I can’t help but think that maybe out of that 8.2 kilometers of river we couldn’t find a way to make a little more safe space for a duck. I think that in this relationship we’re the only ones who know how to share.

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

Sunday Nature Call, Uke 23: What the Romans Left Us

Sunday Nature Call, Uke 23: What the Romans Left Us; or, The Emperor’s New Clothes

Rescued by a Søndags tur one more time, thank you Norway. I was certain that I would have scored some new birds with a week in Rome but no such luck. My last day in Italy held out for a morning stroll through a sea-side grassland reserve: hopes were high. Alas, my epicurean adventures the day before kept me prostrate and near the lavatory Friday morning. When in Rome?
New birds:2, Journey to date: 73 (I double-checked the spreadsheet, 73 is correct)

Rødvingetrost (Turdus iliacus)

Varsler (Lanius excubitor)

 
What the Romas Left Us; or, The Emperor’s New Clothes 

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Poppies grow among the ruins, The Forum

It is easy for people to ask what was the neatest-most impressive-coolest-

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Street cleaner truck passing, seen through the bars of our window

significant…thing you saw in Rome, or name the major city of your choosing. Around the dinner table after our Latin holiday I asked the gang what was something unsual or unexpected that really would stick with you. My better half noted that everywhere you walked there was some amazing old building or church, that you just couldn’t get away from the history. The boys noted in turn that observations commensurate to their ages. I said I will always remember the street cleaners that didn’t clean. The little machines prowled the cobble block streets regularly but appeared to move around more trash than they picked up.

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Street scene, Trastevere. Rome

The Romans left a civilization in full. Rome was cluttered with the detritus of ancient urban life. The streets were bathed in horse urine. The alleys had the sick, rats, and other discards of life. Walls were adorned with paint but also graffiti. Leather sandals protected feet, canvas awnings protected heads, and wool tunics protected the rest.

A day’s worth of weather over the course of 1,500 years has left us with the lithic bones of the Romans. Thunderstorms erased the equine traces. Rats, roaches, and deluges cleared the old squatters to make way for the new. The paint that laid claim to a vibrancy of life weathered away, limestone, marble and bare brick remain. Leather, canvas, and wool turned to dust and became soil that became new life that died and continued the cycle.

What the Romas left us was enough of the civilization to appreciate it but not much that condemns our temporal existence. In that respect they really are dead. Will our posterity think so neutrally of us? I regret not.

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Flowers and litter, all wait at the bus stop. Fiumicino

It would be a rich problem to complain of a trip to Rome. There’s an expression in Norwegian to that affect but I can’t recall it (hint-hint faithful readers for a helpful comment :). I enjoyed my time in the Eternal City, the Colosseum was spectacular. But as an environmentalist and non-recovering litter-picker-upper, Rome made my head spin.

IMG_2911While Meghan looked up and marveled at the buildings and architecture that spanned two millennia, my eyes kept returning to the un-mortared joints of the cobbled streets, in place of the cement was a seemingly permanent array of cigarette butts, small plastic spoons from gelato sales, and other plastic waste ground into the gaps. Yes, Trevi Fountain was nice.

 

IMG_2763I was ready to be amazed by the ruins and monuments of Rome, and I was. The guided Vatican Tour was a 4+ hours and grueling but incredible. Walking the Forum grounds was surreal and a privilege. And resting in the easy morning light of the Pantheon with my family was the best. Yes, I was impressed as predicted.

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Ubiquitous mopeds, sans catalytic converters, Trastevere

However, I was not ready to see what the current residents and guests have done to the place. The smell of engine exhaust was a constant an unwelcome companion. The roar or din of traffic was the soundtrack for the journey. My eyes were scarred from the sight of garbage strewn about and a green Tiber River. The environment made me feel uneasy and left a bad taste in my mouth.

 

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Tiber River from Ponte Sisto

I shutter to think about how they will speak of us in another thousand years. I have visited beaches in the lovely Oslo Fjord where the sand and gravel appear equally mixed with plastic particles, some large, some small, all on their way to becoming smaller but never going away.

Near my Iowa home is a nuclear power plant. Its deadly waste may outlive humanity, “temporary” storage on the grounds is common. People complain about nuclear waste and wonder why there is no permanent storage. Seems like logic should have necessitated building the storage before creating the predictable waste. A moot point.

Short-term and long-term futures are at hand. Too many of our modern day emperors and their democratic shadows have robbed themselves in ideologies that defy science or even their own rhetoric. Donald Trump claims that Global Warming is nonsense yet tried to build a seawall to protect his golf course from just that effect. Norwegians bemoan the fouling of the ocean with trash and yet continue to pump petroleum that gets turned into little gelato spoons and all things plastic. Governor Branstad says Iowa water quality is a source of pride, his Secretary of Agriculture (and land stewardship) claims voluntary efforts are working and the water is getting better. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources issued a warning to boaters and swimmers: expect a record year for toxic bluegreen algae.

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Quotes of beatitudes abound, “‘Leave no trace,’ ‘First, do no harm,’ ‘Treat your Mother well,'” etc. We need expressions that dig more sharply at our modern ego-centrism. My submission: Do you want to visit this place in 1,500 years to be impressed?

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

The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 22: Frivannsliv

A brief entry for the week. I have been hosting company so my time for long narrative was unavailable. Not a strong excuse but that’s the one I’m going with.  A friend helped me with this week’s non-bird, tusen takk Andy.

New birds:0, Journey to date: 70

Kjempemessig Norske Rødnebb (Norske rubrumphalus rex)

 

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Poetry for high sun and cold water; or, Frivannsliv

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A haiku

What makes a Viking?

rain, cod, pines, sheep, fjords, and rye

Swim the cold water

 

A limerick

Strømsdammen so fresh so cold

From the shore, it’s easy to be bold

One foot, two foot, start to go numb

Then plunge right in, ain’t it fun

I went for a swim, you have been told

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

 

Even After Dovre Falls

Even After Dovre Falls
Really, it’s not the “middle finger,” even though it looks like that in the picture. The boys and I were just mimicking the pose of Peder Anker at the Constitution Hall grounds in Eidsvoll. The picture will not be available, though I like it because I know that we were sincere.
Confession: I have never been to Philadelphia. Most Americans haven’t been to Philly but that doesn’t mean anyone of us is less a citizen. How many Norwegians have visited Eidsvoll?
I had my education of the Norwegian Constitution in reverse. First I did the parade, then I visited the signing site. In retrospect I suppose that is how most Americans who’ve visited Constitutional Hall in Philidelphia have done it too.
In know Philadelphia is a major American city and the Constitution Hall area is a major tourist destination. I can imagine all the selling and schlock in the neighborhood, entrepreneurs eager to separate the faithful from their money. The Constitution Hall site in Norway is the opposite, it is probably the photo negative. I’ll have to make a journey to Pennsylvania to confirm.
A trip to the Constitutional Hall site has been on my “must do” list in Norway. I have done them all save two: visit every fylke – I looking at you Sogn og Fjordane – and see a moose. Iallfall, fornøyd.
We took the train from Lysaker to Eidsvoll Verk. It was a familiar and unassuming ride. Just north of Oslo Airport, the way to Eidsvoll was old hat for me. Several times I have traversed the spot for other journeys.
The day was fair and mostly sunny. Fields were freshly tilled and in want of rain. A dry Norway is a strange Norway. From the platform we had a walk of about two kilometers to the sight. Truthfully, the walk was welcome. After about an hour on the train, I was grateful to stretch my legs. Also, the walk made it more like a secular pilgrimage, something I could appreciate as a American. I wonder how they arrive in Philly?

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The walk took us off the main highway and onto a side road mostly for people powered traffic but you had to look out for the occasional car. On the side of the main road the police were conducting sobriety checks. Well done! No drinking, then driving is allowed in Norway. I wonder wonder how many lives we surrender to the “freedom” of drinking and then driving in America each year? In Norway I don’t wonder constantly if the car coming down the road has an impaired driver, in Iowa I do.
The walk to the Constitutional Hall grounds cleared my head and helped me to focus on the gravity of the place I was about to visit. The boys wanted to know when we were going to eat.
And then we were there. A well manicured grounds of tidy buildings arising from the country-side, there you have it.

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Eidsvollsbygningen, home of the Constituent Assembly of 1814

We had a packed lunch on a picnic table along the river, typisk norsk. One little boat coursed up and back from the bridge. People walked about, but no crowds. The sign of civilization was the regular approach of planes to Oslo airport.
Dining completed we bought tickets for the tour of the special residence in which the delegates met and agreed to the Constitution. The building itself was a fascinating study in multipurposing, culture, and preservation. The tour was in Norwegian, of course. Meghan and I were counting on the boys to translate as necessary. We did our best to nod and say, “Ja,” at the right times so as to fit in and hid our foreign identifies. I’d like to think we pulled off a pretty good counterfeit.
The guide, in all black, welcomed us and led us into the building. We put on slippers over our shoes and commenced the journey back in time.
I have professionally studied and practiced history. I use historical recreations in my lessons. But truly, the past is a mystery. I wonder about the lives, the smells, the ambitions, the diets of the historic and I lament that I just can’t fully appreciate their full lives.
Even a tour in a such a lovely cared for historic home cannot recreate the past. Our first stop was the dining room. While the colors were correct and the wood was original, I don’t know what it smelled like. I don’t know how hungry the men were, how little sugar they consumed, the working condition of the women who served them…
IMG_8088Each room was like that for me. Yes, I’m a little weird like that. Okay, a lot weird, but the point being that I felt more like a ghost haunting a building than a participant in the grand achievement.
A tight and narrow room, thankfully with a very high ceiling, packed in over 100 men that spring, 212 years ago. To think of of smells, the sounds, not to mention the sights, and then here we were. My family stroad the floors of consequences, we rested on the benches of decision. The angle of the sun that streamed through the old panes were not much different than that of the now ancient lawgivers.
I wanted to linger, I bet many fans of history do. Alas, the tour continued, and I with it. The tour guide had a schedule. How many of the delegates had a timepiece in 1814? How did “time” work?
The tour ended. We retrieved our bags from storage and then bought what we needed from the giftshop. The return walk was less eventful than the entrance. There was no time to be contemplative at the platform.
Courage. The signers of the Philadelphia constitution were puting their lives on the line vis-a-vis honoring the revolution. The men at Eidsvoll were signing their death warrants to a debilitated King of Sweden. In contrast, I’ve signed my name to a mortgage.
As we left, workers were lowering and removing flags. Visiting hours were over. We left with some memories and photos. Meghan got a Christmas ornament for us, I bought a copy of the Constitution, Grunnlov. The boys got lollypops.
When the men of the assembly parted on 20 May, 1814, they were reported to hold hands and profess their loyalty to this new Constitution, “until the mountain of Dovre falls.” That is, forever. Benjamin Franklin responded to an eager follower of the constitutional proceeding in Philly that the Americans now have a republic, “if you can keep it.”
Historical sites don’t make for a present. They help inform the present but they are only ideas of the past. As for my republic, I want to keep it, until even after Dovre falls.

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