This week I’m at the 12th European Multicolloquium of Parasitology (EMOP XII) in Turku, Finland. Why, you might ask, am I at a conference about parasites? I am not by any stretch a parasite specialist like the rest of the attendees. But I was asked to give a plenary speech in spite of, or even more correctly because of, my background. I think how this came about can be instructive for environmental historians so I’ll tell you the story.
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Hong Kong is a noisy metropolis, but bird song fills the air in the Yuen Po Bird Garden in the Mong Kok district. The garden features stalls selling songbirds, carved wooden cages, and bird food including lots of live creepy crawlies. In American and European pet stores, birds are also commonly for sale, but they tend to be brightly coloured parakeets, budgies, or parrots. At Yuen Po, most of the birds were sandy brown or black and white. They were not being sold for their feathers as much as for their songs.
The bird species were almost all local to Hong Kong, like the oriental magpie-robin and red-whiskered bulbul. They were the same birds we saw while walking in the Chinese Garden of Nan Lian and the mountain forests near Ngong Ping. While we were at the market, we even saw one seller catch a bird that had landed nearby and swiftly stuff it into a cage. It would seem that these birds are caught and then sold, rather than bred for the purpose.
I have a new article out co-authored with Peder Roberts (KTH Royal Institute of Technology) on the many attempts and plans by Norwegians to move animals to and from the Arctic during the Interwar period. We teamed up together on this because while I had looked into the muskoxen relocated from East Greenland to Svalbard and the plans to introduce lemmings and rabbits as fox food on Svalbard, Peder had done work on penguin, seal, and reindeer relocations involving the Antarctic. The sheer number of these attempts was mind boggling.
Last week I was at the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) meeting in Seattle, Washington. I took part in two sessions on animal history that I wanted to reflect on here.
The first was a roundtable “Animal History: Opportunities, Problems, Controversies, Politics”. The session was put together by Susan Nance (University of Guelph) to highlight some of the approaches and questions brought out in her edited volume The Historical Animal (Syracuse University Press, 2015). The panelists had all contributed to the volume: Susan who wrote the introduction; Zeb Tortorici (New York University) who reflected on animal bodies in Mexican archival sources; an interdisciplinary team of Charles Gunnels IV and Nicola Foote (Florida Gulf Coast University) who looked at early contact accounts of animals and humans on the Galapagos Islands; and myself. My piece in the volume “Migrant muskox and the naturalization of national identity in Scandinavia” had challenged conventional scientific analysis of animal translocation by seeing the muskoxen using analytical frames applied to human migration.
What does it mean to belong? When something belongs to someone, it means that person has ownership or title to it. When something belongs to a place, it means that it is accepted there, often making its home there. But I’ve come to think belonging is much more than that after two weeks down under.
The island of Tasmania, Australia, was the final home of the large carnivorous marsupial thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger because of its stripes. The last known thylacine died in September 1936 in a private zoo in Hobart, Tasmania. Because I’ve been interested in extinction and extinction stories, I visited Hobart earlier this week to see the home of the thylacine.
In all likelihood you’ve heard the phrase ‘dead as a dodo’. The phrase probably has Victorian origins and built upon the existing older saying ‘dead as a doornail’ according to an article by Turvey and Cheke in Historical Biology. The earliest record of the phrase listed now in the Oxford English Dictionary is 1904 and the phrase grew in popularity beginning in the 1940s, if you believe the Google n-gram chart.
It’s the end of the year and time for reflections over this blog and my research year. Since it is Christmas time and I can’t count how many times I’ve heard various versions of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, I let the song inspire this wrap-up.
On the 1st day of Christmas my research gave to me: A starling in a blooming tree
In June I posted about Rachel Carson’s essay “How About Citizenship Papers for the Starling?” which postulated that the European starling is a fully integrated American bird. The starling is a great case for thinking about belonging rather than native/non-native labels as a key element of human/non-human relations.
On the 2nd day of Christmas my research gave to me: Two beaver testicles
In August I discussed a story told in Pliny the Elder’s Natural History about the beaver. Supposedly the beaver will bite off his testicles when in danger, and the testicles are then used for castoreum. Of course, beaver don’t really bite off their testicles and castoreum comes from glands not testicles anyway. But this tale, which was told and retold over the centuries, reminds us of the power of stories in shaping the human-animal relationship.
On the 3rd day of Christmas my research gave to me: Three badger babies
It couldn’t have been a more dramatic story. Firemen rescued three badger kits from a smoldering building and were hailed as heroes. Yet a day later the babies had been euthanized—not because they were not in fine condition, but because there was no place to send them within the city for care. The story speaks poignantly to conflicting ideas of care, as well as the contested role of animals in urban spaces.
On the 4th day of Christmas my research gave to me: Four museum visits
I had the chance to visit four natural history museums for research this year. First up was the Smithsonian Natural History Museum, where I got to see the body of Martha, the last living passenger pigeon. Next was the Muséum nationale d’Historie naturelle in Paris, where the extinction room weighed heavily upon visitors as a dark and foreboding space. Third was the small local museum Elvarheim in Åmli, the home of Peder Jenson-Tveit and all the beavers which where reintroduced to Sweden. Finally I ventured to the American Museum of Natural History in New York where I admired the newly refurbished muskoxen in Greenland diorama. What all these museum visits have impressed upon me is the value of evaluating what histories of extinction, endangerment and recovery we tell to the public.
On the 5th day of Christmas my research gave to me: Five extinction statues
As part of the memorial activities for the 100th year anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon, the Smithsonian in Washington DC had a display of five statues of extinct North American birds created by the Lost Bird Project. Four of them (the great auk, hen harrier, Labrador duck, and Carolina parakeet) were in the garden next to Smithsonian Castle; the passenger pigeon was on display in the garden next to the Natural History museum. These statutes really got me thinking about how extinction is memorialised and publicly remembered and I’ve been working to develop a follow-on project on this topic.
On the 6th day of Christmas my research gave to me: Six conferences
An important part of being an academic is sharing my research with other scholars and finding out what they are working on. There is always much to learn at conferences and workshops. In 2015, I went to six international conference/workshop events: Urbanizing Nature. The Transformation of City-Nature Relations 1500-2000 (Antwerp); Agricultural History Society (Lexington), American Society for Environmental History (Washington DC), European Society for Environmental History (Versailles), Sawyer Seminar on the Environmental Humanities at UCLA (Los Angeles), and Dam removal: New Environments and New Landscapes? Social, cultural and political issues (Poitiers). I gave papers or participated on round tables at all of these. But more importantly I got to listen to and make connections with others around the world.
On the 7th day of Christmas my research gave to me: Seven muskox posts
In 2015, I posted more about muskoxen than any other animal. Muskoxen have been a valuable resource since the early explorers in the North relied on them as human & dog food, so it’s not surprising that muskoxen meat has been touted as a way of making the Arctic fruitful and wool production as a new business in northern Norway and Alaska. Attempts to domesticate muskoxen even inspired a poem by Marianne Moore. Although muskoxen are officially considered an alien species in Norway and Sweden, the animal has been commemorated on a postmark in Svalbard and a stamp series for the Swedish mountains, revealing its cultural integration. The tension between acceptance and rejection makes the muskox a case worth thinking with.
On the 8th day of Christmas my research gave to me: Eight publications
2015 was a good publishing year for me with 8 published articles. Almost all of them are related to ecological restoration, reintroduction, and rewilding. Here’s the list:
- Jørgensen D. 2015. Ecological restoration as objective, target and tool in international biodiversity policy. Ecology and Society 20 (4):43. http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-08149-200443
- Bell D., Hjältén J., Nilsson C. Jørgensen D. and Johansson T. 2015. Forest restoration to attract a putative umbrella species, the white-backed woodpecker, benefited saproxylic beetles. Ecosphere 6(12):278. http://dx.doi.org/10. 1890/ES14-00551.1
- Jørgensen D. 2015. Rethinking rewilding. Geoforum 65: 482-488.
- Hasselquist E. M., Nilsson , Hjältén J., Jørgensen D., Lind L. and Polvi, L.E. 2015. Time for recovery of riparian plants in restored northern Swedish streams: a chronosequence study. Ecological Applications 25(5): 1373-1389.
- Jørgensen D. 2015. Illuminating ephemeral medieval agricultural history through manuscript art. Agricultural History 89: 186-199
- Jørgensen D. 2015. The conservation implications of parasite co-reintroduction. Conservation Biology 29: 602-605.
- Jørgensen D. 2015. Migrant muskoxen and the naturalization of national identity in Scandinavia. In The Historical Animal, ed. S. Nance, 184-201. Syracuse University Press.
- Jørgensen D. 2015. Remembering the past for the future: The function of museums in science fiction time travel narratives. In Time Travel in the Popular Media, ed. J. Ormrod and Matthew Jones, 118–131. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
On the 9th day of Christmas my research gave to me: Nine featured animals
Of course I wrote a lot about beavers and muskoxen on this blog, since they are the animals featured in my primary source research. But I also wrote about other animals. I discussed extinct animals like the passenger pigeon and thylacine, as well as animals that have been reintroduced to previous habitats like the great bustard and Przewalski horse. I even found an aborted attempt to introduce lemming onto the Svalbard archipelago. While humans have a tendency to think they can control and move animals at will, as wildlife numbers grow, tensions between humans and animals have also grown, as demonstrated in the cases of the wild boar and brown bear. I like thinking broadly and applying the lessons of my primary cases to the wider world of human-animal relations.
On the 10th day of Christmas my research gave to me: Ten months of flying
All the conferences, workshops, speaking engagements, museum visits, and archival research I’ve done in 2015 translated into a good bit of time in the air. I had a flight to somewhere every month except January and August. At least I kept my gold frequent flyer status, so I can make use of the showers at the SAS lounge after those long international flights!
On the 11th day of Christmas my research gave to me: Eleven speaking engagements
My calendar was packed in 2015! In March, I gave invited talks at Brown University (Providence, USA) and University of Virginia (Charlottesville, USA), as well as participated in the plenary roundtable at the Agricultural History Society meeting (Lexington, USA). In April, I taught a class about science fiction and extinction at KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Stockholm, Sweden); presented a summary of a workshop “Visions of the Premodern North” in a public seminar on Premodern Studies at Umeå University (Umeå, Sweden); and gave a presentation at a symposium on wild reindeer reintroduction in Umeå. In May, I spoke at the graduate school “Transdisciplinary Animal History” organised by Tallinn University (Altmõisa, Estonia). September took me to University of Agder (Kristiansand, Norway) where I talked about blogging and the research process. In October, I gave a talk “History for a Sustainable Future” at the Environmental Humanities event organized by the Sällskapet Riksdagsledmöter och Forskare at the Swedish Parliament (Stockhom, Sweden). In November, I was an invited speaker at the Pratt Institute for Design (New York, USA) and I presented a workshop on writing articles at Luleå University of Technology (Luleå, Sweden) where I started working in August. Whew!
On the 12th day of Christmas my research gave to me: Twelve months to go
It’s been quiet in December (and pretty quiet all fall) here because (1) I started a new job at Luleå University of Technology that is 50% teaching, and (2) I am trying to write my book manuscript based on this research. This ‘Return of Native Nordic Fauna” project goes through next year so I still have more to share with you in 2016! Hopefully one of those things will be a book. Keep an eye out here for more great stories of reintroduction, extinction, belonging, and more.
I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York yesterday. They have an excellent series of dioramas in the Hall of North American Mammals, which were originally opened in 1943 and elegantly restored in 2011-12.
One of the dioramas features muskoxen from Ellesmere Island, the third largest island in Canada. The pair were killed by Robert Peary’s Arctic expedition in 1898. This was the first of Robert Perry’s series of expeditions attempting to reach the North Pole (1898-1902, 1905-6, 1908-9) — he claimed to have finally gotten there on the last of those expeditions.
The diorama is framed in terms of Arctic exploration. The sign places the scene at ‘The Bellows’, a Canadian high Arctic valley on Ellesmere Island named by a British expedition team in 1875. The name was chosen because of the valley’s ‘unrelenting winds’. Within this context of exploration, the muskox is claimed to have been critical to the survival of early Arctic explorers like Peary:
Although sometimes musky in taste, musk-ox meat was vital to the survival of many Arctic explorers. Fresh meat supplies some vitamin C, necessary to ward off scurvy. During the British Arctic Expedition of 1875, fresh game was often scarce–and so scurvy debilitated half the crew.
This is true enough, but what the sign doesn’t tell you is that muskoxen like these were much more important as food for dogs than people.
Peary was one of the great dog sledders. His book Northward over the ‘Great Ice’ about his earlier expeditions in Greenland, 1886 and 1891-96, contains detailed descriptions of muskoxen hunts. Although the men consumed some of the muskox meat, it was primarily for the dogs, which he called his “faithful shadows”. Peter Lent (Muskoxen and their Hunters) estimated that Peary’s 1898-1900 expedition on Ellesmere took at least 180 muskoxen. Considering that a dog sled team needs something around 9-10kg of meat a day, most of the muskox meat was consumed by the dogs. Hunts for muskoxen were thus as motivated by the needs of the dogs as they were the needs of the humans:
With the utmost eagerness we scanned every new prospect for the coveted animals; for we knew that musk-oxen meant fresh meat for ourselves, and an abundant supply of food for our dogs. (332-33)
While hunting animals in order to provide human food might be more palatable than realising that hundreds of muskoxen became dog food, the sign at AMNH misses an important aspect of the story: the muskoxen of Ellesmere, Arctic explorers like Peary, and the sled dogs which powered the exploration were tied up into one history. The multispecies entanglements of the Arctic explorations should not be forgotten.
Muskoxen have been roaming the Swedish mountains only since 1971 (at least this time around – they were present also several thousand years ago). That small group of animals had migrated by themselves over the Norwegian-Swedish border, so it was not a given how people would respond to these ‘new’ animals. For the most part, muskox quickly became understood as a central element in the mountains of Härjedalen, probably because of its novelty and distinctive appearance.
When a Swedish national postage stamp series titled “Fjällvärld” (“Mountain World”) was issued in March 1984, the images chosen were a general mountainscape, the angelica flowering plant (also known as wild celery), the lemming, and the muskox. This human inclusion of muskox in the Swedish fauna came only 13 years after the herd had immigrated over the border.
The muskox stamp’s image was designed by the artist Ingalill Axelsson and engraved by Majvor Franzén. Axelsson, born in 1933, is a major Swedish stamp artist (she has 119 stamps in the Swedish Postmuseum database) and in 1993 won the prestigious Asiago International Award in Philatelic Art. Much of her stamp work features nature images and portraits. Franzén was Sweden’s first woman engraver. She worked for the Post in the 1960s, 70s and 80s; 105 stamps are attributed to her hand in the database. Axelsson and Franzén produced both the lemming and muskox images for the Fjällvärld series.
The text printed (in both Swedish and English) with the first day issue card for the stamp series is telling of the rapid integration of muskox: “In 1971 the musk-ox (Ovibos moschatus) came back to the Swedish fauna. The occasion can be seen as a return to the fold, and today there are some 30 animals in the province Härjedalen.” In this text, the muskoxen coming to Sweden was “return to the fold”, or a return home. The idea was that muskoxen were native Nordic animals that had at last come back to Sweden.
Had muskoxen won a stamp approval in this stamp issue? Certainly some people thought they belonged in the Swedish mountains, but that was not a universal feeling. To this day muskoxen are considered non-native species in official Swedish policy. Their future in the Mountain World of Sweden is uncertain. Like I discussed with a postage mark of a muskox used in Svalbard, iconic status doesn’t guarantee a continued life.
I recently published the larger story of muskoxen as migrants in Sweden and Norway in the article “Migrant Muskoxen and the Naturalization of National Identity in Scandanavia” in The Historical Animal (Syracuse University Press, 2015) edited by Susan Nance. The collection is an impressive exploration of animal history and I’d highly recommend getting a copy.