The red-tailed hawk lifted from the tree below, drifting upward to float at eye-level to where I stood on the ridge crest. I whistled softly, lifting a palm. A dip of a wing brought the bird overhead, and it circled, watching me, its pale underside shining silver-white against the deep blue of the Montana sky. The hawk took several turns, spiraling lower with each circle. Just when it seemed the bird would keep descending – perhaps to land on my palm – it lifted on the air currents to slip silently away.
Lower on the ridge, I looked up to find a mule deer within the adjacent woods staring at me with liquid eyes. She had no fear of my presence, seeming to sense that I was benign. Like the hawk she watched for awhile, so close that each twitch of her wet black nose was visible. Then she turned and walked away. The sun dappled her brown-grey hide so that she melted into the light of the woods, becoming a part of the trees.
I was on a short walk, over the hill adjacent to my cabin, a couple of hours at most. As I moved through the land, I delighted in the community around. Squirrels chattered from the branches above, juncos flitted in the trees, weasel scat lay draped across a log. There were gray jays in the sagebrush, new bear scratches on a tree trunk, and a deep musky smell rising from a bit of plowed ground where a rutting bull elk had thrashed his antlers.
The vibrant life all around is a welcome sight. At all times I appreciate that I can experience this abundance of both plant and animal, living sandwiched between Yellowstone National Park and a designated Wilderness Area. But I feel it even more just now.
I have just returned from Norway, a country with seemingly vast expanses of wild lands, where broad glacial valleys run through jagged high peaks draped with cracked, aquamarine glaciers. There are places you can stand and feel like the only human on the planet – until you look over to the next ridge and see a party of intrepid hikers. Norway is known for its love of outdoor recreation.
Yet, what I notice about Norway is the stillness in the land. This was my second sojourn to this northern place, and I have covered a bit of the country’s ground in my long walks and mountain treks. I have seen ptarmigan and eagles, a few smaller birds, and many many lemmings (they were in the midst of a population explosion in one area I visited). A fox trotted in the woods alongside the bus stop in the 5am dawn light. There are areas in Norway where wolves walk, bears trundle through the woods, and even wolverine make their homes. But I saw no sign of any of these great predators. Reindeer I’ve seen in abundance, but except for the herds in Hardangervidda National Park, all the Norwegian reindeer are domestic, herded by the indigenous Sami people. For the most part, a walk through Norway’s wildness is relatively quiet – no hawks circling my palm, no deer watching, no consistent sign that life abounds from tiny voles to massive grizzlies.
Biodiversity is on the decline across the globe. A 2005 report from the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Biodiversity Synthesis, bluntly states: “Finding #1. Human actions are fundamentally, and to a significant extent irreversibly, changing the diversity of life on Earth, and most of these changes represent a loss of biodiversity. Changes in important components of biological diversity were more rapid in the past 50 years than at any time in human history. Projections and scenarios indicate that these rates will continue, or accelerate, in the future.”
Habitat loss, development, invasive species, climate change. The planet is changing – humans are changing the planet – and the creatures that inhabit it are suffering. Norway is no exception. In the Tromsø Museum, an interpretive display contained the message:
“The area of wilderness in Norway has dropped from 48% to 10% since 1900. Wilderness is defined as land area more than five km from technical installations such as buildings, roads and power lines.”
Europe has been densely inhabited for a many centuries. Consequently, long before 1900, places like Norway or the UK (where I’ve also spent much time) were killing off large predators and modifying the land in ways that led to species decline. I felt it in Norway, the quiet of the surrounds.
I must note that I don’t know how much of the silence that surrounded me on my walks was due to the fact that Norway stretches northward to reach above the Arctic Circle. Winters are dark and long, conditions harsh. Yet, there was lush vegetation in the lowlands, trees and thick ground cover. What animals might have inhabited these lands a thousand years ago? I need more research to answer that question.
I do know that it is an exceptional experience to live in one of the few places that has preserved a majority of the native species. Where bears regularly walk past the door, bighorn sheep dance on the distant cliffs, osprey check out the fish in the pasture pond — where even a wolverine waltzed across the ridge only a half mile from the cabin. The fact that I live in this more-than-human community has enriched my life.
Spending time in Norway was a rich and inspiring experience, no doubt. Yet, such travels often make me appreciate even more (if that is possible) the life that surrounds me here at home.