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.
There’s No Room to Share
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.
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!
She 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!
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.
The Sunday Nature Call, Uke 53: Fuzzy Math
Yes, Virginia, there is a Week 53. If you allow yourself to use your imagination, then you can invent all manner of things.
One of the “things” I like in Norway is the use of organizing the year by weeks. In Norway, the week begins on Monday. For examples, in 2015, Week (Uke) 1 began on Monday, 5 January; we arrived to Oslo on the first day of Week 32, Monday, 3 August. That pattern through the year means that the week of Monday, 28 December is Week 53. It seems like every organization uses the week numbering system to organize their calendars, there is little need for fretting about calendars dates. Neat!
Pilfink (Passer montanus)
I had a “Big Year” in 2015. I endeavored to be more exacting in recording my new bird observations in America, a habit I then brought to Norway, with great success and pleasure. One of my heroes is Aldo Leopold. I will never be able to hold a candle to his remarkable notetaking and documented wild observations, but I’m going to do my best.
Do I have a favorite bird sighting of the year? No, the most memorable sightings were important for different reasons and to priviledge one would also be to favor the company in which I saw the bird in question.
My noteworthy sightings in America were (in chronological order):
- Grus canadensis canadensis
- Tympanuchus cupido
- Grus americana
Norway has been generous to this lazy birder. I haven’t tried too hard to see birds, it’s been mostly catch-as-catch-can. My spreadsheet has 39 entries for Weeks 32-53. Maybe it should be 42? I had one bird misidentified and two lines for birds that I just could not make a totally positive call. Shucks.
I am confident I would have had at least 50% more if I would have been more dedicated to birding the mountains than running them. Oh well, my conscience is clean.
Because I favor certain types of birds, many species have escaped my count because I’m just not looking for what Is likely close by in plain sight. Sparrows, finches, most of the song birds…I don’t put any effort into finding them; the same goes for most marine birds like Gulls.
I know my way around the Oslo area so much better now than autumn. Come the spring migration, I will do a better job about preparing for likely migrants in likely locations – at least I can’t do worse.
There are some birds I would really like to see and a couple to see again. My wish list includes:
- Polysticta stelleri
- Tetrao urogallus
- Somateria spectabilis
- Fratercula artica
For 2016 I have high hopes and low expectations, It is going to be a great year. I think if I saw my four wish list birds then that would be a bigger score than the 39 I have claimed in Norway. How can 4 > 39? Fuzzy math.
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
Sunday Nature Call, uke 46: Black Gold; Or, Wealth that Lasts
Cooler now in Oslo, many mornings the paths greet my feet with a subtle layer of ice. I am learning to walk more purposely here, always be ready to fall. Snow has alluded Norway, much to the disappointment of Ola and Kari Nordmann. Late autumn is a resentful time in Norway: cold, dark, and damp. At least with snow a person can hit the trails. Snow amplifies the light from both sun and stars and make the nights less foreboding. I’m rooting for snow.
Black Gold: Or, Wealth that Lasts
There is a universe beneath our feet. Underfoot is a world unexplored and largely uncharted, our Moon has fewer secrets. The mystery has a simple name: soil. If you eat, then you rely on soil for your life. As typical of human behavior, we disregard or dismiss the truly important things. We have even tied the word soil with a disparaging verb, “you soiled your shirt, now it’s ruined!” How do other languages treat soil?
The oil production that made Norway rich has a date of expiration. Estimates for the cessation of functional hydrocarbon exportation suggest the year 2030, maybe 2040. The specific year or even decade of extinction isn’t important. What is important is that the oil industry will end and likely within the lifetime of many Norwegians. Then what?
Oil fields are supposed to be used up. The word “exploitation” is used purposely and fittingly. And after the oil ends Norwegians will still need to eat. It is impossible for Norway to feed itself, and a pipe dream to think so. But Norway must use the land it does have to feed as many people as it can. The old soils will be tasked with the serious and timeless work to produce food for people and livestock. Will the soil be able?
The settlers who traveled to the prairies of the American Midwest came for the soil, the abundant, fertile, and almost free soil. Scenery was not on their list of wants or needs. And in the course of a couple of generations, those hardworking migrants and immigrants turned an ocean of grass into an ocean of grains. They fed themselves, a region, and a world. That remarkable productivity came from the soil.
In retrospect is it no surprise the settlers, and especially their progeny went beyond using the soil for production to exploiting the soil for production. Industrial tools were handmaidens to the belief that this way of life, this way of farming could go on forever. But Mother Nature teaches harsh lessons to the myopic.
The vast oyster beds in New York Harbor died and threatened to starve a city. The epic White Pineries of the western Great Lake States were leveled in 40 years by hand tools. Passenger Pigeons were an inexhaustible source of meat until they were no more. I could go on.
The droughts of the 1930’s manifest the Dust Bowl, thee example of soil mistreatment. But I think soil is actually about the future. Sure, it is made up of ancient materials by ancient means but what soil does is provide a future…as long as you treat it kindly.
I have seen a lot of the farmland that exists in Norway, much of it reminds me of my western Wisconsin boyhood. I was told by a teacher in Gran (Oppland Fylke) that she has visited almost every American state, but not Wisconsin. I asked her why, it seemed like an impossible statement to me and my question must have come across as hurt and desperate. “Oh,” she replied, I think sensing my surprise, “I do want to visit Wisconsin, but I have seen the pictures and it looks too much like here.”
The fields of Norway that produced potatoes, rye, and oats have transformed. From my arrival in August, the cereal gains were already ripening, they were all teaming with life. Now, those same fields are ugly open sores to my eyes.
An American farmer in the Midwest with any sense of pride or decently would retill his fields following the fall harvest; of course he did, “Everybody does it.” But why, from where was that practice born? In Norway they retill the fields. I suspect they do as well in Sweden, and Germany, and France. I suspect fall field work was just another cultural migrant.
No-till, low-till, and cover crops are some of the practices that have caught on in America to staunch the loss of our topsoil. A harvested cornfield that winks with green before the snow falls is a beautiful thing. Cropland on the prairie that announces spring with fall planted shoots is a triumph of longitudinal thinking. I haven’t seen any such practice here. Of course it’s possible I have missed it, someone tell me where it is.
I used to think a field of well-turned earth was a sign of a job well done. It was a testament to mechanical prowess. It was a monument for the winter that, “man is here, acknowledge his capabilities,” Now I see pain. The integral skin the soil needs is gone, how it must suffer. Imagine if it could scream.
In Iowa people like Senator Rob Hogg and Columnist Todd Dorman have been stalwarts for soil. The Aldo Leopold Institute for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University does research and education on the need to protect the world beneath our feet. To me it seems so clear an imperative.
Yet, in Iowa we are betraying the gift of soil. We are still exploiting the soil, our laws continue to treat soil like dirt. For example, something as simple as requiring developers to put back at least some of the topsoil they scrape away as they prepare sites for home and commercial building has been a political bridge too far. It seems impossible but it’s true.
When will the soil of Iowa lose its viability, 2030, 2040? There will be no oil to turn to for Iowans. When the Norwegians are forced to rely on their soils for survival will they be able?
Looking ahead, looking up, and keeping my pencil sharp. -jlh
The Sunday Nature Call, uke 40: False Summits
Autumn, has arrived: meteorolgical autumn, astronomical autumn, of course. But also the things that can’t be predicted to the second, gold and red leaves on the oaks, your breath in the morning stillnes, and birds that take their migratory cues from the winds around them. Yes, autumn has arrived.
I saw two new birds but if I was truly ambitious I would see more because the migration is gearing up. And each day brings the likelihood of newly arrived migrants from the north. We had guests from Iowa this weeks. One is a keen observer of nature and an eminent biologist without the entanglements of a formal education; i.e. someone who knows their birds, plants…because they’ve lived it. The guest observed several new species of birds without even trying, most were birds that haven’t yet crossed my path. Good for him (but just a little jealous of the skill).
Ramn (Corvus corax)
Hegre (Ardea cinerea)
Running serves many purposes for me in Norway. One, it is an intimate way to familize myself with a new area or town. Two, I get a little exercise. Three, it occupies my downtime. And four, it provides mental space to do some of my best thinking – must be all that blood rushing through the brain. Additionaly, running serves my obsession with tracking my life on a spreadsheet. Yes, all my kilometers are duely recorded.
Aldo Leopold wrote, “There are two types of hunting: ordinary hunting and ruffed-grouse hunting. There are two places to hunt grouse: ordinary places and Adams County. There are two times to hunt in Adams: ordinary times and when the tamaracks are smokey gold.”
For we outdoor enthusiasts who admire Mercury, “There are two types of running: ordinary running and trail running. There are two types of trails: cloistered trails and those with vistas. There are two types of visits: those that depress and those that inspire.”
Bergen makes it easy to run trails to vistas that inspire. On Thursday I set my sigts on the highest of the mountains surrounding Bergen, Ulriken: 643 meters (2,210 feet) above sea level. And since Bergen is at sea level, the intrepid runner must earn all of that height. But oh, don’t be lured into a false sense of confidence because your Ulriken isn’t really 643 meters. Like so much of life, things are not exactly as advertised.
One, there are not seven mountains surrounding Bergen. Two, when you are congratulated for making it to the top of Ulriken, you are not at the top of the mountain. Three, at the summit you are only halway to your destination, you still have to get down.
The look was familar but the sound and the setting were not. A large black bird winged overhead, a crow, I’ve seen those before. The bass “croak” that reverberated down to me in the valley between the false summit and the true summit was dense: that was no crow. I squinted. He was big, but it was the heavy and glossy beak that let me know I was looking at either Huginn or Muninn.
I wondered what message he had for me? Since I wasn’t a god, greater or lesser, I suspect I was the news. Odin would soon learn that some foolheartly flatlander was treading his high country kingdom.
Bergen sells its self as the City of Seven Mountains. It is an understandable and gentle homage of Rome’s claim as the City of Seven Hills. According to lore, a local writer, in admiration of Rome, thought that Bergen too could claim a magic number of seven promitories. I bet tourists never check, did you?
A mountain needs at least 1,000 feet of elevation, and should also be a separate gelolgical formation for other high points, otherwise we’re talking about different lumps on the same rock. The rocks surrounding Bergen don’t quite add up to seven when the science is applied. And one is short of the requisite height. But for affairs of the heart, science is a mere nicety but not a necessity. Oh, which mountain is the leaker? Well, there you have it, reader challenge number two, commenting winner gets a postcard.
I had been running for about 20 minutes. The trail from Hostel Montana started wide and smooth enough, and of course, uphill. It didn’t take too long for the trail to become for of a monstrosity of cobblestone that gave up on being manicured quickly thereafter. A jumble of rocks and puddles followed with the occational steps made of rock that suggested you were on a path.
Like a macho man I bounded up, wool socks, shorts, a very old (therefore authentic) Helly Hansen long-sleeved top and a t-shirt. Helly Hansen was soon wrapped around my waist, up and up. Higher up I came across a daycare group descending, maybe 4-5 years olds. We chatted, “Hva heter du? Hva heter du? (What is your name?)” No longer feeling so macho. Their teacher confirmed I was on the correct trail.
Up I ran, crossing into the the alpine zone with the loss of trees and gain of tundra. Low bushes, some bearing blueberries carpeted the ground, in a sheltered location here and there one could find spruce. Scrambling over ancient boulders bearing the scars of glaciers, fastidious as ever, I managed to keep my feet pretty dry despite the spongy terrian and well-trodden muddy paths. Up I came to a saddle, ahead and on my left was the communication tower and tourist center. An odd intrusion of modernity onto this ancient landscape.
Skies with enough sun let me see Bergen in its glory: magnificent. A smattering of tourists, who clearly took the cable car to the top, loitered. I got my turn for a selfie at a definitive landmark of achievement, the summit of 643 M.O.H.
From my position at the selfie station I was begining to realize my accomplishment was questionable. While I ran to the tourist center in a saddle between two promontories, I wondered which was higher. Now I could see this peak wasn’t it.
I walked to the giftshop and asked the wanna-be SoCal surfer which was the real peak, this one or the one to the east? He confirmed it was the one to the east. I cursed and then took off back down into the saddle to find a path to the cairn at the actual summit.
All that work, on my part to achive something. All that work by the tourist bureau to invent something. How can you achive something that doesn’t exist? How many false summits do we climb in our lives?
Now the trail was thin to non-existent. I picked my way up, avoiding breaking my ankles by luck on several occasions: running plus slippery rocks, and lots of holes in the tundra are bad combinations. Abandoned now was all hope of keeping my shoes dry to say nothing about keeping them clean.
My Uncle Gary, no, my other Uncle Gary, said that mountains are best viewed from the bottom. As a lad I remembered that causal quip. He had just returned with this family from an epic Pacific Ocean family roadtrip in their very cool green and white SUV (way ahead of the curve). Among many places, they went to Pikes Peak and drove to the top. He thought it was prettier from the bottom.
As a flat-lander, mountains are a mystery to me. My comfort point with mountains is from the bottom, there the calculus is easy: bottom – top. Even climbing is not too bewildering; keep an eye on the peak and keep going up. But at the summit my physics are distorted. Big things below are small, distances are difficult to calculate. And the way down looks nothing like the way up.
I rather enjoy running up hills, even steep ones with such rocky and unpredictable footing. The body’s gait and lean against gravity make it a challenging yet achievable effort. Aggression is rewarded.
I did my best to pick a path towards the true summit and the cairn. Trails were braided, there was no clear route. One misstep off a path meant a footfall into the tundra, a cold and wet sponge. I developed tunnel vision and a rushed sense of urgency. “I’ve got to get up there quick. Why don’t I sense other people here on a such a nice day? What if I get hurt? I’m getting cold. Keep going, you’re so close.” all these thoughts, coursing through my brain like my blood under this strain.
Success. The wind was howling at this highest point. This peak was the first impediment for that North Atlantic wind, I bet the wind was mad to have its flow interrupted. The cairn was big and looked precarious, I didn’t dare touch it for fear a single shove could topple the pile onto me. But I also needed to participate with the cairn, so as I approached a plucked a small rock and tossed it onto the heap. Balancing as best I could for a couple of pics, my fingers were stiff with cold, and then reversing course.
This is the point where I best understand Uncle Gary’s sentiment. When you’re are victorious in reaching the top of a mountain you are mistaken. I my case, I had to climb two summits because the advertised peak was not the true summit. But for any trekker, the top of the mountain is only halfway. The summit isn’t really the goal. The goal is to return safely from the summit, quintessential flatlander logic.
The change of the goal is a subtle but important change. In the case of the mountain, you have to first ascend to begin your work towards the goal. Such change in logic may help bring new perspectives to so many of our human struggles. It’s not that you want to graduate from school, it’s that want a good job, and to have a degree is the true first step. You aren’t looking for the love of your life. You’re looking to spend a life with another you love.
When you change the way you think of the goal, I know you will come to appreciate how hard, how demanding the true goal is. School? School is easy, teachers tell you what to do, check enough of the boxes and you graduate. Making a life for yourself as a working adult based on your education – now that is a challenge! When you change your perspective your change your life.
My run down the hill was nothing like the ascent. I was a little tired and a little cold, in the back of my mind I knew there was no relief from the former. I ran through the saddle again seeking a route from the visitor center down, but I couldn’t find one. “It has to be here!” I thought, my mind racing with anxiety. Fatigue, desperation, and unfamiliar terrain are also bad combinations.
“Unmentionable, I’ll go back the way I came up,” I huffed. The romantic mountain climber in my mind wanted a new route down, a “hard” one as labeled on my the map. A forth time through the saddle and then onto that familiar path. Except it didn’t look familiar. I couldn’t see a clear way down. There was a trail with climbers ascending just over there but I didn’t see anyway to join that trail without wings. With this new downward looking perspective nothing looked the same.
Down and down, following some trail. There were clearly footfalls from today, hopefully I was following a knowing local. Down and down, and slowly, with increasing rebellion in my knees and ankles. The view down the mountain was confusing, and the gravity was punishing. “Maybe it would be easier to re-climb and just ride down on the cablecar?”
I passed two climbers, young women ill clad for the task and complaining in American english. One, I was now confident I was on a path towards the bottom. Two, I had no interest in saying hi. I slid past them down a long smooth boulder and met an increasingly formal trail. Still a viciously rough jumble of stones and mud, but clearly the path down.
Hello gravel, hello trailhead, hello single-family homes with shiny black ceramic-tiled roofs. I still had about 4 Km to go but my worst enemies were now diesel exhaust and dog droppings. I didn’t care how tired and sore I was, a soft bed in the hotel would be mine.
Two and a half hours laters I was done. I had achieved my goal: the safe return from the summit of Ulriken. On my way I had to ascend two peaks. First the false summit, with all its charm and allure. Then the true summit that held the key to the goal.
Wishing for you wisdom and discernment between false summits and the true. Hoping for you courage to investigate all that is advertised. Praying for you the health to traverse all the mountains of your life in pursuit of the real goals.
Looking ahead, looking up, and keeping my pencil sharp. -jlh