(page 203).....Installed in my room, I watched a family of Arctic foxes outside the window.
A vixen and six kits rolled in a single furry ball. The tall Dutch scientists going in and out of
the hut above the foxes stooped to vanish through the tiny door like characters in Alice in Arctic
Wonderland, abandoning yellow clogs to the fox kits. Beyond the Dutch hut, the fjord narrowed
towards a glacier blockade: Kongsbreen and Kongsvegen, with the distinctive Tre Kroner peaks,
named after Norway, Denmark and Sweden, rising behind. .....
(page 207).....Our neighbour Maarten Loonen was a familiar figure in Ny-Ålesund.
One of the tall inhabitants of the Dutch house, and the chief Dutch scientist on station,
he was based at the University of Groningen and had been studying the fluctuating populations
of barnacle geese in Kongsfjord since 1990. In 1943 fewer than 300 roosted on the archipelago;
at the time of my visit, the population had swelled to 25,000. Extreme weather stresses Arctic
ecosystems (and they are relatively young: ten or twenty thousand years, following the retreat
of the ice sheets, compared with millions in the tropics). An unseasonal snowstorm or big freeze
can destroy a whole generation, in turn jeopardizing species higher up the food chain. Maarten's
geese showed what a changing climate can do – if PCB's don't do it first.
Like many Dutchmen, Maarten spoke better English than me, and with his spiky hair,
round belly and smooth skin, I could imagine him turning into a barnacle goose when my back was turned.
He invited me to go out observing with him for an afternoon, and so with rifles loaded, we started off
past the Japanese station, past the airstrip, past the rocket launch pad and over a bridge fording
a river bloodied with sandstone deposits. There we reached a pond, and Maarten put up his tripod and telescope.
At a distance of 200 metres, he read out information from rings he had put on geese feet three years
previously. I did not believe it, so I looked through the lens myself.
'If the sun is behind me', Maarten boasted, 'I can read them at 300 metres.'
We walked on to Brandal Point. The rain had began to pound down again. All around, goslings had hatched.
Only the female incubates: to facilitate heat transmission, she has a pair of breast patches without
feathers. For the first three days, goslings live off absorbed yolk. Then they learn to feed.
A strong young goose pecks 120 times a minute when it finds food. But the Arctic fox population had kept
time with the geese. 'The average barnacle couple', said Maarten, 'produce fifty eggs, out
of which 2.2 chicks reach adulthood.' I had watched the dog-fox opposite my window
ferrying goslings to his vixen and kits.
We walked on. 'This grass is too long for them,' Maarten remarked after we
had reached stands of wet green at the lakeside. 'In this state, it's like spaghetti for geese,
and they cannot eat it.' The sun vanished behind a cloud. When it went, the colours went too.
'I see the grass here with my goose mind,' Maarten concluded before stopping to scrutinize a
white blob against a patch of scree on the lower slope of the nearest mountain. But it was a boulder, not a bear.
After all his years in the field, Maarten had plenty of experience with a rifle, but, like me,
he was uncomfortable with the idea of a gun in his hand. 'It's a cultural thing,' he said.
'In Holland you are perceived virtually as a criminal if you hunt. But here
in Norway you're almost a homosexual if you don't.'.....