Sunday Nature Call, Uke 23: What the Romans Left Us; or, The Emperor’s New Clothes
Rescued by a Søndags tur one more time, thank you Norway. I was certain that I would have scored some new birds with a week in Rome but no such luck. My last day in Italy held out for a morning stroll through a sea-side grassland reserve: hopes were high. Alas, my epicurean adventures the day before kept me prostrate and near the lavatory Friday morning. When in Rome?
New birds:2, Journey to date: 73 (I double-checked the spreadsheet, 73 is correct)
Rødvingetrost (Turdus iliacus)
Varsler (Lanius excubitor)
What the Romas Left Us; or, The Emperor’s New Clothes
It is easy for people to ask what was the neatest-most impressive-coolest-
significant…thing you saw in Rome, or name the major city of your choosing. Around the dinner table after our Latin holiday I asked the gang what was something unsual or unexpected that really would stick with you. My better half noted that everywhere you walked there was some amazing old building or church, that you just couldn’t get away from the history. The boys noted in turn that observations commensurate to their ages. I said I will always remember the street cleaners that didn’t clean. The little machines prowled the cobble block streets regularly but appeared to move around more trash than they picked up.
The Romans left a civilization in full. Rome was cluttered with the detritus of ancient urban life. The streets were bathed in horse urine. The alleys had the sick, rats, and other discards of life. Walls were adorned with paint but also graffiti. Leather sandals protected feet, canvas awnings protected heads, and wool tunics protected the rest.
A day’s worth of weather over the course of 1,500 years has left us with the lithic bones of the Romans. Thunderstorms erased the equine traces. Rats, roaches, and deluges cleared the old squatters to make way for the new. The paint that laid claim to a vibrancy of life weathered away, limestone, marble and bare brick remain. Leather, canvas, and wool turned to dust and became soil that became new life that died and continued the cycle.
What the Romas left us was enough of the civilization to appreciate it but not much that condemns our temporal existence. In that respect they really are dead. Will our posterity think so neutrally of us? I regret not.
It would be a rich problem to complain of a trip to Rome. There’s an expression in Norwegian to that affect but I can’t recall it (hint-hint faithful readers for a helpful comment :). I enjoyed my time in the Eternal City, the Colosseum was spectacular. But as an environmentalist and non-recovering litter-picker-upper, Rome made my head spin.
While Meghan looked up and marveled at the buildings and architecture that spanned two millennia, my eyes kept returning to the un-mortared joints of the cobbled streets, in place of the cement was a seemingly permanent array of cigarette butts, small plastic spoons from gelato sales, and other plastic waste ground into the gaps. Yes, Trevi Fountain was nice.
I was ready to be amazed by the ruins and monuments of Rome, and I was. The guided Vatican Tour was a 4+ hours and grueling but incredible. Walking the Forum grounds was surreal and a privilege. And resting in the easy morning light of the Pantheon with my family was the best. Yes, I was impressed as predicted.
However, I was not ready to see what the current residents and guests have done to the place. The smell of engine exhaust was a constant an unwelcome companion. The roar or din of traffic was the soundtrack for the journey. My eyes were scarred from the sight of garbage strewn about and a green Tiber River. The environment made me feel uneasy and left a bad taste in my mouth.
I shutter to think about how they will speak of us in another thousand years. I have visited beaches in the lovely Oslo Fjord where the sand and gravel appear equally mixed with plastic particles, some large, some small, all on their way to becoming smaller but never going away.
Near my Iowa home is a nuclear power plant. Its deadly waste may outlive humanity, “temporary” storage on the grounds is common. People complain about nuclear waste and wonder why there is no permanent storage. Seems like logic should have necessitated building the storage before creating the predictable waste. A moot point.
Short-term and long-term futures are at hand. Too many of our modern day emperors and their democratic shadows have robbed themselves in ideologies that defy science or even their own rhetoric. Donald Trump claims that Global Warming is nonsense yet tried to build a seawall to protect his golf course from just that effect. Norwegians bemoan the fouling of the ocean with trash and yet continue to pump petroleum that gets turned into little gelato spoons and all things plastic. Governor Branstad says Iowa water quality is a source of pride, his Secretary of Agriculture (and land stewardship) claims voluntary efforts are working and the water is getting better. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources issued a warning to boaters and swimmers: expect a record year for toxic bluegreen algae.
Quotes of beatitudes abound, “‘Leave no trace,’ ‘First, do no harm,’ ‘Treat your Mother well,'” etc. We need expressions that dig more sharply at our modern ego-centrism. My submission: Do you want to visit this place in 1,500 years to be impressed?
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.
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.
Beaujolais, moonshine, and cod…and blogs
A very tired and exasperated Jefferson Smith urged his fellow Senators that, “I’m doing the best I can” as he struggled to stay standing during his filibuster in, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” But he was just one man trying to convey the sentiments of thousands and thousands in his western state. But how could one man organize so much and then produce the quality and clarity needed to make sense, to be understood?
Having shown that movie more times than I care to remember in my government classes, I know it well. I empathize with the junior Senator, those Boy Ranger legs can only stand so long. These Boy Ranger fingers are doing their best, but they are so tired. How can I convey all that I am seeing and doing? How do I balance writing and experience? I don’t know, honestly, but I’m doing my best.
I am behind in my posts. A post delayed is a post spoiled. There are some foods that just must be enjoyed fresh, like beaujolais, moonshine and cod. Old blog posts are like old cod, well, you know where this goes. I promise to include all my drafts waiting for publication but not before they are ready. Sadly, I will end up with some strange deviations in the calendar narrative. Please be kind.
A longer journey today meant an earlier start. By 10:45 AM I was out the door to drag my luggage up the hill to wait for good ole #32. As typical, I left in a rush. Thankfully Meghan had me squared away the night before but the last moments/hours before leaving always keep me on edge. I got a meaningful farewell from my better half, less than enthusiastic goodbyes from the twins.
Since there were people already at the stop I knew I didn’t miss the bus. Shortly I was done the hill, off the bus, up the hill to Lysaker Station to wait again. This time for a train. I was expecting a standard commuter train at about 11:20. But the video screen said the L12 train to Eidsvoll on track 4 was coming after 11:30. Damnit, what happened? I checked my app, “On time.” Huh? This is why I’m never relaxed until I am at the terminal gate.
The Flytog (airport only train) was approaching on track 3. If I got on, then I would get to the airport on time for the uncharacteristically tight schedule I had challenged myself with. So tempting…but the Flytog costs double and I would most likely have to eat half the bill. Stay strong, believe in yourself. I waited.
The monitor now said the next train, R10 to Lillehammer was coming on track 3 at 11:21. Hey, that’s my train! All that worry for naught! Maybe by April I will have the trains and times down pat. In the meantime I will work on my ulcer. 11:21 the R10 arrived, 11:23 we departed, I relaxed, a little.
11:57, Oslo Lufthavn, get off. 12:03 print boarding pass at self-serve kiosk. 12:04 baggage check at self-serve belt. 12:13 passed through security control. Land speed record and O.J. Simpson didn’t have to hurdle any luggage!
First time on SAS, same Boeing 300 that Norwegian Air flies, what’s the difference? Ah, SAS is more Norwegian than Norwegian Air. SAS has little mirrors in the overhead luggage bins so you can see you are holding up the aisle. Now you can get a sense of urgency without listening to Ola Nordmann passively-aggressively exhale.
OSL to TRD, clockwork. In fact, even better because we were early. Now I could stew longer for my wait to fly on the twin-prop DeHavilland of Widerøe; no good deed goes unpunished. Man, that’s a little plane.
Open seating on this flight, unescorted kids get boarded first, and in the best seats. Good idea. Without trying too hard I was the first adult onto the tarmac. Great, blind leading the, uhm, the…passive. No, not passive, too stereotypical. Ah, “curious.” I obviously “wasn’t from around here.” Maybe they just wanted to see what the fool would do. I sat at the window, starboard, towards the back.
Fudge, the low-hanging engines are blocking my view. Too late to change, here comes the herd. A full flight, 43 passengers by my count. Next time I’m sitting in the back row.
The taxi speed must be the same as the jets, but this low to ground and with a prop it feel faster. There is a nimble feeling to the plane. More like a sports cars than a bus.
14:16 we’re away (there was no gate). 14:19 runway, and with no pause we’re off. 14:21 the seatbelt sign is extinguished. To my surprise this flight is not direct. First we fly to Namsos, then on to Rørvik. Reminded me of the old ‘ism from Marine infantry school, “I’m up, he sees me, I’m down.”
A young guy is seated to my left. Below is a deck of fog from the ocean contrasted with the brilliant blue skies inland, they clashed. In the fog bank little islands of hills poke through. Are they suggesting the greater array of islands in the archipelago just offshore? This area has a universe of islands, skerries, and rocks challenging the sea for permanence. We are headed for one of them, Inner Vikna. Please, go to a map and check out this area, let you mind wander, I won’t be offended, the blog will be here when you return. Go!
Right? I told you it would be worth it.
Below, the inland lakes and inlets of the sea mix and twist. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. In a prop plane on a short flight, we fly low, an intimate flight with the geography. I see the blooms of sediments and enriched water flowing into lakes, tiny deltas. In the calmed salt water there are ribbons of color, streaking through blue-green: nutrients, different water temps, mystery.
Descending to Namsos. In this plane you can clearly see you are tilted at the runway, you are pointed down and flying towards the earth. And you always thought you were gliding, coasting to terra firma; no. 14:44 we land.
On the tarmac I have a real conversation with a real Norwegian, so proud. Thank you Øyvind. Coincidently, I think he is either a student or teacher at the school I am visiting. When does the Crown Prince offer me a “you’re a real Norwegian” card?
14:59 we taxi. A momentary pause, for suspense, and then full throttle. It’s like we bounce into the air. More trees and bald granite hilltops; a kingdom for a red squirrel. There are buoy markers in the water, red and white, like a skiene. Probably the markers of fisherman traps. More of the same, then giant wind turbines.
We dip a wing and descend, 15:07. Øyvind points out a town, I’m trying to take a picture. It’s Rørvik, I got one shot, it will have to do. The runway is on a rare flat stretch outside of town. The landing zone starts at the water’s edge. Clear green water greets the approaching plane. Ducks skitter, gulls rest, unfazed.
15:09 we land. Full stop at 15:10. The sun is out and I know enough that I will need to take as many pictures as I can. A sunny day with fall colors is not to be wasted anywhere, but especially here.