The dynamics of liminality in Estonian mires
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Introduction: a theoretical perspective on the liminality of mires From the socio-cultural perspective, humans have always been in need of boundaries – either between individuals, groups and cultures, or more generally between culture and its ‘other’ (e.g. ‘nature’). In cultural semiotics boundaries are not rigid barriers but more akin to membranes that selectively allow the exchange between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ realms, and therefore become zones rich in distinct significant phenomena (Lotman 2001: 131-142). Boundaries are also crucial in biological systems, where they enable evolution and growth from the micro level of cells up to the macro level of ecosystems (cf. Hoffmeyer and Faverau 2009). Boundaries and edges also characterize the dynamics of landscapes (Olwig 2005; van de Noort and O’Sullivan 2005: 83). One way to conceptualize boundaries in culture is through liminality, which is etymologically (from Latin limen) a spatial term referring to a ‘threshold’. A liminal place is situated in between two (or more) distinct environments, yet cannot be identified with either of them.1 A threshold may be a place with more or less distinguishable borders, but it may likewise be an imaginary in-between place that unites different social statuses, which, from the historical perspective, are created through human practice, often in the form of rituals. In this chapter we approach the mire as a place related to both ecological and social liminality, an in-between environment for multiple biological reasons that are mutually related to different cultural practices, beliefs and values. From the anthropological viewpoint, liminality means ‘being-on-a-threshold’, it is ‘a state which is betwixt-and-between the normal, day to day cultural and social states and processes of getting and spending, preserving law and order, and registering structural status’ (Turner 1979 (1977): 465). According to this view, a liminal place exists only inasmuch as it is related to particular cultural practices (e.g. different kinds of initiation rituals or ‘rites of passage’, as introduced by Arnold van Gennep). These practices, norms and values are related to liminal places; they are considered to be clearly distinct from the routines and rules of everyday life. Liminality can be revealed not only from the spatial, but also from the temporal perspective. Since liminal time is not controlled by the clock, it is a time of
enchantment when anything might, even should, happen (Turner 1979 (1977): 465). Although Victor Turner describes liminality primarily as a state of temporary change, a transition that is characteristic of certain phases in the ritual process, it is also possible to consider liminality in space or in the social status of human beings as ‘the state of more-or-less permanent “outsider-hood” ’ (Trubshaw 1995) (examples of which are various marginal persons such as witches, healers, shamans, diviners, mediums, priests, etc.). Furthermore, ‘through liminality anthropology has found it possible to focus conceptually upon such phenomena as marginality, alterity, rebellion, ostracism, subalternity, pollution, eccentricity and deviance’ (Rapport and Overing 2000: 229). Thus liminality as a social phenomenon is rather rich in examples and the multiplicity of ways in which someone may be considered to belong to cultural ‘borderlines’ remind us, in turn, of the importance of the distinction between centre and periphery of social space. Although the distinction and the dynamics between the two have been interpreted in various different ways, one almost universal rule may be recognized – those cultural groups or individuals who are significantly different from the ones belonging to the centre were settled on the periphery and were thereby marginalized. In different periods, the accepted norms of behaviour for moving from the boundary to centre have been different (Lotman 2001: 140-141), although it should be remembered that not all liminal places (especially those created in certain rituals) are socially marginal and not all socially marginal places are liminal (cf. van de Noort and O’Sullivan 2007). However, in this chapter we want to conceptualize liminality not just as a social phenomenon; we also wish to shed light on Estonian mires as a particular kind of liminal or hybrid environment that is neither mineral land nor water, ‘a continuum between terra and aqua’ (Howarth 2001: 65). The mire is a liminal ecosystem due to excessive water and because of this it lacks nutrients, the ground is soft and the landscape may disorient the visitor. However, for human beings liminality may seasonally diminish in the mire (at least in the temperate zone). During winter and early spring mires form a useful bridge that made the distances to be travelled shorter. During warmer seasons mires may be very difficult to cross, but different species of berries still attract people to visit them. This leads us to the various cultural practices and beliefs that may appear because of the liminality of the environment. The particular ecological conditions and the abundance of mires in Estonia have influenced local life and cultural beliefs. Examples of this are provided by heritage that refers to mires (proverbs, folktales, etc.), the consideration of mires in Estonian literature, and many mire-related activities that have transformed them and human beings too, to a larger or smaller extent over the centuries. Thus a study of mires as liminal environments allows for a simultaneous study of different social liminalities and the variegated borders within culture. Our study is based on different empirical sources. We have used the archives of the Estonian National Museum (ERM) for the correspondents’ responses to questionnaires on gathering (Sion 1947; Pärdi 1983) and on winter roads (Loosalu and Konsin
1982).2 The answers to the inquiry carried out by Piret Pungas in 2006-20073 are also used. This data is supplemented by several references to examples derived from the folklore archives4 of the Estonian Literary Museum and examples from Estonian literature. For our analysis we proceeded from the expanded treatment of liminality, introduced above, as the general theoretical framework – this covers ecological and social, spatial and temporal dimensions. These different aspects of liminality are juxtaposed in our research to embodied practices and knowledges that constitute places for human beings (Ingold 2000; 2009). It is through the examination of changes in the various mire-related practices and knowledges that we come to understand the shifting meanings of liminality of wetlands in Estonian culture. We argue that the Estonian mire is a liminal landscape, and that the dynamics of this liminality depend on social and economic formations, changing value judgments, knowledges and practices. The purposes of the paper are to (1) analyse both ecological and cultural reasons that turn mires into liminal places; (2) study the natural factors and human practices and beliefs that are conductive of this liminality, and (3) survey some of the more relevant cultural practices that have transformed the liminality of mires.