Sea Change

This article was originally published at 3QuarksDaily.com.

The Finnish Capital

I

Russia’s war on Ukraine is realigning geopolitics everywhere you look. The Germans and French want the conflict to end immediately. Others won’t be heartbroken to see fighting continue to degrade Russian capabilities. The UK, Poles and Balts come to mind here. An idea is settling in that the US, too, doesn’t entirely mind fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian. There’s no denying the war is less painful from forty five hundred miles away.

Look north and if Finland and Sweden join NATO, overnight the Baltic Sea becomes the beating heart of European security. The shallow, enclosed Baltic hasn’t played such a heady role since the days of Napoleon. Vilnius and Riga never dreamed of such proximity to power.

In 2019 Mikhail Saakashvili, a previous victim of Russian aggression, predicted Russia’s next attack would come against Finland or Sweden. He was wrong, but he might not be wrong forever. That’s the fear that fuels an astonishing rush toward strategic realignment around the Baltic Sea.

Finnish President Sauli Niinistö is two years shy of wrapping up his second six year term. The 73 year old son of a newspaperman and a nurse from Finland’s southwest coast, Niinistö consistently polls as the country’s most revered figure.

He was in Washington a week and a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, already working to insure the American administration’s blessing for Finland’s accession to NATO. The Finns hold their president in such regard that his backing of Finland’s coming NATO application should insure the peoples’ approval.

Niinistö put it this way: “Sufficient security is where Finns can feel that there is no emergency and there won’t be one.” Joining NATO, he said, would be “most sufficient.” 

Finland comprises a small, homogenous, linguistically unique space of five and a half million people. Its ethnicity is only recently beginning to be diluted, and not without incident, by the humanitarian welcome of mostly Arab and Somali refugees. Finns have a healthy self regard, a certain satisfaction with the place in the world they’ve staked out for themselves and how they’ve done it. A local word, sisu, sums up their perceived self-sufficiency, perseverance and grit.

Opinion there has taken a remarkable, historic and loudly proclaimed turn during the war on Ukraine. Support for joining the NATO alliance stood at a historically consistent 24 percent as recently as four months ago. After the period of “Finlandization,” a pejorative term for Finns, at the end of the Cold War they reckoned they’d worked out a modus vivendi with Russia and saw no need to upset the balance by joining a military alliance. Until now. Two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, support for joining NATO polls at a historic 68 percent.

Neither Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, which caused the fall of Saakashvili, nor Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea moved Finnish public support for Nato membership out of the twenties. In the 2015 Finnish parliamentary elections, 91% of Social Democrat candidates were opposed to Nato membership.

In January this year, before the invasion of Ukraine, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin, age 36, former city councilwoman, bakery worker and cashier in Finland’s second city of Tampere, judged it “very unlikely” that Finland would apply for a NATO membership during her current term. As it turns out, when she and her Social Democrats defend their coalition government in parliamentary elections next April, they all hope Finland will already be a NATO member. She explains the switch by declaring, “Russia is not the neighbor we thought it was.”

“All of a sudden, it seems the Finnish population have decided: there is only one option. It’s a radical change, a huge shift in momentum,” said Charly Salonius-Pasternak, lead researcher at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. It now appears the Finns have convinced themselves that some version of their 1939 Winter War against Russia could happen again.

The Swedish Capital

It is a fateful decision, and not just for the Finns. Finland and its Swedish neighbor have historically made a show of binding their policies about NATO. The Swedes proclaim it explicitly on their government website: “Sweden’s most far-reaching defence cooperation is its cooperation with Finland. The two countries have similar security policies, and they both wish to expand their already extensive defence cooperation.”

Finland is carrying Sweden’s water here. It has always been understood any decision about NATO would be taken together. While Swedish public support for NATO has always run ahead of  the level in Finland, the Swedish Social Democrats have traditionally been opposed, and they head the current governing coalition.

In a statement Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said “Sweden has not witnessed the same spike in public support, despite traditionally having more public support for NATO than Finland.”

“I do not rule out NATO membership in any way, but I want to make a well-founded analysis of the possibilities open to us and the threats and risks… involved, to be able to take the decision that is best for Sweden.”

Her party held a six-hour meeting in Stockholm on Friday to begin deliberations on whether to change its position. A poll conducted last week by the newspaper Aftonbladet, which is close to the party, showed Swedish support for NATO at 57 percent. Most importantly, parliamentary elections are less than five months away.

Sweden hasn’t been openly at war with another country since the days of Napoleon, and today’s map is straightforward. Since Sweden has no Russian border, joining NATO ought to be easier for the Swedes than for the Finns. Because the Finns have jumped out front, Elizabeth Braw says Sweden has won the NATO lottery.

II

Americans are pretty proud of our opinions, and being Americans, we expect them to matter a whole lot. Trouble is, U.S. opinion reflects very little of the lived experience of the 65 million people living in the seven countries around the Baltic excluding Germany and Russia.

Here in the United States our idea of freedom, our brashness and swagger and gun culture and concealed carry laws and disdain for those who would protect us with masks, they’re not quite the same idea of freedom our frontline European allies have in this war. Here, freedom comes with standing with a gun and proclaiming it. There, freedom comes from standing with a gun and meaning it.

Where we make noise with fireworks on July 4th, to celebrate Finland’s freedom from Russia every December 6th Finns light candles in their windows. In December it’s dark by 3:30.

In contrast to the rambunctious American version of freedom, Matt Dinan describes a northern view, a view that also prevails in Nordic winter: “In Canada or the snowier parts of New England and the Midwest, winter travel always bears an implied asterisk. This small but meaningful restriction of freedom puts the lie to the dream of unbounded freedom or autonomy.”

Well meaning Americans like that “dream of unbounded freedom,” sort of an unlimited, abstract, all-you-can-eat freedom, but that’s not quite the type of freedom the Baltic nations are after. They want freedom from the very real threat of invasion.

The Finnish Capital

And so in the coming days Finnish Prime Minister Marin will set Finland’s formal NATO application process in motion. On April 15th Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto (Green) told state broadcaster YLE that if Finland is going to submit an application for membership, it will happen in the next six weeks.” That means by the end of May.  

The Finnish constitution endows the presidency with the foreign affairs portfolio. In President Niinistö’s shuttling between NATO capitals he will be asking for swift accession, hoping to forestall Russian belligerence in the interregnum between acceptance of Finland’s application and attainment of Article 5 protection.

How fast can they get it done? There’s no exact precedent, but Montenegro took about 18 months in 2017/2018, North Macedonia took 14 months in 2020 and Croatia and Albania, who joined together in 2009, took twelve.

None of these cases are entirely analogous to Finland’s prospective membership; Finland boasts a higher degree of interoperability with NATO allies and a longer track record of partnership. Given the current exceptional situation, the process could be remarkably quick.”

Until it is done, Finnish political leadership is trying to inoculate the public against inevitable Russian sabre rattling. Dmitri Medvedev declared that “There can be no more talk of any nuclear–free status for the Baltic – the balance must be restored.”

Finnish Foreign Minister Haavisto was dismissive. “Russia’s position on Finland and Sweden joining NATO has been common knowledge for a long time, and the reaction is therefore predictable and expected,” he said.

Besides, that really is all just so much bluster inasmuch as nuclear weapons have resided in Kaliningrad for at least several years. And Finland’s Santa Claus village near the Arctic Circle at Rovaniemi, which welcomes around half a million tourists each year, is something like 250 air miles away from the Gadzhiyevo naval base on the Kola Peninsula, “likely Russia’s most important location for naval strategic nuclear forces.”

The Foreign Minister’s “nothing to see here folks” stance doesn’t entirely calm the conspiracy-minded Nordic heart, though. Unsettling things do happen. Stories abound in communities in Finnish Karelia and Savo, near Russia, about suspicious Russian land purchases and general perfidy. The Carnegie Endowment has a list: “Mock attacks by Russian bombers in the middle of the night. Mysterious mini-submarines appearing in the waters outside Stockholm. A small private island in the southern Gulf of Bothnia bristling with satellite antennae and a heliport.”

III

Finland punches above its weight in part because it’s a small country with a largely homogenous population (like Sweden), that can act with more solidarity that a fractious, larger US or, say, France. This plays to its advantage in times of stress. It also has a certain national pride. It thinks it’s done pretty well as a small country unavoidably adjacent to a stifling giant. 

Finland will be unique from other Russia-facing NATO forces. It has demonstrated performance as a cohesive defensive force, it has no legacy of aging former Warsaw Bloc equipment and no legacy of former Soviet training.

The three Baltic NATO members and the former Warsaw Pact NATO countries are all undermilitarized for a real conflict and rely on symbolic US forces as tripwires. For example, through a rotating NATO group called Atlantic Resolvebefore the Russian invasion of Ukraine there were 1867 American troops in Poland, 1134 in Romania, 77 in Hungary, 55 in Estonia, 22 in Bulgaria, 18 in Lithuania, 15 in Czechia, 14 in Latvia and 12 in Slovakia.

Compare that to “The Warsaw Pact’s more than 3 million troops — most of them Soviet — [who] never fought their Cold War NATO adversaries, and the chief action they saw was in crushing popular anti-Communist movements inside member countries” as the Washington Post put it in a 1990 article marking the Warsaw Pact’s dissolution.    

We came to see the state of those Soviet troops as underfunded and desperate. As Warsaw pact troops pulled out, M. E. Sarotte writes that “Soviet forces smashed barracks, ripped out telephone lines, set off unannounced explosions, and left an environmental ‘mess’ including leaking oil barrels. They also started selling their weaponry, ‘including tanks,’ on the black market.” Such was the state of play from which Hungary, Poland,  Czechoslovakia and Romania were left to build their own sovereign defenses.

In the soon to be Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the task was more grim. I remember personally the head-shaking disgust with which newly sovereign Estonians described how retreating Russian soldiers pulled out and ran off with all the wiring in their barracks, to sell the copper at home.

From those desperate beginnings these impoverished newly independent states had to stand up their own armies, none of which have ever had to defend their countries against an assault, in contrast to the state of high readiness in Finland today.

For all that, there still comes the military question whether all NATO member governments would be keen to introduce 833 miles of new Russian border to the alliance. One argument is that “Unlike many NATO allies … Finland did not significantly reduce its emphasis on territorial defense in favor of expeditionary capabilities abroad.” Finland says it’s ready.

Viewed from some remove, it’s a bold and admirable thing that Finnish politicians are doing, audacious given their unique place in history, casting their lot loudly and publicly with democracy at no small physical risk to themselves and their people. That it is courageous there is no doubt. Whether it’s a profound mistake has yet to be seen.

Let us reflect on what Vladimir Putin has done with his invasion of Ukraine. With a future accession of Finland and Sweden to NATO, he will have caused an expansion of the alliance by 300,000 square miles (an area almost twice the size of California) on 833 miles of his borderNATO will add 280,000 Finnish soldiers, Finnish artillery (the biggest artillery force in Europe), 200 Swedish jet fighters, 65 from Finland, and the Baltic Sea will become NATO’s inland sea. Says the Guardian, “by Nato’s Madrid summit in June, Nato will be on course to expand its population by 16 million, its GDP by €800bn and its land mass by 780,000 sq km.”

Putin’s actions have motivated interested parties he can’t control, whose own actions are already busy reshaping European security. Without solving the question of whether NATO is part to blame or whether Russia has brought all this on itself, we can be sure that the resulting sanctions, boycotts and the European decision to wean itself from Russian energy will wound Russia deeply. Here may be a more critical long term worry, peril from the wounded and howling giant. In time, who created a paranoid nuclear state may become less important than what to do about it.

New 3QD Column about Ukraine and Eastern Europe

Here’s my most recent monthly column at 3QD, as it ran on January 31, 2022. Please read it through and let me know what you think.

On the Road: Crunch Time

Kyiv, Ukraine

Ukraine is surrounded by 100,000-plus miserable, freezing, foot-stamping Russian soldiers who are Chekov’s gun on the table in Act One of our new post-Cold War epic. We’ve moved from “surely he wouldn’t?” to “he’s really going to, isn’t he?” It’s the moment when Wile E. Coyote has run off the cliff but not yet begun to fall. 

Two years ago Covid crowded out every thing but the most immediate, every body but family. Shocked by the viral invader’s audacity, we scrambled around in a new, unfamiliar world. Everything was frightening. We had precious little time to reflect. 

Now comes the malign intent of a real-life invader. Unlike Covid, Ukraine isn’t exactly appearing out of nowhere. Russia has been moving toward military aggression for months. The US president has had time to commit high profile gaffes about any U.S. response. Russian landing craft have moved clear around Europe from the Baltic Sea to threaten Ukraine in the Black Sea. We’ve had ample opportunity to reflect.

So far the west has performed a pretty nifty feat – defying physics. Specifically Newton’s third law, the one about for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Only now, at last, comes a grudging rumble from the big American reaction machine.

If a Quisling-in-waiting sleeps in Russkiy Mir tonight, if Russia installs a Minsk-style puppet in Kyiv, if Russian military hardware further enters and remains in Ukraine, it will be the design of a violent nationalist leader. Threatening sanctions is the response of a technocrat, but at least it’s a response.

Everybody is playing the Vladimir Putin ‘will he or won’t he’ parlor game and opinion is genuinely divided. Those who think this is all elaborate Russian respect-seeking may be right, but I’m skeptical, and here’s why. Watching battle gear arriving from as far away as Khabarovsk (on the Amur River border with China), Ulan Ude (east of Lake Baikal) and Primorski Krai (which is eight time zones from Kyiv and borders North Korea), and then a perfectly timed and well scripted further deployment across Belarus for ‘exercises’ involving 200 trains moving hardware day and night,persuades me that going to all this trouble is more than just saber rattlingIf all this is just standing shaking a fist and shouting stay off of my lawn, what’s at stake could turn out to be one mighty costly lawn.

Russia has been moving hardware for weeks. Those hoping this is all a great feint say what’s lacking, if they really mean t0 do it, is field hospitals. During a pandemic, even an autocrat may find it hard to pull medical personnel from civilian hospitals for a training exercise, they say. But over the weekend it was widely reported that the military buildup now includes “supplies of blood along with other medical materials that would allow it to treat casualties.” That sounds real.

After weighing Talleyrand’s advice to Napolean that “My Lord, you can do anything you like with bayonets, except sit on them,” the U.S. president, who has plenty of bayonets, having taken his precious time surveying his options, has begun to fulfill the basic Leader of the West job description, maintaining dialogue, mustering allies, bolstering defenses, polishing strategies.

(And oh lordy don’t you know Jens Stoltenberg is the most relieved man in the house. The NATO chief’s number one mission has to be, don’t be the hapless Nordic fellow who lost Europe. And the most relieved woman must be Ursula von der Layen, the face of the thoroughly sidelined E.U., who as German Defense Minister never met a crisis she couldn’t evade.)

Germany’s new coalition has yet to declare quite how much of a Putinversteher it wants to be, but the answer looks like pretty much. Sympathy is due to new Prime Minister Olaf Scholz, whose government is only fifty days old. His SDP party’s greatest hit is ‘Ostpolitik,’ working with Russia, after all.

Signs are not good. Last week von der Layen’s successor, the new German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht, declared that Germany “will deliver 5,000 helmets to Ukraine, as a very clear signal, we stand by your side.” As full of élan and camaraderie as it may have looked on the minister’s keyboard, Ms. Lambrecht’s tweet hasn’t exactly been taken as a token of undying solidarity. Yet even that was too much for some German politicians: 

Translated, that’s roughly “Delivering 5,000 safety helmets to Ukraine is a bad sign. Germany must play the role of mediator and must not side with one another in a biased manner. The federal government is wandering around aimlessly in terms of foreign policy – stop this saber-rattling!”

With chalk poised above a blank slate, Scholz’s government has so far squandered the opportunity to set the table for its leadership role in a 2020s Europe. The UK disdainfully shook its metaphorical head and simply flew around Germany to deliver anti-tank weapons to Kyiv rather than be held up by paperwork.

•••••

Memories of the Soviet Union are aging but they’re not gone yet. Americans of a certain age will remember civil defense markings on the AM radios in their cars. In the event of, say, a Cuban missile crisis, children would duck and cover and drivers would tune to the triangle on their car radio for guidance. When my wife and I spend summers in Finland, we still hear the civil defense test sirens, sounded at noon on the first Monday of every month.

Civil preparedness is mostly a memory for many of us. But consider lived experience in the new NATO Baltic states. Because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuana were Soviet republics into the 1990s, much of the population speaks Russian and watches Russian TV.

Latvian journalist Kristaps Andrejsonssays while “clowns such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky—the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and a well-known figure in Russia’s ‘controlled opposition’ who has called for the immediate bombing of Kyiv—might be ignored in the Western media, in the Baltics, he and people like him are watched closely.” In the same way that even Donald Trump finds supporters, Russia finds support in the Baltics, because if you live in the Baltics, the threat of war is already in your house.

Kyiv, Ukraine

Consider lived experience in Ukraine right now. American former soldier and Kyiv resident Nolan Petersonwrites:

“If an attack is imminent, Kyiv’s air raid sirens will alert residents to tune in to emergency service announcements. Cars equipped with loudspeakers will also patrol the streets to announce important information.

“The Kyiv City Council has posted an interactive online map, which shows the locations of the roughly 5,000 official locations where residents can shelter from a military attack.

“(For example) From ground level, a nondescript metal door opens into a staircase that descends multiple stories underground. The shelter has a special air ventilation room (originally intended to protect against radioactive fallout) and is connected to the city’s water main…. Daily deliveries of food and medical supplies would sustain occupants in the event of a drawn-out Russian bombardment or siege.

“Known as dual-use facilities, the remaining 4,500 shelters include basements, underground parking lots and passageways, as well as Kyiv’s 47 metro stations.

“Should Russian forces target Kyiv … city officials will order a mass evacuation. To that end, a citywide evacuation commission has already been established, as well as regional evacuation commissions in each of Kyiv’s administrative districts.

“Each citizen should prepare an “emergency suitcase” ahead of time…. This should be a backpack with a capacity of at least 25 liters, a little more than 6.5 gallons, containing ‘clothing, hygiene items, medicines, tools, personal protective equipment, and food.’ The service also recommends carrying important documents and cash in the backpack.”

•••••

Kyiv, Ukraine

Russia is forcing a conversation the US doesn’t want to have, at least not right now and not on Russia’s terms. If Russia strikes further into Ukraine, one way or another, as with Covid, the world will change. The first day of renewed conflict will be a fateful, life-changing day for entire nations. Its effects will last the rest of many peoples’ lives. When we look back here from two years on, today may look less complicated, even quaint. I invite you to pause and enjoy the good old days.

Should conflict come, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania could, like Norway, Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, become frontline border states. Russian malign intent will have to be be assumed.

Russian troops already occupy Moldova’s border with Ukraine in a region called Transnistria. Depending on Russian intent, Moldova may face existential questions, but in any case it will acquire a newly threatening neighbor. Any military move in Transnistria will be meant to intimidate not only Moldova but neighboring NATO member Romania as well.

A fundamental geopolitical realignment is hurtling our way that won’t simmer down for years. By spring, tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees – or more – could be storming the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, and how can those countries, how could they hold them back? Across those borders Russia, or it’s newly installed Ukrainian puppet, will try to stare down four new NATO neighbors. 

Current NATO borders in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Norway will be reinforced, and depending on the depth of the next couple of months’ ill will, Finland’s Russian border may be too. With sudden new face-to-face NATO/Russia exposure, all sides will want substantial, fortified borders. Each country will surely want its own sovereign border backed by its own conventional forces. Here come concrete barriers, anti-vehicle trenches, mesh fencing, electronics, guard towers, barbed wire, electronic and other defenses. Suddenly, it’s a good bet that Schengen’s best days are behind it.

Once we’ve had time enough to consider the longer term, we may find ourselves in a new, raw standoff across conflict-embittered battlefields. Russia v NATO eye-to-eye across borders bristling with weapons and evil intent will be a sight to see. Once again.

Doomsday warnings are cheap for hand-wringing punditry, that’s true. But if some of this stuff does come to pass, world changing ramifications follow. As Sweden’s FM Ann Linde says, “it can still go completely to hell.”

As Covid darkness drew across the world in the early weeks of 2020, I thought, ‘remember this, hold on to this moment, the way things are right now, how good you have it, in case this thing gets out of hand.’ 

The last two years haven’t been years to love. But now I wonder if we might stop to appreciate even early 2022 the same way. Here we may be, in the twilight moments just before the great mid-twenty-twenties European realignment. Remember these fleeting good old days, while our grasping at the remnants of democracy is not quite yet a wry memory.

•••••

[Radio dial image from Auto Universum, used with permission]

New 3QD Column

Here is my most recent column as published at 3QuarksDaily a few days ago with the title Happy New Year. What Could Go Wrong?

2022 is alive, a babe come hale and hollering to join its sisters 2020 and 2021, siblings bound by pandemic. Everybody stood to see off 2022’s older sister 2021, like we all did 2020 before her. Out with the old. Quickly, please.

2022 debuts with a striking resemblance to her sisters, just more evolved. So that by now some Americans signal their freedom by avoiding vaccination while others seek freedom by staying indoors. Meanwhile Europeans ban each other, for a moment there the whole world tried to put southern Africans out of mind entirely, and every country tortures its airlines. Hi ho the derry-o a quarantining we will go.

The Die Welt UK correspondent lamented that should she visit her homeland this holiday, she couldn’t even test her way free. Test your way free.

Consider the world in which 2022 will make her mark. Look east from Kyiv and please find Russia issuing un-agree-to-able demands and backing them with the rattling of 100,000 human sabres. It would be utterly incredible if Putin were to start a land war in Europe. But those who claim knowledge of his inner thoughts cite a deep, consistent grievance. Indeed they find it in the public record, in his 5000 word ‘Ukraine is not a real country’ article back last summer.

As far back as 2008, at a NATO-Russia Council meeting in Bucharest, Putin declared to W. Bush, “George, do you realize that Ukraine is not even a state? What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe but the greater part is a gift from us!”

That spring of 2008 Putin indicated that if Ukraine were to join NATO Russia “would then tear off Crimea and eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country. Six years later it appeared Russia was doing precisely this” without waiting for that detail about NATO membership.

The Russian president has run all that firepower up to the border to declare it is Russia under the gun. A week and a half ago Putin declared “They should understand that we have nowhere further to retreat to. Do they think we’ll just watch idly?” He has run the temperature up to ‘blast furnace’ in eastern Ukraine, a neat trick in the snows of Luhansk and Donetsk.

The neatest scenario has a fiendish audacity: the Russian army advances from the Donbass to the Dnieper River, splitting Ukraine in half, and occupies it’s left bank south to the Black Sea, bypassing and isolating towns along the way that might offer resistance. Consolidating those gains would give the Russians a new, defensible border, the ports of Mariupol and Kherson, contiguity with Crimea, and secure the Sea of Azov.

Could something so audacious be in the cards? Russia occupied Crimea at the conclusion of the 2014 Olympic Games. The 2022 Olympics begin in one month’s time. Welcome to 2022.

Chile dodged a Pinochet-shaped bullet two weeks ago. Defying a last minute show of ill grace by the outgoing president, who shut down big city buses on election day, Chileans definitively declined to elect a baby Bolsanaro in José Antonio Kast.

Kast, son of a lieutenant in the German Nazi army, wasn’t sure if human activity had anything to do with climate change, reckoned he would only comply with international law if he felt like it, and promised to expel immigrants in Chile without judicial review. Toward that end he supported a ditch along the Bolivian border. He (and presumably his wife and nine children) opposed abortion.

He was defeated by 35 year old Gabriel Boric, a former student leader from a Croatian clan in Chile’s far southern Magallanes province whose forebears left Croatia in the late 1800s, at a time when both Chile and Argentina appealed for settlers in sparsely populated Patagonia.

Challenges lie ahead. As unsavory as is Kast, Boric’s coalition’s inclusion of Communists invites bitter criticism from those rump Pinochetties who are still alive and well. But there is opportunity. The election represents a culmination by non-violent political means of a left-inspired 2019 uprising. And to his credit (low bar these days), Kast accepted defeat.

The territorial integrity of Ethiopia, the lynchpin of East Africa, Africa’s second most populous country, has hung in the balance for a year now amid utter distrust, atrocities, cinematic battlefield reversals and the recent involvement of an entirely new cadre of foreign actors, the Turks and Emiratis, come to call with drones that pulverized the supply lines of the Tigray Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF), the main opposition group.

At the new year wounds are being licked all around and councils of war convened, as for the moment Ethiopia’s factions appear to be near exhausted battlefield equipoise. But a peace overture from the central government, yearned for by the international community, looks far-fetched.

Addis’s Amhara allies, who have taken the toughest losses, may be unwilling. The central government may itself be unwilling, as things appear to be personal for Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. Meanwhile factions with competing interests lie in every direction. A military faction within the largest ethnic group, the Oromo Liberation Front, has acquitted itself pooly in an ineffectual alliance with the breakaway TPLF. Add the all around malevolence of Elyas Afewerki’s Eritrea on Ethiopia’s northern border, and the whole situation calls out for a Nobel Prize-winning peacemaker. Oh, wait.

Hong Kongers voted two weeks ago, as China’s flouting of its 1997 treaty with the United Kingdom continued without a peep from London, or much of anyone else. Government critics could not stand on account of an edict called “Patriots administering Hong Kong.” No one is even bothering to ask who lost Hong Kong.

The U.S. Secretary of State said his country “can’t accept a situation in which Iran accelerates its nuclear program and slow-walks its nuclear diplomacy.” That, of course, is exactly what Iran has been doing.

Governments used pandemic restrictions to silence critics and suppress protests in 2021. China shut down Hong Kong protests; Russia cracked heads at opposition rallies. In Serbia, refugees and asylum-seekers have been “put under strict 24-hour quarantine, controlled by the military.” Slovenia was added to “a watchlist of countries experiencing a rapid decline in civil liberties.” And Poland continued to copy illiberal tactics” following ‘the Hungary Model.’ Freedom House counts democratic backsliding in 73 countries.

But wait, we’re here to ring in the new. What have we to look forward to?

Australia, Colombia, France, Hungary, the Philippines and South Korea hold elections this spring, Brazil and Kenya in the autumn, and there are the US midterms in November. Five U.S. states will hold Senate primaries in May. What could go wrong there?

Northern Ireland, where DUP loyalists are already near full post-Brexit froth, will elect its assembly that same month, deftly overlaid on marching season, the annual extravaganza of goodwill put on by cheerful organizations with paramilitary pasts. What could go wrong there?

It may be there will always be an England. But a United Kingdom?

And then there is the pandemic. It may also be there will always be a Covid. I’ve had a look back at things we wrote when Covid first wedged its grasping little crampons into the lungs of the world. We were certain big change was coming.

And yet as we enter year three, look at us: here we are making like just around the corner we’ll have that whole supply chain toothpaste tube tidied up, real quick we’ll get things back like they were, good as new. Don’t believe your lying eyes, inflation isn’t inflation, it’s transitory. Soon it’ll be just like the good old days.

thought in March 2020, before the Zoom boom, that when it became apparent how many more functions could be carried out remotely, companies would wonder why they needed all those buildings. Half right. The virtues of remote work may be apparent to everybody else, but companies are still invested (123) in all that real estate and dying trying to bring workers back.

Here too a rear guard aims to put things back the way they were. But the masters of the universe may have more to grapple with than merely keeping the entire commercial real estate market afloat. They’ll also need a workforce.

A 2018 survey found almost 40 percent of 25-54 year olds not living with a romantic partner. As they put it here, “That does not bode well for life events like marriage, buying a first home, or having a child, which correlate closely with progress up the career ladder.”

Our pre-pandemic memories, much as we’d like to restore them, are nothing more than that – memories. The world has kept turning, things have changed and the pandemic is the agent of that change. Surely distant historians will tie the 2020 George Floyd violence in America to the pandemic, and it will be contributory, but only contributory. For there is a larger attitudinal shift afoot.

Two weeks ago 6700 conventioneers in Arizona raptured to greet, amid WWF-style pyrotechnics, an eighteen year old man found not guilty after killing people. The same day a Donald Trump supporting TV personality urged attendees to accost Dr. Anthony Fauci in (rhetorical) “ambush,” with “kill shot” questions about Wuhan. “Boom. He is dead. He is dead.” His network shrugged it off as rhetoric.

The convention organizers are a group called “Turning Point USA.” A group of people in the United States is in the mood for violence. It’s as if the arsenals in their Winchester gun safes are hankering for some aggressive self defense.

•••••

As the pandemic began Branko Milanovic thought “The longer the crisis lasts, and the longer obstacles to the free flow of people, goods, and capital are in place, the more that state of affairs will come to seem normal. Special interests will form to sustain it….”

He may not have been addressing the travel industry specifically, but it’s a place where that state of affairs prevails, as a failure to coordinate policy across governments makes chaos normal for leisure travelers. And so finally, a word on travel.

History rhymes. Twenty years ago Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, changed airport security at a stroke, as suddenly we all were ordered to tug on and off our shoes for “security.”

Twenty years on, the rhyme: on December 20, 2021 the Washington Post ran the headline

Hey, I know, in the spirit of casting out the old and ringing in the new, in 2022 let’s revisit the security theatre debate.

You can gawk at the travel wasteland wherever you look. Try for one, Southeast Asia. The UN reckons regional GDP may have declined by 8.4% in 2020 as a result of reduced tourism.

So Thailand has developed a concept they call the “sandbox,” in which vaccinated tourists may visit certain resorts where residents are well vaccinated. The Thai concept is contagious, as Indonesia means to try its own version in Bali and Vietnam on Phu Quoc island. Now that they mention it, that’s what the beach vacation is, isn’t it, sending adults to play in their own grown-up sandboxes.

On Christmas weekend US airlines cancelled 6,000 flights and German airline Lufthansa has cancelled 33,000 further winter flights for lack of demand. For two years now the international airline lobby IATA has stood incoherent and mostly mute as the entire formerly bottomless air travel maw chokes into insolvency.

For every selfie stick I’ve ever yearned to seize and crack over my knee, for every cruise ship that ever debased Venice’s lagoon, for every Ibiza hen party embarrassment, for all the perils of mass tourism, for all the evils of the dilettante horde, as Henry Wismayer describes them, surely the pandemic is a more insidious danger.

Covid’s most pervasive, longest lasting effect may be this comprehensive, ongoing, panic-induced constriction of cultural exchange. Our lingering inability to mix across cultures, to enjoy what’s unique about distant ethnicities, to discover and rediscover that people everywhere are just people after all, can only stiffen prejudice and steepen the slope to intolerance.

So it takes some effort to be optimistic about the year ahead. I’m almost sure it requires averting one’s gaze from politics. But there are always things to look forward to. Here are three, all of them as far from politics as can be:

Separating meat production from animal harvesting. A recent paper explains it this way: “Lab meat, not to be confused with plant-based meat substitutes, is grown in huge steel bioreactors using a small number of stem cells taken from a real living animal—a cow, fish, chicken, pig, etc. The result is honest-to-goodness meat, … albeit grown without the animal itself involved….” By one estimate, 65 percent of all terrestrial vertebrate biomass is made up of animals grown to feed humans. That leaves 35 percent to cover humans and all the rest of the world’s vertebrate wildlife. That is incredible to me. Lab meat ought to help.

The Christmas launch of the James Webb telescope. When I looked yesterday the Webb telescope was 507,000 miles from earth, cruising another mile every two point six seconds on an entirely uplifting, humanity affirming mission. Recall your quiet pride when the Mars rover Perseverance bounced onto Mars. With a worthy successor to Hubble parked beyond the far side of the moon, who knows what wonders await? Picture are due in the summer. And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.

And no matter what, the day with the least sunlight for a year is thirteen days behind us. The northern hemisphere climbs day by day out of darkness as days get longer for the next six months. And they can’t take that away from us. Before you know it you’ll be yearning for your sandbox.

Happy New Year.

Among the Non-Humans

Here’s my most recent 3 Quarks Daily article published on 6 December, titled On the Road: Among the Non-Humans:

Cogito Ergo Sum? Welcome to the party. There’s a lot more going on out there than we sometimes think: Cephalopods memorize, learn, invent, and play; indeed, they acquire information about the outside world while still in their eggs. • The small, flowering thale, or mouse-ear cress, can detect the vibrations caused by caterpillars munching on it and so release oils and chemicals to repel the insects. • The fruit fly Drosophila shows evidence of depression if it gets too hot. • Plants discern the difference between blue and red light, and use this information to know which direction to grow. They differentiate between the dimming scarlet light of sunset and the brightening orange light of sunrise, to determine when to flower. • Pigs comprehend symbolic language, plan for the future and discern the intentions of others. They bore easily and show a clear preference for novelty. • When researchers arranged oat flakes in the geographical pattern of cities around Tokyo, slime mold constructed nutrient channeling tubes that closely mimicked Tokyo’s metro rail. • Some plants can feel you touching them. • Cuvier’s beaked whales can  dive to 10,000 feet and stay there, at tremendous pressure, for up to two hours. In 2020 scientists recorded a Cuvier’s beaked whale staying below the water for 3 hours 42 minutes. • The nearly blind star-nosed mole, the world’s fastest eater, can find and gobble down an insect or worm in a quarter of a second. It hunts by bopping its star against the soil as quickly as possible, touching 10 or 12 different places in a single second. • The 10 centimeter long cleaner wrasse, a reef fish, has joined great apes, bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, Eurasian magpies and a particular Asian elephant in exhibiting self-awareness.

• Some sauropod dinosaurs had necks stretching up to 11 metres (36 feet) long. • A monkey community on Kōjima island near the southern tip of Japan washes sweet potatoes in the sea, where they acquire a salty taste. This behavior is passed from one generation of monkeys to the next. This is cultural behavior. • By the age of five a chimpanzee named Ai learned eleven colors and that Arabic numerals can represent numbers. Ai can, for example, assign the label “Red/Pencil/5” when five red pencils are shown to her. • Near the Indian city of Kannauj certain plants secrete fatty acids into the soil to slow the growth of nearby plants, reducing competition when water is scarce. • Hyraxes can stare into the sun, have tiny tusks, armpit nipples, and excrete a weird pee/poop substance in their group latrines used by perfumers and also as a folk remedy for epilepsy. • The oldest known wild bird on earth is a female Laysan Albatross named Wisdom. Scientists put a leg band on Wisdom in 1956, when she was already at least five years old. That puts her age at at least 70 years. In late 2020, Wisdom returned to her breeding grounds on Midway Island and successfully hatched and raised a chick, her 40th known child. • The tube worm takes advice from bacteria. It spends its earliest days drifting among plankton but selects where to metamorphose into its adult form by monitoring chemical signals released by bacteria. That suggests the bacteria are getting something in return. Speculation: the bacteria are helping to assure new habitat, which the growing body of the tubeworm will provide.  Giraffes’ eyes are among the largest of terrestrial mammals’, they can see in color and over great distances frontally, and their peripheral vision is so wide-angled they can essentially see behind themselves. Their mouths are like a set of human hands, with thick, prehensile lips and 18-inch-long, prehensile tongues which can together grasp a leafy branch and then deftly pluck away the leaves while avoiding intervening thorns. • The shaggy ink cap mushroom is capable of erupting through asphalt and lifting heavy paving stones overnight, although they are not themselves a tough material. No one knows how they do it. • Some fungi species are able to harness radioactivity as a source of energy, similar to how plants use sunlight to grow. • The bar-tailed godwit migrates more than 7,000 miles annually between New Zealand and Alaska. • Birds may dodge storms by listening to infrasounds, low-frequency sounds inaudible to humans. Golden-winged warblers in the central and southeastern United States flew up to 9,300 miles in 2014 to evade an outbreak of tornadoes that killed 35 people and caused more than $1 billion in damage. The birds fled at least 24 hours before any foul weather hit, leaving scientists to deduce they had heard the storm system from more than 250 miles away. • Sub-Antarctic crested caracaras are rumored to spread wildfires by dropping burning sticks in dry grass and feasting on the ensuing stream of animal refugees. • Chimpanzees use medicinal plants. They consume fruits with antimicrobial properties; sometimes they combine them with other substances to reduce the toxicity. They eat flowers with antibiotic properties or leaves with antiparasitic ones, which act as laxatives or even induce uterine contractions. They also tear off bark and lick the resin to kill internal worms. • The peacock mantis shrimp’s limbs are so light and tough that scientists study them in the hope of creating new protective materials for human use. The shrimp uses them to stun or crack open prey, dig burrows, defend itself from predators, and fight against other shrimp. Its hammering is incredibly rapid, precise, and brutal: a speed of 100 kilometers per hour. The motion is among the fastest in the natural world — as if the little beast were firing bullets with a force of impact thousands of times its body weight. The attack occurs so rapidly, it’s invisible to the human eye. • One male oceanic dolphin was seen carrying a dead calf, accompanied by two female dolphins off the coast of Hawaii. No one knows whether the male killed the calf, which was thought to be the infant of the younger female. But by holding the body, he ensured the females stayed with him. • Puffins have two distinct phases of their lives: four months on land to breed, with the rest of the year spent out at sea. • Many young elephants who’d watched their mothers and relatives being killed went on to exhibit symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. • Many fish see four major colours; humans only see three. Some see polarised light, some see ultraviolet. Some, such as flounders, move their eyes independently, processing two image fields. • Bees can add and subtract. They understand nothing — that is, the concept of nothing. • Boasting a wingspan of around five feet and the ability to fly at speeds surpassing Usain Bolt in his prime, the black vulture Coragyps atratus can consume 140g of Brazilian household waste a day. • A group of zebras is collectively called a dazzle. • The genus of jumping spiders called Portia prefers to hunt other spiders, employing a clever trick. Females build nests in curled-up dead leaves suspended in air by silk attached to rocks or vegetation. Courting males crawl down silk suspension ropes, stand on top of the nest and shake it in a specific way, luring the female into an ambush. • Nearly every insect species has at least one species of parasitoid wasp that specializes in eating other insects alive. “They don’t just kill them, they want to keep them alive for as long as possible.” • Sea urchins, insects, spiders, crabs, snails, octopuses, fish, birds and mammals, among others, use tools. • Kites and falcons in the outback pick up burning sticks from bush fires, carry these smoking embers in their beaks to areas of dry grass and drop them, starting new fires, triggering frenzied evacuations by small animals – which are promptly snatched from above by the waiting raptors. Indigenous Australians start fires in order to flush out game. Which came first? • Some flowers tailor their petal shape, color, texture or nectar’s scent or flavor to attract a single pollinating species. • In Japan, one crow population uses traffic to crack open walnuts: The crows drop a nut in front of cars at intersections, and when the light turns red, they swoop in to scoop up the exposed flesh. • The female tsetse fly gestates her young internally, one at a time, and gives birth to them live. When each extravagantly pampered offspring pulls free of her uterus after nine days, mother and child are pretty much the same size. “It’s the equivalent of giving birth to an 18-year-old.” • Huge, burly, and equipped with a venomous sting, robber flies occasionally catch and kill hummingbirds. • Flies enjoy sex. Some male fruit flies were paired with females that were receptive to sex, while others were paired with females that rejected sexual advances. Both groups of males were then given access to a solution laced with alcohol and another lacking it. The sexually frustrated males consumed more alcohol than their sexually satisfied compatriots. • The tiny Toxeus magnus jumping spider, also known as the black ant mimicking jumper, looks like an ant, walks like an ant and even waves its front legs in the air like a pair of antennas. Females secrete a milk-like fluid to feed their offspring, which contains about four times as much protein as cow’s milk, prompting scientists to reconsider what it means to be a mammal. • The Antarctic blackfin icefish thrives in the Southern Ocean at temperatures just above seawater’s freezing point with no scales, blood as clear as water and bones so thin, you can see its brain through its skull. • In the mountains of Central America, the Alston’s singing mouse produces arias of loud chirps that can last as long as 16 seconds, and each mouse produces its own distinctive song. • The flower Impatiens pallida, among others, devotes a greater share of resources to growing leaves than roots when put with strangers – a tactic apparently geared towards competing for sunlight, an imperative that is diminished when growing next to siblings. • The marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri can distinguish when it is alone or in a group. It produces light through bioluminescence, similar to fireflies. If these bacteria are alone, they make no light. But when a group grows to a certain number, all of them produce light simultaneously. • To maintain its stealth, a bioluminescent anglerfish in the genus Oneirodes reflects as little as 0.044 percent of the light it encounters. The rest gets lost in a labyrinth of light-swallowing pigments until it effectively disappears. • Gobies, a type of fish, seem to remember complicated routes for almost 40 days. Several species, especially guppies, can recognise other individual fish, evidence of complex social engagement. • Chickadees produce alarm calls when they detect a potential predator to warn their fellow chickadees using their namesake “chick-a-dee” alarm call. The number of “dee” notes at the end of this alarm call indicates the danger level of a predator. “Chick-a-dee-dee” with only two “dee” notes may indicate a rather harmless great gray owl. When chickadees see a pygmy owl, they increase the number of “dee” notes and call “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee.” The number of sounds serves as an active anti-predation strategy. • Prairie dogs use their twittering alarm calls to describe approaching humans in detail, including information about their size, the color of their hair and clothes, and any objects they might be carrying. The intraspecies conversations of octopuses, bees, and many birds follow a recognizable grammatical structure. Dolphins have unique names for one another, as do certain species of parrots, monkeys, and bats. • Chaser the border collie could identify and retrieve more than a thousand different toys by name and understand elements of English grammar. • Plants fight back. When caterpillars graze European maize, for example, the plants emit the volatile β-caryophyllene, which attracts parasitic wasps. The wasps lay their eggs inside the caterpillars, slowing their feeding and eventually, when the eggs hatch a few weeks later, killing them. • Some mushrooms can hunt. When food becomes scarce, some fungi build traps consisting of sticky loops or poisonous droplets, and with special substances, they lure nematodes into these traps. • When the male Great Argus pheasant runs into a possible mate, he clears a six-yard stage on the forest floor, picking up leaves, twigs and roots with his little white beak, finally beating his wings to blow away the debris. He struts around theatrically, pecking at the clear stage. Then he twirls out his wings, transforming himself into a dazzlingly large, intricately patterned circle, and starts  vibrating, shaking and shimmering for up to 15 seconds before resuming his old form and returning to his routine, pecking the ground. • There have been several instances of an animal of one species helping an animal of a different species. For example, a hippopotamus was recorded lifting up a duckling that was unsuccessfully trying to get out of a pond, a bear rescued a crow from drowning and a cat attacked a dog that was trying to maul a toddler. • Spiders can fly, sort of, by electrostatic repulsion. They climb to an exposed point, raise their abdomens to the sky, extrude strands of silk, and float away. This is called ballooning. Ballooning spiders operate within the planet’s electric field. When their silk leaves their bodies, it typically picks up a negative charge. This repels the similar negative charges on the surfaces on which the spiders sit, creating enough force to lift them into the air. Spiders have been found 2.5 miles up in the air, and 1,000 miles out to sea. • The African crested rat chews on the bark of the poison arrow tree, then spits the masticated chunks all over its own hairs. It’s the only mammal we know of that uses toxins from a plant to make itself venomous. • The wings of Chinese tasar moths have scales that function like acoustic tiles. They absorb the sonar waves of predatory bats, making it very difficult for the bats to detect the moths with echolocation. • The Greenland shark, the eqalussuaq in Greenlandic, is the longest-living vertebrate on earth. Two hundred year-old eqalussuaqs are common, and some have been alive more than twice as long. A few still alive were probably born before Shakespeare, before the invention of telescopes or newspapers. Their nostrils aren’t needed for breathing (they have gills) but are used for smelling. They can smell small prey up to a mile away. 

•••••

See the photos here and around 700 others in the Animals and Wildlife gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

New On the Road Column

Here is my most recent travel column, as published (here) a couple weeks ago at 3 Quarks Daily. These columns appear once a month at 3QD, with the next one scheduled for Monday 5 December. This one is titled New Discoveries in the New World:

Consider the medieval mariner, slighted and sequestered, hard-pressed and abused, gaunt, prey to the caprice of wind and wave, confined below decks on a sailing ship. If the captain doesn’t get the respect he demands, he will impose it. So will the sea.

The sailor found solace in ritual. You get the idea he rather enjoyed taboo things. If the ship’s bell rings of its own accord the ship is doomed. Flowers are for funerals, not welcome aboard ship. Don’t bring bananas on board, or you won’t catch any fish. Don’t set sail on Fridays (In Norse myth that was the day evil witches gathered).

Helge Ingstad, an explorer we are about to meet, wrote that “Norsemen firmly believed in terrible sea trolls …. And those who sailed far out on the high seas might be confronted with the greatest danger of all: they risked sailing over the edge of the world, only to plunge into the great abyss.”

If they fell short of the abyss, what did they find? Fortunate men like Eirik the Red found safe harbors and hospitable enough terrain in Greenland to scratch out a life beyond the reach of Norwegian kings. Freedom.

No men found untold riches. More likely came calamity, hardship, deprivation. Life on an ancient sailing ship was a slippery log over a raging torrent. Yet medieval sailors pressed on, and the boundary of the world pushed ever farther west.

Fifty years ago Helge Ingstad and his wife Anne-Stein discovered remnants of a settlement in Newfoundland they suspected was the site known from Viking sagas as Vinland. The state of radiocarbon dating art a half century ago suggested the settlement was active between 990 and 1050.

We already knew certain artifacts around the Vinland site were cut down by metallic tools. This suggested the woodsmen were European, since indigenous people were not known to have metal tools. Then three years ago scientists established the “globally coherent signature” of a sunstorm in 993 CE by comparing tree rings. They compared forty four samples from five continents. This sunstorm (of a magnitude that has happened only twice in 2000 years) caused a readily detectable radioactive “spike.”

Finally, last month scientists applied their new tree ring knowledge to some of those same samples, from fir and juniper trees. Some even retained their bark, making it easy for researchers to count tree rings from the 993 “spike” outward. They conclude that an exploratory Norse mission to L’anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, chopped down those trees in precisely 1021 CE.

•••••

Helge Marcus Ingstad’s big life spanned three centuries, 1899 to 2000. A wunderkind Norwegian lawyer at twenty-three, he chucked it all to live with an indigenous Canadian tribe for three years as a trapper, returned to Norway, became a governor in east Greenland, then governor of Svalbard, where he met his wife Anne-Stine.

For successive summers Helge and Anne-Stine sailed up and down Newfoundland’s west coast searching for evidence of Vinland. Year after year, it was mind-numbing, repetitive, wearying, wet work.

Everywhere they sailed they asked the same tired and practiced question. Did anyone know of any “strange, rectangular turf ridges?”

In the summer of 1960 the Ingstads called at a village on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. They arrived by ship because there were no roads. Just thirteen families. And here, it turned out, someone did know of such ridges. On a sodden shoreline like endless others, they met George Decker, “the most prominent man in the village.”

Ingstad: “Decker took me west of the village to a beautiful place with lots of grass and a small creek and some mounds in the tall grass. It was very clear that this was a very, very old site. There were remains of sod walls. Fishermen assumed it was an old Indian site. But Indians didn’t use that kind of buildings, sod houses.”

The name of this windblown spot almost 400 miles north of St. John’s is L’Anse aux Meadows. Farley Mowat, the grand old man of Canadian adventure writing, calls this a distortion of the French L’Anse aux Méduses, or Jellyfish Bay.

The Ingstads spent that winter arranging an excavation to be led by Anne-Stine, by that time an archaeologist at the University of Oslo. It started the next summer and continued seven years.

Experts from Toronto and Trondheim collaborated to fix charcoal from the L’Anse blacksmith’s furnace, with the state of the tech at the time, as dating from 975 to 1020. The excavation revealed three stone and sod halls, five workshops, iron nails and decorative baubles consistent with the period. By 1961 they had authentic archaeological evidence that the Ingstads had found Vinland.

The team unearthed sod-and-timber halls built to sleep an entire expedition. The encampment lay tight against itself suggesting foreboding, a garrison mentality, uneasy disquiet in an alien land.

They built three halls between two bogs at the back of the beach near what they call today Black Duck Brook. Each had room for storage of turf, for what wood they found, for drying fish. A smaller area centered on an open-ended hut with a furnace for iron working, near a kiln to produce charcoal needed for ironworks.

Parks Canada has assembled replica buildings alongside the ruins, with detail down to spare blocks of peat for roof repair, turf squares stacked fifteen high like bags of  potting soil on pallets at the garden center.

The recreated settlement

On a Wednesday in June, before summer has taken hold, smoke rises from a chimney in the main hall. There are four fireplaces the length of the building, fires for illumination and cooking, iron kettles for boiling stews.

The scent of wood smoke makes me eager to step inside, toward well-insulated, welcome warmth. You may shed your winter wear inside and you will be surprised how roomy is the interior space, much taller than a man.

An elaborate lattice weaves across the ceiling. The walls are extravagantly hung with ropes – coils and coils of line – a sailor’s colony. Against the back wall the length of the building run benches wide enough for sleeping, everything lined with skins.

It took twelve Parks Canada workers six months to craft that outdoor museum. Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, author of Westward Vikings, reckons that is comparable to sixty explorers working for two months of summer, or six weeks for ninety men. Surely these buildings were meant to withstand winter.

Maybe the Vinland voyages explored further south in summer. Maybe, as colder weather returned, so the men returned to L’Anse to winter, tell and embellish tales of their exploits and mainly, to stay warm. Excavations unearthed a soapstone spindle whorl that suggests spinning, possibly weaving. Perhaps the explorers brought bags of unspun wool, a worthwhile way to keep hands busy over the tedious winter.

•••••

In time the party encountered “skrælings,” local people unlike the Inuit they knew in Greenland. These were Native Americans, “short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads.” The word skrælings is translated as “small people” by scholars, “screeching wretches” by the more flamboyant.

That first group of explorers, who built their settlement in tight formation, had been right to do so. The Greenlanders’ first encounter with other people did not go well.

One day the men came upon nine strangers sheltered under upside-down skin boats and the Norse killed all but one. The escapee returned next day primed for vengeance. The men saw countless canoes advancing from the sea, and the expedition’s leader, Thorvald Eiriksson, exclaimed: “We will put out the battle-skreen, and defend ourselves as well as we can.”

Battened down, the men withstood the skrælings’ attack unharmed except, calamitously, for Thorvald: As the skrælings fled he wailed, “I have gotten a wound under the arm, for an arrow fled between the edge of the ship and the shield, in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will prove a mortal wound to me.”

Thorvald Eiriksson became the first European buried in the New World and, dispirited, the Greenlanders soon departed for home. According to Linderoth Wallace, “the next expedition to Vinland is said to have been mounted for the explicit purpose of bringing his body back to Greenland.”

A clash on a subsequent expedition killed two more would be settlers. The Sagas tell us that the explorers realized “despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants.” The Vinland settlement effort stalled.

Perhaps the explorers recognized all along they didn’t have the numbers for permanent colonization. Maybe the realistic among them never planned more than temporary missions to this continent-sized storehouse of supplies. Had they intended a sustained occupation there would have been a church and a cemetery, but there were none. The explorers never farmed the fields. Neither barn nor byre for cattle, no fold or corral for sheep.

Archaeologists found three butternuts, a tree never known to grow in Newfoundland, its range from southern Quebec to northern Arkansas. Their presence suggests the explorers traveled at least as far as New Brunswick, more than 400 miles to the southwest. Down there food may have grown wild, for “that unsown crops also abound … we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relations of the Danes,” wrote a German scribe in the 1070s.

Nowadays most everyone agrees the Vinland of the Sagas was a land and not a single, specific site like L’Anse aux Meadows. Vinland perhaps comprised an area from L’Anse along the Newfoundland coast south to Nova Scotia, down the St. Lawrence to present-day Quebec City where the river narrows, then up the opposite coast in a grand arc along Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Quebec and Labrador back to L’Anse.

•••••

Today is as fine a day as we have seen in northern Newfoundland, no sun but no rain and a fresh, steady, penetrating wind. Hardscrabble ground, uneven, firm enough if you are deft, but step off the rocks and you will sink to your boot tops in the bog.

Helge Ingstad wrote of a Norse “will of iron and a character able to endure privation and pain without a murmur,” and he must surely be right. Standing out by Black Duck Brook dressed in snug twenty-first century down clothing, I can not summon to mind the impossible hardship of men dressed in skins and bad footwear who sailed from Greenland in the cold and the wet, dodging icebergs, serrating wind and jostling seas.

A foot bridge crosses the brook leading toward the ruins. We modest few visitors pick our way up and down the paths. The original shelters, slumped back to Earth, now present as mounds, the effect a gently dimpled plain. Plaques identify the dimples: Huts and halls, the boat shed, the forge, the carpentry shop, the smithy.

Twenty people make a ring around the Parks Canada man in ranger-wear, who is fit to the place, wild and outdoorsy maybe like a pirate. He spins tales with a performer’s twinkle; his audience is all in. Sometimes he must raise his voice if the wind kicks up, bearing down across the Gulf of St. Lawrence from Labrador.

But walk away, find your own place, stand still, and the sounds slide away. Trifling waves come to shore too far away to hear. The cinematic clash of icebergs proceeds in acoustic stealth, distant enough not to disturb the quiet. Seabirds’ calls soar away on the wind and we are left only with the benign rustling of the tall grass.

Northern Newfoundland

We stand by the brook. Helge Ingstad wrote in the 1960s, that “There is salmon in Black Duck Brook, we caught them with our bare hands.” George Decker’s grandfather told him there was considerable forest here in his younger days, but from the brook to the shoreline to Labrador this morning I am hard pressed to find a single tree.

The fog clears across the strait and Labrador emerges, brooding. Wisps of fog play up its cliff sides, snowy patches running up onshore. A peculiar lopsided iceberg, too heavy to bob, has shadowed us through the day.

In the course of an hour the fog recedes, pulling with it more character and definition from the icebergs, moving their surfaces from amorphous gray through bland white, in the end striking out toward the flamboyance of blue, even aqua.

The original European explorers stared hard into this view, wind burning their faces and blowing their beards as they ended their era of discovery one thousand years ago. Five hundred years before the European voyages that got all the good press, here at the end of their long road stood a mottled and murderous clan of northmen.

I imagine the view today is much as it was then. Expansive but spare, open to possibilities and full of challenge, but also full of promise. Two virgin continents awaiting the hand of European man. The original scruffy explorers left that promise for others to fulfill, but these rough-hewn men, standing here astride this earth wild and untamed, they had found the future.

On The Road: The Faroe Islands ‘Grind’

Here’s my most recent travel column for 3QuarksDaily, as published there a couple weeks ago. It’s a look at the Faroe Islands’ whale hunting tradition called the grindadráp. 

Last month, local people drove fourteen hundred dolphins to the end of Skálafjordur Bay near the capital of the Faroe Islands and killed them. It is a tradition called the grindadráp.  In Icelandic, one of the neighboring languages, “Good luck” is hvelreki, with an idea something like “may a whole whale wash up on your beach.” The Faroese don’t wait for luck to produce whales. They sail out and find them.

When a fishing boat or a ferry spies a pod of whales (dolphins in this case but usually whales), a call goes out and word races through the village. Even in the middle of a work day people drop what they are doing and muster. Fishing boats form up in a half circle behind the whales and, banging on the sides of the boats and trailing lines weighted with stones, press the whales into a shallow bay.

Townspeople wait on the beach with hooks and knives. Mandated under new regulations, two devices, a round-ended hook and a device called a spinal lance are designed to kill the whales more quickly and thus, grindadráp proponents say, more humanely.

The hunter plunges the hook attached to a rope into the whale’s blowhole. Men line up tug of war style to pull the whale onto the beach. It takes a line of men to haul them out, for pilot whales may weigh 2500 pounds. The grizzled fisherman, the mayor, the hardware clerk with a bad back, all the townspeople fuse in common cause, shoulder to shoulder on the shore, harvesting the meat, dividing the spoils.

The harvest is distributed evenly, for communal benefit. This is real, retail, hands-on constituent services for the mayor, who works out what size the shares should be and hands out tickets. People go to stand beside the whale indicated on their ticket. Those sharing each whale butcher it together, right there, right then. The municipality is mandated to clear the remains within 24 hours.

The animals are cut and pieces laid on the ground skin down, blubber up. Then the meat is cut from the whale and laid atop the blubber, the whole take is divided, and the shareholders gather up their haul and carry it home. There is no industrial processing.

Even today whale accounts for a quarter of all the Faroes’ meat consumption. Custom and tradition tip the scales against the advice of the then-Faroes’ Chief Medical Officer Dr. Høgni Debes Joensen, who declared in 2008 that no one ought to eat whale meat anymore because of the presence of DDT derivatives, PCBs and mercury in the meat.

Heðin Brú (1901-1987), perhaps the Faroes’ most important novelist, describes life in the village of Sørvágur, now adjacent to the airport on the island of Vagar, in his The Old Man and His Sons. Set in subsistence era early twentieth century Faroes, it describes the generational strains on a rural society being dragged into modernity.

Brú works to show the grindadráp (‘the grind’ for short), as vital in feeding the islanders. In 1928 a Faroese medical officer wrote, “…it cannot be emphasised enough how important this [pilot whale meat] is for the population, for whom the meat, be it fresh, dried or salted, is virtually their only source of meat.”

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Once the grindadráp was a quirky cultural asset, but not anymore. In a time when people are quick to pass judgement, the grind pits the world against the Faroes. A tinge of the exotic attaches to today’s grindadráp, a summoning of vestigial heritage and pride, a suggestion that these quiet, unassuming subjects of the Danish crown fall into some bloodlust frenzy wild and savage, like Viking wildmen in helmets with horns only more authentic than horned Trump Sturmtruppen.

Now the Faroese live in a society modern in every way, right down to their efforts to find more humane ways to kill the whales, and whale meat is no longer required for the diet as it was in the days of Heðin Brú. The subsistence era was a different time. So the question arises, must the tradition continue?

Last month’s photos of the crimson harvest are revolting, and the idea of slaughtering some of the world’s most intelligent creatures is unsettling no matter who you are. But it must also be said that the Faroes’ intent is to be sustainable. The North Atlantic Marine Mammal Conservation Organization (apparently yes, that is a thing) reckons the annual Faroese slaughter takes less than 0.1 percent of the pilot whale population, the grind’s usual target.

Proponents call the grind socially adhesive, a big bundle of sport, tradition and a way of obtaining cheap food. It is also a direct link to the islanders’ past. Opponents assert that none of these justifications hold up in the 21st century. Yet in a place not very accommodating to agriculture, fishing – and pilot whales – have always been central to the Faroese diet.

You can be sure that isolated people will always mix resourcefulness with resistance to change. Pride, too. Pride in the ability to live and flourish in an outpost. Pride in the traditions that make the place unique.

Tjørnuvik

Traditions like the Stakksdagur festival. Every year in spring outside the postcard-perfect village of Tjørnuvik at the far end of Streymoy, strong men drive a few rams up into the hills to roam wild. On a Saturday as autumn approaches, islanders converge, out for a bit of tradition and a day of drinking and playing Viking, carry spiked wooden poles into the mountains, find the rams and use the poles to make a pen to confine them. To fanfare, commotion, camaraderie and traditional song, they herd the rams back into Tjørnuvik for slaughter and auction.

Call it the Faroese equivalent of tailgating on a college football Saturday. It’s as vaguely exotic as Scottish pole tossing, Swedes around the Midsummer pole or the Shetland’s Up Helly Aa.

When you’ve repeatedly been to the brink of starvation, when you live on a spot of land as precarious as the obstinate Faroes cliffs of slippery basalt, when your heritage reaches to Odin and Thor, when you have come through all this and more and today you thrive, perhaps there’s room for the stout view that your culture is worth preservation.

Elin Brimheim Heinesen, a Faroese musician, sharpens the point: “What is completely natural for people in the Faroes, seems so alien to other people, who have never lived here – or in similar places – so they can’t possibly understand the Faroese way of life. And thus many of the aspects of this life provokes them. People are often provoked or disgusted by what they don’t understand.”

She wants the casual visitor to understand that life still is really different on this small archipelago in a vast ocean, “that it is necessary to interrupt your daily work when the time is ripe to bring the sheep home and slaughter them, or go bird-catching, or go hare-hunting – or participate in pilot whaling – and, additionally, to prepare and store the food you have provided for yourself and your family. This food constitutes a large part of the total food consumption and is completely indispensable for most families – especially for the 12% in the Faroe Islands who live at or below the poverty line.”

Activists battle the grind and the Faroes’ legislature battles back. The parliament, called the Løgting, briefly voted in 2014 to ban members of the marine wildlife conservation organization Sea Shepherd from sending protesters. That legislation was dropped when Denmark determined it would likely be illegal.

But try, try again; a 2016 proposal to keep anti-whaling activists out equates actively protesting for an organization with work, for which foreigners require a work permit.

Hapag-Lloyd and AIDA, two big German cruise lines, have suspended or lessened arrivals in the Faroes to protest the grind. (This may be devastating to waterfront vendors but it has its appeal for those of us who believe there is a special place in hell for the inventor of the mega-cruise ship.)

The Faroese point out that the grind is an opportunistic hunt, not commercial, the meat is not exported and is shared across the entire community. The distribution of the spoils generally happens without money, and on the spot.

In the conservative British magazine The Spectator, Heri Joensen, the lead singer of the Faroese band Tyr writes, “In the Faroes, it is not uncommon to kill your own dinner — be it sheep, fish, bird or hare. I have slaughtered many more sheep than I have cut up whales and no one seems to care. I find that strange. Why the double standards? Because whales are endangered? The ones we eat aren’t. There are an estimated 780,000 long-finned pilot whales in the Atlantic. In the Faroe Islands, we kill about 800 a year on average — or 0.1 per cent of the population. An annual harvest of 2 per cent is considered sustainable: compare that with the billions of animals bred for slaughter.” Joensen says that buying the same amount of cow meat he got in a grindadráp would have cost more than £800.

So much discourse these days is about listing things one person or another ought not do. But I think most people don’t mean it, or at least don’t mean it deeply. Passing judgement on social media is a cheap way to signal group identity.

It’s fair to say that one look at the business end of Skálafjordur Bay last month, crimson and slick with dolphin blood, turned legions of foreigners judgmental against the Faroese. The islanders counter that most of their critics, who live entirely apart from the source of their food, eat animals who suffer every bit as much as a grindadráp whale. Factory farming, they say, is an industrial scale horror for profit, while the grind has no financial motive. Who are you, they ask, to pass judgement on the people of a small group of islands far away?

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There were some thoughtful comments added to this article at 3QD. Have a look at the comments here. Also see more photos of the very photogenic in the Faroe Islands gallery at EarthPhotos.com.