The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

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My new place for stories

This January (2017) will mark four full years of writing on this research blog. When I started the blog, I wasn’t really sure what it was for. Was it for ‘public’ dissemination of results? Scholarly discussion? Visibility for my work? I’m not sure that I can answer those questions even now four years later. But what I do know is that writing on this blog has changed the way I do research.

methodologicalchallengesI have now published an article about the transformations in my research process spurred on by the digital medium you are reading. My article “A new place for stories: Blogging as an environmental history research tool” appears in the book Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Research, edited by Jocelyn Thorpe, Stephanie Rutherford, and L. Anders Sandberg, which is now available. This is an awesome collection of environmental history methods articles, which is a welcome scholarly contribution since historians tend to not publish specifically about their research methods.

In my chapter I present an experiment: five pseudo-posts about blogging. I call them pseudo-posts because unlike the true online format of a blog, clickable links and embedded visuals are not possible. Yet I’ve tried to simulate the reading of a blog through indicated links (they are underlined and I give the web addresses in the footnotes) and writing style. Each pseudo-post uses the title of one of my 2013 posts as a launching point and explores how blogging changed the process of my environmental history research.

The five posts I chose were:

  1. Post #1, 1 January 2013: Launch of research blog — How can you not start at the beginning?
  2. Post #30, 4 April 2013: The hidden reintroduction — The most unexpected story of my entire research project since it has to do with a little parasitic beaver louse!
  3. Post #64, 31 July 2013: On the time I drank castoreum — My most read post (thanks to an NPR article that linked to it) and a great story about stinking like beaver.
  4. Post #80, 7 October 2013: Museum menageries — I’ve always loved visiting museums, but this project has helped me to see them in whole new ways.
  5. Post #88, 13 December 2013: Migrant muskox — Different scholarly media interact (talks, videos, articles, and blog posts) so we have to embrace them all!

In each ‘post’ section, I talk about the larger issues of how I’ve done my historical research for this project and the effect of blogging on that process. Although blogs may provide space for research dissemination, discussion, or community building, I have found that the greatest effect of my blogging has been a shift in my scholarly practice by embracing two central aspects of research blogging: writing often and sharing stories. That’s what doing history is all about.


If you’d like to read the stories I shared in the article in full, you can read a text-only version here. I’d definitely also recommend that you (or your local library) buy the book so you can read all the contributions.

A non-specialist specialist

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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Animal history at ASEH 2016

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.

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The gifts of 2015

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

The starling in the US from May Thatcher Cooke, The spread of the European starling in North America (to 1928), US Department of Agriculture. 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

The beaver castrating himself before hunters. British Library, Harley MS 4751, fo.9r.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

Reddet i sikkerhet" (Taken to safety), one of the photos accompanying the news article "Dagens helter reddet grevlingbarn fra storbrannen," Dagbladet, 18 May 2008.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

Barbary lions. MNHN, Paris. Photo by D Jørgensen.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

Lost Bird Project, Labrador duck, April 2015As 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

The American flag carried out at the end of the Breeds Barn show at Kentucky Horse Park. Photo by D Jørgensen.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

New postmark issued in 1973 for Svalbard's Sveagruva featuring a muskoxIn 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:

  1. Jørgensen D. 2015. Ecological restoration as objective, target and tool in international biodiversity policy. Ecology and Society 20 (4):43.
  2. 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. 1890/ES14-00551.1
  3. Jørgensen D. 2015. Rethinking rewilding. Geoforum 65: 482-488.
  4. 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.
  5. Jørgensen D. 2015. Illuminating ephemeral medieval agricultural history through manuscript art. Agricultural History 89: 186-199
  6. Jørgensen D. 2015. The conservation implications of parasite co-reintroduction. Conservation Biology 29: 602-605.
  7. 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.
  8. 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

WildBoar_RigaOf 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

IMG_7986All 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

Androids_DreamMy 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.

Change, history, and a talk before Parliament

Förstakammarsalen in Riksdagen where I held my talk

Förstakammarsalen in Sveriges Riksdag where I held my talk was an impressive space

Today I had the opportunity to speak before a group of parliamentary representatives and researchers on the topic of the environmental humanities at Riksdagen, the Swedish parliament. The event, put on by the Sällskapet Riksdagsledamöter och Forskare (RIFO), featured presentations by four Swedish researchers: an environmental scientist, an environmental philosopher, a professor of gender studies, and me as the environmental historian. The description of the event stressed the Anthropocene as a new era and asked us to consider what humanities research could contribute to new modes of thinking. My talk was titled “History for a Sustainable Future” — a title I unabashedly borrowed from fellow environmental historian Michael Egan who has a book series at MIT Press with that name. I wanted to stress the role that history needs to play in environmental policymaking and the real ways that knowledge of the past helps us understand our present, which is how we can get to a better future.

Here is the text of what I shared with the audience:

The discussions of the Anthropocene as a new era do not centre on the presence of humans on Earth but rather on the actions of humans on the planet. The concern with the Anthropocene is a concern about change—more specifically, change brought about by humans to our planetary systems, whether the change affects the ground, the air, or the water. To make the claim that humans are now living in the Anthropocene is to make a claim that things have changed from one thing to something else. To talk about the Anthropocene means that we need to know what change is.

This concern with change is necessarily bound up with time, comparing things past and present. This is where the environmental historian must come into discussions of our sustainable future in the Anthropocene. If we are truly going to work toward a sustainable future for humanity, then we have to know where we are in the present – where we are working from. To really know where we are, we must know where we’ve been and how we got to this place. I study history not to understand how people were in the past, but rather why we are the way we are now. History is the road from the past to the present and the future.

Trained historians are the people best equipped to explore change over time. I acknowledge that other disciplines contribute to these historical inquiries—archeology, paleoecology, literary studies, and more—but environmental historians put the pieces together in ways that look beyond what happened to why something happened. Environmental historians are keen to expose the complex cultural, technological, and economic factors that contribute to the nature-human relationship. We want to reveal the desires and decisions that led to particular patterns and practices. We provide accounts of how environmental problems arise, how problems are defined, and the solutions that have been tried in the past (whether they worked or not). Environmental historians are interested in the symbiotic relationship between the human and non-human, seeing humans as not just a destructive force acting on nature, but also a creative force that is part of nature. Humans are agents of change in the world, but they also change in response to it.

Historical change in the human-nature relationship can develop very slowly over time, a change that would be nearly imperceptible to people living at the time, or it can happen very quickly within a matter of years, as the policy cycle from the late 20th century has operated. The historian looking back from a present perspective can analyse both types of change and how they affect the present. I want to give you three short examples of this from my own research.

I’ll start with the long-term change. I have spent many years researching the waste handling and cleaning practices in late medieval towns. Contrary to popular belief and portrayals of the Middle Ages like Monty Python’s jest that only a king “hasn’t got shit all over him”, keeping a town free from waste and dirt was a big concern in European cities from at least the fourteenth century. Administrative records show that people were not permitted to throw their waste haphazardly in the town. Lists were made of the acceptable waste disposal pits, typically located on the borders of the town. In an age before modern wastewater treatment plants and engineered waste disposal facilities, residents of towns had to do their part to make sure that the city was clean. Here in Stockholm, for example, the city government implemented a complex biweekly neighbourhood street cleaning program in 1557. First, the householder living furthest up the hill from the sea began by sweeping the street and rinsing it with one barrel of water when the town clock struck. Then, as the runoff reached the next neighbour down the street, the neighbour rinsed the street in front of his house with another barrel of water. This proceeded down toward the harbour so that by the end, all of the accumulated dirt and filth was washed into the harbour. Anyone failing to comply with the bi-weekly cleaning was fined. Such a specific plan of action reveals both that the council was keenly interested in city cleanliness and that the responsibility had to be divided among residents in order to achieve that goal.

We handle waste very differently 500 years later in the twenty-first century. Today the average European city dweller is distanced from waste, which is handled by specialists and technological systems. We only see our waste as far as the toilet or the trash can—from there, it disappears and becomes someone else’s problem. Individuals, particularly urbanites, assume that the waste that disappears from their doorstep has vanished as a concern. Yet it hasn’t. Instead, that waste has to be managed by someone else—which might mean incineration in the local plant or recovery of metals from e-waste in Africa. From a historical point of view, we have reallocated who is responsible for dealing with waste disposal from ourselves to others.

The long history of waste management can give us valuable insights for environmental policymaking for a sustainable future. For one, it would be easy to look at the physical technological artifacts of a street with a gutter, an open waste pit or a basic latrine and assume that street maintenance and waste handling in the medieval city was simple and ineffective. But this approach overlooks the complex social relationships that made them work. Social responsibility was key to maintaining a cleaner environment. Secondly, giving personal responsibility came along with having an intimate knowledge about what happened to waste you made. You cannot really be responsible to something you don’t understand. Personal knowledge and responsibility for waste reached their limitation in the modern period. As wastes became more and more toxic, especially as industrial byproducts, specialist knowledge was needed to handle them properly. Likewise the growing numbers and concentration of people in cities demanded efficient infrastructures to manage waste in a centralised fashion. The trend from the mid-1980s onward has been to promote personal responsibility and knowledge again through sorting and recycling programs. A historical view shows that these approaches are not new, both rather the re-envisioned old, so we could learn something by looking at the successes and failures of past efforts to involve people in their own waste management.

For my second example I turn to a more short-term study of the modern offshore oil industry and its environmental effects. I have worked on the policies about rigs-to-reefs – the idea of converting a disused offshore oil platform into an artificial reef – which have developed differently across the globe since the 1970s. In the Gulf of Mexico, making artificial reef habitat from old oil industry structures has been a standard allowable practice since the mid-1980s. In the state of California, it only became permissible in the last 5 years. In the North Sea, rigs-to-reefs is not technically banned, but has never been practiced. So my question as a historian was: Why did the policies about the same thing develop differently in the three places? What I found was that science had little to do with it. Instead, particular events and people led to particular policy outcomes.

Here in the North Sea area, the policy decisions were heavily influenced by specific historical events. In the North Sea, scholarly consensus as of the mid-1990s was that a North Sea rigs-to-reefs program was a viable alternative, yet the debate over the environmental impact (or benefit) of offshore disposal of the rigs heated up in 1995. That year, after Shell had received permission from the UK government to dispose of the offshore installation Brent Spar in deep water, Greenpeace launched a massive protest campaign. Shell eventually changed their decision and moved the Brent Spar to land for scrapping. In many ways, this dashed most hopes for a North Sea rigs-to-reefs program. During the media discussion, Greenpeace used “dumping” of the installation as a verbal framework for Shell’s proposed disposal. “Dumping” with all of its negative associations became the key word around which the opposition rallied. European legislators picked up this discourse and it still dominates the thinking about what a rig conversion really is. In the aftermath of the Brent Spar incident, the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR) who governs the disposal of decommissioned oil rigs, issued a total prohibition against toppling structures in place, as well as taking an unprecedented step of banning the use of offshore oil structure material in the construction of artificial reefs in June 1999. The consequences have been far-reaching: no oil structure has ever been made into an artificial reef in the North Sea.

Today there are groups interested in exploring the possibility of making artificial reefs from oil industry structures in the North Sea. As more of these structures become available as their production life ends, it is a reasonable thing to think about since scientific work has stressed the habitat value of such structures. But the proponents of rigs-to-reefs cannot forget history. They need to understand why the policies in Europe have been formulated as they have if they have any hope of changing them.

Comparing the historical development of the same environmental policy enacted in different places and why it has taken a specific shape in each exposes the competing values and goals of the actors involved and the role of specific historical events. Environmental policy is interwoven with social concerns, so if we want to untangle the policy we have to look at its historical development. Policy outcomes are never a given. Policies may not exist for the reasons that we would think of at first glance. They are the results of specific and unique historical circumstances.

My final example involves a rare animal in Scandinavia—the muskox. There is a small herd of wild muskoxen living in the mountains of Härjedalen, currently nine animals. These come from a group of five Norwegian muskoxen who crossed over the border into Sweden in September 1971. They were descendants of muskoxen reintroduced into the Norwegian Dovre mountains from Greenland in the 1940s and 50s. A decision was made in the 1970s to allow the muskoxen to stay in Sweden as “migratory” Scandinavian animals. They ended up staying permanently. In the early 1980s, the herd size was over 30, but it crashed in the late 1980s and has remained low. In response to the crash, a movement started to get environmental protection for the herd, but since the muskox is listed in Sweden as an “invasive species”, it is not possible to have a species protection plan for it. In spite of the lack of official environmental status, there is a muskox breeding centre and an individual female was released into the wild herd in 2013.

The history of the Swedish muskox is a study in contradictions. The muskox doesn’t belong according to the scientists who wrote the Swedish Red List, but it does belong according to passionate local supporters and environmentalists. The history of the animal—that the muskox was last in Sweden three or four thousand years ago—is used by both groups to support their positions. One argues that it has been gone so long that it is no longer native; the other argues that it was once in Sweden so belongs here now. As an environmental historian, I want to expose the ways that history is being mobilised in this debate. Decisions about whether or not the muskox should be protected have everything to do with the way the species’ history is interpreted. Contemporary Swedish policies are being directly affected by even really old history.

In these three examples I hope I’ve showed you that to understand what humans are doing to the planet and why, Anthropocene must be a situated in time and space. Even with the Anthropocene as planetary phenomenon, change happens at local levels. We need deep empirical historical studies to make sense of that change. The way history plays out in particular places and times is unique. This makes it difficult to generalise to all situations, yet there are certainly lessons to be learned for the future from the past.

The political drive to promote environmental sustainability – defined as a long-term, looking forward to the implications of production, consumption, and social structures – has got to take into account human history. We need more integration of history within environmental policymaking to fight against “policy amnesia” and “shifting baseline syndrome”, but also to reveal the positive lessons of history. Humans as a species have proved remarkably resilient, thus learning from how people have faced environmental issues in the past is key to making our sustainable future. In both long term and short term studies of the past we discover why we are the way we are now, a precursor to deciding what we want to be the future.

Opening up the source box

This week I was at the graduate seminar “Animals in Transdisciplinary Environmental History” held in Tuuru Village, Läänemaa, Estonia. The three-day event brought together a wide variety of PhD students and recent graduates working on animals based in disciplines we could categorise as environmental humanities: historians, semioticians, ethnographers, anthropologists, archeologists, cultural geographers, and literary scholars. The big goal of the seminar was to expose the students to the various approaches to ‘historical’ work from all of these different starting points.

During my talk on stories and extinction: always an emphatic presenter!

During my talk on stories and extinction: always an emphatic presenter!

In the closing sessions which included reflections on the seminar, I remarked that each student’s work had been very solidly grounded in their ‘home’ discipline, particularly when it came to source choices. The historians had analysed archival texts, the literary scholars had focused on published texts, the ethnographers had written about their participant observation, etc. While this was all good stuff, I wanted more.

So I encouraged them to “open up the source box”. In other words, instead of sticking to the source types at the centre of their discipline, I want them to incorporate other source types that also spoke to their projects. Andy Flack, for example, presented a great paper on the earliest drive-through safari park, Longleat in Britain. In his paper, he had shown a couple of advertisements, but he had only used them to talk about the text included on the ad. I challenged him to think about the imagery as well. Anna Mossolova showed us some fabulous Yup’ik masks and analysed their iconography, but I challenged her to use historical writings to situate the mask-making in the 1930s period when they were made. Amir Zelinger could stretch his historical material about keeping wild pets in Imperial Germany to consider from a semiotic point of view how the animals might have seen these supposedly ‘natural’ habitats constructed on their behalf. I could make similar comments about each and every one of the papers presented.

Reflecting on my own work on “Return of Native Nordic Fauna”, I see how I actively (though perhaps unconsciously) have been expanding on the typical historians source box. I have thought about the material effect of real boxes on real animalsimages shown on school posters; and the connections between contemporary art and environmental history. I’ve explored the visual narratives of natural history museum displays of muskox, beaverspigeons, and more.  I’ve gone on muskox safaris and beaver safaris to experience the way reintroduction is constructed for tourists, and visited current reintroduction sites of the white-backed woodpecker. These are all key activities that have shaped the way I think about animal reintroduction, human ideas of belonging, and human-animal interactions. They are no less important than the letters in the archives, the government documents, or the scientific reports. And I realize that sometimes it is easy for me to slip into the ‘standard’ way of writing history based on textual sources alone–so I need to actively resist it.

To me, transdisciplinarity is not just about crossing borders; it is about pushing past border-thinking. For a historian, that means reading beyond the text to reading the world.

My university blogger posts

Dolly on the UmU Forskbloggen

Dolly on the UmU Forskbloggen

My official two-weeks as Umeå University blogger has come to end. I will still be able to post things there, and may take the opportunity to do so for things related to general academia rather than my specific research project. I wanted to take this opportunity to summarise what I posted there.

1. Two kinds of interdisciplinarity. Interdisciplinarity can be a team effort where different team members each contribute from their specific discipline or an individual effort where an individual (like an environmental historian) crosses boundaries within his/her own research.

2. Publication truths. I share 10 “truths” about publishing from my experience in an interdisciplinary position crossing between natural science and humanities.

3. Why are there not more research blogs? I speculate about three reasons why more researchers don’t have research blogs and try to answer those objections. I personally find a research blog useful for my own research development.

4. Working together. Natural scientists have a misconstrued idea of collaboration as only being evidenced in co-authorship. I write about the way collaboration tends to work differently in the humanities.

5. Out in the field. While my ecologist colleagues went out to the field to collect samples that will be turned into numerical data that will be then summarised in graphs and tables, I also went out in the field to collect documents & photographs from archives and experiences & interviews from site visits which will be interrogated to find out historical mentalities.

6. Research language / Forskningsspråk. I reflect on the tendency for Swedish historians to publish in Swedish, whereas Swedish ecologists publish in English. I advocate more thoughtful decisions about which language is appropriate for research dissemination.

This has been a good opportunity for me to thoughtfully reflect on what it means to be an environmental historian working in an ecology department. I’ve learned something and I hope my readers have as well. As always, you are welcome to comment here or on the UmU Forskarbloggen posts if you have something to share.

Now, I’m looking forward to getting back to my primary research!

Working together

** Originally posted on Umeå University Forskarbloggen **

Publishing in both the natural sciences and history has revealed to me that the two publishing cultures have some fundamental differences. One of the things I did not touch on in my previous discussion of publishing differences, but want to take up here, is collaboration and co-authorship.

Collaboration is in its most basic form working together to accomplish a task. In the ecology department where I work, most people equate collaboration with co-authorship. If someone ‘works’ on the production of a paper, he/she will be a co-author. Of course, nothing is so simple. First, there are exclusions: for example, someone collecting field data or analysing samples as a technician is most often excluded from authorship. Second, what counts as ‘work’ is vague so people use their own standards to decide who gets authorship.

People who end up as co-authors might have had various roles during the course of the project. Katz and Martin made a nice list of these roles back in 1997, which are the same things I’ve seen in my group, so I’ll summarise them:

– Those who worked together throughout the research project
– Those responsible for a main element, including experimental design, experimental execution, data analysis, and writing
– Those responsible for the original idea or hypothesis of the paper
– Those whose names appeared on the research proposal
– The original project proposer / manager (often a supervisor)

To scientists, this is pretty standard stuff. And it is obvious that most natural science publications have multiple authors. Just to take two examples of journals I’ve published in: the September 2013 issue of Restoration Ecology has 16 articles, of which 15 have more than one author; the August 2013 issue of Ocean and Coastal Management likewise has 16 articles, of which 15 are co-authored. I have written a paper currently under review which has 10 authors — it has been produced as a output of the Restore project and co-authorship has been determined pretty much by the above list of possible collaborative roles.

This overwhelming co-authorship is the complete opposite of what you see in history journals. The latest available issues of Technology & Culture (July 2013, 5 articles) and Journal of Urban History (Sept 2013, 10 articles) each have only 1 co-authored piece. Statistically, there is a dramatic difference in the frequency of co-authorship in history compared to natural sciences.

But — here’s where it gets problematic — the difference in co-authorship practices has been interpreted as a difference in collaboration. I read a recent article in PLOS One that used co-authorship statistics to argue that fields with fewer co-authors are less collaborative and thus the fields lack consensus. How ridiculous! The authors of that article obviously never talked to a person in the humanities who has written single author work to understand how their authorship process works.

In the discipline of history, collaboration and co-authorship are not equated. In my experience, co-authorship in history is reserved for cases in which the individuals actually write substantial portions of the text based on their own research. Being a supervisor, coming up with the idea for the project, advancing that idea through suggestions for primary sources and historiography, and even substantial editing of text written by someone else is not enough to be a co-author. The lack of co-authors does not mean that others have not served in collaborative roles in the production of the text. In fact, I would argue that the acknowledgements section of history articles often lists the people who would be co-authors of a science publication because they served in the roles in the bulleted list above. An example of when co-authorship in history is warranted is a recent review of Nordic environmental history in which each of the authors brought their own ‘data’ about the state of the field in their country and wrote portions of the text. In this case, the participants were authors because of both knowledge and textual input.

New Natures (2013) co-edited by Dolly Jørgensen, Finn Arne Jørgensen & Sara B. Pritchard

New Natures (2013) co-edited by Dolly Jørgensen, Finn Arne Jørgensen & Sara B. Pritchard

Historians tend to collaborate most clearly in thematic publication ventures. I have a new book that came out in June, New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies, which I co-edited with fellow environmental historians Finn Arne Jørgensen (Umeå University) and Sara B. Pritchard (Cornell University). To produce that volume, we held a two-day workshop in which we discussed 16 draft papers. The workshop participants shaped the intellectual project of the volume, helping to define how all of the articles would tackle the central theme of the book. As editors, we worked with each other and the authors after the workshop to summarise the changes we wanted to see in their papers before submittal to the press. We read and re-read versions of those papers to make sure they all meshed into one coherent project. In the end, with much coordination from the editors, we got 14 papers through a full blind peer-review process with University of Pittsburgh Press. This was more rigorous than many journal review processes. The resultant volume has all single authored articles, but these are not works authored in a vacuum in the way scientists think they are. These papers were shaped and re-shaped intellectually by the edited history volume process.

What does it mean to work together? When crossing disciplinary boundaries, we have to realise that the answer is not the same everywhere. When my work is evaluated by natural scientists, they need to keep in mind that my propensity for single-authored articles does not mean that I’m a loner who doesn’t get along with others. Working together is not the same thing as co-authorship. Collaboration comes in many forms.

Publication truths

** Originally posted on Umeå University Forskarbloggen **

Publication is the bread and better of scholarship. Funders, university administration, department chairs, and fellow scholars expect—and even demand—that academics publish their findings in respectable, acceptable scholarly forms. What I’ve figured out being a historian in an ecology department is that what counts as respectable and acceptable varies greatly by discipline.

I’m writing here with a fair amount of publishing experience under my belt. I have published articles in both history journals like Technology & Culture and Journal of Urban History and natural science journals including Frontiers in Ecology & Environment and Restoration Ecology. I have published an edited collection of history articles (New Natures) and have another forthcoming this fall. I have not published a monograph (note: I do not count a PhD dissertation as a monograph since it is not independently peer reviewed prior to publication), although I worked with my husband on his book.

Based on all that, I want to share with you some “truths” that I’ve discovered through my interdisciplinary journal publishing experiences. Perhaps they are not true everywhere or for everyone, but I know they apply to me and the academic scene around me. I think they are important to put out for scholars in both the humanities and natural sciences to see, because both groups have things they could learn from each other.

1. Every discipline values only articles published in ‘their’ journals.

I was recently talking to my department chair about putting together my application for docent, a qualification which has no equivalent in the US academic system but marks higher scholarly competence than a PhD and is supposed to mean you are qualified to teach. He asked me about my publication history and was happy to learn that I had forthcoming articles in Biodiversity & Conservation and Bioscience, because those are “good science journals”. The message I took away was that my publications in history journals probably wouldn’t count for much when the Faculty of Natural Sciences reviewed my application.

The same bias holds true the other direction, of course. When I have been a candidate for a medieval history job, the reviewers couldn’t care less that I have published in science journals. They only talk about what was specifically in medieval history. Most historians know about Science and Nature (although they’ve probably never read them), so publishing in those might earn some points, but other than that, not really.

2. Scientists have faith in scholar citation counts, even though they shouldn’t.

Soon after I started in my department, I learned that we have ‘citation cakes’. When someone has published an article that gets to have 100 citations according to Web of Science, they bring in a cake for everyone to celebrate. My jaw almost hit the floor the first time I heard this. 100 citations?!? I’ll be lucky if the total number of citations to all of my history articles put together reaches 100 before I die.

What this reveals is that science journal articles get – and scientists expect – a huge number of citations to a given article. This is reflected in the development of metrics like journal citation indexes which measure quality by quantity.

As I see it, there is a fatal flaw with counting citations in Web of Science as a measure of quality for a historian. The majority historical scholarship is not captured in Web of Science because it happens in edited volumes, monographs, and unindexed journals. There are currently only 69 journals listed in the History category in Web of Science, meaning that many, many history journals are missing. For example I’ve published in Water History and History & Technology, neither of which is listed in Web of Science. According to Web of Science I have 7 publications and 10 citations—which you can compare to Google Scholar, which shows 17 publications and 23 citations because it captures a wider variety of types of articles. Moreover, I don’t think citations really tell you whether or not someone is having a qualitative impact on the field.

3. An article doesn’t have to be 6000+ words to be real scholarship.

History journals are really hung up on length. You’ll be hard pressed to find an outlet that will publish an article less than 5,000 words, and there are some that won’t even consider something less than 10,000. In the ecology journals, most often the trick is getting a text down to the maximum length, which for some formats is 2,000 or 3,000 words, although there are outlets like Ecology Monographs for ridiculously long texts.

I’ve written some of these short texts and I can attest that it takes a sharp knife to be able to pare down an argument to its essence and still make it solid, but it is doable. And in some cases, the story being told really is a story that doesn’t need more words, yet it is an important story to make known. I think history journals need to start having “short communications” sections to make history more readable for the public and faster to write for scholars. Shorter history is not watered down history; it can be more focused, better history.

4. Science journals reject articles based on negative reviews much more often than history ones.

I’ve seen reviews from a history journal that basically said the reviewers disliked the whole framing of the article, but the editors still allowed a resubmission. History editors often have faith that the scholar can address the reviewers criticisms, either by making changes (even very significant ones) or arguing why a change should not be made. To me, this is a good practice because it gives the authors a chance to respond to criticism.

Science journals I’ve interacted with don’t work this way. If one of the reviewers is particularly negative about the work, it’ll be rejected. It doesn’t matter that the author might have perfectly good arguments against the statements. Science journals have too many submittals to deal with, so every reviewer doesn’t agree that it is pretty close to publishable, it’s out. The reviews I’ve seen for rejected manuscripts in science journals would have almost always been a “revise and resubmit” decision for a history journal.

Now, the most problematic part of the science journal rejection rate is that when you are publishing an interdisciplinary piece, you often get one reviewer of the three that doesn’t like it because…well…it’s outside of the norm. The editors could read the reviewer comments and override the shortsightedness, but, as I said, with so many submittals, rejection is easier. This makes publishing a history-based article in a science journal a challenge because what reviewers you get greatly determines your chances to publish.

5. Science journals can be too rigid in their article structure requirements.

I have a policy history piece published in Ocean and Coastal Management. In my version, it had nice descriptive headings to tell a narrative about the historical development of a particular policy. But the journal insisted that it follow their standard layout: Introduction, Method, Results, Discussion, Conclusion. Historians out there know that “results” and “discussion” don’t make any sense for historical analysis. Each documentary source gets integrated into the narrative—it is both included as a data point and is interpreted at the same time. Needless to say, it was a struggle for me to get my policy history to fit the scientific experimental model. I did it, but it wasn’t pretty.

6. What counts as ‘data’ is different for each discipline.

Scientists collect data points and then process them, synthesize them, and present the end results in graphs, tables, and summary statistics. Nobody sees the raw data (except if the journal has an online data repository, but I’m not sure how many people actually go look at it). Scientists present processed data and then draw conclusions.

In history, that’s not how it works at all. Instead, bits of data from a myriad of historical sources (be they quotations or ‘facts’ or suppositions) are interwoven with analysis. Historians then put citations for each of those bits of data—something scientists never have to do—because a future historian should be able to re-create that exact piece of information. While scientists describe the methods of an experiment so it could be re-created, they would never expect the raw data to be exactly the same. Yet that is precisely what a historian expects from a well written, fully documented history. Moreover, historians often expose the raw data to the reader so that the reader can come to the same conclusion as the historian has.

7. Science journals don’t know how to handle historical primary sources.

My articles in science journals are policy histories. I have looked at how policymaking has happened with archival documents, governmental published documents and news media coverage. Journals in the sciences never have listed accepted formats for those kind of sources. As a historian, I want the citations to make the sources ‘findable’ by future historians, a requirement that is entirely different from science data (see #6). Although I write the citations in acceptable formats according to Chicago Style or MLA or the specific archive’s cataloging standards, inevitably, the copy editor changes it to some mangled citation that completely loses its value and I have to fight to change it back to something a historian would understand.

8. History scholarship is invisible for extended periods because of publishing practices.

Most of the science journals have websites that show articles that have been accepted but not yet printed in an issue. These Early View or Online First articles are completely citable and have doi numbers. What this means is that cutting edge scholarship is available quickly to others.

Very few history journals have such systems. Because of the backlog publishing in history journals (you have to realize that most of them publish 4 times a year with 4-5 articles, instead of the science model of every month with 10 articles), I have had articles that were accepted over a year before they ever appeared.  The same delay, of course, happens with edited volumes, which are often about a year from final acceptance to print. What this means is that no one knows about my article (and I can’t tell them) until long after it was finished.

This invisibility was particularly pertinent after I published a peer-reviewed letter in Frontiers in Ecology & Environment that commented on an article published a few months before. The article’s authors were given the chance to write a reply and in their reply, they used an example that I had in fact written an article about. According to my article, their analysis of the example was wrong, but my article had been accepted for an edited collection that was not yet published, so I couldn’t officially correct them while the issue was still timely.

9. Peer-review doesn’t work the same in different disciplines.

I always thought peer-review worked the same everywhere: an author submits a piece and it is sent out to reviewers who don’t know who wrote it and then the reviews come back and the author isn’t told who they were. And that is basically the history journal system.

What I’ve found out is that science journals often don’t work that way at all. Instead, the author puts all of their information on the first page of the article and the reviewer knows exactly who wrote it. In fact, I’ve been a reviewer for Ocean & Coastal Management and their online review system is so slick that they provide a link to the first author’s Web of Science profile so that you don’t even have to search for him/her (based on #2, you can guess what I think of this). So science publishing is rarely double-blind.

10. Publishing an article can cost money.

Historians always seem to get outraged when the idea of paying a publishing fee arises, but it is standard practice in science journals. I’ve had to pay “page fees” on several occasions. These are assessed only after the article is accepted, so I don’t think they have affected the review process. But they certainly might affect the scholarship published there. Many natural scientists work under grants by funding agencies (certainly that is the case at Umeå University) and these page fees are built into the budgets of the projects. Historians, however, are much more rarely funded by outside agencies, thus the question arises: who pays? If a publication costs €300 and you don’t have a grant to cover it, it would end up coming out of your own pocket and I don’t know many historians that would find that acceptable. So if you are a historian who wants to publish in a science journal, remember the page fees.

As I see it, these important differences in the way publishing works need to be recognized if interdisciplinarity is ever to be truly embraced. Crossing disciplinary lines means knowing the rules of the game on the other side, while at the same time trying to stretch them.

University blogger

For the next two weeks, I am going to be blogging on the research blog for Umeå University where I work. I’m in an interesting position as an environmental historian employed in a natural sciences faculty, so I want to spend my time as the university blogger reflecting on the challenges and opportunities that come with my type of interdisciplinary. I want to stress that the synergies that result from bridging the humanities and natural sciences can help us better understand complex environmental issues today and how we can address them for the future.

I’ll be cross-posting my UmU blog posts on this blog, since the Return of Native Nordic Fauna project will feature largely in those posts.

Two kinds of interdisciplinarity

Originally posted on UmU Forskarbloggen  ‎

Interdisciplinary. Of or pertaining to two or more disciplines or branches of learning; contributing to or benefiting from two or more disciplines. (Oxford English Dictionary) 

In academia today we hear all the time about interdisciplinarity. Funding sources want interdisciplinary teams; universities set up interdisciplinary centres; everyone claims to be doing it.

But what exactly does it mean to be interdisciplinary? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it is supposed to entail multiple disciplines, but that can be either in the input (contributions from more than one discipline) or the output (have relevance for more than one discipline). While the definition focuses on involving knowledge bases from different disciplines, it says nothing about the people involved in that knowledge production.

People almost always think of teams when they think of interdisciplinarity. Most people claim to be doing interdisciplinary work by building a team of people from different disciplines who are supposed to work together on a common project.

When I moved to Umeå in 2010, I was hired as a Project Coordinator within the Department of Ecology and Environmental Science for this kind of endeavor. The Restore project consists of team members from ecology and political science who are collaborating to understand how ecological restoration works in policy and practice. When they hired me, an environmental historian, they added a bonus discipline (history) into the mix. Like most interdisciplinary projects, Restore brings together researchers who have perspectives and backgrounds firmly rooted in their specific field of studies. Most of the team members depend on those with other disciplinary backgrounds to bring the scholarship from those fields to the table, rather than being truly conversant in those disciplines themselves.

But I think there is another kind of interdisciplinarity, one that is not as easily recognized, nor I think appreciated, in academia: the interdisciplinary nature of a single researcher—an idea I called the ‘interdisciplinarity of one’ in a blog post in 2009.

I am an environmental historian, a field which Christof Mauch has recently labeled as the ‘überdiscipline’ that combines natural science and cultural developments. Environmental historians investigate the historical interactions and relationships between human societies and nonhuman nature. As a discipline, we examine how the natural environment may present constraints to historical processes and how humans in turn reshape natural resources and ecologies through a complex dynamic of ideas, practices, and policies. To do that, we often combine perspectives from a variety of historical approaches (political, social, intellectual, etc.) with natural scientific environmental data. Environmental historians take seriously the physical fabric on, through, and by which human history unfolds. This makes the field of environmental history itself an interdisciplinary endeavour.

I am currently working on a project about historical reintroductions in Norway and Sweden. In this project, I have to read biological papers about beaver and muskox to understand their biological characteristics and population dynamics, but I am not a historical ecologist developing those numbers. Rather, I use that natural science along with more traditional written archival records like letters, newspaper accounts, and policy documents to understand why the historical actors did the things they did and what the effect of their actions was.

An example of the requirement for me as a researcher to look beyond disciplinary boundaries happened with the beaver beetle, which I discussed on my project blog in April.

Platypsyllus castoris published in Annales de la Societe entomologique de France 6th series no. 4 (1884)
Platypsyllus castoris as published in Annales de la Societe entomologique de France 6th series no. 4 (1884)

I had noticed that the letterhead of P.M. Jensen Tveit, the Norwegian who captured beavers for release in Sweden, had included beaver beetles (Platypsyllus castoris) as one of his items for sale. I looked through all the scientific literature I could find on beaver beetles, both historic and current, to understand why Jensen Tveit would have been selling these beetles. What I discovered was that this beetle species lives only on beavers, so because the beaver was nearly extinct in Europe, its identification had come very late in the entomology game. Because the beetle was limited to living with beavers, scientists were desperately seeking specimens, and Jensen Tveit was filling the demand. Nowadays, scientific papers are regularly published describing the “first recording” of the beetle in a specific European country — Latvia in 1995, Belgium in 2000, Slovakia in 2001, to name a few. What my environmental history tells me is that beaver beetles were probably once common in Europe when the European beaver was common and have now been reintroduced along with the beaver.

To tell such a story requires reading and understanding sources from multiple disciplinary backgrounds. This, I would argue, is an interdisciplinary approach just as valid as one that brings team members with their individual specialties together. Yet it is a type of interdisciplinarity that is not as easily seen within academic institutions which are set up along disciplinary lines.

I’m one of those who buck the disciplinary system. I am a historian, with a background as a professional engineer before going back to earn by PhD in history, working in an ecology department. So I want to spend my time as a UmU blogger reflecting on the opportunities and challenges of being in that position; about what the natural sciences and humanities can learn from each other; and about what they do the same and what they do differently. I hope you’ll follow along as I explore my own interdisciplinarity.

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