Marianne Lien welcomes me in her CAS office in Oslo, far away from icy landscapes and migratory animals. For 12 years, she has studied salmon farming, which after a booming start in the 80s is now Norway’s second largest export commodity. Now Professor Lien is enjoying a year of research leave from the University of Oslo and has gathered scholars from different research fields and countries at the Centre in the research group Arctic Domestication in the Era of the Anthropocene.  

- Every day I get to work with my favourite colleagues, she says enthusiastically.

Marianne Lien twists, turns and challenges not only the concept of domestication, but also what social anthropology is about and the boundaries between disciplines.

Intrigued by fish farming in Australia

This project has many beginnings, Lien says, one of them being the domestication of salmon- one of the trademarks of Norway.

Salmon aquaculture has been Lien’s interest since she studied it as part of globalisation in Tasmania in 2002. She found the links back to Norway as an interesting trajectory, but soon began to ask different questions.

- I realised that this is actually a historical moment. A moment where we take an animal, a fish, and make it into a domesticated animal like any livestock. It has happened before, as we know in the Neolithic revolution, thousands of years ago in the Middle East, but now it’s happening again. I thought: how do humans actually domesticate animals?

Since then, she has worked in the project “Newcomers to the farm” together with Gro Ween, John Law and Kristin Asdal, trying to understand what the massive production of the former wild salmon means for nature politics and domestication. Between 2009 and 2012 Lien and Law spent longer periods at salmon farms in western Norway conducting fieldwork on how farmed salmon is made into husbandry animals. Fall 2015, Lien published the book Becoming Salmon, the first ethnographic account of salmon aquaculture. The project sparked an interest in domestication more generally, Lien explains, as she stresses the importance of being interdisciplinary.

- Our current project is anthropological in the sense that it is thought and invented in the realm of anthropology, but it does not police disciplinary boundaries very much. We really do not care much about them, she says.

- Domestication: an ongoing process of becoming

Lien’s group challenges the hegemonic perception of domestication, which they describe as deriving from a Western view of human civilization; a narrative that human societies must develop in a certain way. 

- Domestication has been thought of as an irreversible historical line towards civilization. A linear development towards something higher and better, which is rather arrogant and outdated, Lien argues.

The dominant story of domestication tells us that 6000-10 000 years ago in the Middle East, the Neolithic Revolution led to an irreversible transformation of societies, landscapes, animals and plants. In many societies, ways of living changed from nomadism, hunting and gathering to farming in a geographically bounded space.

Humans gained control over animals and landscapes.   

- The story told about the Neolithic Revolution works really well in some parts of the world, but not in other parts of the world.

A perception of nature and culture as distinct from each other has grown out of this story of the Neolithic Revolution. The distinctions between nature and culture are artificial and not as sharp as they might seem, the research group argues. In many places in the world, such as in the Arctic, some people live in more of a symbiosis with the animals, the landscapes and the changing weather. What is culture in the Arctic, if it is understood as cut off from nature?

- In our popular language, we implicitly evoke the idea of domestication a lot. Because if I say “nature”, you would think of something untouched by humans, right? The vague idea of domestication underpins the idea of nature as opposed to culture, Lien explains.

The story of domestication echoes other conceptions that reduce the world’s complexities to stereotypes and dichotomies such as the “civilized and the savage”, the “tame and the wild” and “nature and culture”. It echoes colonisation, Lien says.   

Recent studies in archeology and anthropology show that domestication can be a reversible process that human societies, animals and plants go in and out of, she says. To clarify, Lien splits the group’s criticism of the dominant way of understanding domestication into three dimensions: Time, space and agency, the first being the story about the Neolithic Revolution.

- The shift from hunting to husbandry and from gathering to harvesting did not happen at one moment, but it happened over a long period, maybe thousands of years, she argues, and continues:

- Domestication is an open-ended process. Unfortunately, the focus on domestication as a particular event “back then” has made us scholars less interested in what happened afterwards.

Rather, Lien and her colleagues see domestication as an ongoing process of becoming between humans, animals and plants.

In terms of space, Lien’s group asks whether domestication is confined within particular boundaries, or can we think about domesticating entire landscapes?

- We challenge the idea of confinement, the idea that you can actually draw a line around what is domesticated and not. Often you cannot.

For a thousand years people have practiced so-called “ærfuglerøkt” at the UNESCO world heritage listed Vega Islands, at the coast of Helgeland, a district in northern Norway. “Ærfuglerøkt” entails that people gather down and eggs from common eiders, locally called éa.

In order to manage to gather what they need, they make small hiding places, some sort of houses for common eiders, furnished with dried seaweeds and covered with a “roof” protecting them from storms and carnivores. Anthropologist Bente Sundsvold has studied “ærfuglerøkt” and claims the common eiders are not tame. But they are not wild either, because they return year after year seeking human’s protection, Marianne says.

- Whether they are domesticated or not depends on how you define the term. Regardless, this exemplifies that the terms we have to describe nature is not adequate.

The third dimension of domestication questioned in this project is agency. Usually humans are in the centre, Lien says, an assumption it is difficult to argue against.

2000 year old dog skeleton. Yamal Peninsula, Siberia

- There are unintended effects of our actions, such as the climate change we currently face, which is a reminder that human activities and plans can have unintended outcomes. Secondly, animals or plants are not passive recipients of our actions. They are active co-producers of our shared habitat, and can have an active role in processes of domestication.

She says that most archaeologists now believe that wolves initiated dog domestication when they began to specialize in feeding on the remains of leftover meals. These wolves eventually evolved to have less fear of humans, allowing people to interact more closely with them.

- Such insights remind us that domestication is also co-evolution and that humans are not the only change-makers in our history. Co-species' histories are made together.

Nature and culture: blurred boundaries

These unintended effects of our actions insinuate that humans might not possess as much control over animals, plants and landscapes as we might think, Lien argues.

- When we look at the present relations of domestication we anthropologists find that control doesn’t really describe anything. People try to control their animals, but my goodness they struggle!

Isn’t salmon farming a practice where humans exercise control over fish?

- In some ways, but control is an ideal which is never fully achieved. If humans were in control, we would not have the problem of sea lice. That is just one example.

A proliferation of sea lice is one of the unintended consequences of salmon farming, and illustrates what she perceives as a mistaken distinction between nature and culture.

- Take sea lice. Is it natural? Yes, I guess it is. Is it in the salmon farm? Absolutely. Is it something that is going to be affected by human practices? Of course. Where does nature start and where does culture begin? That is a very difficult line to draw.

- Nature and culture are not the best concepts because what is going on in front of our eyes cannot be cut along these lines. It is so intertwined.

Lien describes the Arctic as one such part of the world that does not fit into the dominant domestication scheme.

- We share the same attitude towards differences

The project was organized to bring together different scholars who already had material they were going to analyse and who would benefit from being together. Lien herself has worked together with John Law and Gro Ween on the salmon project, Ween has recently conducted a fieldwork in Alaska, and Britt Kramvig has been working on whaling, oil and tourism in northern Norway. Heather Swanson came into the group after working on salmon on the Japanese island Hokkaido, while Rob Losey has archaeological material on human-animal relations in Siberia. Additionally, there are other researchers, from professors to postdocs, connected to the project in various ways.

It is important to Lien that the research project is interdisciplinary.

- We see differences as interesting in itself. A difference in approach is not necessarily an obstacle to overcome, but rather a source of further insight and fruitful cooperation.

The highly diverse range of researchers in the project share this “attitude towards productive differences”, as she herself puts it. They are particularly interested in ways of life that differ from the sedentary story of rootedness, private property and fixed addresses.  

- Mobile people who do not take up this particular way of living; in a house with a garden, a field or land where you can plant and harvest, have been marginalized all over the world for centuries. This is why the comparative approach is important, Lien argues.

Pushing farming on the north

Lien shares her own observations from spending time working on the north coast of the Varanger peninsula in Finnmark. All one can do with a farm there is growing some grass, and perhaps feed some sheep, she explains. However, this is hardly enough to sustain a living.

- So, in this region people have always engaged in other food procuring practices, such as gathering, fishing and hunting, and they still do. The agriculture/animal nexus was very fruitful in some parts of the world. In the Middle East, you can sow and harvest wheat, vegetables and fruits. It was a workable concept for most places, a model that could be transported and exported and taken on by others, but it met some northern limits where it really did not work so well. Such sites are interesting to look at.

Lien argues that the possibilities offered by the seascape/landscape area in Norway and in many Arctic regions have been ignored in the discourse of domestication. Winters are covered in darkness and the short, intensive summers are blessed with the midnight sun.   

- We ignore that we live at crossroads with a model that comes from a more temperate climate and a seascape/landscape that offers other possibilities. Of course, people living in the Arctic have always known this, so they have never relied on farming as a single strategy. But farming was really pushed in Finnmark, Lien says.

The Norwegian government did this?

- Yes, through various measures, including something called “bureising”, through which they tried to promote farming, even on the Varanger Peninsula. Obviously, it didn’t work that well.

When Lien conducted her first fieldwork in Finnmark in the 1980s, the focal point was food habits, not domestication. As part of a broader study, she began looking into people’s freezers to understand more about food, and was surprised to see that nearly everything was local; Frozen fish filet, such as cod and haddock, capelin, shrimps, fish cakes, homemade bread, smoked salmon, reindeer meat, moose meat, and many big cans of cloudberries, cowberries and blueberries. Food came as a gift from someone people knew, or from something they traded or bartered.

- People have always used these rich affordances of the landscapes, the seascapes and the river/water scapes, in spite of all the attempts to make them do otherwise. This resistance is still going on, and has partly gone under the radar.

People in Varanger rely on migratory animals and fish, such as salmon, Lien explains.

- When species are not fenced in, they have to be found or followed, so movement is key to how you sustain yourself. Knowing the seasons and climate variations is also an important part of this.

The light touch of Meacchi

Lien tells me that people in the Arctic have left an almost invisible footprint on the landscape.

- Most people who are not familiar with the Arctic landscape see it as completely untouched. From our Saami collaborators we learn about Meacchi.

Meacchi fills a gap in the Norwegian vocabulary for life in the Arctic. Language is power, many say, and according to Lien, the domestication scheme is not an exception.

In Norwegian, “Innmark” and “utmark” are statutory and distinguish between cultivated and not cultivated land (direct translation: infield and outfield). In Finnmark these words are used as well, but do not describe the life in the Arctic sufficiently.   

- Meahcci is often translated as “utmark”, but it does not fit into the distinctions between innmark and utmark, Lien explains.

With their collaborators at the Sámi University College in Kautokeino the group seeks to explore Meahcci as a word for particular sites of affordances in the landscape. People who know this landscape predict when to encounter key species. It requires them to know the landscape, animals and plants very well, and it requires respect.

- Meahcci is a landscape defined for the purpose of humans using it for something in particular, but absolutely not “innmark” or a farm. It is an active landscape involved in people’s use. Meahcci completely cuts across our distinction between nature and culture because human activity and human need is implemented in the word. That is kind of cool.

Lien says that because the model of domestication does not work that well, scholars need to look for alternative ways of understanding relations between nature, animals, human societies and plants.

- What would happen, for instance, if we started to think of Meahcci instead of nature? What if Meahcci was made into an analytical and legal term, or a common way of conceptualizing land? How would that change everything? These are some of the questions we hope to pursue.

- The Anthropocene is a profound shape shifter

Is the dominant understanding of domestication, which is under scrutiny in your project, changing now with the increased awareness of climate change?

- I think so, and this is a third topic in our project, Lien says.

Some refer to our current geological Age as the Anthropocene. The term is a description of our age as being one in which human’s actions have severe impacts on the planet. Some sees the Industrial Revolution as the onset of the Anthropocene. Others trace its inception to the Neolithic Revolution and farming.      

- We have always messed with the earth, but we have probably never messed with it with such great consequences as today, Lien says.

The research group uses the idea of the Anthropocene and the current climate debate as a context for what they do.

- This calls for other kinds of research questions to be asked. It calls for humility, it calls for relevance, and it calls for trying to assemble thinking in ways that makes the world a better place. Such questions are more compelling now than ever.

To Lien, the discourse about the Anthropocene is a profound shape shifter in the way we see ourselves in the world. She believes that we, humans, have allowed ourselves to think about nature as passive and culture as active. We have thought of ourselves as the agent that could change things, utilize, and create the landscape we wanted for our own good. Animals, plants and landscapes have not been thought of as having agency of their own.

That mind set has developed out of ignorance, she thinks.

- Our actions have effects way beyond our planned control or intentions, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise to us. It is just that we have ignored these things before.

There are smaller, unintended effects of our actions too, and not all of them are bad, Lien says.

- The point is that we need to change our perception of who’s in charge. We are not in control.

Good, productive noise

Walking past Lien’s office one can often see her discussing with her American colleague Heather Swanson or Icelander Gísli Pálsson. Every afternoon the research group go out for coffee at a local coffee shop.

Sounds like a good life…

- It is a good life, yes. The seclusion from the hustle and bustle of teaching and administration is a gift for all of us, and the environment is extremely quiet and allowing the engagement and excitement to happen around research, she says.

Through discussions in weekly seminars, not to mention the informal discussions, the “magic that happens in the corridors”, the researchers gather around new themes. For instance, shortly after the kick off of the 2015/2016 CAS-year, two researchers in the group decided to write an article together, which was not part of the initial plan, Lien says.

- CAS is not filled with noise; you know the noise that distracts you. The noise that is going on here is good, productive noise. That is amazing. As a project leader at CAS, I get to do something I have never done before and probably will never do again.

The research group Arctic Domestication in the Era of the Anthropocene is staying at CAS until the end of June 2016.

What happens after this year?

- It is a bit difficult to answer that question at this point, but talking on behalf of myself, this project did not begin with CAS and it will not end with CAS. I am quite confident that some of these constellations established in the group are going to continue in various ways.

By Karoline Kvellestad Isaksen