Picture walking through the tundra. What did you see? A vast flat expanse, 24 hours of sunlight, a bounty of singing birds, and the buzz of mosquitoes? Well you’re almost correct…except for the bit about it being flat. Instead, raise your trail up a few metres, drop it down into a snowpile, then raise it back up. Repeat.
Somehow I manage to work in a variety of “flat” places that end up being anything but flat. The same thing happened to me on the Prairies. My visions of prancing through the flat grass and canola fields were suddenly shattered when I arrived on my Saskatchewan work site. Rolling hills as far as the eye can see. It turned out that Missouri Coteau wasn’t an architectural style.
Well, it’s true that history repeats itself, and I now find myself on the low arctic tundra near Nome, sweating and tripping over willow-fringed hillocks. I’m fairly certain that the term “rolling hills” describes the likelihood of rolling your ankles rather than the hill itself, and don’t let me catch you adding the term “gentle” to the descriptor! If all this weren’t enough, these miniature mountains of mayhem are covered in tussocks of grass. If you haven’t the pleasure of walking across tussocks, imagine a field full of bowling balls resting in cottage cheese, all on a layer of ice.
On one of my recent visits with the ground, I contemplated the grassy demon-bump that felled me. Tussock is a strange name, I thought. At first it sounds rather benign, but if you say it quickly and slightly slurred it can substitute nicely for any expletive you might otherwise use; for example, on your quick re-orientation from vertical to horizontal. “Oh tussock!”
On reconsideration, tussocks may be the most aptly named thing on the tundra. Even the closest town to my camp has a rather anti-climactic etymology. Nome, despite my best guess, is not a native name meaning “place of waist-deep snow one day and chest-deep puddle the next”. In fact, it doesn’t mean anything at all. A series of cartographical type-set errors converted “? Name” to “C. Name” and finally “C. Nome”. But it’s not just towns that have confused names. As I type this Tree Swallows zip past, far from any tree, and Eastern Yellow Wagtails call out from one of the westernmost points in the Americas. Meanwhile the ubiquitous warbling of the Lapland Longspurs ring out, far from the Lapland region of Finland and Sweden.
As always, things are more contoured than they at first appear. Well, I’ve now packed my sandwich and am prepared to head back into the not-so-flat wilds of Alaska. I just need to remember to keep my wits about me and watch my ste….whoooaaaaa…..oh tussock!