Ko­ryak mo­ments

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

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

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