Guest Editorial: Caribou, Muskoxen, Lichen - Reflections on Northern Research


  • Jim Lotz



Animal behaviour, Caribou, Lichens, Muskoxen, Political action, Psychology, Research, Social interaction, Canadian Arctic


The June 1990 issue of Arctic carried a lament by Ed Struzik about the possible demise of the Boreal Institute and the lack of support for northern research in Canada. This editorial begged a number of questions about the North and research there. What is northern research about? Expanding the frontiers of knowledge? Academic publication, promotion and prestige? Aiding northern development - or conservation? Informing policy makers in Ottawa - or empowering local residents? Getting off campus for the summer and into a less claustrophobic place? ... [The author discusses his experiences in northern research and the northern dilemma - to exploit or conserve - and concludes with this wisdom:] ... from the North I carried away first-hand knowledge of three living forms and their fate that point the way to possible futures for the North - and Canada. Caribou that fight tangle their antlers and die when they cannot free themselves. Muskoxen, when attacked by wolves, form a circle, horns pointing outwards. This ancient strategy provided no defence against Peary and his people, who shot down these great beasts for food: we found their heaped, bullet-shattered skulls in northern Elesmere Island. We also found many forms of lichen, flourishing where nothing else grew, drawing sustenance from air and rock. Lichens are symbioses of algae and fungi, two completely different forms of life. Through mutual aid, each serving the need of the other for nutrition, they produce a myriad of colourful forms that cannot be created by separate organisms. Lichen are not theories, concepts, hypotheses or even paradigms. They are living presences and witnesses to the necessity of cooperation for survival in a vast and hostile land at the very end of the earth. They indicate how traditional ways and modern science, northern peoples and southern in-comers, theory and practice, rational and intuitive ways, the North and the nation can be developed. They point the middle way to a North that can be more than a place to loot and leave - or where only man is vile. And from our northern experience, in science and in the daily struggle to solve practical problems, Canadians can carry messages about cooperation and symbiosis to a world weary of conflict and confrontation.