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27 October 2021

To be alone in Norway’s highlands is to remember what it is to be human

On the high tundra, everything is different in deep winter – particularly the thick carpet of uninterrupted white snow.

By John Burnside

At first, I thought it was all snow. The low, sub-Arctic trees – slender birches and squat, rounded willows – seemed entirely composed of crystallised snowflakes. What passed for a trail was a thick carpet that I hesitated to deface with my heavy boots, and the land for miles around, almost completely flat, was a blanket of uninterrupted white. The going was slow, but I did not mind that.

On the high tundra, everything is different in deep winter: distances telescope, time seems to be suspended and, this far north, on the high plateau of Finnmarksvidda, there is no morning, no evening, no noon – only an eerie, bluish gloaming that, once seen, is never forgotten. To my mind, few pleasures match the experience of walking on open ground, alone – in the desert, on a prairie, under the starry sky of the Pampas – but nothing surpasses this wide tundra in the off-season, long after the summer cavalcades of mobile homes and motorcycles have retired southwards with their souvenirs of Nordkapp and the Land of the Midnight Sun. To be alone and out in the open there is to remember what it is to be human: upright, alert, vulnerable, given to wonder.

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It is always a mistake, however, to think that you are alone on any patch of open ground – for if it is not impeded by human developments, life can be found everywhere. Up here, there is even a worm that lives happily in glacier ice. Even though I could see no sign of movement on the trail ahead, something was there, paused, attentive, listening. Had I veered left or right, they would have remained still, untroubled, but as I plunged forwards in the thick snow, they suddenly erupted all at once and rose, wings whirring, into the blue air. It was a covey – or, to use a rarer but perfectly descriptive collective noun for this bird, an invisibleness – of ptarmigans. I had not seen them in that field of whiteness, because they themselves were entirely white – and now, as they retreated, they resembled a flock of lovely ghosts, scattering a little, then regrouping and settling back into their camouflaged world. A moment later, they were invisible again, but I sensed them now, listening for me, a steady attention on the trail ahead.

This is a common experience, of course, with the ptarmigan. The British population is confined to the Highlands; North America has three species, of which the loveliest in winter is the white-tailed ptarmigan, or snow quail. Here, in northern Norway, my companions on this blue white, timeless walk were willow ptarmigan. They are similar to the plump, rounded rock ptarmigan found in Scotland, but somewhat more colourful, in summer at least, with their rich, spice-brown neck and head plumage.

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Yet wherever they are found, ptarmigan always have this ability to surprise us, as they live up to their archaic collective moniker: emerging from invisibility to sudden, startling presence before folding back into the quiet of snow or scrubby undergrowth, they seem to present a kind of reprimand to our clumsy, insistent ubiquity. They are there, just enough, then they are gone. Masters of camouflage and self-sufficiency, they shelter in rounded, cave-like recesses that they construct for themselves in deep snow. They have a double coat of plumage, in which an inner covering of down retains the body’s warmth, while the outer layer keeps out the Arctic chill. Even their feet are covered in thick feathers, like tiny snowshoes, allowing them to walk easily on the crusted snow surface.

In fact, there is much to be learned from the ptarmigan, and though I cannot formulate it in so many words, I feel that it matters more now than ever before. That day, and on the days that followed, my walks were thoroughly haunted by those beautiful ghosts. I began to enjoy the waiting, trying to anticipate the next flurry of invisibleness that might rise from the snow and catch me unawares. And as fanciful as it may seem, I think it was a lesson that they were offering – a lesson in presence, whose starting point comes with the sense of how much any living thing, even the human animal, must keep in check if it is to live in harmony with its surroundings.

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This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future