by Dagomar Degroot
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.
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?
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.
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!