As an aside (before I’ve even started !), I’ve had an attack of synchronicity – today I got through the post a card from my opticians, reminding me of a sight test due (I have them every year, sometimes more often as I have glaucoma in the family), and also later a brief conversation with a new guy working for Scottish Water who has taken on my old job and my old van, too.
Podcast version here
Amongst other things, I told the new guy I missed seeing specific sights and landmarks, among which is the top of a fencepost near one of our sampling points with an unremarkable but somehow mesmerising growth of lichen on top.
I have looked at it often in sun, rain, snow and always in wonder. I have taken the liberty of using an image of it in this post as an illustration of so many little things we miss.
I’ve always grovelled around on the floor, hanging on to a toddler’s habit over a lifetime. I have a particular delight in seeing the underneath of a table or chair – try it – it instantly shoots you back to being a tiny that has that view of the world.
Reboot your brain ! Anyway, I do seem to have a very strong connection to vision in wavelengths that do not seem to me to be always consciously visible to many people.
One of the most striking areas this became apparent to me was when running wildlife trips – very often the tour leader is one of a few who are accustomed and able to attune their gaze to the circumstances, but it’s not only the practised, patient gaze, it’s as likely to be the scale, as I’ll talk about later. Wildlife watching demands patience beyond that of the everyday. You may be watching merely for the slightest discontinuity in colour or light for evidence of something there, something that perhaps ‘should not’ be there; even some creatures on the move can be virtually invisible.
Barry Lopez in Arctic Dreams describes how a trained wolf biologist may spend an hour ‘glassing’ a location, arc by arc for signs, evidence in the landscape. Similarly, Peter Matthiessen in the Snow leopard recalls the renowned biologist George Schaller standing on the brink of a 10,000 drop in Ethiopia’s Simien mountains, intent on details revealed only by his powerful binoculars while his colleagues are retching with anxiety.
So patience is one thing; I also often heard the comment ‘oh it’s not doing anything’ about a creature. It is. Most people have no developed ability to judge this, and expectations play a big part. A fox might be stock still for ages, only the black crusty nose crinkling now and again picking up news, while the eyes might be languidly closing and re-opening, a slow-mo blink. It might be busy digesting the last catch in a peaceful place where it can spot trouble coming a long way away, important if you have a full belly, or it might have a den full with yowling cubs it just needs to get away from for a while.
But our perceptions are the problem. Our greatest exposure to the ‘natural world’ is via the TV documentary, which gives a wholly inaccurate, even false, view. Animals on film are caught in concentrated moments of activity, hunting, fighting, mating or rearing young. These are all things that they do. But they may only represent a tiny amount of an animal’s activity, and actually a few minutes film can take hours, days, even years of observation to capture faithfully. All wildlife documentaries would last hours if the real timescale were applied. Some wildlife specialists and native hunters may accumulate a lifetime’s experience of an animal’s behaviour, yet still not see everything that creature is capable of.
I recall being on a shuttle bus that was in the Denali National Park (Alaska) to ride some 50 miles on dirt roads into the interior. Few private vehicles are allowed at all, and easily the best way to appreciate a lot of the landscape is by these buses which are driven often by surprisingly knowledgeable people, locals and others. They get frequent updates from other drivers on the locations and activities worth noting on their routes, making the trip more satisfying.
Actually spotting animals in an environment where there is limited contrast in hues can be difficult, but doing it while driving a busload of passengers on dirt roads requires a lot of skill. But they’re still ‘just a bus driver’. Tsk. A moment of hilarity – not uncommon, arose on one trip with an elderly passenger, maybe a bit dazed on whistle-stop excursion from an Alaska cruise ship in dock near Anchorage. As we were rounding a long bend where the landscape really opened up, her voice rang out from behind me, asking the driver ‘What time do they let the animals out ?’ I kid you not. Perceptions run awry.
Working on a number of tours in which wildlife featured in the attractions enabled me to develop a good sense of scale and perception – it is all a matter of practice, really, and as a result I was often, not always, the first to see something of note in a landscape.Yet I recall as a younger man, crossing a field I would only see grass, hardly even noticing the types of grass, the flowers, the evidence of smaller lives.
Not long ago, my nephew was astonished, almost falling of his seat when I was driving him back from Banff and I spotted a fox, just sitting quietly in a field a hundred yards off to the left. But that wasn’t the only thing I made him aware of that day; I mentioned as yet another aside, about the length of the white lines on the middle of the road, pointing out that they lengthened and gaps became smaller as a hazard (bend, junction, dip) was being approached. . . among many other cues for our attention. He’d never noticed this at all. Have you ?
Something that often cropped up on wildlife trips was the expectation of customers, usually shaped by documentaries. Everyone wants to get a perfect picture of a tiger, for example, to frame at home, proud of their experience. To get this picture, though, we may have only a short window of opportunity, and it may not be ‘perfect’. On one trip, we moved from jeep to elephant back to approach a little closer through undergrowth. The tiger was oblivious to the elephant but conscious of the humans and the disturbance.
Failing to get the perfect shot, one customer wanted to repeat the ride until they got the shot. Others were waiting for their chance to see the animal at all. I had to intervene partly on behalf of others, but also pointing out that every disturbance to the creature was reducing its rest time, interfering with its consciousness of its surroundings and threats, and thereby generally reducing its ability to survive in a difficult environment. The reasoning was but grudgingly accepted, after all they had paid £xx for the trip and expected it to be just as anticipated, even though this may harm the very creature they sought.
Other environments brought different types of perceptive adjustment. I ran a lot of camping tours in Scandinavia, where rainfall, cold, insect sieges, inaccessible terrain and the nature of the landscape all presented challenges. As I had studied geography and environmental science, I was able to illuminate much of what we were seeing, but the monotony of northern areas are problematic for the tourist.
In Sweden, travelling north for days on end through coniferous forest merely promoted sleep, despite frequent punctuations by crossing rivers, breaks revealing wide lakeland vistas and further north, or higher up the eventual thinning of trees, exposing the huge expanses of tundra. From one place I lived for a while in Finnmark north Norway, you could head East experiencing almost exactly the same terrain, and cross a large number of rivers, a few roads and no settlements until you reached the Sea Of Japan, 10 time zones away. That is space.
I had picked up a lot of things en route, so to differentiate the apparent homogeneity of the green mass, I would point out specific tree species that were found useful by native cultures and incomers willing to learn. To do this, I often stopped the bus in the ‘middle of nowhere’, and walked those interested in a breath of sometimes very fresh air across to some interesting clump, or took them on little walks into the forest at our wilderness campsites.
Only because others had shown and told me, I could point out Aspen, with their ‘quaking’ leaves, useful in making matches; the many different Birches that grew on drier gravelly hillocks, the new leafbuds incredible for surviving -40C temperatures, (your freezer at home usually -20C), in spring you could tap the rising sap into a container and make a slightly alcoholic astringent aperitif in birch wine, also useful for its water proof bark indispensible for making roofs, canoes, or fishing boxes, good too for writing on and best of all, for lighting a fire.
Even wet birch bark will readily burst into an oily looking flame if you are stuck in the woods; it is something once learned, never forgotten, it’s such a marvel. In wetter places, Alder and a host of different Willows provided good building wood, with either straighter trunks, resistant to rotting by water, or more flexible branches for making houses, tent poles, walls and fences. The twigs are also springy enough to make traps for small animals.
Willow bark also contains a mild analgesic if chewed or distilled. Aspirin. Others knew far more than I about very specific strengths and qualities of wood in boatbuilding, how well they can be bent or twisted, the ability to resist abrasion, or remain watertight, woods that sink in water, woods that will stay lit over long winter nights without smoking you out of the shelter, woods best for carving coastline and river maps which would float and therefore not be lost in a capsize. Knowledge once of the many that now resides in only a few.
We can say the same again about what grows under the forest canopy, the sedges used as bindings, reeds handy for quickly fashioning a basket for gathering findings, grasses, one of which – Senna, when dried made outstanding linings for boots. Then there was bog myrtle which you can make a refreshing tea with, and the berries ! (I just put the prefixes – I might need that time elsewhere), crow, cloud, rowan, bear, lingon, blue, rasp, black, arctic straw; all valuable sources of vitamins to Same folk, (perhaps known more widely as ‘Lapps’), and others, who had so few resources edible and otherwise, that grew in their lands.
The biogeography of the northern lands is dictated by latitude, the further north, as with height, the colder in general, limiting the growing season, and those seasons (the Same identify more than 8), can be abruptly delineated – spring and autumn relegated to a few weeks or even days Exposure to light is exactly the same year-round as any other latitude, it is just spread differently, with very long days in summer and very long nights in winter.
The result is a sharp variation in the species able to live there. In areas far from the coastal influence (slightly warmer, slightly more humid, perhaps more sheltered) there might be as few as 20 or 30 species of plant able to survive, and a consequent diminution of the animals which can live from them. On the Norwegian coast, perhaps near Tromsø, basking in the influence of the North Atlantic drift (Gulf Stream), there might be 2-300 species in otherwise identical conditions, along with a greater number of animal species, though never teeming. One oddly disorientating feature of the tundra uplands is the forest, here so blasted by winds that scour protective snow cover away that tree species are forced to spread laterally, and you find yourself walking on top of the woodland.
Animals, too in northern climes are fewer, more hidden and more likely to be migratory, most of them much less easy to see – it’s not, of course the Serengeti, but we sense there are lots of creatures out there. They may be lots of a smaller number of species – Lopez reckoned of 3200 species of mammal, only 23 could live year round here. All animals here are highly specialised and therefore at greatest risk of catastrophic decline if food sources unexpectedly dwindle, due to a late frost or a covering of frozen rain on grazing, or complete omnivores with an interest in anything it can get through its maw, but they are small in number in reality.
Therefore, I spent a lot of time pointing out evidence like reindeer droppings, the difference between winter and summer elk (moose) dung, mice, owl pellets below branches or fence posts, that I prised apart to show the prey evidence, grouse and similar birds leaving fibrous cylinders on rocks – places where they could see around them when they were otherwise engaged. All this because the creatures were so hard to see, but we still could learn from their passage. Generally, because of low temperatures and low biological activity, things take far longer to break down.
You will often see a birch tree on the ground, but the core has been eaten or rotted to dust, leaving the resin rich bark as a shell of the tree as illusory as a blown egg. On the ground too, a new world opened up to me, with such a profusion of lichens mosses, the like of which I’d never seen. I knew a bit – I’d spent a 6 week field trip to S E Iceland with one guy whose interest was in different lichens – developing behind retreating glaciers showing their age and rates of development, as we knew where the glaciers were from historical and other records.
But this was a joy, a world in miniature, filled with fabulous Dali-esque sculptures, like the song about ‘Rafferty’s motor car’ – in forty shades of green; there were also Rorschach images to suit all tastes. It was with childish wonder that I perceived brilliant vermilion on the fruiting parts of a pixie-cup lichen, bright sulphur yellow or lime green lichens on rocks, black ones looking like aerial photographs or maps, and they were everywhere – a testimony to the clear air. I quickly got my passengers to get down and see the scale of the forest from a different viewpoint, one that instantly dispelled the tedium of endless roadside conifers, as they now could see the components of this landscape in a very different light.
The air in the hills above Kautokeino in Finnmark was of such a low humidity that it was actually more comfortable there working at -20C than when on the coast at +5C as moisture carries heat away from the body so much faster than air does. Humidity also affects the clarity of air as we found out. The movement of air inland is far less, too, held fast by high pressures especially in winter. As a consequence the wind-chill is great on the coast, but hardly perceptible inland, and the snow cover, too changes.
It was common on an island offshore from Alta where some friends maintained a summer cabin to have 8 metres of snow on the roof. Because of this a tree trunk a metre across was propped between solid rock and the apex of the conical roof to prevent it collapsing in ruins. The snow inland, on the other hand, was the same snow which might have fallen in late autumn, now being endlessly redistributed with fine particles, crashing into each other and the attrition resulting in a flour-like dusting that quickly soaked your clothes when you went indoors.
The difference in snowfall dictated the amount of available grazing for reindeer and other herbivores, (hence the annual migrations), although the lemming and similar creatures were happy scuttering about in the insulated tunnels beneath the deep snow, out of sight, but not out of hearing of owls and foxes.
Finally, the light itself played tricks with the eye and with the mind, usually to our disadvantage. My first introduction to the tricky light was in Iceland where our camp was situated among boulder moraines at the foot of the Svinafell glacier. We should have guessed there was something odd, as we had marvelled at the sight of a distant rocky ridge, on which we could clearly discern the gullies along its side. The ridge was over 30 km away. So it was with the height of confidence and the nadir of competence that we strode off after our evening meal to cross the nearby river barefoot and then climb up the easy ridge path to overlook our new home for the next 6 weeks. All pretty experienced walkers, we reckoned it would be perhaps 3 hours tops to get up and back. After 3 hours we were only halfway up the ridge, and were starting to be very thankful of the long summer daylight.
So next time you’re out and about, you might like to dwell a moment on that saying about the true value of travel – not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes, and you will see what I mean.
Here’s looking at you, kid ! Bob Cranwell Amateur Emigrant