The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

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Stamp of approval?

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.

Fjällvärld series, issued by Swedish Post, 27 March 1984. Personal collection of D. Jørgensen.

Fjällvärld series, issued by Swedish Post, 27 March 1984. Personal collection of D. Jørgensen.

Myskoxe, Fjällvärld series, issued by Swedish Post, 27 March 1984. Personal collection of D. Jørgensen.

Myskoxe, Fjällvärld series, issued by Swedish Post, 27 March 1984. Personal collection of D. Jørgensen.

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.

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.

The tale of two castors

When two things get the same name, it is easy to get them confused. This has happened with two medicines with similar names that have cropped up in my research: castoreum and castor oil.

The display of medicine derived from beaver at Elvarheim museum, Norway. It should be showing castoreum but instead displays castor oil. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The display of medicine derived from beaver at Elvarheim museum, Norway. It should be showing castoreum but instead displays castor oil. Photo by D Jørgensen.

As I mentioned in my last post, the Elvarheim museum in Åmli, Norway, recently opened a new beaver exhibit. I was quite impressed with the set-up. I did, however, notice an error in the display case of beaver products. The case included a beaver felt hat and the beaver gall liquor I’ve tried, both of which are made from beaver parts. It also had a shelf of medicine that was supposed to be from beaver, but the bottles on display were castor oil.

Castor oil is not made from beavers. Instead it is the oil extracted from seeds of the plant Ricinus communis, the castor oil plant. The plant is indigenous to the Mediterranean, east Africa, and India, but cultivation has spread globally. Castor oil was a common 19th century and early 20th century household remedy. The seeds contain a toxin in the shell (called ricin) which is extremely toxic, but the pressed oil is not toxic.

A sick child in bed has his castor oil medicine poured for him. France. Photomechanical print after J. Geoffroy, 1894. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

A sick child in bed has his castor oil poured for him. Photomechanical print after J. Geoffroy, 1894.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

That doesn’t mean it tastes good. You’ve probably heard nightmarish stories about children being forced to take castor oil for any number of ailments. You can certainly see the look of trepidation on the young boy’s face in a photo from France in 1894 on the right.

Wood's castor oil. From collection of the Museum of Health Care at Kingston, Artifact 1977.12.20.

Woods’ castor oil. From collection of the Museum of Health Care at Kingston, Artifact 1977.12.20.

Companies selling castor oil tried to market their oil as palatable for all. The Woods company, for example, labelled its castor oil as ‘sweet’ — it had been ‘sweetened and flavored as to disguise the taste’. The company claimed, ‘Children like it’.

In the later 1900s, companies started packaging castor oil in capsules to avoid the taste problem all together. But as the bottles on display in Åmli show, liquid is still a common form.

Needless to say, castor oil is not the same thing as castoreum.

Jars in the Riga Pharmacy Museum. Photo from D Jørgensen.

Castoreum is the secretion of the castor sac of the beaver. Beavers of both sexes have two sacs near the base of the tail. The secretion is used for marking territory. To make castoreum as a medicine, the sacs are removed, dried, and ground up. Most often the castoreum was administered in small doses as a tincture prepared with alcohol. Almost every historical apothecary collection from the 1700s to mid-1900s has a jar for castoreum. Most often these would have had castoreum from North American beavers since the beavers in Europe were extremely rare. The source of the beaver is apparent on the jar labels in several examples in the Riga Pharmacy Museum which say ‘Castor. Canadens.’

Castor sacs on display at the Elvarheim museum, Åmli. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Castor sacs on display at the Elvarheim museum, Åmli. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The Elvarheim museum has a very good example of the beaver’s castor sacs on hand in the exhibit. The sacs had previously been kept out, but they exuded such a strong smell that the museum staff decided to encase them. A small hole has been made in the case and a stick sitting in the hole touches the sac. The stick is then removed so the visitor can smell it. The castoreum scent is overwhelming and brought back memories of my earlier castoreum consumption encounter.

I encouraged the museum staff to replace the castor oil jars with old apothecary jars of castoreum in the display. Of course the castor sacs are also a wonderful supplement to the medicinal section.

The moral of the story is that the same name does not equal the same source. Castor oil and castoreum may sound similar but they are not related at all.

A historian walks through the beaver’s homeland

In historical work, we are called on to imagine ourselves in another time and another place. We try to see the world as the people (or animals) in our stories would have seen it. That’s not always an easy task. But because I was lucky enough to spend the last two days in southern Norway in the homeland of the Scandinavian beaver, it’s now a little easier for me as I write the beaver reintroduction story.

Næs Ironworks. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Yesterday I walked around the property at Næs Ironworks, which is now a museum featuring the double blast furnace, water-powered hammering shop, and templates for cast iron stoves. It was a lovely clear day for a stroll with my guide Gunnar Molden. Gunnar told me all about the Aall family who became the mill’s proprietors after Jacob Aall purchased it in 1799. Jacob was supposed to become a priest, but opted instead to travel around Europe to learn the iron working trade. When his father (who had been the one pushing him into church service) died, Jacob decided to purchase this iron mill in the Norwegian countryside. Jacob would go on to become well-known for his involvement in Norwegian independence from Denmark in 1814.

View of the pond on the Næs property. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Unlike most mill owners who continued to live in the big cities, Jacob and his wife Lovisa moved to a stately home on the Næs property. Lovisa worked to create a gentile estate, including making a romantic park in the English garden style with an artificial pond and gazebo. The pond was on some line between wild and tame, natural and artificial. Walking through the grounds let get a sense of what it would have been like to have this as my backyard, which is what it would have been for Nicolai, the oldest son of Jacob and Lovisa.

The setting matters because Nicolai Aall would go on to become the owner of the ironworks in 1844, and some time after that, he banned all hunting of beavers on Næs property. At this point, I have not found a concrete reason why he did it, but several things about his background give us hints. Growing up on this property would have certainly encouraged him to appreciate nature. Although he formally studied mineralogy at the university, he developed a passion for zoology. He collected zoological books and amassed an impressive collection of insects and birds, as well as mammals. He was also an avid hunter and employed a taxidermist on his staff. So at some point he decided that beavers were getting too rare as hunted prey and they needed protection. It is said that this protection is the only thing that kept the beaver in Norway from going extinct like the beaver in Sweden.

Along Telemarksvegen. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Along Telemarksvegen. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Today as I drove from Arendal on the coast up into the mountains to visit the Elvarheim museum in Åmli, I understood why beaver would have survived in Åmli long enough to be protected by Nicolai Aall. With mixed deciduous-coniferous forest rising up on the hills, there were small, still lakes around every bend — the perfect kind of lakes for beavers. I’m sure plenty of beavers now inhabit the waters I drove by, and I’m sure they did 100 years ago as well.

I met Tonje Ramse Trædal at the Elvarheim museum, which was founded from a hunter’s huge collection of taxidermy specimens and hunting/trapping gear. Just this June they opened a brand new beaver exhibit, which includes both fabulous displays about beaver ecosystems and some local information about the role of Åmli in populating the beavers of Europe. All of the beavers reintroduced to Sweden in the 1920s and 1930s came from this little town.

The view from P-M Jensen Tveit's farm toward Sigvald Salvesen's farm (in distance on left). The beaver pen likely stood just past the rocks in the foreground. Photo by D Jørgensen.

The view from P-M Jensen Tveit’s farm toward Sigvald Salvesen’s farm (in distance on left). The beaver pen likely stood just past the rocks in the foreground. Photo by D Jørgensen.

More specifically they went through the hands of Peder Martinius Jensen Tveit, “Bever Jensen”. So it was a treat to take a car ride with Tonje to Tveit, a few kilometers up the hill from Åmli, to see the Jensen farm. What was fascinating was that Jensen’s property, called Austigard, is adjacent to a farm named Bakkane, which was owned by Sigvald Salvesen. Sigvald was the Jensen’s main competitor in the live beaver business and from the tone of some documents I saw today, there was no love lost between them. Looking out past Jensen’s property to Salvesen’s, which would be no more than a few minutes to walk, it made the language in the documents all the more real. I could ‘hear’ the men complaining about each other.

Historians often work behind a desk. It might be in an archive, a library, or an office. It might be looking at digital files, hand written letters, or artwork. But more often than not it is divorced from the place of the history. This trip reminded me that it’s both insightful and refreshing to get out in the fresh air and see where history took place.

Thylacine Day 2015

Yesterday was Thylacine Day, or more officially National Threatened Species Day, in Australia. In 1996, Australia established the day to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the death of the thylacine which was in the Beaumaris Zoo in Hobart, Tasmania.

In many official statements about National Threatened Species Day, this zoo animal is called the “last Tasmanian tiger” (for example by Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage Protection and New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage). The National Museum of Australia presents the thylacine as becoming extinct as a species on 7 September 1936 with death of the Beaumaris zoo specimen, which has become known as ‘Benjamin’ although there are many questions about where this name originated (see Paddle’s The Last Tasmanian Tiger for discussion of the controversy). When the Tangled Destinies exhibit, now known as the Old New Land exhibit, opened at the museum in 2001, Benjamin was described as the “endling“, the last of a species, in the exhibit text and pedagogical material accompanying it. Although there has been ongoing debate as to whether or not thylacines are really extinct (I talked about this in my Search for the Last paper along with the beaver in Sweden), Thyacine Day marks the end of the species.

As a day of commemoration, National Threatened Species Day is not a celebratory day but a day of mourning. It doesn’t mark the end of a war or celebrate labourers and military service or highlight national independence. Unlike Earth Day, which asks people to think broadly about the human relationship with out planet on the 22nd of April, Thylacine Day puts a specific environmental tragedy into focus and asks how we can avoid the same fate for other species.

In honor of Thylacine Day 2015, the 79th anniversary of the death of the thylacine in Hobart’s zoo, I thought I’d share with you some of the thylacines I’ve seen in museum exhibits. No matter how many I see, each new one strikes me with a tangible sadness. As they look out from their glass cases, they always seem to ask the same question: why?

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Beavering away in Västerbotten

Yesterday evening I went on my second beaver safari. This time I was near home–only 36 km away in Vännäs on the Vindel river. We had great luck and saw several beavers right away.

Beaver on beaver safari in Vännäs, Västerbotten country, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen

Beaver on beaver safari in Vännäs, Västerbotten country, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen

Beaver were first brought back to the county of Västerbotten very early in the reintroduction process. In 1924, the second beaver reintroduction in Sweden took place in Västerbotten on the Tärnaån further inland. But no more reintroductions happened in the area until after World War II. In the 1950s and 60s beavers were set out intentionally and more animals migrated in from the neighbouring Jämtland reintroductions.

According to an article from 1984 in the journal Från hav till fjäll, an inventory in 1961-62 counted 39 animals in Västerbotten county. By 1969, the number had grown in 63, and by 1976 it had jumped to an estimated 500. By 1983, the estimate was 5600 to 7000 animals and it’s gone up significantly since then. The beavers have been beavering away in Västerbotten.

Beaver skins on the benches on beaver safari, Vännäs, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Beaver skins on the benches on beaver safari, Vännäs, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Like my previous research object safari experiences, this was also a sensory tour. We started out around a fire to have a cup of newly open-fire cooked coffee while sitting on wooden benches draped with beaver skins. The skins were soft and warm. And our guide, Stefan Lindgren of By the River, explained that it is the soft underfur which has thousands of follicles per square cm that keeps the beavers fur waterproof (and soft). Stefan said that he had acquired them from a retired beaver trapper, who had originally kept them in order to make a beaver coat for his wife, but she refused to have it! So he bought the skins and now uses them on tours to allow the guests to get closer to beavers.

It was also a physical tour — we were in a rubber boat and each guest had to do some paddling along the ride. Luckily the wind was blowing upstream, so we had it pretty easy with the wind’s help. There was a stillness out on the Vindel river. You have to be quiet to not scare off the beavers, so it was just the sound of the paddles, the wind in the trees, a fish splash here and there, and the slap of a beaver tail when one dove out of sight.

Our guide Stefan with the freshly gnawed off branches dropped by the beaver. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

Our guide Stefan with the freshly gnawed off branches dropped by the beaver. Photo by D. Jørgensen.

We got to see the entrance to the beaver’s den with branches piled up as protection and the beaver trails from the water into the woodlands. At one point, we saw a beaver dragging some freshly cut willow branches through the water. Unfortunately, when the animal saw us, he/she dropped the newly acquired prize and swam away. Stefan then guided the boat over to the branches and picked them up for us to see the beaver’s handiwork. We each got a piece of beaver gnawed branch to take home.

Although beavers make significant changes to their landscape, they are in many ways invisible. Few people have ever seen a beaver, even if they live in an area well-inhabited by the critters. Like most wildlife, they do a good job of hiding themselves. This of course makes wildlife tourism like beaver safaris challenging. In this case, there are typically one or two beaver families in this particular area which is a protected little island near one side of the river downstream from a rapids. It is perfect beaver spot, so Stefan knows that most of the time, beavers will be there, but nothing is guaranteed. So I feel privileged to have been able to see beavers at work in Västerbotten.

The power of legend

I was thinking this weekend about the repetition of stories. There was some discussion on twitter about whether or not the history of the conservation movement is the same thing as the history of the environmental movement (which came up in the context of an article in the New Yorker, “Environmentalism’s racist history”). While I can sympathise with the desire to make a distinction, I think it matters more how the histories are invoked by people as foundation legends. As humans reflect on themselves, they tell stories to make sense of the world. It seems to me that there is a tendency for people today to judge the past by whether the story turned out to be ‘true’ or not, rather than on what the story did for the people of the past (or people of the present, for that matter). Yet even untrue stories may hold truths of a kind.

The legend of the beaver is a case in point. One of the most influential encyclopaedic natural history texts ever written was penned by Pliny the Elder (AD23-79) during the last two years of his life. Book VIII is dedicated to terrestrial animals, with Chapter 47 dealing with beavers and other amphibious animals. He begins with the later oft-repeated legend of the beaver’s testicles:

The beavers of the Euxine, when they are closely pressed by danger, themselves cut off the same part [the testes], as they know that it is for this that they are pursued. The substance is called castoreum by the physicians.

A stuffed beaver showing off his massive teeth at the Skogsmuseum in Lycksele, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.

A stuffed beaver showing off his massive teeth at the Skogsmuseum in Lycksele, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.

This legend became the standard story about beavers until the early modern period. You might just chalk up Pliny’s story to the uninformed ancient Romans, but few have thought about the context of this story in the Natural History. Immediately after the section about biting off the testicles Pliny goes on for several sentences about the beaver’s teeth and how dangerous they could be because of their bite. When read together, the story about the beaver biting off his testicles becomes a tale about the danger of the animal’s sharp teeth. The teeth, not the castoreum, are the point of the story. And for anyone who has seen beaver teeth, they can understand Pliny’s obsession with the teeth.

Pliny in fact had information contradicting the testicle-biting tale. In Book XXXII, Chapter 13, Pliny takes up the uses of castoreum within a broader discussion of medicines extracted from amphibious animals. In this chapter he writes:

Sextius, a most careful enquirer into the nature and history of medicinal substances, assures us that it is not the truth that this animal, when on the point of being taken, bites off its testes: he informs us, also, that these substances are small, tightly knit, and attached to the back-bone, and that it is impossible to remove them without taking the animal’s life.

Sextius clearly knew his castoreum. He even rightly noted that true castoreum is contained in two pouches attached by a single ligament – so anything else is false. Pliny’s use of Sextius as expert testimony reveals that Pliny was not oblivious to castoreum’s true source. In this section on medicine, Pliny may have been trying to be as accurate possible in order to have people avoid being duped by false castoreum, but in the section on animals, the key attribute of each animal was in focus.

Beaver chase. British Library, Harley MS 4751 fol. 97.  Image in public domain, provided by BL.

Beaver chase. British Library, Harley MS 4751 fol. 97. Image in public domain, provided by BL.

I’ve also read medieval bestiaries chided for their ‘silly’ stories of beaver behaviour, but these too have a purpose. In the bestiaries such as the Aberdeen Bestiary, the beaver is pursued by hunters, so he bites off his testicles and throws them to the hunter who then calls off the chase. Every image of the beaver shows some part of this story. Sometimes, there is even a beaver who has been a previous victim who lays on his back to prove to the hunter that he no longer has the precious jewels. The legend repeated over a thousand years before in Pliny was clearly still alive and kicking in the late Middle Ages.

But we have to remember that these texts were not just natural histories, but also moral histories. Immediately following the explanation of the beaver’s tactics, the application to a good Christian life is drawn:

Thus every man who heeds God’s commandment and wishes to live chastely should cut off all his vices and shameless acts, and cast them from him into the face of the devil.

So stories aren’t always what they seem. The person telling the story has a goal in mind. A legend or myth holds truth as well. If we analyse those stories we can find out what the people of the past valued—what they thought was important about their world.

Pamir the Przewalski and his places

When I was at the Ménagerie in Paris, which is part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, I found a lovely children’s book in the gift shop: L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski. The book (which you can buy here), written by Fred Bernard and illustrated by Julie Faulques, is a real reintroduction story.

The book begins by backing up in time to present the Przewalski horse as living on the steppes of Mongolia. The Przewalskis were wild, untamable horses, killed as prey by Mongols on the backs of domestic horses. Then the horses are discovered by a colonel named Przewalski in the 19th century. After the discovery scene, the text presents the capture of Przewalski horses which were shipped to zoos “in order to save the species.”

The capture of the Przwalski horses, which were then shipped to European zoos. From L'histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

The capture of the Przwalski horses, which were then shipped to European zoos. From L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

Some of the 50 horses captured at the turn of the 20th century were shipped to the Ménagerie in Paris. And now we get to Pamir, who was born in the zoo and is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of animals caught in the wild.

After the Przewalski horses were captured, the species became extinct in the wild. But the zoo populations were carefully bred and grew in numbers, from 13 founding population animals to over 1000. In 1993, when a scientific reintroduction project was begun, the two-year-old stallion Pamir was selected for the program. He was released into a large enclosure on the Méjean Plateau in France along with horses from other zoo collections. The horses had to adapt to wild living, including finding their own food sources and reproducing freely within the herd. In 2003-4, 22 horses were then taken to Mongolia and reintroduced in their prior range — some of these were Pamir’s descendants.

It’s a beautifully illustrated book with a positive story. But as a historian thinking about belonging and reintroduction, a couple of things struck me.

First, there is a claim about the role of France as place in the story. While the book places the Przewalski horse in Asia, one page is dedicated to the horses in the caves of Lascaux in France. “The small horses have a remarkable resemblance to Pamir,” which is an ingenious way of linking this Asian species to France where the Pamir story takes place. The place of the Ménagerie zoo also matters in the story because it was here that Pamir was born — three double page scenes show him in his zoo enclosure. Placing Pamir specifically in Paris makes him all the more real and important to the French children.

Pamir in the zoo, but still wild.

Pamir in the zoo, but still wild. From L’histoire vraie de Pamir, le cheval de Przewalski.

Second, there is a continual insistence on the “wildness” of the Przewalski horse. They are “chevaux sauvages” of the plains. When Mongols tried to domesticate them “c’est impossible!” Although the image shows Pamir in the zoo, the text stresses “Pamir remains wild and very well knows how to defend himself. If he does not feel like a caress, beware!”. He moves to the enclosure to be prepared for “la vie sauvage”. It is through the reintroduction of the Przewalski horse after 100 years in zoos that we proved “it is possible to return an animal to the wild who had not previously known it.”

These are not unusual claims: everyone talks and writes about the Przewalski horse as “the last wild horse”, meaning specifically the last undomesticated horse. But I have to wonder how true that claim can be. The horses eventually reintroduced into Mongolia were descendants through many generations of animals that had only ever lived in zoos and were purposefully bred in extremely controlled ways. The stud books of the horse were carefully recorded and managed. Moreover, the horses were bred to look a particular way.

Image of some of the Przewalski horses in the early 1900s shown by Sandra Swart in a talk at ASEH 2015.

Image of some of the Przewalski horses in the early 1900s shown by Sandra Swart in a talk at ASEH 2015.

Sandra Swart from Stellenbosch University talked about this in her paper at the American Society for Environmental History meeting in March 2015. She showed a picture of four of the scraggly horses originally from Mongolia, which we can compare to the images of Przewalski horses today which shows extremely consistent animals. (See also another photo taken before 1901 of a captured animal)

Google image results for Przwalski horse

Google image results for Przwalski horse

Visual consistency is a trademark sign of intentional breeding. Kate Christen of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute also discussed this in a paper at the World Congress of Environmental History in 2014, noting that Przewalski breeding was conducted to produce offspring “conforming to their European handlers’ imagined preconceptions about wild, primitive horses such as those in the cave paintings.” If domestic animal implies one bred for a specific purpose, these horses are no less domestic than fjord horses or shires or shetland ponies. The claim of wildness is a rhetorical one to place this horse as belonging on the Mongolian steppes.

So Pamir is a story about how an animal can belong in two places at once. Reintroduction causes a shift of physically belonging from one place to another, but the ontological belonging to both places remains.

Breeds, places, and becoming less with loss

This year, I took a month-long summer holiday. It was mostly free from work obligations, but I couldn’t help always being aware of things that relate to this project on reintroduction and belonging. Several times over the course of my holiday I encountered efforts to preserve regional domestic breeds of animals. In each case, there was a concerted effort to identify the animal breed as belonging to a particular place, with the implication that the place would be diminished without it.

Poitou donkeys at the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, Paris.

Poitou donkeys at the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, Paris. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Take the Poitou donkey. At the Ménagerie in Paris (which is the historic zoo in town), two Poitou donkeys were on display. The very shaggy donkeys seemed content munching hay, but they must have been quite hot in the scorching summer heat of 35C+. According to the sign, the breed appeared in the Middle Ages, making it the oldest donkey type in France. Mechanisation of agriculture and the armed forces (which had both used donkeys) led to a rapid decrease in the number of Poitou donkeys. In 1977, there were no more than 44 individuals of the breed. “It was urgent to do everything possible to save the breed,” declared the sign. Because of directed breeding efforts there are now “more than 400 of these pure bred donkeys throughout the world.”

Here was an example of a domestic breed without a purpose. This type of donkey had been bred—physically shaped by the work of humans—to do certain tasks and those tasks were no longer needed. Yet, there was a desire to “save” the breed from extinction. Why? It wasn’t because the donkeys would do what they had done (after all, these are in a zoo not doing work at all). It appears that it was because the donkey represented heritage, specifically heritage of a place. This wasn’t just any old donkey—it was the Poitou donkey from the region of Poitou.

Breton Horse at the Lamballe National Stud Farm, France. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Breton Horse at the Lamballe National Stud Farm, France. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Or take the Breton horse. We saw some Bretons at the French National Stud Farm in Lamballe, Brittany. The Breton is a huge, stocky horse bred to plow the fields of Brittany. The Breton was created through a long history of breeding going back thousands of years. In 1909, a studbook was created for the Breton in order to create a register of ‘pure’ Breton bloodlines, and the book was officially closed in 1951. That means that the Breton has been strictly defined and delineated. The parents of a horse are either in this book or the horse isn’t a Breton.

But more than that, to be registered as a Breton, the foal must be born in Brittany or Loire-Atlantique (formerly part of Brittany). The place is integral to the definition of the breed. The Breton belongs in Brittany (and only there).

A Lapp goat at Mickelbo Gård, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.

A Lapp goat at Mickelbo Gård, Sweden. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Or what about the Lapp goat? This goat has been bred by the indigenous Sami people living in northern Sweden and Norway. The animal park at Mickelbo Gård in Mickelträsk, Sweden, has a small herd of them. The goat is considered “an endangered Swedish native breed” so a genetic register has been started. In 2008, there were only 65 animals on the list, although by the end of 2012, 176 animals were listed. The Mickelbo herd had one small kid, so maybe the numbers are increasing. Like the Poitou donkey, the Lapp goat’s niche has led to its downfall. It accompanied the Sami reindeer herders during the summer months to provide milk for the herders. Although there are still reindeer herders, modern transportation systems as well as refrigeration create less need for a milk provider on the hoof. And yet there are people interested in keeping the breed alive, presumably as a cultural heritage object representing the north and the Sami.

Put together these examples show how much interest there is in preserving particular animals that belong to particular places. These domestic breeds are not ‘natural’ — they are the product of thousands of years of breeding efforts and their ancestors came from far away from where the animals now live. Yet, these breeds belong and are understood as a ‘natural’ part of the cultural landscape. Extraordinary efforts have been made to record the surviving ‘pure bred’ stock and encourage them to produce offspring.

While we often talk about species extinction in the case of wild species, the extinction of breeds is the concern with domestic species. There is no danger that domestic donkeys (Equus asinus) or horses (Equus ferus caballus) or goats (Capra hircus) will go extinct, but specific breeds may indeed disappear. And because those breeds are often associated with particular places, those places may become less.

I will close with one final thought. Some domestic breeds just look right in a particular landscape, and the landscape looks right with them. I knew this was true when I saw this Fjord horse on a Norwegian farm along the fjords.

Fjord horse at a farm near Sortland, Norway. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Fjord horse at a farm near Sortland, Norway. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Extinction and a matter of time

The Muséum nationale d’Historie naturelle in Paris has a room dedicated to extinct and endangered animals. Entering the room has the feel of entering a chapel for a funeral. It is dimly lit from above with cases of animals scarcely visible. Each taxidermied animal (even insects and plants are on display) is presented in a case with a black background. The labels appear on the sides on the glass to minimise distraction. The visitor is drawn to each specimen as if you were approaching the casket at a funeral. You cannot but feel the weight of extinction in the room.

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Horloge monumentale de Marie-Antoinette, MNHN, Paris. Photo by D Jørgensen.

Horloge monumentale de Marie-Antoinette, MNHN, Paris. Photo by D Jørgensen.

In this space, I was struck by the inclusion of a large clock. It was a clock constructed in 1785 at the request of Marie-Antoinette for her Petit Trianon palace to show “Versailles time”. Only 8 years later, the Queen would be executed by guillotine during the French Revolution. The clock was seized and donated to the Museum in 1794. The clock was installed long before this room had the theme of extinct and endangered animals, yet it was fitting to have it there. Time ran out for Marie-Antoinette — her life was intentionally ended and her line died out (only one of her children, Marie-Therese, survived to adulthood but had no children of her own). Time ran out for the extinct species in the cases. Only their preserved bodies remain to remind us of their former glory, just as the Palace of Versailles bears witness to Marie-Antoinette’s life.

There were however also endangered species in the cases, which could mean that they will survive. But the room does not give the viewer hope. It seems that for them too it is only a matter of time.

Coupled with the larger exhibit outside of this one on the relationship of humans and the non-human inhabitants of Earth (which includes sections on domestication, pollution, resource use, etc.), perhaps the museum can help visitors envision ways to avoid the virtual funerals of more species. The reintroduction projects which my research focuses on are one of those ways, at least if the species still exists somewhere to have a population to draw on for reintroduction. But in this room there is power in the presentation of extinct species. It is a dark and depressing experience of death.

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