Podcast: Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress

In his latest podcast, Jan Oosthoek at Environmental Hi […]

— Australian and NZ Environmental History Network

‘History off the books’

— Australian and NZ Environmental History Network

Plumwood Mountain Gathering and Cultural Exchange

A Place for cultural exchange while growing and sharing […]

— Australian and NZ Environmental History Network

Disloyal muskoxen

In August 1948, 10 yearling muskoxen were taken to Bardufoss in Northern Norway for release into the wild. Two of them apparently died shortly after arrival, but the others made themselves at home in the area around Bardufoss. The Norwegian Polar Institute (Norsk Polarinstitutt) had been convinced to release the calves there by Colonel Ole Reistad, who had led the Bardufoss Air Station forces against the Germans when they invaded in 1940 and became the commander of the Air Station after the war. Reistad died at the end of 1949 and as of July 1950, NP had heard nothing about the calves whereabouts since his death. The NP director A. Orvin wrote a letter to the new commander at Bardufoss airport Lieutenant Colonel John Tvedte asking if there was any news about the animals. Tvedte sent up a special recon flight and reported that two animals were seen in the mountains southwest of Bardufoss. In December 1951, farmer Alf Sundheim reported to the local paper Lofotposten that he had seen all the calves were alive. Correspondence between Sundheim and Orvin confirmed that he had seen seven of the animals, but instead of grouping together in a large flock, they were in small bands of 2 to 3 animals.

Animals, of course, move around. This is particularly true of herds looking for better grazing. I’ve mapped the places in the correspondence with the Polar Institute to get a visual of that movement.

In January 1953, the Norwegian Polar Institute received word that a group of muskoxen had been spotted in Sweden around Kiruna. John Giæver of the NP asked the Bardufoss Air Station commander to let him know if they happened to catch sight of the animals. There were conflicting reports about how many animals were there–maybe three, maybe just one. The Air Force hadn’t seen them at that time, but the commander noted that there had been little snow before Christmas and all of the mires and streams were frozen, so it was certainly possible that the animals moved over the border.

Giæver’s characterisation of the crossing and the muskoxen who did it reveals how ‘belonging’ was attached to the animals. In Giæver’s words in a letter from 27 January 1953,

It is in principle totally natural that it had wandered over to the brother folk [of Sweden] – even if it must be condemned as disloyal.

Then when he got word that the herd had moved back to the Norwegian side in February 1953, he wrote, ‘It is really more loyal’ (Det var jo faktisk mer loyalt). By saying that the animal is loyal or disloyal to Norway through its movements, Giæver claimed the animal as belonging in the country, with a duty to the fatherland. There is a deep nationalism at play in reintroduction. When the head of Nanok, the Danish company with rights to capture muskox in East Greenland, replied to Giæver’s letter mentioning the disloyalty, he expressed sympathy for Giæver’s position but also understood the muskox:

Although I will give you the right to say that it’s damned unfair for the musk oxen to run over the border to the brother people, on the other hand, it isn’t unreasonable that the muskoxen are dissatisfied with the situation in old Norway, when you consider that they are condemned to live in seclusion.

Seeing it from the point of the animal, perhaps it was a justified desertion of the country. Giæver was probably not sympathetic. He classified the muskoxen crossing the border as ‘a sorry end to this experiment’.

The Swedes apparently did not agree. After the Swedish papers reported the sighting on January 26th, the Swedish government listed the animals as protected on the 31st. The Swedish Nature Protection Association wrote to NP director Orvin that

The muskoxen’s appearance in Lappland is very pleasing and [the Association] will do everything in its power to promote the Scandinavian muskox population’s growth.

The Association requested information about the Norwegian reintroduction efforts, particularly those in Bardufoss since ‘the “Swedish” animals must have come from there’. I noted that they used quote marks around Swedish (‘svenska’) to indicate an unsure assignment of new nationality. When Director Orvin replied to the Association, he noted that they needed to hope there were both cows and bulls in the herd that moved over so that they might have calves and set up a new viable herd.

It turns out that the muskoxen didn’t stay on the Swedish side of the border. By May 1953, they had crossed back. But having the muskoxen, for even such a short time, whet the appetite of Swedes for the animal. The senior editor of the newspaper Norrbottens-Kuriren in Luleå asked the Polar Institute if it would be possible to buy calves for release in northern Sweden. Others from Sweden also wrote in asking for calves. The Institute, however, declined all requests, saying that they were currently only permitted by the Danes to import two calves each year and these needed to be set out in Norway to increase the existing Dovre and Bardufoss herds. Director Orvin noted that the Bardufoss muskoxen might decide to cross the border again and maybe in the future the herd would grow enough to set up a subherd intentionally in northern Sweden. That never happened.

Photo of the muskox that was put down in Bekkebotn in 1957. From the Gamle Salangen website.

Photo of the muskox that was put down in Bekkebotn in 1957. From the historical photos collection on the Gamle Salangen website.

The small Bardufoss herd hung on for a while but died out by the late 1950s, so there was no expansion of the herd into Sweden. The last confirmed information I have about a Bardufoss muskox involves its death. According to a report from April 1958 filed with the Wildlife and Hunting Office, on 16 October 1957, the farmer Alfred Engmo in Bekkebotn (c.23 kilometers southwest of Bardufoss) found a muskox that had gotten itself wrapped in barbed wire. The game manager of the Salangen commune together with the sheriff decided to have the district veterinarian put the animal down. The meat was sold for 3.50 kr per kilo. I was lucky enough to find a photo of that very muskox tangled in the barbed wire on the Gamle Salangen website!

And thus ends the first foray of reintroduced wild muskoxen into northern Norway and Sweden. But it would not be the last migration. The muskoxen would again vote with their feet and take up residence on the Swedish side of the border–in 1971 it would be a group from the Dovre herd taking up residence in Härjedalen. But that is another story.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

Journée d’études. “Les entrepreneurs de l’aménagement du littoral (XVIIIe-XIXe siècles)”. Université de Bretagne-Sud. 17 septembre 2014

La journée d’études consacrée aux “entrepreneurs de l’aménagement du littoral (XVIIIe-XIXe siècles)”  organisée par le CERHIO CNRS UMR 6258 aura lieu le 17 septembre 2014. Elle se tiendra à la Maison de la Recherche (Le Paquebot), université de Bretagne-Sud.

Consulter le programme dans son intégralité

Contacts : benjamin.egasse@univ-­‐ubs.fr / Tél. portable :  0632314366 ou

Catherine.soubeiroux@univ-­‐ubs.fr /Tél. portable : 0631004602


CFP: Panel on Monasteries & Environment at ESEH2015

Chantal Camenisch (University of Bern) intends to submit one or two panels on “Monasteries and Environment” for the ESEH conference in Versailles, France (30 June – 3 July 2015). You will find more information about the planned panel in the abstract below.

We invite you to send your abstract (200 – 300 words, including the name, title, affiliation and email address of the presenter(s)) no later than 20 September 2014 to chantal.camenisch@hist.unibe.ch.

For further information on the ESEH 2015, see www.eseh.org/event/upcoming-conference.

Panel Abstract

From the Early Middle Ages through the Modern Period, monasteries have played an important role in European environmental history. Depending on their religious order, the monks sought places in the wilderness near forests or floodplains. Monks cleared forests to obtain cultivated land, and they established field rotations systems. Therefore, monasteries shaped landscapes. Fish ponds were maintained in these places in order to feed the monks during lent. To maintain these fish ponds, elaborate techniques of water use were established and, for the purpose of food production and gaining medicine, the monks planted vegetables and herbs in gardens.

In addition, monasteries were places where the written tradition survived during the Migration Period and in the Early Middle Ages. The monks wrote chronicles on everything important to the monasteries where they lived, including weather anomalies and natural disasters. Later they wrote weather diaries. Written evidence of the perception of nature and the environment have also survived from the early Middle Ages.

This panel aims to trace the activities emanating from monasteries that led to changes in the environment and includes all continents and all epochs, in effort to answer the following questions: What were the reasons for the many interventions into the environment? Which methods did the monks (and nuns) apply for that purpose? How did the monks understand nature and the environment through the centuries? What sources can be used for researching these topics?

Possible topics include but are not limited to

-       Deforestation and land reclamation by monasteries

-       Concepts of landscaping used by different orders

-       Maintenance of gardens in monasteries

-       Maintenance of fish ponds

-       Techniques of water use

-       Innovations and techniques in land use

-       Forest exploitation by monasteries

-       Natural disasters and hazards hitting monasteries

-       Weather observations in monasteries

-       Resource conflicts

-       Perception of environment and nature in monasteries


Swerves: A Challenging Problem in Environmental History

Every so often societies experience a dramatic shift – a swerve – in ideas about fundamentals.  Just consider how once “respectable” views of slavery, eugenics, or environmental exploitation were eventually rejected as unacceptable.  An interesting article in The New York Times a few days ago suggests a similar swerve may be underway regarding climate change – as evident in agreement that the earth is warming, that we are responsible, and that there will be serious consequences.
But this article also stresses that “The first thing to say about this swerve is that we are far from clear about just what it is and how it might work”.  And it seems to me that we could probably say the same thing about the history of environmentalism.  While there have been numerous historical studies of environmentalism, including its origins we remain a long way from understanding where it came from, and why.
A change in attitude can have many sources: changes in values and emotional identities, shifts in rules of thumb and other ways of reasoning, accumulated empirical evidence (whether through everyday experience or science), shifting economic interests, the influence of organizations, and so on.  But simply enumerating these influences leaves us far from understanding, say, why attitude change has tended to be more prevalent during some periods than others, or how attitude change drives practical action (or often fails to).
Environmental swerves deserve more systematic attention from historians.  Who knows: it could even be a way of demonstrating the practical value of environmental history.  Translating climate knowledge into action remains our great unsolved problem.  Could the study of past swerves help us understand how to encourage this necessary future swerve?

— Stephen Bocking - Environment, History, Science

“Human Climate” and the Interface of Earth-Sea and Sky: a Meditation on the Verticality of this Ecotone

By Teresa Devor. John Gillis, who has a distinct quality of being an interface between humanity and thought, calls us to attend to interfaces, ecotones, meeting places of ecological and cultural differences. He argues that from cells to states, interfaces are porous, and full of possibility. “Margins” are not margin-al, rather, they are zonal, full, […]

— Climate History Network

When the past obscures the past

If I asked someone to tell me why they think beavers were hunted in the past, I think the most likely answer would be ‘for their fur’. As I’ve done research on the partial extinction then reintroduction of the European beaver, I’ve come to realise more and more that this answer has to do with the North American beaver (Castor canadensis) in early modern Canadian colonial environmental history than the European beaver (Castor fiber). I think that the importance of the Canadian beaver for the fur trade in the 17th century to make fashionable wide-brimmed felt hats has made us think that this was always why beaver had been killed.

Summary of reasons given for the extinction of the European beaver in the UK in 137 articles (1997-2010)

Summary of reasons given for the extinction of the European beaver in the UK in 137 articles (1997-2010)

This is apparent if we look at news coverage of the beaver reintroduction efforts in Scotland (see graph). I did some analysis of 137 newspaper articles from 1997 (when the beaver reintroduction was proposed) to 2010. What I found was that a majority of the articles say that beaver extinction in the UK was caused by hunting. In nearly a third of the articles, a specific use of the hunted beaver is given–and almost always that is for its fur. Killing the beaver for castoreum only gets a mention in one-sixth of the articles and meat shows up in only 4 articles. When it is specified, hunting for fur tops the list of reasons given for why beaver became extinct.

Certainly beavers were used for fur before the 17th-18th century boom in beaver fur for felting. We know that there was an earlier felting industry in Russia: medieval evidence from the 12th century attests to a thriving fur industry, which included beaver, in Novgorod. In the article ‘Om Bäfverns Natur, hushållning och fångande’ (On the beaver’s nature, household and capture) from 1756 by Nils Gisler, he mentions that beaver skins are sold by the people of Jämtland to Norwegian traders so we know beavers in Scandinavia were caught and their fur sold. But Gisler spends the majority of his text on castoreum and meat. He comments about the best time of the month and the year to catch beaver to maximize the gall contents. He notes that everyone who catches beaver eats the beaver meat (which tastes like pork according to him), and beaver tail is both eaten and used medicinally. In the medieval literature, the beaver is always discussed as a source of medicine and meat, never as fur. While this doesn’t mean that the fur went unused, I think it should make us pause and reconsider why European beavers were hunted to extinction.

One of the many jars of castoreum canadensis (Castoreum from North American beavers) in the Pharmacy Museum in Riga, Latvia.

One of the many jars of castoreum canadensis (Castoreum from North American beavers) in the Pharmacy Museum in Riga, Latvia.

If you look at old apothecary collections, castoreum is ubiquitous. In April, I visited the Pharmacy Museum in Riga, Latvia, and containers of castoreum were included in almost every set. These were all labeled as castor. canadens., indicating that the castoreum came from Canadian beavers, which makes sense considering that they are from the 19th century when there weren’t really any beavers left in Europe. According to Illuminerade figurer till Skandinaviens Fauna (1832), castoreum of European beaver was stronger than the North American one which was typically found in apothecaries of the time, so if you could find it, it was better. I’ve written about my experience drinking castoreum liquor and the use of castoreum as a medicine. I’ve since discovered it was a typical ingredient in early modern recipe books, like The practice of physick in seventeen several books (1655) which includes castoreum in a number of recipes related to women’s reproductive issues, diseases of the joints, and fevers. According to Johann Schröder’s Zoologia: or, the history of animals as they are useful in physick and chirurgery (1659), castoreum is

profitable in the Lethargy, Apoplexie, Epilepsie, Palsie, Vertigo, trembling of the members, defluxions to the joynts, suffocation of the matrix, the Colick both inwardly and outwardly used. Moreover it helpeth the noise of the ears, and difficulty of hearing (put into the ear) and the toothach.

I plan to look deeper into the medicinal uses of castoreum sometime, but for now, it is sufficient to say that it was a common medicinal ingredient.

Probably one of the best soups I've ever had -- beaver tail soup in Tartu, Estonia

Probably one of the best soups I’ve ever had — beaver tail soup in Tartu, Estonia

As for use as a food, I’ve previously written about beaver as Lenten fare and its other culinary uses. Earlier in the spring, I had a fabulous beaver tail soup at the Eduard Vilde restaurant in Tartu, Estonia. Perhaps it was similar to the medieval recipes for vegetable soup with beaver meat. If so, then I can see the attraction of beaver meat as a food.

Again, I’m not saying that European beaver fur wasn’t a valuable commodity, but fur wasn’t the only–and perhaps not even the primary–reason they were hunted to extinction. I think in the case of the beaver, Canadian colonial history has dominated the way we think about the historical relationship between humans and beavers, even though the relationship may have actually changed over time. Sometimes a particular past obscures another past.

— Dolly Jørgensen, The Return of Native Nordic Fauna

Student Campaigns for Fossil Fuel Divestment: Will They Make a Difference?

Divestment is the new wave in student environmental activism: urging universities to dispose of their investments in fossil fuel companies.  The idea is to demonstrate that students – and their universities – want nothing to do with the carbon economy.  Students at hundreds of universities have joined the movement.
But is this an effective approach to climate activism?  Will it have a real impact, reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases?  I examine these questions in my most recent blog post at Alternatives Journal.
And as I explain there, I see divestment as only a symbolic action — merely a distraction from the concrete actions that are necessary to make a real difference on climate change.  But feel free to disagree – I welcome debate on this!

— Stephen Bocking - Environment, History, Science