Opening the box

by Dolly Jørgensen (Umeå University, Sweden)

This week I’ve had the opportunity to talk about a new paper I’ve been working on for this project titled “Muskox in a box, and other tales of containers as mediators” twice under quite different circumstances. First, the written paper was pre-circulated and then discussed at the Animal Housing workshop in Oslo, Norway, where the participants were coming at their topics mainly from animal studies or science & technology perspectives (although other approaches including architecture history and political science were represented). Then, I gave an oral version of the paper at the Northern Nations, Northern Natures workshop in Stockholm, Sweden to a group of environmental historians, cultural geographers, and literary scholars. These were great opportunities for feedback and comments from the participants will shape my work on it in the future.

In this paper, I focus on the container–the box–used to transport animals in translocation projects. I rely on a distinction Bruno Latour in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (2005) makes between intermediaries, which transport meaning without transforming contents, and mediators which “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry”. More than just tools for moving the animals safely, the relocation containers serve as mediators by transforming their contents.

I told three stories in my talk: “Muskox in a box”, “Boxed in beavers”, and “Flying muskox”. In each of these historical cases, the container—the box which takes the animal from its prior home to its new one—is more than a physical transport method. The animal’s value is different before and after it enters the box because of how its value is dictated by the place in which it lives. Whether the change is from wild to semi-domestic or vice versa or a hybrid of both, the animal’s belongingness at its release site comes by way of its containerisation.

In this post, I won’t go over everything that I talked about, but I’ll give a short overview of the second of my tales, which looked at the first beaver reintroduction in Sweden in 1922.

The beavers were transported in a wooden box from Åmli, Norway, to Skansen in Stockholm in the fall of 1921 and then out into the Swedish countryside in July 1922 in the same box. The box stands in for the beavers in the documentation of the journey. Nils Thomasson, a professional photographer who accompanied the trip from Stromsund to the release point, almost exclusively took pictures of the beaver box rather than the beavers themselves. The box had to stand in for the beavers, because as Festin noted, “For 3 ½ days, the beavers had stayed in their crate.”

One of several photos showing the beaver box being transported. In this case, special marsh shoes are being put onto the horse pulling the beaver box. Published in Eric Festin, “Bäverns Återinplantering” in Jämten (1922). Photo by Nils Thomasson.

One of several photos showing the beaver box being transported. In this case, special marsh shoes are being put onto the horse pulling the beaver box. Published in Eric Festin, “Bäverns Återinplantering” in Jämten (1922). Photo by Nils Thomasson.

During their days within the box, the beavers were transformed into domesticated wards. Sven Arbman, a zoologist who was in charge of the beaver’s welfare during the trip from Skansen, recorded how the beaver pair had to be temporarily removed from the box so it could be cleaned after the first overnight train. When the lid was lifted, pair huddled together and whimpered like small children, but they did not try to bite. During the journey, Arbman describes the beavers as docile children; they were not the “wild animals” he had been warned about that would bite people who came too near. The crate transformed the contents from wild to domestic, albeit temporarily.

When the beavers finally were released, and returned to their wild state rather than the domestic childlike state as they were in the crate, they were also transformed from Norwegian beavers into Swedish ones. At that moment in which the beavers were “lifted gently out of the box and set on the shore” they were “reincorporated into the Swedish fauna” (Arbman 1922). The box served to transform the beaver from outsider to insider in the Swedish landscape. To bring beavers back to Sweden was nothing short of a revolution according to Arbman:

We celebrate the solemn moment at 3.30 am when the beaver was reincorporated into the Swedish fauna, when we got to feel with our hands the revolution in which we participate, the prank which seems to turn everything upside down, the “order of nature”, the “march of progress” and all that it entails…

The box, as a tool in the hand of humans, had reordered the relationship between people and nature through its ability to reintegrate a missing biological component into the Swedish countryside. It was truly transformative.

As an explanatory tool, I think the concept of box as mediator offers insights into how the beaver was transformed through the relocation process. This kind of application of a Science & Technology Studies concept to my environmental history follows nicely on the work I’ve been doing marrying the two fields, most notably in my co-edited volume New Natures (2013). I’m not an advocate of having a pre-determined theory and then finding evidence to back it up, but I do think environmental historians might turn more often to theoretical concepts to make sense of the histories that we see before us. Concepts like mediators can potentially offer modes of understanding and explaining why things happened the way they did.

This post originally appeared on Dolly’s research blog, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna, on November 10, 2013.

Representing Northern Environmental Histories

Bikable city. Photo: Jonathan Luedee.

Bikable city. Photo: Jonathan Luedee.

by Jonathan Luedee (University of British Columbia, Vancouver)

The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of Stockholm’s central station was the position of the sun in the sky. It was only slightly after noon in Sweden (though my own internal clock was trapped somewhere between Vancouver’s Pacific Time Zone and the Central European Time Zone), but the sun was sitting dangerously close to the horizon. By the time I found the hotel I’d be staying at while participating in the Northern Nations, Northern Natures environmental history workshop at the Royal Institute of Technology (KTH), the northern sky over Stockholm was almost dark.

The N4 workshop, which was expertly planned and run by Tina Adcock (University of Maine) and Peder Roberts (KTH), brought together a diverse group of scholars with a shared interest in the history of human-environment interaction in the circumpolar North. A broad range of themes and issues emerged over the course of the workshop. But despite the diversity of methodological approaches represented at the table, the conversations were coherent, insightful, and challenging. From my perspective as a doctoral student who is about to begin research, the conversations spurred by the papers presented at N4 generated much enthusiasm and excitement.

The workshop forced me to think creatively and critically about my own doctoral work. My dissertation, which explores the environmental history of the transboundary western Arctic, focuses on the history of human interaction with migratory barren-ground caribou. I am particularly interested in thinking through the usefulness of comparative and transnational approaches to environmental history in the Arctic. In my dissertation I will consider the ways that the border between Canada and the Yukon impacted human interaction with migratory caribou herds. How has the border mattered? What new dynamics has the border inserted into the migration of caribou herds in the western Arctic? How have Indigenous peoples and the state (U.S. and Canada) dealt with the international border in the western Arctic? In addressing these historical questions, I hope to make a timely intervention in debates concerning the future of northern resource extraction and wildlife conservation.

At the N4 workshop, I had many opportunities to discuss these questions with scholars who were addressing some of the same issues but in different national and environmental contexts. As I spoke with people and listened to the different papers, I was intrigued by the rich regional and geographic variation being described. But I was also struck by the comparative possibilities that arose: Kirsten Thisted’s examination of Indigeneity in Greenland, Tina Loo’s discussion of state attempts to sustain populations in Canada’s harsh northern environments, and Isabel Lemus-Lauzon’s use of historical ecology to explore the dynamic relationship between the Inuit of Nain and the forested landscape (not to mention all of the other fascinating papers delivered); each resonated deeply as I thought through the directions I will take in my own doctoral research.

At N4, I presented a paper on the history of photographic representations of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in which I argued that a prevailing dichotomy between the North as a “wasteland” and the North as “pristine wilderness” has dominated the visual politics of ANWR. This dichotomy was made explicit in the prolonged Congressional debate over oil and gas exploration within ANWR on Alaska’s North Slope. On 19 March 2003, Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, stood on the floor of the Senate and spoke about her concerns over proposed legislation that would have allowed drilling within ANWR. She had drafted and submitted an amendment to the legislation that, if passed, would strike any provisions for drilling within ANWR from the bill being debated. Boxer spoke passionately about the national importance of protecting ANWR’s natural beauty. But she didn’t rely on the persuasiveness of her argument alone; throughout the debate she illustrated her argument with images produced by some of the most popular landscape and wildlife photographers to have turned their lenses on Alaska’s North Slope. While displaying images that showed polar bears hunting on the Arctic ice, the coastal plain dotted with migratory barren-ground caribou, and colourful Arctic wildflowers, Boxer implored her colleagues to grasp what was at stake in the debate: “This is the alternative: drilling in these god-given areas…We’re talking about a place that looks like this.” [1]

Boxer’s use of visual imagery in the debate countered a representational technique employed by proponents of oil and gas development. Alaskan Republican Senator Frank Murkowski demonstrated this technique in a Senate debate in 2001. With an oil-friendly president in the White House – and widespread demand to increase domestic oil production – many Congressional Republicans thought the time was right to open ANWR. During a Senate debate in January, he held up a blank sheet of white paper and claimed that it was an accurate representation of ANWR during the winter: nothing but “snow and ice.” [2] His brazen tactic suggested that opponents of drilling in ANWR were clamoring to protect a frozen wasteland. When Barbara Boxer displayed the images of Arctic wildlife for her colleagues in the Senate, she directly challenged the rhetoric that was so prevalent among proponents of opening ANWR to oil and gas exploration. I argued that it is important to ask: what is obscured when this dichotomy dominates discussions of northern landscapes?

State Museum, Stockholm. Photo: Jonathan Luedee.

State Museum, Stockholm. Photo: Jonathan Luedee.

The gulf between these two forms of representation is not always so wide. Notions of northern “wilderness” and northern “wastelands” tend to dehumanize Arctic landscapes. Of course, not all photographers who have worked in the western Arctic have drawn a rigid line between nature and culture. Wildlife photographer Subhankar Banerjee has thought through the implications of such representations and, through his work with communities in the North, has come to understand the deep entanglement of nature and culture. [3] But still, this conceptualization of the North has historical roots and it continues to influence the ways in which people think about the Arctic. Throughout the workshop, I was reminded of the necessity of engaging with the historical connections between humans, animals, and Arctic landscapes. But, more importantly, our collective discussion of borders and boundaries encouraged me to think about how I will question and challenge the dominance of those socially constructed binaries in my own work.

I would like to extend my thanks to Tina and Peder for organizing this tremendously successful workshop, to all the participants for a weekend of thoughtful and engaging conversation, and to the city of Stockholm for being such a charming place to wander around with nothing more than a tourist map and a camera.

Notes:

[1] CSPAN: March 19, 2003. Accessed online on 20 September 2013.
http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/175611-1&showFullAbstract=1. See also Finis Dunaway, “Reframing the Last Frontier: Subhankar Banerjee and the Visual Politics of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,”American Quarterly 58 1 (2006): 159-180.

[2] Terry McCarthy, “War Over Arctic Oil.” Time Magazine, International Edition 157, 7 (2001).

[3] Subhankar Banerjee, ed., Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2012): 1-23.

This post was originally published on The Otter/La Loutre.

Outside the Box: Crossing Disciplines and Borders in the Study of Northern Environments

by Isabel Lemus-Lauzon (Laval University, Quebec City)

Where does the North begin? Does history solely concern human history? Who is indigenous? These are just a few of the questions and thoughts that came up at the Northern Nations Northern Natures workshop held in Stockholm November 9-11th.

With my natural science background, I was out of my comfort zone at times during the workshop, learning about border poetics, boxes as transformative objects and bottled icebergs. But isn’t that after all the best place to be? As unsettling at it can get, isn’t this discomfort necessary in order to gain perspective, to trigger new thoughts, to start thinking outside the (muskox) box and cross the borders of our own discipline?

Throughout my doctoral research, I have often found myself outside of my comfort zone. My research looks at the interactions between Inuit and their forested environment in Nunatsiavut (northern Labrador). Through the lens of historical ecology, I attempted  to  obtain  and  work  with  diverse methodologies and sets of data [1] in order to  link  forest  ecology  to  historical  patterns  of  forest  use  and  current  Inuit ecological  knowledge. Interdisciplinary research approaches are challenging as they require a great amount of work and time to become familiar with diverse disciplines, their theories, specific languages and methodologies. It is easy to make mistakes when employing the diversity of methodological approaches required to explore topics from working with environmental proxies to Inuit ontologies. Also, there is a danger of remaining too superficial in the analysis, or worse, denaturing different types of knowledge to fit them in a research paradigm. However, the demanding (and sometimes frustrating) interdisciplinary research framework offers great opportunities in the study of landscapes, as they are products and archives of both environmental conditions and human activities.

Through my research and travels, I have started to understand that similar landscapes and environments can be lived and interpreted in diverse ways by different peoples. Forested landscapes, which I examine in my doctoral research, invoke very different feelings and ideas for Inuit than for southern Canadians (and more southerly indigenous peoples). If many southerners consider the forest as a place of relaxation, healing and leisure, Inuit have a much more ambivalent relation with forested landscapes. Trees, although considered as useful resources, make transport difficult, block the horizon and landmarks and hide potentially dangerous creatures (see Kaplan 2012). In my presentation, I discussed how Labrador Inuit adapted to this “southern” [2] landscape by integrating forest resources into their land use, which in turn had considerable impacts on the local forest stands.

Snowmobile hauling wood to camp, 1924-1937, Labrador. Photographer: Donald Baxter Macmillan. Photo reproduced with the permission of Peary-Macmillan Arctic Museum (Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, USA).

Snowmobile hauling wood to camp, 1924-1937, Labrador. Photographer: Donald Baxter Macmillan. Photo reproduced with the permission of Peary-Macmillan Arctic Museum (Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, USA).

Cold and snow, prominent features of northern landscapes, are also perceived and lived very differently in different places. In Nain, the northernmost community of Nunatsiavut, the first snowfall is a blessing. For Nainimiut (residents of Nain), the whirring of a snowmobile engine is the sweet sound of freedom. Then, in March-April, people cross their fingers and hope for the snow and ice to stay as long as possible: “Hope the weather stays cold!” is among the things you can hear at the co-op, while shopping for tea, canned milk and other goodies to take along on a trip to the cabin. I grew up in Montreal, a relatively northern city with a cold winter climate and good amount of snow and I swear I have never heard such statement there. The first snowfall brings sighs rather than joy, as it announces never-ending traffic jams, dangerously icy spiral staircases and more importantly, the end of the terrace season. Except for kids, of course, who see in the white powder a myriad of opportunities.

This brings me back to the question where does the North begin? This recurrent question, brought up during the workshop by historical geographer Graeme Wynn, had me thinking for a while. Is it a matter of latitude, weather, climate? Is it more related to adaptations, narratives, identities? Can the degree of “nordicity” be calculated by polar values (valeurs polaires) as argued by geographer Louis-Edmond Hamelin, who coined the term nordicité? [3]

I was reflecting on those thoughts while in Stockholm, trying to perceive differences and similarities between the ways residents of a large Scandinavian city embraced their northern identity, in comparison to those of a large Canadian city. I was impressed and touched by the beauty of tea lights in the streets that are said to be associated to the tradition of All Hallow’s Eve and persisted through time. I liked to think that this was some kind of northern adaptation, to enliven the 3pm darkness on one side, but maybe also to celebrate the arrival of winter, season during which “nordicity” culminates.

Man lighting tea lights, “bringing light to darkness”, downtown Stockholm. Photo credits: Jonathan Luedee.

Man lighting tea lights, “bringing light to darkness”, downtown Stockholm. Photo credits: Jonathan Luedee.

I don’t know if the question “where does the North begin” can or should be answered. Maybe the North is just not something that can be put into a box. But, as Tina Loo pointed out, perhaps we could reflect further on northern environments not as distant, foreign and harsh places, but more as our homelands. Looking at how we, northern peoples, have shaped, interacted with and adapted to our landscapes, how we connect and relate to our own nordicité, could provide interesting avenues for transnational and interdisciplinary studies of northern environments.

The Northern Nations, Northern Natures workshop certainly allowed good exchanges of perspectives across borders and disciplines. I want to sincerely thank Tina Adcock and Peder Roberts for organising it and NiCHE for their support. I returned to Québec City with new questions and ideas in mind, along with major jetlag and a persistent mental soundtrack of ABBA greatest hits.

References:

Hamelin, L.-H. (1975). Nordicité canadienne. Vol. 55. LaSalle, Québec: Hurtubise HMH, 1980.

Kaplan, S. (2012).  Labrador  Inuit  Ingenuity  and  Resourcefulness:  Adapting  to  a  Complex Environmental,  Social  and  Spiritual  Environment,  in  David  Natcher,  Lawrence Felt and Andrea Procter (eds), Settlement, subsistence and change among the Labrador Inuit, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press: 15-42.

Notes:

[1] I don’t consider Inuit knowledge as  “data.”

[2] Labrador Inuit are amongst the few Inuit groups living south of the tree line.

[3] Hamelin perhaps thought words would help to define and relate to our nordicité, as he also invented 600 neologisms to describe northern environments in other words than those of the South.

This post was originally published on The Otter/La Loutre.

Northern Media Environments

by Rafico Ruiz (McGill University, Montreal)

Just a few weeks ago, an outstanding group of graduate students as well as junior and senior scholars from across Scandinavia, Russia, the United States and Canada convened to think through questions of Arctic concern at the “Northern Nations, Northern Natures” workshop, hosted by the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and sponsored in part by the Network in Canadian History & Environment. The participants were brought together by Tina Adcock (University of Maine) and Peder Roberts (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) to collectively devise new historiographical boundaries that could work through expansive and emergent strategies to foster transnational and comparative approaches to Arctic environments.

Over two and a half days of intense and enlightening discussion, which ranged across the possible post-disciplinary turn in northern studies to reconceptualizations of indigeneity in a modernizing and urbanizing Greenland to the new valences of an increasingly manufactured technical, social, and economic “nordicity,” the multiple dimensions and implications of the formation of a collaborative northern environmental history began to emerge.

From my own perspective, as a sixth year PhD candidate in Communication Studies and the History & Theory of Architecture at McGill University working across northern environmental and historical registers, it was a welcome glimpse into a truly open field of inquiry that could let the important questions at hand take precedence over the policing of disciplinary boundaries.

At the workshop I examined the relationship between media historical and theoretical scholarship and environmental history. This examination, of course, partly relies on the consensus that we can essentialize such diverse forms of inquiry for the purposes of comparison and mutual engagement. When two disciplines “meet,” are brought together to address un- or under-acknowledged issues in one or the other, the question that is often raised is that of “why?” What can media studies contribute to and learn from environmental history, and vice versa? It is these sorts of questions that allow interdisciplinary scholarship to emerge. Both fields, a term I prefer to “disciplines,” are relatively young in the academic landscape, having taken institutional shape in the 1960s and 70s, and both within broader and more established disciplinary fields. Yet, arguably, they share many commonalities: expanded understandings of agency that don’t necessarily privilege human actors; taking “ecologies” as both modes of analysis and subjects of study; a gradual acknowledgment of the importance of “relations” over “objects”; and, finally, though there is plenty more common ground, the study of interactions between human made technical systems and their broad environmental (political, cultural, and economic) contexts of reception and production.

St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz.

St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz.

The short paper I delivered touched on a recent project of mine that seeks to gain a more precise understanding of the history of the encounter between icebergs and human actors in the geographical region known as “Iceberg Alley”—an area that extends from the glaciers of the western coast of Greenland to Baffin Island and south past the Grand Banks of Newfoundland—from roughly the middle of the nineteenth century to today. The project will raise questions related to the changing human and natural ecologies of climate change, the evolution of so-called “ice technologies” and their links to communication technologies such as radar, and the future characterizations and challenges of Arctic and Subarctic mobility in North Atlantic waters. My goal is to critically examine the manner in which icebergs have been a central node in an historical assemblage of knowledge, science, technology, ecology, economy, and culture.

The project continues an approach that I developed in my dissertation in order to examine the history behind a Subarctic industry that is taking shape in the town of St. Anthony on the Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland. Today, St. Anthony stands as a monument to what could be thought of as a processual materialism. The town lies at one of the northernmost dead ends of a very long road that runs the length of Newfoundland. Located on the island’s eastern coast, beyond the turnoff for the St. Barbe to Blanc Sablon ferry, it has a deep harbour with a long relationship to the Atlantic at its mouth. It has a fifty thousand square foot cold storage facility, factory-freezer trawlers that sit at its edge, and an impressive communications antenna atop the rise that marks its North Atlantic entrance. It has a shrimp processing facility, jointly owned with Clearwater Seafoods, that processes roughly five and a half million pounds of cold-water shrimp per year. It has a tourist trade built up around the Grenfell Interpretation Centre and the whales, icebergs and majestic scenery that are a short boat ride away. It has the Charles S. Curtis Memorial Hospital, an institution that serves the Northern Peninsula and southern Labrador for a range of specialized medical services. It has the Viking Mall, St. Anthony Elementary School, Harriot Curtis Collegiate, and the soon to be completed Polar Centre, with hockey arena, conference centre and indoor walking track. It has roads, street lamps, a traffic light, a basic sewer system. Within the province’s history of “remote” outport communities, St. Anthony would seem to have it all. Yet, what it lacks is an open-ended and secure sense of a future. As with many industries in the province, St. Anthony’s future is seasonal. A looming threat is the onset of a prolonged economic “winter.”

Harbour sign, St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz.

Harbour sign, St. Anthony, Newfoundland, November, 2011, Source: Photograph by R. Ruiz.

At present, there are two iceberg bottling companies that harvest icebergs off the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador for sale in the premium water market. GLACE, based in Saint-Hubert, Quebec, and Berg, based in Mount-Pearl, Newfoundland. Up until January of 2012, there were three bottling companies in the province. In that month, Canada Ice Enterprises, also known as 80 Degrees North Iceberg Water, based in St. Anthony, declared bankruptcy. Canada Ice Enterprises operated from 2005 to 2012 and was a major distributor of iceberg water across Canada’s Atlantic provinces. All three companies share many commonalities: they vaunt the scientifically tested purity of the water, emphasize its rarity, and this largely through the dangerous labour involved in harvesting, also referred to as “wrangling,” the icebergs, and write a creation myth of sorts for the origins of a water that can be traced to an age before the dawn of impure human time.

This phenomenon presents a few questions for consideration. These revolve around the ownership of circulating natural resources, the commodification of a product that is a tangential result of global warming, and the ways in which a staple such as water can begin to influence the formation of a changing social infrastructure in a very particular time and space—in this case, St. Anthony, Newfoundland, in the year 2013. The legacy of the political economist and communication theorist Harold Innis has shown how worthwhile it is to think at length on what can constitute an unconventional medium, especially in increasingly and supposedly “marginal” rural settings that support larger systems of economic power, resource exploitation and monopolies of centralized information. Icebergs, as experiments in form, tourist commodities, circulating natural resources, and the harbingers of a potential local economic sustainability, are precisely a contemporary instance of a “new media.” They constitute a contested relational object as they are at once a process that draws attention to the temporal, spatial and relational mediations that the fight over natural resources can reveal. Taken in a broader lens, icebergs are also, and perhaps also more profitably, tourist commodities, objects to be tracked and avoided through government sponsored agencies, and threats to offshore oil and gas installations, as well as the international shipping industry.

The “Northern Nations, Northern Natures” workshop was an ideal setting within which to collectively think through and question the premise that icebergs can be taken as relational objects of inquiry—open both to media theorists and environmental historians. “It is worth considering how our stories might be different if human beings appeared not as the motor of history,” as Linda Nash writes, “but as partners in a conversation with a larger world, both animate and inanimate, about the possibilities of existence.” [1] The workshop helped me arrive at two assertions. Firstly, that icebergs are both natural resources and communicative media that are constituted through contested processes of both material and immaterial meaning-making throughout the ways in which they are extracted, transported, transformed, circulated, and communicated in various localizable sites of resource engagement. Secondly, that northern media environments can allow us to rethink what techniques, technologies and natural phenomena constitute “media of communication” and for whom they matter in the pursuit of more equitable relationships of information exchange, commercial trade, and transportation and communications infrastructures. As the workshop’s transnational, post-disciplinary framework made clear, emergent Arctic environmental histories need both new agencies and new media through which to be told and questioned.

[1] Linda Nash, “The Agency of Nature or the Nature of Agency?” in Environmental History, vol. 10, No. 1 (January 2005): 69.

This post was originally published on The Otter/La Loutre.

Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland

Isbjorn says Six More Weeks of Winter.

by Tina Loo (University of British Columbia, Vancouver)

Apart from an epic visit to the ABBA Museum, one of the memories I have of the recent “Northern Nations, Northern Natures” workshop in Stockholm comes from the first day, when many of the participants introduced themselves by forswearing any expertise about the north – and then proceeded to talk about it, at length and insightfully.

I can’t remember this happening at any other workshop I’ve attended. It speaks to how scholars have used the north to learn about globalization and climate change, the meanings of imperialism, nationalism, and colonialism, and the relationship between knowledge and power – almost anything but the place itself! For all the attention it has received, the north remains elusive: it’s not that there’s no “there” there, more that there’s so much that it makes it hard to see what northern history or northern environmental history is.

Sometimes it seems that they’re one in the same: research on the north is automatically environmental history; the former collapses into the latter. Broadly speaking, both explore how people adapted to and shaped the physical environment and how it in turn has shaped them.

My offering to the workshop certainly treated the north as a physical obstacle, a set of hard limits and scarcities that had to be overcome. I argued that one way to frame a comparative environmental history of the north might be to ask how governments dealt with the challenge of sustaining populations in environmentally marginal places. For my purposes, then, the north was a frontier of human habitation. I made my case by comparing the Canadian welfare state’s efforts to put two different regions of Canada, the Keewatin (Kivalliq) region and Newfoundland, on an environmentally and socially enduring footing in the postwar period. From this, I made some observations about the politics of sustainable development, the ideological and political work it carried out.

I wasn’t alone in equating the north with the environment: climate historian Dagomar Degroot showed us how the Little Ice Age manifested itself differently in different years, suggesting that weather, more than climate, shaped sixteenth-century Dutch imperial aspirations in the arctic and their search for a Northeast Passage. Geographer Matt Farish gave us a fascinating talk about how the US military simulated northern environments in places far from Ellesmere, training “Arctic warriors” for a cold (and Cold) war. The military wasn’t the only power capable of mobilizing northern environments for particular ends. Communications scholar Rafico Ruiz revealed how the market circulated the north as a commodity: entrepreneurs turned icebergs into bottled glacier water, capitalizing on a notion of pristine nature and climate change – the process that’s contributing to increased calving, putting more potential “product” in the water from which profits can be wrangled.

I’m sure everyone would agree there’s more to northern history than the environment. But is there more to the northern environment? Is it more than a frontier, a place onto which outsiders projected their aspirations? Is it only an obstacle to be overcome, a commodity to be extracted and exploited, a resource to be managed?

Approaching the north as a frontier of empire, state power, science, and capital, as many of us do, has been illuminating. But I wonder if there aren’t other ways to think about the north, perhaps as home – still a field of power, but one in which different aspirations were projected by different actors.

Kirsten Thisted’s presentation exploring “what is indigenous?” in the context of Greenland’s transition to self-government got me thinking about this, as did Dolly Jørgensen’s paper on animal re-introductions and the remaking of Nordic nations, Anna Varfolomeeva’s proposal for a comparative study of Sami and Veps peoples in Karelia, and Jonathan Luedee’s work on the Porcupine caribou herd.

What would it mean to think of the northern environment as as a modern homeland, one created by Greenlandic Inuit “pioneers” and Veps possessed of a “mineral identity,” to name a few, as well as other animals? To see the north as David G. Anderson does, as a region “densely populated … by creatures rich in intentionality, history, and connection” to each other and the place around them? (1) What would we see if we redefined the places we study to include “other peoples, other lives”? For Donald Worster, doing so isn’t just an academic exercise. “What’s at stake is nothing less than the notion of community we want to nurture.” (2)

1. David G. Anderson, “Reindeer, Caribou, and ‘Fairy Stories’ of State Power,” in David G. Anderson and Mark Nutall, eds., Cultivating Arctic Landscapes: Knowing and Managing Animals in the Circumpolar North (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2003), 2-3.

2. Donald Worster, “Other Peoples, Other Lives,” in his An Unsettled Country: Changing Landscapes of the American West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994), 90.

This post was originally published on The Otter/La Loutre.

Northern Nations, Northern Natures: Alliteration and the Arctic in Stockholm

by Dagomar Degroot (York University, Toronto)

For Canadians, the far North is integral to our identity, although many of us are not always sure how, or why. We are the “true North,” and so distinct from our overbearing neighbours south of the 49th parallel. Still, the most populated centres in our heavily urbanized country lie below
latitudes considered northerly in Europe. To borrow a sentiment penned by Stephen Leacock and quoted by geographer Graeme Wynn, we Canadians would feel lonely without our North, even if many of us have never been there. Polar bears, snow-capped mountains, icebergs and the Aurora Borealis are ubiquitous in our patriotic imagery. Hockey, proudly played despite the cold, is a national obsession.

Perhaps it is no surprise that the Arctic looms large in our historiography. Moreover, the uniquely forceful agency of “nature” in the far North has increasingly inspired us to write histories of people and their frigid environments. Of course, we do not write in a vacuum. The Arctic has inspired a rich interdisciplinary scholarship in Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Russia, and other places linked with the far North through economic, cultural or political entanglements. It was to forge new bonds between Arctic environmental historians on both sides of the Atlantic that NiCHE generously supported the Northern Nations, Northern Natures workshop in Stockholm this November.

Afternoon sunset from the Old Town of beautiful Stockholm. Photo: D Degroot

Afternoon sunset from the Old Town of beautiful Stockholm. Photo: D Degroot

I must confess: I had some misgivings when workshop organizers Tina Adcock and Peder Roberts accepted my application this summer. I am a historian of climate change, which is now inextricably connected with the study of the Arctic. All the same, for five years my focus had rested on the Low Countries, which I hardly considered “northern,” despite their high latitude. Admittedly, the explorers and entrepreneurs of the Dutch Republic had certainly discovered and exploited new resources in an Arctic under the influence of an early modern “Little Ice Age.” Accordingly I had written an article about relationships between climate, weather and the Dutch quest for a Northeast Passage to Asia in the 1590s. I argued that the climatic expressions of the Little Ice Age rippled through Arctic environments in complex and occasionally paradoxical ways, interacting with Dutch culture to shape the quest for a Passage. But was my argument, and the research that informed it, sufficient to make me an environmental historian of the Arctic?

I leave Stockholm relieved, enlightened with the knowledge that more research is connected to the far North than I had previously imagined. At the workshop, graduate students and senior scholars explored topics ranging from the meaning of boundaries in discourse to the contested identity of indigeneity; from the transformative and politicized deployment of technology to networks of exchange that spanned the globe. To apply these themes to the Arctic they used diverse methodologies and media that encouraged us all to ask some very basic questions. Is environmental history essentially a history of humanity? Where do we draw the borders of the Arctic, or is that effort futile? Are our histories inherently political, and can they be primarily visual? How does one transport a muskox in a box, anyway?

Swans patrol the waterways of Stockholm. Photo: D Degroot

Swans patrol the waterways of Stockholm. Photo: D Degroot

I won’t provide our answers to such questions, in part because our disagreements were more fruitful than our consensus (one exception: nobody questioned Dolly Jørgensen’s expertise in muskox transport). I was excited to find that my paper stimulated vigorous discussion, which culminated, for me, in one particularly intriguing question. Can we link climate change to weather events in ways that allow us to reconceptualize human history at an hourly level? I argued that, given sufficient multidisciplinary information, historians can link local, daily nuances in the Arctic cryosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere to early modern climatic shifts and, in turn, to human history. This argument has particular relevance in light of the past week.  To phrase the question that informs it in more immediate terms: is the Antarctic iceberg that now threatens shipping lanes a consequence of global warming? Was Typhoon Haiyan a reflection of climate change? How can we find out, and how does that inform our understanding of connections between humans and shifting climates? As with all of the most interesting and important questions, there are no easy answers.

The Vasa Museum. During a “year without Summer” in 1628, a gust of wind sank the poorly proportioned Vasa at it left Stockholm’s harbour. Can we link the disaster to the Little Ice Age? Photo: D Degroot

The Vasa Museum. During a “year without Summer” in 1628, a gust of wind sank the poorly proportioned Vasa as it left Stockholm’s harbour. Can we link the disaster to the Little Ice Age? Photo: D Degroot

As the world warms in coming decades and centuries, the Arctic will not disappear. All the same, it will change. The cultural consequences of environmental transformation will, in turn, affect northern peoples, and much that we take for granted will be irrevocably lost. The
histories that help us contextualize and respond to these changes will consequently grow in importance. It is therefore no surprise that, to paraphrase Tina Adcock, the environmental history of the North is already a very big tent. Thankfully, it has plenty of room to grow, and the conversations sparked by the Northern Nations, Northern Natures workshop will nourish that growth for years to come.

A final suggestion for anyone who made it this far: Stockholm is a fantastic city for a conference.  If you go, don’t miss the Vasa Museum!

This post was originally published on The Otter/La Loutre.

#n4envhist has been Storified!

Given the excellent live-tweeting that occurred during Northern Nations, Northern Natures, it would have been a shame not to archive this activity for posterity. You can find the live-tweets from the workshop archived using Storify by clicking on the following links:

Northern Nations, Northern Natures: Live-Tweeting, Day 1

Northern Nations, Northern Natures: Live-Tweeting, Days 2 and 3