Why stories shouldn’t always have endings

by Lauren Collee

Hirta lies approximately 44 miles from the island of Leverburgh. On the clearest of days, it is visible as a dark smudge on the horizon. If you are a passenger aboard one of the several large cruise ships that stop over each year and deposit up to three hundred bodies on its shores, then you’ll be lucky enough to experience a seamless and convenient visit to one of the most mythologized islands of the Scottish Outer Hebrides.

For everyone else, the journey requires determination—and money. Boats leave from Leverburgh or Skye daily, but book up months in advance, and fifty percent of journeys are cancelled on the day due to unfavourable weather conditions. Overnight visitors must take all their own supplies. There is no shop, no phone reception, no wifi.  

The common characteristic of those who end up on Hirta—the largest island in the St. Kilda archipelago, and the only one that permits human visitors—is that they really want to be there. Everyone has their own reasons for visiting: a fascination with remote islands, a desire to witness the one million migratory seabirds that stop by during breeding season, or a drive to master Conachair—the highest peak—and gaze over the precipice of the tallest sea-cliff in Britain. But for most, the allure of St. Kilda lies in that strange thing known as ‘disaster tourism’: the drive to visit sites that still bear the scars of past tragedies, preserved as a testament to their historic importance.  

In its simplest form, the story goes like this:

A human population lives for one thousand years, perhaps longer, in complete isolation on a remote island. Their sustenance comes almost entirely from the seabirds, which they catch in great numbers from the cliffs, and store in small stone buildings called cleits.

Then in 1697, an ‘explorer’ called Martin Martin visits, and writes about a forgotten isle that perfectly embodies the Victorian obsession with the Romantic Sublime: the kind of simultaneous awe and fear reserved for thirteen-hundred-foot cliffs, great expanses of water, and mist-filled bowls of land unbroken by even a single tree. Over the course of the following centuries, the Victorians start to come to St. Kilda, in larger and larger numbers.

A priest visits, and preaches the islanders out of their heathen ways. He preaches them out of their windowless stone houses, insulated with lichen and low-lying to escape the worst of the wind, and into new square buildings with real glass. Several winters pass and all the glass is broken. The islanders grow sick. They catch diseases. They are almost entirely wiped out. But they hang on. They keep hanging on for several centuries, until 1930, when the last poverty-stricken survivors are evacuated.

Humans never again return to live permanently on St. Kilda. And so, history stops.

The story is tragic. But the exact nature of the tragedy remains intentionally obscure. Is it the tragedy of globalization? Of tourism? Of the fact that people lived here for so long with so little? The question of whether or not the islanders wanted to evacuate in 1930 is cautiously circumnavigated. The last of the native St. Kildans, Rachel Johnson, passed away last year after having spent most of her life on the mainland. The underlying sentiment in her obituaries is that the secrets of St. Kilda died with her.

The NTS are well aware of the potency of this: a story in which the protagonists are forever lost, set against the backdrop of a desolate landscape peppered with ruined cleits and winged shapes flying in circles against the white sky. The tourist experience is carefully shaped to play off its atmospheric mournfulness. One of the panels in the St. Kilda museum, entitled ‘deserted island’, describes the scene of Village Bay, the small cove where boats pull in and from which the large majority of tourists do not stray:

This row of houses with ruined buildings and storehouses is part of a cultural landscape which evokes the lives of the isolated community that lived here.

These ‘evoked’ lives can never be anything other than past tense and ghostly. Like the white chalk outline of a body on the pavement, the physical landscape of St. Kilda becomes a space defined by loss. And in the same way that a pedestrian would not simply walk over such a chalk outline, the landscape is governed by rules and boundary-lines. The expected reverence is formalized. Tourists are given a ‘dos and don’ts’ talk by the island warden upon arrival. They are forbidden from walking over the ruins, and if so much as a stone falls out of place, its position must be photographed and logged before the island’s resident archaeologist or NTS volunteer can put it back into its place.  

The story that drew me to St. Kilda was not that of the demise of the islanders—at least not entirely. But I was by no means immune to the pull of disaster. It was the final term of my Masters degree in Science and Technology Studies, and I had grown a little restless reading about wilderness from a desk in the British Library. I came across an article on the catastrophic decline of the kittiwakes on St. Kilda, a type of seabird so-named for its characteristic call [kitti-WAKE, kitti-WAKE]. The most recent NTS seabird report reveals that kittiwake productivity has declined by 99.2% since 1994. Last year, a single chick hatched, and subsequently died. The current consensus is that this is due to a combination of overfishing and the global rise of sea-temperatures, which is forcing sandeels—the main food-source of many St. Kilda’s seabird species—to seek cooler waters.

Having no formal scientific training or any experience with quantitative data, I decided that my Masters dissertation would look at perceptions of seabird disappearance. I packed a bag full of ‘survival’ gear (waterproof matches, voice recorder, whisky, chocolate), booked my spot on the boat, sent a few over-enthusiastic emails to NTS staff members, and set off. I received a text from my housemate as I boarded the train to Glasgow: ‘Good luck saving the seabirds. Don’t fall off any cliffs’.

As I dozed my way through the four-legged trip (train, plane, bus, boat) from London to St. Kilda, I tried to convince myself that ‘saving the seabirds’ was at least in part what I was going to do. As a kid I had been adamant that I’d be a ‘nature conservationist’ when I grew up. I don’t think I knew exactly what this meant, and always pronounced it wrong. It was one of those things that I picked up and latched on to because it sounded unquestionably fulfilling.

Disappearance-in-progress isn’t just a matter of erasure and absence. It is bodily. It is complicated. It lacks the soft and elegant tragedy that comes with historical distance. It is messy and off-putting.

But as I grew older, the word became murky and slightly meaningless to me. Interchanged frequently with ‘preservation’, it seemed to suggest that only ‘original’ (pre-industrial) nature was ‘real’ nature. What, then, were the parks and beaches where I spent many happy days during my childhood, those semi-wild places where toilet blocks accumulated new graffiti each year, where shark-nets were put up and taken down, where bushfires burnt through entire stretches of forest that grew back in strange new tufts that looked extra-terrestrial?

The concept of change occupies a strange place in nature conservation discourses. The idea of flux and variation has always been central to ecological sciences, but the need to counteract claims that violent human-induced changes to environments over short periods of time are ‘only natural’ has meant that true ‘wilderness’ has come to be associated with values of stability and a-historicity. As the number of areas that occupy this definition dwindles rapidly, ‘wilderness’ becomes increasingly inaccessible and illusory.

As a Unesco world heritage site with dual (natural and cultural) listing, St. Kilda is a bit of a showroom for definitions of conservation. The division is geographical as well as semantic. Archaeological conservation efforts focus on the ruined village in Village Bay, the sheltered cove where boats pull in. Natural conservation happens ‘out there’, on the rocky outcrops and steep edges of hills that fall upwards in every direction.

Just like the idea of ‘wilderness’ itself, the slow extinction of kittiwakes and other seabirds that come to St. Kilda to breed becomes a ghostly half-reality. But unlike the disappearance-in-history preserved by archaeological remains, disappearance-in-progress isn’t just a matter of erasure and absence. It is bodily. It is complicated. It lacks the soft and elegant tragedy that comes with historical distance. It is messy and off-putting.

The first days I spent walking around Hirta, I saw death everywhere. I found shattered eggshells on rocks. I found the skeleton of a gull picked clean by a larger bird, its wings splayed out on the grass on either side of its exposed breastbone. I walked along the beach and found the deflated body of a seal, and that of a gannet, a splash of white feathers against the rock, intact apart from its missing eye. These dead things did not trouble me. I remembered collecting starfish and seahorses from the beach when I was a child, and leaving them in the sun until all the liquid had dried out of them and they smelled only very faintly. I regarded them with fascination—they were signs of life as much as they were of death.

And then, on the second day into my visit, I hiked up to the top of Conachair and came unexpectedly across a propeller protruding from the hillside, an uncomfortable contortion of scrap metal flecked with an angry rash of rust. I’d heard this story: in 1943, twelve men from New Zealand flew out at night and didn’t expect to find a four-hundred-and-thirty metre mountain in the middle of the Atlantic. The differences between human and animal death and extinction suddenly appeared to me deeply questionable. It seemed strange to me that animal death could be so bodily, so a-temporal and a-historic, and human death so shrouded in the unsayable, the unseeable, so immaterial and yet so steeped in history.

It is easier for humans to understand expanses of time and space when they are packaged up into a story with a beginning, middle, and an end. Museums serve the purpose of drawing up these boundaries, identifying cut-off points and sealing the past in a hermetic bubble that can be carefully curated and preserved. I do not question that this is valuable work, but when a museum is also a living, breathing island, the semantics of ‘preservation’ seem misguided. The conversations around species decline need less emphasis on endings, and more emphasis on the messy present.

On the third day of my stay on St. Kilda, the weather took a turn for the worse and the tourist boats stopped coming. I had presumed that this would be the point at which the real sense of loneliness and melancholy would set in. Now, undisturbed by the bright colours of weatherproof jackets on the hillside, I figured I’d be able to take in the grey-blues and greens of the treeless landscape in all its dreary, ghostly glory.

But the dreariness never came. Life continued. The local boat operators radioed in weather reports, the military helicopter flew in periodically, looking a little like a seabird when its black shape first appeared in the distance, the volunteers carried on documenting misplaced stones, and the wild sheep carried on knocking them off again.

As if time had been turned inside out, my sense of neatly demarcated historical disaster gave way to a kind of joy that was intensely confusing. Walls literally chirped at me as I walked past—I began to see seabirds nesting in the storehouses of their former predators, making their houses in the quarry in the hillside. Slowly, the central absence of the St. Kildans—that chalk line on the pavement—was starting to fade. It became instead a kind of presence, one of the many voices in an impossibly complex orchestra in which things did not displace one another, but instead flowed into the same big mess.

As if performing their unwillingness to conform to human narrative structures (beginnings, middles, endings), the seabirds continued to remind me that an island is never really an island.

One practicality of choosing an island for a museum is that the spatial boundaries seem to reinforce the idea of temporal boundaries. As if performing their unwillingness to conform to human narrative structures (beginnings, middles, endings), the seabirds continued to remind me that an island is never really an island. They did this not only through their vertiginous flight in and out of my field of vision, but also through their response as a population to things that do not—as I was reminded by several staff—fit into the remit of the NTS: climate change, overfishing. One day, two gannets, entangled in a bit of plastic—like a bad omen from a distant land in a fairytale—drifted into the bay and were saved. The outside world seeped into the island-sphere, just as history seeped into the present. The archipelago was doing its best to shake off the impact of the world ‘out there’—the messy present—but of course, no such distinction had really ever existed. The real tragedy of St. Kilda is in its connectedness. But this is also cause for celebration.

St. Kilda is a vitally important asset to the Outer Hebrides, which struggle under the growing trend of depopulation and rely heavily on tourism during the summer months. Tourism to St. Kilda is the NTS’ single biggest source of income. But the old trick of disaster tourism which, in this case, puts the place to death rather than bringing the past to life—does nothing to counteract the story of Hebridean communities collapsing one by one.

The ‘real’ St. Kilda, the one in which tour-operators, military staff, researchers and tourists share space with a whole array of species whose numbers are continuously fluctuating in response to a huge variety of factors, was more interesting to me than the uninhabited island that speaks only of what has been lost. The problem with the word ‘conservation’ is that it implies endings and permanence. This kind of framing is actively misleading in a place where stories of depopulation and species decline are unfolding now, in the unstable present.

But if not ‘conservation’, then what? Perhaps the most useful substitute is simply this: attention. Attention means immersion, responsiveness, sticking with the ebbs and flows. It is what is required of any good reader or listener of stories. It is also what is required of a good tourist.

All photos by Lauren Collee

Lauren Collee is a free-lance writer and researcher based in London. She is interested in social imaginings of the natural world, and ways in which they are shaped by language.  

 

There is no wilderness in Kiruna

Kiruna at midnight. Photo by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

by Rut Elliot Blomqvist

Kiruna/Giron, July 1st, 9 pm. The sun won’t set tonight, nor for another couple of weeks.

The recorded voice of Hans Forssell, a state attorney, booms from the speakers of the festival stage Cityscenen. A group of people are shouting “Jannok, Jannok!”, drowning out the contemptuous, racist crap from a 2016 court case between the Girjas reindeer herding community and the Swedish state.

Sofia Jannok enters the stage to the sound of the cheering audience. Kiruna has been a mining town for 127 years, and the state-owned company LKAB—Luossavaara Kirunavaara Aktiebolag—has long been and is still a key contributor to Swedish state wealth. Jannok’s stage at Kirunafestivalen has a view of both the Kirunavaara/Gironvárri mine and the surrounding mountains and woods where Sámi people lived for about ten thousand years before the crown and state of Sweden took an interest in these lands, and where Tornedalian farming settlements coexisted with Sámi culture for several hundred years before Swedish colonial settlements were established in the 17th century.

The Kirunavaara mine. Photo by Håkan Sandström

 

Jannok’s drummer hits the snare drum in the march-like intro to the song “This is my land – Sápmi”. Jannok points to the mine and sings: “If you want to ruin it all with big wounds in the mountain, then you’re not worthy listening to this song”. This line leads into a power yoik—yoik being the traditional Sámi vocal style which Jannok mixes with pop music, creating an evocative and original sound—which seems to me to embody both the anger and the joy someone feels when they fight to protect what they love. Her voice and her eyes express grief and loss, and then happiness and love; despair and anger, and then a fierce, euphoric fighting spirit—moving seamlessly between these inseparable feelings. In “I ryggen på min kolt” (“Backstabbing my gákti”), Jannok again points to the mine, singing: “Att sälja landet åt gruvor kallas folkmord”, “To sell the land to mines is called genocide”.

Before the song “Čuđit – Colonizer”, Jannok talks about the last time she arrived at Kiruna airport where she remembers a sign that read “Välkommen till Europas sista vildmark”, “Welcome to the last wilderness of Europe”. She observes that wilderness means unpopulated; the sign at the airport suggests that Sápmi and Tornedalen were empty before they became part of the Swedish state. Jannok says, “there is no wilderness”: “Who do you think named these mountains, in several languages?”. People were living with the land and gave places names in Sámi and Meänkieli (Tornedalian) before others came to colonise the land.

Čuđit – Colonizer”

Never empty, she was never wild

Stolen cruelly away from her child

Taken care for thousands of years

In seconds she’s ruined seas to seas

Kiruna, or Giron in northern Sámi, means ‘snow grouse.’ Not incidentally, Jannok sings a song called “Snow grouse – Ii leat ivdni mus” which is about surviving:

Invisible though I’ve always been here

Like a snow grouse I fly though they want me to die

 

The crowd at the festival. Photo by Håkan Sandström

To my left, three young people in colourful, patterned gákti—the Sámi regalia—are dancing with a Sámi flag.

Behind them, there are a few older women in blue gákti.

To my right, a middle-aged man is standing alone, dressed in a smart checked shirt, jeans, and a black cap decorated with reindeer and a small Sámi flag. He removes his glasses, to wipe away what seems to be tears.

When I turn around to view the huge crowd, two women behind me who are dressed in contemporary European fashion speak—to me, I think—in a northern Swedish accent, saying “Hon är så jävla bra”, “She’s freaking awesome”.

Closest to the stage by the fence is a line of young girls, many with Sámi handicraft—Duodji—handbags.

A few people in their twenties and thirties, seemingly a bit drunk, are dancing in front of me without paying much heed to the people around them, and two of them know the kids by the fence and sometimes hug and dance with them. Some of the kids don’t seem entirely happy about this.

To the left of the drunken dancers, three people form a kind of line by hugging each other, watching and listening intently to Jannok.

A bit behind me on my right there is a group of people whom I read as queer. One of them is wearing a “don’t assume my gender” t-shirt.

Between two of her songs, Jannok talks about “the strong souls who held on so that I can stand here now”.

Sofia Jannok. Photo by Håkan Sandström

Before one of the last songs of the gig, Jannok says, “Whatever happened yesterday, you are still here”.  She presents the song through a powerful image: When horrible things happen, you take the hate this awakens and you close your fist around it like around a small stone, and you hold it there until it has become love and then you open your hand and let the love come out. You spread love. That’s how you survive; that’s why diversity and goodness still exist in a colonial world; that’s how we are still here. Then Jannok sings “We are still here – Mii leat dás ain”—which is also the name of the tour.

After “We are still here”, a big group of people near the stage shout what I would venture to guess is “one more time” in Sámi. Someone comments in Swedish that half of Sápmi is there at the gig.

I feel a bit introverted, hiding in my hoodie, wanting to be in a quiet place to think and feel everything Sofia Jannok’s concert has made me think and feel.

I don’t know if the people around me are representative of Sápmi, or of Tornedalen—the Torne river valley—or of Kiruna/Giron. Regardless, these people remind me that there are all kinds of people everywhere: in Gothenburg in the south where I currently live, in Sápmi and Tornedalen, in Kiruna; in an urban core, in Indigenous and other local communities, in a mining town.

I think about something Jannok said during the concert: “I wish that no one would ever have to argue with the state or with anyone else, saying ‘yes, I do exist’”. All of us exist and we are all different. She called the audience her rainbow and sang “Jag är regnbågen på din näthinna”—“I am the rainbow you see”, or “I am your retina’s rainbow”. This is a theme Jannok returns to over and over again, like in “I ryggen på min kolt” which concludes with the words “Colours exist because everyone’s here”.

Leaving the festival, walking back to my father-in-law’s flat in the midnight light, I wonder if anyone wearing a gákti will be harassed or beaten tonight, remembering the line from Jannok’s song “Čuđit – Colonizer”: “Go gávtti biggo šaddá návddiin diggot”, “Wearing your gákti means dealing with beasts”. I wonder if anyone will be sexually harassed or raped tonight—sexual harassment and rape have haunted Swedish festivals this summer, as they have always done. I wonder how many lonely people will get wasted and break down tonight, here in the area called the Vodka belt where talking about your feelings isn’t always a priority. I wonder how many angry, underprivileged men will bond over racist comments about the Sámi and refugees tonight.

I wonder why some people, in particular here in the north, channel their despair, grief, loss, loneliness, and anger in the form of hatred towards the Sámi. That very few Sámi people have minor, relative privileges compared to some other underprivileged groups in the north seems like a simplistic explanation. I wonder if this hatred isn’t also about a kind of jealousy: maybe people envy the Sámi for the Sámi sense of community. I know that, when Jannok sings about her love for the land and her people, I find myself longing for being in a community of people and land.

If a sense of community is what you want, no hatred is going to fill that empty space. Instead of spreading hate, it makes so much more sense to hold it in your fist until it becomes love and then spread that love. It makes so much more sense to build a local community with the people around you; to create your own story about injustice, extractivism, and colonialism; to define what you would demand from the state and other sites of power, and then join the Sámi in their struggle for local autonomy and land rights.

Just outside my father-in-law’s house, from the parking lot, I can see the closed Luossavaara/Luossavárri mine in the distance. The name means Trout mountain. I wonder who gave it that name once. It looks lonely.

Rut Elliot Blomqvist is a songwriter, musician, writer, and PhD student in literature and environmental humanities who thinks a lot about environmental justice, degrowth, and the mythologies of contemporary Western society. Ze particularly likes to combine storytelling, music and analysis with activism and farming in searching for ways to describe and build a good life for hirself and others.