Ice and soil as an open skin layer
posted by Jean Danton Laffert on 17 April 2024

In March 2024 I visit the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station as part of the Ars Bioarctica residency. My goal was a field study of permafrost in the surrounding area. After studying permafrost theoretically for almost a year from a scientific, ecological and aesthetic perspective, this was my first personal approach to the element itself. A first-hand experience changes the perception of everything, redirects speculation and refreshes inspiration. Especially in the middle of the strong wilderness of Lapland.

Already in the first days of residence and thanks to the guidance of Leena Valkeapää, I headed directly to a settlement called Peera, about 20 km south of the Kilpisjärvi biological station. This is a prolific area for palsas (or peat mounds with a discontinuous permafrost core). After some conversations with specialists, I decided to focus my efforts solely on these natural formations, which can easily be seen a few meters away as silent volumes,  as a sort of rising expressions from a “skin layer” that would be the ground.

The environment received me in a state of latent freezing; still waiting to be thawed in the coming warm months. Throughout the residency I regularly visited the area, and with the assistance of the biological station I applied some basic digging techniques to extract material from the active layer of the palsas; on its elevations and small peat valleys between them. The exploration had overtones of ritual, a repeated pilgrimage towards the internal layers of the soil, always completely covered by dense snow.

Basically, permafrost is land masses that remain continuously below 0°C for two or more years. It is very sensitive to global warming due to its accelerated melting in recent decades. According to a study focused on the area that I explored, with climate warming the thaese palsa layers have become deeper and the organic matter has increased its emissions of carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide into the atmosphere; a phenomenon related, from a general perspective, to the release of unknown microorganisms or the deterioration of habitable soils.

Author Charlotte Wringley, in one of her books, she refers to the Sakhan people in northern Asia, another important permafrost region: "For Sakhan mythology, the world is divided into three realities: the underworld, the surface and the heavens, and permafrost acts as a barrier between the underworld and the surface (where humans live). Whose integrity must be treated with respect, otherwise evil spirits may escape.” While I was digging in the palsas I felt that “barrier” when I touched the layer of ice, the frozen mud, the mosses and lichens attached to the ground; also while I smelled the earthly smell, like petrichor mixed with decomposition. I witnessed the progressive degradation of the “barrier” on its fissures, its discontinuity.