Nordre Aker

Throughout 2017 & 2018 poet and blogger Leeanne Stoddart will travel around Oslo searching for the heart of each borough. She will write blogs, take photos, and write poetry from each place she visits. You can trace the journey here, and follow @hverbydelharethjerte on Instagram.

We are also inviting a number of guest writers to contribute to the project. Sari C. Cunningham has written about Nordre Aker.

Alpine pennycress

In search of Nordre Aker borough’s biodiversity

Buzz, bloom and bustle
A staccato drumming catches my attention as I wait on the steps of Nordberg Church, a monolith of white-washed brick masonry. I am in a residential area near the northernmost boundary of Nordre Aker borough, which borders the forests of Marka. A pine tree (Pinus sylvestris) with its crown missing reveals the source of the drumming – a pair of great spotted woodpeckers (Dendrocopos major) are exploring its potential. Chips of wood sail into the parking lot. I adjust my binoculars to get a better look.

A vein of green through the borough

My local guide for the day, Roald Bengtson, strides into sight. We’re both kitted out in field pants. I know Roald from the environmental organization La Humla Suse (Let Bumblebees Buzz), where I have worked as a tour guide on bumblebee walks. Roald is one of Norway’s leading experts on bumblebees, and has worked extensively with butterflies and birds as well. Having lived in this area for the last 30 years, he’s the ideal person to provide insight into an aspect overlooked by many inhabitants – its biodiversity.

European peacock butterfly on Siberian squill

Insect net at the ready, Roald weaves from one side of the road to the other, scrutinizing green borders along sidewalks and wandering up private driveways to get a better look at promising pollinator habitat. His enthusiasm is infectious. It’s the first weekend of May and spring has been late this year – but around a bend we find white bundles of alpine pennycress (Noccaea caerulescens) waving their heart-shaped seed pods in the wind. A common brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) settles for a moment on a dandelion (Taraxacum sp.). Roald tells me that it is a male – the splash of bright yellow is unmistakeable.

A large bee-fly

As we turn onto a path, I am offered a natural vantage point towards the heart of Oslo. Our path is a green vein. Patches of Siberian squill (Othocallis siberica) spread rampant before us. Like the alpine pennycress, the Siberian squill is a non-native species, easily escaping from gardens and parks. Roald draws my attention to an odd-shaped insect flitting between the blue blossoms that looks somewhat like a bumblebee due to its furry body. It’s a large bee-fly (Bombylius major), and with long spindly legs and tongue it has a rather ungainly appearance. I dub it the moose of the insect world. Nearby, a European peacock butterfly (Aglais io) alights on another squill. The large “eyes” on its wings are thought to ward off predators. They wink at us as it flies on.

Construction near Ullevål

Wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa) and a few common dog-violets (Viola riviniana) peep out from underneath trees, and then suddenly we hear the familiar buzz of bumblebees and spy three different queens among a small patch of red lungwort (Pulmonaria rubra). As Roald quizzes me, I am glad that I can identify garden bumblebee (Bombus hortorum), early bumblebee (Bombus pratorum), and red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius). We’re especially on the lookout for any rare ones – five out of Norway’s 35 bumblebee species are threatened. None of them are here.

Site of the great yellow bumblebee

Before we reach the end of the path we turn off to the right due to construction, pass through a residential area, and come out near Ullevål stadium, where more construction is taking place. As we cross over the Ring 3 highway, I ask Roald what are the biggest changes that he has seen in the borough since he first moved here 30 years ago. He answers that there are fewer green spaces.

Marsh marigold grows near the Oslo Science Park

Our end stop is the Oslo Science Park, “Norway’s largest knowledge hub.” I first visited this area while working on my MSc in ecology, but today I am shown what lies outside the conglomeration of research buildings – the spot where Roald discovered an endangered great yellow bumblebee (Bombus distinguendus) in June 2016. The grassy patch is barren of any bees today, and it is far too early in the season for the great yellow bumblebee anyway – the queens are not normally seen before June. Hope blooms like marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) on the banks of adjacent Gaustad Creek.

Delicate clusters of elm seeds

A river runs through the heart of it
If the path I walked with Roald is a green vein, then Akerselva (Aker River) is an artery, coursing through the borough. From its source at Maridalsvannet to its exit point into the Oslo Fjord, the river is 9.8 km in length. Almost 40% of it (3.9 km) runs through Nordre Aker, according to Are Eriksen, leader of the environmental organization Akerselvas Venner (Friends of Akerselva). It’s over a week since my walk with Roald, and spring has now exploded in a frenzy.

Akerselva is a recreational spot

I start my walk at Kjelsås station, near the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology. Today I am on a wild edibles walk with the Oslo chapter of the Norwegian Mycological and Useful Plants Association. Wearing matching green neon vests, our guides are Pål Karlsen, leader of the association’s board, and Agata Maternia. I know Pål from before, having taken a wild edibles course with him. There are twenty of us on this walk, most of us women. Plus one dog.

Brekke Waterfall

We’re showered with edibles. We’ve not walked more than 50 meters before Pål and Agata have plucked and passed around bouquets of ground-ivy (Glechoma hederacea), bishop’s weed (Aegopodium podagraria), and lady’s mantle (Alchemilla sp.) for us to smell and taste. Ground-ivy belongs to the mint family and the leaves give off a pungent aromatic scent and flavor when I crush them. Agata extolls the many uses of dandelion, a popular springtime food in France in soups and salads. I love how several of the plants have legends attached to their names. The pleated leaves of lady’s mantle, for example, are named after the cloak that Mary wore.

A monument to the river’s history

Recently, I read that Germans have a word to describe the soft green light that filters down through new leaves in early spring – “Maienschein” (“May-shine”). I think of this as we gaze up through the soft canopy of birch (Betula pubescens) along the water’s edge, and taste the sweetness of elm seeds (Ulmus glabra) clustered in pompoms. There are children playing by the water, a bright orange tent is set up, teenagers sunbathe. Bicyclists whizz past. The river is clearly enjoyed by many.

Pål and Agata in a field of Turkish cabbage

The heavy perfume of bird cherry (Prunus padus) hangs in the air. We poke our hands in the undergrowth, finger fronds of yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and compare notes on cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis) – I like its tang of mustard and pepper, but some find it too bitter. Nearby, the Brekke Waterfall plunges six meters in a white spray under Øvre Brekke Bridge. It thunders past an old brick power station that supplied energy to sawmills that used to dot the banks – a monument to the river’s industrial epoch.

White-throated dippers nest along the river

Pål gestures expansively as we approach a grassy hill: spears of Turkish cabbage (Bunias orientalis) thrust towards the sun. Although an invasive, the plant has enthusiasts within the Thai community of Oslo, and its arrival is greeted each year by them with festivities. Further down the river, a white-throated dipper (Cinclus cinclus) perches on a mossy boulder. I explain to Agata that this is Norway’s national bird, a hardy passerine that thrives along fast-moving rivers and near waterfalls. I’ve never seen one so close before; it’s obviously not shy of humans. A neat pile of wood chips next to a felled tree bears evidence of beaver (Castor fiber) activity as we near one of the last stops for the day – the riverbank reveals a shady area covered in ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris). The tightly curled fiddleheads are one of my favorite spring edibles.

Beaver activity

To walk along Akerselva is to tap into the pulse of Nordre Aker’s nature, industrial history, and recreational activity. It’s a green corridor rich in biodiversity, a place where people can relax, slow down, and enjoy the outdoors. The river runs through the heart of Nordre Aker; the river is the heart of Nordre Aker.

A bouquet of wild edibles

Graffiti art at Nydalen


Det er grønningstiden—
Langs elva
almene vifter pomponger
av frø i luften.
Mai skinner et løfte gjennom
løv— alt vi trenger
spirer, vokser, blomstrer.
Vårglede er å rope
ut til venner vi treffer—
bekkekarse, karve,
strutseving, storklokke.
Navnene strømmer, vann
over steinene.

Det er grønningstiden—
Langs elva
svarttrost synger sitt hjerte
ut over byen.
Mailøv. Rundt svingen
fossekall på mosestein
sitter, stirrer, kvitrer.
Drømmer om egg.
Her er flere vi kjenner—
korsknapp, løvetann,
kratthumleblom, gjøksyre.
Duften av hegg, gnagetegn
etter beveren.

Sari C. Cunningham
Ecologist and writer, Belgian and American, inspired by nature, place and identity.

Photo: Odd Petter N Slyngstad