What is natural heritage? And what is a sustainably curated nature? The answers to these questions appear both obvious and farfetched. Nature, and by extension natural heritage, is mostly defined as something essentially “natural” and beyond human impact. Yet, the way natural heritage features in media and current discourses, it is depicted mostly as either threatened by human influence or in need of human curation and stewardship. This is not least true for natures of the high North. Despite their remoteness and distance from polluted urban centers it is in these northern regions that the effects of human impact on planetary ecosystems are most clearly visible. Hence, with the advance of climate change, an idyllic view of nature as pure, intact and “out there” is becoming increasingly distorted.
Relics of Nature is concerned with this development and asks: what becomes of natural heritage in a changing world? Is it, at present, necessary to rethink the conceptual and material preferences associated with natural heritage landscapes? And, what does the mostly taken-for-granted term of “sustainability” really imply in contexts of environmental change?
Rooted in the disciplines of Archaeology and Critical Heritage Studies, Relics of Nature will answer these questions through explorations of carefully selected case studies in the high North, in Iceland and Svalbard/Norway. The project will employ a combined approach of empirical fieldwork and conceptual analysis. The aim is to compare the material composition of the selected heritage landscapes (through archaeological fieldwork) with their representation as natural heritage in various discourses (through analysis of archives, literature, media etc.). This combination of the concrete and the conceptual, the material and the imagined, reflects the project's novelty and also its founding statement: that, reactions to current environmental challenges must be broad-based and collaborative in scope.
The last two decades have seen fundamental shifts in heritage studies worldwide, involving a radical revision of central concepts, notions and practices. This critical rethinking, however, has largely focused on cultural heritage and a similarly extensive scrutinizing of natural heritage has not followed suit. Despite the current relevance on the verge of the Anthropocene–a new geological epoch characterized by intensive human impact on planetary ecological systems–a rethinking of the notion and phenomenon of natural heritage is still largely wanting. It is this untimely lack, and urgency, of critical reflection on natural heritage that directs the aim of this project. Summarized in brief, Relics of Nature takes on an explicit investigation of the cultural values and ontological preferences involved in defining and defending natural heritage. This includes scrutinizing what constitutes the “nature” of heritage, conceptually and materially, and an exploration of what the often taken-for-granted terms of sustainability and environmental ethics imply in current contexts of climate change. Rooted in the disciplines of Archaeology and Critical Heritage Studies and working through carefully selected case studies in the high North (Iceland and Svalbard/Norway) the project will reach its objectives through the combined approach of empirical fieldwork and conceptual analysis. Comparing the physical composition of the selected heritage landscapes and their management and maintenance (through archaeological fieldwork), with their representation as natural heritage (through analysis of archives, literature, discourse), will provide rich datasets uniquely suited to meet the project’s objectives. The synergy of braiding the concrete and conceptual reflects the project's novelty and founding postulation: namely, that concrete reactions to current environmental challenges must be convoyed with profound rethinking of underlying understandings of nature and nature-culture relations.