The Arctic Seen and Felt
Gemma Holt is deliberating the Arctic and Arcticness and what they mean to her as a temporary resident of the area
My first week in Finland, I listened to President Sauli Niinistö describe Finland as an Arctic country and Helsinki as an Arctic city. Coming from the United States, where our Arctic status is only acknowledged in Alaska and a few pockets of academia and policymaking, this struck me as unusual. “Am I there yet?” I wondered. When I got to Rovaniemi a few days later, I repeated the question. And although I have been here for six months, I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. I am constantly re-interrogating the boundaries of my personal geography, increasingly mindful of the extent to which place has influenced my expectations, experiences, and narratives.
What does it mean for a place to be Arctic? You can answer this question in geographic terms (north of the Arctic Circle), ecological terms (above the treeline), or political terms (belonging to the Arctic Council) but none of these definitions get at the deeper meanings of space and place. I came to Finland in part to chase down the concept of Arcticness, which has proven to be more elusive than I anticipated. The Arctic the place is constantly overshadowed by the Arctic the idea. Without having been there, we all have a concept of what it looks like: bleak, remote, an empty expanse of land and ice. But for the people who actually live here, Arcticness is a function of life, livelihood, and identity.
Empirically, I have used Phillip Vannini’s concept of “islandness” to gain a foothold into the abstract notion of “Arcticness”. For Vannini, islandness is not what an island is, but what islanders do, their everyday practices and experiences with the world. This way of thinking creates a space for other voices and narratives that is important when studying such a diverse region. In reconceptualizing Arcticness in this fashion, I hope to push beyond the tropes and stereotypes that infuse most media coverage of the region.
Arcticness exists in a space between isolation and interconnectedness. We may think of the region as separate or distinct from other parts of the world, but that is hardly the case today. Even the most remote locations in the polar north are connected via technology, trade, and culture. From a geopolitical perspective, one of the most interesting things about the Arctic is how the region is composed of diverse networks. The Arctic Council is the most obvious example of this phenomenon; in bringing together nations, indigenous peoples, and other organizations under a shared institutional umbrella, the Council facilitates the sharing of many Arctics. In Vannini’s terms, this is an assemblage: “a gathering, a collection, a composition of things that are believed to fit together. To assemble is to act: to actively map out, select, draw together, and to conceive of individual units as a group” (2009).
This characterization also fits with my personal experience of Arcticness. As a temporary resident I am keenly aware of the nuances of life in this part of the world. The region has not been mere background but has had an immediate and visceral impact on my daily existence. I have spent much of my time here thinking about the encounters between people, things, and places and the ways in which people have adapted to life under unique circumstances. The relationships between urban and natural, human and non-human, global and local are intricately knotted together.
Arcticness is an idea, and it is often an ideal. It is a quality, a value, a normative description. There are many characterizations of how the Arctic ought to be, but most of these fail to take into account the complexity of place. The romantic vision of the north isn't wrong, it's just incomplete. Clearly there is something about this part of the world that captivates people, myself included. But that ideal ignores the nuances and subtleties of everyday practice and creates problems by condensing an enormous region into a single concept. We can and should think about Arcticness and question what it means for somewhere to be Arctic without exoticizing the north.
Reexamining Arcticness is not about coming up with a satisfactory definition, nor is it about answering the question of “Am I there yet?” Rather, it is an opportunity to interrogate the relationships between practice, politics, and place. These relationships are powerful; there is a real possibility of being bent out of shape or transformed into something else entirely. As an individual, it is good to be reminded that I am porous and permeable, that there is something bigger, older, and more complex than my own experience to consider. To be mindful of that is to be properly aware of place and open to new ways of thinking.
Text and picture by Gemma Holt
Gemma Holt is a 2017-2018 Fulbright Student studying at the University of Lapland and working with the Arctic Centre’s Sustainable Development research group