In The Raven’s Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness (just published by St. Martin’s Press), Jon Turk writes about the high personal price of outdoor adventure, but moreover he writes eloquently about the reward. Turk, having earned a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, left the laboratory for a writing career that included a pioneering earth-science textbook, and to ski, kayak, and travel.
In the Siberian wilderness, Turk did that rare thing— he traveled in a poor, remote region at the pace of the local population and with the people he met along the way. Turk shared their homes (whether tents, hunting shacks, or Brezhnev-era concrete-block apartments) and their food (including reindeer meat and dried fish) while sharing chores and contributing practical gifts of fishing tackle and other necessities. As a result, they trusted him and told him their stories.
In Raven’s Gift, Turk writes a personal history and a contemporary portrait of his friends and acquaintances among the Koryak people of northeastern Siberia and the Kamchatka peninsula. He also tells how his experience with them changed him.
Turk is first and foremost a storyteller. A life of adventure has honed this talent and given him plenty of material. Like all the best storytellers, he knows how to give the telling tangible detail— like the way snow freezes into shapes that illustrate the recent history of the wind on the tundra— but also where the intangible magic in the story resides that will keep his listeners rapt.
Turk and his traveling companion, Misha— a Russian geologist from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky— find the tiny fishing village of Vyvenka when they seek shelter there from an impending storm while paddling in sea kayaks 3,000 miles across the Arctic rim of the North Pacific, from Japan to Alaska. In Turk’s telling, a Koryak woman meets them on the beach and tells them that she’s been waiting for them because “our great-grandmother” — an approximately 100-year-old Koryak shaman named Moolynaut— sent the storm to bring them there. While Turk and Misha eventually continued their journey to Alaska, Raven’s Gift is the story of a different kind of journey — one that resulted from Turk’s return visits over many years to Vyvenka.
Turk’s encounters with the Koryak people and the Siberian tundra lead him to a new spiritual space. At first, in Raven’s Gift, Turk’s internal dialogue constantly pits what he views as his scientist’s “left brain thought patterns” against what he views as Moolynaut’s “right-brain-oriented gestalt.” Magic or logic? he asks himself at one point. Which would I choose? It doesn’t at first occur to him to question his basic premise— that there is indeed some sort of dichotomous choice to be made.
But the Koryak would not have survived as nomadic herders and fishermen in one of the most brutal climates on Earth without possessing powers of observation and logical decision-making worthy of any scientist. For example, their detailed knowledge of the natural history of the animals upon which they depend for survival is worthy of any research biologist. They carefully observe small changes in wind and cloud patterns and then, using generations of accumulated data and knowledge, they extrapolate to make predictions about important— and potentially life-threatening— changes in the weather. Moolynaut’s “gestalt,” as Turk puts it, is really not right-brain oriented after all. That Moolynaut and her people also use intuitive skills and rely on powers of perception and communication that sometimes seem to go beyond the commonly accepted five senses seems hardly surprising, given that their lives are spent much more in tune with the natural world than those of average Americans. Their struggle for survival necessarily keeps all of their senses sharply honed— including, perhaps, some senses that we don’t even recognize that we have.
Asked by Pasatiempo about the tendency to divide the world into “rightbrained” and “left-brained,” Turk responded, “I don’t want to be mistaken to say that we should live in a right-brain gestalt world. ... The mix of the two, the balance of the two is what made us such a successful species. Neanderthals had a bigger brain but didn’t have as much differentiation between right and left brain— that’s what I have read. What they lacked was this right brain/left brain balance. Logic is just one of our tools— a complete person lives in a balance of those two.”
In Raven’s Gift, Turk faithfully recounts his healing at the hands of Moolynaut, which freed him of episodic pain associated with an old, catastrophic injury. He believes it was a magical healing. While he analyzes it critically, admitting that the healing could be interpreted in different ways, he stops himself from collecting a final piece of “data,” as his wife puts it, by not having an X-ray to verify the healing. He tells his wife that doing so might demonstrate nonbelief, and Moolynaut made him promise to believe. He admits in the book that he was afraid that “the latent scientist inside me would build some newfangled catapult that would destroy this wonderful cathedral inside my brain, capture the séance with Moolynaut, try it for heresy, and burn it at the stake.”
When reminded that it was male scientists and women who practiced herbal medicine who were tried and burned by believers, Turk said, “I don’t know what I really believe. At some gut level, I didn’t want to mess with what was working. Before I went to Siberia, a doctor wanted to do exploratory surgery and X-rays, and I didn’t want to go there at all. And when I came back and I was healed, I really didn’t wantWestern medicine to interrupt the process. To some extent— call it superstitious at some level— I didn’t want to perturb the system that was working for me that was magical.”
Turk need never have made the choice between belief and analysis— between magic and logic. They are inextricably linked aspects of nature. Where the belief and the magic reside may be what we don’t yet understand — which makes questioning all the more important. Despite popular psychology, people aren’t either “left-brained” or “right-brained.” Studies show that when the connection between left and right brain— a bundle of nerve fibers known as the corpus callosum— is destroyed or doesn’t develop properly, mammals, including humans, have trouble with muscular coordination, communication, social interactions, and complex problem solving— in other words, with normal functioning. The Koryak people have survived in a harsh environment because they engage all their senses and abilities— not because they favor one side of their brain.
Ultimately, Turk realizes this and comes to understand that the tundra is healing and that magic resides there. It is from the tundra that Moolynaut draws whatever powers she possesses. This is something Turk’s geologistturned-businessman friend Misha knows from his own experience. In Raven’s Gift, Misha succinctly explains his reasons for joining Turk’s odyssey across the Arctic rim: “I am making too many papers at home. I must see the Wild Nature.”
Logic is not to blame for any loss of magic in our lives, nor is the questioning demanded by science, but our separation from theWild Nature is. Moolynaut experienced traditional life on the tundra before the Bolshevik Revolution, and enforced collectivization and schooling shattered the Koryak culture — before the Soviets hunted them down and shot them, before the mass suicides, when the old people walked into the tundra to die rather than give up their traditions.
“Magic is such a loaded word. If we attach magic to the healing only ... the healing is only a small component: the real magic is perceiving ourselves as part of nature,” Turk said. “First, we have to establish spiritual connectivity with the planet. This book is part of that. So that is what I am doing now. So I’ll have my say and I’ll say it to as many people will listen— and hopefully people will listen. ... I don’t have a lot of faith that I am going to turn the world around, but in the end, when the final curtain comes down, I can say I was on the right side and I made some difference. I am not counting up the votes or the winnings. I am just going out and connecting with some people. … That’s my contribution.”
More than one member of the Koryak people, in telling Turk their stories, tell different versions of how they lost their reindeer. In one version, they lost their once-vast herds because they forgot how to talk to the wolves or because they lost their medicine sticks. But they also tell him that they lost their herds because, under the influence of Russian vodka, some herders lost their vigilance and neglected their deer. Russian poachers killed their deer. They lost their market when the Soviet Union dissolved. Another old Koryak woman tells Turk, “The Koryak people lost their magic first. ... They forgot that everything has magic.… If you lose the magic in your life then you lose your power.”
I was reminded of the ending of Yann Martel’s novel, The Life of Pi, when Pi Patel asks, “So tell me, since it makes no factual difference to you and you can’t prove the question either way, which story do you prefer? Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” When one of Pi’s interviewers immediately chooses “the story with animals,” Pi Patel answers, “Thank you. And so it goes with God.” Make that Kutcha, the Raven God. It’s up to you to decide which story you prefer: the story with magic or the story without it. ◀
Nomadic Koryak reindeer herders with Jon Turk, outside of the skin tent in which they live during summers and winters on the Siberian tundra; images courtesy Jon Turk
Left, a herd of domesticated reindeer on the Kamchatka peninsula
Moolynaut, an approximately 100-year-old shaman of the Koryak tribe in Siberia