Driving

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Kirkeporten rock formation outside of Skarsvag.

I recently returned from a trip to the North Cape of Norway, which at 71 degrees latitude bills itself as the northernmost point of continental Europe. At the end of the road there’s a visitor center and a selection of statues to commemorate the geography, although technically the actual northernmost point of Europe is one fjord over and only accessible by foot in the summer. And technically both fjords are on the same island that’s connected to the mainland via bridge and if an island is allowed to be the northernmost point of Europe then the distinction goes to Rudolf Island in Russia and if Russia doesn’t count as Europe then the distinction goes to Svalbard but whatever, technicalities don’t matter when you’re doing a booming business of 200,000 tourists a year.

Fortunately we were there well before the onslaught, which shows up in droves on tour buses and cruise ships during the summer months. I imagine that standing in line to take a photo in front of the only-somewhat-iconic globe statue is an experience devoid of charm, but since we basically had the place to ourselves we got to appreciate Nordkapp for all its windswept beauty. “Wow,” I kept saying. “I can’t believe this place exists.”

We stayed in a fishing village called Skasvag, population 60. There was only one business open, a restaurant, and the proprietor told us it was too early in the season for her to have a menu but she could make us king crab or waffles. The only other people in the place were fishermen who had just come in off their boats. We could see the cod hanging to dry outside. Twice we returned to take her up on her offer, but both times it was closed.

We were there for two days and spent most of our time marveling at the landscape and wondering just how people wound up in this place. We visited another town nearby, Gjesvær (population 130), which is the only town in the North Cape that has been around since the Viking Age but also has only been connected by road since 1977. During the interim years you had to take a boat.

A few years ago I drove to the end of South America, making our way down the Chilean coastline to Tierra del Fuego. There too I was compelled by a desire to see what it was like at the limit of human settlement.  We didn’t realize how isolated we would be until we spent the last 20 miles worrying that we would run out of gas at the end of nowhere.

I have met a lot of people this year who are fascinated by the North. It’s hardly a surprise; after all, many of the people I’ve gotten to know have dedicated their lives to Arctic scholarship. But for some (dare I say for many?) this connection to place surpasses academic passion. It’s hard to explain how a place can be more than a place, but believe me, it’s possible.

In a seminal work of Arctic writing, Barry Lopez asks “How do people imagine the landscapes they find themselves in? How does the land shape the imaginations of the people who dwell in it? How does desire itself, the desire to comprehend, shape knowledge?” These are the questions that I have been thinking about all year in pursuit of a satisfactory answer to, “What does it mean for a place to be Arctic?”

I too am fascinated by the North, but it is not the foundation of my obsession. Rather, I am captivated by edges, by boundaries, by places on the precipice of here and not-here. In Nordkapp and Tierra del Fuego, the only thing that dwarfs the vast isolation of the landscape is the open ocean at the end of the road. You can’t really take a picture of it. Photographs do a poor job of communicating how small you are against the emptiness. I crave this feeling, this combination of natural mysticism and a profound sense of insignificance. It averages out to reverence.

The clock is running out on my time here and one of the things I think I will miss most are these feelings of reverence. This year has helped me to foster a deep respect for Arctic landscapes and the people who inhabit them. The imagined Arctic and the lived Arctic exist in a delicate balance and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to explore that dynamic.

I am leaving Rovaniemi in a few days, which is a strange feeling. I haven’t decided how sentimental I should feel. This year was always intended to be finite so it’s odd that I feel like the conclusion has snuck up on me. My last week in Finland will be spent in Helsinki – I have a concluding Fulbright event to attend, a half marathon to run, and a friend visiting from Spain – but I’ll have time to do some writing and reflecting on the year as a whole.

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Sunset at Nordkapp

 

Freezing

Winter is coming to a close. We’ve had a few days above freezing and the sun is out for nearly 15 hours a day. The thaw is sort of a two-steps-forward-one-step-back affair. In Western Mass we had mud season; here, it’s ice season. The warmth of the sun melts the snow during the day and then it freezes back up overnight, making my two mile bike commute treacherous.

I am also slowly thawing. I hadn’t realized how deeply I had hibernated this winter. The darkness and the cold zaps your energy and it took until the end of March for me to shake the dust off. Like a plant growing towards the light, I crave the sun and I’m thrilled that it’s finally back. I developed a new appreciation for the winter; although it was hard at times, it was also a lot of fun. In this post I’ll share a few anecdotes and observations about winter in the north.

1. Staying active

I learned pretty quickly that the secret to surviving is spending as much time outside as possible, so I’ve sampled tons of winter sports. I’ve snowshoed and fatbiked and skiied and I also decided to train for a half marathon in the snow, which at times I have regretted. I have also spent a fair amount of time watching other people play winter sports, including local ski races and hockey games.

My apartment is basically across the street from the ski hill in Rovaniemi, which has over 200 kilometers of trails. Being able to ski before work is an awesome perk and although Finnish elementary schoolers are still faster than I am, I’ve gotten so much better this winter. Last week I crossed off a bucket list activity and skied to the office! I’m definitely going to miss the accessibility of outdoor activities.

2. Appreciating the subtleties of winter landscapes

There are two bridges that cross the Ounasjoki River to connect the neighborhood where I live to the Rovaniemi city center. During the winter, the river was entirely frozen except for a small pool that forms underneath the newer of the two bridges. On the coldest days, the temperature differential between the air and that pool causes steam to rise from the river and engulf the bridge in a cloud. It’s an amazing sight: on clear days, the only cloud is sitting at eye-level, forming an impenetrable mist. Once, there were miles of visibility in all directions, but I could not make out the shape of the bridge a hundred feet in front of me.

It’s these sorts of details that have stood out, moments that have made me pause to notice how special this place is. I hope that writing about them sears them in my memory so that when I look back I can appreciate the magical touches that winter leaves. The slow pace of life has given me the time to savor the small things.

3. Exploring

I’ve ventured north of Rovaniemi a few times this winter, into “the real Lapland.” Each of these trips has been really special. My dad visited in February and we spent four days in Inari, which was the furthest north either of us had ever been. We went on two long ski trips which took us up fells, across rivers, and over frozen lakes. On our first day we made it to the Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church, built in 1760 in a Sami winter village that has long since been abandoned. Today the church mostly goes unused, save for an annual midsummer service. The rest of the time it’s only accessible to hikers and skiers who are exploring the forests of the Arctic Circle. Somehow it has withstood the elements, protected only by a door that you push a log in front of on your way out. It was empty and silent except for the creaking floorboards and the rustling of the wind. I thought it was beautiful.

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Pielpajärvi Wilderness Church

There have been plenty of other great moments this winter, but these have been some highlights. Unfortunately I’m heading home before summer truly arrives, but at least the marathon training is getting easier!

Journaling

I am not very good at journaling. I aspire to be because good writers often say that the secret to good writing is to do it often. Skill comes as the result of volume and of effort. But it is not a skill that I possess, in part because I lack the patience and in part because I have never managed to be honest with myself in a medium that is built on self-honesty.

At various points I have kept travel journals and they read like itineraries: Today I got up early, had toast for breakfast, hiked ten miles. Tired but glad to have made it to Camp II. Attempts to reckon with my experiences on a deeper level come up short; my writing, in hindsight, is either falsely upbeat or needlessly dramatic. These journals are intended for my own consumption, but they are of little use to me since they neither match up with my own memories nor succeed in reminding me of the details of my experience.

Joan Didion says of journaling: “Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.”

Didion is of course one of those writers who has always kept a notebook, but at least she acknowledges the strangeness of it. Journaling, as demonstrated by my own challenges with it, lacks objectivity and thus runs the risk of being artificial.

This is all a long winded way of saying that I feel frustrated by my own inability to keep a written record of my year in Finland, whether on paper or on this blog. I come up with different ways to justify my silence: my life is relatively uninteresting to write about, I am busy and have more pressing assignments, I’ll get around to it over the weekend. But really it’s just that, despite my best intentions, I rarely manage to sit down and write. I worry that I will one day regret this.

This year has given me a lot to think about, both personally and professionally. I tell myself that my job for the year is to be a sponge, to absorb as many ideas and insights about the Arctic and policymaking and Finland as I can. I think I am succeeding in this, at least if it can be measured by the number of books I have read and seminars I have attended and questions I have asked. By the end of the year I will hopefully have two academic papers finished, which is one more than I set out to write. I will have had the incredible opportunity to travel all over Europe. I will have watched the Aurora Borealis, skied across a frozen river, enjoyed dozens of korvapuustit. These moments run together in my daily existence, which makes it hard to determine what the point of it all is.

Interpretation requires distance. I have found it impossible to understand what these experiences mean while I am embedded in them. This is maybe why journaling has been so difficult. If I had a poet’s gift for words I could turn the dancing lights in the sky into some kind of narrative, but instead all I can do is try to savor them in the moment.

This has been, in so many ways, an incredible year. But it has also been, at times, a frustrating year, a year of questioning, a year defined by transition and impermanence and change. It’s far from over, but I woke up one morning a few weeks ago and realized that I was well past the halfway point. I feel a fair amount of pressure to make the most of my last three months here since I don’t know when in my life I will have as much freedom and flexibility as I do right now. I’ll do my best to write about it, but I will also acknowledge that it takes both time and space to turn experiences into words.

Observing

I am overdue for a blog update. The last month has been pretty busy, but somewhat incoherent, at least in a narrative sense. First I attended two conferences here in Rovaniemi – the Polar Law Symposium, a small academic event hosted by the Arctic Centre, and then the Rovaniemi Arctic Spirit, a larger and flashier event intended for a more general audience. Then I traveled to Copenhagen to visit my sister for Thanksgiving. And in between I have been finishing up the work for my fall courses and trying to get to a reasonable place with my own research before the semester ends.

I will write a more detailed post before I leave for Christmas vacation, but in honor of Finland’s 100th birthday yesterday I thought I would share my list of “Finnish-isms.” I have been keeping track of the joys, challenges, and quirks of life here – essentially a collection of the things that make Finland unique. Here are just a few of them!

1. Sauna

Sauna is the only Finnish word that has made it into everyday English – and for good reason. I’ve been told that in a country with five million people, there are over three million saunas! I have gone to sauna in my apartment building, at the pool, at a trendy public sauna with an attached bar in Helsinki, with my coworkers at our fall symposium, and in a cabin in Levi. Recently an outdoor sauna opened on the bank of the river here in Rovaniemi, complete with an hole in the ice for cooling off. I’ll update once I work up the courage to try that one…

2. Second-hand shopping

Finns do not like to throw things away, especially if there’s a chance that someone else could find a use for them. Thus, there is a thriving secondhand culture. When I first got here, I got almost everything I needed for my apartment at the thrift stores. If you go on the weekends, the shops are packed with Finns looking for good deals on clothes, kitchen items, sporting goods, books, you name it. There is also a sizable network of used goods available on Facebook. I joined a bunch of these buy/sell groups on the hunt for used cross-country skis and at first I was so surprised by what people were trying to get rid of. “Why would anyone want [a white tshirt, an assortment of nail polish, a random collection of toys]?” I thought. But then I realized that throwing out totally functional consumer goods is anathema to many Finns. Now I don’t just appreciate the thrift stores for their cheap kitchenwares and kitschy snowsuits, but also for their contribution to a less wasteful culture.

3. “The Nature”

When I ask Finns what they like to do in their free time, a common response is that they “like to go in the nature.” At first this confused me – what does it mean to “go in the nature?” Does it mean that you like to hike? Or ski? Or go berry picking? Choose an activity! Of course, I eventually realized that “going in the nature” was the perfect description of my relationship with the outdoors. I like to hike and ski and go berry picking and do a lot of other things as well. I think there is something wonderful about the idea of the nature as the most important part. The particular activity is secondary. The outdoors isn’t just a means to an end, but a unique event in itself.

4. Coffee Break

Here’s my daily schedule at the office: arrive around 9, coffee break. Work until lunch at 11:30. Take a long-ish lunch break (an hour is hardly frowned upon). Come back to the office. Afternoon coffee break at 2. People start to leave work around 4. This schedule initially seemed unproductive, but I’ve realized that everyone here just works more efficiently than I do. While I am getting distracted by checking my email and doing the crossword and seeing what’s going on in the news at home (nothing good, of course), my coworkers are actually doing their work.

5. The Darkness

I knew winter was going to be dark, but I underestimated exactly how dark it would get. I also underestimated the effect that the constant darkness would have on my body. Since coming back from Copenhagen, getting out of bed in the morning has been impossible. I snoozed my alarm for an hour this morning – a very unusual behavior for a life-long morning person. Today, the sun rose at 10:39 and set at 1:38, but it was too foggy to actually see it and so daylight was just a slightly brighter shade of grey. At best, it gets about 10 or 15 degrees above the horizon. On my more organized days, I try to spend part of my lunch break outside so I can absorb some vitamin D. On my less organized days, I look at flights to tropical destinations.

6. The “in-breath joo”

Finns are excellent listeners. When you are speaking, Finns will pay attention in complete silence. Americans, on the other hand, punctuate another person’s speech to acknowledge that they are following – “yes,” “mm hmm,” “yeah.” This would never happen in conversation with a Finn. Instead, once you are finished speaking, a Finn will agree with you with a distinctive linguistic phenomenon – the in-breath joo. What happens is that the word joo (Finnish for “yeah”) is sounded on an inhale, rather than the usual pronunciation on an exhale. The in-breath joo is a quiet appreciation of another person’s contribution to conversation. Your inhale signifies that you have absorbed their ideas and your joo signifies that you find them valuable. It’s subtle, but endearing.

7. Moomin

We grew up with the Moomins because a Swedish au pair brought us a collection of books, but in Finland they are national treasures. The Moomins are roly-poly creatures who live carefree and adventurous lives in Finnish-inspired nature. They appreciate peace, melancholy, and solitude and derive a great amount of joy from small pleasures. The Moomins are wonderful and charming and I aspire to be like them, although the closest I get is drinking out of a Moomin mug at coffee breaks.

Happy 100 years, Finland!

Looking Up

An adventure in four parts.

It’s been more than two months since I got to Finland and the novelty and chaos of being in a new environment have worn off, leaving a routine that is sometimes interesting, often mundane. This is more or less to be expected yet it’s still hard to accept how much of my energy is directed towards minutiae – go to class, go to the office, pay my rent, do some yoga, go to the grocery store, call my mom, rinse, repeat. I am less busy than I have been in years and all the free time can be oppressive. Turns out that not being stressed is stressful.

A few weeks ago this started to get to me. There is not a lot of expectations management in the Fulbright application and orientation processes and I spent so much time thinking about all the ways that this year would be amazing that I skipped over the ways it would be challenging. I am working through a low-level crisis of purpose – why am I here, what is the point of my research, am I making the most of my time in Finland, etc. – that I think is shared by many other Fulbrighters (and actually many other recent college grads).

I’m addressing this because I realize that my blog and my instagram and my responses when people ask how things are going make my life here sound like a nonstop adventure. And indeed, the rest of this post is going to continue along the same lines. But it seems dishonest not to acknowledge that in between the blog-worthy updates I am spending a lot of time alone, dealing with the banalities of adult life, trying to figure out what I’m doing here.

One way to combat these feelings is to force myself out of my routine. The rest of this post will be four stories from the last two weeks, all of which reminded me of the possibilities within reach here.

PART I: AMERICAN VOICES

In which I embrace my nostalgia.

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Peter, Maya, and me talking about our shared love of small liberal arts colleges.

Two weekends ago I traveled to southern Finland to speak at the American Voices conference in Turku. This was the first time since the orientation program that the entire Fulbright cohort got together. Every Fulbrighter presented on some aspect of American culture and society, ranging from 3D printing as a modern day form of “maker culture” to the American immigrant experience to the traditions of marching bands. I talked about small liberal arts colleges with Maya, a 2017 Pomona grad, and Peter, an economics professor at Middlebury. Our talk covered a little bit about the history of small liberal arts colleges and the achievements of students from these institutions in graduate school and fellowship acceptances and a lot about the weird and wacky experiences of students at these schools.

We arrived at this topic because the liberal arts model is largely unfamiliar to European students and educators. I have had multiple conversations in which I’ve tried to explain things like living on campus, what it means to be an English major, dining halls and meal plans, or college sports. Sometimes the conclusion has been, “yeah, it is kind of like college in the movies.” American Voices was a great opportunity to talk about what makes liberal arts colleges unique and why they are effective educational institutions. It was also a great opportunity to feel a little sentimental about Williams. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss being a college student but reminiscing about WOOLF and Mountain Day and long afternoons in Tunnel got some of the nostalgia out of my system.

Our talk was a hit with the Finnish audience – the Fulbright people told us they wanted us to repeat it verbatim for the Ministry of Education. Which would be cool except we did not rehearse and barely had notes. Alas.

It was a fun way to spend a couple of days and a good opportunity to reconnect with the rest of the Fulbrighters. It’s a really nice group of people and it was reassuring to learn that I am not the only research grantee who’s not entirely sure what they’re supposed to be researching.

PART II: ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE IN AN ARCTIC CONTEXT

In which I pretend to be an expert.

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The House of Estates in Helsinki

Traveling to the southern part of Finland from Rovaniemi is a bit of a chore, so after American Voices I decided to stick around Helsinki for an event hosted by the Finnish Ministry of the Environment about ongoing scientific projects associated with Arctic Council working groups. I hoped this event would bring into focus some of the issues I’ve been reading about and kickstart a transition from theory to practice.

The event was a fairly high level gathering of scientists and policymakers. It was hosted in the House of Estates (pictured above) which is a very fancy government building. I found many of the presentations to be very interesting and I learned a lot about current research areas. Even more interesting were the political dynamics that shaped the structure of the day without ever being addressed explicitly.

Most obvious were the positions assumed by French and German researchers as co-organizers of the event. France and Germany are not members of the Arctic Council but they both have observer status, which means that they have no decision-making power, but they are able to attend the Council’s meetings and contribute resources to working groups. It was clear that both countries are invested in growing their Arctic expertise, but the motivations for these investments are less obvious.

Inherent in these events is a lot of pageantry – the fancy building, the formal introductions, the assigned seating – and it’s possible that the ritual obscures the content. I think strategic partnerships with observer countries are crucial to the success of the science-policy interface in the Arctic, but it’s worth thinking about whether public displays of soft diplomacy actually accomplish anything. It was definitely interesting to be a fly on the wall since these dynamics are at the core of my research this year.

PART III: NORTHERN LIGHTS

In which serendipity takes over. 

Some Rovaniemi residents boast that you can see the Aurora Borealis 200 nights a year here – if it’s not cloudy. And it’s been cloudy almost every night since I’ve moved to Finland. That, combined with my aversion to staying up past midnight, has prevented me from seeing the famed northern lights. But on Thursday, thanks to a series of magical and very Finnish events, that changed!

I had been wanting to go to the climbing wall but it’s hard to show up at new places without a buddy so I convinced my friend Adri to go with me. Of course my fears were completely unnecessary because everyone at the gym was super friendly. The regular members were very willing to teach me routes and coach my technique. I directed most of my questions towards a woman named Stina and eventually our conversation turned towards the northern lights. I have an app on my phone that alerts me during periods of high meteorological activity, which usually means that I wake up with a bunch of notifications. But I had seen that the index was getting high and when I told Stina I had yet to see the aurora she offered to go home, get her car and her dog, and take me and Adri to a special spot to look for the lights.

As we left the gym, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a flicker of green against the horizon. Stina and Adri, somewhat used to this, kept walking, but I stopped in awe. Even if you’ve seen pictures, in person the northern lights are infinitely more magical. Photographs can’t do the northern lights justice any more than they can capture the experience of looking up at an incredible starry night. These ones, diminished somewhat by the city streetlights, weren’t even that impressive. Yet I was filled with a sense of awe watching the lights shimmer faintly against the night sky.

Stina got her car and her dog and Adri and I got some warmer clothes, then we headed out of the city to the top of a hill called Santavaara. We drove up an unpaved road, totally dark except for the glare of the moon and the occasional flash of light from forestry machines. When we got to the top, we walked about five minutes to a laavu, an open shelter with a fire pit. Another person was just leaving so we adopted her fire and roasted bananas filled with chocolate while we waited for the lights to return.

From our vantage point on the top of Santavaara, we could see the stars and the aurora above us and the city lights of Rovaniemi below. I don’t have any photographs because you need an SLR camera and I’d left mine at home, but there’s something about the elusiveness of the lights that makes them more valuable. You have no choice but to put down your phone, keep warm by the fire, and just watch and wait.

It was the perfect introduction to one of Finland’s most impressive natural beauties. Kind strangers, a crisp, clear night, and a reminder that sometimes you have to stop what you’re doing and look up at the sky.

PART IV: TO THE NORTH

In which I get us lost.

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Foggy views in Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park

Last weekend four other Fulbrighters came north to do some adventuring before winter arrives. I put on my tour guide hat and did my best to show the group around Rovaniemi. We did not succeed in seeing the northern lights since the clouds had returned, but we had a great nature adventure at Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park. The park is about two hours north of Rovaniemi by car so early Saturday morning we headed off in our rental to explore a new part of Lapland. The highlight of the morning drive was the “traffic” we encountered – herds of reindeer crossing the road, not giving a fig about the oncoming cars.

We planned on doing a 15 kilometer hike, but some confusing signage and limited Finnish skills led to some wrong turns. I was in the lead so this was mostly my fault but fortunately everyone else was a good sport about it. I was the only one worrying that we would have to construct an emergency shelter out of moss and branches after it got dark. We made it back to the car about ten minutes before the sun set and calculated our total distance – 24 kilometers. Whoops.

The hike took us through a variety of Arctic subbiomes, winding through marshy bogs and forests and rocky alpine hillside. Once we got above the treeline we were engulfed by a dense blanket of fog. Except for the ski lifts that decorated one of the fells, Pallas-Yllastunturi felt wilder than any place I’ve visited in Finland. Except for the extra mileage, it was a great day trip and I’m excited to come back once there’s snow on the ground (which will be any day now – it’s snowing as I write this).

That’s all for now – the next few weeks will be busy with some actual deadlines and a visit from my mom (yay!). Moi moi!

Spatializing

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the Northern Political Economy Symposium, which was organized by the Sustainable Development Working Group at the Arctic Centre.  The symposium was small, but it attracted researchers from all over the Arctic region including scholars from Finland, Russia, Sweden, Norway, and Mongolia. About half of the presentations were by researchers at the Arctic Centre so the symposium was a great opportunity to learn more about the work my colleagues are doing.

Presentations covered a wide range of topics, but the overall theme of the symposium was “Political Arctic/Arctic Political.” What does that mean? As I interpreted it, it means that the concept of “Arctic politics” are multi-dimensional. Obviously, there are political aspects to life in the Arctic, but “life in the Arctic” is also a political object. The effects and challenges of climate change, globalization, urbanization, and industrialization impact the politics of everyday life in the polar north. The Arctic’s status as a region in flux creates insecurity and uncertainty in social, political, and cultural practices. Indeed, “the changing Arctic” ended up being a second theme at the symposium. Many presentations discussed the idea of Arctic change in more subtle or nuanced ways than the international conversation tends to go.

For example, one of the keynote speakers presented on “Arctic as/and Alternative Modernity” and suggested that the region cannot be understood inside the prevailing notions of global modernity. He made the case that ice acts as a liminal substance that confuses the binary and boundary between water and land. This was perhaps my favorite characterization of a changing Arctic. The description acts to make history and politics spatial, a crucial act in understanding how the systems of the region are connected. How we think, imagine, and materialize space has implications for how we analyze and engage with the political landscape, both theoretically and practically. Space, particularly in the Arctic, is not an inert container but an active component of political processes. As Foucault asserts, “space is fundamental in any form of communal life; space is fundamental in any exercise of power.” This conceptualization alters our understanding of how politics are embedded across different scales, institutional arrangements, and a broad range of actors and stakeholders. Moving away from viewing “the Arctic” as a fixed object creates a fluid, malleable situation that enables the establishment new institutions and customs.

These ideas were repeated in many other presentations. In general there is a challenge presented by any attempts to define the Arctic – what is it? where is it? whose is it? These questions are vague enough and abstract enough to be relevant in many different fields of Arctic scholarship. Even the researchers whose work is more concrete or applied are confronted by the ontological challenges posed by an Arctic in change. For example, the second keynote speaker presented the results of a study (ECONOR 2015) that provides an overview of the economy, living conditions and environment in the circumpolar Arctic, with data and knowledge provided by a network of statisticians and researchers. The methodology of this report is closely linked to the role of the nation-state in Arctic politics – on the most basic level the data comes from national records on population, demographics, economics, etc. The report is designed to enable comparisons between states but it is also designed to paint a broader picture of regional socioeconomic well-being. In some ways even the most straightforward use of data blurs the spatial template of the state-system in the Arctic.

Climate change also blurs this spatial template. In a literal sense climate impacts are felt across states boundaries and collaborative governance arrangements are in place to address these issues. This is bringing a previously liminal zone to the forefront of political consciousness and international relations. Climate change is forcing a recalibration of political structures and institutions in the Arctic. How this will happen and what the outcomes will be is very much up for debate.

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View from the deck of the sauna.

The conference happened at a small holiday village called Loma-Vietonen about an hour outside of Rovaniemi. It was a beautiful collection of cabins on a lake and although it was pretty chilly I managed to go for a very quick swim in between sauna turns. I was very grateful for a little midweek vacation. This week has been a busy week of classes since we have two modules (Arctic Ecosystems and Adaptation of Species to Arctic Environment & Arctic Politics and Law) happening simultaneously. This weekend I am traveling to Turku for the Fulbright-sponsored “American Voices” conference where I am taking a break from Arctic issues to present on small liberal arts colleges in the United States.

 

Practicing

I have now been in Finland for almost a month and I feel like I am starting to get the hang of it. Adjusting to a routine here has been somewhat challenging; this is certainly the least structured my life has ever been and it’s odd that for the most part no one ever expects me to show up at a particular time or place. I could just stay in bed and watch Netflix all day and no one would really notice…

Since that wouldn’t be a particularly productive way to spend my year here, I have been trying to add some structure to my daily life. Having class a few days a week certainly helps, although my coursework so far has not been particularly stimulating. The Arctic Studies Program is divided into two to three week modules that all have different themes and are taught by different lecturers. The first two weeks was “Introduction to the Arctic” which mostly repeated information that I was already familiar with, having spent the past year immersed in polar studies. I hope that these courses will become more valuable as we dive deeper into specifics, but regardless it’s good to be back in the classroom.

One highlight of the Intro to the Arctic module was a two day field trip to Pyhätunturi, a region in Lapland about two hours north of Rovaniemi. The purpose of the excursion was to learn more about the culture, environment and lifestyle in Lapland. Our first stop was the Sodankylä Geophysical Observatory, where we learned about the science of the northern lights. The observatory is involved in research with collaborators in Norway and Sweden and it was a good opportunity to learn about some of the mechanics of scientific cooperation in the region. We then visited a hydropower plant on the Kemijoki river to learn about Finland’s second most utilized renewable resource.

Our final stop of the day was a family reindeer farm where we learned about the challenges of reindeer herding in the region. Reindeer herding is inseparable from a Lappish way of life, but the commercial industry has been suffering. The average herder has been losing money for the past decade and meat production is declining. This is due to a complex web of reasons ranging from decreased grazing land to imports of less expensive meat from outside Scandinavia. These issues were hinted at by the farmers we met, who spoke of the challenges of working within a cooperative network of herders and the tactics they use to try to keep their herd together. Yet it was also apparent that they loved their work and genuinely cared about the well-being of their animals.

The past few weeks I’ve been immersed in readings about practice theory which, bear with me, is a dialectic between human activity and the social structures which shape it. Practice theory is fundamentally interested in accounting for change in society by incorporating the roles of elements beyond human agency. The evolution of social practices is therefore influenced by material objects, technological innovations, regional constraints, and other non-human elements.

The Pyhätunturi excursion painted in broad brushstrokes certain practices that are unique to Lapland. Implicitly, practices like hydroelectric power and reindeer herding are parts of a regionally mitigated network of social action. Among other factors, these practices are influenced by social organization, routine, power, time, and norms. I find this approach compelling because social practice perspectives provide a unique and powerful lens through which we can examine how we collectively make decisions that either undermine or support the common good.

Social practice theory has implications for sustainable development because it posits that that institutional, infrastructural, and cultural structures play a strong role in shaping social action, understood as a constellation of practices rather than the result of individual actions and values. When the unit of analysis shifts from the individual towards social practices, researchers and policymakers can consider how institutions, routines, and norms are responsible for present-day problems of unsustainability. This approach does not forgive the individual for making unsustainable choices, but it also recognizes that there are broader social forces at work that must be addressed in order to catalyze sustainable practices. There are some exciting opportunities for developing practice-oriented approaches to public policy that aren’t just limited to an Arctic context.

Orienting

The last week has been a total flurry of activity; I have either been too busy or too exhausted to write about it. I have now been in Finland for a week and a half and it is still hard to believe that this is actually happening. I began the Fulbright application process over a year ago and it’s amazing that things are finally coming together.

My time in Finland began with a four day orientation program in Helsinki that was put together by the incredible team at Fulbright Finland. I can’t emphasize enough how amazing the staff of the foundation are – their efforts made our orientation an unforgettable experience. Not only were they prepared to address every detail of our stay in Finland, but they also assembled a remarkable list of speakers and guests who helped welcome us to Finland.

Notably, our program kicked off with a reception at the U.S. Embassy in honor of the 65th Anniversary of the Finnish-American Fulbright Agreement & the Centenary of Finland’s Independence. The honored guest at this program was President Sauli Niinistö and his presence made it very clear how much the Fulbright program is valued in Finland. Finland earned the distinction of being the first (and until very recently, the only) country to repay its debts to the United States from World War I. In recognition of this, the United States invested the loan repayments in a fund that enabled Finnish academics to study in the United States. Thus, the Fulbright relationship is one of reciprocity and mutual engagement. At the reception, it was announced that the United States was giving the Fulbright Finland Foundation $500,000 as a centennial gift, which was another acknowledgement of the significance of the binational academic relationship.

Academic exchanges are not the only thing that Finland and the United States collaborate on. Since the United States passed the Chairmanship of the Arctic Council to Finland in May, I have been eager to observe how Arctic issues would be addressed in Finland. Although the United States plays a critical role in Arctic diplomacy, I would venture to guess that most Americans do not know that we are an Arctic nation. Arctic issues are rarely discussed on a national stage and when they are it is most frequently within a framework of consumption. We know about drilling for oil and Alaskan salmon and perhaps a few of the environmental issues facing the region, but for the most part the Arctic exists outside of the American national consciousness. As someone who cares deeply about these issues and views the Arctic as a complex, multifaceted region, this reductionist and disengaged attitude is frustrating. It was thrilling for me when the President discussed the need for “constructive collaboration between all Arctic stakeholders” and identified the Fulbright as a significant opportunity to work with the United States and other partners to address the issues facing the region. While he obviously wasn’t referring specifically to me, it was validating to hear a foreign leader acknowledge the need for collaboration, communication, and research.

president

I’m all smiles meeting the President of Finland, Sauli Niinistö at the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki.

Our orientation wasn’t just filled with formal diplomatic affairs; there were also lots of opportunities to get to know the other Fulbrighters as well as alumni of the program. The highlight of our second day was an introduction to sauna, a significant part of Finnish culture. Finland, with a population of five million people, has over two million saunas. You might think of the sauna as a place to relax, but the custom of cooling off in the frigid Baltic Sea certainly challenges that assumption! We also played a selection of Finnish lawn games on the beach. Even though the summer is short, the Finns take advantage of every opportunity to be outdoors.

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The view from the Hotel Rantapuisto sauna and the shores of the Baltic Sea.

The third day of orientation directed our attention towards Finnish history and culture. We toured the Ateneum Art Museum and learned about famous Finnish artists and architects, then explored Helsinki by bus. Highlights included more saunas, the Sibelius Monument, and the impressive fleet of icebreakers that are moored in the harbor. The pride in icebreaking ability was another reminder of Finland’s identity as an Arctic state; Finland is one of very few countries whose ports are entirely icebound during the winter. Icebreaking capability could become increasingly critical as Arctic shipping routes open due to melting. Finland has established itself as a leader in this area; meanwhile, the United States has just two vessels operating in the polar seas. Maritime issues, particularly debates over shipping rights, are of key importance to the Arctic Council agenda and are an area I hope to explore in more depth this year.

On our final day, we were hosted by the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs where we had the opportunity to meet key Ministry representatives and learn about contemporary Finnish foreign policy. It was a great conclusion to the program as it situated Finland in a broader international context and highlighted some key issues in Finnish politics, including sustainable development, economic growth, and diplomatic relations with the United States and Russia.

As soon as the program wrapped up, I rushed to the train station to begin my nine hour journey north to Rovaniemi. I arrived in Santa’s official hometown around midnight and crashed at a hotel near the train station. The next morning, my whirlwind introduction to Finland continued when I arrived at the Arctic Centre for the first time and met my research advisor. I was also introduced to many of the other researchers at the Centre who could not have been friendlier or more welcoming. It seems like a really great team of people and I am excited to get to know everyone.

My weekend was spent getting to know Rovaniemi and dealing with the logistics of moving to a new city (acquiring a bike, figuring out how to navigate the grocery store, assembling IKEA furniture, etc). I am still trying to get my bearings this week before classes start next Tuesday but I am eager to begin coursework and research.

A friend from home texted me, “I am getting the vibe that you are loving Finland already. Simply confirm or deny” and I didn’t have to think twice before responding “Confirm!” Finland, and the people I have met so far, has been warm and welcoming and my first days in this new and unfamiliar place have filled me with excitement for things yet to come.

Setting Sail

 

Today I am boarding a plane with a suitcase full of wool underwear and down parkas in tow. This will be my uniform for the next ten months while I study in Rovaniemi, Finland as a Fulbright Scholar. I will be enrolled in the Arctic Studies Program at the University of Lapland and conducting research at the Arctic Centre, Finland’s national institute for polar expertise.

My year in Finland is the next chapter in an ongoing effort to understand the complex web that is polar politics and policy. I have been fascinated by the polar regions of the globe since traveling to Antarctica during my sophomore year of college. The North and South Poles have a mythic weight, as elusive and compelling as outer space or the deepest oceans. Once the frigid air has filled your lungs, it is impossible to breathe as you did before.

However, the Arctic is not merely a place of dreams; it is home to four million people and divided among eight nations. Needless to say, this gets complicated. My senior thesis, “Arctic Governance in an Era of Climate Change: Planning for Adaptation and Social-Ecological Resilience” examined the role of the Arctic Council in supporting sustainable development and adaptive responses to climate change. Writing from my desk in Massachusetts, my research was largely theoretical in nature and abstract in application. Spending a year in northern Finland will allow me to understand the nuances of life in the Arctic and the intersectional nature of Arctic peoples, politics, and policies. Situated six miles south of the Arctic Circle, Rovaniemi is truly an Arctic community.

Why Finland? On the most practical level, Finland is an ideal research environment for me. The Chairmanship of the Arctic Council is a rotating position and Finland holds the reins for the next two years. That means that there will be numerous opportunities to connect with Arctic researchers from all over the world. In addition, the Arctic Studies Program at the University of Lapland is a unique non-degree program that will allow me to pair my research with a more traditional classroom environment. Finally, the Arctic Centre is home to some of the best scholars and researchers in the world and I am honored to have the opportunity to work with them.

When I’m not studying, I am excited to immerse myself in the Arctic environment and embrace the opportunities (saunas) and challenges (no daylight during the winter) that this experience will bring. I hope that this blog will be a platform to share updates on my research and on my life in Finland. Stay tuned for proof that Santa Claus exists, photographs of the Aurora Borealis, and my experience with wacky sports.