Review of Andreas Roepstorff, Nils Bubandt and Kalevi Kull (eds) Imagining Nature: Practices of Cosmology and Identity

By Libby Robin

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Imagine nature. Which nature – where? It is not just an ecological question. It is also a highly cultural one. The ‘imagining’ of the title of this pleasantly-designed volume alerts those of us in the humanities with interests in the natural world that this book has been written more for us than for the scientists who so often speak for nature. The subtitle suggests the history of ideas, the possibilities of an enchanted nature, an interest in how nature might situate us in the world and might create cultural identity.

This unusual collection of writing does not disappoint. Although it began life as a workshop, it was clearly a workshop to develop a book together, not a set of papers written for other purposes that happened to turn up in Estonia in 1998. The chapters have been chosen because their subjects speak to each other. The two sections that group the book’s papers are ‘cosmologies’ and ‘identities’. These are two (decidedly cultural) domains in which ‘practices of nature’ are evident: the first in knowledge (including western science) as expressed in overarching narrative (the global), and the second in the local, social connections established through particular relations with particular nature.   Cosmologies and identities complement each other, like the contrapuntal voices of a choir singing two equal melodies that also harmonise. But as Alf Hornborg argues cogently (112), the difference between ‘local’ and ‘global’ is not a difference in scale, but in kind. This collection largely successfully rises to the challenge to keep the ideas about the universal and the particular running side-by-side, in balance, privileging neither.

Roepstorff and Bubandt introduce the book with a discussion of emerging new ideas about nature and culture, commenting that: ‘the former is being deconstructed and the latter is being naturalised, and yet the two antagonists in themselves appear as important and foundational as ever’ (9). The book’s focus on both practice and imagination suggests another dualism – but the conversations in the chapters (and between the chapters) are very much about distrusting dichotomies, and finding ways to think around and beyond them.

The initial workshop was directed ‘towards an Anthropology of the environment’, but the authors are by no means all anthropologists. The conference setting of Jacob van Uexküll’s cottage at Puhtu, inspired several of the writers to revisit the early twentieth century ideas of the German-Estonian philosopher-biologist. Uexküll’s subjective biology was built around the notion of organisms (from ticks to human beings) living within a sphere of meaning, an Umwelt , which they create for themselves. While Roepstorff disparages this as a ‘mental soap bubble’, not applicable to people either individually or socially (25), others in the collection, Sabine Brauckmann and Anti Randviir, find applications of the notion in architecture and semiotics, respectively. Whilst Uexküll was not explicitly mentioned in relation to differences between space and place, another major thread in the collection, the Umwelt has definite parallels with a subjective ‘sense of place’. Morton Pederson’s chapter on the subjective topography of the Tsaatang nomads of northern Mongolia articulates a place devoid of spatial boundaries (in a western sense) that is nonetheless not infinite, but controlled by subjectively perceived fields of power. Place not space is important to nomads, where bounded spaces are features of a sedentary lifestyle, Pederson argues (255).

The key contemporary theorist for many of the writers is Tim Ingold, a Scottish-based biologically-minded anthropologist. Ingold’s regional interests are in Finland, other Nordic countries and ‘the circumpolar north’, but much of his work is about transcending disciplinary limits. Ingold provides an opening chapter that opens up space for many of the volume’s themes: ‘Three in one: How an ecological approach can obviate the distinctions between body, mind and culture’.   His cogent analysis of biology, cognitive psychology and social anthropology provides the basis for a broad merger that goes beyond all of the parent disciplines. Despite the science (natural and social) of its disciplinary origins, the three-way combination turns out to be a decidedly humanist interdiscipline. The evolutionary biology of ‘human nature’ interacts with the architecture of the mind in a specific cultural framework – but the total effect is more than just a ‘biopsychocultural’ sum of the parts, it also has the potential to be an ‘anti-reductionist, anti-Cartesian countersynthesis’ (46). It is actively descriptive, allows human agency and, as Ingold clearly asserts, is morally preferable to any of the parent disciplinary frameworks. Humans are not passive sites of evolutionary change, but creative agents, producers as well as products of their own evolution. There are significant limits, Ingold argues, in seeking origins of behaviours (like walking and talking) in the genes, in the mind or in the culture alone. Rather, he suggests, by looking at ‘the situated experience of the person-acting’ (54) it is possible to consider all three together simultaneously, and avoid the pitfalls of each alone.

Randi Kaarhus echoes Ingold in advocating a dialogue between biology and anthropology. She focuses on the term diversity, which is important to both disciplines, but in rather different ways. Kaarhus is more specific about how to do interdisciplinary work than Ingold, recognising that translations between disciplines often do not work, so suggesting a need to begin with ‘conditions for dialogue’. She urges a move away from classification (whether it be counting species or constructing taxonomies of behaviour) to process. Considering diversity as a process allows it to be a dynamic event with specific dimensions of time and space, something that appeals very much to me as an environmental historian. Diversity as a process demands that we converse about actual practices as and where they unfold, not just test predictive models of a static concept in a vacuum. Both change and learning are included in process (and absent from classification), and add greatly to the dialogical possibilities.

The next chapter applies this logic to the case of the wooded meadow: ‘when culture supports biodiversity’. This chapter, by Kalevi Kull, Toomas Kukk and Aleksei Lotman, offers a worked example of Kaarhus’s challenge to consider diversity as a process. It takes the specific case of the Estonian wooded meadow, a whole ecosystem, rich in biodiversity, ‘kept and managed by many generations of farmers probably without any thought to biodiversity in its modern sense’ (77). The story is about how cultural practices (particularly the process of an annual mowing) can maintain species richness. They argue that the process of mowing is more critical to biodiversity than the counting of species. In fact only plants are considered quantitatively, but there is clear evidence that birds and other animals benefit from the shelter and high quality fodder (hay) produced through this very long-term and stable multifunctional use of the land. The work is urgent because the cultural practice is becoming so much rarer in Estonia since the 1960s, and wooded meadows have already been lost from nearby Sweden and Finland much earlier because of agricultural intensification.

The balance between nature and culture is a theme of every chapter, though most focus on the interactions between them, and/or the philosophical difficulty of separating them, particularly on the ground, in practice.   As well as wooded meadows, we consider Roepstorff’s own work on Greenlandic fisheries, where the cosmologies of the fishers (largely Inuit) are so fundamentally different from those of the fisheries bureaucrats (largely Danish, and trained in biology). Mismatched cosmologies lead to fatal mutual incomprehension. While ‘fish’ refer to person-like beings (subjects) for the fishers, they are objects together making up a stock-taking number for the Danish biologist.   ‘Overfishing’ implies a moral failure to look after the fish-persons for the fisher (for example, by wasting them or taking more than is needed). For the biologists who manage the fishery overfishing can be expressed as an absolute number – the numerical point where the fish stock will decline in number below replacement levels – but this number is does not invoke a moral or narrative imperative; it is just an economic (and ecological) breaking point. The fact that the cultural dimensions are incommensurate (and apparently assign blame) can, as Roepstorff argues, lead to the key protagonists talking past each other, while the fish decline dangerously for both cultures.

Alf Hornborg’s chapter, ‘From animal masters to ecosystem services: exchange, personhood and human ecology’, arose from fieldwork with Algonquian hunter-gatherers rather than the Nordic European perspectives dominant in this collection. Philosophically, however, it draws together many of the key threads in the volume, and tackles the difficulty of the mismatch between the language of experience (phenomenology, even literature) and the objective language of quantification and analysis typical in science (including social science). He wants a third point of reference – not just nature (environment) and society (the market), but also person (modern identity). Hornborg’s schema (99) integrates nature, cosmology and identity – by separating ‘culture’ into the collectively embodied (society) and the personally embodied (how individuals experience the world). This schema can be extended further with ‘persons’ not necessarily being human. ‘Non-human animals are like persons in that they act intelligently and have wills and idiosyncracies’ (101), Hornborg argues from the philosophies of Algonquian-speakers and the Waswanipi Cree. Australian ethicist Peter Singer and ethologist Jacob von Uexküll would agree, although working from very different perspectives, places and times. Moving personhood away from being an exclusively human facility is also something explored by Australian ecophilosopher Freya Mathews in her important book, The Ecological Self (1991).

As an Australian reader of this book, I found the strong Scandinavian/Nordic philosophies of nature intriguing. It has always interested me that the very northern landscapes and the largely hot-arid Australian ones have both provided such fertile grounds for deep ecology, ecophilosophy and ecofeminism. (cf Arne Naess, Peter Singer, Freya Mathews inter alia ). Ecological stress and being on the margins seem highly productive philosophically (as well as evolutionarily). Nina Witoszek’s chapter on nature and ideology compares German romanticism with Scandinavian egalitarianism. She develops intriguing arguments about how ‘survival, balance and self-preservation’ in the northern wilderness led to a pragmatic wisdom of moderation, keeping things in proportion, and of flat hierarchies of power, which tended to banish the fevered, hierarchical Romanticism of neighbouring Germany. ‘Nature by and large preserved its more prosaic status as people’s primary environment. Its beauty was less terrible or awesome, and more intimate and familiar’ (195). German romanticism was seen by Norwegians as ‘unnatural’.

Whereas Witoszek’s analysis of Nordic nature draws on the folk wisdom of the Eddas, the ideas of nature, nation and history in Australia are more problematic. The dominant identity comes from elsewhere – not far from those northern wildernesses, but a distinctively different maritime culture that concentrated its pride for so long on the ‘pink spaces on the map’. British-Australians did not come with a philosophy of nature that fostered the Social Democratic idea of ‘folkhem’ (people’s home or ‘place’). Our ‘new’ land remained both ‘new’ and ’empty’ for many generations (despite the fact that it was in fact very old, and continuously populated for much longer than all of Europe). As late as the 1950s, home was still Britain for many Australians, even if they had never been there. Yet the egalitarian, the pragmatic, the anti-romantic and the highly sophisticated philosophising about nature have also emerged here in our ecologically stressed, extremely arid country, with climatic variability more unpredictable than any northern winter.   Like the Estonians whose wooded meadows do not conform to American ‘wilderness’ ideals or British or French notions of countryside (landscape as garden) (Cf 77), settler Australians are grappling with a strongly indigenous, often endemic biodiversity. There is a growing awareness of the lack of cultural tools for this place (and of the history of silencing the very small minority with long experience of this land). Australians should welcome this intriguing collection from another place, another nature, as it probes and extends our ideas about the human and ecological condition, cosmologies and identity.


Libby Robin is an environmental historian with particular interest in the cultural history of science in Australia. Her most recent book, The Flight of the Emu won the inaugural Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for science writing in November 2003.

Imagining Nature: Practices of Cosmology and Identity edited by Andreas Roepstorff, Nils Bubandt and Kalevi Kull was published in Aarhus by Aarhus University Press, 2003. ISBN 87 7288 954 4, 238DKK/€34/£22.50/$US 39.95

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