Monthly Archives: January 2014

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.


[1] CSPAN: March 19, 2003. Accessed online on 20 September 2013. 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.