Storied Seas Journal
TABLE OF CONTENTS
- ICELANDIC ECOCULTURAL METHODOLOGIES: INTERVIEWING IN HOT POTS AND KITCHENS, GLEANING ENVIRONMENTAL PERCEPTIONS AND PRACTICES by Tema Milstein and Maggie Siebert
- SLEEP STUDIES by Lisa Jevbratt, Siglufjörður, Iceland July 2017
- INTERNATURAL WAYFARING: EMBODIED ECOCULTURAL RESEARCH THROUGH YOGIC POSTURES IN PLACE by Maggie Siebert and Tema Milstein
- WEATHER WE LIVE by Elizabeth Oriel, a segment of a longer fiction piece
Storied Seas Iceland percolated over several years. The first appearance of the project’s concept came while hearing a dream about an elephant. A scientist was studying elephant language in Africa when the matriarch revealed in a dream the possible negative consequences of her work. The notion came for a project that enlarges understandings of interspecies communication, while avoiding the self-reinforcement that comes from studying animals, instead of learning from them. Social anthropologist Tim Ingold describes this possibility, when the environment becomes a place of study, “wherein we learn not about but from its manifold human and more-than-human inhabitants.”1
Through a series of serendipitous events of similar dream re-tellings of other animals and meetings, this project generated, drawing collaborators though group work hadn’t been part of the original idea. Artists, academics, independent scholars, activists seemed to understand this as a platform to explore relationships with the cosmo-ecological world, with one another, with places our work bubbles up from, and with the limits our western culture places on these relationships. Our work interacts with the existential crossroad the planet faces, with marginalized voices of other species, and attempts the hard task of stepping aside from human exceptionalism, solitary notions of self, and other Western modernist constructs to correspond, to answer to, and “to ask what we owe the world for our own sensory formation” (Ingold) as an alternate life-sustaining mode of perception and being in the world. Soon we had collaborators spanning 10 time zones, Tasmania to Italy.
The physicist F. David Peat joined us during his last years of life as has the writer Anya Achtenberg who uses Peat’s essay on “Science as Story” with the “map in the head” idea to teach literature across the US and the world. Peat wrote “Blackfoot Metaphysics” in 2006 and another collaborator, Donal Carbaugh from University of Massachusetts, spent decades learning from Blackfeet in Montana. David Abram's work and participation takes us into our bodies as animals. Activist and author Laura Bridgeman joins us from California as does artist Lisa Jevbratt who makes art about the colors other animals see. Mexican poet Hector Contreras created a school poetry project in Chihuahua, Mexico, around sharing poetic traditions. Icelandic artist Bryndis Snaebjornsdottir and her partner Mark Wilson have a show in Anchorage, Alaska, on polar bears and humans within history, culture and the environment. We now have 25 humans involved.
The work became focused first on Iceland as a region to engage with stories changing over time, dreams, other animals and plants, weather, whales and whaling, fish, economic development, pollution, the process of deterritorialization and reterritorialization. A group of seven of us met in summer 2017 in the northerly town of Siglufjordur, Iceland and began a collaboration, interviewing people, hearing stories of the herring industry, meeting local artists and fishermen, mapping plants species, watching birds, whales and waves. The group generated projects at the cross roads of art, social science and ecology that would answer to the region and bring some positive benefit. This journal presents work from that meeting, as well as from others who couldn’t attend.
1. Ingold, T., 2017. Correspondences: Knowing from the Inside. Published by University of Aberdeen. https://knowingfromtheinside.org/files/correspondences.pdf
Icelandic ecocultural methodologies: Interviewing in hot pots and kitchens, gleaning environmental perceptions and practices
By Tema Milstein & Maggie Siebert
In summer 2017, as two of the academic members of the Storied Seas collaborative, we set out to interview rural coastal Icelandic people about their ecocultural perceptions and practices, using dreams as our entry point. We were drawn to study Icelandic terrestrial and oceanic relations as an island ecoculture largely isolated for hundreds of years and now experiencing rapidly growing international tourism – as of 2016, the annual inflow of tourists exceeds five-fold the approximately 330,000 population. Iceland also is an island of extreme weather and, for much of human existence here, people practiced subsistence, though these practices were not always sustainable. We were interested in broad environmental beliefs and meanings of rural people; in perceptions of climate disruption due to the country’s sub-Arctic location; and in local beliefs about whaling as Iceland is one of three countries that continues to disregard the International Whaling Commission’s hunting ban. We expected our entry point in our interviews to be talking to people about their dreams – extant research has typified Icelandic traditional dream belief systems as uniquely rooted in communication with the more-than-human world.
First, where to interview rural Icelandic people?
This was our first time in Iceland and one of our challenges in starting this study was we did not know many Icelandic people in advance. Further, we knew no rural Icelanders and wanted to interview people living outside city centers who likely have more direct relations with the more-than-human world than urban folks. We also only had two weeks to be in Iceland to gather data and were unsure how we were going to find people who would be willing, on little to no notice, to talk with us. We read in advance that, instead of pubs, the common gathering spot for many is the local hot pot (hot tub) at the village pool. Half jokingly and half hopefully we posited we would find most of our interviewees in these spaces – and this turned out to be true!
There were challenges and benefits to this hot pot approach. Challenges included having no foolproof way in a hot watery space to record – either by notebook or recorder – the interview. We found, however, that this enhanced the benefits of interviewing in a hot pot. For both interviewer and interviewee, the experience in hot water and with no recording device was relaxed; conversation tended to flow in interesting directions.
This is how the hot pot interview tended to go: After the customary and polite scrub down in the locker room (see image above), we entered the hot pot and relaxed. After some time, we or one of our hot pot neighbors struck up a conversation. The vast majority of Icelandic people speak English; this was crucial, as our Icelandic was nonexistent. Our neighbor/s often asked us, as foreigners, what we were doing in their particular small rural town. Though Iceland’s tourism has been exploding over the past several years, not all small towns (especially up north, where our researcher-artist-activist Storied Seas collaborative was based) are big tourist draws. When we told people we were in the country to do research, they often seemed intrigued and usually asked questions. We would ask permission to interview them for the study. If they agreed (which everyone did), we asked them our set of questions, enjoyed the waters together, and then, eventually, said our thanks and goodbyes. We then wetly walked to the locker room to dictate our interview notes into our recording device.
Though most interviews took place in hot pots, we also spontaneously or with some minimal prior arrangement conducted interviews in other public and private gathering spaces. We interviewed one global-fishing-magnate-turned-local-business-entrepreneur in the back office of one of his businesses, a farm and lighthouse keeper family at their dining table, an Airbnb host and wild landscape botanist over a bottle of Brennivin in her kitchen, and a grandson of a whaler on the airplane back to the United States.
One boon to data gathering was the summer sun, which never fully set in July. This provided literally never-ending days that seemed to energize us and those around us, and put us in unrushed social moods. While our time in Iceland was short, the endless days stretched our two weeks into a meandering open time for both intentional and serendipitous meetings with a diverse and interesting range of people who we believe will provide insight into Icelandic ecocultural perceptions and practices.
What are some of our very, very initial observations?
While we have not yet done close data analysis, initial informal analysis during data collection indicates some interesting, if very tentative, interpretations.
In general, our interviewees expressed a deep connection with the land, as well as a practical and fatalist orientation with the ocean, to which many interviewees had lost friends and family during fishing or hunting expeditions. This oceanic relationship appears to be rapidly changing, however, due to newly available technologies, which interviewees often mentioned as keeping people safer by alerting them to bad weather approaching and keeping them off the water to protect them from storms.
When asked about climate disruption, interviewees often brought up science. They stated science is accurate and climate disruption is real. Some interviewees specifically emphasized that their understandings about climate disruption were not “beliefs,” “opinions,” or “feelings,” but instead “knowing.” This very clear knowledge could in part be due to Iceland having a lack of an economically and politically motivated climate denial movement due to the country being energy self-sufficient from thermal and hydro renewable energy, as well as due to its sub-Arctic location and proximity to Arctic changes.
Another initial interpretation regards interviewees’ beliefs about whaling. Unlike the overwhelming “knowing” of climate disruption as fact, the majority of Icelanders we interviewed expressed neutral to supportive views on whaling that appeared to be informed in part by government messages. Interviewee statements included assertions of sovereignty, as well as beliefs that whaling would not last much longer due to a declining interest in, or taste for, eating whale meat among young Icelanders. One striking observation was that many interviewees spoke of killing whales as necessary to maintain ecological balance. This unforeseen management orientation belief appeared to be informed by a government-circulated notion that, since humans are overfishing the oceans, if whales are not killed, they will starve. Some interviewees also talked of whales not being any more special than other animals who humans eat or as just as sustainable to hunt as other ocean animals. When asked what type of whales were being hunted, most said they were not endangered types of whales, naming the minke specifically. A counterpoint some interviewees expressed is that Icelanders increasingly are seeing tourists pay to whale watch with a growing number of Icelandic tour companies and this profit in the end may outweigh any profits gained from whaling. On the other hand, some interviewees pointed out that tourists who choose to try whale meat in tourist-catering restaurants were helping to support and drive the country’s whaling industry.
Finally, though our research was initially inspired by extant studies and shared stories about dreams being deeply culturally important to Icelandic people and at times informing their farming, ocean safety practices, and interactions with the land, many (though not all) interviewees said they did not see their dreams as important. One initial interpretation is, as Iceland has become less isolated and more global, the country’s traditions and belief systems are becoming somewhat diluted and informed by other belief systems. This was illustrated in part by the botanist we interviewed who lived in rural Iceland but had grown up urban. She spoke of not believing that which could not be scientifically proven and that those who believed in dreams were from the older generation. However, some interviewees did reference an Icelandic dream interpretation book that could be found at bookstores, which references shared cultural symbols and meanings. Some also spoke of dreams family members had that portended important life events and one interviewee spoke of every family having a “seer” or “sorcerer” who had such dreams and could see the future.
Sleep Studies, Siglufjörður, Iceland, July 2017
by Lisa Jevbratt
A camera took one photograph every minute throughout the night in a room with a sleeping person. Software generated black and white visualizations by comparing two photographs directly following each other and placing a white pixel where the photographs are different. The resulting visualizations reveal changes such as shifts in light and the sleeper’s movements. Composite images capturing all changes throughout the night were created by overlaying all the visualizations from one night.
The images hint at the stories and landscapes traversed by the sleepers in their dreams, as they process their experiences with the surrounding environment and its inhabitants: sheep, lupines, and huldufólk.
Photos captions are below:
1. Lisa, July 10 2017 4.18AM
2. Lisa, July 10 2017 8.39AM
3. Lisa, July 10 2017 3.30AM to 9.59AM
4. Ruby, July 11 2017 2.25AM
5. Ruby, July 11 2017 8.51AM
6. Ruby, July 11 2017 3.03AM to 11.03AM
7. Yarn spun with wool from sheep gracing the steep hills around Siglufjörður.
Internatural Wayfaring: Embodied ecocultural research through yogic postures in place
by Maggie Siebert & Tema Milstein
ABOUT THE PROJECT
This project arose as a complementary way to playfully engage and interact with the dynamic landscape and more-than-human world we experienced while doing ecocultural research in Iceland. We chose to adapt the photodocumenting emphasis of the contemporary travelogue to emphasize embodied internatural engagement, creating yoga postures in place inspired by, and with/in, the Icelandic more than human world -- the flight of a puffin, the thundering rush of a waterfall, the stretching mountain crags. This is in part a wayfaring project, a way to place how the more-than-human world shaped our selves and our research trip, as well as a way to place, engage, and represent embodied aspects of ecocultural research often left unexpressed. The (at times humorous) postures-in-place follow our journey counterclockwise around Iceland on the ring road.
Place: Borgarfjordur Eystri
ABOUT THE POSTURE
Puffin pose was the first posture to arise in this series. Maggie was feeling inspired and wanted to feel what it might be like to soar through the gray cloudline to hunt for silvery fish to bring back to her pufflings in her nest carved into the steep cliff wall overlooking the ocean. We were among the gaggle of human watchers snapping memories, attempting to capture the flight and ruddering of duck-like orange feet, the hunt and the feast on silver minnow fish in the muddled gray light, and our delight in this waddling animal seemingly too cute to be real. They stared at us as we stared at them. They must be used to this intrusion into their private lives. One thing one learns when doing research in Iceland is that puffins, a now vulnerable and near threatened species that is rarer and rarer on the Icelandic mainland, are still hunted and eaten by some. Seeing -- and then trying to be a puffin through posture-in-place -- made it is the second best thing.
Begin standing, shift all of your weight to one leg, firmly pressing the standing leg into the earth to stabilize one’s balance, hips placed directly over the standing leg, hips square to the soil. Now start to bow forward with the torso as you lift your other leg up away from the ground. Flex/bend at the knee and point the back leg (rudder) to the sky. Open arms like wings, extending out to the sides, energy extending all the way through the fingertips. Lift gaze to observe the world around, where you are flying. Engage the muscles of the back to lift the chest, head, and back leg higher. The bigger the lift the more elated the flight experience.
ABOUT THE POSTURE
This pose emulates the surrounding mountains rising sharply out of the fjord in Siglufjordur, the northernmost mountain town in Iceland and the place our collaborative of academics, artists, and activists chose as our home base. These mountains are so high and the town so north that in the summer, we never saw darkness, and, in the winter, locals told us they go for two months without ever seeing the sun rise above the peaks. Now a small town, of 1,300 people, Siglu was, in the mid-20th century, one of the most populated towns in Iceland because it was the herring fishing capital. One can learn all about the herring trade from the Herring Era Museum, where, among many other well curated artifacts, disturbing Nazi-era German propaganda films depict happy Icelandic workers schlepping herring from nets, packing and salting them in barrels, and shipping them off. Avalanches have plagued Siglufjordur and caused the demise of the herring factory three times in the town’s history. Local folklore speaks of the last troll that died in the mountain pass when an avalanche covered it, or the rock that fell that can grant one eternal youth, or the fact that every hill, rock, tree, and pass are named after experiences, such as “the idiot’s pass,” or “the rock that sits below the sunset,” or “the tree that guides you home”. It was only in 2010 that tunnels were installed through the mountains, making Siglu a site tourists could more easily visit.
Mountain Pose 1: Spread legs wide apart at a comfortable distance, creating a strong stance that feels like a mountain. Reach arms up to the sky, hands touching, fingers joining to create the mountain peak. Lift your gaze to the base of your fingers to try to see the top of the mountain. Falling Mountain/Avalanche Pose: Begin in Mountain Pose 1. Bow forward in reverence to the majestic beauty of tall mountains that have been humbled by the earth’s quaking and are brought to the ground by gravity’s force in an avalanche. The peak of the mountain is now the base of the mountain as you fold your body completely in half. Reflect on the nature of mountains and the nature of existence.
Weather We Live
By Elizabeth Oriel
This is a small section of a larger piece by the same name
at The Sheep Sanctuary
A storm accompanies the living cargo. New arrivals. Clouds throw off torpor, animate the air. Trees throughout the sanctuary have been felled but grass swirls close to the ground. Long grass howls. The pressure on my face and neck reminds me of ones I can’t see. Raul, certain sheep, April. The wind’s touch is stronger than a hand on my face.
Letters are forbidden but I received another one today. Raul. No one else. No one would be reckless and also effortless, seraphic. I’m speechless.
The letter was almost spotted this time. The delivery trucks pull away one inch, then another, watching me in rear mirrors. They smell me, lanolin-scented rage.
Raul’s letter passed in with a load of new sheep, though there are no new sheep. That’s what’s suspicious without Raul’s cautioning. Sheep don’t breed anymore. The ones we watch over are the last ones, and when they die, the world will move ahead into a different future without gorgeous eyes.
The new sheep stand to one side of the field, holding sway, ignoring the gale. Their faces are sweet. Animal or machine, they’re learning this place. The smells are rich, grass and sorrel. You can smell the sea with this wind. No trees but shrubs with elegant latticed-shaped leaves, smells of sunlight on sage and even pines up the hills pitch their scents to us. Birds are diminished, but some arrive and stay a week, eating berries. I love this place, as the sheep do. They know everything that’s happening.
Raul’s letter is in code, of course, and I can make sense of parts, not the whole. The new black and white sheep have long elegant horns, carry themselves with a different air. Raul says they’re imitating life, not real, robots. If you cut one, no blood, just circuitry. The question he raises is why. Are they spies? Are their eyes windows into central Supreme?
They’re supremely smart. He was in a small area of the barn, marking the sheep’s activities, as he secretly is always conducting animal behavior studies, partly in anticipation of this weird day when sheep are no longer sheep. He was tallying the number who’d seemed blinded by the light (which comes on with eating certain plants), when a black and white one peered onto the page, surprised.
Raul’s letter will take a month to decipher. He likes it that way. Keeps me busy and unable to injure myself unintentionally. Sometimes I pull a muscle in my sleep or fall and break a bone. I live in that line between complete vulnerability and immersion. His ideas last month were on mimicry. Well, much more than that. Raul is a philosopher of space. He thinks the world can be explained by relations to space. And for his new groundbreaking theory, he’s divided the world into four physical positions. When I first heard it, I thought he was talking about sex. But it’s metaphysics, which includes sex. Every relationship, interaction, behavior, issue can be explained by one or more of the four. Mimicry, mirroring, opposing, and moving along with. Its’ a basic yet complicated idea and I’ll have many evenings immersed, as if I were learning Sanskrit or Urdu and reading Plato.
If I ‘move together’ with sheep today across the field in a formation, that must be generating something, building alliances. Not loss and break down, like losing my children. I mirror sheep also, as then they trust me more. One hangs her head to the right and I do the same, though to my left, a mirror image.
I live for Raul’s letters. I can’t see his face, his mouth, the way his eyebrows move. But it’s not that uncommon to create a meaningful life around another’s words. It helps.
at Supreme Data Modelling Center
It’s 7pm. Wind picking up outside. Can’t see it, but smell rain through the walls. Tempted to leave this forsaken lab for a few minutes, weeks. Grab my vest, feel actual currents on my face. Climate models swirl green, purple, orange on the screen leave me mindless, blank, meaning I need a break.
My wool scarf off the hook and outside. I’ll mark the perimeter of this monstrous $30-million building. Windows wrap around chrome buttresses, like Notre Dame, a monument to science. I’m a scientist and I work in an institution of science and I can make up theories. Here goes. Well, not quite yet.
The sun’s gone, reluctant to go away, elongating, mingling with clouds that erase the day. My mind goes empty. A good start. Now I can talk to myself.
Geese always stake out the pond below.
Paula’s at the next desk. She’s not here now, no one is. It’s not even a work day, but I tend to work without schedules. What’s Paula doing? Or Deirdre? I seem to be confused about people’s lives. Do I want a life with Paula? Can’t envision it. She might actually accept if I offered. She has the invisible emptiness around her. Invisibility is always a good place to start. To see what is absent.
Chaos theory is where I started. A call to predictability, wanting to control the unknowable. My mother’s house, white vinyl siding and lives going along. The grocery store, buy chicken thighs, pale tubes of pasta, tomatoes, your TV shows while you bite into flesh. Chaos can be a welcome thing, a whole being. Not knowable, touchable. Chaos led me to weather prediction.
In the old days, people knew the weather from their cows, sheep, their teeth, the way grass sounds, insects and birds know first. That’s why in mythology, birds help the gods know things, approaching storms. Odin’s ravens, they are named Thought and Remembrance. When the flight of birds was unique. Now it’s algorithms. Numbers and data crunching.
Moons, thermals, tides, sun spots, super novae. A field above my white house, I remember going up there for the first hush of a storm. When the air becomes too still, uncanny, as if a tease from a demon. A coded message. Taunting me. To drive me to the edge. After the eye of Hurricane Elaine passed the field, the wind entered my mind. I’m dissolved.
Science is a scaffolding, a temporary structure for me to stand on to look in at my desire. I happily take advantage. When I first discovered strange attractors in chaos theory, I knew immediately what they are. Because the wind in my mind was one.
On the Plateau
The haze has eyes. More than usual today. Too many to count. They come close to my face, crouching on all fours. Ready to jump on me while I sleep and merge our breathes. I don’t want haze dreams, so I keep distant, which seems impossible when you’re speaking of haze. It’s everpresent. But I know ways.
The dry grass wants the haze, wants to sing quietly as moisture deadens their melodies. Grass knows what’s coming. It’s our closest secret and our base of wisdom. Our thoughts lose electricity as hazes pull them away. Now the plateau perceives a faint exhaust of snow. She urges the light to stay longer, to just finish the task, holding your gaze, not being sorry.
The world is tiny, nothing, but the glue of my own crouch, my hands touching grass lightly. A tern opens his mouth at me, starting to speak and stopping. Grass sheaths close and wind lightens my hair.
I’m not pulling hair, but my skin burns this morning. Weird some miseries and pains can only be felt by the body.
These new sheep are oddly aloof. Not like spying robot sheep should be. They seem uninterested in humans. Something else holds them here. Perhaps invisible forces, electro-magnetic pulls. I am pushing at boundaries. I stay close to one, pet his head, and wonder if my DNA will be read. He leads me out of the barn to a field we never use, and then I understand, he wants the goldenrod. How unusual. The others wouldn’t know about this plant here.
Raul’s codes are lines, delicate curves of meringue I ate the day before my father died in that Viennese looking café, and cloud formations when I first arrived at this sanctuary and thought this to be a homecoming, seeing my children again. Each cloud was their eyes and shapes of their heads. The sheep are now my children.
I lie down in the field, under different shapeless clouds, thinking these are still real beings, meaning what? Did Raul send them? Did they emerge from robotic portals? The clouds are welcome.
I hear grass blending, swirling, curling in sheep mouths. They’re wanting the grass next to my head, and the black and whites are in the corner, holding a meeting about their next steps. I imagine the sky should change color.
When storms arrive, my sheep children face the wind, maybe to avoid the worst buffeting. They graze facing north/south. My grandfather once told me of from his earlier life on a farm:
If you have horses or sheep, approximately half a day before, they all turn with their behinds, the asses up towards where the wind will come from and they collect into groups instead of one and one, and the oldest one is in the behind, so they take the hit. It’s the same with birds. If you have a group of geese, the oldest ones are on the top and the bottom, they keep the kids in the middle. So when goose people are hunting, they shoot in the middle.
The north/south positioning, my grandfather told me, is related to magnetic pull of the north pole. The poles pull towards each other, from swirling movements of iron in Earth’s outer core. Choreography. Raul’s positions. North and South oppose and also mimic. And mirror and move along. They do all four.
I am opposing now, and mimicking because I seek violence against this regime’s violent ways. Or mirroring because I’m doing a similar movement but in my own way. Raul and I move along together in our correspondence. If everything is in one or more of four positions, we can all understand each other, because we’re all in the same pattern.
Love is what makes us desire and kill and give birth and write and eat. Love is in four positions always, and many more.
The screen is in front of my face forever and ever. The screen and I love each other. We can’t imagine an hour go by without the other. Does the screen think of me?
I have a window next to my desk. Crows are out today, magpie, doves, starlings rise from a tree in one burst. Unpredictability reigns. Vinyl houses are disruptive forces. The birds still rise off the trees but the atmosphere no longer holds us in her embrace.
I dream at night of storms, snow, rain clouds, monsoons, tornadoes. I’m always hiding in a bunker. Sometimes, Paula is there. We consult each other often in dreams, we’re working on the same projects, a team entering a door to the earth, to the inside of stars.
My thoughts are random and hard to follow, I imagine.
Acrylic painting on canvas of Siglufjörður by Elizabeth Oriel.