Saturday 29 June 2013

Wings Over the City

I hear the familiar call, see the flash of black and white, catch the size and shape of the bird, and smile. It's enough to lead me into a guidebook and back out with a name: European magpie. 

That's hardly a coup. It's about as common as a kookaburra would be at home; with almost as recognisable a call. But that's not the point. When it's the first time you've seen a bird, especially one you've heard for years on TV (especially in the background of "Midsommer Murders"), there's still a wee thrill.

[Even the busiest of cities - and the most famous of landmarks - provide havens for birds]

Of course Stockholm, Berlin and Paris are not the first choice of places to go birdwatching in Europe. And I'm not here to do that anyway. But I can no more fail to notice birds than I can ignore the weather. So the Stockholm magpie success is a good start. 

In Berlin we strike hot weather ... and swallows. It's the longest day, and Berliners are in a party mood. Diners fill the streets; music swirls through the air, as do insects. They make a sunny evening feast for swallows. As we dine I marvel at these supremely aerobatic birds, flying scythes sweeping the sky, cutting down insects.

Swallows are seasonal migrants to these parts, newly come from Africa. They make the massive 9 000km journey between continents twice a year. I'm reminded that we too are seasonal immigrants when we receive an email from our 9 year old granddaughter Emily in Tasmania. It contains a lovely haiku poem she has written. It inspires me to make my own attempt.

Oderbergerstrasse Haiku

Swallows feeding high
Clarinet sounds through the street
Diners summering

While swallows abound, sparrows and pigeons are surely the most common and cosmopolitan of birds. They are found in most cities and towns in almost every climatic zone on earth. We find both birds in great abundance throughout urban Europe. But Paris, it seems, is owned by its pigeons. Every street, monument, roof and statue seems acoo with pigeons. Many are the common pigeon (Columba livia domestica), although their larger, plumper near-relative, the rock pigeon (Columba livia), is particularly conspicuous in Paris. 

We lunch in Place des Vosges, a wonderfully preserved 17th century square, and watch the two pigeon types spar with sparrows for scraps. We've only been in Paris a few days, but already we envy the birds their baguette-rich diet. 

Parisians however are not as thrilled as we are by the abundance of pigeons. It's not so much the birds themselves, but their excrement that has the city authorities muttering "merde!" They have gone to extreme measures to try and limit their numbers: spiking their roosting places; putting them on the contraceptive pill; and threatening to fine anyone who feeds them. So far they've had little effect on pigeon numbers.

A longstanding quirk of mine is to address pigeons directly by the name "Walter". It combines a Doolittle-esque desire to converse with animals, and the name of the 1950/60s film star, Walter Pidgeon. Whether it's Hobart or Paris, I always stop and greet "Walter". So as we leave Place des Vosges, I farewell him too, wishing him well in his tussle with those anal-retentive humans.

Wednesday 26 June 2013

May He Long Be Remembered

Most of us are collectors of one sort or another. And if we are, sooner or later we face the issue of how to organise our collections.

I, for instance, have an over-sized CD collection, thanks to a long-term interest in music, a dozen years hosting a radio show, and even longer reviewing records. When my selectively vague memory sends me looking in the wrong place for a particular CD, I'm inclined to envy the skill and brain of a particular scientific hero.

[Swedish Botanical Hero, Linnaeus]

He is Carl von Linné (1707-1778), most commonly known as Linnaeus. He organised a collection that makes my CD pile look like a box of chocolates. The Swedish doctor and botanist attempted to systematize and categorize nothing less than all life on earth. "God created, Linnaeus arranged" he is quoted as saying.

Uppsala was the site of Linnaeus' major work. It is a beautiful small yet spacious city, some 70km up-lake from Stockholm. Modern buildings nestle in amongst 500 year old ones, and broad tree-lined streets intersect with small cobbled lanes. Although a thriving university city and home to 40 000 students, on this bright late-Spring day it is quiet and calm.

We've been accompanied on our visit to Uppsala's Linnaean Garden by Swedish journalist/actor Hans Bodöö. Since 1978 he has studied - and acted the life and works of - Carl van Linné. Today he is guiding our conference  group through parts of Uppsala. To say he inhabits the character of Linnaeus is not to exaggerate. Bewigged and costumed like an 18th century gentleman scientist, he guides us through "his" studies, trials and tribulations in Sweden and beyond.

[Linnaeus' modern alter-ego, actor/writer Hans Bodöö]

The garden is still laid out much as it was in his day, with annuals and perennials on either side of a central path. It is less a show garden than an outdoor laboratory cum library. Many of the plants are medicinal, as befitted a medical practitioner. Linnaeus trained in medicine as well as botany, and did at times advise patients. But there is little doubt that his major work and first love was botany. From his base in Uppsala he went on grand expeditions with his students, collecting plant - and also mineral and animal - specimens from the wilds of Scandinavia. His were not rapid sortees. Travelling on horseback, he would frequently stop, dismount, explore and collect anything that was new or fascinating to his enquiring mind.

[A section of the Linnaean Garden, Uppsala, Sweden]

His greatest work occurred once he was back in Uppsala. There he devoted years of his life to cataloguing his collections, essentially coming up with the binomial taxonomic system that scientists now take for granted. Specimens were divided into groups according to specific characteristics, eventually ending up with the genus/species double name we homo sapiens are so familiar with.

Not only did he work out a system that could be followed by others, he also personally contributed thousands of names based on his own research and collecting. Any time you see a species name followed by 'L', it is one that was first described by Carl Linnaeus. Quite remarkably, over a quarter of a millenium later, his binomial system is still universally followed by scientists.

At another level - a more human level - Linnaeus was also a renowned and greatly loved teacher. He seems to have been a "soft touch". There are many references to him feeding hungry students, and finding ways to help them with their academic fees. Some of these students, inspired by their great teacher, literally went to the ends of the earth in pursuit of botanical study. One such was Daniel Solander, who went on to accompany James Cook and Joseph Banks on their journeys to Australia and the sub-Antarctic.

[Linnaeus' house, in the grounds of the Linnaean Garden, Uppsala]

The morning after our visit to Carl's garden it is light early. The birds are singing at 4am. I want to stay asleep, so I keep my eyes tight shut. But my ears I can't shut. Besides these are birds I have only ever heard from recordings or on television: a European magpie and a cuckoo. 

The first is churring like a ratcheted razzle-dazzle; the second is making the classic cuckoo clock sound. Their sonic qualities are fascinating, beautiful, whatever their source. I might just as happily have lain in bed enjoying them in ignorance. Yet thanks to Linnaeus I can learn their scientific names, respectively Pica pica and Cuculus canorus. And I can see where they fit in the great panoply of life on earth. 

CDs without labels might sound just as fine as those with. But they are easier to find, and then appreciate, when they are labelled. And sometimes labels can be a great honour, as we discover in Paris a week later. There we come across a street next to the Jardin des Plantes that is named in honor of Linné. Had I been wearing a hat, I'd have doffed it for the great Swede.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday 15 June 2013

Passing It On

[Bergen from Ulriken]

Ulriken is not a big mountain. Nor is it particularly wild or difficult to reach. Yet as we crest its final rise and touch its 643m summit cairn, we are pleased to be there. The highest of the seven mountains that surround the western Norwegian city of Bergen, it is a small slice of the verticality that helps define the Norwegian landscape and character. And on a rare blue-skied day, it is an exceptionally beautiful place to be.

Norway only gained national independence - and a partial kind at that - in 1814. In earlier times it was either warring Viking fiefdoms, or subsumed within various shifting Scandinavian kingdoms. Its growing independence coincided with the Romantic movement, when notions of nature were resurgent against the excesses of the industrial revolution. As a new nation wanting to distinguish itself from its neighbours, Norway turned to nature. Its abundance of mountains and fjords helped differentiate it from the flatter, forested, lake-dotted nations of Sweden, Denmark and Finland.

Of course such a notion of nationality could only be built on a tradition that was already deeply rooted. That tradition - part philosophy, part lifestyle - is summed up in the Norwegian word friluftsliv. It's difficult to render into English, but it's about living in the open air: hiking in the mountains, camping by the lakes, hunting in the hills, boating and fishing in the fjords. It means getting out into one of the world's most beautiful landscapes, breathing some of its freshest air, and embracing whatever the weather brings. And considering that weather, there's often the need for a hut.

[An idyllic lakeside hut, with suburban Bergen far below]

Our wanderings on Ulriken give us an insight into this outdoor culture. The small lakes and tarns that fill the hollows and valleys immediately draw us, and we walk towards one with a small hut nestled on its shore. As we progress we start to see more huts. Within the space of two hours we see perhaps twenty huts of various shapes and sizes dotted all over the mountain. Most are locked, but we peep in through windows to get an idea of how they're laid out; how many they might sleep.

We see one hut being worked on, and introduce ourselves to the man tinkering with the hut roof. Willy, a friendly Norwegian octogenarian, is the owner of the hut. He explains the tradition of hut ownership: most of the huts we've seen are either privately owned or are owned and run by clubs. People use them all year round, whether for hiking in summer or skiiing in winter. Willy allows us to look inside the small hut, although he is apologetic about its messy state during renovation. To us it is delightfully cozy, its details beautifully worked.

[Willy works on his humble Ulriken Hut]

On our way back we see the tell-tale fluoro jackets of a school group. Children as young as five are being shown the mountain by teachers and other adults. In our couple of ours on the mountain we pass several groups, totalling as many as 60-70 students, out in the mountain air. Even the teenagers among them seem to be enjoying themselves. We get the strong impression that the Norwegian love of the outdoors is alive and well, and being kept that way from one generation to the next.

[Some wild schooling on Ulriken]


Tuesday 11 June 2013

An Exchange of Light

[Winter sunrise, South Hobart]
If I believed in omens, then this was a good one. A day that took forever to come, preceded by a night that showed no signs of ending, had finally begun. And with a brilliant light show. The rising sun lighting the underside of unusually fluid cloud formations, had let the whole valley know about it. Even the preoccupied soon-to-be travellers, who were doing their best to digest breakfast while going through checklists and hopping up with an "ooh" or a "that's right!" or a "what time do we have to go?"

Perhaps all big trips begin with this: the nerves and doubts and anxious anticipations. Still it was good to be reminded that even if we were about to leave it behind for the northern version, the southern sun would keep rising here, just as it always had.


For weeks now that sun had refused to go into its winter recession. Late autumn and earlier winter had been mild. And dry ... so dry that one of my to-do items was to water the garden. In June! A local friend and I had agreed that we could only tell it was winter because the sun was going down early. In our valley it had started dropping behind the mountain well before 4pm. Not even climate change could alter that.


But unseasonally warm or not, the signs of winter: those smells and sounds and colours - or lack of them - were still plain. In the days before our departure the smell of apples in the storage boxes beside the brewery had returned, along with the trumpeting of scavenging currawongs. In the Cascade Gardens, the deciduous trees had become almost bare, their shed leaves adding a rich whiff to the air. On the Rivulet the ducks now rested, mute and sleepy, beside willows that wept for foliage lost.


It was hard to imagine exchanging this winter of ebbing light and life, for the full bloom of a far northern summer. Yet after an ugly transition - 30 hours in a noisy metal box, eating stale, over-heated food, trying to sleep sitting up - we landed in Bergen, Norway.


[Bergen, Norway from Mt Floyen]


And here we are, deluged with daylight, beset by blossoms, foraging fresh blabaer (blueberries to us). It would seem churlish to complain of jet lag. It's time to get out and see summer in the forests and mountains and fjords of Norway. The European adventure has begun.