Monthly Archives: November 2013

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

Discourse meets environment

by Johan Schimanski (University of Tromsø)
and Ulrike Spring (Sogn og Fjordane University College)

The ”Northern Nations, Northern Natures” workshop struck a good balance between researchers with central competence in environmental history and voices from the outside. Perhaps any seminar focusing on a specific field, such as environmental history, needs ways of telling how the concerns of the field might function in other contexts. Environmental history has not been a central concern to our own work on the political and cultural reception of a polar expedition in the 1870s, but it was for us an enriching experience to see how our approach might contain aspects relevant to environmental history, contribute to the lively discussion at an inspiring workshop, and learn from the competences in environmental history present there. As Tina Adcock said, summing up: Environmental history can be a wide tent.

Our work in Arctic history and literature has focused on one particular expedition, the Austro-Hungarian Arctic Expedition (1872-1874). At the outset, a modern understanding of the human environment may seem at a far remove from heroic age exploration, with its attitude that
nature was to be conquered and in this case that 67 polar bears had to be shot, skinned and eaten. Environmentalism (i.e. nature conservation or ethical attitudes to animals) is not however the same as environmental history. The expedition had strong scientific interests in the environment (especially in meteorology and polar ice conditions) and interacted in a major way with the environmental conditions of the Arctic. Even more importantly for our approach is that that the discourse of the expedition can tell us how Europeans in the 1870s perceived and defined notions of environment and nature.

Reflecting on this, it seemed to us that an especially relevant and fruitful way of discussing how the Arctic was perceived as a natural opposite or ”other” to European civilization would be the work we had been doing on how the borders of the Arctic were demarcated in narratives about the expedition.

The borders of the Arctic cannot be defined in any definite way; they are continually marked, negotiated and shifted according to the relevant historical context or approach. The two important questions for us have been where they are located in the context of our expedition and what forms they take. Also these are questions without immediately given answers, as there are no maps where these borders are marked out or texts where they are described directly in our material. Our job has been to tease them out of the narratives and images created in connection with the expedition. And this work cannot result either in simple answers, as it appears that the borders of the Arctic take on many different forms and locations.

Perhaps most interesting in connection with the contemporary images of the Arctic as a natural ”other” in our material is that the symbolic opposition between “wilderness” and “civilization”, or “nature” and “culture”, is both constantly repositioned and connected to other symbolic
oppositions such as those between ”known” and ”unknown”. Moreover, the oppositions are often mixed, as when the Arctic is portrayed as a domestic space in the more comic and satirical representations of the expedition.

Preparing our presentation at a seminar on the environmental history of the North has shown us new aspects to our material to do with aesthetic categories like the sublime, and nuanced the contrapuntal, transnational forms our research takes as the borders between the North Pole and Vienna prove difficult to place. The discussion at the seminar brought into play indigenous modernities, mineral identities, mediatory boxes, bottled icebergs, red herrings, banal militarization, anticipatory geographies, pioneering nations, the suburban Arctic and history-less places. Together these concepts showed us an even greater variation in the situatedness of discourses of nature, science, indigeneity and the Arctic than we might have imagined: As Tina said, a mosaic telling us what might be possible. The workshop demonstrated to us the need for impulses from environmental history in the further development of the Arctic Modernities project we are both involved in. As ”discursive historians” we need to be reminded that the environment (in this case especially climate, weather, animal populations, ice conditions, etc.) is an important element in the assemblage which constitutes the Arctic mediascape. All the more reason to value the postdisciplinary exchanges which such seminars provide.