Category Archives: climate change

The Original Elves

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

West coast of Iceland along Snaefellsnes Peninsula

 

The stiff Icelandic wind picked up as we made our way across the lava plain at Hellnar. As the day turned into late afternoon, dark clouds gathered beyond the rocky cliffs. In the boulders’ lengthening shadows, I could almost make out the huldufólk—elves, the “hidden people”—that most Icelanders secretly believe in. In this raw country, the huldufólk will let you know if you’re on their rocky turf as you try to build a road or other human construction; they’ll break your equipment or otherwise harass you until you come to your senses and change your plans.

Elvish Icelandic topography

Elvish Icelandic topography

Valdimar Hafstein, Professor of Folklore and Ethnology at the University of Iceland, says that in this land, “elves represent nature in the heart of culture; the places attributed to them are wilderness in the midst of cultivation. These places – rocks, hills, ponds – are taboo, they must not be fished in, messed with, moved or mowed; they must not, that is to say, be brought into culture.”

Indeed, Iceland feels like a land where natural magic pervades human settlement. It’s a land of rainbows, land of waterfalls, land of light and mist.

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

Land of rainbows and waterfalls: Gullfoss, Iceland

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Land of light and mist: sunset at Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

Land of magical light: Aurora Borealis over Stykkisholmur, Iceland

In Iceland, the earth literally splits to show what is hidden elsewhere in the world. The jagged rocks that tore our boots as we walked were born of inner fire, of the slow dance of plate tectonics. East of our hike, the majestic valley at Thingvellir (Þingvellir, as the Icelanders write it) runs north-south through Iceland’s center. Its serene lakes and narrow clefts mark the boundary between two massive tectonic plates that are sailing slowly apart, allowing hot magma to well up from the earth’s interior. When the deep molten flow emerges from the rift, it cools to form the basaltic rock underpinning our trek.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Thingvellir Rift Valley, central Iceland, looking north. North American Plate is on the left, moving west; Eurasian Plate is on the right, moving east.

Iceland is the only place where the Mid-Atlantic Rift comes to the surface; usually it’s deep underwater. This makes Iceland a rare large landmass in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—so it’s a sought-after waystation for migratory birds. Most of them had left for gentler winter climates by the time we arrived, but still we encountered Eurasian Oystercatchers, Black-bellied Gulls, Redwings, Redshanks, and other new-to-me species.

* * * * *

To catch our breath and warm up before we began the last leg of our coastal hike, we stopped at Hellnar’s Prímus Kaffi. Enjoying exquisite hot chocolate and hearty soup, we saw yet again that Icelanders clearly have their priorities straight:

2015-9-23-5540-We just have each other

“We Just Have Each Other.”

Refreshed, we resumed our hike over the rough terrain. We were aiming toward Londrangar, whose volcanic spire looked like a Valkyrie’s Valhalla.

Londrangar, Iceland

Londrangar, Iceland

On rocky crags jutting out of the stormy sea, Greater Black-backed Gulls noisily claimed dominion. Common Eiders paddled through the waters below while cormorants flapped heavily above them. As usual, I was the last along the trail, slowing to photograph this unique landscape.

Suddenly I saw Jess and Rob start to wave frantically at me while putting a finger to their lips for silence. Moving as quietly as I could toward them, I saw why they were excited: a stunning Arctic Fox, virtually hidden among the boulders, chewing on the last remains of a gull. When he stood up, I could see  his thick brown fur, made to withstand the winter here near the Arctic Circle, and his penetrating yellow eyes  sharp with intelligence.

Arctic Fox with "fangs" of gull feathers

Arctic Fox with “fangs” of gull feathers

We froze in place, riveted by this rare encounter. Arctic Foxes aren’t endangered, but they’re smart at blending into the landscape, so we were lucky to spot one. Most photos I’ve seen of Arctic Foxes show them as white, with dark brown eyes, so I felt even more fortunate to spot a “blue-morph” individual. You can probably guess that the white version is better adapted to disappear against the snow and ice at the higher elevations of inland Iceland.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6c/Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg/512px-Arctic_fox_in_snow_%288425302866%29.jpg

Photo credit: USFWS/Keith Morehouse. ]CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

But here on the coast, where the climate is milder—meaning the temperature only goes down to around 20°F—this fox’s darker color will let him blend with the boulders, helping him sneak up on prey.

Arctic Fox on the prowl

Arctic Fox on the prowl

He can make a good living here on the coast because he thrives on seabirds and marine invertebrates. And that also means he’s likely to deal well with climate change: he’s a generalist in a robust, resilient habitat. His home provides abundant resources and will keep providing even when other habitats become more difficult. Other Arctic Foxes in less isolated northern places, like Russia and Scandinavia, may have a tougher time as animals from more temperate places move into their warming homes, competing with the Arctic Foxes for prey.

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As Iceland’s only native land mammal, the Arctic Fox is Icelanders’ closest local natural relative. Might these sturdy creatures of lava and lichen be the original elves of Iceland, hidden from human perception, living in crannies and crags alongside people’s less earthen homes, with ancient wisdom in their shining eyes?

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Arctic Fox, Iceland

Wherever we live, the landscape is replete with secret elven spirits. My Pacific Northwest beaches hide hermits, my forests hold birds who disappear—literally—into the woodwork, and high-altitude shrubs in the Cascades Mountains host hungry grasshoppers.

Your home’s land has its spirits as well, alive and thriving beyond or beneath human perception. But as far as I can tell, most of our local elves, unlike the huldufólk of Iceland, aren’t able to turn away bulldozers, reroute roads, or set climate policy. That’s where we come in, defending nature in the heart of culture, as Hafstein put it: being their voices as we learn to dwell with foxes and other elves, honoring homes of all forms, preserving some wilderness in the midst of cultivation on our changing planet. The elves need us, because after all

We Just Have Each Other.

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The Herald Pelican—Hark!

Lipari Town, Island of Lipari, near Sicily

Lipari Town, Island of Lipari, near Sicily

As I climbed up the steep cobbled path to the ancient Sicilian church, resting on its rock by the sea, I didn’t expect to encounter a haloed pelican inside. But there she was, a glowing mosaic at the front of the altar: wings slightly spread, neck arched gracefully over three young who were begging with open beaks. Her halo and her backdrop shone with tiny gold squares.

Pelican feeding young (mosaic, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Lipari, Sicily)

Pelican feeding young (mosaic, Chiesa di San Giuseppe, Lipari, Sicily)

Looking more closely at her breast, I could see chips of red among the delicate aqua and white glass squares. What was she doing here, shining like a beacon in this baroque-looking 16th-century Catholic church replete with life-sized crucifixes and saints?

The images here in Chiesa di San Giuseppe struck me as unusually kind ones. A life-sized statue of Joseph with his lily-topped staff, holding 6-year-old Jesus by the hand as he listens affectionately to the boy’s stories. Mary in an earthen grotto, beaming as she received the news of the gift of life within her. Jesus leaning with concern over Lazarus, who is dying on a bed with loved ones around him.

So a pelican feeding its young seemed in tune with the loving images in the rest of the church. And Lipari has long been a fishermen’s town, probably for all of its 7000 years, so its people would have admired the bird’s exquisite fishing skills. Still, I was surprised to see a bird so prominently displayed: her gold setting shone like a beacon in the church’s dim light. Why was she here?

The “Pious Pelican,” it turns out, is one of the major avian symbols in Christianity. Another bird, the dove, is much more familiar to me as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. But the pelican has widely been used as a metaphor for Christ since about the second century AD.

Woodcut of a pelican in her piety

Pelican in her Piety. Woodcut by Cecco d’Ascoli (1269–1327). Click here for further info/permissions.

In this woodcut and the beautiful mosaic in Lipari, the pelican is piercing her own breast to generate drops of blood that will provide sustenance for her hungry children—a clear allegory for the sacrifice of Jesus. Thomas Aquinas referred to the bird’s generosity back in the 13th century:

Pie pellicane, Jesu Domine
Me immundum munda tuo sanguine
Cuius una stille salvum facere
Totum mundum qui ab omni scelere.

Pelican of Piety, Jesus, Lord and God,
Cleanse thou me, unclean, in thy most precious blood,
But a single drop of which doth save and free
All the universe from its iniquity.

(Translation: Edward Caswall).

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The Great White Pelican pictured below is  the species that likely would have been familiar to Sicilian churchgoers. You can see why early observers, without the benefit of contemporary optics, might think that pelicans pierce their own breasts:

Great White Pelican preening. Photo by Eviatar Bach (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Great White Pelican preening. Photo by Eviatar Bach (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

And looking closely at the beak tip of this Great White Pelican, you could imagine it had been dipped in blood:

Great White Pelican - note red tip of beak. Photo by Frank Vassen [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Great White Pelican – note red tip of beak. Photo by Frank Vassen [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

 Finally, when a pelican feeds his young, he may flatten his beak against his chest to promote the regurgitation process—looking like he was poking his breast for blood.

Whatever the source of the symbol, it’s clear that pelican parents sacrifice themselves for their young. They share nest-tending duties and spend lots of energy catching food for their chicks. They literally open themselves up to nurture their babies: as the young grow bigger, they’re able to reach far back into their parent’s beak to grab the goodies. Sometimes the babies are so persistent that hints that dinnertime’s over don’t work—meaning the pelican has to shake her head hard to dislodge the hungry beggar from her throat, literally knocking it off its feet. Parents put up with a lot. But it’s worth it.

* * * * *

A few winters ago, I had pushed myself to get out for a walk in my park even though the weather was dreary and soggy. I was coming to the end of my loop, and as I shivered in the dusk’s chilly air, I thought how good it was going to feel to come into my warm hobbity home just a few minutes’ walk away.  I stood overlooking Puget Sound for a moment before turning into my street, when puffing up the steep trail from the beach came a ridiculously fit-looking runner. Seeing my binoculars, he asked me if I’d seen any interesting birds.

“Just the usual,” I said. “Towhees, juncoes, bushtits—guess they’re able to stay warm under those feathers.”

“Well, I saw a pelican just now as I was running along the beach.”

No way, I thought, we don’t get pelicans here. Like me when I was just starting birding, novice birders can sometimes think they’re seeing rarities when really it’s just a normal bird, perhaps in unusual light, or juvenile, or molting. Perhaps this was a gull fluffing its feathers, looking large in the dim light.

When I asked politely if he were sure of what he’d seen, he laughed and reassured me that it was definitely a pelican. I sighed. On the off chance that he was right, I was going to have to haul myself and my gear back down to the beach just in case, then trudge back up again when there was no pelican. I thanked him for the tip and headed down the wet trail.

At the beach, the light was fading fast. Bracing myself against the stiff wind, I scanned with my binoculars. And to my amazement, there it was: an American White Pelican, far outside its regular range, flying up and down along the beach, occasionally plunging into the cold water for fish. Would he still be here in the morning, when I could hope for good photos?

Yes! In the brighter light, and yet stiffer wind, the pelican shone like a beacon against the rocking, whitecapped water.

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American White Pelican, West Seattle

Looking more closely, I could see the red tip on her beak.

American White Pelican, West Seattle

American White Pelican, West Seattle

I alerted the birding community, and soon I was getting texts asking where the pelican was now, and now. The birding website eBird shows that an American White Pelican (presumably this one) was sighted occasionally around Puget Sound for the remainder of that month, but then not again—until this year. Suddenly we’re getting lots of white pelicans all over Puget Sound.

Why? Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Katie Campbell reports that these birds may be climate refugees. Their usual freshwater nesting sites in eastern Oregon and Washington are experiencing drought, shrinking the inland lakes they depend on for security from predators. The white pelicans are failing in their efforts to be the good parents that the ancient Christian symbols show they’ve always been. And they’re apparently hoping that perhaps the Puget Sound area, even with all of its human disturbances, may provide a manger when there’s no room back at the climate-changed inn.

Like a visiting white-winged angel, the rare pelican brought a message from beyond our local world. She and her fellow refugees need our help. Not gold, frankincense, and myrrh: but perhaps bold, frank incentives to slow climate change—and a bit of mirth to keep our own spirits buoyant and resilient.

At this darkest time of year, the pious pelican remains a beacon in the dim light. The hope of Christmas will soon face a challenging New Year. Can we find it in ourselves to pierce our breasts for our family, shedding five drops of our own blood—five personal practices to help reduce climate change this coming year? Can we make this small sacrifice to feed not only our own children, but those of the herald pelican and all her fellow birds?

Let us hope so. These white-winged wonders are worth it.

Pelican piercing her breast to feed her young. Photo by Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo for attribution/permissions.

Pelican piercing her breast to feed her young. Photo by Andreas Praefcke via Wikimedia Commons. Click here for attribution/permissions.

P.S. – Good news! In comments below, my friend Véronique Robigou, naturalist and artist extraordinare, points out a Seattle Times article by Annette Cary, which came out just as I was finishing up this post. Cary reports that on Badger Island in Washington’s Columbia River, our state’s only American White Pelican nesting area, the pelicans seem to be rebounding. So we can start 2017 with a cheer of good hope for our avian angels!

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Creche of young American White Pelicans. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, via Wikimedia Commons. Click here for link and permissions.