By Elaine Wendt
I like change. I like returning home to wash my hands and watching the sink turn grey with the day’s dirt coming out from under my nails. It puts me back into perspective, that everyone must do this at some point. Probably rushed and unnoticed most of the time, but it is a really nice moment for me, washing my hands. I can see all of the work that I’ve done, all of the things I held onto during the day and picked up along the way to doing whatever it is that kept me busy until this point of washing my hands.
I left Hamburg three weeks ago to travel to Austria, where I spent a week collecting data in the Alps for a research project with my university. I’d never been to the Alps before, and after living several years in the Rockies of Colorado, I was astonished at the magnitude of difference between the two mountain ranges. The highest peak in the Rocky Mountains sits at 4,399m above sea level (ABS) (14,433ft). The Austrian Alps on the other hand rise to only 3,798m above sea level (12,461ft). This difference, however is by no means apparent to the unsuspecting hiker. The Rocky Mountains sit atop a mass of land which covers much of the mid-west and western region of the United States that itself is elevated between 800-2,000m above sea level (around 3-6,000ft) (USGS, 2018). The actual mountains themselves of the Austrian Alps, the beastly mounds of earth that seem to sit closer to the sun, than to our own planet, rise to a differential ground-level-to-peak height that is in fact greater than what can be found in the Rocky Mountains (Vidiani, 2011).
The treeline is different too. Though this requires a slightly more nuanced eye, its’ effect was even more surprising. To date, I’d never spent more than a few hours above the treeline. In Colorado the treeline sits around 3,353m ABS (11,000ft). In Europe, it’s around 1,700-2,200m ABS (5,700-7,200ft ABS). There are a couple of reasons that account for this difference; one being a result of the jet stream, which is responsible for keeping Europe in a much more moderate climate than areas of equal latitude, further west (i.e. Canada, northern US). Tree species, precipitation patterns and regional climate also play a role in how where a treeline exists.
The field work was exhausting, the equipment was incredibly heavy, the technical vocabulary in German was next to impossible, but the weather could not have been more perfect, the beer was cold, the food was hot and the conversations were real, in the warm glow of the hut and outside under the stars. Each night I washed my hands in water that, any colder would have fallen as ice crystals into my filthy hands. And a week later I was back in Hamburg. The buildings and trash cans, the concrete sidewalks and planted trees seemed so temporary. Like they could be washed away with soap and water. I never felt this way upon returning from a mountain trip in the Rockies. Maybe it was because I lived there and never experienced such a stark contrast. Maybe it was the treeline. Maybe it was the beer! I still have a lot of work to do, the data has been collected, but that, to me seems to have been the easy part. But I always wonder in which ways I might be able to translate some of these experiences into something that people outside of academia and science can be interested in, and can digest. And my initial offer is quite a bit less scientifically accurate, let’s say, but I believe it is valuable, nonetheless. And that is, the feeling of returning. Like feeling gravity again. Or having clean hands. Or seeing the impermanence of our cities and businesses, our economic policies and immigration laws. Remembering the childlike awe from which, at some point, we are all struck into dumb, silent appreciation.
“That fig tree, this little snake, the cocoon on my window sill quietly awaiting its future – all these are momentous signatures. A person able to decipher their meaning properly would soon be able to dispense with the written or spoken word altogether. The more I think of it there is something futile, mediocre, even (I am tempted to say) foppish about speech. By contrast, how the gravity of Nature and her silence startle you, when you stand face to face with her, undistracted before a barren ridge or in the desolation of the ancient hills…” Goethe