Identity in the ordinary: Manhole covers

Manhole covers might not be the most riveting subject for a blog, but they can tell us a lot about the identity of cities.  Most are ordinary covers stamped with the name of the manufacturer and perhaps the name of the city or waterworks company that commissioned them. However, in my wandering across Europe I was struck by how many cities use the “canvas” of a manhole cover to paint a picture of their identity.  Usually it is the seal of the city that symbolizes some past connection they want to highlight.  Below are a few interesting examples of cities that highlight their identity in the paths below our feet.

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I featured this cover from Ljubljana, Slovenia already but it merits a repeat in this collection.  The dragon goes back to a myth about Jason and the Argonauts who apparently traveled to Slovenia and slew a dragon.  The castle is representative of the iconic building that towers over the city.  The hills below it are representative of the mountainous landscape that surrounds the city.

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This cover from Trondheim, Norway stresses the importance of this city’s role as a tie between church and state.  In the Cathedral in Trondheim, the kings of Norway were crowned thus bestowing the favor of God (represented by the blessing bishop and cross on the church) on the king (represented with crown and scales of justice).  All of this takes place over three faces representing past kings as a blessing of the ancestors and of tradition itself.

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Elsewhere in the city of Trondheim there are manhole covers of simpler design and more recent vintage celebrating the 1000 anniversary of continued settlement in the city.  Happy 1021 birthday, Trondheim.  A humbling thought that this place has been an organized city four times longer than the my own country has been an organized state!  It reminds you just how much history surrounds you when you stroll through the streets of this place.

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Further down the coast of Norway in Bergen this cover celebrates many eras of this city’s history in transportation and commerce.  Bergen is perhaps most famous for its role in the Hanseatic League, a medieval trade network with other cities across Northern Europe that is the precursor to our modern trade alliances such as the EU, NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  It is symbolized by the sailing ship and trading houses in this cover.  The tall building in the background is the Rosenkrantz Tower that is the remains of a time that the kings of Norway lived a thousand years ago here in this city that was the capital of Norway at one point.  In the background, a cable car runs up the steep slopes of the mountains that surround the fjord on whose shores the city of Bergen has emerged.  It symbolizes the growing importance of tourism and outdoor recreation to the economy of Bergen.  The symbols of the natural landscape such as the trees,  the water below and the mountains show how important these settings are to the identity of many of these cities.  To the side of the image appears a sun with raindrops(?) coming down from it.  I am not sure, but this could symbolize the fact that even on sunny days it rains here…it always rains here!  They measure several meters of rainfall every year.

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This manhole cover from Cologne, (Koln in German) Germany has fewer images of landscape, but several important symbols of identity.  The two headed eagle holding sword and scepter represents the German state with crown and cross over the top.  This was the symbol of German nationalism in the 19thC as the modern german nation-state emerged from a collection of independent principalities and regions.  In an earlier post I explore the symbolic role of completing the Cologne Cathedral in building that nation-state. The crest on the breast of the eagle is coat of arms for the city of Cologne.  There are three crowns on the coat of arms representing the three kings from biblical fame whose mortal remains (relics) have been housed in the Cathedral of Cologne for almost a thousand years.  They have made Cologne a pilgrimage site for peasants and kings alike and are an important part of the identity of the city throughout its history.

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Finally, a simple water-main cover from Dublin, Ireland.  They are found all over Ireland.  The word on the bottom “uisce” (pronounced “ish-ka”) is Irish for water. Language is an important part of Irish identity because English, which is spoken all over Ireland, is the language of the colonial force that dominated the history of Ireland for so long.  The Irish language was actively suppressed for most of that time and only remains the dominant language in the far western parts of Ireland known as the Gaeltacht.  Once Ireland became independent in 1921 the Irish language, long a symbol of rebellion, became mandatory as a subject in school and on every road sign throughout the country.  Cities such as Cobh (formerly Queenstown) were renamed in Irish to erase the stamp of imperialism that covered much of the landscape.  The Celtic symbols and knotwork in the center of the cover and around the outside harken back to a time long past before Ireland had been conquered by the English.  A time before famine and revolution, a time of mythic heroes and legends.  Even something so simple as a water-main cover in this landscape is indelibly stamped with the symbolic history of the people.

You might note in all of the pictures above the variety of cobblestone paving surrounding each cover.  We have been so impressed with the myriad of different paving materials across Europe.  It is rare, except in the more modern parts of the cities, to find asphalt (tarmac as they call it here) or concrete as a pavement.  Even the diverse patterns of stone in the streets and sidewalks adds to the landscape, a sense of a time gone by and a timelessness.  There is regular maintenance done to the cobblestones, but rarely ever a decision to replace them with something more modern.  The manhole covers and the stones that surround them are an important, if often subtle and unnoticed, part of the landscape of these great cities and clues to the identity they create.

Confessions of a Nature Snob: peri-urban parks and other encounters with the wild

I must confess, I am a nature snob.  Perhaps it is because I am spoiled living in the rural west with so much public land all around me, and few people to encounter along the path.  Over 70% of the county where I reside in western Colorado is federally managed public land.  One can get “spoiled” with so much open space.  I ask my students every year how they define “nature” and inevitably most of the definitions do not include humans.  I use this as a “teachable moment” to point out that they are creating a dichotomy between humanity and nature that might not be helpful for environmental thinking or the health of the planet, especially when that dichotomy turns oppositional and it becomes humanity vs. nature (or visa versa in our language about “natural” disasters).  Content that I have proved the danger of their working definition of “nature,” I never questioned my own assumptions.  I like my “nature” served up with few human encounters as well.  I think I am encountering “true nature” only when I find it in some nameless cluster of mountains surrounded by the Barents Sea far away in Norway.

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I work hard to crop people out of my “nature” shots, I embrace definitions of “wilderness” that define it as having no human longterm visible impact.  I am a “nature” snob…. Most of the world does not have the luxury to encounter “nature” in such ways.  They have neither the time nor the resources to “go out” and find nature on some distant mountain.  I realize I am fortunate, but until a recent walk in a park (still within the city limits of greater London) in Northwood, England, it didn’t sink in how “dangerous” my own definition was for planetary survival.

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We simply can’t rely on encounters with a “nature” that is out there somewhere beyond the reach of most of humanity if we are to love that nature as our own.  People can’t “love” what they don’t “know.”  If they only encounter “nature” as I define it on some pilgrimage to the deep woods or the wild coastline, then only a very small minority of us will be moved to work to protect it.  That simply won’t be enough.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be.  The problem is not that people don’t know nature, the problem is that they don’t see it when it is right in front of them, when it is all around them, when it is within them; for we are not dichotomously separated from “nature” (and we never were) except in our imagination and our hubris.  Thus, I confess, I am a “nature” snob.  This lesson was taught to me by my most unlikely guide, a trusty hound (Koko) I had the privilege of walking with for a week on the outskirts of London in neighborhood green spaces referred to as “peri-urban” parks in the landscape management literature.

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These parks are located throughout the London area (and in most other cities across Europe) and they are heavily used on a daily basis for people who don’t have the time to go deep into the “wilds” for their encounter with nature.  They are used by families to give children their first encounters with the wonders of wild things right in their backyard.  By urban and suburban dwellers to walk their dogs after work, to get exercise, to fish, to birdwatch, to smell the earth all around them and find a break in their everyday lives from the built environments that shut us off from reconnecting with living things and learning again to love the natural.IMG_3064

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This is outdoor recreation every bit as much as the more formal definitions we harbor in our minds that include mountain biking, hiking, trail running and the like on public lands outfitted by the latest REI fashions.  People in Europe don’t have to go out to a distant (and still rare) national park, they plan for parks in the spaces in which they live.  It might be a non-profit organization who maintains and develops these close-in “nature” preserves such as Stocker Lake outside London,

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A government protected area, such as Ruislip Woods National Nature Reserve (also outside London) where trails are developed and benches are located so people can encounter the natural world through a leisurely stroll punctuated by moments of rest and reflection along the way.

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It can be a decision to give prime riverfront property over to benches and playgrounds and walking paths as in this scene from Trondheim Norway (the most walkable, and pedestrian friendly city I have ever encountered, period!)

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A neighborhood lake and woods, free and open to the public in Bronnoysund Norway;

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Prime real estate on the end of a peninsula overlooking the fjord in Bergen, Norway developed only by paths, monuments and trees that are open to all who live in the city nearby (and visitors as well).

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Or a path well used by walkers engaging nature in the shadow of Tramore, Ireland. Even though there is a coastal promenade less than half a mile from this scene, the city planners offered these paths and a natural looking playground to add to the diversity of opportunities for  the towns residents to engage in outdoor recreation and to reconnect to nature.  Although the coastal walks might attract the tourists, it seems these peri-urban parks are set up for everyday encounters by the local public.  Visitors are welcome, but the parks are not marketed for the tourist industry, they are established to enhance the quality of life for the area residents.IMG_4297

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People of all ages can rediscover their “inner child” and the wonder of play in natural surroundings.

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Even the material in these parks is “natural” and simple.  Logs placed to create obstacles in a neighborhood playground in Devon offers resident children challenge without “breaking the bank” of public finance.

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The British tell us that we have the Victorians to thank for the idea of public parks accessible to all.  I am not sure if the Victorian Era in England was the model for all public parks, but one has to admire their commitment to making natural public spaces free and available to the public.  Previously, the experience of walking through green spaces and gardens had been a privilege for the wealthy few, but as workers poured into the cities at the height of the industrial revolution and encountered a polluted and built environment, the city planners realized the need for “natural” settings to make such an urban life livable.  Large planned parks were built into the center of many urban areas, perhaps the most famous are Central Park in New York City or Hyde Park in London; but my favorite urban park is still St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

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It is a busy place in the heart of the bustling city, but it offers a retreat from the craziness of urban life.  It is a refuge of green, of water, flowers and reflection used by thousands everyday on their breaks from work.  Despite the heavy use, it is planned well to offer contrast to the built environment just beyond the hedge on the city streets.

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Many lament that the cell phone culture is drawing people away from nature, but even on a cloudy day in Dublin, the benches are full of people wishing to have their cake and eat it to; to use their cell phones for necessary communication while they connect with the green space and refuge that St. Stephen’s provides.  Nature snobs only show their blindness to the images of nature all around them in such places.

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Ironically, it was my dear friend cut off from “nature” and sight in a sterile hospital environment for almost as long as I have been on sabbatical that showed me my own blindness to the wild all around me.  She writes so beautifully about the light of the sun coming through her window, the dirt under a doctor’s fingernail, the plant in a corner that connect her with nature.  I am humbled and my sight is opened.  I have seen efforts all over Europe to put nature in our everyday lives for all the public to enjoy.  In the airport in Oslo there are living plants all around, a wall of moss greets visitors as they enter the terminal

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Even as I am deep in the maze of jetways and airport secured areas, I find a plant in the corner seeking light from the nearest window and I am reminded that I am never cut off from living things, if only I look to see them all around.

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Not only St. Stephen’s Green but the spot between a parking lot and the road in Howth, Ireland provides an opportunity for a green space encounter with nature.

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The Europeans are committed to getting their students outside of the classroom and into natural settings so they can develop a relationship with the natural world.  This leads, in later life, to a desire to protect that nature and live sustainably as part of a culture they learned from earliest experience.  Perhaps no country is more committed to this outdoor education principle that Finland where the goal is to educate students outside the classroom at least one day every week.  Throughout Europe we saw school groups out and about sketching outside the Cathedral in Salisbury England.

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Learning about penguins while visiting the Bergen Aquarium in the midst of a very built environment.

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During my conference in Tropea on Landscape and Education, I learned about how more than 40 countries across Europe were carrying out plans to engage “nature” with their students of all ages.  Rather than lament the “unnatural” setting of the penguins above, or an “artificial” touch tank in the Bergen Aquarium because it is not “authentic” nature; I began to realize that these direct encounters with living things, with the plants and animals around the world housed in zoos and gardens are sometimes an early opportunity for all children to develop a relationship with the wild that might prompt them to go further out the door and off the screen in their future.  My daughter’s favorite part of any aquarium is the interactive touch tanks where she can “feel” things she might not otherwise ever encounter living as she does over a thousand miles from the nearest tidepool.

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Perhaps it was just such a touch encounter with the natural world that inspired the sculptor of this public art piece in Trondheim, or inspired the politicians to commision and display it as part of the city landscape and identity.

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Once again I will thank the British for teaching me that you don’t have to go far from home to have a connection with nature.  The concept of an English Country Garden in the backyard shows how you can transform a small space into a place of natural encounter.

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A small highly managed space, becomes a living temple to wild imagination.  A retreat and refuge, a place of refreshment and reflection a place to call “home” (which is the root of the Greek word ecology).

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I still love the wild look of a sunrise over the open coast in Ireland

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But the sounds of the traffic right behind me while taking this picture, and the view to the right of a busy Dublin Bay waking up for work on the new day reminds me that we encounter nature in all areas if we but open our eyes to the world around us.

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It is both a humbling and hopeful realization for this life-long nature snob.  I am grateful for the insight all these places have given me, and for the opportunities to learn from a hound named Koko….my wild guide in the heart of London.

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Buildings as Dynamic Landscape: The Cologne Cathedral

On the 15th of October in 1880, William Gruenwald, an 11 year old boy from Koln (Cologne) Germany, gathered with nearly everyone else in the city and surrounding countryside to celebrate the completion of the Cologne Cathedral 632 years after the foundation stone was laid in 1248.   At the time it was the tallest human built structure in the world at 157 meters and the pride of a newly united German state.  It is hard to imagine what must have been going through the mind of the young boy looking up at this site to see the completion of a project that had spanned countless generations of his ancestors in that city, and taken on renewed energy in his short lifetime ever since Frederich William IV started the final push to completion less than 40 years earlier as a sign of German unity and ingenuity.  Certainly a pride in his city and his country, a sense of identity that he carried from this changing landscape all the way to the new world of America where he emigrated with his wife 20 years after that celebration and started a family.  Three generations later his great grandson returned with pride to stand before these great towers and marvel at the beauty and determination that made such a great work possible.  There I stood in wonder and awe, much the way my great grandfather would have so many years ago.

IMG_4070We traveled by train under the English Channel to Cologne to visit the cathedral and the home of some of my ancestors (we also traveled to Ireland to visit the landscape of other ancestors later).  If you haven’t seen a picture of the Cologne Cathedral, it is difficult to imagine why someone would want to travel so far just to see a church, but this is not just any ordinary church.  The Cathedral in Cologne is one of the biggest Gothic cathedrals in the world and an incredible story of how a building can grow and change as a landscape feature, perhaps even as a landscape itself.  The inside of the cathedral is a wonder to behold with a nave that stretches on for over the length of a football field and is several stories high.  It is a classic Gothic style cathedral to rival the great cathedrals of France when it was started in 1248.  Although it took over 600 years to complete, there is a uniformity to the space because the original designs created in the 13thC were used even as it was completed in the 19thC.

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The view looking back to the entrance of the church from the high altar gives an interesting perspective on the layers of this landscape as they have been added and changed over so long a period of time.  For example, in the image below, the color of the walls changes distinctly (right above the statues on the pillars) from those that were completed in the 16thC and those completed 300 years later.

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The part of the cathedral near the front of the church was largely complete by the end of the 15th century and the approach from the river Rhine, on whose banks she sits, would have looked largely as it does today. (Without light poles and CCTV signs, of course).  The spires of Gothic cathedrals are meant to draw your thoughts and gaze upward to the heavens.

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The twin entrance towers can be seen from almost anywhere in the city including the riverbanks where this shot is taken.

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The Rhine river provides transportation and facilitates trade for a significant part of Western Europe from the Alps to Amsterdam.  Kingdoms rise and fall, wars are won and lost on these very shores in the shadow of the cathedral.

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At night the towers are lit up with flood lights that give the appearance of a heavenly city that shines as a light to the world.

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Such an image is appropriate for this Cathedral since it was built to house the relics (mortal remains) of the three wise men (kings) who followed the star to Bethlehem to bear witness to all of the world that the Messiah was born.  The feast that celebrates this story in the Catholic faith is called the feast of the Epiphany whose name speaks of giving enlightenment to the whole world.  The remains of the Wise Men or Three Kings as they came to be referred to in Medieval times were brought to this site in 1164 after they had been taken from the city of Milan as spoils of a germanic conquest of that city.  They were soon housed in an elaborate golden ark that was placed behind the high altar of the new church.

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The building was literally designed around these relics since a visitation to them quickly became an important part of the network of pilgrimage sites in Medieval Europe.  This was also an important pilgrimage sites for Kings who wished to borrow some legitimacy from the three Kings who met Jesus.  It became an absolute necessity for the Germanic kings to visit this site after their coronation in Aachen Cathedral to west.  The doors of the cathedral were open to these visitors who came to seek the protection of the Magi while always under the watchful gaze of St. Christopher, patron saint of travellers.

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They would come to the unfinished cathedral to be close to the Magi (Three Wise men), but also to worship at other important artifacts in the cathedral such as the Gero Crucifix from the 10th century that existed in the prior cathedrals built before this one on the same spot.

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The Cologne Cathedral is an excellent case study in the dynamic landscapes that buildings themselves are.  They shape the identity of all those who live around them, visit them, or participate in their construction and destruction.  This building was the worship place of Albert the Great, the Dominican who is largely responsible for bringing the works of Aristotle back into the Western world after he translated them from Arabic where they had been preserved until the Crusades.  Although started and functional from the 13thC, it was largely abandoned as a building project in the 16thC.  A drawing of the Cathedral from 1821 shows the unfinished south tower complete with medieval crane on top which had come to symbolize the city.  The center part of the Cathedral remained covered, but unfinished and only the foundation for the North tower had been laid.

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Then in 1842 after having liberated Cologne and the surrounding Rhine Valley from the forces of Napoleon, the Germans set out on a conscious effort to build nationalism and loyalty to the idea of a united German state.  The Cathedral represented a great project that would bring all Germans together in a common building effort to complete the Cathedral and thus show the world what can be done when the Germans put their mind to it.  What an impressive change in a few short years as this same angle view appears below today.

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The Prussian leaders used this building as a symbolic testimony to German craftsmanship and resolve.  They kept a medieval gothic style to the architecture and artwork to show their legitimacy and continuity with the past. Mosaic tiles were laid into the floor at the base of the high altar in the oldest part of the Cathedral to show that tie from earthly power in Germany to heavenly power.  In the first image, the Kaiser sits surrounded by images of the seven humanities and sanctified by the four great rivers of Europe.  He is the embodiment of the earthly power while right above him in front of the high altar is a parallel image of the pope surrounded by the seven cardinal virtues and sanctified by the four great rivers of heaven.  The parallels are unmistakable and the message is clear, the doctrine of two swords (a medieval concept that supported the Divine Right of Kings) was replayed in the later half of the 19thC for the legitimacy of the new German state (founded only 10 years before the Cathedral was complete).

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This was a clear effort to borrow from the legitimacy of the Church to bolster support for the new German state.  The parallels to the glory and legitimacy of the Roman church don’t stop at the tilework before the altar.  Even as you enter the Cathedral your eyes are drawn to the Germanic version of the Pieta located in the same place (to the right of the entryway) as Michelangelo’s Pieta is in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

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The doors of the Cathedral also reveal imagery of the keys of St. Peter who has given legitimacy to earthly rulers for thousands of years.  The church is claiming the right to confer authority with the very symbols imbedded in its doors.

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It took 632 years to formally complete this Cathedral, but in some senses it is never really complete.  Like so many churches and other historic landscapes throughout Europe, there is always upkeep and restoration taking place.  You can’t go to any place in Europe and fail to encounter the telltale signs of scaffolding indicating that buildings, like landscapes are dynamic, in need of attention, and important to the identity of those that live near them.  Our guide relayed a local belief that scaffolding is a good sight because the building took so long to build that if work were to ever finish on the building, it might just signal the end of the world.

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Even as they work on the building, it is clear that the visual image of the building has become an important part of this urban landscape.  Located directly outside the main entrance to the train station, when scaffolding in necessary for restoration, covers are made to show the building behind the scaffolding that covers it up.

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Restoration and renovations are sometimes driven by events in the life of a building landscape rather than simply from age and decay.  For example, in the south transept, the great window was destroyed during bombing raids in WWII.  After the war, the Cathedral engaged the help of the famous German artist, Gerhard Richter to design and install a new window.  He drew from over 60 of the existing colors in the remaining Cathedral glass and then created random patterns of color squares to fill in the window.

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Although many complained of the “modern” look to the window, it has become one of the most popular and well known parts of the Cathedral, and it appears as if it could have been there a very long time.  Landscapes have a certain organic, fluid continuity to them as they lose the old and incorporate the new.  Just like the people who have been  attached to this place, the landscape of this building itself is transformed with the passage of time and the persistence of memory.  The artwork and architecture show over 1000 years of connection to this place. William Gruenwald, Paula, Erin and I are but just a few of the participants in this unfolding drama.  I am grateful to participate in the place.

 

Remember, Remember the 5th of November….

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It is the 5th of November, and in Britain that means it is Guy Fawkes Day.  Few in the U.S. have ever heard of Guy Fawkes except perhaps in an obscure reference in the 2005 movie “V is for Vendetta,” or as his image has come to represent the anti-corporate hackers of Anonymous, the Occupy Movement and other efforts to thwart the consolidation of power by global elites.  But in the U.K., everyone knows the story of Guy Fawkes because it was actually a law for 250 years that people “remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. We see no reason, why gunpowder treason, should ever be forgot!”  Although it is no longer a legally mandated memory, even to this day it is a popular holiday to gather around bonfires and burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, perhaps accompanied by cider and fireworks.  I have been hearing fireworks go off non-stop for days in anticipation of the event.  So, Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Who was this guy (puns are always intended here), and why are they celebrating by burning his image for over 400 years?  Guy Fawkes was one of the conspirators in the “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 to blow up King James I and most of the House of Lords.  The plot was discovered just in time and thwarted before any explosions could go off.  Fawkes was part of a group of Roman Catholics who felt oppressed by the protestant King of England back at a time when these tensions were very real for most on this island and in Ireland (they have their own bomb celebrations).  He has officially come to symbolize all attempts to violently change governments, and as such must never be forgotten as a real threat to peaceful transitions of power.  That’s why the government insisted on celebrating Guy Fawkes Day; but those who are grieved by the government have not gone away either.  They are adopting Guy Fawkes as a iconic image of someone protesting illegitimate power or abuse of power by government.  In the days leading up to this, we saw plenty of evidence that people are still protesting the government here.  Some do so with sidewalk art in Trafalgar Square, such as this man’s call to choose between economic gain and ecological survival.

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Others carry banners to the steps of Parliament itself such as these protesters decrying a government who has done too little to address the issues of Climate Change and our dependence on fossil fuel consumption.

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On Halloween Day, these protesters blocked the streets in front of Parliament and handed out leaflets calling for a new rebellion against the government they claim should answer for its “crimes against humanity.”  The buildings in the background are the Houses of Parliament, some covered in scaffolding to improve their outside appearance, while, according to some of the protesters, the rot continues on the inside of those buildings.

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Just down the street in front of WhiteHall, which houses the executive branch of government responsible for carrying out Parliament’s laws, the police are on heightened alert.  They seem to remember all too well the 5th of November and the plot to destroy the government by disgruntled citizens.  The contrast between the “modern” police in body armor with automatic weapons and the mounted soldier in ceremonial garb and saber (fitting of an earlier time of Guy Fawkes, perhaps), seemed fitting on such a day of protest and remembrance.

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But London has been the seat of government for a very long time, and protests are hardly new here.  I looked up from the protesters around me to see Winston Churchill’s statue looking down at us in what appears to be disinterested disdain for such antics.  He ran the place when the explosions were not coming from under the Parliament building, but raining down from the skies.

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I am reminded in his steely look of determination that we are standing in a city that has withstood Guy Fawkes, Nazis and hundreds of other attempts to end this political experiment in self-rule.   So this November 5th, remember, remember that governments offer cause of grievance which should be addressed; but they also offer hope that can and does overcome adversity and threats or violence.  That is a reason to celebrate indeed. It is the paradox of humanity played out in the streets of London and the memories of its people.  Cheers.

Labyrinths in London

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This past week we stayed at a wonderful house on the outskirts of London in an area called “Northwood.”  It was a 15 minute walk to the light-rail/subway system affectionately called “the Tube”.  The tube or London Underground as it is more formally known is a complex system of trains, subways and tunnels that snake back and forth across this massive city and its surrounding areas.  You can get almost anywhere from the tube and a few minutes walk on either side, and you never really wait more than 5-10 minutes for a ride anywhere in the city.  It is a remarkably efficient system for moving people, and it is used by millions everyday.  When you are underground switching from one line to the next, going up or down several sets of stairs and escalators, in and out of tunnels plastered with advertisements on every open space, it can be an unnerving maze where you are desperate to find a way to recenter yourself.

Enter the Labyrinth Art Project…. As I described in a previous post, labyrinths are intended to help you to find the way to the center, there are no dead ends or chances of getting lost because the path always gets you only one place, to the center and back again.  By contrast, mazes are designed to confuse and contort, to offer a path only to discover it is the wrong path and you stare at yet another dead end.  In the midst of what seems like such a maze (the London Underground), the planners decided to commission an art project depicting dozens of different labyrinth patterns on the walls of the subway stations.  Not a lot of explanation or fanfare accompany the images, just a labyrinth in black and white to offer hope, perhaps.  I have been on a labyrinth hunt all over Europe finding them in hillsides and cathedrals, in artwork and public parks, but I never thought I would run into so many different labyrinths on the walls of London’s tube stations.  Here are just a few of the images I saw over the course of a week.  Truly an unexpected find from my muse, serendipity.

The Right to Roam – Wandering above the Arctic Circle

The Norwegians love to be outside in nature.  They have a wonderful concept called “allemannsretten” which means the right to roam (literally everyone’s right).  It was codified into law in 1957 in the “Outdoor Recreation Act”.  What this right entails is the ability for any person to walk or camp anywhere in Norway as long as it is not cultivated land, even if the land is privately owned.  There are some stipulations, but essentially you can camp anywhere for two days (no closer than 500 feet from the nearest house or camping car), longer with the permission of the land owner; and you have the right to hike anywhere in Norway.  We exercised the right to roam above the Arctic circle hiking near the town of Sortland one cold gray day.

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Sortland is a small town, like so many others on the Norwegian coastline, that straddles the side of a fjord with the city center on one side of a bridge and the farmlands on the other.  Most of its inhabitants live in the countryside rather than the city center so they can be closer to nature, according to our guide.  The bridge itself is an amazing commitment to public infrastructure, but not at all uncommon along the thousands of inlets and islands that make up the coast here.

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Sortland is located in the Lofoten region of Norway which consists of an amazingly beautiful archipelago of islands that sticks out like a peninsula into the Norwegian Sea.  It is roughly located where the boat icon is on the map below.

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Because it is so remote, it is responsible for its own power supply, and thus the wind turbines you see on the mountain above the town in the picture below.  They are somewhat difficult to see because of the rain/sleet/snow that was moving through the area.

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A perfect day for a hike!  Our guide got off the bus in the pouring rain as we were ready to begin the hike and announced that in Norway, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing…”  Then off we went, up the path.  In many ways the early climb could have taken place anywhere in Colorado.  I often described this journey as if the seas flooded all the valleys in Colorado so you could sail through the Rockies or the San Juans in a ship.

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But then a closer look at the trees reveals that we are indeed somewhere entirely different.  They are covered with lichen that only the reindeer can digest.  This is not a disease, it is the sign of good air quality and plenty of moisture.

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Within a mile of hiking a brisk ascent, we arrived at tree line, maybe 1000m above sea level.  Further north on the Barents Sea, the tree line is at sea level!  Although it didn’t pour the entire hike, it was clear from the condition of the trail that a lot of water moves in a hurry across this landscape.

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Most of the mountains and steep valleys were cut by glaciers that retreated during the last few ice ages.  Some are still in retreat.  The result is breathtakingly beautiful valleys, often flooded with sea water as fjords, and incredibly steep and majestic mountains rising straight up out of them on all sides.

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The growing season is short this far north so the trees seem stunted, and only the heartiest species of berries can be found.  According to the concept of the right to roam, if they are naturally occuring (not cultivated by some farmer), anyone has the right to pick the berries, collect mushrooms and otherwise enjoy the abundance that nature provides to all.  These blueberries and lingonberries were delicious!

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Higher up at tree line we found even heartier and stranger plants still clinging to life as the first snowfall began.  They looked like coral reef I had seen off the coast of Belize.

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There was so much standing water that it even covered some of the plants and flowers in a way that reminded me of the tide pools we visit off the coasts of Oregon each summer.

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The idea that everyone has a right to roam across this planet and enjoy the beauty and abundance that nature has to offer calls to mind a time before private property that Rousseau describes in his “Discourse on the Origins of Inequality Among Men.”  A time when we believed that the earth belonged to all of us and that no one could put down fences and say “this is mine and you can’t come through.”  That move was the start of untold sorrow as a result of the privatization of what is all our right.  This debate is still raging in the western US over our public lands.  But public or private, according to “allemannsretten” we all have a right to roam the landscape because it is central to who we are as people.  We hoped to go further, but the weather bid us turn back.  We might not be able to deny each other the right to roam, but nature can always put such limitations in our path.

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This one will have to wait for another day, now it was time to rejoin Paula and Erin at the ship in Sortland where they had been waiting for me to excise a bit of wanderlust.  As the ferry came into sight, I was reminded, like every good Irishman, that my greatest treasure does indeed lie at the end of the rainbow.  It is not a possession to be had but as a gift, the love of my family.  I am a rich man, indeed!

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