Originally posted on The Otter, blog of the Network in Canadian History and Environment.
For Canadians, the far North is integral to our identity, although many of us are not always sure how, or why. We are the “true North,” and so distinct from our overbearing neighbours south of the 49th parallel. Still, the most populated centres in our heavily urbanized country lie below latitudes considered northerly in Europe. To borrow a sentiment penned by Stephen Leacock and quoted by geographer Graeme Wynn, we Canadians would feel lonely without our North, even if many of us have never been there. Polar bears, snow-capped mountains, icebergs and the Aurora Borealis are ubiquitous in our patriotic imagery. Hockey, proudly played despite the cold, is a national obsession.
Perhaps it is no surprise that the Arctic looms large in our historiography. Moreover, the uniquely forceful agency of "nature" in the far North has increasingly inspired us to write histories of people and their frigid environments. Of course, we do not write in a vacuum. The Arctic has inspired a rich interdisciplinary scholarship in Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, Russia, and other places linked with the far North through economic, cultural or political entanglements. It was to forge new bonds between Arctic environmental historians on both sides of the Atlantic that the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) generously supported the Northern Nations, Northern Natures workshop in Stockholm this November.
I leave Stockholm relieved, enlightened with the knowledge that more research is connected to the far North than I had previously imagined. At the workshop, graduate students and senior scholars explored topics ranging from the meaning of boundaries in discourse to the contested identity of indigeneity; from the transformative and politicized deployment of technology to networks of exchange that spanned the globe. To apply these themes to the Arctic they used diverse methodologies and media that encouraged us all to ask some very basic questions. Is environmental history essentially a history of humanity? Where do we draw the borders of the Arctic, or is that effort futile? Are our histories inherently political, and can they be primarily visual? How does one transport a muskox in a box, anyway?
I won’t provide our answers to such questions, in part because our disagreements were more fruitful than our consensus (one exception: nobody questioned Dolly Jørgensen’s expertise in muskox transport). I was excited to find that my paper stimulated vigorous discussion, which culminated, for me, in one particularly intriguing question. Can we link climate change to weather events in ways that allow us to reconceptualize human history at an hourly level? I argued that, given sufficient multidisciplinary information, historians can link local, daily nuances in the Arctic cryosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere to early modern climatic shifts and, in turn, to human history. This argument has particular relevance in light of the past week. To phrase the question that informs it in more immediate terms: is the Antarctic iceberg that now threatens shipping lanes a consequence of global warming? Was Typhoon Haiyan a reflection of climate change? How can we find out, and how does that inform our understanding of connections between humans and shifting climates? As with all of the most interesting and important questions, there are no easy answers.
Note: cross-posted from The Otter, blog of NiCHE.