The Lake of Earth Sprirts
Spartak pours me another glass of the salted tea.
'It vanished,' he says. 'It was always there, since I was a boy. And now... gone.'
The firelight flickers in his rheumy eyes. Something else, too. The wonderment of it all. And the fear, perhaps.
'It is a warning,' he says.
I agree with him. It is.
But not the kind he believes.
Suša is in the Sayan mountains. The name means 'firm ground', amongst other things. I'm there as a researcher from the Cryoscience Institute in Krasnoyarsk. We've long known of the warming trend throughout the permafrost zone. I'm studying the impact on the people.
Spartak is the village elder. 80, he thinks. He looks older. He still rides out on his reindeer to hunt
sable and squirrel in the taiga. He gathers cedar cones for their nuts. He makes deer milk cheese. He chops his own firewood. A true hunter-gatherer. A life almost forgotten.
'It is hard life,' he says. 'But we live it. We adapt. We always have.'
He tells me of cave paintings, showing his ancestors doing the same things. He keeps their beliefs: the native faith. The villagers come to him for counsel, and to hear his stories. Like a shaman, he tells them:
'There is sacred high ground nearby. No snow ever settles there.'
There is a reason. The strong winds that blow across it.
Spartak knows otherwise.
'The spirits protect it for us, for winter grazing.'
I tell Spartak about permafrost, and climate change. I demonstrate as best I can. I throw a blanket over a block of ice, then sit on it. Afterwards, I show him the impressions in the blanket where my body heat has melted the ice. This is how the land changes, I say. This is what's happening underneath us.
He looks at my photographs. The crumbling shorelines. The damaged buildings and railways. The drunken forests, where the ground is collapsing. I explain about the escaping gases, making it worse. He nods sagely at my words.
'The spirits are rising to the air,' he says. 'It is the natural course.'
It was known as the Lake of Earth Spirits. Spartak had swum in it, bathed in it, drunk from it. It
was always there, like the mountains. Now it is gone. Overnight.
'It is a warning.'
I'd seen it before, many times. The lakes disappear – sucked down into the earth as the ice foundation thawed.
'We must heed it,' he says. 'We must appease the earth spirits.'
He is right, in his way. But how should we do that?
The big question.
Maybe the answer was there all along – right under our noses. The cave paintings. The stories of the elders. A whole way of life.
The project is over. I pack up my cases.
'You're returning to civilisation,' Spartak smiles.
An innocent smile, perhaps. But there is something knowing in it. An older wisdom.
'Yes,' I say.
But truthfully, I wonder.