A week before I was moving overseas to Sweden I caught the tailwinds of a retweet on twitter from someone I follow. The natural history writer and elegant essayist Meera Lee Sethi (Twitter) had just self-published an eBook about her summer experience as a volunteer at Lake Ånnsjön Bird Observatory. For five dollars I thought it would be a fun way to start reading some natural history about my new home country. As I read it in the week prior and the two weeks after my move, there was an astonishing synchonicity between our experiences of entering and learning about this strange new land!
Mountainfit: Fjällsommar, Fjällsjälv (“mountain summer, mountain self”) is a collection of essays woven together around Meera’s adventures in the forested mountains of Jämtland during the summer of 2011. Jämtland is a landlocked, northern highlands province of Sweden named for the Jamts, who lived in a region tossed back-and-forth between Norway and Sweden over 500 years ago. This struggle of identity is signified in their coat-of-arms: the moose caught between the wolf (Norway) and the eagle (Sweden). Their name is supposedly derived from an early root meaning persistent, or hard-working. It is clearly this trait that rubs off on the naturalists studying the area’s 250 reported birds.
Much more than a travel journal, Mountainfit captures moments in time witnessed by a keen observer of detail who can translate these rare instances into prose so moving, colorful and poetic that you cannot help to be entranced as you follow along the blissfully nonlinear path Meera meanders through her essays. From the noble gyrfalcons, whose rarity in northern Europe was aided by Victorian egg-collectors, to lemmings erupting out of the moss in a chorus of raucous squeaks; even the common hooded crow has their song sung.
While the furry, feathery and clothed cast of characters are fascinating in and of themselves, the true treasure of this book is the masterful layering of natural history, mythology and history, storytelling and ecology that Meeri has exemplified throughout. This is not a continuous book about majestic nature with chapters and linearity. It is several moments in time narrated through a well-read library of myth and history, filtered through ecological science, yet presented in a lyrical flow that binds it all together in a way that leaves you humbly mystified and satisfied. The extra effort to equate “good lemming years” to the swedish regiments of the 1788 Russo-Swedish War while explaining predator-prey-environment dynamics in a backdrop of the field station milieu… only to be transported to Chicago where all the memories of Swedish lemmings are triggered by the appearance of a snowy owl on the Lake Michigan ice. And this is only in one of the seventeen essays.
It’s brilliant, cinematic writing like Meera’s that gives me hope for nonfiction natural history literature. This is far removed from the flowery, excessively adjective-laden prose of megacharismaticfauna-hugging nature writing that pays as much homage to the author as to the experiences of which they are relaying. Meera takes her experiences and bottles them up, contemplates them and only after learning more about the circumstances, history and mythology surrounding her experiences are they ripe enough for her to display to the public for consumption. For instance, this passage explores the mythological underpinnings of predator and prey, as Meera discovers a gyrfalcon nest with three chicks inside it:
“In Iceland, a medieval legend sets the roots of this habit in a heartbreak. It tells us that the gyrfalcom and the ptarmigan began as brother and sister, playing together on the icy slopes. Not only were the two birds not at war, they loved each other deeply. But when the ptarmigan offended the Virgin Mary, she was cursed. Her punishment was to become “the greatest of faint-hearts:” the most defenseless among all birds, and the most persecuted.
There was one mercy for the ptarmigan. She would change color with the seasons, becoming snowy-white in winter and heather-brown in summer. But the cruelest blow was this: the curse transformed the gyrfalcon into the ptarmigan’s greatest enemy. Having forgotten their former kinship, he now preyed constantly on her helpless flesh. In an unsettling echo of the myth of Sigurd and Fafnir, the falcon was provided with one painful, recurring moment of anagorisis.
Every time a gyrfalcon hunted a ptarmigan, the curse provided, the memory of his sister would return – but only after he devoured her heart.[...] But afterward, he would always return to what had become an eternal chase.”
While bringing it home:
“One bird’s essential qualities made it perfectly suited to hunting, while the other’s left equally well suited – at least, from certain points of view – to a life of being hunted. Yet to explain the natural habits of a predator and its prey, the mythmakers created a brilliantly perverse tale. The origin of the hunt, this story implies, is a combination of sin and punishment.[...]
Dear ones, isn’t this how we perceive – or wish to – our most grievous crimes against the ones we love? Something in us longs to see them as involuntary acts, driven by accident rather than intent. And we are deeply moved, I think, by the idea of a creature caught in an endless cycle of blind brutality, punctuated by brief episodes of self-aware regret.
[...] The myth is shivery-fine and strange; but it has little to say about the gyrfalcon, and still less about the ptarmigan. It’s another mirror.
We are the ones who seek an explanation for rapaciousness; we are the ones who long for violence to be a curse. The gyr is just a gyr. It hunts to eat; it eats to live; it lives to breed. And on the day of the three chicks, a single short sentence was added – not to the myth, but to the story science is telling about this splendid bird on its own terms.”
But this collection not only explores the avifauna of the Swedish highlands in a mythological way, it also chronicles the goings on of the people working at the field station and the important monitoring work that she is participating in. Many of the essays include anecdotes about swedish culture. These were some of the bits I related to while entering this new, foreign land. Sharing my scandinavian baptism with Meera as though time stood still and we learned about the hospitality and quirks in a mutual experience.
Mountainfit started off as a Kickstarter and is only available through her website as an eBook and I hope you will find it five dollars much well spent as I have. There is much knowledge and pleasure to be gleaned from reading it and as a self-published work a great way to support a talented writer. The cover art was done by Diana Sudyka. I highly recommend it for birders visiting Scandinavia, but anyone interested in a novel approach to excellent natural history writing will enjoy the book.