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.
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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.
Today is International Women’s Day 2015 and there’s been a lot of twitter traffic on it, particularly within my networks by trying to raise awareness of women in science. So I wanted to reflect on women in the histories I’m currently writing.
The problem is that, quite honestly, there aren’t any. I looked through all of the documents about the beaver reintroductions I photographed in my archival visits. All of the letters are written by men to men. Everyone who was involved in planning, catching, purchasing, moving, and writing about the beavers was male.
But women were at releases. At the first reintroduction in 1922, there were 20 people there and one was a woman. Festin included that detail in his report of the event in the journal Jamten. The woman, however, remains anonymous like so many women in history.
A photo of the third Swedish beaver release in 1925, which took place near Görvik in Jämtland, also shows that a woman was present. A woman with the headscarf stands on the left of the box as the beaver emerges. In the Jamtli archive entry, the woman with the headscarf is identified as Gena Brännholm. Here, I had a lead about a specific person!
So I did some searching for Gena, who turns out to be Märta Eugenia Brännholm, born 1 June 1890 and died 15 January 1954 (she was buried in the Hammerdals churchyard). She was born in time to be included in the 1890 census, so we know that her family lived in Görvik, her father was a foreman, her mother was named Kerstin, and she had two older brothers, Olof and Erik.
It turns out Gena was the teacher at the Görvik primary school. Jamtli’s archive has a photo of Gena with her class in 1925, the same year as the beaver reintroduction. Her last year of teaching at Görvik was 1926 — there is a picture the students thanking her. The old school house that she taught in burned down in 1935. I wasn’t able to find out what happened to Gena after she quit in 1926. I did find a portrait photo that is identified as Gena on the website of Sveriges släktforskarförbund (Swedish genealogy).
I also figured out Gena’s brother Erik Brännholm had been the organiser of this particular beaver reintroduction in Görvik. He was identified as “an energic nature protection friend” and had mobilised a small study-circle group of eight to fundraise for the beavers. It made perfect sense then that Gena would have been present when her brother’s efforts came to fruition.
But it struck me that the woman in the school photo didn’t really look like the woman at the pond edge. So I did some more digging. I found another version of the photo that shows two women present when the beavers came out of the box. In this one, the woman with the scarf is still next to the beaver box, but there is another woman visible on the far left (the one without a hat).
With this photo, things become clearer. The woman on the far left is Gena Brännholm, the Görvik school teacher. The face and hair match perfectly. So it must be that the identification of Gena had been either based on this larger photo, or someone had remembered that she was there thus the only woman in the closer photo got identified as her. This larger photo also shows that the woman near the box is much older, which is evident in her face and arms. What we still don’t know is who she is. Another anonymous woman.
I realised after posting this that the photographer of the wider angle photograph is also a woman, Hanna Vinberg. That means there were at least three women at the release! The Jamtli archive has three photos of the Görvik reintroduction by Hanna. Hanna took over as one of the teachers in 1927 after Gena’s departure from the job.
When the last eagle flies over the last crumbling mountain
And the last lion roars at the last dusty fountain
In the shadow of the forest though she may be old and worn
They will stare unbelieving at the last unicorn.
– America, “The Last Unicorn”
When I was a young girl I saw The Last Unicorn, a film from 1982 based on a book from 1968 by Peter S. Beagle. In fact, I saw it many times thanks to HBO cable television. It was mesmerising to me to see the beautiful unicorn in search for others like herself, her quest to know if she was the last. Along the way, she is turned into a human to avoid danger and learns to love and regret.
This week I’m at the Im/mortality and In/finitude in the Anthropocene conference in Stockholm which is an interdisciplinary humanities and arts conference pondering questions of temporalities of life and death in a changing environment. Tomorrow I will give a paper which I’ve titled “The Last ___ (fill in blank)”. The talk will begin with a clip from The Last Unicorn in which, after overhearing a hunter proclaim that she is the last unicorn in the opening scene, the unicorn ponders:
That cannot be. Why would I be the last? What do men know? Because they have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean that we have all vanished. We do not vanish! There has never been a time without unicorns. We live forever. We are as old as the sky, as old as the moon. We can be hunted and trapped. We can even be killed if we leave our forests but we do not vanish. Am I truly the last?
In this soliloquy, the Unicorn is reflecting on the problem of seeing and knowing, or better said, the problem of not seeing and knowing. “Because they have seen no unicorns for a while does not mean that we have all vanished,” the unicorn says. Later when a farmer then cart driver see her but think she is a mare instead of a unicorn (the horn is invisible to them), the unicorn ponders to herself, “I had forgotten that men cannot see unicorns. If men no longer know what they are looking at, there may well be other unicorns in the world yet, unknown and glad of it.” The question is: Can one be sure that something is not there simply because one doesn’t see it?
The Unicorn’s questions are relevant to the histories of reintroduction I’m working with because these same kind of questions appear. At what point do you say a species is extinct? How much confirmation should there be to prove the species was still alive? Or more pressing, can lack of evidence mean the species is really extinct?
In the case of the beaver in Sweden, the population had been in decline for centuries. Nils Gisslet noted in his “Om Bäfverns Natur, hushållning och fångande” from 1756 that he thought the beaver was being overhunted in Sweden. In 1834, S. Nilsson noted that the beaver was then found only in the northern half of the country and “there is no place that he is numerous, and he seems to become more rare each year. … A generation ago, one found them there [in Jämtland/Norrland] in smaller colonies of 12-16 individuals; now one finds never more than a pair together, or a female with her young.”
Increasing rarity might be easy to recognise, but what about admitting something is no longer present at all? That happened with the beaver in 1873, when F. Unander wrote an article in Svenska Jägarförbundets Nya Tidskrift in which he examined the evidence of beaver sightings and found that the latest evidence was from the far north in 1864 (the editor added a footnote that beaver was seen in Jämtland up to 1866). Unander concluded:
that as long as no proof is shown that beaver is found in the Swedish dominion and by which refute the before given facts and figures, he [beaver] must be regarded as an animal extinct from the Swedish fauna.
After that point, I’ve not found anyone claiming that beavers remained in Sweden, although there were debates about when and where the last was killed (or found dead). In publications which reported on the reintroduction efforts that began in 1922, extinction stories always an important part of the discourse because the extinction provided the grounds for the action. So for example when Sven Arbman wrote about the first reintroduction in “När bäfvern återinfördes i Bjurälfven”, he framed it within an extinction story about the last:
There is beaver in Sweden, wild, free, Scandinavian beaver, since June 6th 1922, 3:30 in the morning. It is more than half a century since that could last be said. 1871 the last was shot in a stream near Sjougdnäs.
Highlighting the previous last beaver gave these new first beavers significance.
The Last Unicorn is also a story of reintroduction in the end. It turns out that the Unicorn is not the last, although she was the last in the wild. Through her courage, she is able to free the enslaved unicorns and they are reintroduced to the world. The last becomes a way to tell a story of salvation for a species, just as it did in the discourse of the last Swedish beaver.
But of course we can also ask about the “last” beaver in Sweden as the unicorn asked about her own status: Was it really the last? Just because no man has seen it does it mean that there are no more? We will never know.
The biographies written in the early 8th century about St. Cuthbert, who lived c.634-687, include several miracles with animals. The most famous of these is a story of the otters who anoint and wipe Cuthbert’s feet, but I think the lesser known stories of birds might give us insights about animal belonging and making room for the nonhuman.
In one story, Cuthbert got angry at some birds who were eating the newly sowed barley crop:
The most pious servant of God approached them … ‘Why,’ said he, ‘do you touch the crops that you did not sow? … If, however, you have received permission from God, do what He has allowed you; but if not, depart and do not injure any more the possessions of another.’ Thus he spoke and, at the first sound of his commands, the whole multitude of birds departed and thenceforward refrained altogether from attacking his crops.
The story sounds pretty straightforward: it’s just a farmer yelling at some birds. But looking at the middle part, we see that Cuthbert did not just banish the birds. Instead he asked if the birds had been given the right to do what they were doing. Cuthbert specifically told the birds that if God had permitted them to take the barley, they were welcome to do so. In this statement, Cuthbert acknowledged that although man sits at the top of the food chain, other creatures had a right to food too and provision of it may interfere with the best-laid human plans. For Cuthbert, if God’s plan had included the birds’ consumption of the barley, man would have to submit to it. It turns out that the birds did not have permission, so they departed. Yet Cuthbert admitted that nature was not something that always conformed to human desire.
As I discussed this story and the other animal miracles in St. Cuthbert’s lives yesterday in a senior-level seminar at Ohio Wesleyan University, I realised that although this isn’t directly related to my project on reintroduction in the North, it spoke to the same kind of concerns. Cuthbert was admitting that sometimes animals do things that aren’t beneficial, and perhaps even harmful, to humans, but that is ok. They can still belong.
Another story in the Cuthbert legend stresses that humans have to share the bounty of the earth with nonhuman counterparts. This one involved an eagle:
Cuthbert looked up to heaven and saw an eagle flying in the sky and said to his boy: ‘This is the eagle which the Lord has instructed to provide us with food today.’…The boy ran towards the eagle in accordance with the command of the servant of God, and stopping, he found a large fish. The boy brought the whole of it to him, whereupon Cuthbert said: ‘Why did you not give our fisherman a part of it to eat?’ Then the boy … gave half of the fish to the eagle.
In this story, the eagle serves as a tool that provides food for humans, but it cannot be taken for granted. Just as man needs food, the eagle does as well. As humans we can’t just take it all and leave the eagle to starve.
This literature written in the 8th century about a man who lived in a very different world than the 21st century still holds universal truths. In these medieval stories, Cuthbert was saying that we have to make room for the nonhuman to do what they need too. It’s not just about us. Animals belong too.
The Eurasian otter (Lutra lutra) is extremely widely distributed in Europe and Asia, but in spite of its huge range it is also linked historically to certain geographies.
The otter is not included in the medieval bestiary corpus, unlike many other European animals like the beaver which makes regular appearances. There is a bestiary animal called the ichneumon which some have identified as otter, but it is much closer in description to a mongoose (the ichneumon’s primary trait is its ferocity toward dragons, crocodiles and snakes). But otters do appear on premodern maps.
Olaus Magnus included an otter on his Carta marina from 1539. He places this otter in the region of Östrabottnia, Finland. The otter is shown bringing a fish to a man. In the text which accompanied the map (Opera Breve), Olaus Magnus explained the image as “the animal Lutherus, common in Finland and Bothnia, which sometimes can be domesticated to bring fish to the kitchen.” In his longer treatise Historia de genitbus septentrionalibus (Description of the Northern Peoples) from 1555 Olaus says that otter domestication of this type was practiced in Sweden “on the estates of some eminent citizens” where when a cook gave the otters a signal “they dive into a pool and catch a fish of the size he has indicated, returning for another and yet another until his instructions have been completely satisfied.” I can’t confirm that this is a true story. However, I’ve seen that otters in modern zoos and aquariums certainly like to play and they can do tricks, so maybe they were domesticated fishermen of the 16th century.
Later cartographers also included the otter and fish image. Liévin Algoet’s Terrarum septentriolium exacta novissimaque descriptio per Livinum Algoet (1562) has a similar image in almost the same geographical spot. Anders Bure included a otter carrying a fish in its mouth (although there is no human master to be seen) in Sweden north of Luleå on his map from 1626. At first I thought Bure’s map was showing a beaver, but after reading Olaus Magnus’s text and seeing his map, I realised that it was an otter.
In Olaus Magnus’s text account, otters are geographically situated:
They are to be found in northern waters, especially those of Upper Sweden Hälsingland, Medelpad, Ångermanland, Jämtland, and Eastern and Western Bothnia.
To Olaus in the Middle Ages, the north of the north is where these animals belonged.
What’s interesting then in contemporary conservation policy is how the otter has been envisioned as an animal that should be found throughout Sweden. Otter experienced a population decline in Sweden beginning in the 1950s. In addition to hunting (it was a popular pelt animal with around 1500 animals killed each year in the late 1940s), PCB contamination of its food sources was blamed for the decline. The otter was listed as a protected species in Sweden in 1968 in the face of dramatic declines. A WWF conservation project “Projekt Utter” started in 1975 to work toward conserving the species. The otter survey from 1975-77 indicated that there were probably 1000 to 1500 otters in Sweden. Most of the existing otters were in north. So the south became the conservation target. A reintroduction program run from 1987 to 1992 brought wild-caught otters from Norway (I love how Norway is the source of ‘Swedish’ reintroduced fauna – so ironic) and released 47 in Sodermanland and 7 in Uppland. Genetic tests show that apparently some of the reintroduced animals have entered into the reproductive pool. There are probably over 2000 otters in Sweden now.
The Conservation Plan for Otters in force through the Swedish EPA identifies the primary conservations actions as studying otters more (a common but not necessarily effective approach to a problem is to study it more), disseminating information about otters, and building wildlife passages under roads (traffic accidents are now the single greatest cause of otter death — 12 of them from Jan to Sept 2014 according to the Swedish transport statistics). Again, most of the focus is on southern Sweden.
Shifting baseline syndrome often assumes that people will take a lower population of an animal species as the normal, accepting this reduced biodiversity. But I wonder if it sometimes works the other way. People assume that an animal has and should be in a place because of political borders that define units like a country or big scale range maps that shade an area as ‘suitable habitat’. I’m not saying that there haven’t been otters in southern Sweden in the past, but if take seriously the 16th and 17th century sources, otters were an animal that belonged in northern Sweden, not the south.
Early in July, I had the privilege of being an instructor in the European Society for Environmental History (ESEH) Summer School in Porto, Portugal. Part of the School included a wonderful day at the Ílhavo Maritime Museum, which exhibits the history of codfish industry in northern Portugal. The museum included historical boat displays and a cod aquarium, with a touch of modern art inspired by cod mixed in.
Codfish is consumed regularly by Portuguese who call both the fish and all culinary dishes containing the fish bacalhau. Bacalhau has medieval roots. Norwegian fishermen ramped up their cod catches and began exporting to elsewhere in Europe in earnest in the 13th century, according to the latest archeological investigations. Portugal became a primary consumer of the dried and salted form of cod, which shipped well over long distances. Portuguese grocery stores today have piles and piles of different grades of bacalhau.
During my museum visit, I noticed a series of questions written on the wall which were posed to the visitor about cod. I was struck by the last of these: “O bacalhau pode estar em vias de extinção?” (Could the cod be on its way to extinction?) This was particularly poignant given the nearby display of one of the museum’s modern art sculptures, “Escuta o Outro Lado” (Listen to the other side) by João Sotero. The sculpture has a fish skeleton carved from stone in a glass case with a thread line hanging from its head. The death of the fish is both unremarkable and remarkable. Sotero asks the visitor to listen.
Cod have had it rough in the last century. The Grand Banks fisheries in North America collapsed after 1970 and by 1990, there was basically no fish left. There are fears that the Atlantic population is next with continual overfishing.
The story of the passenger pigeon should remind us that even very abundant animals can disappear–at least that’s the hope of projects like Fold the Flock which is trying to build an origami flock of passenger pigeons and the Project Passenger Pigeon film From Billions to None. The same was true of the European beaver, which nearly joined the extinct animals list. The thing is that people often don’t notice the population decline, or by the time they do so, it is too late. We’ve noticed that cod are in trouble, but will we do anything about it?
Cod swim in the North Atlantic so we can think that they belong to Norway and the other nations in those waters. But during my two weeks in Portugal, I say cod also belong to Portugal. They are so integral to Portuguese cuisine and tradition that to lose cod would mean to lose something central. Although there aren’t many Portuguese who sail in cod fishing fleets anymore, cod processing is still a key economic activity. What happens to cod matters to Portugal, but because the relationship with the fish is consumptive, reigning in that consumption may prove too difficult. That may be why people have tended to consume fish stocks to collapse then turn to another fish species to replace it.
For now, Cod is King. But will the refrain come soon? ‘The King is dead. Long live the King.’
I saw an image tweeted a few weeks back about beaver reintroduction that I think is worthy of some reflection.
The poster is in the genre of ‘Lost pets’ that we all recognise from posters on street lamps, bus stops, and public boards. The headline ‘LOST’ in all caps catches our attention. We recognise that the animal shown in the image has been ‘lost’. Below the picture we get information about its name, when it was last seen, what it means to the people who have lost it, and the reward. The only thing missing that we might expect on a ‘lost’ poster is a name & phone number to contact if found. (This would be a smart addition if an organisation wanted to start putting these up somewhere.)
There are all kinds of layers to this poster worthy of discussion.
The first thing that caught my eye was the invocation of ‘lost’ and the use of ‘much-missed’. The beaver’s absence in Britain is being put forward as an emotional issue. There is a feeling of desperation–of not being able to find a loved one. This is a sentiment that appears in much of the literature about the return of beavers to the UK. ‘Lost’ as a characteristic of the beaver is common. For example, the Scottish Natural Heritage public consultation report from 1998 claimed ‘beavers are a missing element of our native biodiversity and were lost entirely through human activities’, and a newspaper headline from 2005 announced ‘long lost beaver will soon give a dam about the Highlands’.
But it is not the cry of mourning that Thom van Dooren has discussed as an appropriate response to extinction (see this text and his comments on the radio program Undoing Extinction). There is regret that the beaver cannot be found, but there is no sorrow that comes with extinction. The poster is instead a cry for help. The message is that the much-missed beaver can be brought home if only the viewer of the poster helps to look for it. As a 2008 newspaper article stated about beavers in Scotland, ‘they were killed off more than 400 years ago, and snubbed by the last government – but now they are coming home at last.’ The beaver can be brought back.
The second thing I noticed was the specificity of the date. I’ve never seen the date 1587 on anything related to the beaver in Britain. The scientific articles generally mention that beavers in Wales were recorded in 1188 and that they probably existed in Scotland until the sixteenth century, but exact dates have proved elusive. Newspapers have been much more varied in their coverage of beaver extinction, claiming anything from 12th century to 19th century. So why 1587? Mary Queen of Scots was executed by Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake led the Cadiz raid to defeat the Spanish fleet in a preemptive strike before the real naval battle of 1588, and … well, I’m sure there were more things, but nothing about beavers in any case. If I was putting a date for British beavers (as opposed to Scottish ones), I might have picked 1188 since it is at least a documented citing in Wales.
Finally, there is the reward. Interestingly, the reward is about ecosystem change and that is indeed what beavers do best: make wetlands. It’s not entirely clear from the poster why we should want wetlands and what they are ‘fabulously rich’ in. (Certainly they are rich in mosquitos, but I know they are rich in many plant, insect, and animal species too.) I have noticed through an analysis of newspaper coverage of UK beaver reintroduction that it is quite unusual to make an ecosystem argument for bringing them back–most often the argument is simply that they are extinct and shouldn’t be. So this is pretty unique in that regard.
In sum, ATM has made some interesting choices in putting together this ‘Lost’ poster. While taking some artistic liberties, the poster reflects much of the beaver reintroduction debates in Britain that centre on bringing back this ‘lost’ species. The question remains whether it will be found.
This week during the Framing Nature conference in Tartu, Estonia, I went on a field trip that visited a 19th century school house. Oskar Luts, an Estonian writer, had attended the parish school in Palamuse, Estonia, from 1895 to 1899 and his most famous (and first) book Kevade (Spring) is set at the school. If you want to read about the school, a one-page summary in English is here.
The school house was large building with living quarters for the school master (who was the parish clerk), the school room, kitchen, and sleeping room for the boys (girls were added in a separate part after Luts’ time).
The school room had a harmonium for music lessons, benches with ink wells, and posters on the walls. The posters included a map, a depiction of the major races of the world, and a group of nature posters. The nature posters were labelled in Russian and included small mammals, fish, insects, plants, and birds.
These types of visuals would have been indispensable in a 19th-century or early 20th-century school. The posters were in full color and while some of them depicted local flora and fauna that the students might be able to observe outdoors, other animals would have been more likely unseen. Not unlike the nature programs we watch on TV, these images could be used by teachers in natural history lessons.
This reminded me of the numerous school posters from Sweden that I have been collecting digitally. I’ve been looking for items that include beavers to determine whether or not they are shown as part of Swedish or Nordic fauna. Here are a few of those with some comments about their context.
My interest in school posters started when I saw a 1932 school poster drawn by Nils Tirén, a well known Swedish painter (1885-1935) who specialised in animals. It was produced as part of a series of posters called “Svenska djur” (Swedish animals) published by Norstedt in Stockholm starting in the 1920s. It is noteworthy that the beaver had only been back in Sweden since 1922, 10 years before Tirén painted the work. In spite of its 50-year absence and recent return, the beaver was considered by Tirén and Norstedt as an integral part of the Swedish fauna.
This poster of animal diversity (djurriket) is currently hanging in the school building of Gammlia, the outdoor section of the Västerbottens Museum in Umeå. The poster was taken down from Varpsjö school on 16 April 1953. The date that the poster was made it not clearly marked. The panel on the lower left includes a beaver, which is labeled with the Swedish name and scientific one, “Bäver (Castor fiber)”. Because the poster includes animals from across the world–for example, a kangaroo is in the left middle picture–an asterisk (*) is used to indicate which animals are found in Sweden. In the lower left picture, the Nordic hare (Lepus timidus) and the rabbit (L. cuniculus) are marked with the *, but beaver is not. So according to this poster which hung in a school until 1953, beavers were not found in Sweden. I’m a bit surprised that the teacher didn’t take a pen and add a * next to beaver!
This poster was made in Leipzig, Germany between 1900 and 1910 as part of a series of zoological posters and sold in Sweden by Swanström & Co. in Stockholm. The interesting thing about this one is the impressive height of the beaver dams, which is clearly what the artist is emphasising. Since there were few beavers in Germany at the time, the artist may have actually been depicting North American beavers, which tend to make much larger dam structures than European beavers.
This drawing of a beaver gnawing a tree (labeled only Bäver) was used in art education as part of a series of drawings of animals, people, plants, and ornamental designs that served as models for the students. It was produced by Skolförlaget Gävle / Jönköpings Tändsticksfabriks Tryckeri in mid-Sweden in the 1940s. This particular exemplar was used at Norra skolan in Vänersborg in southwestern Sweden in the 1940s. It is now in the Vänersborgs museum collection.
This poster is also in the Vänersborgs museum. It does not have a date. According to the catalog information, it is labeled (I assume on the back since it is not in the picture of the front) as “Castor Fiber — European beaver, more or less endangered”. Such a label would have certainly been appropriate anytime in the first half of the 20th century.
This week I stopped as a tourist at the Musée Mécanique at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco after the American Society for Environmental History annual meeting. The museum is part historical collection, part working penny arcade (although most things cost a US quarter now). There are stereoscope viewers, fortunetellers, strength testers, ball games, and car games. A large number of them machines are moving dioramas including farms with moving animals, carnivals with working rides, the oil field with spinning derrick drills, and bizarre morbid animated execution scenes including hangings and a beheading via guillotine.
One of the automata diorama machines was called “The Inquest”, presumably dating from end of the 19th or beginning 20th century like much of the collection, but no date was on it. The scene was intriguing. Three American bison (commonly referred to as buffalos) stood around a Native American (at the time of production called an Indian) lying on the ground. The setting is early winter – the bison, Indian headdress, and ground are lightly dusted in white. The backdrop is painted with more bison and a rising mountain is capped with snow. The hairy inquisitors moved their heads either sideways or up and down, investigating the dead face-up Indian. That was it. That was the story a viewer got for a coin.
As the bison shook their heads pondering the plight of the man, I began to ponder what such a display meant.
One possible interpretation is a turning over of the hierarchy of hunt and hunter. Here the man, who had likely caused the death of so many bison, was dead before them. From the bisons’ perspective, was it a deserved death? Perhaps it was the same kind of view as the executions on other machines that always implied that justice was served through death. Of course, in reality it was not natives but invading white settlers and hunters that brought the bison to the brink of extinction. But I doubt that was considered at the time the machine was made or seen in an arcade. Such a message caught me off guard because it looks at the scene from the bison’s point of view. It is the bison who are the actors – they inquire, investigate, and move – rather than the human.
An alternate interpretation is that the scene represents the closing of the frontier, i.e. the Fredrick Jackson Turner thesis that I have no doubt came up in several papers at the ASEH conference I was attending. Was this a moving meditation on the end of the Western way of life? The bison seem genuinely distressed at the body. Perhaps we are supposed to read them as compatriots, components in a Western ecosystem which has been dismantled by outsiders. This too would be a surprising message in that it admits a place for both the animal and Indian at a time when neither seemed to have a place at all. We often fail to remember that the bison was nearly extinct by 1900. The herds had been systematically hunted for skins and as a way to force the indigenous people off the land, with thousands of carcasses left rotting in the sun. It was only the fortuitous action of a few that keep the animals alive on farms, animals which would eventually breed enough to be successfully reintroduced to the plains. According to Andrew Isenberg’s The Destruction of the Bison, part of the impetus for reintroducing the Plains giant was to reclaim the frontier wildness and preserve the cowboy (rather than Indian) whose way of life was passing away. Perhaps the death of both the Indian and the bison meant the death of the cowboy, an American icon. Did the creator want to invoke a sense of guilt for this destruction from the viewer?
This short inquest of “The Inquest” can’t provide answers, but it can prompt us to think about who is in the center of our environmental history stories: The curious bison? The dead Indian? The unseen cowboy? As a historian, I often stand over my long-dead subjects like the animated bison, cocking my head sideways wondering what it all means.
Libby Robin added this comment:
The Hunted turn on the Hunt – what a trope for the End of the Frontier era. It would be very interesting to find out how close this one was to 1893.
Another idea is that this is what Tom Griffiths calls ‘White Noise’ – pitting the man and beast against each other, when in fact their common enemy was European settlement, thereby silencing the guilt.
Tom’s idea is online http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/emuse/wik/griffiths2.html and further explicated in his book <<Hunters and Collectors>> (1996)
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