The only thing I knew about lemmings before coming to Norway was from the video game – they follow each other and will look for any opportunity to commit suicide. At the beginning of summer I started to see these huge mice running everywhere in the fields. They were a little freaky as they screeched and fought each other aggressively. I tried to describe them to Moose and he had no idea what I was talking about – huh, squished mice that screech? It wasn’t until we saw the first newspaper article about a pre-warning to a lemming invasion that the penny dropped. I did get a little excited about all the coming lemmings until Moose read further about the damage they where doing to strawberry crops across the city. They have eaten all the roots of our strawberries so therefore we have none this year.
Norwegian lemmings (Lemmus lemmus) are real funny creatures. They are very similar to a hamster. Lemmings are quite slow as they have little legs so their bodies are flat to the ground and have to cover more surface area when running. They are nowhere near on the brink of extinction but Norway has a responsibility to the lemming as a large portion of the total population is in Norway. Every now and then Norway gets a lemming infestation and out comes all the myths and tales of the lemming.
Growing up I learnt (through the video game) that lemmings follow each other, even off a cliff and commit mass suicide. It is not true, of course, but this myth is also in Norway. Norwegians also believe lemmings spread disease, being a rodent (but Norwegian scientists profusely rebut this). However, the most fantastical myth is that lemmings explode – some people say it is their bodies that explode and others say it is the lemming heads that just pop off. It is true that lemmings get frightened very easily and can die. They get so stressed their little hearts beat so hard that they just give out (I learnt this the hard way – read below). But exploding bodies and heads? I have already had three Norwegians try to convince me of this. However, they themselves have never seen it happen, they just find lemmings in their backyard with no heads. (No one even considers that it could have been the cat leaving its treasure to be admired by the humans.)
Though, I have seen many lemmings just dead, like the one above when we went blueberry picking – he must have eaten too many blue berries.
But lemmings are certainly little feisty creatures. When we were cloudberry picking we continually heard fights, screeches and squeals all around us in the swamp. One chap from Nordland, Øyvind Gundersen, caught on camera a lemming charging his sled dog. It bit the dog on the nose twice and the dog flipped it up into the air, caught it in its mouth and gobbled it down:
You can read the full story on VG.no: Bitter lemen
It has been only at the end of summer that the lemmings are getting more adventurous. I was teaching at a culture camp when all of a sudden in the theatre the 30 kids started screaming and jumping. It was a lemming running around on stage. I had to get it out otherwise the kids would not be able to concentrate on dancing. I grabbed a cloth, cornered the lemming and then picked it up. It wasn’t until I had it in my hands that I thought this might not be a good idea – I could get bit, scratched or even pooped on. The kids wouldn’t stop squealing. Its little head was poking out and its teeth were nattering. I took the little fella outside and his heart was racing in my hands. The kids had to take some pictures and I couldn’t stop them surrounding me with both my hands wrapped around the lemming. The lemming started squeaking and then nothing. It wasn’t moving. I opened the cloth and it was lifeless. The kids started screaming ‘is it dead, is t dead!’ I said ‘No, no, it is just playing dead because it is scared. We have to leave it alone now and walk away so it will wake up and run away’. I had to lie to them. I couldn’t tell them that the kids excitement was probably what killed it. I quickly put the lemming behind a bush and shooed the kids away. Well, at least its head didn’t explode. But would you believe it, when we got into the theatre again, there was another one. This time I knew better and quickly took it outside. I made sure the kids could see it run away.
The other night we were putting the chickens into the coop and a lemming jumped in with the chickens. He was so slow I nearly picked him up with my bare hands.
The local council has been complaining about the lemmings. There are a lot of carcasses building up on the roads – it is hard to drive anywhere without squishing a lemming. They’ve had to constantly scrape off the airport runway. We find dead lemmings at our doorstep because of the cat and the blueberry picking season has been dismal because all the lemmings have got to them first. (Thank goodness they don’t like cloudberries, for some reason.) A lemming expert and scientist in Alta is relieved about all the lemming deaths on the road as he said ‘at least getting killed on the road is quick’. This winter there will be too many lemmings and not much food so many will suffer a slow death.