This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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This is Finland – or some of it

finlandfactsThis is Finland – or some of it. We still have 75% of our land covered in forests. Nobody thinks of that as contributing to the “lungs of the planet”. Why is that, by the way?

Only last year I learned that it is uncommon for private people to be able to own forest. I sat around the table with some 25 Japanese, Chinese, and Korean business men – and watched their faces grow both amazed and thrilled as they heard that here most land is owned by average families. And private land means you can still walk through it, picking berries and mushrooms as you go, as long as you don’t camp or make a fire.

Nature belongs to all of us. It should be tended to by all of us. The great naturalist John Muir realized the implications of the great American private land ownership culture early enough, and bullied decision-makers to establish vast national parks like the Yosemite. So that people could still explore unknown lands without the fear of being shot by a protective land owner.

Here in Finland, we do things differently: we welcome anyone to enjoy our forests. My father’s forest has ski trails and is used by a hunting society. It’s all good – as long as our neighbors do not steal too many christmas trees.

(Photo source: Finnair Blue Wings magazine, winter 2018 issue)

(Helsinki, Finland; February 2018)


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Look up and tell me what you see

astro-2I may have studied a little bit of astrophysics and astrobiology, but when it comes to looking up and knowing what I am seeing – well, that is a completely different thing. The constellations I know are the ones I learned when I was a child: the Big Dipper/Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, and the Polar Star. That is it. Orion? Betelgeuse? Halcyon? The Zodiac? I had no clue. How does the night sky shift (or how does our planet actually move) through the seasons, and how do I orientate to find stars and constellations? No knowledge.

Fortunately, spending one day with the local university astronomy society helps, I find. The only thing is, stargazing with equipment is not so easy. The past 3 years I have tried to combine remembering my intention to stargaze with the weather report and have not been successful at all. Every time I remember it is overcast, and every time I do not remember, there are weeks of clear skies to use the astronomy society’s telescopes. astro-3One sunny day in August I discovered that the little, old observatory was open for sun viewings. The sun is a star, right? Mission accomplished. And I have been able to stare at the sun without being blinded. Seeing its protrusions, its sunspots, all the beauty flaws it tries to hide under its brilliant light. I have seen the true nature of the sun and it is absolutely fascinating.
astro-1(Helsinki, Finland; September 2017)


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The Spice Isles were not always so

spices-1Zanzibar and its surrounding islands are also known as the Spice Isles. Curiously, this is a wholly imported conception, as there was no real concentration of spices growing here until the Arabs and the Portuguese came and planted spice and fruit varieties they had encountered on their travels around the world. Everything seems to grow on Zanzibar, and so now the farmers grow peppercorn from India, lemongrass from Southeast Asia, avocado from Peru, cloves from Indonesia, and vanilla from South America. In essence, the ecosystem of Zanzibar changed completely with the settlement of the Portuguese. spices-4.jpgAnd yes, cloves come from red flowers on a tree and peppercorn grow on a vine. Cardamom comes from overground root-like pods produced after flowering, and pineapple takes 6 months to mature (and one can only harvest one fruit per plant per year). All of these, as well as cinnamon, turmeric, and other spices are now an integral part of the Swahili diet and kitchen. I would love to know what food tasted like before the Portuguese came.
spices-2.jpg(Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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Lunch with the turtles

turtles-3At the tip of Nungwi village, by the lighthouse, there is a turtle sanctuary. And for nearly a week they offered sanctuary to me, too, in one of their vacant guest rooms.

The turtles are brought in either as hatchlings from the beach or adults, stuck in fishers’ nets and in need of care. The sanctuary originated in the minds of the villagers and is entirely community-driven, not European or American. Young volunteers do contribute to the upkeep of the sanctuary, as do all the tourists that come to feed endless amounts of seaweed to the greedy turtles floating around in their huge seawater pond.

I could count roughly a dozen babies and some 20 adults or young adults in the basins. While the effort is good, one can ask whether so much contact with people is a good thing. Feeding turtles is a main attraction and source of money, but what happens when the turtles are set free in February each new year? Will they approach swimmers or fishermen and put themselves in danger, thinking there is seaweed to be gained from contact with people? And if this risk was not taken, would people ever really learn to appreciate the friendly, vulnerable turtles as a species?

Absolute goodness probably does not exist. Perhaps the benefit gained already by the villagers’ increased appreciation for turtles has saved so many turtle lives that it does not matter if some of them think people equals seaweed fiesta. I for sure could not resist watching them munch away every time I visited.turtles-1(Nungwi, Zanzibar, Tanzania; August 2017)


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The night sky unveiled

qtbn2-v2And there it was: another of those unbelievably bright, long-lived shooting stars above the desert. The night skies over Namibia are remarkable. During a night drive between Windhoek city and airport one is bound to see at least two shooting stars. It is not because they are more common here, but because there is barely any light pollution, clouds, or humidity in the sky between us and the universe.

The first time in my life I truly saw (and paid attention to) the Milky Way was in a tiny village on the Kenyan coast. It seemed to me as a string of cloud and stars in the sky. But here in Namibia I have seen the Milky way in an entirely new resolution: as swirls of uneven, nebulous patches of light and dark. Here in Namibia it is possible to view other galaxies with the naked eye.

The sky is so densely speckled that I have to get used to the thought that this is what the night sky, anywhere on the planet, REALLY looks like. My perception of a sky full of stars has lacked about half of what my ancestors saw, before the invention of electricity. In fact, if anybody asked me to imagine a night sky, in my mind’s eye it would look completely different than if my ancestors were asked to do the same thing.

It saddens me to think that one needs to go to Africa or the deepest central Asia to see what the sky really looks like. My generation and further, younger generations, will probably not even know what the sky and space beyond really looks like. What was normal to my ancestors will be lost to them. Just like an extinct animal species.

Photo borrowed from Florian Breuer’s blog. Apologies Florian for the steal but there is no way I would have been able to photograph the amazing Namibian night sky with the iPhone I was carrying.

(Namibia; July 2017)


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How to count 3,000 flamingos

birdcount2,500 avocets, 1,500 sandpipers, 3,000 flamingos, and several hundred stilts. In just our little section. I did not get the final tally for the entire lagoon and surrounding saltworks. Just take my word for that there were A LOT of birds. And so, why not spend my Saturday off counting birds with a lovely bunch of bird lovers?

It is quite remarkable that an avocet on the 23rd latitude South looks just like an avocet on the 60th latitude North. An oystercatcher here looks like an oystercatcher back home in Finland, only that it is a solid black and not black-and-white. Sandpipers, turnstones, gulls, and plovers all look like their relatives up North. Kind of. With a twist. And different names.

And a plover here is pronounced “pl-oh-ver”, instead of “pl-uh-ver”. Weird.

(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)