Where does nature end and culture begin?

By Karoline Kvellestad Isaksen • cas.oslo.no

Through different stories about ways of living in the Arctic, Professor Marianne Lien and her research group at CAS (Centre for Advanced Study at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters) challenge what they see as the dominant understanding of relations among humans, animals, and landscapes. What is culture in the Arctic, if it is understood as cut off from nature?

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Distinctions between nature and culture are artificial and not as sharp as they might seem, according to the CAS research group led by Professor Marianne Lien. What is culture in the Arctic, if it is understood as cut off from nature? Photograph: Shutterstock

Marianne Lien welcomes me to her CAS office in Oslo, far away from icy landscapes and migratory animals, and far away from her usual work at the University of Oslo. For twelve years, Professor Lien has studied salmon farming, which after a booming start in the 1980s is now Norway’s second largest export commodity. Currently, she is enjoying a year of research at CAS, and has gathered together scholars from different countries and research fields in the research group Arctic domestication in the era of the Anthropocene.

Enthusiastically, Lien opens with the declaration,

– Every day I get to work with my favourite colleagues.

Lien twists, turns, and challenges not only the concept of domestication, but also what social anthropology is about, and the boundaries between disciplines:

– This project has had many beginnings—one of them being the domestication of salmon—one of the trademarks of Norway.

Salmon aquaculture has been Lien’s key interest since she studied it as part of globalisation in Tasmania in 2002. She found the links back to Norway an interesting trajectory, but soon began to ask different questions:

– I realised that this is actually a historical moment. A moment where we take an animal, a fish, and make it into a domesticated animal like any livestock. It has happened before, as we know, in the Neolithic revolution, thousands of years ago in the Middle East, but now it’s happening again. I thought: how do humans actually domesticate animals?

Since then, Lien has worked on the Newcomers to the farm project, together with Gro Ween, John Law, and Kristin Asdal, who explored what the intensive production of formerly wild salmon means for nature politics and domestication. Between 2009 and 2012 Lien and Law spent long periods at salmon farms in western Norway conducting fieldwork on how farmed salmon are made into husbandry animals. In autumn 2015, Lien published Becoming salmon, the first ethnographic account of salmon aquaculture. The project sparked an interest in domestication more generally, Lien explains, as she stresses the importance of interdisciplinary research:

– Our current project is anthropological in the sense that it is thought about and indeed invented in the realm of anthropology, but it does not police disciplinary boundaries very much. We really do not care much about those.

Domestication: An ongoing process of becoming

Lien’s group challenges the hegemonic perception of domestication, which they describe as deriving from a Western view of human civilization—a narrative in which human societies must develop in a certain way. She adds:

– Domestication has been thought of as an irreversible historical line towards civilization. A linear development towards something higher and better, which is rather arrogant and outdated.

The dominant story of domestication tells us that 6,000–10,000 years ago in the Middle East, the Neolithic revolution led to an irreversible transformation of societies, landscapes, animals, and plants. In many societies, ways of living changed from nomadism, hunting, and gathering to farming in a geographically bounded space. Humans gained control over animals and landscapes.

– The story told about the Neolithic revolution works really well in some parts of the world, but not in others.

A perception of nature and culture as distinct from each other has grown out of this story of the Neolithic revolution.

Professor Marianne Lien is group leader of the 2015/2016 CAS research group Arctic domestication in the era of the Anthropocene. Photograph: Maria Tesaker/CAS

The distinctions between nature and culture are artificial and not as sharp as they might seem, the research group argues. In many places in the world, such as in the Arctic, some people live in a form of symbiosis with the animals, the landscapes, and the changing weather. What is culture in the Arctic, if it is understood as cut off from nature? Lien explains,– In our popular language, we implicitly evoke the idea of domestication a lot. Because if I say ‘nature’, you would think of something untouched by humans, right? The vague idea of domestication underpins the idea of nature as opposed to culture.

The story of domestication echoes other conceptions that reduce the world’s complexities to stereotypes and dichotomies, such as the ‘civilized and the savage’, the ‘tame and the wild’, and ‘nature and culture’. It echoes colonisation.

Recent studies in archaeology and anthropology show that domestication can be a reversible process that human societies, animals, and plants go in and out of, she says. To clarify, Lien explains the group’s criticism of the dominant way of understanding domestication—and splits it into three dimensions: time, space, and agency. The first is the story about the Neolithic revolution. She argues:

– The shift from hunting to husbandry and from gathering to harvesting did not happen at one moment, but it happened over a long period, maybe thousands of years. Domestication is an open-ended process. Unfortunately, the focus on domestication as a particular event ‘back then’ has made us scholars less interested in what happened afterwards.

Instead, Lien and her colleagues see domestication as an ongoing process of becoming that takes place among humans, animals, and plants. In terms of space, the group asks whether domestication is confined within particular boundaries, or whether we can think about domesticating entire landscapes?

– We challenge the idea of confinement—the idea that you can actually draw a line around what is domesticated and not. Often you cannot.

For a thousand years people have practiced ærfuglerøkt at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Vega Islands, on the coast of Helgeland, a district in northern Norway. Ærfuglerøkt involves people gathering down feathers and eggs from common eider ducks, locally called éa.

In order to gather what they need, they make small hiding places—a sort of shelter for common eiders, furnished with dried seaweed and covered with a ‘roof’ protecting them from storms and from carnivores. Anthropologist Bente Sundsvold has studied ærfuglerøkt and claims the common eiders are not tame. But they are not wild either, Lien argues, because they return year after year, seeking human protection:

– Whether they are domesticated or not depends on how you define the term. Regardless, this exemplifies that the terms we have to describe nature are inadequate.

The third dimension of domestication outlined by the group and explored in this project is that of agency. Usually, humans are at the centre, Lien says—an assumption it is difficult to argue against.

2000 year old dog skeleton. Yamal Peninsula, Siberia
This two thousand-year-old skeleton lies in the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia. Archaeologists have investigated it for evidence of sled pulling. Professor Robert Losey explains, “At the site, we are using these dog skeletons to look at working relationships between dogs and people”. Losey is a member of this year’s Arctic domestication CAS project. Photograph: Robert Losey

Lien goes on to explore this further:

– There are unintended effects of our actions, such as the climate change we currently face, which is a reminder that human activities and plans can have unintended outcomes. Secondly, animals or plants are not passive recipients of our actions. They are active co-producers of our shared habitat, and can play an active role in processes of domestication.

She says that most archaeologists now believe that wolves initiated dog domestication when they began to specialize in feeding on the remains of leftover human meals. These wolves eventually evolved to have less fear of humans, allowing people to interact more closely with them:

– Such insights remind us that domestication is also co-evolution and that humans are not the only change-makers in our history. Co-species’ histories are made together.

Nature and culture: blurred boundaries

These unintended effects of our actions suggest that humans might not possess as much control over animals, plants, and landscapes as we might think; Lien adds:

– When we look at the present relations of domestication we anthropologists find that control doesn’t really describe anything. People try to control their animals, but my goodness they struggle!

Isn’t salmon farming a practice where humans exercise control over fish?

In some ways, but control is an ideal that is never fully achieved. If humans were in control, we would not have the problem of sea lice. That is just one example.

A proliferation of sea lice is one of the unintended consequences of salmon farming, and illustrates what she perceives as a mistaken distinction between nature and culture:

– Take sea lice. Is it natural? Yes, I guess it is. Are they in the salmon farm? Absolutely. Is it something that is going to be affected by human practices? Of course. Where does nature start and where does culture begin? That is a very difficult line to draw.

Salmon farming is a success story in Norway, which is the world’s leading producer of Atlantic salmon. According to Professor Lien, salmon are harvested in these net pens, but this practice has had an unintended consequence—sea lice. She argues that this demonstrates that humans are not in control. Photograph: Shutterstock

– Nature and culture are not the best concepts, because what is going on in front of our eyes cannot be cut along these lines. It is so intertwined.

Lien describes the Arctic as one such part of the world that does not fit into the dominant domestication scheme.

We share the same attitude towards difference

This project was organized to bring together scholars who already had material they were going to analyse and who would benefit from working together. Lien herself has worked together with John Law and Gro Ween on the salmon project, Ween has recently conducted fieldwork in Alaska, and Britt Kramvig has been working on whaling, oil, and tourism in northern Norway. Heather Swanson came into the group after working on salmon on the Japanese island of Hokkaido, while Rob Losey has archaeological material on human–animal relations in Siberia. Additionally, there are other researchers, from professors to postdoctoral fellows, connected to the project in various ways. It is important to Lien that the research project is interdisciplinary:

– We see difference as interesting in itself. A difference in approach is not necessarily an obstacle to overcome, but rather a source of further insight and fruitful cooperation.

The diverse range of researchers working on this project share this ‘attitude towards productive differences’, as Lien puts it. They are particularly interested in ways of life that differ from the sedentary story of rootedness, private property, and fixed addresses:

– Mobile people who do not take up this particular way of living—in a house with a garden, a field, or land where you can plant and harvest—have been marginalized all over the world for centuries. This is why the comparative approach is important.

Pushing farming on the north

Lien shares her observations from working on the north coast of the Varanger peninsula in Finnmark. All one can do with a farm there is grow some grass, and perhaps feed some sheep, she explains. However, this is hardly enough to sustain a living:

– So, in this region, people have always engaged in other food procuring practices, such as gathering, fishing, and hunting, and they still do. The agriculture/animal nexus is very fruitful in some parts of the world. In the Middle East, you can sow and harvest wheat, vegetables, and fruits. It was a workable concept for most places, a model that could be transported and exported and taken on by others, but it met some northern limits where it really did not work so well. Such sites are interesting to look at.

Lien argues that the possibilities offered by the seascape/landscape of Norway and in many Arctic regions have been ignored in the discourse of domestication. Winters are dark, and the short, intense summers are blessed with the midnight sun:

– We ignore the fact that we live at a crossroads with a model that comes from a more temperate climate and a seascape/landscape that offers other possibilities. Of course, people living in the Arctic have always known this, so they have never relied on farming as a single strategy. But farming was really pushed in Finnmark.

The Norwegian government did this?

– Yes, through various measures, including something called bureising, through which they tried to promote farming, even on the Varanger Peninsula. Obviously, it didn’t work that well.

When Lien conducted her first fieldwork project in Finnmark in the 1980s, the focus was food habits, not domestication. As part of a broader study, she began looking into people’s freezers to understand more about food, and was surprised to see that nearly everything was local: frozen fish filets, such as cod and haddock, capelin, shrimp, fish cakes, homemade bread, smoked salmon, reindeer meat, moose meat, and many large containers of cloudberries, cowberries, and blueberries. Food was given a gift from someone people knew, or was something they traded or bartered:

– People have always used these rich affordances of the landscapes, the seascapes, and other waterscapes, in spite of all the attempts to make them do otherwise. This resistance is still going on, and has partly gone under the radar.

People in Varanger rely on migratory animals and fish, such as salmon, Lien explains:

– When species are not fenced in, they have to be found or followed, so movement is key to how you sustain yourself. Knowing the seasons and climate variations is also an important part of this.

The light touch of meacchi

Lien tells me that people in the Arctic have left an almost invisible footprint on the landscape:

– Most people who are not familiar with the Arctic landscape see it as completely untouched. From our Saami collaborators, however, we have learned about meacchi.

Meacchi fills a gap in the Norwegian vocabulary for ‘life in the Arctic’. Language is power, many say, and according to Lien, the domestication scheme is not an exception.

In Norwegian, innmark and utmark are statutory and distinguish between cultivated and not cultivated land (direct translation: infield and outfield). In Finnmark these words are used as well, but are not sufficient to describe the life in the Arctic. Lien explains:

– Meahcci is often translated as utmark, but it does not fit into the distinctions between innmark and utmark.

With their collaborators at Sámi University College in Kautokeino the group seeks to explore Meahcci as a word for particular sites of affordances in the landscape. People who know this landscape predict when it is best to encounter key species. This requires them to know the landscape, animals, and plants very well, and it requires respect:

– Meahcci is a landscape defined for the purpose of humans using it for something in particular, but absolutely not ‘innmark’, or a farm. It is an active landscape involved in people’s use. Meahcci completely cuts across our distinction between nature and culture because human activity and human need is implemented in the word. That is kind of cool.

Lien says that because the model of domestication does not work that well, scholars need to look for alternative ways of understanding relations among nature, animals, human societies, and plants:

– What would happen, for instance, if we started to think of Meahcci instead of nature? What if Meahcci was made into an analytical and legal term, or a common way of conceptualizing land? How would that change everything? These are some of the questions we hope to pursue.

The Anthropocene is a profound shape shifter

Is the dominant understanding of domestication, which is under scrutiny in your project, changing with today’s increased awareness of climate change?

– I think so, and this is a third topic in our project.

Some refer to our current geological age as the Anthropocene. The term is a description of our age as being one in which human actions have severe impacts on the planet. Some regard the Industrial Revolution as the onset of the Anthropocene. Others trace its inception to the Neolithic revolution and farming. Lien observes:

– We have always messed with the earth, but we have probably never messed with it with such significant consequences as today.

The Arctic domestication research group uses the idea of the Anthropocene and the current climate debate as a context for what they do:

– This calls for other kinds of research questions to be asked. It calls for humility, it calls for relevance, and it calls for trying to assemble thinking in ways that make the world a better place. Such questions are more compelling now than ever.

To Lien, the discourse about the Anthropocene is a profound shape shifter in terms of the way we see ourselves in the world. She believes that we humans have allowed ourselves to think about nature as passive and culture as active. We have thought of ourselves as the agent that could change things, and that could utilize and create the landscape we wanted for our own good. Animals, plants, and landscapes have not been thought of as having agency of their own. That mind set has developed out of ignorance, she believes:

– Our actions have effects way beyond our planned control or intentions, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. It is just that we have ignored these things before. There are smaller, unintended effects of our actions too, and not all of them are bad. The point is that we need to change our perception of who’s in charge. We are not in control.

Good, productive noise

Walking past Lien’s office one can often see her discussing such matters with her American colleague Heather Swanson or with Icelander Gísli Pálsson. Every afternoon the research group go out for coffee at a local coffee shop.

Sounds like a good life …

It is a good life, yes. The seclusion from the hustle and bustle of teaching and administration is a gift for all of us, and the environment is extremely quiet and allows the engagement and excitement to happen around research.

In discussions at weekly seminars, not to mention the informal discussions—the ‘magic that happens in the corridors’—the researchers consider new themes. For instance, shortly after the start of the 2015/2016 CAS year, two researchers in the group decided to write an article together, which was not part of the initial plan, Lien says:

– CAS is not filled with noise: you know, the noise that distracts you. The noise that is going on here is good, productive noise. That is amazing. As a project leader at CAS, I get to do something I have never done before and probably will never do again.

The research group Arctic domestication in the era of the Anthropocene will be working at CAS until the end of June 2016.

What happens after this year?

It is a bit difficult to answer that question at this point, but speaking for myself, this project did not begin with CAS and it will not end with CAS. I am quite confident that some of these constellations established in the group are going to continue in various ways.


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