The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

A research blog exploring animal reintroduction history by Dolly Jørgensen

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Environmental relationships in the Laudato Si´encyclical

Pope Francis, Laudato Si', 2015.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, 2015.

Pope Francis published his much anticipated encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si´, last week. Whether or not you are Catholic (I am not), you should read the document because it is an important contemporary statement about the past/present/possible future relationship between humans and the Earth. Although much of the press hype has portrayed the document as a position on climate change, if you take time to read the whole 180 page document (in English),  you realise that it is much more an environmental justice manifesto concerned about the intertwined fates of humans and non-humans. As an environmental historian working on extinction, conservation biology, and ideas of belonging, I read the encyclical with an eye toward the kind of environmental relationships it depicts. I have four major observations.

First, I was struck by Francis’s definition of environment:

When we speak of the “environment”, what we really mean is a relationship existing between nature and the society which lives in it. Nature cannot be regarded as something separate from ourselves or as a mere setting in which we live. We are part of nature, included in it and thus in constant interaction with it. (§139)

This is very similar to the way that I and Sverker Sörlin delineated the difference between environment and nature in our introduction to Northscapes, which in turn built upon his work with Paul Warde in Nature’s End. Environment is the entanglement of nature and people, thus when we do environmental history, we have to examine interactions. This entanglement is the foundation of the Pope’s insistence that environmental protection must be coupled to social betterment:

Recognizing the reasons why a given area is polluted requires a study of the workings of society, its economy, its behaviour patterns, and the ways it grasps reality. … We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (§139)

As an environmental historian, I think this emphasis on the coupling of socio-natural systems is critical. In my recent lecture for the Swedish title of docent, I said that environment exists at the centre of a triangle with nature, technology, and social systems on the sides. It is the interaction of all three that makes the thing we know as environment. Because of the connections between humans and nature, the Pope calls for “integral ecology” that combines environment, economic, and social elements (see Chapter 4), a call that I think many environmental humanities scholars would agree with.

Second, Francis has something to say about history and belongingness. He advocates the “need to incorporate the history, culture and architecture of each place” because ecology for him is “the cultural treasures of humanity in the broadest sense”. Culture is both what “we have inherited from the past” and “a living, dynamic and participatory present reality” that affects environmental relationships (§143).

As I have written before, thinking historically is critically important for understanding today, especially since sometimes we need reminding about things we have forgotten. History and culture have environmental implications. To understand why some people say the muskox belongs in Norway or Sweden and others say it doesn’t requires historical cultural analysis. To understand why the raccoon dog is hunted down in Sweden has as much to do with culture as it does nature. The same holds true for whether or not the starling is an American bird.

The subtitle of the encyclical is “on the care of our common home”, which is also a statement of belonging. Humans and non-humans belong on the Earth, sharing this home which Francis warns has become sick and “cries out to us” (§2). The Pope is using the sense of belongingness to position his encyclical within a framework of environmental care.

Third, the Pope writes a fair amount on species extinction. He notes that many extinctions take place unknown to us, yet humans are to blame:

Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right. (§33)

There is certainly an extinction ethics in Laudato Si’. In the passage above, there is an assignment of blame and a judgement of right/wrong at work in extinction.

According to the encyclical, all creatures, whether they are megafauna or microfauna have value (§34), and that value is defined intrinsically rather than only anthropocentrically by our “use” of the creature (§69). This does not mean that the Pope ignores the ecosystem service or value of biodiversity. Quite the contrary, he notes that the loss of species may result in losses of resources (food, medicine, etc) in the future, but he believes that thinking of species only as potential “resources” is not enough (§32-33).

On a practical note that speaks to the concerns of conservation biology, Francis advocates “developing programmes and strategies of protection with particular care for safeguarding species heading towards extinction” (§42). Biodiversity needs to be included in assessing the environmental impact of development, and steps taken to prevent species’ “depletion and the consequent imbalance of the ecosystem” (§35). These are calls to action about species and their potential loss.

Yet, Laudato Si’ cautions against thinking that environmental issues like species loss can be countered with technocratic, economically-dependent solutions. (As a side comment, more than anything, I think this encyclical was intended as a slap in the face of the capitalist system that favours the wealthy’s consumption over the poor and leads to environmental degradation.) Francis notes that “we seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves” (§34). This statement could well apply to the deextinction efforts I have discussed in this project. Remaking a thing is never the same as the thing.

Finally, I want to note that Francis makes a statement that environmental humanities scholars need to latch onto and make our own:

We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. Today, the analysis of environmental problems cannot be separated from the analysis of human, family, work-related and urban contexts, nor from how individuals relate to themselves, which leads in turn to how they relate to others and to the environment. There is an interrelation between ecosystems and between the various spheres of social interaction, demonstrating yet again that “the whole is greater than the part”. (§141)

Those of us in environmental humanities fields have said and known this for a long time, but this kind of statement can help us as researchers to address the oft-dreaded ‘relevance’ question in our research proposals, interaction with the public, and making our findings count in politics.

While people may not agree with everything in Laudato Si´, as environmental historian I found it refreshing to have a major religious/political figure speaking out against the historical lack of political will to conserve resources and the modernist turn toward technological solutions to environmental problems, advocating a humanities-based approach to environmental issues, and pointing out the need to have all of us (regardless of religious beliefs) embrace our common home.

A bird in hand or two in the bush

Great Bustard, Horniman Museum, England. Photo by D Jørgensen

Great Bustard, Horniman Museum, England. Photo by D Jørgensen

At the Horniman Museum near London, a case with two birds stands near a staircase in the back on the natural history exhibit. Unlike most of the other displays that show visitors either related species (like a display of apes) or convergent evolution (like things with wing-like structures), this one puts the history of the species at fore. This relatively new display tells an extinction and reintroduction story:

The great bustard (Otis tarda) once lived in Salisbury Plain and in the breck district of East Anglia, but became extinct as a breeding bird in the UK in 1832, mainly due to habitat fragmentation. Attempts have been made to reintroduce the species both in Britain and on the European continent.

As a historian of reintroduction, the exactness of the extinction caught my eye: in 1832 the great bustard became “extinct as a breeding bird”. Inspired by a post I read yesterday on John Smith and a mermaid sighting, which turned out to be a fabricated history, I decided to go looking for this date.

If you do an internet search for the great bustard and 1832, you will see that a plethora of newspaper articles reference the date, often saying something like the bird “became extinct in the UK that year” or  “the last one was killed in 1832”. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds website likewise claims “the last bird was shot in 1832”. Of course, that’s not the same thing as the claim made on the Horniman sign, which says the bird no longer bred after that year. That statement is sometimes picked up in newspaper articles, like one discussing the first chick hatched by reintroduced birds. In modern birding books like John Parslow’s Breeding Birds of Britain and Ireland (1973), the last breeding date of 1832 is also given. Interestingly, the Great Bustard Group, which is leading the reintroduction efforts, simply states “Great Bustards were formerly very much part of British wildlife until the 1840s when they became extinct in Britain due to collectors and changes in agriculture.” But they are the exception to the rule.

Where did this 1832 extinction date come from?

A short communication in The Magazine of Natural History and Journal of Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology and Meteorology for 1833 reported:

A nest of the great bustard (Otis tarda L.) was discovered this season on an extensive warren, in the neighbourhood of Thetford: the female, I have much pleasure in stating, took her young off in safety; and on the same heath a male bird and two females have been seen together very recently. — J.D. Hoy. Stoke Nayland, Suffolk, Nov. 20, 1832.

Here was a 1832 sighting of a nest and chicks! This story of 1832 was repeated in William Yarrell’s A History of British Birds (vol. 2, 2nd edition, 1843), although he said he got it from a Rev. Richard Lubbock. A later version of the story in A History of the Birds of Europe included a post-script that another man who was with J. D. Hoy and saw the young bird ascertained “that the nest was situated in a field of rye, into which the old and young retired when disturbed”.

Yet, 1832 was by no means the last sighting of great bustards in the UK.  A very thorough article “The Great Bustard” in Fraser’s Magazine for Town and Country in September 1854 detailed all of the documents mentioning bustards by year through 1843 in England. The entry for 1834 stated:

But, notwithstanding this evidence and the story of the last of the Salisbury plain Bustards–a widowed female–coming into a farmer’s barton as if giving herself up in despair, the breed, though greatly reduced, was not entirely extinct in England in 1825, or even in 1833….In the summer of 1834, a nest of three eggs was hatched in an open corn-field about a mile from High House; and in December in that year, three Great Bustards were seen about a mile from it. (p.335)

This article noted that Yarrell’s A History of British Birds, 2nd edition, had reported a female great bustard shot in 1843 and concluded “this is the last instance known to us of the existence of this noble species in Great Britain” (p.336).

Later in 1853, Yarrell, who had written the definitive work on British birds, read a communication titled “On the Habits and Structure of the Great Bustard (Otis tarda of Linnæus)” for the Linnean Society of London. In it, he reproduced a letter from J. H. Gurney of Norwich who stated that

As far as I can learn, the last Bustard killed in Norfolk was a female, which was shot at Lexham near Swaffham, towards the end of the year 1838. The small flock, of which this bird was one, had for some years previously consisted of females only, the eggs of which were frequently picked up, having been dropped about at random in consequence of the absence of male birds, the latter having become extinct at an earlier date. (p158)

On top of that, Yarrell noted three of instances of the bird since 1845, when the 2nd edition of his A History of British Birds was published: a female seen in August 1849 on Salisbury Plain by G. R. Waterhouse of the British Museum; a female shot in January 1850 in Romney Marsh; and another bustard shot in December 1851 in Devonshire.

The Great Bustard illustrated in H.E Dresser, The History of the Birds of Europe, vol 7 (1871-1881)

The Great Bustard illustrated in H.E. Dresser, The History of the Birds of Europe, vol 7 (1871-1881)

H.E. Dresser’s A History of the Birds of Europe  included a report by Cecil Smith, which had been told to the Somersetshire Natural History Society on 6 February 1871 and then reported in Nature, that the bustard was even present in 1870 “when one or more small flocks visited out country, and examples were procured in Northumberland, Middlesex, Wiltshire, Somersetshire, and Devonshire.” Dresser even “had the satisfaction of examining in the flesh” a great bustard killed in Middlesex on 29 January 1871.

The 1832 extinction story, even as the last date of hatching, simply doesn’t hold up if you look at the reports near to the date. Yet 1832 is what gets reproduced over and over again. Just as I’ve noted before about searching for the last, extinction stories get reproduced and codified, especially when mobilised to support reintroduction projects. In other words, having a good story about the end, makes the new beginning more memorable.

For his book The Birds of Norfolk (vol. 2, 1866), Henry Stevenson had conducted exhaustive local research on oral histories about the bustard and extant stuffed specimens. He concluded that “the year 1838 is the last when examples known with certainty to have been killed”, but wisely cautioned:

The precise time at which the extinction of the Norfolk bustard took place, like that of the extinction of many other species, is not, perhaps, now to be determined with accuracy.

Perhaps more people should follow Stevenson’s reluctance to speak with certainty about the end of the bustard. 1832 was likely not the end, even though the end would come. A dead bird might have been in hand, but perhaps there were two more hiding in the bush.

Belonging and breed, horse and home

At the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, the Breeds Barn hosts horse shows in which different breeds are paraded out and presented for the visitors. I had a chance to see one such presentation when I visited Lexington for the Agricultural History Society 2015 meeting.

I was struck by how the breeds are presented as belonging to specific countries based on the breed’s history and origin. The horses are each presented with a rider clothed to accentuate the horse’s homeland. Some of these were quite exaggerated with the English shire presented as a medieval knight’s war horse and the arabian in fancy embroidered silk. The horse park has, of course, not invented the connection between breed and place. The names of many horse breeds themselves emphasise their origins: Azteca, Friesian, American saddlebred, Tennessee walking horse, etc.

Breed show at the Kentucky Horse Park. From left to right: Arabian, Tennessee walking, Andalusian, and English shire. Photo by D Jørgensen

Breed show at the Kentucky Horse Park. From left to right: Arabian, Tennessee walking, Andalusian, and English shire. Photo by D Jørgensen

Flags flying on each horse's stable at Kentucky Horse Park

Flags flying on each horse’s stable at Kentucky Horse Park

This idea of a horse breed belonging to a particular place extended beyond the discussion of their long-distant origins in the display experienced by the visitor. The stables where the horses were kept had flags hanging outside each stall to indicate where the horse called home. Norwegian flags marked the two stalls with the Norwegian fjord horse (called fjording in Norwegian). The plaque next to the stall gave a brief history of the horse, starting with it being found in Viking graves. Invoking Vikings is of course discursively powerful–although the fjord horse wasn’t in the show I saw, a colleague saw one the day before in which it was presented with a “Viking” rider. The text notes the fjord horses’ mild demeanour and use as farm workers in Norway, adding afterward that “Here in America, they are equally at home.” The reference to “home” struck me as ironic in this context in which so much was being made of the horses belonging to other places. These horses are after all living in Lexington and I would guess almost all of them were born in the US. Where really is home?

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

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

I think most of the breeds are depicted as belonging elsewhere in order to stress the “homegrown” breeds as patriotically American. At the end of the show, the American saddlebred carries out the American flag and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” plays on the speakers. The audience stands up. In this act, this particular breed and this particular flag are claimed as belonging in this particular place.

The experience of the Kentucky Horse Park reiterated to me how belongingness is place-based, often at the level of the modern nation-state. Political boundaries matter in the conceptualisation of an animal–where it came from and where it should be. In domesticated animals, whether that is horses, cows, sheep, or dogs, place and breed often go hand in hand. The animals become incorporated in the cultural heritage of the specific place which carries over into human understanding of where they should be. We think that breeds belong and horses have a home.

Citizenship for the starling?

In 1939, not long after publishing her first major essay Undersea, Rachel Carson published a short 3-page article called “How About Citizenship Papers for the Starling?” in Nature Magazine. In the article, she discusses the recent spread of the European starling, a bird which had been introduced from Britain to New York in 1890-91. While admitting that the some people considered the starling a foreign nuisance, she felt that its service as an insect-catcher outweighed those concerns. This service deserved recognition:

On one point ornithologists are pretty well agreed –the starling is here to stay. Shall we then continue to regard him as alien or shall we conclude that his successful pioneering and his service in insect destruction entitle him to American citizenship?

Like all the pioneer settlers of the US, who at first were foreign, according to Carson, the starling had laid claim to his right to be there.

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

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

Carson was not the first to discuss the starling’s status within citizenship language. Frank M. Chapman, curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History and editor of the Audubon Society’s Bird-Love , had published an article “The European Starling as an American Citizen” in 1925. Chapman directly made the connection between starling settlement and American colonists:

Nature has accorded him ‘papers’ and he exercises all the privileges of citizenship. … Now whatever we ourselves may be, whether our forebearers came over on the Mayflower or on the Mauretania, there can be no doubt that these birds are Americans.

Citizenship language is a major way that people talk about animal species. Nationalism and patriotism are in play in many reintroduction efforts. Both the muskox and beaver reintroductions in Sweden have included talk of them being inhabitants and countrymen. In the case of the muskox, their ‘citizenship’ status is still denied so they cannot be protected by a threatened or endangered species action plan. At the same time, some introduced species have overcome their introduced status and even earned a place as state symbols.

Both Chapman and Carson were making claims about the ‘belonging’ status of the starling in the US. While the birds were a relatively recent introduction, their great success at spreading rapidly through the country and their service as insectivores (even though it was often unacknowledged) meant that they belonged in this land. They had earned a right to live here.

After her work pointing out the dangers of chemical insecticides and pesticides in Silent Spring, Carson would likely be horrified that there is a pesticide, Starlicide, manufactured to target starlings. Although its target is starlings, ravens, crows, pigeons, cowbirds, grackles, blackbirds, magpies, and certain gulls, the Environmental Protection Agency assessment of the pesticide shows a high risk to non-target birds and small mammals. Starlicide is most often used to get rid of starlings considered farming nuisances. Starlings are not protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act–it is one of only three birds (the house sparrow and pigeon are the others) which have no federal protection in the US. Obviously, the starling has still not been granted the citizenship status that Chapman and Carson argued for.

Animals in agricultural history

I’m off to Lexington, Kentucky, tomorrow for the Agricultural History Society meeting. This conference has adopted an ‘Animals in Agriculture’ theme and I am very excited to hear about the research being done in this area. I’ll be part of the opening plenary panel ‘Animals and Agricultural History’ on Thursday morning speaking about animal agency, animals as technologies, and how including animals in our histories opens up new lines of inquiry.

My own personal paper contribution will be ‘The Quest for Qiviut’, which examines the attempts to domesticate muskoxen as wool producers. Although the ‘Return of Native Nordic Fauna’ project is focused on animal reintroduction, moving animals around take place with multiple motivations, some of which we might think of as contradictory. The relocation of muskoxen from Greenland in the 20th century encompassed both agriculture/domestication and reintroduction/wild desires. So it’s important for me to look at the domestication story as part of the reintroduction story. Instead of writing about my talk (you can read what I’ve written before about muskox domestication on this blog here, here, and here), I’ll share a visual representation of the talk with you.



The Fruitful Arctic

The Path of Supremacy from Vilhjamur Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922)

The Path of Supremacy from Vilhjamur Stefansson, The Northward Course of Empire (1922)

In 1922, the Arctic explorer and ethnographer Vilhjalmur Stefansson published his book The Northward Course of Empire in which he argued that the North had been greatly misunderstood and could become a seat of great civilisation. After all, he argued, civilization had been moving further and further north into the colder regions over human history.

The North, rather than being a barren wasteland devoid of vegetation, was a green space. The trick, Stefansson argued, was to turn the vegetation to productive use:

The realization kept gradually growing on me that one of the chief problems of the world, and particularly one of the chief problems of Canada and Siberia, is to begin to make use of all the vast quantities of grass that go to waste in the North every year. The obvious thing is to find some domestic animal that will eat the grass. Then when the animal is big and fat it should be butchered and shipped where the food is needed. (48)

Stefansson believed cattle and sheep were not the answer to this problem because of the problem of feeding and sheltering them during the winter. Traditional crop plants could also not withstand the frosts. Instead he decided that the solution to this waste was the widespread domestication of reindeer and muskox in the North.

Stefansson began actively promoting the animals after World War I. With his encouragement, the Canadian Department of the Interior set up a royal commission in 1919 to study the possibilities and they issued their final report in 1922. The report comes out more in favour of reindeer than muskox because of prior work domesticating reindeer, but it also encouraged further investigation of industrial possibilities for muskox domestication.

Hand-colored lantern slide. Stefansson Mss. 226, Dartmouth College.

Hand-colored lantern slide showing a muskox herd in Canada. Stefansson Mss. 226, Dartmouth College.

Stefansson may have first become acquainted with muskoxen (which he called ovibos based on the Latin name because he disliked the ‘musk’ and ‘ox’ connotations of the regular name) during his time in the Mackenzie Delta of Canada in 1906-1907. The presence of a hand-colored lantern slide of a muskox herd dated 1906 in his collection at Dartmouth College makes this likely. Stefansson had eaten plenty of muskox on his various Arctic expeditions and offered the opinion that “not one person in ten could even when on his guard tell an ovibos steak from a beefsteak” (The Friendly Arctic, 585). He also noted that muskox wool (qiviut) was high quality, although it was difficult to collect and spin because it was mixed with longer hairs. In his descriptions of muskox in The Freindly Arctic (1921) and The Northward Course of Empire (1922), he claimed that the animals do not roam in search of pasture, seldom attack, and seldom flee. All in all, the muskox was the perfect animal to make the North productive:

When we sum up the qualities of ovibos, we see that here is an animal unbelievably suited to the requirements of domestication–unbelievably because we are so habituated to thinking of cow and the sheep as the ideal domestic animals that the possibility of a better one strikes us as an absurdity. We have milk richer than that of cows and similar in flavor, and more abundant than that of certain milk animas that are now used, such as sheep and reindeer; wool probably equal in quality and perhaps greater in quantity than that of domestic sheep; two or three times as much meat to the animal as with sheep, and the flavor and other qualities those of beef. When you add to this that the animal does not roam in search of pasture, that the bulls are less dangerous than the bulls of domestic cattle because they are not inclined to charge, and that they defend themselves so successfully again packs of wolves that the wolves understand the situation and do not even try to attack, it appears that they combine practically every virtue of the cow and the sheep and excel them at several points. (The Friendly Arctic, 587)

With a pitch like that, it’s a wonder everyone didn’t run out and buy a muskox! Although Stefansson may sound like he is overselling his product, others would adopt very similar language in touting the muskox as Svalbard’s future meat supply in the late 1920 and the next knitting industry of northern Norway in the 1960s. Even in 1946, Stefansson was still promoting muskox as a domestic animal, this time saying that it was “the most promising animal for New England” in an article in Harper’s Magazine. Stefansson’s vision was directly transmitted to John Teal Jr., who started an experimental farm in Vermont in 1954 to raise muskoxen and later moved his operation to Alaska.

The vision of turning the ‘unused’ land of the North into a fruitful Arctic was powerful. It encouraged both domestication and reintroduction projects of muskoxen in Norway, Alaska, and Canada over the course of the 20th century. The land of snow and ice would be a land of meat and wool.

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.

Commemorating war and our losses

Yesterday marked the 70th anniversary of Victory Day, which remembers the end of World War II in Europe with the surrender of the Nazi forces to the Allies. Of course in addition to celebrating the final success, festivities focus on honouring all those died in the conflict. There are memorial stones and graves to generals, battalions, unknown soldiers, and civilians. Animals who served in war are likewise honoured in permanent form at the Animals in War Memorial in London, the Australian Animals in War Memorial, and the US National War Dog Cemetery on Guam. Modern society has a penchant for commemorating its war dead.

When I visited the Smithsonian in Washington DC in April, I realised that extinct animals are no exception to this impetus to commemorate the lost. The artist Todd McGrain has created a series of sculptures as part of The Lost Bird Project. The bronze sculptures, which have been on display at the Smithsonian, depict five extinct North American bird species as mode of exposing “the tragedy of modern extinction”, according to the website.

Passenger Pigeon, Lost Bird Project, in Smithsonian garden, April 2015

Passenger Pigeon, Lost Bird Project, in Smithsonian garden, April 2015

The passenger pigeon sculpture stood in front of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, where the Once There Were Billions exhibit inside featured stories and taxidermied specimens of the passenger pigeon, great auk, Carolina parakeet, and heath hen. I reflected previously about my experience of meeting Martha, the last passenger pigeon. The statue likewise had a pensive feel, in dark bronze, looking up into a sky which will never again be darkened by invading pigeon flocks.

The Smithsonian Castle garden featured a quartet of birds: the Carolina parakeet, great auk, heath hen, and labrador duck (a species not featured in the museum exhibit). They are lovely representations with smooth flowing contours that move the statues beyond natural history into modern abstraction.


As I looked upon these statues on a sunny spring morning, I could hear the birds singing in the trees. It seemed an appropriate juxtaposition: hearing song and seeing silence.

The text on a garden sign proclaims the artist’s message: “These sculptures compel us to recognize the finality of our loss. They ask us not to forget, and they remind us of our duty to prevent further extinction.” Commemoration events around the beginning or end of armed conflicts ask us to not forget and to strive to avoid repeating the past losses — these statues ask us to do the same with humanity’s war on nature.

Beaver Price Wars

Money may not be able to buy happiness or love, but it can buy beavers.

The first pair of beavers bought by Eric Festin in 1921 for reintroduction in Jämtland cost over 3000 Swedish kroner (SEK) for the beavers plus transport. The two pairs bought in 1925 cost 2500 SEK total — but Festin estimated it should have been 4000 SEK if extra expenses were accounted for and the exchange rate between Norwegian and Swedish kroner hadn’t been so favorable (in 1925, 75 SEK bought 100 NOK but by 1927 they had almost equal value and would stay that way until after WWII). This was still significantly cheaper than the first pair. And the price had kept falling. Festin noted that in 1934 two pairs of beavers could be bought for 800 SEK. “So one must now say that the price is reasonable,” he wrote.

P. M. Jenssen-Tveit was the main supplier of beavers from Norway to Sweden (and a host of other European countries), but he wasn’t alone in the beaver market. Because of competition, there was a question of what price should be used for exported beavers. Jenssen-Tveit asked the Agriculture Department (Landbruksdepartement) what the fixed price per pair should be in 1933. While I did not find a direct answer to the letter in the correspondence in the Norwegian National Archives, the archive documents reveal an ongoing struggle with pricing beavers.

In November 1934, Jenssen-Tveit corresponded with the consul from Latvia about beavers they wanted for reintroduction. In his letter he wrote, “Since the [Agriculture] Department has not told them a price, it is obvious that I can also deliver them for the same price per pair that other sellers have offered them for, namely 200 kr.” He noted that the box with water holder and lock would be an extra 15 kr. After writing the reply, Jenssen-Tveit sent a copy to the Agricultural Department along with a letter explaining that the Latvian consul had gotten bids from four beaver dealers who each delivered a bid for delivering the animals. One of the dealers said they could deliver the beavers for 200 kr per pair, so he was going to match that price. In this letter, we see that competition appears to have been driving the price sharply downward. Festin had written earlier in 1934 that beavers cost 400 kr per pair, so something was going on.

Back in March 1934, the animal exporter Sverre Holmboe wrote to the Agriculture Department complaining about slow beaver sales. He had sent letter to about 50 different individuals offering beavers for sale, but had gotten only two orders, “which shows how difficult it is to sell beavers when the price is high.” “However,” he continued, “I am in agreement that the price should be maintained up. The price which the Department established last year was 400 kr per pair adults.” The reason he was writing was to see if the price was supposed to be the same in 1934. If he didn’t hear anything back, he was going to assume that 400 kr per pair was the right price.

In December 1934, Jenssen-Tveit offered Eric Festin three pairs of beavers for 1000 kr, which was a reduction off the regular 400 kr per pair price but not down as far as 200 per pair. In a letter from July 1935, Holmboe noted again that the price that the Agriculture Department had set on a pair of living beavers was a minimum of 400 kr, delivered to a Norwegian port. It is not clear if Holmboe knew about the other price offers, but his letter implies that he wants to make sure that everyone is using the same “fair” price.

The 400kr price does appear to have been communicated to the beaver dealers. Jenssen-Tveit referenced the price of 400 kr per pair in August 1937, noting that “your honourable department has earlier said that one should see to it that the price for Norwegian beaver is held as high as possible, therefore I have held my price at 400 kr per pair, as was offered to the Swedish State.” When Jenssen-Tveit offered to take beavers to Latvia in 1939, he also used the 400 kr per pair price as a reference, although he made sure to point out that his travel and accommodation expenses for delivery were on top of that amount.

In the 1930s and 1940s, you could send a telegram to BeverJensson at Åmli to order beavers for export.

In the 1930s and 1940s, you could send a telegram to Beverjensson at Åmli to order beavers for export.

During the German occupation of Norway, it appears that the price sank down to the 200 kr per pair level and afterwards the same price cropped up. When a request was received by Dr. O. Olstad, the State Veterinarian, from the Agriculture Department for 4 to 6 beavers to be sent to Austria in 1947, he recommended Jensen-Tveit as the supplier. In his letter dated 1 Sept 1947, Olstad noted that Jensen-Tveit had access to a large number of animals and would charge a reasonable price. Olstad indicated that a price of around 200 kr per animal would be sufficient.

When Jenssen-Tveit got this information, he was not pleased. He countered offered a pair for 2400 kr including transportation. According to Jenssen-Tveit, his biggest concern was that during the German occupation of Norway, many beaver were killed, hunted with leg traps, sold to Germans for between 200 and 300 kroner, and used as food for fox farms. The result was a severe reduction in the beaver population. He noted that only one beaver family was still around his family’s home property of 18,500 hectares, and on a neighbouring property of 30,000 hectares there were none. “This is extremely discouraging,” he wrote in a letter dated 18 November 1948. “And I have heard that it is not much better general.” I did not see a final decision about the beavers for Austria in the file, so I’m not sure what price they finally agreed upon.

The archival record shows an ongoing struggle with setting the price for beavers. The price for a pair had swung from 3000 kr down to a low of 200 kr, stabilized at 400 kr for a decade, and then dropped back down to 200 kr during WWII. After the war, the main beaver supplier expressed serious concerns about the beaver population in Norway and wanted to raise the price.

This whole episode should remind us that 1) animals for conservation and reintroduction projects are commodities which are bought and sold, 2) somebody is making a living off of capturing the animals to be moved, and 3) everything has its price.

Thinking extinction with sci-fi

Steward Brand, President of the Long Now Foundation, has a new essay out titled “Rethinking Extinction”. Brand argues that the current discursive emphasis on extinction, especially crisis language of the “Sixth Mass Extinction” à la Elizabeth Kolbert, takes the emphasis away from the real problem of decreasing wild animal populations. He believes that the negative spin of extinction headlines leads to inaction:

As they accumulate, they frame our whole relationship with nature as one of unremitting tragedy. The core of tragedy is that it cannot be fixed, and that is a formula for hopelessness and inaction. Lazy romanticism about impending doom becomes the default view.

Is this true? Does a tragedy narrative necessarily lead to hopelessness and inaction?

The timing of this article and the questions it raises couldn’t have been more appropriate for me because just yesterday I gave a lecture on animal species extinction in science-fiction for the course “Science goes fiction” at KTH in Stockholm. In that lecture I grouped my material into three questions about animals that sci-fi extinction narratives raise:

  1. Are humans less human without non-humans?
  2. Are humans harmed without non-humans?
  3. Which is more important: us or them?

Androids_DreamI think the work I discussed in relation to the first question — Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) — addresses Brand’s claim most directly. Animal extinction pervades throughout the narrative in the novel (but not really in the movie Blade Runner from 1982 based on the book). In a post-World War Terminus, there are no wild animals. The first signs that radioactive fallout was destroying life on the planet was the death of owls, something the protagonist Rick Deckard reflects on:

A thousand thoughts came into his mind, thoughts about the war, about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the ‘papes had reported it each day — foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits.

This passage would appear to confirm Brand’s idea that a constant stream of bad news will lead people to tune out — they stop reading.

Yet, Dick portrays a world in which animal ethos is the thing which is characteristically human. The few remaining animals are highly prized and highly priced merchandise. To own an animal is everyone’s dream. Although many people have to settle for electric replicas, like Deckerd’s electric sheep which inspired the title, they always yearn for the real thing. The test that distinguishes humans from androids relies on questions about killing animals, something which Dick envisions would be never acceptable in the post-WWT world.  For Dick, humans are less human without non-humans.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? proposes that animal extinction and near extinction can lead to a great empathy for animals, prompting drastic efforts to keep and preserve them. This is no “lazy romanticism about impending doom”. It is certainly a tragedy story, but it is also a story about potentialities in the face of tragedy.

This is of course the same kind of thing I have seen in the history of beaver reintroduction in Sweden. The narrative of the last beaver in Sweden, recognition that it was gone, is important because it leads to desire to change the situation. The tragedy is reframed as possibility.

While the doom-and-gloom narratives of extinction may fill the headlines and we become wary of the “perpetual animal obits”, those same stories may inspire a new animal ethos, an understanding of the world from the animal point of view. To see tragedies might inspire people to value animals more and work to avoid more tragic endings.

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