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Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category

We flew to Lukla airport on Saturday, without any weather delays which are usually quite common. The plane fits about 12-15 people, two pilots, and one flight attendant who told us before taking off: “the flying time is 30 minutes and the weather is high turbulence.” But it was much smoother than I expected!

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Waiting at bag check at Kathmandu airport on Sunday

Flying to Lukla from Kathmandu

Flying to Lukla from Kathmandu

Me at the Lukla airport

Me at the Lukla airport

From Lukla, we started on our trek to our field camp at changri nup glacier. We follow the trek to Everest base camp for several days but then diverge and go northwest instead of onto the Khumbu glacier.  Last night we hiked 3 hr from Lukla and stayed in Phakding (2610m).  

Phakding (where we stayed saturday night, 2610 m, 3 hr from Lukla)

Phakding (where we stayed saturday night, 2610 m, 3 hr from Lukla)

Today we hiked to Namche bazar (3440m) for lunch and we are staying in Khumjung (3780m) for the night.  

Namche Bazar (the biggest town on the trek, 3440 m, 5 hr from Phakding)

Namche Bazar (the biggest town on the trek, 3440 m, 5 hr from Phakding)

The towns in the Khumbu have lodges and restaurants as well as gift shops for tourists. It feels strange to be so far into the mountains with some amenities!  There’s no heating and the plumbing is pretty limited, but we’re sleeping in lodges every night with delicious food. And we’re having lots and lots of tea at tea houses en route.

Namche Bazar

Namche Bazar


We’re taking our time to acclimate to altitude. Our porters will meet us at the pyramid research station with our scientific gear and the rest of our cold weather gear (I’m carrying only about 40 lbs of gear now).  

Standing at the entrance to Khumjung Village with Sonam Futi Sherpa, the only other female member of the field team. Sonam is a second year masters student in glaciology at Kathmandu University. Khumjung is her home town; we're staying in the lodge her parents own and run.

Standing at the entrance to Khumjung Village with Sonam Futi Sherpa (left), where we’re staying Sunday night. Sonam is a second year masters student in glaciology at Kathmandu University and the only other female member of the field team. Khumjung is her home town; we’re staying in the lodge her parents own and run.

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Hanover, New Hampshire has a population of 11,000.  It is 90 miles from Burlington, 120 from Boston, and 260 from New York.  Undergraduate and graduate students at Dartmouth College have tremendous global learning opportunities, and, as an IGERT student, I have received enormous support for developing my less-conventional career goals in the policy arena.  Still, Hanover is geographically distant from scientific and political hubs, and I do not regularly interact with the larger community of students and experts committed to ensuring a peaceful and sustainable future for the rapidly changing Arctic environment.

The Arctic is warming faster than anywhere on the planet, three times the global mean temperature change, in fact.  Its changes are affecting human populations, ecosystems, and economic opportunities, and the Arctic Council provides the sole forum for solution development and consensus building.  The Arctic is unique in being a region where climate changes are affecting resource availability, human health, cultural heritage, and governance across many national boundaries—and to the great interest of the rest of the globe.  As US Public Affairs Officer Steven Labensky stated on the first day of the winter school, “the ramifications and solutions to challenges [faced by Arctic nations] fall also below the 66th parallel.”  He saluted the decision to include observer nations in the Model Arctic Council.

I view the challenges faced and solutions developed by the Arctic states a mild harbinger of what is in store for the more politically volatile, more densely populated region of the Tibetan Plateau, where I also conduct research and ultimately hope to do diplomatic work.  The Arctic Council – its procedures, its shortcomings, and its enormous successes – will serve to provide the world with a model for peaceful international dialogue and resolutions for collaborative adaptation and sustainable development.

In addition to learning about the history, procedures, and priorities of the Arctic Council, I left Arkhangelsk reflecting on two subjects I had not necessarily anticipated: first, the role of scientists in Arctic diplomacy and, second, what it means for America—and for an American—to be part of the larger Arctic community.

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Circumpolar map showing 8 Arctic nations. (source: mapresources.com)

The Arctic Council formed in 1996, with the signing of the Ottawa Declaration, but its precursor began in 1991 with the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS).  Although the AC now promotes coordination on issues ranging from health to economics to cultural preservation, it was exclusively environmental at its inception.  Therefore, the work of earth and environmental scientists has always been of central interest and relevance to Council officials and ministers, and the AC’s working groups represent a closer formal and procedural tie between government leaders and scientists than I’ve been exposed to elsewhere. 

The Arctic Council’s working groups provide a pathway for soliciting and implementing science; however, much of the responsibility still lies with the scientists.  A group that is balancing many interests, considerations, and priorities may not be able to seek out every aspect of relevant scientific work, particularly if it is not easily and readily accessible.  What I’ve heard my adviser call “loading dock science” is a luxury that climate and Arctic scientists can no longer afford.  We cannot conduct our work in a vacuum, publish it, and expect someone else to communicate it and advocate for its consideration in policy decisions.  Nor can we continue to speak an arcane language only our scientific colleagues understand.  It is not uncommon for an Arctic Council member to say to a scientist, “You’re speaking English but I don’t understand what you’re saying,” according to Prof. Douglas Nord who has attended several AC meetings over the last two decades.  Scientists are not permitted to make official policy recommendations to the AC, but it is their responsibility to communicate results, their relevancy, and their implications clearly to ensure that decisions are made with consideration of accurate and up-to-date scientific knowledge.

American universities are producing an astounding amount of research on the Arctic Ocean, ecosystems, ice, climate, and other aspects of the Northern region, which is particularly appropriate given the United States’ status as an Arctic Nation.  I’ve had the privilege of traveling twice to Greenland and twice to Alaska for coursework and research, and so it surprised me that several of my friends seemed confused when I told them I was representing the U.S. at this Model Arctic Council.  “Wait, what?  Why does the U.S. care about the Arctic?  [pause]  Oh, just because of Alaska?” was a common response, even among my peers at Dartmouth.

On the first day of the workshop, we participated in a roundtable discussion with policy representatives about the role of public diplomacy in Arctic issues.  I posed the question of whether it’s problematic for the general American public not to understand the enormous opportunities and responsibilities associated with owning land and marine shelf in the Arctic.  In terms of regional governance and international relations, perhaps the fact that many Americans view Alaska as a gas tank is not a problem.  But choosing not to extend public diplomacy efforts to the younger generation seems, to me, a lost opportunity to engage the public in questions concerning the effects of, collective adaptation to, and equitable capitalization on changes in climate.  Furthermore, by not actively engaging in Arctic issues, we miss exploring part of our identity as Americans.

I was one of 5 participants representing the United States in Arkhangelsk and the only one not from Alaska.  On the first day of the workshop, the group took an organized excursion to Russia’s largest open-air museum, Malye Korely.Image

Standing outside a chapel at the open air museum, Malye Korely. 

As I walked among the 18th century churches and peasant homes, I realized that I knew embarrassingly little about Russian history.  I tried to make up for what I’ve lacked in my history courses and my independent reading in the evenings (when I could get my internet connection to work).  But it didn’t hit me until the conclusion of the Model Arctic Council, when we were invited to the grand opening of the exhibition on American Russia at Arkhangelsk’s Museum of the Arctic, that Russian history—at least prior to the purchase of Alaska in 1867—is part of American history. 

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Museum of the Arctic: opening of exhibition on American Russia.

A native New Englander, I have always vaguely identified with European history.  But to the rest of the international Arctic community, particularly to the Russians, Americans are the people who acquired Alaska.  It’s crucial to remember that this one state, with its unique geographical location and associated history, is an important part of our country that provides us with the privilege to contribute to developing, protecting, and preserving one of the most vulnerable parts of our planet.

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Museum of the Arctic. (Photo credit: Irina Tyurikova)

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Museum of the Arctic.

 

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Ethnobiology is the study of humans and their relationship to things biological, from plants to animals to nature itself. Sessions ranged from “Archeological methods” to “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Ethnobiology in the 21st Century (and Beyond): Changes, Innovations, and Issues of Justice” to an entire session dedicated to Acai. The Archeological Methods session was fascinating — Linda Scott Cummings presented a chemical analysis of residues found on ceramic sherds (in this circle they are called sherds and not shards) as support for the use of a plant in the Euphorbia family (same family as your Christmas friend, the pointsettia) in Samoa over 2000 years ago. Another presenter, Caroline A. Dezendorf, used her master’s research to recreate various processes of preparing maize. Using heirloom varieties of maize, she found that those kernels which underwent a lyme treatment match those found by archaeologists. Steve Wolverton used skeletal remains of white-tailed deer to determine that increased hunting pressure resulted in larger deer (due to increased forage).

While there I presented my results from my 2011 field season in South Greenland (see previous post). I was happy to share with the audience that plant knowledge is not disappeared from Greenland, but instead is shared among a small community of enthusiasts. I am working with my collaborator, Lenore Grenoble at the University of Chicago, to pull our results into a manuscript for submission to a journal. Unlike ecology journals, ethnobotanical journals favor including all the data within a paper. So far our manuscript is 4 pages long and the table with the results of our interviews is 10 pages long.  I’ve never seen more table than paper in an ecology journal!

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Every talk about the Arctic requires acclimating the audience to a different perspective of the globe, one where the North Pole is the center of our perspective.

We found that knowledge varies from merely knowing who is knowledgeable about plants within the community to extensive knowledge about collection, preparation, storage and use of plants. We documented 171 uses of plants, divided into 7 categories: beverage, craft, food, medicine, fuel, spice or condiment, and ritual. The majority of uses were as medicine (~25%), food (~23%), beverages (~14%), and craft (~12%). Beverages include mostly teas and three instances of fermented drink. The craft category includes funeral wreaths and decorative bouquets of dried and fresh materials, including fabrication of Christmas trees from Juniperus communis. Medicines are topical and internal. Fuel includes material for fire and candlewicks. Spices are those plants used during cooking; condiments are those that are added to food once cooked. Ritual describes uses connected with spiritual practices, in this case to cleanse the home of bad energy or ghosts. Our work indicates that while few individuals hold knowledge, it does persist within the community and plants are used today both traditionally and with Danish influence.

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A stormy day in the Rocky Mountains.

One of the highlights of the trip was a field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. The four hour bus ride allowed plenty of time to get to know other conference participants, including Steve Weber, the founder of SoE, and a paleoethnobotanist. His research investigates how and why people adopt subsistence strategies. What I appreciated most about our conversation was to learn that he uses techniques with which I am familiar thanks to my IGERT connection with Earth Scientists, but to ask very different questions. My IGERT colleague, Laura Levy, uses lake core samples to measure the past extent of the Greenland ice sheet. Steve uses them to understand climate and agricultural practices in Pakistan. It was empowering to jump right into a conversation with the founder of an esteemed society with full understanding of his methods. Thanks, IGERT!

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Fashion Show 1
Normally I would not expect to write a fashion post about a conference, but the fact that I am demonstrates the wide range of events and activities taking place in Montreal for the International Polar Year conference this week.  Monday afternoon, while scientists, policy makers, educators and polar industry representatives mingled in the exhibition hall, the duo of Nunavik Creations sent one after another of their stunning pieces down the runway.

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The region of Nunavik covers the land north of the 55th parallel in Quebec, and is therefore Quebec’s northernmost province.  As the women behind Nunavik Creations suggest, the clothing they create is inspired by the harsh and beautiful climate of the tundra and taiga that they call home.
Fashion Show 2
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Fashion Show 4
Their creations are a great example of how Inuit communities are adapting to a whole slew of changes, not just changes in climate.  In the pieces they incorporate traditional designs and materials, such as fur and seal skin, but also include new fashion, textiles and accessories, to reflect a “culture in constant evolution.”

Fashion Show 6

To learn more about Nunavik Creations, check out their website nunavikcreations.com.

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I got back from Greenland one week ago, yet I find myself caught in the transition between fieldwork mode and the “real world”. I am still shaking the impulse to pack a fleece, hat and rain gear when I head out the door for short errands on these indisputably beautiful summer days. I am struggling to convey to friends and family all the big and small things that made my 6 weeks in the tundra absolutely wonderful — like how thrilling it feels to dig and hit flat, smooth frozen soil, or how, when isolated without internet in the tundra, Courtney and I turned to Courtne-pedia and Juli-pedia as the most reliable (and entertaining, if not credible) sources of information.

To smooth the transition I seek out the things that bridge my summer of science and adventure with the world that has gone on without me. For this reason, I found myself at an exhibit of Ruth Gruber’s photographs at the International Center of Photography in my home town of New York City.

Ruth Gruber in Alaska, 1941-1943

Gruber is a photojournalist who spent time in Alaska and the Soviet Arctic during the 1930’s and 1940’s. The exhibit had amazing documentation from her travels – pictures of Juneau, AK as a small frontier town on the precipice of the Alaskan wilderness and film footage of a native Alaskan cutting a child’s hair during a boat ride.

The most stunning photos were a series of color photos which are thought to be the earliest color images of Alaska, and were developed for the first time for this particular exhibit.  The series is full of vibrant red and yellow tones that convey the conundrum of how much and how little has changed in the past 60 years. The single image that struck me most was one of a native woman reading an issue of Life magazine: her face and fur hood are lite up by the Arctic sun and a famous baseball player is poised on the magazine cover.

Eklutna woman reading Life magazine, photograph by Ruth Gruber

Looking at the photo I could almost feel the Arctic air on my own cheeks; I felt the profound significance of the merging cultures that now define Alaska.

In addition to the enthralling content of her photographs, I could not help but be impressed by Gruber’s life story. In 1931, at the age of 20, she became the youngest person (male or female!) to earn a PhD. Shortly after, she became the first journalist (again, male or female!) to travel into the Soviet Arctic and later, with a letter of reference from the famous polar explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, was assigned by the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to report on the conditions of the remote Arctic frontier. On display in the ICP exhibit was video footage of an interview with Gruber from earlier this year. At 100 years old, she is engaging and provides animated reflections on her own career. She did not harp on her early scholarly success and did not even mention the innumerable challenges that she surely must have faced as an intelligent and ambitious young woman working in extreme conditions. Instead, she talked about how the Arctic forced her to reevaluate her native New Yorker instinct to speed through life and showed her how to exist in the present. She spoke about how her greatest moments came out of her dedication to the greater cause of human rights; photojournalism just happens to be her tool. I am inspired to learn Gruber’s story, to see the Arctic through her lens and, most of all, to hear her reflections on a lifetime of astounding success.

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