An epoch doesn’t change with the turning of a calendar page. We can’t distinguish one zeitgeist from the next until decades or perhaps even centuries later. Or at least that used to be the case. Now the destruction of our planet is occurring in real time right in front of our sunburnt noses. Nevertheless, as of today the International Commission on Stratigraphy has not yet added our monstrous Anthropocene age to the Geologic Time Scale. Officially speaking, we’re still in the Holocene, but, as the old saw goes, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Some debate continues about when the Anthropocene actually began, with one interesting suggestion being July 16, 1945: the date of the Trinity test at Los Alamos and the dawn of the nuclear age. That narrative feels too neat to me, though; we would be letting ourselves off the hook by pointing fingers at one small group of scientists and government officials, however willfully misguided they were. Personally, I think the human race began to shit where we eat, ecologically speaking, during the Industrial Revolution.
The question before us now isn’t whether we’re making this planet inhospitable to ourselves and countless innocent species, but why we lack the collective will to even slow our maniacal despoiling.
On November 23, 2018—when Americans were distracted by Black Friday sales—the US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) quietly released its National Climate Change Assessment. Shortly thereafter, the responsible humans at Melville House took the bold and necessary step of rushing The Climate Report into print so it would find a wider audience. Compiled by 300 federal and non-federal experts, it describes in stark detail the effects of climate change on seemingly every aspect of American life, including our water and forests, air quality and human health. I found the section on Tribes and Indigenous People especially devastating:
Climate impacts to lands, waters, food, and other plant and animal species threaten cultural heritage sites and practices that sustain intra- and intergenerational relationships built on sharing traditional knowledges, food, and ceremonial or cultural objects. This weakens place-based cultural identities, may worsen historical trauma still experienced by many indigenous peoples in the United States, and adversely affects mental health and indigenous values-based understandings of health.
I’ve read this passage maybe two dozen times and the pain of it remains unbearable. It would be tempting to fall into complete and utter despair, but that too would be a cop-out.
By many estimates, the rate of global warming is twice as fast at the Arctic Circle compared to the rest of the planet, which leads me to wonder about the incalculable strains on the indigenous cultures and communities who live there. Emilie Demant Hatt’s 1922 classic By the Fire: Sami Legends and Folk Tales, newly translated into English for the first time, preserves some stories shared by peoples now threatened on all sides by climate change.
It would be tempting to fall into complete and utter despair, but that too would be a cop-out.
Hatt (1873-1958), who was Danish, lived and traveled through Sámpi—then called Lapland—off and on from 1907 to 1916. There, at the top of the world, she kept detailed field notes of stories told in the different languages and dialects of the region. In the introduction, she writes:
This small book is called “by the fire” because everything here was told around the campfire. Fire is, after reindeer, the best thing the Sami have. In the old days, fire was a power they made offerings to; they tried not to let it go out. They felt such a personal connection to the trees whose wood they burned, mostly birch and pine, that they chopped “eyes” in the firewood, so the pieces of wood “could see they were burning well.”
It’s worth remembering that Sámpi sits so close to the north pole—now ground zero of our active apocalypse—that the Sami spend half of the year in sunlight and half in utter darkness. “For the Sami,” translator Barbara Sjoholm writes in her afterword, “the earth was alive and imbued with spirit; animals, trees and even stones had recently been able to speak.” It’s easy to imagine how fire itself could bear such supernatural importance. From what I can tell, Hatt’s visits to Sámpi seemed to have occurred during the spring migrations of reindeer and in summertime. The scene she evokes, however, speaks to those long and dark winters:
The spirit of Fairy Tale perches at the edge of the hearth. The fire hisses, the flames flare and die back, the firelight is divided into light and dark, red and black. Across the tent walls glide huge shapes of people and dogs, fantastically clad men, dogs as clever as humans.
These folktales and legends fit a few general themes, such as “Elk, Lucky Reindeer, Reindeer Luck, and Wizardry” and “Sickness Spirits” and “Murdered Children.” Several of the stories tells us how the Sami first came to have their reindeer and there are many tales of invasive Russian bandits known as Chudes.
In “The Sami Man and the Devil,” a man has promised himself to the Evil One, known here as Bærgalak. When the devil comes to collect his due, the man is able to outwit him by making him count the hairs on his belt made of a reindeer’s belly fur. There’s little I could tell you here about “The Shoes Sewn from Human Skin,” other than the tensions between Sami tradition and the rising influence of Christianity inform a lot of what happens in these stories.
One of my favorite tales here is perhaps the most inexplicable. In the short “The Giant Folk Who Had Tame Elk,” some clever mountain giants have managed to tame their herd. However, when some people move to the area the giants decide they don’t want neighbors so they “dug deep pits and dressed themselves in their finest and threw themselves into the pits.” (Maybe I should give a copy of this story to my neighbor who has put up eight sets of windchimes.) The giants’ collective suicide explains, I suppose, why elk are now wild.
“Historically,” Sjoholm writes, “the Sami have often been described as a peaceful people, who have no word for war and who prefer to retreat into the mountains and use their way-finding skills to throw enemies off their tracks.” Given that “the industrialization of the north brought mining, damming, and logging, which destroyed native habitat,” I fear that their worst enemy now is us.
Since reading The Old Ways by the great English naturalist Robert Macfarlane a few years ago, I’ve been adding new place-words to my word-hoard of unique, regional vocabulary words I find. (Remind me sometime to regale you endlessly about “jawn.”) As much as I loved reading By the Fire, I do lament the decision to leave out Hatt’s original Sami glossary.
Even without it, though, I manage to add the Sami words Stallo (a kind of evil, dim-witted troll or ogre) to my personal bestiary, along with the Dog-Turk (a creature with human bodies and the head of a dog who also eats human flesh). I would however like to know more about the supernatural Nuelesgiete, who apparently travel across the lands to revenge wrongs against the Sami. They must be busy these days.
Macfarlane’s more recent Underland: A Deep Time Journey also came to mind numerous times while reading those folktales. As the title would indicate, it details the author’s often perilous travels to different subterranean locations across Europe, from the catacombs of Paris to the Slovenian Highlands. It’s a remarkable book.
Among the many moving passages and sections in Underland, one called “The Edge” set on the Norwegian island of Andøya has stuck with me in a profound way. For those who share my typically American mastery of geography I’ll mention that although it’s within the Arctic circle, Andøya is south of Sámpi. I had to look it up. The chapter introduced “solastalgia” to my word-hoard. Coined in 2003 by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, it refers to the existential “unhappiness of people whose landscapes were being transformed about them by forces beyond their control.” One of its sufferers is Macfarlane’s guide, the singular Bjørnar Nicolaisen: fisherman, activist, shaman, bad ass.
Nicolaisen fishes in some of the best cod waters in the world, which are also home to one of the largest cold-water reefs left on the planet. “‘Here in some of the finest fishing grounds in the Arctic,’” Nicolaisen says, “‘here is where they were sonic blasting, testing for oil, here is where those idiots want to place the rigs.’”
The evidence has been here all along. We’ve simply chosen not to see it.
The threat to the cod and the traditional fishing practices are, to Macfarlane, a battle for Norway’s soul. “Dried cod from those fishing grounds was thought to have been carried as a staple seafood by the Vikings on their founding voyages to Iceland and Greenland.” When the oil industry began to threaten Andøya, Nicolaisen did what every single one of us needs to do.
He knocked on doors up and down the islands. He took to the newspapers, writing about the dangers of blasting and drilling. He activated old Norwegian allegiance to cod, and set it against the new Norwegian allegiance to oil. He challenged oil company representatives to debate. He used satire, mocking them and their plans in print and broadcasts, and challenged the hard science of their claims.
Nicolaisen succeeded in holding the rigs at bay, at least for now, but the personal cost was extraordinary. The strain sent him into a kind of trance that required institutionalization. When he returned from the hospital, he went back to protesting. Twice more in the years that followed he was struck down and twice more he continued to battle. Someday there will be folktales written about him.
In the meanwhile, Macfarlane reminds us in Underland of some difficult truths:
In the Anthropocene we can no longer easily keep nature at a distance, holding it at arm’s length for adoration or inspection. Nature is no longer only a remote peak shining in the sun, or a raptor hunting over birch woods—it is also tidelines thickened with drift plastic, or methane clathrates decomposing over millions of square miles of warming permafrost. This new nature entangles us in ways we are only beginning to comprehend.
The evidence has been here all along. We’ve simply chosen not to see it.
It’s been 200 years since Mary Shelley wrote what stands as the most enduring critique of the Industrial Revolution. She understood which way the wind was blowing. The recent republication of her original 1818 text restores the raw vivacity of her early writing, before rewriting and watering it down for the 1831 version that most of us grew up on. One central theme remains the same. As the scholar Charlotte Gordon notes in her introduction, “Unchecked male ambition will lead to destruction, injustice, and devastation.” She might well have been speaking about climate change.
Personally, I care less about the fate of industrial-age humans than I do about the natural world and the poor creatures forced to endure us. Like Nicolaisen’s activism, Shelley’s sympathy for the created rather than for the creator—that is, for the victim rather than the perpetrator—can still teach us volumes even now about the havoc we’re wreaking.
Unless we follow Bjørnar Nicolaisen’s sterling example, we know this story and all stories set in icy expanses of the far, far north will end the way Frankenstein does:
“My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus. Farewell.”
He sprung from the cabin window, as he said this, upon the ice-raft which lay close to the vessel. He was soon borne away by the waves, and lost in darkness and distance.