European Wilderness Volunteer DiaryThe Diary of the European Wilderness Society Volunteers

Fresh air in my lungs

Untrammelled land, positive thoughts and the Sound of Music.

It was a busy week (as they are all turning out to be!) I spent my days in the office, a combination of reading, writing and odd jobs, such as creating an inventory for the fencing kits I mentioned last week, and making envelopes for Wilderness certificates (I discovered industrial Sellotape dispensers and my fingers are not a match made in heaven). I also learnt the basics of google earth, and how to create a map with a river path drawn on – in this case a Romanian river, which has been nominated for the designation of WILDRiver. This would make it the ninth river in the European Wilderness Network so far, although I know there are many more out there worthy of being included in the Network.
The team are currently writing proposals and the deadlines are imminent, so where I could this week I helped out with reading and checking texts. I sorted reports to be formatted and published, and spent a lot of time reading and learning about wolves in Scandinavia, and the concept of Wilderness. Important topics, as I’m to be working for the next year in the field of Wilderness and large carnivore protection!

Wilderness itself is hard to define, a multidimensional concept that includes both social and scientific concepts, and subjective qualities such as human experiences. The dimensions can include ecological communities, biophysical aspects of natural processes, aesthetics, human presence, spatial occurrences of large carnivores, herbivores or birds of prey, human impacts (pollution, noise, infrastructure…), to name a few. The word ‘untrammelled’ pops up often, as it’s part of the official US definition (US Wilderness Act 1964). I know it’s a real word and also a serious word, but it makes me smile and brings to mind ridiculous things like frolicking oompa Loompas (..ahem, small insight into my mind).

So the European Wilderness Society have taken many of the classifications and qualities of Wilderness and incorporated them to develop a definition of Wilderness, a spectrum of Wilderness quality, and a Standard by which to assess and designate wild areas. This is composed of 9 principles, 54 criteria and 300+ indicators. I mention it because this is the core of the organisation I’m now working with, and I feel sure it’s going to crop up time and time again.

So it’s been a good week in the office, a productive week that’s left my brain buzzing with a combination of satisfaction, tiredness, computer screen and of course the joy of living in the mountains (I don’t think that last one will ever fade). But after I finish my day, I know that I can be straight outside and into nature, and calm the buzz in my brain.

After the office I went walking in the evenings, short little hikes that widened my sphere around Tamsweg. I know now that 10 minutes from the office I can be walking uphill to St Leonhard’s church. Five minutes from my room, and I find myself walking a meandering path, following the flow of a river, the Leißnitzbach. This is a small river, a bit bigger than a babble, with the path on one side and a road the other. I can follow it up the valley, along a path that has gentle, pine-forested slopes either side and the odd smattering of houses along the way, all traditional Austrian types with pointed roofs and coloured walls.

A ten minute walk from my room in the other direction is a second river, this one the River Mur. It’s bigger and faster and not as windy as the Leißnitzbach, but I walked alongside it on a sunny evening and the light made the river seem blue and bright. I dropped a stick into the river and watched it swoosh away, wondering if it would make it out of Austria, through Slovenia, Croatia and finally into the Danube.

I enjoy these little walks and breaths of fresh air in the evenings (although all of Tamsweg has fresh air), and I enjoy my work in the day, but I really enjoy the weekends and the potential they hold for exploring..

A few happy things

The last weekend was quieter for me than the previous two – I spent more time on my own, getting into the swing of life in another country. I went swimming, struggling comically through an exchange with the reception desk when I tried to explain in German that I wanted to swim in the pool. It was my first time swimming in years and I felt a little like a fish out of water until muscle memory kicked in and I remembered how to move my arms and legs. I started to swim laps, dodging children jumping in at the deep end and enjoying the weird weightlessness feeling that accompanies being in water. I swam on my back so that my ears were submerged, and it made me feel like I entered another world; I could hear the rush of water but everything else sounded far away. Without the sound anchoring me to the pool my mind started to wander, and I found my brain trying to list ‘good things’, a habit I had recently picked up when I start to miss home. It was the usual list of family and friends, mountains, working in conservation etc. with the addition of a few new smiling moments I’d picked up over the week… the st Bernard puppy I’d seen on the street and sunk my fingers into his fur (so soft), the wurst vending machine on the street that gives Austrians 24 hour access to sausage, the film ‘The Sound of Music’ which I had re-watched the previous night and to which the soundtrack was now firmly imprinted in my brain. My thoughts covered more distance than my body, but I left the pool feeling happy and back to feeling okay about living far from home.

I also spent time at the weekend getting to know the staff at my accommodation a little better. I’m living in a room that’s attached to a B&B (a ‘Pension’) for the next year, and I sat in a sunny patch outside chatting with the groundskeeper and the cleaning staff. They will be the permanent faces I see for the next year, in the midst of the more short-term guests. The chatting led to trying to fix the tv in my room, a comical situation in which one man started trying a few options, at which point someone else would walk by, see the broken tv and suggest exactly what we’d just tried. But we’d try it again just in case it would work with someone else watching. This went on four times– I had fourextra people in my room baffled by the error ‘nicht programmiert’ flashing on the screen, until they made the decision to fetch a technician. So I can report it’s now fixed, but not without the feeling that I had re-enacted a scene from ‘Fawlty Towers’.

After such a bizarre scene I decided there was no need for tv on a sunny day anyway, and took off hiking up a nearby hill, to see what I could find. It’s the hill that greets me every morning when I step outside and I thought it about time that I get better acquainted with it. I think of it as a grumpy mountain; it’s often covered in mist in the mornings and I imagine that it’s hiding behind the clouds like they’re a blanket, because it doesn’t want to get up. If you squint, you can make out a small red satellite tower at the peak so my logic followed that there would be a way up to the top.

Feeling like a forest fairy

As I continued up the path, the sunshine vanished behind big storm clouds. Thunder began to rumble and before long I was caught in another storm. I couldn’t bring myself to mind getting wet though, I liked the feel of the raindrops on my skin, and the soft pattering sound of the rain hitting the moss on the forest floor. Perhaps this was why all of nature felt so alive here, the near constant rains were making everything green and fresh.

The forest and rain melted away suddenly and I came out on an old forestry road, with hordes of purple lupins flowering either side. It made me feel like I was heading on the road to fairyland – I had no real idea of where I was heading, but the flowers seemed to be guiding me. I was in my element, exploring nature. A mossy brook babbled along the side of the path and all the trees and grasses were dripping with rain. I was out walking for hours, although didn’t cover much distance in that time, I was too busy stopping and admiring every little detail. I never quite reached the top, so I know I will be coming back in the near future, ready to conquer the hill and see the view from the top.

Walking back down the hill my heart was lighter than it had been for weeks, and my phone was full of pictures of leaves, mushrooms, trees, moss, and videos and sound clips of babbling streams and trees waving in the breeze. I still struggle with being far from home, but I try and focus on the positives and enjoy this experience of living here in Austria. I have much to be grateful for, to have this opportunity to live in the Alps and work alongside such a passionate, driven team in the field of conservation. These memories, and particularly my first impressions and glimpses of the landscapes I am currently experiencing, will stay with me forever.

So this weeks tally included being caught in two thunderstorms with torrential rains, which is a slight improvement on the previous week but still enough to make think about investing in an umbrella or raincoat. But for now, in the words of John Muir,

The mountains are calling, and I must go’.