In ‘Climate Ghosts,’ Nancy Langston Provides an Answer
Editor’s note: Michigan Technological University professor Nancy Langston is a nationally recognized environmental historian and the author of five books. In her latest, Climate Ghosts: Migratory Species in the Anthropocene, she explores the fate of three species historically found in the Great Lakes watershed: woodland caribou, common loons and lake sturgeon. Nancy reports on stresses imposed on these signature species by European colonization and now by climate change. Can we restore them? Perhaps, she answers, if we’re willing to make difficult choices.
Published by Brandeis University Press, the book is based on the Mandel Lectures in the Humanities she gave at Brandeis in 2019. John Sandlos of the Memorial University of Newfoundland calls it “a stunning work of environmental history that illuminates the challenges facing wildlife vulnerable to climate change.” To learn more about Climate Ghosts, listen to this podcast or attend this December 13 event. FLOW interviewed Langston recently by e-mail.
What is the core story in your book?
In Climate Ghosts, I grapple with a puzzle: these three species have been the focus of nearly a century of restoration efforts. Yet they remain at risk in northern watersheds. Why has so much effort been expended to protect these species, with surprisingly little benefit? I argue that Indigenous dispossession was core to the loss of migratory wildlife. But early white conservationists typically blamed the loss of wildlife on Native hunting, rather than on industrial development—so their conservation efforts often failed to address the core challenges facing the species.
For example, consider woodland caribou. I was astonished when I learned that woodland caribou had once roamed from Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin all the way north to James Bay. I live now on Lake Superior, in a world emptied of living caribou but threaded with their ghosts. We can drink Caribou Coffee, weak as it is, and most suburbs have a Caribou Drive. Each summer for 18 years, I’ve spent many days in a kayak, paddling along Lake Superior islands where caribou once calved. Few of my friends realize that caribou were the most widespread species of the deer family in our northern forests. Even fewer realize that caribou migrations threaded water and island, forest and bog, predator and prey together, across what eventually became the Canadian border with the United States.
In Climate Ghosts, I grapple with a puzzle: these three species (woodland caribou, common loons, and lake sturgeon) have been the focus of nearly a century of restoration efforts. Yet they remain at risk in northern watersheds.
Although their annual migrations weren’t as long as those of barren-ground caribou, woodland caribou were wanderers, calving on Canadian islands and wintering in bogs to the south. They were also survivors. Even as climate regimes dramatically shifted in the Pleistocene, woodland caribou persisted for more than 1.6 million years of dramatic changes. When glaciers encroached, caribou found refugia in what’s now the southern United States; when temperatures warmed, they moved northward, with their human kin, along the edges of the melting ice. Caribou across the north became core to human cultures for millennia, allowing humans to thrive after glaciers retreated.
But now woodland caribou are struggling. In the United States, woodland caribou are functionally extinct. In Canada, of 50 woodland caribou populations, more than half are in steep decline. The litany of losses is all too familiar: they were extinct in Wisconsin by 1850 and in mainland Michigan by 1912. The Lake Nipigon population began its steep decline in 1920 when the railway arrived. After World War II, mineral, forest, and energy development in the Canadian north intensified, fragmenting caribou populations. They’ve “been driven off the land,” according to Leo Lepiano, former Lands and Resources Consultation Coordinator for the Michipicoten First Nation.
Caribou, Indigenous peoples, and wolves had managed to co-exist for millennia after the ice retreated. But as European traders and settlers expanded the fur trade, then mining, logging, and farming into the north woods, habitat for woodland caribou and refuge from their predators diminished, and their migration corridors were severed by development.
Caribou were quickly targeted by elite white recreational hunters, for they were perceived as incredibly difficult and sporting to kill. The help of a Native guide was required. When caribou populations began to decline, whites blamed these Native guides and forbade them to hunt caribou. But they didn’t stop their own hunting or extractive industry development.
As early as the 1930s, game biologists trying to restore caribou acknowledged that it wasn’t tribal hunting that was devastating woodland caribou, but rather the destruction of migration corridors. But because whites couldn’t imagine that Indigenous hunters could co-exist with caribou kin, rather than restoring these migration routes, biologists decided to fence in the few caribou that remained, making their migrations impossible. Caribou loss was part of a much larger context of Indigenous trauma, and by ignoring that trauma—indeed, by perpetuating the racism that underlay the trauma—project managers doomed the restoration to failure. These are lessons restorationists still need to learn.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic that there is time and ability for our civilization to protect not just these species but our planet as a whole?
I think the successful restoration of lake sturgeon offers hope. While lake sturgeon have a long way to go for full recovery, they’ve been pulled back from the brink of extinction by a diverse collection of Indigenous groups, fisheries biologists, commercial fishing companies, and recreational anglers.
Euro-American settlement in the upper Great Lakes region led to the near collapse of lake sturgeon by the late 19th century. For settlers, sturgeon’s absence cost a few fishermen their pay, but the benefits attached to development far outweighed those losses. The rational cost-benefit analyses that lined the shelves of government agencies all shared an implicit assumption: non-human animals were commodities that could be bought and sold. An animal was little more than an instrument to be used.
But Anishinaabeg peoples in the Great Lakes see sturgeon as relatives and fellow spiritual beings, just as Native American peoples on the Great Plains see bison as sacred relatives. Lake sturgeon have never been mere commodities. Rather, sturgeon live in relationship—with each other and with people, offering cultural and spiritual sustenance.
I think the successful restoration of lake sturgeon offers hope. While lake sturgeon have a long way to go for full recovery, they’ve been pulled back from the brink of extinction.
Wisconsin had started conservation efforts to stem the decline of sturgeon in 1912, and other Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces soon followed suit. Yet for a century these conservation efforts failed to stem their decline. Things changed after the tribes in the Great Lakes region won federal recognition of their reserved treaty rights to co-manage fisheries on ceded territories. Once that happened, the tribes could lead restoration of the fish the Anishinaabeg know as “nme,” bringing back their ancient clan partners to the waters of the north.
The Indigenous restoration projects described in Climate Ghosts sometimes require a more involved connection with individual sturgeon than wildlife biologists may be comfortable with. What’s wild about a sturgeon you rear and place above a dam? But these active restoration projects may be what we increasingly need to do in the Anthropocene: come up with new ways of thinking about wildness that acknowledge continuing entanglements between human and non-human. Perhaps it’s those new connections that are now necessary to sustain migratory species in the north.
When sturgeon fade from our rivers, we have to be careful that they don’t also fade from our memories and stories, because then they are no longer worth the efforts that we need to make for them. Restoration takes a lot of heart, and you sustain that heart with stories, not just with money.
With two-eyed seeing, restoration becomes more than simply removing invasive species and restoring natives—but also a restoration of cultural connections to watersheds and kin.
How do we make those entangled connections with sturgeon, who like all fish, are profoundly other to humans? They swim through the world, sensing and acting and living and dying, in ways far different than we do. They breathe in a watery medium that would quickly choke us. They see, not with the same eyes we see, but with electroreceptors on their head that respond to electric signals, and they use these to feed, mate, migrate, hang out with their pals. They communicate, but not in a language we understand.
What is the difference between the Western point of view regarding these and other species, and the Indigenous view?
Western biologists try to observe the non-human world as closely as they can, and then move from these empirical observations into tests of theory, modelling population costs and benefits over evolutionary time. Indigenous communities also start with close observation of the non-human world, trying to be as accurate as possible about the specific patterns and processes they observe. But then, rather than assume that only populations matter in evolutionary history, they also pay attention to individuals. In Indigenous perspectives, sturgeon—like humans—have culture, religion, complexity, and meaning in their individual lives, just as humans have. Stories and rituals teach children to pay attention, to see the world outside of human boundaries.
This is what Indigenous scientists now call “two-eyed seeing.” Two-eyed seeing integrates Indigenous traditional knowledge with western scientific research. With two-eyed seeing, restoration becomes more than simply removing invasive species and restoring natives—but also a restoration of cultural connections to watersheds and kin. Such two-eyed seeing may be essential for a sustainable future in our increasingly precarious but precious world.
Climate Ghosts asks: what can we learn from history to keep our fellow creatures and ourselves from extinction in a warming, politically fractured world? One lesson is clear: we live in a world of relationships. Humans, like other animals, are embedded at every point in the environment. For millennia, humans and other animals have wandered the earth together, on meandering migrations. Sustaining those connections is important to sustaining not just wildlife, but also people.