The View From Heifer Hill: Animals in the Circumnorthern Club

This column was sent to you, Reformer readers, from 63 N latitude — 20 farther north than Brattleboro and 3 south of the Arctic Circle. Here in Norway, this time of year is called the Blue Time — the sun moves along the horizon from east to west with the beautiful low angle light of evening all day. North is the only direction I migrate this time of year, for I have an affinity for wintry light and landscapes.

While here, I have been reading Andrea Wulf's "The Invention of Nature," a biography of Alexander von Humboldt, the scientist and explorer who, in 1802, first recognized the natural world as an interconnected living system. One of the observations that helped him to formulate his theory was that he found similar species in similar environmental conditions on different continents.

It should not be very surprising, therefore, that I have found here not only familiar fauna, but the same species (or their European variants) found in the snowiest parts of Vermont and points due north: moose, hare, lynx, pine marten, and wolverine. If I were to hike up above the avalanche zone, I would also find reindeer, arctic fox, wolves, polar bears, and muskoxen. Because I have been in more temperate valleys, I have also seen the tracks of red fox, red squirrel, and red deer (the European version of elk). The birds that I have seen are European chickadees, crows and ravens.

The North imposes harsh conditions on life, and only those with specialized adaptations can survive. The members of this small select group are such successful masters of snowy landscapes that they have spread around the northern pole. These are species that would not persist on a planet without snow, and with them I feel a special kinship.

I found the tracks I most hoped to see on my first ski, the tracks of a wolverine. The prints were huge, made by paws designed for traveling tirelessly for miles and miles over the snow. While wolverines have a well-earned reputation for ferocity, my interest in them was piqued by video footage showing a wolverine rolling down a snowy hillside just for fun.

On the last day of the old year, skiing in a snowy valley that bore the tracks of lynx, pine marten, and many moose, I finally encountered something entirely new: a chubby, starling-sized bird flying along a river. When it perched on the snowy bank, I noted that it was black with a white breast, a short beak and a short tail.

As I admired it, the little beast plopped headfirst into the torrent. Had this poor bird — perhaps blown north on the great winds of the night before — been driven to despondency by the wintry conditions and opted for a quick end? After a minute of flailing, the little bird popped back to the surface, then dove down again.

I later learned that this was a little auk, the smallest member of the puffin family, and a common sight along northern coastlines (although a less common visitor to inland rivers). If I spent my winters along the coast in northern Maine, I would not have found this bird surprising in the least.

And so, like von Humbolt, many miles from home I find myself in familiar company. Von Humbolt was also among the first to observe and write about the effects of human activities on climate. Now warming is happening most rapidly in northern places, which makes this trip bittersweet. The survival of these hardiest of creatures — polar bear, moose, wolverine — now depends upon the decisive action of humanity.

Patti Smith is a wildlife rehabilitator and a naturalist at the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center. The View From Heifer Hill, a feature on the nature of our region, appears in this space the first Saturday of each month. Patti welcomes your feedback at The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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