Human-nature: Ice fishing in Vermont
Feb 03, 2021
In July 2019 rivers in Alaska reached 28 degrees Celsius, a temperature too warm for salmon, leading to a “mass die-off.” Meaning the loss of at least a billion fish, or over 90 percent of their population. The Arctic is warming three times faster than the rest of the Earth and this affects the ecosystem of not only Alaskan rivers but the rest of the planet. There are natural cycles in the Earth’s climate, ranging from the Ice Age to warmer interglacial periods. The problem is, climate change is accelerating not only due to natural causes such as solar influence, volcanoes, the Earth’s orbit and naturally occurring CO2 levels. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it is 90% likely that human activity has caused the current period of global warming. As we see changes in the elevation of Greenland due to chunks of ice breaking off its glaciers, the world’s topography is noticeably shifting; this not only influences the aesthetics of nature, but echoes down to impact the landscapes of our society, its economics and politics, and our culture, its arts and beliefs.
Activities like ice-fishing, which is seasonal to cold weather, are heavily affected by climate change and more specifically warming waters. The Mackenzie River, near the border between Alaska and Canada, is a popular ice-fishing location and plays a major role in the Arctic climate as it is the largest channel drawing in cold seawater to mix with warmer freshwater. With its rivers warming up and travelling back into the ocean, the Canadian Arctic has become one of the largest contributors to global ice loss. The dramatic melting of ice caps is consequently disrupting the global balance of seawater and freshwater, upon which people around the world depend for agriculture, drinking and fishing.
Vermont resident, Roy Gangloff describing his twenty-five-year-old family shanty. Courtesy of the Vermont Folklife Center
Federico Pardo, Gangloff Shanty, 2016. Aluminum print, 91.4 x 91.4 cm (36 x 36 in.). Courtesy of the artist
Ice-fishing has a long and rich history in Vermont, where it is part of the community and plays an important role in forming both economic and cultural conditions for residents. As a winter sport, it has changed over the years - from the technology used, to the number of huts or ‘shanties’ that can sit out on the warming ice of the lakes.
Ice shanties spring up every winter on the frozen lakes of Brattleboro, a busy town in Vermont, bringing with them not only recreational sport but temporary communities and their aesthetics. This intrigued Federico Pardo, a part-time Vermont resident and Columbian-born photographer, who started to document the shanties with the backdrop of Brattleboro’s crisp winter sky in 2016. Pardo’s visual storytelling of the ecosystem of humans and nature that exists in this fishing community is currently on display at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center in Ice Shanties: Fishing, People & Culture (ends Mar 6, 2021).
“The ephemeral characteristics of these shanties and their environment allows us to create imaginary narratives far from those in the tropics. The night, the absence or presence of the moon, the day and drastic temperature changes, are some of the elements that complement these narratives and push them further from reality.”
- Federico Pardo
The shanties in Pardo’s photographs represent more than structures with a fishing purpose; each shanty houses a narrative about their owner and the spaces that they seasonally inhabit. Pardo’s current exhibition has also acted as a platform to discuss the altering of ice-fishing culture. For example, for Roy Gangloff, the owner of Gangloff Shanty, ice-fishing is more than a sport: it intertwines many aspects of his life. Ice-fishing provides basic needs such as food, as welll as a social support network between friends and family. But the ice is thinning on the lakes of Vermont, and the locals are seeing fewer and fewer shanties each year.
Climate change is not only a problem in 2021. The issue of pollution and its impact on the Earth has long been discussed. A Swedish scientist estimated the scale of global warming due to burning coal as early as 1896, forecasting that colder environments, like Alaska, would be especially vulnerable to drastic change. In 1956, an article in the New York Times addressed the greenhouse effect due to the human appetite for fossil fuels. The IPCC was established in 1988 in an effort to draw attention to worsening drought and heat caused by a warming planet. Outside of the politics and economics of energy, the result is catastrophic climate change causing forests to burn and forcing ice shanties to disappear.
The human-nature relationship has the capacity to be endless, unless one is destroyed. We already have answers as to how to flatten the curve and coexist with nature, in a better environment. With that in mind, it may be a timely moment to step back and listen to the questions that Pardo asked in his Ice Shanty series: “what is nature without humans, and what are humans without nature?”