Our ways of remembering have changed considerably, especially with the technological advances of the last fifty years. Large-volume information storage and sharing services lend memories a disembodied quality; they float as if in a dematerialized cloud. There is a downside to the technological developments that let us broadcast our memories so easily and over such vast distance. Although online services enable us to record our impressions and distribute them to others across the globe, these records become detached from their original setting. As memories become separated from place, might humans lose the capacity for grounded ecological thought and action? The problem of humanity’s detachment occurs at exactly the moment when our impact on the future of the planet is greater than ever before. Against these trends, the loanword fotminne, or “foot memory,” reminds us of our primeval connections to the ground beneath our feet.
Collective memories are intricately dependent on the pathways we traverse and the physical places where we meet. The usefulness of the term fotminne rests on the assumption that whatever we do that sustains memory also, and necessarily, sustains life. Fotminne was coined by celebrated Swedish novelist Kerstin Ekman. The term is Ekman’s response to an increasing disconnect from what grounds our existence. In her novel Blackwater (1993), she brings to the crime genre her commitment to an ecological sensibility deeply rooted in her love for the heavily forested district of Jämtland in northern Sweden.
I recently went to Jämtland in search of firsthand experience of some of the places that have inspired Ekman’s work. This is where the word fotminne evolved during the twenty years that Ekman lived in what the indigenous Sámi people affectionately call the Vaajma region (vaajma being the Sámi word for heart). Situated directly in the center of Scandinavia, this region is home to Norwegians, Swedes, and Sámi. Its environment is characterized by the presence of overgrown wetlands called myr in Swedish, usually translated as “mire,” though a close equivalent is also “fen”—an area of marshland, or former marshland, with few plant nutrients despite a neutral chemistry. A myr was once an Ice Age lake whose surface is now spongy with dense mosses such as sphagnum and other low ground covers. There are no paths on a myr, which means an inexperienced visitor can easily get lost. Furthermore, the ground here does not register human tracks. I encountered only the occasional imprint of an elk—the only creature heavy enough to leave its mark. In this context, I became increasingly aware of my lack of fotminne. It was impossible to walk along a straight line, but after the initial feeling of disorientation and unsettledness, it dawned on me that this was perhaps not such a bad thing. One walks slowly and cautiously on a myr, compared to the rush to reach a destination encouraged by straight roads that to Ekman epitomize our “death civilisation.” On this terrain, by contrast, one inevitably pays more attention to the ground, which Ekman describes in vitalist terms as a “network of paths, walking veins, memory vessels.”
Ekman’s description raises questions about the ontological and material status of memory. How much does the soil’s biodiversity contribute to human remembering? Does the biotic community, from microorganisms to plants and mosses each contributing their bit of biomass, act together to constitute a “being owing to which” memory is happening? Here I’m adapting Timothy Morton’s formulation, “the being owing to which thinking is happening,” which for Morton refers to an expansive preconscious (or protoconscious) hinterland from which consciousness emerges. I don’t claim to have any single answer to these questions, except to say I suspect that what humans recognize as memory is fed through “walking veins, memory vessels” by other-than-human contributions from the natural world. Precisely how much of a memory is owned by place is a moot point and would depend a great deal on the site itself, as well as how it is used, by how many people, and for how long. When I asked my guide, also a keen reader of Ekman, what the term fotminne evokes for him, part of his answer referred to communally held memories based on multiple visits by more than one person. The important point to make here is that the term fotminne goes a considerable way to remind us that both personal and cultural memory require a physical habitat to exist.
With the term fotminne, we get a sense of how place undergoes change through time as people, livestock, and wildlife traverse it. Ekman writes in Blackwater of the encounter between foot and ground as something happening presently in relation to both the long-term future and the recent past within the context of deep history. This nesting of timescales is also thematized in the overall structure of the novel since it is a murder mystery in which the chronological sequence of a crime unfolds in reverse as it is investigated. According to one critic, Blackwater is “one of the first environment-driven thrillers.” The novel is about a double murder that takes almost twenty years to solve, as the plotline moves back and forth between the years 1973 and 1991. Its original Swedish title translates as The Events by the Water, and locations, such as Blackwater, are often referred to as “events.” As such, Blackwater assembles an inventory of environmental and social changes that can be traced back to real-world events as reported anecdotally by the local press of the small village Valsjöbyn, where the author lived. This was brought home to me when my guide shared a family scrapbook of cuttings from the local press. This story of conflict between members of an intentional community and the local population dates to the 1970s, well before Blackwater was published. A similar series of events takes place in the novel, coupled with an explicit critique of specific manifestations of countercultural ideology. I realized that fotminne can also survive in stories after I had spent time learning my way in the myr and then contemplating this private archive.
In Ekman’s writing, fotminne depends on an infrastructure of living and nonliving things. Nature becomes a character, and even rocks seem to shelter memory: “Remembering right out into the stony scree. Not getting lost. Remembering with your feet. Not with a sick tumour called longing which reproduces images wildly and crudely and crookedly. No, foot memories, leg memories. The capercaillie’s coarse droppings—of pine needles, on pine needles—below a large pinetop he had ripped at with his beak.” If fotminne is “remembering with your feet,” here Ekman gives the ground an active role by being solidly present, since fotminne is also the way in which “the ground responds to the foot.” Unlike representations that are often formed “crookedly,” out of the distortions of anthropocentric desire, fotminne emphasizes materiality, as both a corrective to self-absorption and an appreciation of nonhuman contributions. Notice how in this passage Ekman draws attention to barely discernible traces “of pine needles, on pine needles,” as though those “coarse droppings” of the capercaillie (a large forest bird) are an outgrowth of the physical world that makes the ground more visible. These signs become a record of creaturely life in the form of faintly readable traces.
Historic or natural settings help us preserve a sense of a collective as well as a personal past, but it would be a mistake to assume that the places themselves are like static bookmarks in our life stories. The term fotminne takes that notion further. In essence, fotminne means that places and paths are vulnerable to our passage over them. Distinct from the impressions we retain of where we have traversed, the places themselves are also inevitably impressed by our traffic, and this in turn affects their ability to serve as An Ecotopian Lexicons of our memories. Seeing this reciprocal relationship between how we comport ourselves and what will be preserved of our passage offers a new way to understand the now-ubiquitous term sustainability.
As an alternative to the global reach of cyberspace, fotminne dovetails with literary critic Andreas Huyssen’s emphasis on the local in what he calls “lived memory,” all the more important in an age of information overload. We are reminded that an active ecological sensibility depends on a selective and attentive form of remembering. The minne in the loanword fotminne comes from the Greek mne¯monikos (relating to memory) from mne¯mo¯n (mindful). Unlike a term such as carbon footprint, which tracks carbon dioxide emissions quantitatively with an eye on their negative future consequences, what is affirmative about fotminne is its cautious hope for the positive impact of present actions. This is because the term draws attention not just to what is occurring right now but also to the impact of present actions on what will come to be remembered in the future. Given that minne is related to “mindfulness,” the word might also be transliterated as “foot-minded.” Fotminne looks forward as well as backward, referring to the ground’s recollection of our passage that, once made, is retained in traces that can outlive individual lives. Our actions and practices affect our memories and how we will be remembered.
If in our walking around and experiencing the world we commit the ground to our memory, fotminne reminds us that each stroll or journey might strengthen a commitment between place and history, binding our future to that of the ground. What emerges in Ekman’s articulation of the concept is that attention to our fotminne of a specific location contributes to our and that place’s long-term survival. This, she reminds the reader, is particularly true for Sámi knowledge that fades from view as indigenous terms for and relationships with local flora and fauna are forgotten. The Sámi world itself withdraws when those ways of walking and naming that world cease to be practiced. With fotminne, the notion of habit is allowed to resonate within habitat, so that routine and custom become wedded to the places they are practiced.
In Blackwater, Ekman draws attention to the practice of motherhood in the form of a precarious relationship between mother and daughter. The fragile nature of that relationship haunts the moment when the main character, Annie, warns her sleeping daughter that she is not an immovable place to which the daughter may in the future return at will: “I am not marked and demarcated. I happen. Mobility.” Here the mother speaks for what grounds all life; however, her tight-lipped and desiccated language suggests a source of life whose heart might grow stony over time. Like Annie, the earth is subject to change and is not always destined to retain the marks and demarcations that humans or any other species impress on its soil. What we may think of as lasting improvements can easily become the seeds of our destruction.
It would be wrong to assume that the word fotminne has relevance only for the few of us who can remain in and care for one area for prolonged periods of time. For those who frequently travel, move house, or even relocate thousands of miles, including refugees, the cultivation of fotminne refers to our mindfulness of the sometimes dramatic and rapid changes that our traffic brings to the places we inhabit. The proliferation of human impacts that continually recreate the most heavily trafficked regions of the earth (popular tourist destinations, areas where economic development spurs accelerated urban growth, and so on) complicates the notion of ever returning to such places after spending time away. Geographer Doreen Massey theorizes that geographic places have lives of their own, distinct from the lives that pass over them. Put simply, the locations where we arrive and depart are themselves moving through time. All sites that we traverse or inhabit, natural or man made, are in part constructed and maintained by our passage. However, despite their transience, these busy places do not inevitably outgrow the relationship they form with any specific traveler. The complex reciprocal relationship between movement and stasis that Massey describes is one of the clearest accounts of the reason why attention to fotminne is essential.
This contingency of place, as suggested by Massey and Ekman, illustrates the complexity of our individual and collective impact on where we live. If places themselves can be thought of as mobile or transitional, then this transience will be felt by those who reside in them as well as those who leave and hope later to return. This heightened sense of impermanence is an invitation to integrate human movements into long-term perspectives not limited by the temporal boundaries that circumscribe individual lives, nor ending when they end. Reflecting on our fotminne might therefore invoke ways of relating to the earth that span generations, even millennia.
Archaeological insights into a living oral tradition traceable to prehistoric Sámi culture in the far north of Scandinavia are relevant here. In her study of a Stone Age building style spanning 2,500 years, archaeologist Marianne Skandfer has found evidence of the extreme endurance of specific, place-based memories. Skandfer’s research finds that a building style in use at the Finnmark coast from about 2000 BC appears to have had an inland reprise in the centuries around the time of Christ. She sees this as a sign that “a form of collective memory” prompted the hunter-gatherer society to revisit that building style. Skandfer welcomes the stories and myths of the people now living in this area and includes them in her presentation of the archaeological record along with other scholarly research. She notes that these shared narratives teach the young how to orient themselves within the landscape “so that they learn to travel in it and use it, conducting themselves well, in order to take part in the previous generation’s experiences.” This archeological evidence of past land use that guides each generation is fotminne, a knowledge of practical and ethical comportment kept alive through stories that conduct foot traffic along sustainable pathways.
Fotminne refers to the kind of practical knowledge Skandfer has identified. Survival of cultural traditions as well as the livelihood of Sámi practices depends on intergenerational remembering. Culture itself, as Ekman notes, is largely memory. She points out that, as with an indigenous way of life such as that of the Sámi, human survival means preserving knowledge beyond what can be remembered by individuals. Fotminne refers to actions that are routine, repetitive, and everyday, and it imbues them with the measure and force of secular ritual. Seen as the basis of fotminne, to-and-fro traffic becomes a form of weaving that integrates memory, culture, and the environment. The practice of fotminne must be seen in contractual terms, like a handshake, as though the foot strikes a deal with the ground.
Another Path: Watershed Discipleship
1. The Sámi are indigenous people who have inhabited the northern regions of Scandinavia for around 5,000 years. They now live as seminomadic reindeer herders, though traditionally they also pursued coastal fishing and fur trapping.
2. Anna Paterson, “Landscapes Remembered: Kerstin Ekman and Nature,” World Literature Today 82, no. 4 (2008): 45.
3. Kerstin Ekman, Blackwater, trans. Joan Tate (London: Vintage, 1996), 413.
4. Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 24.
5. See Beverly Lowry, “Death in the Forest,” New York Times, March 17, 1996, https://www.nytimes.com/.
6. Ekman, Blackwater, 301.
7. Ekman, Blackwater, 413.
8. Ekman, Blackwater, 414.
9. Andreas Huyssen, Twilight Memories: Marking Time in a Culture of Amnesia (New York: Routledge, 1995), 38.
10. Ekman, Blackwater, 278.
11. See Doreen Massey, “A Global Sense of Place,” in Space, Place, and Gender (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 1994), 146–56.
12. Marianne Skandfer, “Ethics in the Landscape: Prehistoric Archaeology and Local Sámi Knowledge in Interior Finnmark, Northern Norway,” Arctic Anthropology 46, no. 1/2 (2009): 97.
13. Skandfer, “Ethics,” 92.
14. Jonas Gren, “Att Kliva av från Asfalten och Se: En Intervju med Kerstin Ekman,” 10Tal Klimatsorg 12, no. 13 (2013): 36–43, 40.