Tag Archives: Midwest

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 Gates of Rome; or, Walls are for the fearful

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


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.


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?

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 19: The ides of may

Off the schneid, feels good. I was worried enough that I even put some effort into looking. I had a first, a new bird verified “by ear” only. A friendly woman on the trail in the Oslo forest saw me looking into the woods and used an app on her mobile phone  to make the ID, “Welcome to the 21st Century, John.”

New birds:2, Journey to date: 68

Nøttestrike (Garrulus glandarius)

Måltrost (Turdus philomelos)


Enjoy the Ides of May


There is a fevered activity to life. Spring on the Iowa prairie is magic, spring on the lakes of Wisconsin is a joy. But the exuberance of spring is much more pronounced in Norway. By comparison, springs flows gently from winter in the Midwest. My experience of the Norwegian spring has been more like a gush of water from a burst dam.
IMG_1216At this latitude life is more extreme, at this latitude it should be. At this latitude the sun has defeated the night during this seasonal battle. This morning in Røa, the sun broke the horizon at 4:39 AM. Tonight in Trondheim, the sun will finally yield at 10:21 PM, and even then it remains suspiciously close to the horizon. For the seamen of Trøndelag there will be neither nautical nor astronomical twilight. All the light demands action, from flora and fauna to the human primates.

IMG_1218Better scribes can help you taste or smell a season. Capable authors let you hear a place through the printed word. Gifted chroniclers show you the scene, in the full palate of colors and shades. I manage to tap out a couple of words in hopes that they will sufficiently jog my memory when my grey matter matches the vigor of my grey beard.
IMG_1169We have enjoyed a warm streak in Norway, but Norway is not a warm land. The warmth of spring comes from within, the feeling in your heart. The blooms and bees make me warm. Children playing free of coats on a brisk day is warming. A lingering sun makes me warm.
The Ides of March earned a fierce reputation. 60 days later let us embrace a reputation of joy for the Ides of May.


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

Sunday Nature Call, uke 46: Black Gold

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.

New birds:

none (19)

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?

Iowa Topsoil monuments: Depths 1850-2000. Photo, Christopher Gannon

Iowa Topsoil monuments: Depths 1850-2000. Photo, Christopher Gannon

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.

Farms near Lunner, Oppland

Farmland near Lunner, Oppland

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.

fields near Vestby, Østfold

fields near Vestby, Østfold

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.

Rob Hogg TweetIn 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.

Dorman columnYet, 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?

Vapor tries to rise from a Royal field at Bygdøy (Filtered photograph).

Vapor tries to rise from a Royal field at Bygdøy (Filtered photograph).

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