Researchers’ Blog

Dark Ecology with Midnight Sun

Dark Ecology with Midnight Sun

I departed early this morning for Northern Norway, a seriously beautiful part of the planet where roughly twenty years ago I spent a year studying language, literature and anthropology, and ¬– during the long dark winter months – effectively watched every Seinfeld episode every produced. The sign at breakfast ensured that it was going to be a very sunny day:

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It’s a good thing I didn’t believe a word of it. Most of the two-hour SAS flight to Kirkenes flight was well above cloud cover, so there was very little to see. An hour or so into the trip, the pilot came on the loudspeaker to inform us of our coordinates: “We just passed the famous Polar Circle, unvisible [sic] to the naked eye, of course. Also, it’s cloudy so you can’t see the city of Gällivare in Sweden on the right and Bodø on the left-hand side in Norway. If you could, you would see Finland in the distance on the right-hand side as well. Straight ahead, there is Kirkenes. We’ll update you with a weather report shortly. We can expect 35 minutes before we touch down.”

Political borders in Scandinavia and up the Barents Sea region have been rather fluid over the past centuries, carved up by treaties and exchanged like hot potatoes between various warring and settling states. Head in a straight line today from one part of the region to another and you’ll typically traverse several national frontiers several times over. I was long enamoured by the small pile of rocks (a bit west of where we’re flying) at treriksgränsen, which rests on the border between Norway, Sweden and Finland, and feeling the fascination viscerally when I tried to stand on some of them during a trip from Tromsø one weekend. It was only years later that I realised how much my field of view at the time was limited by my ability to understand the meanings of land seen through its political boders.

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I am up North for the next week joining Norwegian fellow Arctic Encounters researchers Britt Kramvig and Berit Kristoffersen, along with curator Hilde Methi, for the Dark Ecology third journey. Following two extraordinary journey experiences in 2014 and 2015, this third (and final) edition of the Dark Ecology art and research project is taking place in Kirkenes and Svanvik (a tiny town near the Russian border) and at Nikel and Zapolarny in Northern Russia. The five-day programme of events includes lectures by Timothy Morton and Heather Davis, curated walks to various outdoor spaces, the presentation of commissioned artworks by Jana Winderen, Espen Sommer, Cecilia Jonsson and others, and – if the last Dark Ecology journey is anything go to by – plenty of engaged discussions about art, philosophy, nature and environmental problems.

At 25,000 feet, we were still well in the clouds so there still was little of note outside the window – just drops on the window the hinted that there might rain below us. We soon descended, making an initial attempt to land, only to sink into our seats as the plane pulled up forcefully at the very last minute. The pilot came on the loudspeaker a few minutes later: “High winds from the northeast have meant that we decided not to land at Kirkenes.” Here, there is a long pause. “So, we will land at another airport just west of Kirkenes. Once we are on the ground, we will decide what to do. If the weather improves, we’ll return to Kirkenes. Otherwise, alternative transportation will be provided.”

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That “another airport” turned out to be Lakselv. Now, saying that Lakselv is “just west” of Kirkenes is like saying that Helsinki is just west of St Petersburg, or that Dublin is just west of London. If there are flying crows, it’s not all that far, but try to get there overland and you’ve got a good, windy five hours’ drive ahead of you.

We landed and a bus was swiftly organised by the airline to ferry us east to our original destination. It was but a few weeks before summer officially began, but the ‘warmer’ months up North are not always a midnight sun picnic. The Arctic’s mosquitoes are frequently out seeking prey, and it can snow well into June (it did so south of Kirkenes just a few days prior). At the second Dark Ecology in November, it was very dark and very, very cold; on this day, it was a balmy 6º. The lack of sun made for a fairly monotonous drive, but we took a brief rest at a Finnish cafe on the way (one route from Norway’s west to east traverses the bulky northeastern right arm of Finland), where I procured some adorable salt-pepper shakers.

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The several dozen participants and speakers taking part in Dark Ecology are due to arrive this evening in Kirkenes, where there will be an evening around a bonfire celebrating the publication of the project’s compendium Living Earth – Field Notes from the Dark Ecology Project (buy it here!). Arctic Encounters will be contributing to this journey, too, through a commissioned installation artwork by artist Jana Winderen, entitled Pasvikdalen (more about this in a blogpost in a few days).

Tomorrow afternoon, following Heather Davis’s talk on plastic geologies, there will be a series of five curated walks around the Pasvik valley area, smack alongside the Norwegian-Russian border. These themed walks will take participants out to several remote areas in order to explore various ecological characteristics of the region, including archaeology, fauna and pollution. I will be joining one walk to explore various ‘dark archaeological’ sites in the valley, including recently some excavated twelfth-century Sami grounds and a dilapidated Second World War POW camp hidden in the wilderness. That particular tour is led by Svend Randa, a local logger who has lived in the area since 1964, and I’ll be doing the simultaneous interpretation from Norwegian into English for Sven. It’s been a while since I’ve interpreted much of anything at all, so I’ll make some attempt to brush up this evening on my Norwegian ecology vocabulary.

Of everything over the next several days, I am most excited about Justin Bennett’s soundwalk Vilgiskoddeoayvinyarvi: Wolf Lake on the Mountains. My favourite piece to come out of last year’s journey was Living Land – Below as Above-, the soundscape installation by artist-florist Margrethe Iren Petterson – a fascinating work that I read as a vehement exhortation to be in the world (Britt Kramvig wrote about it with Margrethe on the Arctic Encounters blog here). Justin Bennett’s piece will be set at the Kola Superdeep Borehole, the remnants of a geological research project begun decades ago behind the Iron Curtain that now, at 12 kilometres, stands as the deepest man-made hole on the planet. The site, which was abandoned in 2008, is home to a network of disused seismic listening stations originally set up to warn against natural and nuclear disasters. The work promises to speak about plantary vibrations, Sami divination and geology. Can’t wait!

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