Smoke, smells, and seaweeds in eighteenth-century norway

seaweeds in eighteenth- century Norway

Anne Eriksen


Travelling through Norway from the south towards the city of Trondheim in 1804, Christen Pram met peasants, fishermen, and civil servants, all of whom told him the same story: ash from the burning of kelp along the coast had changed the weather for the worse and was directly to blame for the succession of cold and rainy summers. The crops failed, and the fish were chased from the fjords by the heavy and foul-smelling smoke from the kelp kilns. This combination of failures left the coastal population starving. A ban on kelp burning was demanded (Pram 1964, 92). As a member and envoy of the Board of Trade (Commercekollegiet) in Copenhagen, Pram had been charged with the task of investigating these stories, which had been circulating for some time. Did the rumours hold true? Was kelp smoke really guilty of changing the weather and damaging grain crops and fisheries? The aim of the present chapter is not to answer these questions but to examine Pram’s efforts to solve them. What kinds of information did he gather on his journey, and how did he work to process it? What kind of knowledge did he produce?

This discussion also relates to a more general issue. Pram set out to investigate what can be termed local natures: particular things that were going on in particular places, defined by ‘the characteristic combinations of flora and fauna, climate and geology that give a landscape its physiognomy’ (Daston 2019, 15). To achieve his task, however, Pram was to do more than just assess local conditions. Based on an understanding of nature as ruled by universal laws, Pram was going to apply tools and develop knowledge that was not restricted to the local. His investigation was to be built on knowledge about universal nature and the lawlike regularities that define ‘a uniform and inviolable order, everywhere and always the same, exhibiting ironclad regularities’ (Daston 2019, 23). In contrast to nature’s local customs, this kind of general knowledge admits no exception, which implied that the knowledge resulting from Pram’s work would be valid beyond the specific localities where it was produced. Even if the forms and regularities of nature had been studied since antiquity, ‘the nature of natural laws - uniform, universal and inviolable - emerged in the course of the seventeenth century’, Daston argues (Daston 2019, 25).

The separation of (local) nature from knowledge about natural laws has made it possible to act upon nature in transformative and decisive ways, to build the modern world. The story of how this separation emerged, or was produced, can be told in several different ways. This chapter does not seek to add to any pre-existing grand narrative about modernity and/or Western culture but will explore instead the process of separation on a micro level by means of a specific case. The aim is to examine not only how time or temporality represented important tools to achieve this separation but also how difficult this work could prove to be. Inscribing (universal) knowledge about nature in another temporal regime than the organic temporality of (local) nature itself contributed significantly to differentiate between them. Certain temporal frameworks made it possible to conceptualise knowledge about nature as non-local and general, not bound up with any specific time or place but belonging to the everywhere and always of science. Natures in the plural, on the other hand, could be left to specific localities and to be defined by the seasonal rhythm of the sea and the schooling fish, the land, the fields, and their crops. As a consequence, knowledge that sprang directly from these specific places and rhythms also came to be regarded as integral to the realm of nature rather than as part of knowledge about it.

It will be part of the argument in this chapter that the experiences, events, skills, and competences that were involved in ‘the kelp affair’ were based on different temporalities or ways of experiencing and organising time, both that of nature and that of knowledge about nature. In this way, efforts to understand what was happening to the fish, the crops, and the climate when kelp was burnt on the shores also contributed to the fundamental process of separating nature itself from new, scientific types of natural knowledge.

In modern parlance, the issues that Christen Pram was sent to investigate were ‘climate change’ and ‘pollution’. In contemporary language, ‘climate change’ has become a term that effectively coordinates phenomena, times, and spaces, and makes it possible for us to organise experiences and events, to develop ‘different kinds of knowledge and understandings, distribute commitments and responsibilities, facilitate different kinds of action, and outline possible futures’ (page 5). Even if the climate and the possibility of man-made changes to it were much debated even in the eighteenth century (Bonneuil and Fres- soz 2017; Eriksen 2019), ‘climate change’ was not a term equally convenient at hand in that period. It could not as easily be used to argue for the validity of or otherwise assess the complaints of the damaging effects of kelp smoke. People - Pram and the Board of Trade, as well as the people he met on his journey - would make use of other concepts and phrases in their efforts to ‘distribute commitments and responsibilities, to facilitate different kinds of action, and to outline possible futures’, in order to articulate what it was all about, and what ought to be done about kelp burning and the smoke it produced. The present chapter will investigate some of these efforts. What concepts and terms were employed to interpret and explain events and to carve out strategies and actions? What kinds of knowledge were invoked, and how were they used?

The empirical material for this exploration will be letters and notes written by Pram on his journey during late summer and early autumn 1804, as well as the report produced when he was back in Trondheim in October. Along the route Pram wrote letters to local contacts, mainly merchants and civil servants. Notes and memoranda were addressed to the Board of Trade, reporting on his travel and work and communicating the testimonies and opinions of the people that he met and talked to. The texts demonstrate that he actively sought out information from a wide range of different sources. They show that he met and conversed with local peasants and fishermen, as well as with civil servants and other local dignitaries along the route. He collected testimonials and evidence, rumours and observations. He also carried out his own experiments with fish, smoke, and water. In this way the material he gathered came to represent quite different types of knowledge. Popular tradition, the local fishermen’s experience, and the ideas of local merchants and clergy blend with Pram’s own knowledge of natural history and with his more or less systematic observations and experiments. These different types of knowledge, experience, and communication each came with their own type of authority. They also engage with time in different ways. Some of the knowledge is deeply embedded in local geography and natural conditions, as well as in traditional skills and customs along the coast. Other elements are external and universal, based on the authority of natural history and natural philosophy — what today we would call science. I will make use of Pram’s notes and letters to trace his journey and his efforts to gather information en route. From this basis, I will proceed to explore how he made use of the different types of knowledge that he encountered, and how he processed this material in his report.

The kelp affair

The aim of the kelp burning was to produce sodium carbonate for glassworks and for the production of soap. The ash was partly exported to England and partly used by newly established domestic glassworks. The production represented a welcome source of income to the poorer part of the population along the north-western coast. It also answered to the authorities’ wish to encourage new industries and develop the use of natural resources in the coastal regions. Nonetheless, this industry had been opposed ever since it started up in the 1760s (cf. Johannessen, 2020, for a thorough historical presentation; Locher and Fressoz 2012). The coastal population of fishermen and farmers had long demanded a ban on the activities, and in 1804 kelp burning was temporarily suspended. In June 1804, shortly before Pram set out on his journey, fishermen at the island ofSmola were reported to have attacked kelp workers and destroyed their produce. The authorities in Copenhagen acknowledged the need for more precise knowledge. The level of conflict in desperate local populations was high and it took little to make violence break out. A succession of summers with crop failures contributed significantly to this urgency. The need to detect possible reasons for the failures was pressing.

Kelp burning had been debated in newspapers and journals for some time. Trondhjemske Tidende - published in Trondheim, at the time Norway’s second-largest city and close to the area of the kelp burning — gave attention to the issue in the late 1790s (cf. Withammer 1799a; 1799b). The Royal Society of Sciences and Letters, also situated in Trondheim, launched a prize competition on the matter and published the winning contribution (Rynning 1803). In his description of the city of Kristiansund, the local inspector of customs, F. W. Thue, discussed whether the smoke could be the cause of failing local fisheries (Thue 1796). The kelp affair also attracted attention in the capital of the twin-kingdoms, and the botanist and veterinarian Erik Nissen Viborg reported a number of experiments in Copenhagen to investigate the potential malignity of kelp smoke. He concluded that the smoke had a terrible smell and left a bad taste on fish, meat, and milk (Viborg 1805). Despite the urgency of the issue, none of these texts reflect attempts at empirical investigations of specific, local conditions. Viborg’s experiments were strongly empirical but carried out in Copenhagen and with a species of kelp that did not grow in Norway. Withammer, Thue, and Rynning were all local, and they obviously knew the area and its geography rather well. Their arguments were nonetheless dominated by theoretical and rather general considerations about the nature of smoke, its interaction (if any) with water, and the behaviour patterns of herring and whales.

Reported events and published texts also show that the question of kelp burning and smoke tended to be entangled with a number of other issues. The earliest revolt, in 1765 (Striiekrigen), was above all about new taxes. Professor Johan Chr. Fabricius at the University of Kiel, travelling through Norway to collect information on natural history and economy in 1778, for his part reported that kelp burning and the smallpox inoculation were both regarded as a possible cause when the annual fisheries failed in the Kristiansund region. Popular opinion held that preventing smallpox by the ‘artificial’ means of inoculation (a kind of early vaccination) was an act of hubris that provoked divine wrath (Fabricius 1790). From Trondheim, both Withammer and Rynning wrote strongly in favour of the new industries for which the ash was produced, and obviously wanted to clear the kelp burning of the charges against it. They consequently suggested other reasons for the failing fish. Withammer pointed to overtaxing caused by new fishing equipment, while Rynning argued that natural changes in the schooling pattern of the herring was the most significant cause (Withammer 1799a; 1799b; Rynning 1803). The variety of perspectives and interpretations show that kelp burning was a different type of issue to different groups with different interests and social positions. What they nonetheless have in common is that all represent efforts to come to terms with kelp burning and its effects, to settle what it was all about: economy and the fair distribution of resources, new industries and enterprises, religion and divine will, or perhaps a mix of all this and more. In their very plurality, the versions of what was going on and why it mattered were attempts to ‘distribute commitments and responsibilities, facilitate different kinds of action, and outline possible futures’ (page 5).

When Pram arrived in Trondheim in 1804, his distinct aim was to see for himself what happened when kelp was burned. He wanted to observe the smell and smoke as directly as possible, in order to understand their eventual effects on fish and fishing conditions, weather, and crops. Only this empirical approach could produce the knowledge that was required. Pram emphatically refused to pronounce himself before proper investigations had been carried out, and declared that ‘I will abstain from uttering anything in this matter until I, either by organizing a kelp burning or observing one in a place where it is reported to cause damage, can see for myself how the smoke settles and, if possible, experience how it works’ (Pram 1964, ll).1 Pram also had a clear plan for how to achieve his goals. Starting out from Trondheim, he would visit nearby 0rlandet, one of the areas where kelp burning had been going on before the temporary ban. Aided by the local vicar, Matthias B. Krogh, he would conduct an experimental burning when the herring came into the fjord to spawn. From 0rlandet, the plan was to continue southwards by sea to the cities of Kristiansund and Molde, visiting the larger islands on the way. En route, Pram would contact fellow civil servants who could supply him with information and speak to the locals. From Molde, he would then return to Trondheim to Finalise his reports to the Board of Trade. The whole trip was intended to take three to four weeks, which implied that it would end in the beginning of August. But things did not go as planned.

Pram’s j'ourney

Pram arrived in Trondheim on 10 July. Four weeks later he was still there. By now he had written a lot of letters as well as memoranda to the Board in Copenhagen but was not much wiser when it came to kelp and smoke. There had been weeks of heavy rain. The herrings had not arrived in the fjords. The vicar Krogh, who was going to arrange the experimental kelp burning at 0rlandet, was away. The locals were still busy haymaking, and the fisheries had not yet started. Pram was a bad sailor, and the thought of travelling by sea along the coast in the bad weather did not tempt him much. His neatly planned timetable for systematic observation thus was overrun by other more natural temporalities: those of the weather, the migrations of the fish, and the seasonal work of the local peasants.

Similar complications followed him during his entire journey. Tensions between the temporality of nature as it was embedded in the cycles of seasons and the labour of harvesting natural resources, and that of knowledge production about nature, based on a pre-planned schedule and universal categories of time and space, came to saturate Pram’s entire endeavour. The planned inspection, the systematic observation, and the rational experiment governed by a neat timetable were thwarted by the unruly forces and less-disciplined temporality of the natural conditions in the harsh coastal region. This temporality, intrinsic to the nature that was to be inspected and observed, was regular, but unpredictable in its specific, local manifestations. The travel plan, on the other hand, with its timetables and the dates with which Pram’s notes and letters were neatly marked, reflect the cleansed, autonomous, and in itself empty time of the clock and the calendar, envisaged as a tool in the efforts to create systematic and non-local knowledge. From the very beginning of Pram’s journey, this neat efficiency was upended by the natural force of winds, weather, and schooling fish.

On 9 August, Pram finally left Trondheim for Orlandet. Neither the herring nor the vicar had shown up, but the weather had improved, and the proprietor of the Osterat estate, Holtermann, had promised to help with the experiment. Due to the temporary ban on kelp burning, the experiment had to be conducted with care. The locals were still waiting for the herring schools and could easily be enraged by the sight of burning kelp. Pram also made use of his stay to collect information about the rural economy at Orlandet before rumours of herring at the island Hitra then made him travel there. He arrived on 18 August and stayed for a week, visiting some of the smaller islands and gathering information about the fisheries. He also spoke to the merchant Parelius and the ‘wise and experienced’ vicar Brodtkorb, who introduced him to some of‘the most excellent and experienced fish farmers in this country’ (Pram 1964, 78). He heard rumours about approaching herring and had the luck to observe at least one large seine catch at Hitra, as well as several smaller ones on the other islands.

Pram then continued southwards by land via Vinje at the bottom of the fjord, and from there by sea to the city of Kristiansund. Due to a strong headwind, the last passage of no more than 25 kilometres took the whole of twelve hours by rowboat. On arrival, he was met by rumours of another kelp uprising at the island of Smola. Speaking with the local chaplain Bull, who was also responsible for the remote island of Grip, Pram was informed about the precarious living conditions on the outer islands. He learned that the fishermen there had recently lost three days of work to a heavy kelp smoke which prevented them from navigating, which would severely affect their supply of food (Pram 1964, 80). The weather turned bad again, with freezing cold temperatures and the sea so harsh that even the post-boat was shipwrecked. Pram was taken ill and had to remain in Kristiansund until the end of the month. On 8 September, he finally arrived in the neighbouring city of Molde.

The heavy rain and strong winds continued. Pram was still quite unwell, but after a week he received an important visit. For the sole purpose of seeing Pram, a group of fishermen had travelled to Molde from the small outer island Ona; they had come to ‘ask for [his] cooperation so that the kelp burning which is so devastating to the fisheries be totally banned, at least for some years’ (Pram 1964, 84).2

The men are emphatically described as honourable, old, and experienced. A week later, Pram was on his way back north. Not only did travel in bad weather again take much time, but his progress was also delayed by social obligations. Pram took part in the wedding of a daughter of the Dean Budde at Bekken. Not until early October was he back in Trondheim, nearly three months after his first arrival there. Instead of the planned three weeks, the inspection tour along the coast had taken the larger part of two months. Pram could finally sit down to write his report. He summed up the main events of his travel and sought to make use of this information to answer the main questions of the case: Does the burning of kelp damage the fisheries? If so, how? Does the smoke really change the weather and bring damage both to the fisheries and to the crops?

The report shows that, since he set out to execute his experiment, Pram had learned a great deal about the weather, the land- and seascape, and the precarious living conditions along the coast. He had met with storms and heavy rain, and he had spoken to people whose entire existence depended on hard work onboard small boats in the open sea. For himself, he had experienced seasickness, bad colds, and the fear of shipwreck in an open boat in a strong headwind. On his return to Trondheim, he knew far more than before about being subjected to the brute force of nature and about being governed by this temporality rather than by that of a pre-planned, written schedule. These experiences shine through in the report he wrote and in his (inconclusive) answers to the initial questions about kelp burning and its smoke.

Pram had started out on his journey as a detached observer, determined to build on nothing but his own experiments and systematic observations, but he returned with funds of embodied knowledge and corporeal experiences, all deeply embedded in his encounters with the people and nature along the coast. These entanglements stand out as a common and increasingly important theme in all his writings relating to the journey. In the final report, they become a conspicuous reflection of Pram’s struggle to order his material and extract exact and systematic knowledge.

Knowledge and authority

The report reflects Pram’s efforts to deal with the experiences described above and to convert them into knowledge that would help him answer the issues that he had set out to investigate. However, the different temporal regimes inherent to his experiences, on the one hand, and those stemming from his plans and intended method, on the other hand, produced twists and turns in the information and knowledge that he sought to extract from those experiences. The temporality of nature and that of scientific knowledge each structured events and created meanings according to their own different schemes. Pram worked hard to keep them separate, but not only did the time of nature and that of scientific knowledge keep entangling, they also marked his own experiences.

Did kelp smoke affect the weather for the worse? This is the introductory topic in Pram’s report. On his travels, Pram had met people who expressed their deep gratitude to the government for the temporary ban on kelp burning. Thanks to this, they declared, the country had regained the good summer weather that had been sorely missed in recent years. Everybody now hoped for a good harvest. The burning of kelp was considered to be, if not the only, undeniably a subsidiary cause of the sky’s constant cloud cover during recent summers. In consequence of the continuous bad weather, the grain had not ripened and the small amount that could be harvested was rotten and musty, people said. The present year was different, with very good weather during spring. In mid-June, things had changed, however, and three weeks of rain followed. Nobody doubted the reason: the production of kelp ash had been resumed (Pram 1964, 92). In Trondheim, Pram had heard rumours that when kelp burning was started at the island Smola, the air immediately turned grey and rain started to fall. The local population had gathered, attacked the kilns, put out the fire, and thrown the amassed kelp into the sea. The results were not long in coming: ‘The sky nearly immediately became serene, the air warm and fertile, and everything promised a good harvest’ (Pram 1964, 93).3 Nobody asked for further proof: kelp smoke changed the weather.

Pram does not comment on these rumours and claims until the final section of the report. In this way, he makes the issue of weather and climate frame the entire text. When he returns to it, his phrases are somewhat more cautious than in the introduction:

The fact that is reported is that because kelp in some quantities is burnt annually, the climate in these areas or this part of the country has become rainier and colder than before, when little or no kelp was burnt.

(Pram 1964, 110)4

Whether components of the drifting smoke can turn the ever-humid air into showers is for ‘better physicists than me to investigate’,3 Pram declares (Pram 1964, 110). On his journey, however, Pram had experienced the local sea breeze called ‘havgule’, which regularly rose during warm summer days. Coming in from the open sea and following the fjords, this wind was cold and humid. Could it cause clouds to gather and rain to fall when it encountered the kelp smoke?

Do the components of the kelp smoke have some special affinity to heat, by which it is being extracted by the arriving cold and humid air, and by this lets the vapours gather into fog, clouds, and rain; do they perhaps effect the said phenomenon according to their qualities and the nature of the matter in some other way; or is the whole thing just a fancy?

(Pram 1964, 110)6

Pram’s discussion of these questions represents a mixture of general statements about the sea breeze and more specific testimonies concerning the allegedly damaging effects of kelp smoke on crops, meadows, and fish during recent years. Even if it is certain that the last summers, when kelp had been burnt, had had fairly bad weather, nobody knows how it would have turned out without the smoke. And ‘neither [does] the physicist’, Pram ends his reasoning (Pram 1964, 111).

Pram’s argument reflects the way that he negotiates different types of knowledge in his work to find answers to the questions about the possibly harmful effect of the smoke. His own observations, the testimonies of local people - ‘the most intelligent and reliable men in the parish’ - and the knowledge represented by the invoked physicist, are counterbalanced and considered. These types of knowledge also represent different types of authority. Some of them are internal and informal, based on the experience, the social reputation, and personal ‘honour’ of the informants. In Daston’s terms, this knowledge largely refers to ‘local nature’. Other types of knowledge that Pram evokes are external, general, and systematic, and refer to ‘universal nature’. This knowledge is represented in the text by the references to physics and to the absent and hypothetical physicist. Pram works to translate between the two types of knowledge as well as between the two notions of nature that they imply. He acknowledges both the external and the internal knowledge, but doing so does not help him to arrive at definite answers.

This discussion reflects the ambivalence of the entire report. Pram negotiates physical laws and other scientific knowledge about natural regularities with experience — his own as well as that of the local population. The aim is to use general forms of knowledge to interpret and explain local specificities, and in turn to produce insights that can be lifted out of their immediate and empirical contexts. However, the result most often is inconclusive.

The experiment

The experimental kelp burning is given pride of place in the report. The first third of the text is devoted to a description of what was done and of the knowledge that was inferred. In this way, the experiment, which actually was completed in a couple of days, appears as a core element of Pram’s work and is set up as a key to understanding the kelp issue. The presentation is full of exact measures of time, size, and volume. The kiln that was built for the purpose of the experiment was two feet wide, one foot deep, and fifteen feet long. The pile of kelp was about two feet high when the kiln was lit. This was done at half past three in the afternoon. The kiln was lit on one end and, in the course of one hour, the fire had reached the opposite end. The kiln produced heavy smoke, but as the wind changed three to four degrees every half hour during the afternoon, the clouds of smoke were regularly dispersed. In the late afternoon, the wind shifted westward, which left the smoke to rest on the water of the fjord, hiding everything along the southwestern coast for a distance of two miles. In this position, it remained for two to three hours before dispersing. In the evening, the wind shifted even further to the west and filled the entire fjord with smoke, making it extremely difficult to discern any objects at all. The kiln was refilled as the kelp burnt out, but after five and a half hours, at nine o’clock in the evening, the entire mass of kelp had been consumed. Pram calculates this to have been 495 cubic feet (Pram 1964, 94-96).

In order not to provoke the peasants, the experiment was executed with great care and the kiln consequently had been smaller than the ones in regular use. In his report, Pram systematically compares the measures cited above with those of a regular burning in a kiln of ordinary size. The amounts of kelp and smoke were correspondingly larger, and the entire process likewise took more time. According to Pram’s calculation, a regular burning would take two to three days and consume about 22,500 cubic feet of kelp, with the kiln being refilled once an hour. The kiln usually was 50 feet long and 3 feet wide, while the height of the regular kiln was identical with that used by Pram (Pram 1964, 96).

The strong emphasis on exact measures makes the reduction in size and duration of the experimental burning appear as a systematic down-scaling, producing a neat miniature. Even if Pram regretted the reduction, caused by practical constraints, it contributed to turning the experiment into a model. By means of limited scale and exact measurements, the rather messy affair of setting fire to a pile of wet kelp and feeding the smoking, reeking, and smouldering heap for days, was turned into a controlled and well-proportioned experiment. Substituting the temporality of nature with that of the clock is a core element of this process. The knowledge that could be gained from the burning was still situated and local, but as a model the event also represented a repository of knowledge to be lifted out of its specific context. The local event was transformed into autonomous and potentially general knowledge.

Pram’s presentation of the experiment is accompanied by descriptions of how the smoke behaved and looked, how it smelled and tasted. Pram continued his observations of the smoke into the dark of the night, noting that it was reported to have dispersed at five o’clock in the morning. He notes with surprise that kelp smoke did not much impede breathing, even when one stood in the middle of the cloud. Not even Holtermann, the proprietor of the 0sterat estate who assisted at the experiment and who suffered from a lung disease, was much troubled by it. According to the local surgeon in Molde, however, it could be harmful to eyesight.

Pram also reports that the smell of burning kelp reminded him of burning wool or feathers, or a mixture of both. The smell clung to clothing so strongly that for a long time he was not able to touch the garments that he had worn during the experiment. Merchants in Kristiansund had told him that even among the most ill-smelling fishermen, people engaged in kelp burning can be discerned due to the smell (Pram 1964, 99). As for taste, Pram had arranged for a pail of water to be standing close to the kiln and the smoke, expecting the water to thereby acquire a foul taste. However, he did not notice any particular taste to the water, which surprised him, and which was, he writes, contrary to the experience of others. He refers to anecdotes of people with different experiences. Perhaps the position of the pail was the reason, Pram considers, and goes on to explain that it was standing very close to the kiln, which meant that the smoke was still very warm when it passed. For this reason, it might not have penetrated the water but merely passed over its surface without leaving traces (Pram 1964, 98).

In this part of the text, Pram seeks to make use of his experiment to infer further knowledge. He tries to articulate insights about smoke, taste, and other effects of the smoke in terms of generalised knowledge. He is not too successful. One main reason for his failure is that the results from the experiment were not very decisive, and consequently there was not much he could speak with any certainty about. Still, the argument is a continuation of the process that started when the burning was transformed from a local event to an object of autonomous, non-local knowledge. The apparent exactitude created by framing the events in the terms of exact measurements and times served to cut them off from their specific contexts and lay them open to further generalising.

It remains a major problem, nonetheless, that the experiment was not executed as originally planned. This does not refer to scale but to fish. After all, Pram’s main concern was not the smell and taste of the smoke as such, or the ways humans might react to it, but the behaviour of the fish. Did they shy away from the smoke? Pram had planned to have the experimental kiln lit when the seasonal schools of herring arrived in the fjord. This plan was why he stayed so long in Trondheim - the migrating herring had not arrived at its usual time. When he finally gave up waiting and started the experiment at 0rlandet, it was mainly because further delay would have postponed the continuation of his further journey too far into the bad season. Consequently, the experiment that had been designed to find out whether the fish really shied away from the kelp smoke was actually carried out without schooling fish in the vicinity.

Another concern was whether Fish were harmed or died from kelp smoke when they could not escape it. To find an answer, Pram arranged for a catch of small fish of different species to be placed in two large tubs that were both filled with water,

of which the one should be placed where no smoke could reach it, and the other in a building where a large mass of kelp would be lit, to observe whether this would kill them. The fish were arranged in this way in the evening, but before the experiment could be carried out, the fish in both tubs were dead.

(Pram 1964, 97)7

In this situation, Pram had to content himself and the readers of the report with describing his own reactions to the smell, taste, and look of kelp smoke.

He adds that he did not find it advisable to arrange any further experiments and gives two reasons for the decision. The first is that every person he had spoken to was firmly convinced about the damage caused by the smoke and considered the evidence for this to be overwhelming. The other is that the local population at this time was eagerly waiting for the seasonal herring, reported to be seen along distant coasts and expected to arrive in the fjord soon. Tools and equipment were ready and people were gathering and preparing to take to the sea once the signal was given. Pram concludes that

[w]hen the herring already had arrived in a fjord, it would be wrong to venture to chase it away by a burning, and thus forfeit the catch of several hundreds, even perhaps thousands, of barrels of herring, and where no fish was, a repeated or larger burning would not produce more information than what had already been gained.

(Pram 1964, 100)8

This conclusion marks the end of the first section of Pram’s report. The rest of the report is not written on the basis of more experiments but instead on what Pram calls ‘the assertions and testimonies of experienced men’ together with ‘the nature of the matter’ (Pram 1964: 100).9

Knowledge and experience

This shift in Pram’s argument illustrates how the experiment and the scientific knowledge that it was intended to produce was gradually eclipsed by the temporalities of the natural phenomena that this knowledge was supposed to be about. Most conspicuously, this happened when the planned focus of the investigation — the schooling fish — was absent from the fjord during the single experiment that actually was conducted. The exact time and measurements of scientific knowledge did not prove able to discipline the seasonal migrations of the fish. The catch of fish that unexpectedly (but probably quite naturally) died in the tubs prior to the scheduled experiment is another example. Neither the life cycles nor the seasonal cycles in nature would adhere to the abstract temporality of knowledge about nature.

The announced shift in the text can be understood as an attempt to come to terms with this challenge by shifting to another strategy. The temporality of knowledge that Pram sought to impose by means of the exact time, scale, and measurements of his experiment extends to a more general scientific ‘longue duree’ consisting of natural laws and regularities — referred to by Pram with the term ‘the nature of the matter’. To this is added the correspondingly long-term knowledge of ‘experienced men’. The temporality that marks this type of knowledge is frequently presented as an opposition between ‘before’ or ‘as it used to be’ and ‘now’ or ‘recent summers’. Once again, two different temporalities — of nature and of knowledge about nature, respectively — are put into play. Both are general and long-term, but the one is still embedded in local experience, geography and custom, while the other is universal and abstract.

Pram accepts as true the numerous stories about how the fish have disappeared from the fjords, or at least that the size of the catches has been significantly reduced, and tries to find the reasons for this change. His argument is based on the rather inconclusive results from his experiment together with more general statements about the behaviour of fish, smoke, and smell. It seems improbable, he writes,

[T]hat the fish, even if the surface of the water was poisoned by the smoke, for this reason should shy completely away from the fishing banks and grounds, as the effect of smoke hardly could reach deeper than the upper parts of the water [...] But it is partly uncertain if the pollution of the water, even if it is imperceptible to our sensory organs, nonetheless could be strong enough to drive the fish into the depth of the waters [...].

(Pram 1964, ЮЗ)10

Moreover, it is unknown exactly how the fish will be affected when it emerges from the depths to catch insects on the surface of the water. The instinct of the fish is to follow the insects on which they feed. It is also to flee the whales and dolphins that chase them, which is the reason why large schools of fish appear in the fjords. All these creatures live on the surface of the water or need to come up to breathe. So perhaps the fish have disappeared as a consequence of the changed behaviour of these other species?

To these deliberations based on a general and non-local knowledge about ‘the nature of the matter’, Pram adds statements about local nature and its changes over time. The opinion is unanimous, he writes, that the fisheries were in greater bloom ‘in earlier times’. He gives figures and numbers as evidence, informing his readers about the size of herring catches in earlier years and the number of barrels of cod liver oil that was previously produced (Pram 1974, 109). During his travels, he had also learned that the fish stocks in many places along the coast were significantly reduced compared to earlier centuries when the fisheries had supplied a living for several hundred families. One of these villages even had had its own church (Pram 1964, 74).

The considerations do not lead to any exact answer. Pram proceeds to an evaluation of the testimonies he has collected but ends up with a discussion about the conflicting interests of his informants. He notes that persons who gain from the kelp burning hold it to be quite harmless. They have also largely succeeded in establishing as true that the opposite opinion is ‘superstitious’ or prejudiced. People engaged in the fisheries, on the other hand, condemn the smoke as detrimental even if some of the poorer fishermen dare not oppose the elite by expressing their own ‘superstition’ (Pram 1964, 101). In this way, ‘experience’ gives no more exact knowledge than ‘the nature of the matter’. The investigation remains inconclusive.

The report includes the momentous experience in Molde when Pram was sought out by a group of fishermen from the island Ona, ‘with the honourable, very ancient man Ole Knudsen as its leader’. Like other locals they described how all fish shied away from the kelp smoke and that when no kelp was burnt the fisheries were as rich as ever. But most important of all, the men could inform Pram about an experiment carried out some weeks before close to their own home. A large amount of herring, saithe, and cod had been closed off in a seine while kelp smoke was led over it, ‘upon which all the enclosed fish ascended dead to the surface of the water’ (Pram 1964:102).11 This was exactly the experiment that Pram himself had wanted to do! The results seemed conclusive, moreover, but other aspects probably were equally important.

In this experiment, as it was reported to Pram, the two different temporalities that he was struggling with in his argument actually met and merged. On the one hand, the experiment represented the same kind of detached knowledge about nature as his own work had tried to achieve. On the other hand, it was not only more successful but had also been carried out by men who literally embodied the temporality of nature itself as well as the kind of knowledge gained from long-term experience. The leader of the group, who is emphatically presented as both honourable and extremely old, becomes the very token of this amalgamated knowledge. Pram was so enthused by what the men told him that he immediately wrote to the local authorities at Ona to have the story confirmed (Pram 1964, 102). The fact that it was later discovered to be a hoax or at best a rumour is not included in Pram’s report. That information can be found as a note in the latter part of his writings.

Despite this moment of excitement, Pram’s discussion ends on a more resigned note. It simply cannot be proved with any certainty, he writes, whether fish die or shy away from the smoke. The inverse remains similarly unproven — that the smoke does no harm. But despite this lasting uncertainty, ‘one is not justified in denying the truth of the testimonies nor the reality of the matter, even if the exact way in which the smoke causes its effects cannot be clearly realised’ (Pram 1964, 102).12 In this conclusion, the detached investigator, who set out to gain knowledge about nature by means of exact time, measurements, and the precise observations these tools would supply him with, has been transformed into a defender of the testimonies of experienced men and of knowledge that springs from close contact with nature’s own cycles, rhythms, and seasonal changes. Even if he cannot present a definite answer to the issue he was commissioned to investigate, he has gained a new epistemological certainty, based on his own experiences with an experiment, observations, and encounters with living people in a harsh nature. Embodied and embedded knowledge, governed by the seasonal rhythm of the sea, the land, the fish, and the crops, and tied to specific places where hard-working people strove to gain a living, came to appear far more relevant and real than the general and non-local insights generated by science, systems, and the abstract time of the clock, the calendar, and detached observations.


The term ‘climate change’ was not available to Pram as the convenient shorthand term that it is today. It could not help him to sort and analyse the experiences and observations that he made. It is nonetheless obvious from the investigations above that the major problem Pram had to tackle was not a lack of adequate and functional terminology but rather the wealth and complexity of information that he encountered on his journey. From this perspective, there are obvious and significant parallels between Pram’s work and our contemporary efforts to speak about climate change. These parallels concern in part the issue of scaling, and in part the very different types of knowledge that are not only involved but deeply entangled.

Pram sought to make temporality a tool for transposing knowledge about local nature into the domain of universal natural laws. By means of experiment and rigid observation, the temporality of universal natural laws was to be imposed on particular, local conditions. These laws, in their turn, were supposed to supply reliable and non-local knowledge about what was going on locally and about what ought to be done. The efforts represented a rescaling from local particulars to universal regularities and then back to local regulation. Reliable knowledge was to be gained, but it is equally important that this movement also turned the universal scale into a source of normative authority. When the knowledge produced by this method was transposed back onto the local and particular, it would also come with instructions about what should be done. In Pram’s specific case, it would dictate whether kelp burning should continue or be banned.

What Pram experienced during his journey was the gradual breakdown of this normative hierarchy. Not only did the experiment and the observations prove impossible to carry out in the precise and orderly way he had planned, thus destroying the vital channel of transportation between the local and the universal; the mass and complexity of local, particular information reduced the relevance of the universal and lawful. The precariousness of living conditions, the harsh natural environment, and the fishing population’s constant work to survive got the better of Pram’s official knowledge production. Local knowledge, based on experience, embedded in local nature and an integral part of life there, marginalised the impact of systematic and scientific insights. The real challenge for Pram, then, proved to be not the execution of his planned experiments but the assessment of the overwhelming mass of this other knowledge. To be made useful, it could not be separated from its local context, it could not be cleansed from social and economic circumstance, and it could not be rescaled as universal science.


1 Jeg afholder mig fra at yttre noget angaaende denne Sag, saalasnge til jeg ved at anstille en Tangbramding eller paa flere Steder, hvor den siges at vaere skadelig, selv faaer see hvorledes Kogen laegger sig, og om mueligt, faar anstillet Erfaring om hvorledes den virker.

  • 2 [...] anholde om min Medvirkning til at Tangaskebrsendingen som odelaeggende paa Fiskeriene aldeles maatte forbydes, i det ringeste paa nogle Aar.
  • 3 [...] at Himlen naesten umiddelbar derpaa blev klar reen, Luften Varm og grode- fuld, og alting lovede en riig Host.
  • 4 Factum som man angiver, er at siden der aarligen braendes Tang i nogen Mcengde, har Veirliget i disse Egne eller i denne Deel af Landet vaeret meere regnfuldt og koldt end forhen, da der lidet eller intet braendtes Tang.
  • 5 [...) Gienstand for Undersogelse af bedre Physikere end jeg er...
  • 6 Have nu Tangrogens Bestandeele nogen sasrdeles Affinitet til Varme, hvorved den uddrages af den indstrommende fugtige Luft, og gior derved at Vanddun- sterne sarnie sig til Taage, Skyer og Regn; virke de det paaankede Phaenomen maaskee i Folge deres Beskaffenhed ogTingenes Natur paa nogen anden Maade; eller er det helle blot Indbildning.
  • 7 [...) af hvilke den eene skulde staae paa et Sted hvor ingen Tangrog kom hen, den anden i et Huus hvor man vilde have antaendt en heel Deel Tang, for at see, om disse derved skulde draebes. — Fiskene hensattes saaledes om Aftenen; men inden man dermed kunde anstille Forsoget, var Fisken i begge Ballier dode.
  • 8 Naar Silden allerede var indkommen i en Fiord, var det Uret at vove at jage den bort ved en Branding, og derved maaskee forspilde Fangsten af flere Hundrede, ja maaskee tusinde Tender Sild, og hvor ingen var, var der heller ikke ved gjen- tagen eller storre Branding meer Oplysning at hente end den der nu var hentet.
  • 9 [...] deels efter Sagens Natur er at bedomme, deels nasrmere ved Erfarnes Udsagn og Vidnesbyrd at oplyse.
  • 10 [...] at Fisken, om end Vandets Overflade ble forgivtet af Rogen, skulde for dens Skyld flygte ganske bort fra hine Grunde og Stader, da dog Rogen synes umueli- gen at kunne straekke sin virkning linger end til den ovre Vandskorpe [...] Men, deels er det uvist, om dog ej Vandets Besmittelse, om den end var ukiendelig for vore Sandseredskaber, dog indtil noget betydelig Dyb kunde vaere staerk nok til at fordrive Fisken ...
  • 11 [...) et Forsog med at indeslutte i en Nod en Moengde Sild, Sej og Torsk, medens man rogede over Nodten med Tang, hvorpaa alle de i Nodten indsluttede Fiske skal have svommet dode op.
  • 12 [...) saa er man uberettiget til at nasgte disse Udsagns Sandhed eller Sagens Virke- lighed, om man end ej klarligen kan indsee paa hvad Maade Rogen virker dette Phaenomen.


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