Exploring the potential of proximity at the Tunturiaapa mire in Pyhä
Text: Outi Rantala*
* This blog-writing is based on field work conducted together with Piotr Damski, Katja Karjalainen, Kaisa Kotkajärvi, Jaana Liukkonen-Karvosenoja, Senni Malila, Taija Mäkelä, Doriana Plesa, Elina Puhakka, Shizuka Tanaka, Kaarina Tervo-Kankare and Juulia Tikkanen – and on the discussions and presentations the participants have given. I am thankful for the insightful collaboration with all of you!
The environmental crisis at hand has urged us to re-consider proximity and distance. It has invited us to ask, could we think tourism anew with proximity, beyond the notions of being “stuck”, bounded, limited, restricted?
The new openings related to proximity stem from the role that tourism – and mobility in general – have in the environmental crisis. Tourism researchers Stefan Gössling, C. Michael Hall and David Scott[i] have pointed out the limitations of technological advancement in compensating for the emissions caused by the rapid growth of tourism, the limited progress towards decarbonisation in tourism and the lack of consensus among tourism leaders on how to contribute to the mitigation of environmental impact.
During the Covid-19 pandemic the question has become even more timely. In the beginning of the pandemic there were researchers[ii] highlighting the possibilities for positive transformation towards new, more sustainable tourism future. More recently the pressure for re-starting and re-opening the businesses in any format has increased and has seemed to push the transformation discussion into the background again[iii].
In spring 2021 the tourism actors from the Arctic pointed out that for a long time the main focus in marketing and service development, especially as guided by the EU-, national and regional agencies, has been on the international markets[iv] – which hinders the transformation. For example, most funding available for tourism development has been ear-marked for creating international growth. Still, some tourism companies have managed to re-package their products for domestic tourists during the pandemic.
Our ILA-research group has worked with the concept of proximity already for few years. We see that applying the concept of proximity – as a way of rethinking nearness and farness – enables different earthly creatures to be visited and lived with, whether they are far or proximate[v]. Furthermore, for us proximity is first and foremost about committing to caring and sensitive approaches – both research-wise and when contributing in the creation of – alternative (transformed) – worlds.
Here, I illustrate our approach on proximity with a field work conducted at Tunturiaapa mire in the Pyhä-Luosto national park in late October 2022 with master students studying Arctic tourism in the universities of Iceland, Lapland and Oulu. In Pyhä, the late October marks already the beginning of the kaamos season – the dark time period. Luckily, we had the first snow falling down during those days, and the low hanging clouds, heavy with snow, created a special atmosphere for our field work.
Just to give some background information: Finland has nowadays about 8.7 million hectares of peatlands, of which some 4.7 million have been artificially drained and about 4 million hectares remain undrained. Some 1.2 million hectares of peatland lie within protected areas.[vi]
The diversity of Finland’s natural peatlands and their flora and fauna has declined due to their commercial utilisation, such as the digging of drainage ditches to promote forest growth, the clearance of farmland, and peat extraction. Even undrained peatlands are widely no longer in their natural state due logging, site preparation for forestry purposes, the clearance of streams, the construction of reservoirs, and the extraction of groundwater.[vii]
Nowadays peatlands are seen as a one possibility that might help solving the environmental crisis – e.g., the peatlands enable promoting biodiversity and fighting against the climate change. For example, one of the Finnish carbon compensation services, Hiilipörssi, focuses on restoration of peatlands in order to mitigate the climate change.
Despite the amount of the peatlands in Finland, and their cultural and historical meaning to Finnish people – e.g. in form of natural meadows and important source of myths, the peatlands have been seldom used for touristic purposes.
The Tunturiaapa mire is a typical example of use of peatlands in tourism: it is situated in a national park, there is a duck board route crossing over the mire and in the middle of the mire you can find a viewing tower with information boards telling about the ecology of the mire.
Aapa mires are most common in northern Finland. The name “aapa” refers to a broad wetland with open areas in its centre. Aapa mires play an important role: they are the only breeding grounds in Europe for a number of rare species of bird, and provide a refuge for many threatened plant species.[viii]
During the field work, we were inspired by van Dooren et al.’s (2016, p. 1)[ix] questions: “What does it mean to live with others in entangled worlds of contingency and uncertainty? More fundamentally, how can we do the work of inhabiting and co-constituting worlds well?”. We approached these questions by aiming to become attentive and sensitive with the Tunturiaapa mire. To enable this, we first learnt about the ecology and anthropology related to aapa mires – about the ecological processes and history and myths related to mires in generally and Pyhä area in particular. After this, we slowed down to engage with the mire.
We have suggested with Emily Höckert and Gunnar Thór Jóhannesson (2022) that becoming sensitive with and about human and more-than human others in tourism settings could be practiced by applying Sari Irni’s (2016) method of sensitive reading, which refers to paying attention to nuances, power relations and feelings. During the field work, we applied this idea: we slowed down to perceive and sense the nuances at the mire; we reflected on the power relations among humans and non-humans, and we opened ourselves for different kind of feelings.
We also applied methods from applied visual arts in our process of becoming attentive with the mire: we had a student group from the Faculty of Arts and Design from the University of Lapland with their teacher Antti Stöckell, University Lecturer of Applied Visual Arts, joining us for a day, and together we engaged in various exercises. The main exercise invited the students to create collaborative stories to be shared – stories that would invite also others to participate in the story and engage with the mire.
The stories took us to the mire in a form of bird – in a form of a Siberian Jay. In the old days, Siberian Jay was called a “soul bird”, as the soul of a dead hunter was thought to move to a Siberian Jay. Siperian Jays seem to be curious about those who move in the mire. On the rest areas of the ski paths in Lapland the Siberian Jay may gather in dozens to get food even from the hands of humans.[x] In the stories, the Siperian Jay, which we had seen earlier the day picking up food from the hands of the tourists next to a campfire place, travelled from the otherworldy to our world, bringing important messages.
Through the stories, we became to see the bird not only as species to be spotted but as co-constituter of our lived world, who brings messages from the past and from future. We learned that the open aapa mire offers a safe environment for birds, since it is difficult for the predators to move around in the wet bog. But for us, the bird did not symbolise the possibilities related to spotting diverse bird species – or that type of bird tourism, but an opening for an in-between place.
The bird coming from the mire enables experiencing in-betweenness in relation to sky and ground – with the wide open horizon; in relation to the world and otherworldly – with all the folklore and myths related to it; in relation to sensing the living and the non-living – with the different layers of the bog; and in relation to humans and more-than humans – by showing us the dynamic connections and lively relations among us.
The students found a quotation to describe the being in an in-between state at the mire:
A bog doesn’t give up its secrets easily, but it calls you to uncover them nevertheless. The lure of a bog-pool, which beckons you over to look down on its bright mirrored surface, the perfect blue of the sky an antidote to the relentless black of the peat. But when you stand over it (if you make it that far) all reflections disappear; there is only you, and the dark. Reach down with your fingers if you dare. Who knows what you might touch? Who knows what mysteries you might uncover? To love a bog is to love all that lies buried beneath the surface, buried in its rich, ripe flesh.
from Love Letter to a Bog by Sharon Blackie[xi]
The birds as exemplifiers of how to live with – and to become with – have been very recently been brought up in Vinciane Despret’s (2021) book “Living like a bird”. Also, a Finnish environmental humanist Karoliina Lummaa (2010)[xii] describes in her dissertation how the encounters between humans and birds are about perceived difference and sameness – and about the meanings we imagine to be linked to the differences and sameness. Thus, the agency of the birds is both about perceived qualities and imagined qualities, and these qualities coming together.
During our field work, we become aware of how engaging with the lively relationalities of an aapa mire can illustrate us the possibilities that exists for seeing something extraordinary in our mundane landscapes. For Finnish, the peatlands have symbolised something inaccessible or scary. The unwanted people could disappear in the mires – and never be found. Instead of avoiding the mires, or seeing them unimportant, the mires can help us to access other worlds, the mires can help us to become sensitive with diverse species, and can help us to face our own other sides.
The late October has lately been seen as a potential touristic season for admiring the northern lights and infrastructure has been developed accordingly – e.g. various forms of glass igloos as accommodation places. However, it has been predicted that the climate change will turn the early winter seasons cloudier, which will make spotting northern lights difficult. There might possibilities – instead of marketing northern lights to international guests – to invite domestic tourists to engage with their cultural heritage and otherworldly stories.
[i] e.g., Gössling, S., Hall, C. M., Peeters, P., & Scott, D. (2010). The future of tourism: Can tourism growth and climate policy be reconciled? A mitigation perspective. Tourism Recreation Research, 35(2), 119-130. and Gössling, S., Scott, D., Hall, C. M., Ceron, J-P., & Dubois, G (2012). Consumer behaviour and demand response of tourists to climate change. Annals of Tourism Research, 39(1), 36-58. and Gössling, S., & Scott, D. (2018). The decarbonisation impasse: Global tourism leaders’ views on climate change mitigation. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2018.1529770
[ii] Brouder, P., Teoh, S., Salazar, N.B., Mostafanezhad, M., Pung, J.M., Lapointe, D., Higgins Desbiolles, F., Haywood, M., Hall, C.M., and Balslev Clausen H. (2020). Reflections and discussions: tourism matters in the new normal post COVID-19. Tourism Geographies, 22(3), 735-746, DOI: 10.1080/14616688.2020.1770325 and Lew, A., Cheer, J.M., Haywood, M., Brouder, P. and Salazar, N.B. (2020). Visions of travel and tourism after the global COVID-19 transformation of 2020. Tourism Geographies, 22(3), 455-466, DOI: 10.1080/14616688.2020.1770326
[iii] Jóhannesson, G.T., Welling, J., Müller, D.K., Lundmark, L., Nilsson, R.O., de la Barre, S., Granås, B., Kvidal-Røvik, K., Rantala, O., Tervo-Kankare, K. & Maher, P. (forthcoming). Arctic Tourism in Times of Change. Uncertain Futures: From Overtourism to Re-starting Tourism. TemaNord 2022.
[v] Höckert, E., Rantala, O. & Johannesson, G.T. (2022). Sensitive Communication with Proximate Messmates. Tourism Culture and Communication. https://doi.org/10.3727/109830421X16296375579624
[vi] Similä, M., Aapala, K. & Penttinen, J. Eds. (2014). Ecological restoration in drained peatlands – best practices from Finland. Metsähallitus – Natural Heritage Services | Finnish Environment Institute SYKE. Available at: https://julkaisut.metsa.fi/julkaisut/show/1733
[ix] van Dooren, Kirksey & Münster (2016). Multispecies Studies. Cultivating Arts of Attentiveness (Introduction to Special Issue). Environmental Humanities, 8(1).
[x] Jokimäki, J. & Kaisanlahti-Jokimäki, M-L. (no date). Siperian Jay. Available at: https://www.arcticcentre.org/EN/arcticregion/Flying-Arctic/Siberian-Jay
[xi] Blackie, S. (2018). Love Letter to a Bog. Available at: https://sharonblackie.net/love-letter-to-a-bog/