People and environments – notes from an island

Clearly more-than-human

Though it’s a bit awkward, the concept of more-than-human is turning out to be popular among many who are trying to make sense of today’s scary environmental change. The concept of nature feels comparatively alien or at least unfashionable.

From where I am sitting – a small island in Finland’s southwestern archipelago – nature is too overwhelming and present to be ignored.

The other night, for instance, as I sat with neighbours over a dinner of delicious locally grown fare, we compared animal sightings – swans of many kinds, a black heron, the sea eagle (we’re quite possessive about her/him), bats, jumping fish, butterflies and dragonflies to name a few – and laughed at our good fortune.

Thanks to COVID, I have been spending more time than usual here at my family’s summer cabin. It has left me thinking a lot about my personal route to academic work on unsustainability. Luxuriating in the quiet of an island cabin I have been contemplating how physical geography has been modified by human action. This phrasing borrows from the subitlte of the famous book by George Perkins Marsh and it’s topical in light of this week’s IPPC news.

In this blog post and the next, I’ll reflect on why right now it is the human action that needs to be taken especially seriously even though the more-than-human can – at least in my case – be a spur to curiosity about human affairs.

Thinking and talking about these questions is something I have done a lot of, particularly while at the cabin. Almost always it produces an emotional roller-coaster. This year, though, my thoughts have been given more shape than usual by a few research-related events:

I’ll come back to those in a subsequent post – hopefully. In this post I set the scene – that roller-coaster. To be clear though, this isn’t about or a contribution to “nature writing”, it’s more about trying out ideas about people in environmental research and politics.

Clearly human

My neighbours here are relatives, our cabins inherited from our parents, who inherited this place from their parents. In economic terms, family thus still matters, even in a WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic) place like Finland (as I wrote about earlier), but also elsewhere in the Nordics (as hilariously captured here by Ylvis and very seriously studied by anthropologist Simone Abram here). In fact, property assets in the form of summer cottages are economically quite significant for us Finns. Two summers of pandemic-induced travel restrictions have only emphasised that they have use-value too.

As far as I know, I’ve been coming here every year since 1965: hours in the car, a short ride by outboard motor, then the sea and its pleasures, relatives to hang out with and horizons and sunsets to marvel at and sketch or share on IG. This ridiculously dry summer I have actually missed the “good old” rainy days of flopping inside with magazines and books.

But like cabin goers across Finland, I marvel at the power of nature and delight at its noises. Visitors may baulk at drinking water needing to be rationed (and carried here) or the crude sanitary facilities, or they may squeal at creepy-crawlies of many sizes (though most grow out of this). We all develop a visceral awareness of the cycle of life through the endless management of our own pee and poo. Seasons matter here, as do surprises like “unseasonable” storms or unprecedented droughts.

As a teenager in the early 1980s, though, I was trying to get my head around persistent talk of threats to this Baltic paradise. I began, for example, to value the bladder wrack or seaweed (above) that grew at the water’s edge. Because it tickled us as we went swimming I wanted it gone. Then, year by year there was less of it. I was told this was a sign of deteriorating water quality, and learned words like eutrophication, phosphorous and HELCOM. Soon I was struggling to understand why people were allowing pollutants from fish farms, agricultural run-off or marine transport to continue and even expand, when the grown-ups I knew were always talking about how these things really ought to be stopped.

(And so, when Greta Thunberg burst onto the global scene, with her incredulity at adults’ idiocy, I totally got it. Maybe I should have risked upsetting the adults more when I was her age.)

Some of my cousins “got into nature”. But I was not so interested in the details of the nonhuman realm. I assumed it would always be there, a reasonably stable background, context, environment for human creativity and innovation. The things that intrigued me about island life revolved around people and governance (as I would call it now), about how at different scales, people should act in this environment. Ultimately I had to ask, how, despite knowing about the damage slowly creeping up on us, were my people not reversing it?!

I went to study anthropology. I wanted to know about people and how they operate. Maybe I intuited something akin to what Anand Pandian put into words recently: that anthropology has never ”simply abstracted people from place and context in order to say something about them. […] There’s no way of producing an adequate understanding of what might happen in a particular human milieu without paying attention to an infinity of details about all the other human and nonhuman elements, living and non-living, that populate, animate, and motivate that lifeworld. So […] it’s important for us to acknowledge that anthropology has long had resources for a more robust environmental orientation”.

For my doctorate I studied people who were, as I saw it, bold enough to protest and be “rude” about the damage. I still grapple with many of the same questions that emerged there. My intellectual world, for example the Finnish Society for Environmental Social Sciences or the lively circles I was lucky enough to move in at UC Berkeley in the late 1990s, is not just of professional interest, but also a resource to help me stay sane. It has helped me cope with the cognitive dissonances that arise from knowing that one is contributing to the damage.

This isn’t only a personal problem, it’s a collective one. And I think it has a lot to do with the persistent habits of Modern thought, but especially imagining that it requires fancy intellectual footwork to discuss nature and culture together. Actually, we do it all the time.

I also claim that modern Europeans are pretty clear about what nature signifies even if we are hazy on what it is, where it begins and ends or whether indeed, we have long (at least since 1992 in England) been After Nature anyway.

So it has struck me this summer, how even Finnish kids, brought up in this nature-friendly culture, can struggle to live with those natural cycles I mentioned – pee and poo in particular – and are keen to separate out nature and artifice. But kids quickly learn and respect the cultural ways of living with nature that we, with others, have developed in our cabins. The rules about where and how to pee, what to do with toilet paper and so on, build on the surrounding nature and the surrounding people and become quite normal.

To wit, in the archipelago one appreciates that human and more-than-human worlds are mutually entangled and interdependent. For instance, the cultural landscape of a place like the Isokari lighthouse island, above.

Sure, it is more-than-human. But right now I am a little frustrated by the attention that’s not being given to the human, that is, the political, in research.

To be continued.

1 comment
  1. Thanks for the Cabin video! Hilarious.
    I’m reading a book about rewilding. It is amazing how people quite quickly forget. Environments now are considered normal, although they have shifted dramatically in 100 years. The Baltic sea, for example.

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