A new visiting researcher at the Arctic Centre

As a new arrival at the Arctic Centre, allow me to introduce myself. My name is William Davies, a PhD research postgraduate from the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds (UK) who will be based at the centre until mid-December as part of an ESRC-funded Overseas Institutional Visit. My broad academic interests revolve around sustainable development, political ecology and natural resource management in an Arctic context. More specifically, my PhD research explores social construction of ‘scale’ in relation to Arctic extractive industries and the ways in which scale-framings of stakeholders discursively influence debates surrounding Arctic extractive activity, especially offshore petroleum and uranium mining.  Furthermore, I’m also interested in the notion of ‘Arctic identity’ and how cultural and technical definitions of the Arctic influence environmental policy in the region.

Whilst instinctively reluctant to pigeonhole myself into one academic discipline, if pushed I’d say I come from a predominantly ‘human geography’ background; my previous studies including a BA in Geography and an MA in Sustainable Development from the University of Leeds as well as a Masters in Coastal and Marine Management from the University Centre of the Westfjords in Iceland. Indeed, the time spent in the Westfjords piqued my fascination with all things Arctic.

During my visit at the Arctic Centre, I will be assisting Florian Stammler with various facets of the Extractive Industries Working Group, the upcoming week-long PhD course and Rovaniemi Process conference, as well as getting involved with other activities taking place at the centre.

When not ruminating on Arctic issues, I’m never happier than when riding my bike; be it cycling amidst the smog and bustle of rush-hour London traffic or the serenity and peace of remote, coastal Iceland.

 

Willem Barentsz and cranberries on the island of Terschelling

Terschelling is a municipality and an island in the northern Netherlands. It is one of the four West Frisian Islands with population 4,830 people. Before my trip to Terschelling I had never heard about this island and I had no idea where it is. So, during this rainy autumn weekend I went there with my family. This island is famous because of two reasons: the Dutch navigator Willem Barentsz was born on Terschelling around 1555 and it is one of only two Dutch islands where cranberries grow.

It took two long hours by boat before I eventually saw the long coastal line on the horizon. I felt something what sailors may feel after a long trip on the sea when they see for the first time land on the endless water around them. Of course my trip was much shorter.

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Terschelling met us very warm and welcoming with a short sun which disappeared later behind the grey heavy rain clouds. In reality there are not so many places to see in Terschelling, we also came here at the end of the tourist season when there are not so many activities on the island.

One of this places which was important to see was the island museum ‘t Behouden Huys. It has a small but very informative exhibition about Willem Barentsz trips to the Arctic.

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Willem Barentsz is a famous Dutch navigator, cartographer, explorer, and a leader of early expeditions to the far north. He made three voyages to the Arctic looking for the Northeast passage in the north of Siberia, where he believes there is sun shining all day round which melts any potential ice on the Arctic ocean.

Photo from the museum room. On the wall there is a picture of W. Barentsz. It is written there that he died in 20 June 1597 in his way back from the Nova Zembla.

This exhibition tells about his last trip to the Arctic. One of the most amazing parts of it is the reproduction of the wooden house Barentsz and his team built when they had to survive the long polar winter on the Novaya Zemlya island. Captain Barentsz died there because of the (sea) scurvy. Remains of Het Behouden Huys were found in 1871 by the Norwegian whaler Elling Carlsen. He brought with him a large amount of treasures and sold them. In 1993-1995 the site was searched through in great detail by Dutch and Russian archaeologists. Later the Remains of the House of Willem Barentsz on Novaya Zemlya were reconstructed by an archaeological team of the Willem Barentsz Polar Institute in Groningen, Netherlands.

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Computer reconstruction of het Behouden Huys based on written information and field study (drawing by H.J. Waterbolk). Photo O. Falkena.

What we know about the Terra incognita of the Arctic

Novaya Zemlya is an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean in the North of Russia and the extreme Northeast of Europe.

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What Barentsz trip gave us is the knowledge about the Novaya Zemlya effect. The first person to record the phenomenon was Gerrit de Veer, a member of Willem Barentsz’ expedition, who saw it on the Novaya Zemlya. It is a polar mirage caused by high refraction of sunlight between atmospheric thermoclines. The Novaya Zemlya effect will give the impression that the sun is rising earlier than it actually should (astronomically speaking), and depending on the meteorological situation, the effect will present the sun as a line or a square (which is sometimes referred to as the “rectangular sun”), made up of flattened hourglass shapes.

The indigenous population of the island (from 1872 to the 1950s when it was resettled to the mainland) consisted of about 50–300 Nenets people.

From the 1954 Novaya Zemlya became the Soviet Union nuclear testing place.

And cranberries

In 1840, a barrel of cranberries, apparently packed by sailors as an antiscorbutic, washed ashore on the island’s coast, and the islanders cultivated them for their own sailors .The cranberries, finding the environment favourable, established themselves on the island. Nowadays, the cranberry fields cover 0.48 km2 (0.185 sq mi) or 48 ha (119 acres). The cranberries are mainly sold to tourists and used by the island’s restaurants and bakeries, who compete continually with each other to make the tastiest cranberry delicacies, such as cranberry jam, cranberry beer, cranberry wine and cranberry cookies.

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We enjoyed very much our visit to Terschelling. Unfortunately we missed out on the first public cranberry picking at the end of the season, due to a heavy autumn storm…..

For more information: http://pubs.aina.ucalgary.ca/arctic/arctic48-3-248.pdf

http://behouden-huys.nl/pages/sub/40366/Willem_Barentsz_Lesbrief_overwintering_.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terschelling

“Before the Snow” – A documentary about Siberian people published online

The film by Christian Vagt features three important indigenous leaders and story tellers from the Khanty and Forest Nenets communities of Western Siberia – Josif Kechimov, Yuri Vella and Agrafena Pesikova. It is a short documentary filmed in 2007 in the West Siberian Taiga about indigenous concepts of their relationship with ghosts and the danger of inappropriate behaviour towards them.

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Josif Kechimov talks about the relationship to the dead and the tragic consequences of encounters with unburied deceased relatives. Against the background of oil development, forced resettlements and the spread of Christian missionizing among his people – and his feelings of danger for the forest live of Khanty reindeer herders and decline of traditions grow.

Juri Vella tells a Forest Nenets tale about the encounter with a supernatural and threatening inhabitant of an abandoned human settlement.  Hunter‘s stories have never a single message or meaning. Yuri Vella leaves it to the listeners to make their conclusions. What to do though if an understanding of the cultural context is missing?

Agrafena Pesikova sends a clear message addressed to the people intruding into the life of the indigenous reindeer herders and hunters.  The interests and interpretations of these people are based on their European and Christian preconceptions. They are not able to understand without careful and respectful interaction with local people. The lesson outsiders can learn from indigenous ghost stories is that distance, silence, and restraint from direct interaction should be part of respectful behaviour. Only if they are able to listen the right way though might they be able to grasp the message.

The film confirms my hypothesis that the indigenous Khanty and Nenets ways of dealing with supernatural beings, the deceased, and animals shape the way of interaction with other strangers be it bureaucrats, anthropologists, oil companies or tourists. The behaviour that is expected from outsiders, the respectful distance needed to avoid conflict and the tragic consequences of inappropriate contact are similar. In the face of the experience of difference, ghost stories teach what respect and disrespect mean.

A German version can be found here: