Anybody who has moved on a sledge, or even snowmobile, in spring in the Arctic, knows the answer to that question.
Hi everyone, I am a first time blogger here. Am based in Cambridge, UK, and doing a PhD there at the moment. I have come back from fieldwork some 6months ago.
Before I went off to fieldwork in the northern Taiga of Siberia I made a little booklet with pictures of my home country to show around at my fieldsite. I had compiled – in my opinion – the most beautiful photographs of 10 years of hiking and skiing in the mountains together with pictures of medieval towns. This, I felt, summed up well the beauty of my home country, the Tyrol.
Fast forward to a camp in the forest:
Surprised noises from the first person to look at it summoned more people to crowd around the booklet. I took the oohs and aahs at first as a sign of appreciation, until I was told otherwise.
‘My, how hard it must be to live there.’
‘Just rocks everywhere, how do people manage there?’
And finally, ‘Now I see why you like to come here to the forest so much. I can understand you.’
I was more than surprised. All the landscapes, views and vistas that I treasured were a reason for people to pity me. The locals especially commented on a series of pictures, taken from a mountain top of a little over 3000m where I spent the night tied with a rope to the top in order to not accidentally fall off in my sleep and capture the sunrise. The whole of the Alpine range from Austria to France could be seen.
The only two things they could relate to as something nice in the booklet where pictures of the monument of a hunter in bronze and the flower pots lining all the windows of the houses.
This got me thinking about my first reactions to the landscape that the locals of my fieldsite lived in. I did not find it beautiful but rather worrisome to navigate in. It was not only flat, but seemed to me to consist of swamps only, different types, but nevertheless. The lack of clear views and vistas among the trees and bushes posed to me a tremendous challenge of not getting lost and the swamps one of not getting stuck. But the more I walked in it, the more I learned to appreciate it. Not the clear views seen from a stationary point but the myriads of ever-changing tiny vistas created by my movement through the forest made the charm and beauty of the place. Beauty through movement?
So maybe the locals’ reaction to the pictures of the rocky alps was not only based on their preferring forest to rocks as a place of living, but also on their type of landscape experience and appreciation. Especially the pictures taken from mountain tops (as opposed to those taken on the way up or down) offer a tremendous view of very large distances without having to change place or move about. For me this is one of the reasons I love going up mountains and then sit for hours on the top enjoying the view without moving. But it also constitutes a very static landscape view, to a large point independent of movement.
What are the locals’ opinion and experience of vistas and, what’s more, what kind of vistas? When walking long distances with them I observed how much they appreciated changing surroundings to keep them interested and vigil. They told me how a walk seemed shorter to them that way, how different types of forest offer different grounds to walk on and demand different ways of looking (looking through the trees, towards the top of trees, on the ground, expecting different animals, different signs, and different resources). All these mini-vistas could change within minutes and form a dynamic mosaique.
Except for a newly introduced type of landscape that offers long, far distance vistas that do not change for hours even when one is in movement: clear cut tracts made by oil-explorers. These tracts allow the locals to look far ahead, to see a far away point that they have to reach. A different landscape experience: valued by some because it enables more direct movement, devalued by some because walking on them is so disheartening with the vista never changing.
To my surprise, after I have finished the fieldwork, my landscape appreciation seems to have changed for good. Where I loved open places with a good view before, I feel more intimidated now and tend to look for a dense forest to find good shelter. Where before I enjoyed a large pine forest, I now feel bored after a while, because it is only a pine forest and not a patchwork of different types of forest and swamps that makes reaching a patch of pine forest all the more wonderful. When I look at my booklet now, I see the rocks and barren places before I see the vista. I notice now that I tend to photograph mountain tops without showing the valley or the mountain forest below, which comes from taking pictures when standing on a high mountain top where valleys cannot be seen.
I am curious about your experiences of and ideas about landscape appreciation when it comes to your fieldsite and home country.
I just had an inspiring phone talk with PhD student Evelyn Landerer, who returned from a year of fieldwork in some of the Russian North’s remotest places, in the North of Irkutskaya Oblast and Krasnoyarski Krai. You need a month to even get there, if you get there, e.g. to the small village of Teteya half way between the big river systems of the Lena and the Yenisey.
Evelyn’s phD project at Cambridge is about people’s relations to the forest, their way of moving, and the fluidity of life, the environment and cosmology among her Taiga hunting colleagues. She has an amazing fieldwork picture gallery here, which you are welcome to look at. We hope to get her at some point for a talk or more in Finland, where she has lived before as an Arctic Studies programme student, and working on a Huskey farm.
Something we talked about relating to her field material is the possible connection between the fluidity of movement and of life among forest dwellers, and the fluidity of value-judgements among many. Has anybody hints and tips on anthropological writing about this?
In general, Tim Ingold’s recent books are relevant in this field, and one of his articles in 2008 (Bindings against boundaries, Environment and Planning A 2008, volume 40, pages 1796-1810), and Nuccio Mazzullo’s work (with Tim Ingold) on ‘Being Along’. Ingold argues that “To inhabit the open is to be immersed in  fluxes” (2008:179). But how prominent is there the idea that when your whole existence is a process, there is no clear distinction between good and bad any more? In other words, the hard snow on which you migrate with reindeer tonight is good because it lets you travel, and in a moment the same snow is a disaster as it is too hard for reindeer to access the pasture under it. This is ‘Being Alive’ and ‘Being Along’ quite fundamentally. I think the point here is the practice-embedded relativity of being, knowing, happening, occuring, evolving and events, which is probably universal. It just happens that we sitting in permanent houses and doing a lot of routine detached from a tundra environment perceive things as if they were constant although in principle they are processes (or fluxes) too.
Any ideas on this line of thinking are welcome!
World Routes is the name of a conference on movement in the Arctic organised by the University of Tartu, department of anthropology. This was a very nice example of an intimate group of people engaging for two days in a very focused way in discussions on what it means to be on the move in all possible different facets.
All the presentations at the conference evolved out of the notion of movement in relation to place as the two ideas that somehow mark the fields of people’s interaction and identification with their environment.
During the first day several presentations focused on migration and relocation in the Arctic, including a presentation by Florian Stammler on relocation and emplacement in the Arctic, trying to find a common umbrella enabling us to bridge the theoretical gap between indigenous and non-indigenous Arctic inhabitants. Florian suggested that the crossroads between time and place is where human inhabitation on the land evolves, or occurs, to use Tim Ingold’s most recently preferred term (Being Alive. Routledge, 2011). The practices on this intersection between time and place is what unites different groups of people. For example, both gas workers and reindeer herders being agents on the same land at the same time create a sort of common ground that shapes their occurrance and evolvement as persons and communities in the North.
While the vast majority of the presentations were on the Russian North, it was also nice to have one on Mexicans in Anchorage by Sara Komarnisky from the University of British Columbia. In a way it was very inspiring to have this fresh view on field sites in Arctic cities. Arctic Urban anthropology can deliver a lot of fresh insights to our field that is more dominated by the study of indigenous livelihoods. Along these lines, Hilary Pilkington’s talk on sense of belonging to Vorkuta and ideas of leaving was very inspiring. She has recently published on skinheads there in Vorkuta. Her findings mirror very well what we found in the INNOCOM project in other places: people can feel attached to northern industrial cities and still plan to leave.
The second cluster of presentations focused more on the experience of physical movement itself, in its various dimensions of walking, riding, driving, sliding etc. Vladimir Davydov and Donatas Brandisauskas shared great wealth of local concepts of practices of movement, when Evenki of the Baikal area develop terms for their movement not commonly used in Russian language. e.g. peshevat’sia for hunting on foot, Stephan Dudeck pointed to the ‘alternative state of mind’ that we all experience when we move together with our research partners in the field. We get to know different stories when we drive with somebody in the car rather than sitting at home. Tanya Argounova in her talk on long distance travel emphasized the fluidity of roads not only in terms of people, goods, information travelling on the road, but also the road itself flowing, e.g. when winter roads melt, or dirt roads are washed away from rain. She also mentioned that anthropology can benefit a lot from widening it not only being about places, which means our field sites, but also movement in all its dimensions.
The name of the conference “World Routes” was actually taken from a radio programme by the BBC on world music – not by coincidence. Organiser Aimar Ventsel is not only an established DJ with his own radio programme in Estonia, he also studied music scenes and subcultures in Siberia. Accordingly, the social programme included the offer of a disco with Aimar playing ethnic music in one of Tartu’s clubs. All in all, it was very nicely organised, with wide and at the same time deep discussions which would be nice to develop in the future including more Arctic regions to balance a bit the overweight of Siberia. Papers from the conference are going to be published somewhere at some point. We can announce further details here