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Dark Ecology: Shifting Borders

Dark Ecology: Shifting Borders

Yesterday afternoon, the Dark Ecology journeyers split into six groups to take part in a series of small curated walks . One group ventured to 96 Heights, an old lookout tower for border guards, and focused on environmental pollution; another explored the ecology of the region’s insects. I was part of a group of eight who took a walk into the Pasvik valley along the Norwegian-Russian-Finnish border to the settlement of Vaggatem. In the woods, we walked around several twelfth-century Sami sites recently excavated by archeologists from Tromsø – three communal hearths formed the majority of what was excavated – then ventured further into the forest to view the remains of a WWII German POW camp.

The Pasvik Valley stretches some 100km south of Kirkenes, forming a wedge between Russia to the east and Finland to the west. The Øvre Pasvik National Park here covers an area of 119 square kilometres and is mainly Siberian-like taiga consisting of old-growth forests of Scots pine, shallow lakes and bog. It’s home to a significant number of flora and fauna species found nowhere else in Norway, as wel l as Norway’s largest bear population. The park’s western border runs along the Finnish border; its eastern border, the Pasvik River, demarcates the 196km-long border with Russia.

This walking tour was led by Svend Randa, a logger who has lived in the region since 1964. I’d presumed that Svend was Norwegian, given that he spoke Norwegian and lived in Norway. But at some point during our tour, I overheard him speaking in Finniah to Netta Norro, a Finnish woman who works as the coordinator of the Slovenia-based Changing Weathers project. I did something of a double take, in part because I’d not heard Finnish spoken for a year or so. Svend explained that he was an ethnic Finn, his parents were Finnish, that he was born in a small town between Ivalo and Rovaniemi and that he only really learned Norwegian at school and on the street. Border identities and their language politics are remarkable phenomena in many places, but particularly here in the Barents Sea region and in Sápmi, where people have moved, been (re)settled and taken on shifting national identities multiple times over the past several centuries.

Borders make interesting ecologies. Social scientists have long taken lenses to social, political and geographic boundaries (e.g. Barth 1969, Cole and Wolf 1974, Evans-Pritchard 1940). The way territorial borders influence human interaction and how citizens and states manage and manipulate borders have also become the focus of a recent ‘border boom’ in research ; recent projects include Caroline Humphrey’s work on entanglements along the Russian-Mongolian-Chinese borderlands and the various Arctic coastal borders of Russia’s Primore and Chukotka regions studied by Tobias Holzlehner). This has resulted as much from globalisation and an intensification of transnational connections as it has from the political and social tensions that have arisen in a number of border regions around the world today (see Donnan and Wilson 1999, Nugent 2002, O’Dowd 2010).

A number scholars in the 1990s argued that on a global level, state borders were increasingly becoming obsolete. As international borders became more porous, they suggested that their historical role as obstacles to the movement of people, goods and ideas would wither away. But borders remain key fulcrums of negotiation for human actors. People for whom international borders are a fact of everyday life may profit from the state’s interest in controlling resources, strategically manipulating state hegemony, or they may be criminalised by the state and terrorised by its surveillance. The relationship between citizens and the state and the freedoms experienced by each, then, are much more evident in border regions than in other areas. Sometimes the most revealing means of studying the state is to investigate how it thinks about and regulates its margins (Donnan and Wilson 1999, 2005).

Borders are far from static, dividing lines in geologic space. They exist as geographic, historical and psychological processes that are continuously in the moment of being made. The nature of these ever-changing temporal and spatial entities have been described by Green (2009) as ‘tidemarks’, a designation that speaks to both the passage of time and the stasis of place. Borders are produced through human sociality and imagination – by the physicality of crossing/not-crossing in the present and by imaginations of past and future crossings. Spaces, as Massey (2005: 12) has argued, are made up of a ‘simultaneity of stories so far’, which lends credence to the notion that borders are much more blurred, permeable/porous and complex than the geopolitical lines which demarcate them might betray. Moreover, an increased porousness (whether actual or perceived) in borders may make cultural difference more salient in everyday social and symbolic practice. Alternatively, a shared border may enable people to transcend social and cultural distinctions such as nation state, religion and language. Borders should be understood not just as processes that differentiate between places, peoples and jurisdictions, but equally as lived experiences for people whose lives are embedded in them. These lived experiences don’t just include human-human relations, but also encompass humans’ relationships to a past and present figures in the natural and built environments, including buildings, landscapes, natural resources and weather patterns (see Snellman 2001).

For centuries, the Finnish-Russian border was drawn and redrawn by various international treaties and agreements. Russia’s western border has maintained much of the cold war hardware of hostility such as barbed wires, electric fences, and mined watchtower grounds. With the closure of the Soviet Union’s western frontier and the raising of the Iron Curtain in 1945, the Russian-Finnish border became emblematic of East-West relations, and during the Cold War it marked the widest economic-prosperity gap between two bordering nations of anywhere in the world. Today, the 1,340 km-long border between Russia and the EU is one of the longest land borders in the world, with considerable trade (in people, goods, capital and ideas) flowing across the border in both directions. The land border here is a geography of extreme relevance to current discussions about geopolitics, industry and sustainability (e.g. Northern Passage sea routes, sea ice, climate change). Interestingly, much research on Russia’s borders has tended to focus on issues of security, sovereignty, state control, territorial disputes, and resource and border management, including migration, trade and criminal activities (see Stammler-Gossmann 2011). The EU-Russian border itself, for example, is typically conceptualised by scholars as a line of exclusion keeping Russia outside of EU integration (see Golunov 2012). This is often based on research carried out without the benefit of qualitative ethnographic research that might illuminate important geopolitical questions and lay bare the assumptions that economists and political scientists make when studying these areas (cf. Ferguson 1990).

Borders in the circumpolar Arctic are central to European, Russian and North American political, economic and social discourse. The Arctic Circle – an idea as much as a zone – slices straight through all of these border zones. The Arctic, while often still romantically imagined to be frozen wastelands on the fringes of the planet, is at the locus of an increasingly globalized world (Emmerson 2010; Heininen and Southcott 2010). Arctic spaces continue to be essentialised as wilderness zones, marginal to the cultural and political concerns of Europe (cf. Wilmsen 1989). And yet the Arctic is a region where the very idea of borders is continually contested by states, commercial entities and individuals, and one where borders, themselves multivalent, have been continuously shifting.

For Svend, our guide, these phenomenological and conceptual geopolitical shifts had long been a part of his everyday life and probably demarcated various points across his life course, too. It was also the case for others with us on Dark Ecology. Hilda Methi, the curator of the Dark Ecology project, was another participant on our forest tour. Hilde’s also comes from a family of Finnish extraction. She spoke about times during her childhood when she would ask her grandmother if her family had ever had any Sami blood in it. Her grandmother would dismiss outright Hilde’s questioning in a way that suggested that she was either hiding something or didn’t want to know any more than the narrative the family kept had about its history. In the value hierarchy of ethnicity in this part of Norway, Norwegians stood at the top, Finns were somewhat lower than them and Sami were far down towards the bottom. Depending on where they were from and the current geopolitical situation, Others from outside the country (e.g. white North American expats, Syrian Muslim or Catholic refugees) would fall at various places on the spectrum. Masha, one of the Russians with us on the tour, joked that she didn’t want to know where Russians these days stood on the scale.

The past decade has seen a prioritisation of Arctic research for Europe linked to the development of EU Arctic policy and concerns over security and sustainability (Konyshev and Sergunin 2012), but the bulk of recent EU funding has gone into ‘hard’ scientific projects about the Arctic (our Arctic Encounters project is one exception). It’s interesting that there haven’t been any large-scale funded projects (to my knowledge) that look anthropologically (or at least making use of ethnographic methods) at Arctic borders, whether on a circumpolar or national/regional level. Perhaps it is high time for one?

*Changing Weathers ( comprises a network of organisations and projects investigating the cultural, political and climate shifts within the context of art.

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