Summertime in the Landscape Ecology group where I work is field season. For weeks on end, the PhD students and post-docs stomp through the woods and wade in the streams to collect ecological data. They swat off the mosquitos as they count boulders and plants, collect soil and leaves, trap insects and spiders. All of this sweaty work results in measurements, numbers which are then tabularized, graphed, and manipulated in ridiculously complex statistical software packages. Trends and correlations are found between data points so that conclusions can be drawn about how the ecosystem works.
As an environmental historian, I don’t do any of that — although I know some environmental historians that are more inclined to number crunching, particularly those doing climate reconstruction, economic history, and big data analysis. But just because I don’t process my field data down to numbers doesn’t mean I don’t collect field data. In fact, I collect lots and lots of data.
In June, I went to do fieldwork, but it was a bit different from my colleagues. My itinerary spanned 8 days and 1954 km with stops in Östersund and Funasdalen in Sweden and the Dovre mountains region and Trondheim in Norway.
The longest stop was in Östersund where I spent three working days in the Jamtli archive. I looked through correspondence folders and newspaper clipping archives related to the beaver reintroduction efforts of the 1920s and 30s spearheaded by Eric Festin, the museum’s director. I flipped through stacks and stacks of old letters, some typed and some handwritten. In the end, I took with me 296 digital images of documents from the archive, chosen through a selection process that is always subjective. The most interesting sources were personal letters that revealed the ways that the historical actors thought about beavers, nature, and Swedishness, like this example in the archive documents about P.M. Jensen Tveit who supplied the beavers for Swedish reintroductions.
A big part of my project is investigating how reintroduced animals are presented to the public, so my journey included stops at a zoo with a nature room diorama including beaver and muskox, a science museum with animal exhibits, the muskox breeding center in Tännäs, a national park center, and souvenir shops. In addition, I went on two animal safaris as part of this fieldwork. First, I went on a 3-hour muskox safari that involved a steep hike and soaked boots in the pouring rain. I got to hear about the muskox herd of Dovre and how they are presented to tourists, and I got to see some of them from afar. Later I went on a two-hour beaver safari via boat in Sweden. The area has four beaver colonies, so I was able to photograph five different beavers over the course of the evening. I reflected on these sensory tourist experiences filled with animal mascots during my trip.
I am most interested in explaining why things happened the way they did rather than what happened as an environmental historian. I am not interested in reconstructing historical environments, but rather historical mentalities. My colleagues in ecology look for the answers to why questions in mechanisms and system process, which can be graphed and tabulated. I look for the answers in people’s heads – or at least, the traces of thinking that remains in letters, photographs, and objects – which takes narrative and textual analysis. I did not collect samples that would be analyzed in a lab and processed through statistical packages, but I did collect writing and photographic samples that would be analyzed by me on a computer screen. This makes my type of fieldwork very different from my natural sciences co-workers, yet we were all out in the field.