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Circumpolar and Technological Representations of Landscape and Wilderness

By Aila (Ashley) Moreno
July 7, 2004

The traditional Sami worldview approaches nature differently than many American and European traditions. Consequently, it adds a new perspective to the "role of nature" discussion that frequents many academic literary circles. As anthropologist Kathleen Osgood Dana points out, "'Landscape' is not a term that occurs in the core vocabulary of the Sami, thus landscape is a foreign concept in the Sami worldview, as it is in other native traditions" (Dana 96). Recognizing a unique cultural experience and hoping to empathize with the new literary remittances from the Sami, Dana contrasts the Sami representations of "nature" and "wilderness" against Western Transcendental and Romantic representations, concluding that Sami literature, along with all other "native" writings, differs fundamentally from all European and American pieces. She states that "native writers" do not differentiate between man and his surroundings or cultivated nature and wilderness, and that they illustrate a mystic view of nature based on a kind of animism that does not exist in Western traditions. While this does hold true for some pieces, which a comparison between William Blake's poem Little Girl Lost and Ailo Gaup's novel In Search of the Drum will illustrate, Dana's approach defines "native literature" by the consistent presence of a mystic relationship between man and nature--a relationship that may or may not exist in a piece by or about a Sami. For example, in the Blue Room section of Antiphony, the older woman whom the writer interviews expresses the mystic man/nature relationship with which Dana characterizes Sami literature. At one point both the Western interviewer and the Sami woman share a mystic bond between one another and nature, while evoking collective, living memories. However, this perspective fades over time with the emergence of the new technological advances described in the Yellow Room section. In Antiphony, mystic relationships between people and nature do not depend as much on race as they do on the absence of technology. This illustrates the importance of approaching each piece of prose and poetry uniquely, searching for themes within the writing, and not in cultural stereotypes or over-generalizations about its producers. Tim Ingold, another anthropologist who studies the Ojibwa, a native people living in the Kenweenaw Bay area of Wisconsin, illustrates that one can easily discuss man's relationship to one another and nature utilizing ideological and linguistic distinctions, rather than ethnic ones. This approach can be used to discuss whether or not a particular piece, by a Sami person or anyone else, contains a mystic relationship with nature--a relationship that, as seen in Antiphony, may have more to do with the absence of electricity and consumerism than national origin.

Discussing the "role" of nature in European and American literature seems appropriate, as, for the most part, "[w]estern landscapes are a cultural overlay between humans and nature" (Dana 96). For the Sami, however, who have no traditional linguistic way to separate out one's own being or character from nature, discussing the "overlay" between humans and their respective environments borders on unnecessary. Even the American and European tendencies to equate human characteristics with natural phenomena fall a little short of embracing nature the way that traditional Sami culture does. In the essay Landscape and Literature, Kathleen Dana points out that:

"This equating of landscape and human character can be found in … New England literature. For instance, The Great Stone Face, a short story by Transcendentalist Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), tells us about the sterling qualities of a young man growing up under the formative influences of the 'great stone face,' a natural feature in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Like the landscape, the young man is a product of his environment. Here we see a Transcendentalist worldview imprinted on a young man, through sublime landscape" (Dana 97).

The common Sami belief that nature embodies our character and that we embody nature differs from even the Transcendentalist belief that nature invariably affects our character. Because of this, when discussing the Sami, Dana chooses to define landscape within the terms stated by "Leslie Marmon Silko, a Laguna Pueblo [Native American, in her book] Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination:

"So long as the human consciousness remains within the hills, canyons, cliffs, and the plants, clouds, and sky, the term landscape, as it has entered the English language, is misleading … [The term landscape] assumes the viewer is somehow outside or separate. [Native v]iewers are as much a part of the landscape as the boulders they stand on. There is no high mesa edge or mountain peak where one can stand and not immediately be part of all that surrounds. Human identity is linked with all the elements of Creation …" (Dana 96).

History and the spirit of culture influence artists. Consequently, a working understanding of the Sami's traditional approach to mankind's relationship to nature helps complete a commentary on the role of "landscape" and "wilderness" in Sami literature. Suffice it to say then that, traditionally, the Sami believe that all living things are inseparably tied to one another--trees, people, animals, and even some "things" that other traditions may not even consider alive, such as rocks, mountains, and streams. Traditionally, the Sami do not differentiate between man and nature, wilderness and cultivated land. Instead, all of these expressions of life are seen as part of a single, living tapestry. Because of this, some American and British audiences accustomed to the division between man and nature and wilderness and civilization epitomized by William Blake's poem Little Girl Lost may find some Sami accounts of nature strange.

In Little Girl Lost, Lyca, a seven-year-old girl, goes missing. The poem's narrator offers Lyca's parents the comforting images of Lyca's dreams turning the "desart wild" into a "garden mild" (Blake 7-8). The narrator goes on to explain Lyca's absence utilizing the metaphor of "wild beasts of prey" carrying off the young girl:

While the lioness

Loss'd her slender dress,

And naked they convey'd

To caves the sleeping maid" (Blake 47-50).

The foreboding tone of the poem and the contrasting images of the sleeping girl and the wild beasts could leave the American and British reader unsettled and searching for the comfort of Lyca's dreams "civilizing" the wild deserts. However, the Sami reader might find the images odd, specifically if the individual's worldview corresponds with the traditional Sami worldview--as some modern Sami writers, such as Ailo Gaup, illustrate.

In the beginning of In Search of the Drum, John looks out over what those who separate out "civilized nature" from "wilderness" would consider rugged, untamed land. Rather than feeling that overwhelming sense of misplacement and juxtaposition expressed in the description of the sleeping Lyca, however, John sees a similarity between the mountainous "wilderness" and the female body that he associates with familiarity and comfort:

"The tundra lay wide open around them. The naked womanly shapes suddenly touched him, reached into his glands, drives and dreams. A feminine landscape body talked to him from silhouette behind silhouette. The round hills and the pointed mountains felt like hips and breasts. He had come home" (Gaup 4).

These excerpts illustrate many of Dana's observations. In Blake's poem, the wilderness and its beasts kidnap Lyca from her home, but when John faces the "wide open tundra" he sees home. In Little Girl Lost, the narrator distinguishes the cultivated, civilized, and, therefore, safe landscape: "the garden mild," from the dangerous "desart wild." John, on the other hand, looks out over the unoccupied landscape and just sees tundra. While the seven-year-old, "virgin" Lyca faces disturbing and beastly sexual imagery in the "desart," John sees familiar, feminine sexuality in the tundra.

While rightly illustrating the presence of the traditional Sami worldview in some modern pieces and how that it can differ from some European works (as shown above), Dana complicates her position by assuming that all literature by indigenous persons must contain a traditional, mystic relationship between man and nature.

Since the establishment of a democratic Europe up through the current conflict with Iraq, grouping what is now the largely capitalistic, Christian, democratic nations of Europe with the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand has provided the militarily advantaged nations a way to separate themselves from the "other" persons of the world with whom they seem ever in conflict. While useful for presidential speeches seeking to establish an "us" versus "them" mentality, this grouping may be a little general or antiquated for an academic discussion on "worldviews." This is because it pigeonholes most of the world's population into one of two groups; excludes identities and worldviews that countries hold independent of the classic Western distinction (i.e., "American" referring to all persons from the tip of Chile through Canada); ignores that the definition of "West" changes as "Eastern" nations, such as Russia and Japan, join us both politically and economically; and disregards the infinite number of social gatherings, groups, and communities that our increasingly mobile, technological world creates among different ethnic groups. Aside from this, and the fact that Dana's distinction relies more heavily on an author's ethnic origin than the literary themes actually in their work, the most important problem with Dana's argument is that it assumes that by definition Sami literature must display a mystic relationship between man and nature. This would imply that Sami literature cannot change, even as our modern era presents Sami writers with increasingly technological settings. Such an approach to Sami literature would attempt to hold it static in the face of our modern world, producing a number of wrong conclusions. For example, it would render change impossible, resulting in an artificial boundary on Sami art, and it would dictate that any literature (even by someone of Sami descent) that fails to display a mystic relationship between man and nature cannot be called "Sami literature."

Change and diversity are inevitable. And, in fact, change, for the better or worse, birthed Sami literature. Before the 20th century, there was no such thing Sami literature. This is so first because they are/were an oral culture, but second, because:

"[W]riting fiction as a creative process, like other cultural work, has, until recently, been something which the Sami have engaged in more or less reluctantly, not always simply because they have lacked the ability, but often because, in earlier times, no social status was to be gained from that sort of work. It was considered worth knowing how to write, for example in connection with trade and business …" (Gaski 3).

For the Sami, literature is a new invention molded heavily by the American and European traditions. Traditional Sami created handicrafts and other expressive objects only if they also served a literal, useful purpose (i.e., a beautifully carved, yet utilitarian knife). The written word has infiltrated traditional Sami society as much as the concept of "landscape" has.

Sami literature illustrates the prevalence of change. In the Blue Room section of Antiphony, the older woman whom the writer interviews expresses the mystic man/nature relationship with which Dana characterizes Sami literature:

"Her whole landscape she has opened up for me. Part of it I have been able to step into. Other things have remained there--outside. Movements I wasn’t able to follow, migratory routes between seasons, navigation by mountaintops, and rivers with longs names" (Stien 21).

Here, the European interviewer and the Sami woman share a mystic bond between one another and nature, while evoking collective, living memories. The personification of the Sami woman's "landscape" brings it to life and allows the European writer to mystically bond with both the woman and, to a degree, the scene or memory itself. Ideas and "objects," such as mountaintops, rivers, and migratory journeys, all have names, illustrating their living status in the mind of the old woman.

These perspectives fade over time, however, with the emergence of the new technological advances described in the Yellow Room section. In general, the old woman prefers to talk about the past. This is because her preferred, traditional approach to life and nature has no place in the modern world:

“You should have seen when we moved. When the herd flowed over the open country. It is as if the whole landscape sways, as far as the eye reaches. A finer view doesn’t exist. I don’t know whether they see it any longer. They travel so quickly, with the machines” (Stien 35).

Both the woman and the characters she describes are Sami. Nevertheless, she states that the mystic relationship between them and nature has faded. Even though the herd continues to run in a living, active scene with the landscape, the Sami herders cannot see it anymore. She attributes this to the use of the "machines." While the woman literally refers to snowmobiles, the word choice "machines" foreshadows the alienating role of all technology seen in later passages:

"She remembers when they hooked up the electricity. She had thought the light would be white. Like that of the Coleman lanterns. But it was yellow. She can still picture the yellow faces around the table. They’re drinking the first coffee she has made on the stove.

The stove is a good thing.

But then came the rest. And it was a lot.

He slaughtered constantly, it had gotten easy to sell; the road was open all year. It had gotten easy to buy too. Anything imaginable" (Stien 56).

The alienation that started with snowmobiles continues with the increased use of electricity. The "yellow faces" metaphorically allude the effect of technology on the Sami inhabitants of her village. The rest of the passage illustrates how technology "ran amuck" with too many inventions, such as wide roads and televisions (among other things). The woman explains that, “Now everyone sits, separately, and stares. And those who still go anywhere, don’t always have good intentions” (Stien 57).

The European origin of the writer and the Sami origin of the characters do not dictate the presence of a mystic relationship between man and nature in Antiphony. Instead, it is the emergence of technology that dictates the role of nature and landscape in the lives of the characters. The European writer connects with the Sami woman's "human identity" in a way consistent with Dana and Silko's definition, even though she is not a "native." And, although the woman and the other main characters are Sami, the book carries the reader into a technological era incompatible with Dana and Silko's definition.

While technology dictates the representations of wilderness and landscape in Antiphony, the comparison between Little Girl Lost and In Search of the Drum showed how traditional cultural ideas can influence representations of wilderness and landscape. In addition to illustrating the importance of approaching every piece of poetry and prose uniquely, this implies that a discussion on the representation of landscape in literature must rely on an ideological argument applicable to specific pieces rather than an ethnic argument that divides works by the author's national origin.

Tim Ingold, an anthropologist who studies the Ojibwa, a native people living in the Kenweenaw Bay area of Wisconsin, illustrates that one can easily discuss man's relationship to one another and nature utilizing ideological distinctions, rather than ethnic ones. While Dana distinguishes between "native writers" and "Western writers," Ingold examines the linguistic references to life and nature in and of themselves, absent of political distinctions:

"We are accustomed to calling animals and plants 'living things'. But we call ourselves 'human beings'. Let us agree that plants and animals, human and non-human, are all organisms. The question then arises: is an organism a thing or being? This is by no means an issue of mere semantics, for on the answer hangs our understanding of life itself. If life is a property of all things, then it must be reducible to some internal principle, the possession of which distinguishes the class of objects we call organisms from classes of other kinds, and which--from its position within the organism--drives the latter's development and its interactions with the environment. But if life is tantamount to being, then we have to regard the organism not so much as a living thing than as the material embodiment of a certain way of being alive. In other words, we should think of the organism not as containing life, or expressing it, but as emergent within the life process itself" (Ingold 89).

Ingold points out that in different types and groups of expressions, people refer to objects in different ways, based on whether or not the object connects to a living tapestry, and, if it does, in what way. In essence, he states that to discuss the relationship between man and nature, one must first decide what emerges from life--that is what objects, feelings, events, etc. share the "property" we call life--and then one must decide to what degree that property emerges. The later decision depends upon whether or not a specific work of art, geographical grouping, person, etc. views the objects "emergent from life" as "living beings," equal with people or "living things," different from people. The gradations with which living organisms emerge from life dictate the relationship between man and nature.

While this idea could be applied to an ethnic or political group of people such as "native," "Western," or "Sami," it does not rely on such a grouping as Dana's approach does. Instead, Ingold provides a unique, ideological approach to the "role of nature" discussion that can complement or contrast individual works. This means that Ingold's approach to the "role of nature" discussion can negotiate the different representations of nature seen in William Blake's poem Little Girl Lost, Ailo Gaup's novel In Search of the Drum, and Aila Stien's novel Antiphony. Because it allows for different gradations and does not define genres by the consistent presence of just one theme (mainly, a mystic tie between man and nature), the relationship between man and nature in all three works can emerge.

In Little Girl Lost, there are three different "emergents" of life illustrated by the language of the poem that establish a hierarchy: the human, the animals, and the plants. Lyca, the human in the poem, endowed with age, virginity, sorrow, and happiness would be a complete "human being." The animals, called "beasts of prey" share some emotion and sexuality, which illustrate that they are alive, but objectify them as "things." The movement, tears, and sexual nature of the animals, however, make them more "alive" then the still plants and the scenery.

In In Search of the Drum, John, Lajla, and the landscape all share the same life "emergence." All three hold emotional and physical characteristics that we associate with "living beings." The physical description of the "feminine landscape" ties Lajla and the scenery together, while John's emotional tie to both illustrates the complexity of existence in all three.

In Antiphony, the expressions of life change. Initially, the woman attributes names and status equivalent to that of a "living being" to the landscape, the herd, the individual reindeer, and the herders. The engaging memory exchange between the Sami woman and the European writer personifies all of the living organisms, including the "migratory journey" itself. As technology enters the picture, however, consumerism and isolationism take hold. The characters begin to view all of the living things and one another as commodities, retiring the organisms to the status of "living things."

Works Cited

Blake, William. Songs of Innocence. New York: Dover Publisinh, Inc., 1971.

Dana, Kathleen Osgood. "Aillohas the Shaman-Poet and his Govadas-Image Drum: A Literary Ecology of Nils-Aslak Valkeapaa." Diss. University of Oulu, Finland, 2003.

Gaup, Ailo. In Search of the Drum. Tr. Bente Kjos Sjordal. Kautokeino, 1988.

Ingold, Tim. The Perception of the Environment: Essays in livelihood, dwelling and skill. London and New York: Routledge, 2000.

Stien, Laila. Antiphony. Tr. John Weinstock.