Final Post: Tusen takk
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 Gates of Rome; or, Walls are for the fearful
“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.”
The 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.
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?
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?
“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”
A bead of sweat rolled down my chest. I touched my right hand to my forehead, wet too. It was only a degree or two above freezing out here and I hadn’t done any work. There was no good reason to be sweating, but then again I had never been to sea before on a small commercial fishing boat.
The waves were really rolling the boat on this second haul. The horizon bounced in my field of vision from full sky to full sea. I tried not to look, yet focusing on the deck didn’t help much. Even if I were blind, the movement, the swells, the smells, and the sounds, would have let the rest of my senses know this was not terra firma.
I had gone looking for trouble. In other travels I have been open to try offerings from the local teachers: a road trip and hike, a burial mound tour, a part in the Christmas pageant… “Sporty,” is the word they use here. In Vardø I asked to go fishing. It was a lark of a question because I expected no offer; be careful what you wish for.
The last of the second haul came aboard. The crew got the anchors detached and the rest of the line stowed into the aft large hopper. The lining bay got tidied up a bit and then the men retreated into the cabin. Time for smoke break number two. I had to stay out in the lining bay. The cold air and slipperiness of the bay was the lesser of two evils.
My time alone in the bay gave me time to think. One, what the hell was I thinking? Two, can I make it through another haul without puking? Three, can I get this radio station in Iowa because the neo-classic rock selection was awesome?
Time and the large volume of water on the deck won the battle with my boots. My old pack boot had large cracks in the soles, the Rocky’s had served me well over almost a decade of service but this time at sea was going to be their last outing. As I stood in my own squish I tried to tap out a beat along with song to distract my spinning head and swirling belly; save me Brian Johnson, you’re my only hope.
Cod swim the Barent Sea near Vardø year round. The standard method is hook and line, cod are gluttons and easily caught. During the breeding season the number of cod is much greater as the open-ocean species migrate closer to shore. During this period the fishermen use nets. My captain said we were near the end of netting time.
The population of cod in the Barents is managed in cooperation with the Russians. The captain said the stocks were pretty good and the rules seemed to be working. I wondered what the effect of the worsening economies in Russia and Norway will have on the cod. Will the temptation for more money be too great?
The cabin hatch opened and the crew return to the bay; line three, ho! For a moment there was a powerful smell of cigarette smoke and then the arctic wind took it away. They retrieved the third buoy and began to haul the line.
Like most things, this was more complicated than I thought. The rigging system for the net had to be disassembled, a chore with the arctic water in the frigid air. The mechanical line retrieval system spun and the green line eventually brought up the bright yellow net, the material looked like polypropylene. A couple of small cod and King crab came aboard. Gloves protected the men’s hands which were now working with an autonomous furry learnt from thousands of fish. They pulled, grabbed, plucked, cut, and threw with nary a pause. When the line is coming in there is no time to pause.
The crabs were a problem today. The season on this exotic species was closed and any crabs caught had to be tossed overboard. They were unmarketable anyway because the crabs were undergoing a molt, the captain said they were inedible now. Unfortunately for the men and the crabs it was such a waste. The crabs were almost always entwined in the net, removal broke the crabs, removal also took too much time to keep the line moving.
The captain joined the crew at his place at the front of the line, an extra pair of hands and in-person voice of instructions. Like, “The Deadliest Catch” in miniature, from the cabin the captain could observe the crew via closed circuit TV, and issue instructions over the intercom. The technology also facilitated the captain to join the line and still control the ship. GPS and a guidance system that looked like something from a modern jet airplane kept our boat on a steady course. The end was near.
The night before, my vector for this adventure took me to recon the boat. She was a beauty, new and well colored. As a new ship, I anticipated she would have better creature comforts. Yet the romantic in me who reads too many adventure books must have looked disappointed. The boat had a sheltered work bay unlike most of the older vessels in harbor. He asked I wanted to try a different boat. I said no, it would be rude and if I wanted extra hardships, then I could get them vicariously through Hemmingway.
Northern lights put me to bed, I knew they would likely be my last in Norway, a good omen. By 5:15 I was out the door on a crisp morning. The gulls had been in full throat for hours, sunrise was 4:02 AM.
I was the first man to the ship. On this blind date I needed to be on my best behavior. Dress right, don’t complain, and keep my mouth shut. I met the crew first. They were from the Baltic, trying their hand at fishing. A job but not a career, there would always be fortune seekers and the desperate to take their places. They boarded and began their duties, I waited on the dock for the captain. While a causal scene, I knew enough to ask for permission to come aboard.
The captain was a young and friendly fellow. He invited me to the cabin while the men prepped for departure. Through the hatch and I noticed two things. First, this was a very modern and comfy looking cabin. Second, the smell of cigarette smoke was overpowering. Anxiety pricked at my neck.
I took a seat at the small table. It was littered with a never washed coffee cup, candy bar wrappers, butts, and assorted detritus of working men. The captain sat at his throne, and chatted on his mobile while pressing buttons on the display screen. We were off sans fanfare.
The crew joined us as we neared the sea wall. Before pleasantries were exchanged there was a flurry of fingers, they made home rolled cigarettes. I don’t know if they are cheaper or deliver a more powerful nicotine hit but these muzzleloader cigarettes had an extra acrid aroma that watered my eyes and worried my belly. The taller of the pair fetched the coffee pot.
The shorter man was the most verbose of all three. His english was pretty good, he said he worked at a bar for years. He had what I call “rock-n-roll” english, a command of the language born of long nights working a tavern to the beat of gritty music. I passed on the coffee.
The boat pitched when we crossed the breakwater. The wind was normal today, that is windy. Perhaps the Norwegian fisherman who tried to make a life farming the Northern Plains found a bit of familiar comfort in the unceasing wind. Varanger isn’t that different from North Dakota.
The boat made deliberate speed towards the first buoy, about 8 knots. The captain said we had three lines of net to haul, a typical day. There were a couple of other local boats in the vicinity. The navigational screen showed all their positions, everyone is connected.
I was chomping at the bit to get out of the cabin, I needed some fresh air, STAT. My telepathic plea was heard and answered. I found a corner spot to lean against while the the pair pulled in the buoy and line rigging. Now we’re fishing!
The fish came in and I was amazed. I saw big cod and then I saw bigger cod, uff. The men clutched technical knives in their strong hands. The hook end dug at the netting to free the fish. For tightly wound fish the blade would cut them out. I was surprised by the net cutting. When I think of fishermen and their nets I think about all the time they had to take to mend them on a regular basis. Here, the men seemed to be casually ripping wider the holes. Later I figured out that the net, made of plastic, was thoroughly modern, i.e. disposable.
Freed from the net, and before the bin, the cod got one last handling, a coup grâce across the throat to exsanguinate and lay quietly. Before supper they will be eviscerated, skinned, filleted and on their way to your plate. Before breakfast they were wild and free. End of line one.
Break number one: more coffee, more cigarettes, more rock-n-roll. This was supposed to be about a four hour event, barely one hour in I was doubting my ability to hold it all together. I was very glad I skipped breakfast.
A large fishing vessel lurked on the northeast horizon. The captain thought it was a Russian fishing boat. The Barents Sea is dangerous water. On a clear day I could see Russia. On any day or night the Globus II listens to Russia from its perch on Vardø’s highpoint. Another fishing boat cruised nearby, but it looked atypical to me. Before I asked, the captain said it was a whaler, he heard they caught one yesterday. “Caught” isn’t the right word, fish you catch, mammals you kill. The Barents Sea is deadly water.
The catch today was disappointing. The captain told the crew they will reset the nets in another location. I was back in the cabin, smoke be damned. The boat headed for port and I was too cold and sweaty to stand outside. I made it this far, I knew I could make it the rest.
In port we queued along the factory. The crew wordlessly went about their work to ready for unloading. I went topside into the snowsquall, fresh air and still water made me happier but certainly no real Norwegian fisherman. The overhead crane extricated the hold containers to dockside. A forklift emptied the contents into poly tubs. The fish were weighed and the captain was paid.
Later the men would return to sea and reset the nets. Tomorrow they would repeat the process, and then the day after that. Everyday.
Scotland: “Aye” is for independence
“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.
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.
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.
The 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. The 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
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Scotland: “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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
The 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.
“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.
The 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.
By 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.
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.
In 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.
The 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.
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 Gravity of a Place and a Time
“We don’t stand on ceremony ’cause life is phony in spite of it.” That song sends my mind immediately back to the early 1980s and in particular a wintertime exploration with cousin Paula along the stream at her farm. It just does. So often songs pop into your head for seemingly inexplicable reasons. Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton reuniting in my head was unexpected but understandable.
The sentiment of simple authenticity from that song is something I can appreciate. I know the Baptist, and Puritan traditions of America and those legacies we live, even if you’re a midwestern Lutheran. Anti-Catholic Know Nothings, rebellion against royalties and all those ancient tradtions…Americans have congenital incompatibility to ceremony – as if we have a level of gluten intolerance. Sure, a little pomp and circumstance now and then is manageable but in contrast to most things American, less is more.
Yesterday we gathered at the Nobel Institute in Oslo. The dignified building was in that particular Scandinavian yellowed tangerine color. The location was kitty-corner from the US Embassy and across the street from the palace grounds. Power, influence, history, and the future coalesces on the geography there. The US Norway Fulbright Foundation put on a ceremony in the Nobel building, in the very hall where soon the world will learn the winner of the peace prize.
The grantees, academic mentors, family, Foundation members, key Embassy staff, and Ministry representatives attended. Foundation director, and fellow Badger, Petter Næss was the adept master of ceremonies, smoothly flowing between english and Norwegian. After the obligatory speeches we got to talk. Each grantee got to speak at the Nobel podium: a brief introduction, scope of project, and “why Norway?”
I was one of the last grantees to speak. My moment at the podium was moving. I expected to be nervous about speaking into such an impressive audience. Instead, I felt a heavy sense of meaning and weight in this opportunity. For over 100 years some of the world’s most notable humanitarians had their names immortalized from this stage. Now my small thread is woven into the great tapestry of Nobel history.
The other Fulbrighters commented on how impressive and important an occasion this was. This ceremony reinforced the magnitude of the Fulbright program. We needed that.
We use ceremonies in life to pronounce to our community and sometimes all of society that this is important. Things like baptisms, weddings, graduations, inaugurations, and funerals are about impressing upon the individual and larger community that what is going on is important and to be remembered.
Physics dictate that to make an impression, you need weight; the pull of the earth’s mass leveraged to leave a mark. Is it possible that some places have more weight than others? I like to think so. Through ceremony and symbols we can invent greater meaning. We can craft an experience that transcends ourselves and Newton’s laws. From time to time, we can create more gravity.
PS: i’ve been delaying posting this blog posting because i have been trying to create a gif of laureate photos i took in the diliberation room of the fulbright committee. i finally made the gif but i cannot download it as a file to then attach to this blog. looking for comments of advice. jlh