Cyberian Dispatch 17: Warming Northern Baikal

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

At the far north of Lake Baikal, where few venture, an alliance of small tourism businesses created a slogan designed to lure more visitors: “Warm Northern Baikal.” It was a small stroke of genius, since the north is, at least in terms of temperature, noticeably colder than the south. While the ice melted long ago in the south, it’s still visible now at the northern tip of the Lake. And people are fond of joking, “We have two months of cold, and 10 months of real cold.”

The slogan works on several levels. First, it’s meant to convey that you will be welcomed warmly by the local populace, who bring a homey and personal approach to their dealings with visitors that’s different from what you will encounter in bigger cities. Second, the area is home to numerous hot springs that create oases of comfort, even when it’s -50 Celsius outside. And in July and August, the shallow edges of the Lake actually heat up, creating ideal conditions for swimming and kayaking.

But the inaction of the world to the reality of climate change is lending the slogan yet another, unintended meaning: despite its isolation and low population, northern Baikal has indisputable environmental problems associated with warming temperatures and pollution.

On the one hand, the region is eager to take the lead on turning Warm Northern Baikal into an exemplar of environmental protection, in part because they hope that will help draw more tourism. In Severobaikalsk, the largest northern city with a population of 25,000, activists hope that an emphasis on ecology will help the region stand out as a destination. They are cleaning up garbage and creating disposal stations for used plastic and batteries. The young mayor is fighting the abundant growth of spirogyra by seeking an end to the use of phosphates in detergents, a key factor in its spread in recent years.

Some innovative local residents also saved 17 hectares of land and prevented the mass development of houses by creating large plots for a small number of eco-friendly dwellings, many of which use composting toilets, water purification, solar energy, and recycled materials for insulation. The project was difficult to get approved, but the instigators hope their model will inspire others to join a new movement toward eco-friendly living.

And environmental activist Yevgeny Mariasov is leading an effort to expand the Great Baikal Trail, a network of paths that will eventually allow hikers to circumnavigate the entire Lake. The next step is creating a new, 24 kilometer section that will connect existing trails north and south of the city. His dream, along with other locals, is that the GBT will expand low-impact eco-tourism while safeguarding the Lake. The leadership of Buryatia approves of the plan and may devote funding.

At a city meeting on this subject, there were no dissenters, and work will begin this summer on the new section of the trail. But some residents complained that critical environmental topics are being overlooked. There is considerable new construction in Severobaikalsk, all connected to the city’s aging and inadequate wastewater treatment system, meaning much of the waste ends up in the Lake, contributing to the spirogyra outbreaks. One of the chief builders of Severobaikalsk vocally insisted that this is the most significant environmental threat, but it is receiving scant attention. And there was no mention of the role of the BAM, or the Baikal-Amursky Magistral Railway, in polluting the River Tyya, which flows directly into Baikal. A taxi driver told us that years ago, “only a lazy man couldn’t pull a fish out of the Tyya.” But now, he noted wistfully, there are no fish at all.

And the owner of a local guest house insisted he doesn’t need to see monitoring results to know that the water is warmer than before, contributing to the spread of spirogyra, which in recent years turned lush, sandy beaches (“We have your Thailand,” one local billboard reads) into carpets of odiferous, decaying sludge. Although scientists have warned that removal of the algae is important, there is not always enough money to do that, and it may take as much as 40 years for affected areas to recover.

Further north, in the small village of Nizhneangarsk, the local Evenk population also has warnings for the future of Baikal. Like Buryats, the native Evenk people lived nomadic lives of hunting and reindeer herding in extremely close concert with the natural world. But now, of 330 Evenks in the town, only 10 speak the native language. And with the language, the culture of respect for the natural world is also threatened. A small center for the preservation of Evenk culture struggles to teach the language to a new generation of young people, but it is a quixotic effort.

Artist Valery Kondakov, a longtime resident of Nizhneangarsk, whose father was Evenk, enumerates a long list of environmental problems facing the region: new construction of three-story apartment buildings that drain untreated wastewater into the Lake; reduced and diseased populations of omul fish in Baikal; and more frequent forest fires. But he saves his harshest words for the “barbaric cutting of trees only 100 meters from the Lake.” All around Baikal, trees are falling at an alarming rate, legally and illegally, with incalculable costs to the ecosystem. “This all happens fundamentally because of people’s indifference,” he laments.

Kondakov’s art responds to these modern problems through the lens of long-ago history. Hieroglyphs along the northern coast of Baikal prove that this region has been inhabited since at least the Stone Age, and Evenks have conducted holy rituals along its shores, on hills and in caves, for countless generations. Evoking the spirits of his ancestors, Kondakov carved a sculpture from a piece of a fallen “holy tree,” or one that was used as a sacred burial place for deceased Evenks in times gone by. He doesn’t usually paint or sculpt Baikal itself, since he’s more interested in the people who have lived and died by its shores. But one intricate sculpture, adorned with multiple time pieces, is meant to convey Baikal’s situation now, after generation upon generation of environmental equilibrium. In this piece, clocks are ticking for the Lake’s future...or worse still, have they stopped?

“Evenks have profound feelings for everything alive,” Kondakov notes. Everything has its own spirit, and everything is animate, including the fragment of a holy tree that has been transformed into an art object. As we stand with him, in the tiny village where few understand the import of his work, we recognize that the wood is not only alive, but it is speaking to us. Long-ago ancestors are speaking to us through the natural world, and the message is not comforting.

We end our trip in the far north village of Dzelinda, the location of one of the region’s hot springs. The natural spring is risky to patronize because of the prevalence of disease-carrying ticks and hungry bears, so we visit the man-made pools for a long and relaxing soak. There are three basins to choose from...lukewarm, warm, and scalding hot.

A man who drove more than 2000 kilometers from Novosibirsk bravely enters the hottest pool. He emerges smiling, but with beet red legs that were burnt by the intense heat. Then he urges his son, about 7 years old, to go in also. We cringe, hoping the small boy won’t be injured, but the father insists, “We didn’t drive all this way to avoid the hot water!”

We are reminded of the man, in the city meeting in Severobaikalsk, who insisted on enlisting young people in a patriotic effort to declare the city the cleanest around all of Baikal. It was a noble idea, but we looked around and noticed that very few young people were in attendance. We know that some, like Yevgeny Mariosov’s son Simon, have returned to the city to create innovative and eco-friendly businesses, like Simon’s coffeeshop, “Geography.” The future may indeed lie with this cadre of young people, willing to commit to the future of tiny, distant but environmentally critical locations around Baikal.

So far, Warm Northern Baikal has resisted construction of massive hotels and other outsized developments for large numbers of visitors, but it is said that the governor of this region is interested in allying with China to build a landing strip for jets, along with large hotels to accommodate a major new influx of tourists.

At the hot spring, the father pushed his son toward the scalding water, and the young boy looked at the father quizzically, as if to say, “Why would you want me to burn myself?” And he pulled away repeatedly, resisting his father’s entreaties.

In Warm Northern Baikal, environmental activists like Yevgeny Mariasov have pointed the region in the right direction, but the next generation will ultimately make the most important decisions.

At the Dzelinda hot spring, each pool represented a possible future. Who are the young people who will choose that future? And which pool will they choose?

Cyberian Dispatch 16: The Shaman and the Pendulum

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

In America, the first warm days and the first blushing buds bring the opening of the baseball season. And in Eastern Siberia, almost two months later, the same phenomena mean it’s time for the opening of the Shaman season.

Far from a game, the opening of the Shaman season is a solemn ceremony that marks the advent of a New Year, with all its opportunities to cast aside anything negative and embrace the future. And to ring in this new moment of rebirth, Shamans don’t gather in a stadium or a church or a Buddhist datsan. Instead, as the original “deep ecologists” who sense and respect the innate connections between humans and the natural world, they gather in the open air, rain (or snow) or shine.

In Irkutsk, we were privileged to be invited by our friend and practicing Shaman, Vitaly Baltaev, to witness and document this ceremony at the confluence of the Irkut and Angara Rivers, in a field along the riverbanks, where a section of the meadow had been carefully roped off, almost like a small playing field.

We had assumed that the ceremony would last an hour or two and that we’d have the rest of the day for other work. Instead, it played out over more than 6 hours as a group of about 10 Shamans from the area enacted a series of elaborate rituals calling on the great gods for help for the nation, for the community, and the for the people assembled, many of whom were Russian, not Buryat.

First, the Shamans spread out a series of gifts and food on altars, including a man’s shirt, leaf tea, vodka, candy, and cookies. The offering also included 9 different milk products, ranging from liquid milk to yogurt to butter to soft and hard cheese. The colorful and densely laden altars also featured candles dancing unsteadily in the breeze and smoldering native herbs.

Next, the Shamans invited the gods to descend, explaining the reasons for their prayers, including gratitude for good fortune in the past year, the chance to leave behind negative things, and the opportunity to enhance good actions in the New Year.

Then began a repeated process in which the Shamans entered an altered state of reality known as a trance. Wearing extremely vivid and elaborately decorated costumes that obscured their own faces, and aided by repetitive chanting and the powerful beats of their handmade drums, the Shamans suddenly rose from their stools, jumped repeatedly as if to shake off the envelope of their usual selves, and started speaking in guttural, whining and high-pitched voices that required interpretation from “helpers.” They often ran around the area that had been roped off as their helpers made haste to prevent them from falling or crashing into other people. Just as this process began, an enormous corona appeared around the sun, and the Shamans immediately noticed this and identified it as a positive sign.

After a series of prayers were completed, the Shamans “awakened” again through some pronounced hopping, and were seated back on a stool, exhausted and in need of recovery. This process was repeated several times for each Shaman, as they sought the solace and help of the gods. During the trances, local residents approached the Shamans while kneeling, receiving their direct intercession through a process of chanting and tapping on their bent backs with a multi-colored and fringed talisman.

After the trances concluded, there were still a series of additional prayers to be said, including prayers to help the gods ascend again and for the spirits of the vicinity in which the ceremony was held. And local people shared their own offerings, splashing vodka onto the grass and tossing cookies and candy in the same direction. Finally, the ceremony concluded with a sizeable bonfire fed with ribbons, tablecloths, and the fur of a sheep that had been slaughtered ceremoniously. The fire generated a thick, white smoke that changed direction with the wind, enveloping the territory.

As we made our way in the direction of the main road, a kind-hearted Russian couple, Ludmila and Yevgeny, offered us a lift. They have witnessed the opening of the Shaman season four years in a row and view it as proof that Russia embraces a wide variety of religious practices. In childhood, Ludmila’s family was not very religious, and she went to school in a place where there were 42 Buryats and she was the only Russian, so she feels a natural connection to Buryat culture.

But the most important thing drawing her to Shamanism was a serious illness she experienced for more than four years. Finally, when she had exhausted all traditional medical advice without any respite from the illness, she turned warily and distrustfully to a Shaman for advice. Her problem was quickly identified as a “Shaman illness,” or the illness that alerts an individual to the fact that he or she must practice as a Shaman. And as soon as a ritual was performed, the illness was gone and her life was transformed “as if I had just been born and the gates of heaven were open to me.” Ludmila’s is only one of many stories we have heard about a serious illness being solved with the assistance of a Shaman. For example, the celebrated Buryat artist, Dashi Namdakov, reports that he was freed from crushing childhood pain through a Shamanistic ritual.

When we first encountered Vitaly, a leading Shaman of the Irkutsk region, he was careful to recount the history of Soviet repression of Buryats, during which time practice of Shamanism was nearly impossible and had to be hidden. Now, in the post-Soviet period, he fears that some Shamans have become “Showmen,” more interested in publicity (or perhaps profit) than in the underlying meaning of their traditions. But he believes it’s all a matter of the pendulum swinging back and forth, and soon things will again be more balanced.

At the same time, Vitaly was one of the first to tell us that he believes Lake Baikal is incredibly strong, has the power to clean itself, and will withstand whatever humans do to it. Our research suggests that he’s correct -- Baikal is strong and it does have self-cleaning mechanisms. But as threats to the Lake mount -- including a recent proposal to relax regulations on the amount of contaminants that can be legally released into its waters -- we wonder if this view is overly optimistic. As evidence of serious pollution spreads in its shallow waters, and climate change makes creeping but real alterations in Baikal’s ecosystem, the impact of humans is more and more undeniable.

Ludmila also acknowledges that Shamans have a close connection to nature, but she is concerned that times are changing, and in cities like Irkutsk, that connection is increasingly lost by people who prioritize convenience more than a lasting connection to the environment. And people turn to Shamans -- or other religions -- only when they face problems in their lives instead of as part of a lasting commitment to natural principles.

As the ceremony for the opening of the Shaman season unfolded, we had the opportunity to keep our own fervent wishes for the new season in mind. We wished for strength for Vitaly, Ludmila and others who are making valiant efforts to preserve a culture that is endangered -- and one that places a strong emphasis on preservation of the natural world. To the extent that purity of belief will contribute to purity of water, land and air, we’re extremely enthusiastic. But we also hope and pray that humans never cause Baikal’s pendulum to swing so far in one direction that it can’t recover.

The Bridge on the Drina

Bill Crandall

During a road trip around Serbia some years ago, we stopped to see the Ottoman bridge in Visegrad, Bosnia. It was the subject of Serb author Ivo Andric’s novel The Bridge on the Drina, which depicts the life of the town over the five centuries of the bridge’s construction and existence. It has a small sitting area at the center, called the kapija, where teens, lovers, and friends would meet. And where they threw the bodies into the green water during the Bosnian war.

My first music album imagined the first people to leave Earth for another planet. When I started working on new material for the followup, human stories from back on a climate-changing world, I set one of the songs in the town as the waters begin to rise.


Great green river cuts through the town

On its way forward

The past rushed over, submerged

You know I can’t quite find you

My breath is still inside you

A kind of storm

Rise green tide, take over

Wash away our fears

Soon we’ll meet on the kapija

I know you can’t oblige me

Your kiss is still inside me

A kind of storm

And the wheels turn around

And the walls hold their ground

And the breeze feeds the fire

As fleets go to ground

In faraway sounds

The bridge keeps its head over water

Cyberian Dispatch 15: The Exchange Between Idealism and Fatalism in Bolshoye Goloustnoye

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

Bolshoye Goloustnoye is a bucolic hideaway nestled in a valley on Baikal’s western shore. Traditional wooden houses with precious decorative accents line hushed streets, stretching to the Lake, where a classic wooden church anchors the village. Sheep forage on the steep hills overhead, while cows and horses parade leisurely to a “goly ust,” or naked river mouth, to graze. Raptors conduct surveillance, crows agitate, and smaller birds compose melodious tributes to the wind and the water. The thumping bass of Russian rap from a passing car momentarily drowns their songs, but the whispers of the village rapidly restore calm.

Like their counterparts in many of the hamlets on Baikal’s shores, the people in Bolshoe Goloustnoe are a mix of Russians and Buryats. Following the closure of a Soviet-era lumber mill, they struggle with a dearth of jobs and a weak economic base. But their proximity to Irkutsk (a two-hour drive) means the village is a promising location for tourism (and the attendant ecological problems it can bring). That’s why environmentalists have long targeted Bolshoye Goloustnoye as a focal point of efforts to build an eco-friendly tourism industry that will provide jobs for local resident while preserving the health of Lake Baikal. And surprisingly, for a village of only 600 people, the strategy has repeatedly included international exchange that links this remote village to the outside world.

In her 2018 book, Saving the Sacred Sea, Kate Pride Brown details the efforts of Baikal Wave, a leading environmental organization during the time of post-Soviet tumult, to build support for a tourism industry with strong ecological principles. After failing to cultivate residents of Bolshoye Goloustnoye through direct outreach, Baikal Wave decided to sponsor webinars that promised villagers in Bolshoye Goloustnoye interactions with their counterparts at Lake Tahoe who had managed to build a strong tourism industry while protecting water quality. The link to Lake Tahoe made sense, since Tahoe and Baikal are both large lakes known for their clear water, in mountainous regions created by tectonic forces. They both have split jurisdictional control, with Tahoe divided between California and Nevada, and Baikal cleft between Irkutsk Oblast and the Republic of Buryatia.

The webinars had positive outcomes, but in unbalanced and unexpected ways. The difference in the level of development between Tahoe and Baikal was a daunting obstacle. When Americans explained during one video chat that a 400-room Embassy Suites hotel in Tahoe had purchased special laundry machines that use little energy and no soap, Russians were flummoxed. Many of their small homes and guest houses still lack running water, and even a normal washing machine is an unattainable luxury. Also, Americans were eager to offer lessons from their successes, but less enthusiastic to learn from their Russian counterparts (except perhaps how to cook cabbage).

As Russians became more skeptical of the American commitment to an authentic exchange, these contacts foundered and were eventually discontinued. However, the organizers noticed a startling development among the Russian participants. Previously, residents of Bolshoye Goloustnoye had “an almost ritualized avoidance of involvement,” and little or no sense that they could bring about real change. But afterwards, they shed their fatalism and pursued their own creative strategies for environmentally sound development.

Brown’s book also describes the work of the Tahoe-Baikal Institute (TBI), which facilitated youth exchange between the US and Russia for more than 20 years, and the ongoing work of Great Baikal Trail (GBT), an organization that uses international volunteers to build trails and advocates for the development of low-impact tourism that provides palpable benefits to local communities.

But international exchange is not always at the organizational level -- sometimes it is more homegrown. For example, when we first arrived in Irkutsk, one name kept coming up again and again. “You’re from America?” people asked. “Do you know Hank Birnbaum?”

Hank became somewhat of a Siberian legend in part because he lived in Bolshoye Goloustnoye for an extended period and managed to work as a park ranger in the Pribaikalsky National Park, on the shores of Lake Baikal. He became exceptionally knowledgeable about the natural environment of Baikal, and he created award-winning brochures and ecological trails that describe the history and the natural beauty of Bolshoye Goloustnoye. But most of all, he is also known for his abundant affection for local people -- and his efforts to prepare them for the economic and environmental changes that were coming.

These two brochures, one in Russian, and one in English, describe the history and natural landscape of Bolshoye Goloustnoye. They were created by Dora Alekseyeva Baxaeva and Faina and Mikhail Mangaskin. Hank Birnbaum also contributed to them during his time as a ranger in Pribaikalsky National Park. We extend a very warm thanks to Hank for his outstanding help with this blog post and for all of his committed work to preserve history, culture, and the natural environment around the world.

After learning about Hank, we connected with him on social media and met with him on Skype. We could feel the warm sense of appreciation he has for his friends in Russia and his deeply caring attitude toward Lake Baikal and its surroundings. When he asked us to act as ambassadors to his old friends and to bring them gifts, we embraced the opportunity.

In Hank’s time, Bolshoye Goloustnoye joined the electrical grid, and the road to Bolshoye Goloustnoye was fully paved, providing smooth sailing for travelers from Irkutsk. Now, sections of modern highway alternate with rutted dirt roads, perhaps a metaphor for the mixed feelings that local residents and ecologists have about providing access to the Lake without better environmental protections. Accompanied by our Russian friends Mikhail, Svetlana, and Liza, who also know Hank from his time here, we jerked and jolted over the final kilometers into the village, arriving as a May snowstorm glazed the first Spring flowers, подснежники, or Siberian snowdrops.

Siberian snowdrops, or подснежники, under a glaze of melting snow in Bolshoye Goloustnoye, May 2019.

Siberian snowdrops, or подснежники, under a glaze of melting snow in Bolshoye Goloustnoye, May 2019.

At the Bartosova household, we were quickly welcomed into the cozy kitchen and fed a wide variety of homemade foods, including mushrooms, nerpa (freshwater seal) fat, berry preserves, tea and other delicacies. Hank’s good friend Luba was not at home, but we were we were warmly received by Olga, in town from Irkutsk to help mend the roof, and Uliana, 86, indubitably the cutest babushka in all of Russia. They eagerly watched a video message from Hank and shared memories of his time in the village as we surreptitiously tried to capture portraits of them.

From there, Uliana drove with us to the nearby home of Aunt Gutya, an older woman who is a bit forgetful at this point. When she walked into the room, Aunt Gutya briefly mistook Mark for Hank and gave him a big kiss as others labored to explain that he was only a friend of Hank’s. But Aunt Gutya recovered gracefully, saying that she sends that kiss to her long lost friend. With tears in her eyes, she watched the video from Hank -- and then recorded her own reply.

We also visited the Mangaskin Family, a couple who are working with their son, Evgeny, to establish a small, eco-friendly tourist base at their family home. Faya, the mother, watched Hank’s video even as she cared for a sick grandchild, and she also recorded her own reply. In each household, we left special gifts of local honey and tea that we had purchased on Hank’s behalf.

Hank lived in Siberia for 15 years, much of that in Bolshoye Goloustnoye, but his connections to Russia didn’t disappear when he returned to the United States. He is now an educator, bilingual guide and historical specialist with Fort Ross Conservancy at Fort Ross State Historic Park in northern California. In that role, he also has the opportunity to build bonds across national borders. From 1812 to 1841, Fort Ross was the historical southern point of the activity of the Russian American Company, which built settlements in Alaska and California and traded in furs. With his experience in Siberia and his Russian language skills, Hank has uniquely strong qualifications to tell the little-known story of Russians who lived and worked in California and cooperated with Americans and natives in building commerce on the West Coast.

Fort Ross is also the inspiration for a bi-annual meeting, the Fort Ross Dialogue, a form of back-channel diplomacy that brings together high-level Russians and Americans in discussion of bilateral issues. As part of that effort, improved preservation of Fort Ross is discussed, as well as the creation of more exchange between the two nations. This summer’s meeting will be held in Vologda in Western Russia, and Hank will be in attendance.

One of the most meaningful collaborative efforts between the United States and Russia is at the scientific level. Russian scientists have maintained the longest environmental monitoring program in the world in the Baikal region, recording temperatures and other critical data at a site near Bolshie Koty since 1946. And they are in the vanguard of critical research assessing Baikal’s problems, including pollution and climate change (see Cyberian Dispatches 10, 12, and 13). For many years, American scientists have worked closely with their Russian counterparts, lending their support to these accomplishments. Their joint efforts have expanded our understanding of this unique ecosystem -- and established important similarities and differences between the American Great Lakes and Baikal.

At the same time, the Fulbright program is seeking a larger role in the Baikal region as a way of building trust and friendship between Russians and Americans. Fulbright is built on the idea that person-to-person contact is the best form of foreign diplomacy for the United States -- and a critical means of avoiding war. The Director of Fulbright Russia, Joel Ericson, recently traveled to Ulan-Ude and Irkutsk, bringing a message about the importance of cross-border cooperation and a vision of an expanded presence to support the preservation of Baikal (see Cyberian Dispatch 14).

As Fulbrighters, we are part of a long tradition of academic and cultural exchange -- especially valuable at this time of troubled relations between Russia and the United States. In Bolshoye Goloustnoye, we put that theory into practice, walking in the footsteps of Hank, an American pioneer in Siberia. We established relationships that go beyond the transactional, forming bonds that can last a lifetime. And the stronger those bonds, the better the chances of building a solid economic base for local residents without compromising the the health of the world’s most important lake.

In other words, our trip to Bolshoye Goloustnoye represented idealism in action. But as we settled back into our Irkutsk routine, troubling news arrived from our friend Mikhail. Forest fires, which burned huge areas around the Lake in 2015, are now ravaging the immediate surroundings of Bolshoe Goloustnoe, and a partial evacuation of the village has been ordered. The likely cause cited in the press: careless humans. As global partners dicker over the best strategies for saving Baikal, anthropogenic threats are multiplying. Bolshoye Goloustnoye, an unlikely testing ground for international exchange, must simultaneously grapple with today’s most pressing environmental dangers.

A major forest fire burning at the outskirts of Bolshoye Goloustnoye in May 2019.

A major forest fire burning at the outskirts of Bolshoye Goloustnoye in May 2019.

Old Pictures from Paradise

Todd Forsgren

I recently made a limited-edition artist book about that is a sustained consideration of what the first camera obscura images ever observed by prehistoric man might have looked like.  I call the series Old Pictures from Paradise. My paradise is a tropical rainforest. A jungle full of dazzling biodiversity and impenetrable biomass—thick foliage, tangled vines, gnarled tree trunks. All of this life evokes an Edenic, primordial world where early humans first roamed (though scientific evidence is more complex, and certainly other environments, such as savannas, were also vital in human evolution).

I found myself in just such a place on a recent trip to a Central American rainforest. After I finished making the pictures I’d come for, I had a few sheets of 4x5 film left, so I pulled out my pinhole camera and used the film to photograph the leaves and branches of the jungle. It was so dense that only a sliver of sky could be seen (in a typical rainforest canopy, less than 5% of the sun’s light makes it to the forest’s floor). In this dark damp space and with the tiny aperture, the exposures took fifteen minutes.

As the film exposed, I found my thoughts drifting to human origins, and I wondered about the very first time someone saw a photographic image. Photography began with the camera obscura, literally a “dark room” with a small hole on one wall which light passes through to create an image on the opposite wall. It was first described in writing about 2500 years ago, but this photographic phenomenon was certainly observed even earlier. A tiny hole in a prehistoric hut might have created an image similar to the one I was exposing. It must have seemed like magic.

My photographs were soft and lush, capturing the rainforest without taking away that elusive feeling I found so compelling. The pictures showed a landscape between known and unknown. I dreamed of traveling to jungles around the world to make a series of photographs like this. But as I showed the images to a few friends and colleagues, again and again another artist’s name came up—Thomas Struth. His series New Pictures from Paradise featured screens of green and tangled growth remarkably similar to my own compositions.

To make his photographs, Struth visited jungles around the world. Unlike my soft pinhole images, though, his are amazingly sharp and detailed (and printed at almost life-size). This scale and clarity, two hall- marks of the work of Struth’s cohort of photographers from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, push the bounds of photography’s potential as an analytic tool. Yet Struth sites incredibly varied influences to make this series—from what he saw as the Maya relationship to the jungle and “Der Deutsche Wald” (The German Forest) to Japanese gardens and even his practice of Tai Chi—all while striving to make images that he has called ahistorical and with a non-hierarchical structure.“I wanted to make photographs in which everything was so complex and detailed that you could look at them forever and never see everything,” Struth claims.

Yet while I was standing in a gallery surrounded by his impeccable and monumental prints, I could only think of photography’s failure: all this clarity, and still just a mere shadow of the feeling one gets in an actual rainforest. Seeing the white walls beyond in combination with the
dry climate-controlled air of the gallery, I found the stillness of Struth’s images jolting. His odd blend of precise measurement and vague mysticism left me feeling befuddled. I was struck by how hard it is to find wilderness on a planet full of over seven billion humans (and interestingly, most of Struth’s images aren’t of pristine old growth forest, but secondary growth likely the result of human impact on the landscape).

Rather than ignore Struth’s remarkable series, I chose to use it for my own series. I re-photographed all thirty-six of his New Pictures from Paradise with a pinhole camera onto fast medium-format film (which calls attention to the photographic emulsion). This appropriation takes what Struth made so precise and monumental and reimagines it as intimate and mysterious. The blurring simplifies the forest’s complexity, yet this simplification makes the images even more inscrutable. Beyond Struth and the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, this technique of appropriation deliberately engages another critical photographic context of the last forty years: the Pictures Generation.

Photographers of the Pictures Generation, reflecting on a postmodern world saturated by mass media, are known for their use of appropriation to challenge notions of authorship and cultural tropes. For example, in her series After Walker Evans, Sherrie Levine re-photographed an iconic catalog of Evans’s work, and in so doing, presented a commentary on the commodification of the art object. Similarly, Richard Prince reclaimed the iconic landscapes of the American West from Marlboro cigarettes by appropriating their advertisements. My use of another artist’s work serves to blur my own authorship as I try to return these images to the unknown prehistoric human who first observed photography. My gesture is an attempt to “unclaim” paradise or “uncommodify” wilderness, while recognizing this as an impossibility.

This series is a reflection on the elusiveness of the unknown in today’s hyper-documented world. Certainly, my shift from sharp to soft photographs is not new. It has been playing out throughout the history of photography. This back-and-forth seems at odds with the preoccupation for innovation in the medium, whether through changes in technology or in the ways we think about photographic images (and evidenced by the cultural obsession with progress seen in the countless exhibitions and series that, like Struth’s, continue to claim “new” in their titles). Yet our use of the camera is also ever more nostalgic: a tool to express longing and desire as well as to create mementos of the past. It is within this tension that these images dwell. I am trying to conjure a mystery and magic that toggles between past and future while traversing the tightrope of both the analytic and expressive potential of the medium.

Cyberian Dispatch 14: The Nature of Faith in Ulan-Ude

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

At a time of polarization and division around the world, the Republic of Buryatia stands out as a place where people of diverse backgrounds live in harmony. Ulan-Ude, the tranquil and welcoming capital nestled among a ring of mountains, is not only the leading center of Buddhism in Russia, but a haven for those practicing Shamanism, the Russian Orthodox faith, and for Old Believers, who maintain the ancient rituals of the Orthodox church before reforms were implemented centuries ago. And each of these faiths places a high value on the land, air, and water.

The first thing almost everyone learns about Ulan-Ude is that it’s the home of a monumental sculpture of Lenin’s head, towering above the city’s main square. But there’s another colossal figure that has more significance these days -- the largest Buddha in Russia, perched blissfully above the devotees at Rinpoche Datsan in the hills on the outskirts of the city. Worshippers attend daily services that are alive with drums and chanting and afterwards ask for the blessing of its aging Lama. They can also follow a kilometer-long “Walk of Life” that pays tribute to all the animals of the Buddhist zodiac. (Gabriela is a tiger, and Mark is a bull.) On the morning of our visit, a snowstorm with savage winds cut right through our overly optimistic outerwear and obscured the view of the mountains around us. But a single purple crocus reminded us that Siberia’s next season will arrive eventually.

Back in the center of the city, at the only women’s monastery for Buddhists in Russia, a grinning Lama emphasized the interconnected nature of everything, including the natural world, and the cause and effect nature of our actions. If we throw garbage at Lake Baikal, it will be harmed. In her view, a growing number of birth defects can be traced to the damage people are doing to the environment.

At the Ivolginsky Buddhist Monastery, about 40 kilometers outside of Ulan-Ude, the Rector of the Buddhist University, Dimbril Bagsha Dashibaldanov, also stressed the importance of reverence for all living things -- and traced ecological problems to the human ego. The emotions that arise in the body as a result of egoism, such as anger and dislike and jealousy, are the root causes of environmental degradation, and to the extent we can eliminate these feelings and focus more on other people, such as our neighbors, we can better safeguard the natural world.

When asked about the urgency of responding to critical issues like climate change, Dashibaldanov favored “raising awareness” over anything prescriptive, emphasizing that people need to work on changing themselves instead of being told what to do. Can people change quickly enough? It’s not clear. But he raised the possibility that we need a “фишка” (pronounced “fishka”) -- Russian slang for a transformational idea -- to help improve ecological conditions. He pointed out that it took only a few years for smartphones to conquer the world, and something similar for the environment has the potential to jump-start real progress.

After meeting with the Rector, we strolled the grounds of the Monastery, which was opened in 1945 as the spiritual center of Buddhism in the Soviet Union. Among the many ornate and exceptional buildings on the grounds, one can enter a shrine that contains the body of Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a Buryat monk who died and was buried in the lotus position in 1927. According to his own instructions, his body was exhumed 30 years later, and shocked adherents were amazed to see that it was entirely intact with no signs of decomposition. Worried about how the Soviet Union would react, they reburied the Lama, and exhumed him again in 2002, when his body was once again found to be extraordinarily well-preserved. But more than that, many of his followers claim that he is actually alive, in a transcendent state of meditation or nirvana. A jovial monk near the door insisted that Itigilov’s body is warm, that he sweats under his armpits and needs to have his clothes changed, and that his face shows fatigue after long rituals. Visitors were invited to ask the monk for assistance, but cautioned to remember others before thinking of ourselves. We were careful to include Lake Baikal in our prayers.

Many Buryats in Russia are Buddhists, many embrace the ancient practice of Shamanism, and still others practice both. But all Buryat traditions are extremely close to the natural world. Marina Danginova, a practicing female Shaman, explained that nature is alive in the Buryat tradition. For example, Baikal is a living organism, and in winter, it goes to sleep rather than freezing. Marina worries a lot about damaging changes in the Baikal region in recent years, including extensive fires, the strong push to create businesses along the Lake’s shores, and the fluctuating level of water in the Lake. “We will not remain silent,” she insisted. But her most important worry is that, as Buryats slowly lose their language, they also lose their connection to nature.  

The next day, Marina met us at our Airbnb to conduct a ritual in support of our project. She started by lighting ceremonial Siberian herbs and letting the smoke and the scent permeate the entire apartment. She passed vodka, milk, cookies and candies above the burning herbs. Then she spilled vodka and milk at the window as she chanted in the Buryat language, and mixed these ingredients in a bowl. A cup of black tea made its way into the concoction. The sequence was repeated several times, each time with an empty cup thrown over her shoulder. At the end of the ritual, we were asked to carry the bowl of vodka, milk and tea outside, walk around a tree, and sprinkle the contents at the base. Similar Buryat rituals can also be used to ask for what is needed in the natural world, such as the rain needed by farmers.

It’s not surprising that Buryats commune closely with nature. They are the “original ecologists” who insist on taking only what they need from around them. But we were taken aback when we learned that Metropolitan Sergey Popkov, the youthful leader of Old Believers in Siberia, is an unabashed environmentalist.

Old Believers resisted reforms that were instituted by the Eastern Orthodox Church in the mid-1600’s, adhering closely to the ancient liturgy and rituals. As a result, they lost their civil rights and were persecuted and even executed. Some fled Russia, and small pockets exist in many places around the world, including the United States. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Old Believers can freely open churches in Russia, such as the one where Metropolitan Popkov leads his parishioners.

In good English and with no hesitation, the Metropolitan recited a litany of negative environmental changes he has witnessed in recent years, including climate change, an increase in forest fires, reduced groundwater, shallow rivers and streams, diminished fish populations in the Selenge and Ude Rivers, thick smog in the city, expanding problems with garbage, and the spread of non-native species, among others. He acknowledged that many problems, such as the practice of setting fire to woods so that it is then legal to log the wood, stem from a lack of good jobs, so he favors policies that will provide people with more economic security. In his view, climate change is accelerating environmental degradation, in part by driving people to cities, where the link to nature is more tenuous. Much like the Buddhists, he suggested that individuals start by improving their own practices as an important first step. Luckily, humankind’s connection to nature and to God is essentially the same, so it’s possible to enhance both simultaneously.

Following the Buryat ritual in our apartment, we quickly learned that the spirits favored us. There were two auspicious signs. First, liquid spilled on the window traveled straight down. Second, the cup landed face up each time it was thrown. Not only did the spirits welcome us, they had been waiting for us.

Playfully, it seems. After the ceremony, important items disappeared four times, then reappeared in places that had already been searched. The exact meaning of this mischief remains unclear.

But if the spirits were waiting for us, we were also waiting for them. In Ulan-Ude, almost everything felt spot-on. The team of women from Buryat State University who hosted us were among the kindest and most accomplished people we’ve met in Russia. Their students, who welcomed us in their classrooms and helped us navigate the city, were exceptional guides with outstanding English skills. The Director of the Fulbright Program in Russia, Joel Ericson, arrived in Ulan-Ude complete with a can-do spirit and a concrete vision of how to expand Fulbright’s focus on Baikal and safeguard its future.

Most of all, representatives of every faith greeted us with open arms in successive meetings, embracing diversity and focusing on a better future -- a future in which the health and well-being of the people is never separate from the health and well-being of all living things. The spirits don’t care if you are Orthodox, an Old Believer, a Buddhist, a follower of Shamanic traditions, or an atheist. In Buryatia, it is the nature of faith to safeguard the Earth. The spirits only want us to do the right thing.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.

In Ulan-Ude, monumental socialist realism meets pop cuisine in this inimitable Lenin head gingerbread.

Cyberian Dispatch 13: Can Peace Trails and Strawberries Save the Amphipods?

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

The expedition to collect amphipods at Bolshie Koty was led by Ksenia Vereshchagina and Anton Gurkov, scientists from the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University.

What do peace trails, a strawberry festival and the future of Lake Baikal’s amphipods have in common? More than we thought, it turns out.

Several days ago, we embedded with scientists from the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University on a one-day expedition to Bolshie Koty, where the Institute has a lab and monitoring station. The main goal of the trip was to capture much-needed amphipods for the Institute’s critical research on the health of the Lake.

In late March, the ice on Baikal was still thick and strong in most places, but driving a car in locations that aren’t regularly monitored is no longer guaranteed to be safe. So, after the one-hour marshrutka ride to Listvyanka, we hopped into one of the many hovercrafts now operating on the Lake. These crafts move easily between ice and water, offering safety that Uaziks (the Russian military vehicle favored on Baikal’s ice) simply can’t offer at this time of year.

A half hour of twisty-turny skimming over the surface later, we arrived in Bolshie Koty, which is accessible only by boat during the summer and ice during the winter. We were picked up at the shores and chauffeured deep into a nearby canyon, along a mountain stream tucked under a rapidly melting ice blanket. Here the scientists had earlier carved a deep rectangular hole in the meter-thick ice, revealing the rushing waters below. This stream is one of more than 330 that feed Baikal, but it is not the pure, virginal water that the scientists coveted. Instead, they were on a mission to find the tiny amphipod (crustacean) named “Gammarus lacustris” hiding below. G. lacustris is not native to Baikal, and experts fear that, as temperatures warm, G. lacustris may move from the rivers, ponds, and wetlands surrounding the Lake directly into its shallow waters, crowding out precious endemic organisms and causing dangerous shifts in its ecosystem.

First, a spear wielded by a young biologist shattered the delicate coating of ice that had formed since their most recent visit. Down went a net, capturing a generous helping of riverbed muck. The muck was deposited on the nearby ice, and several scientists knelt over it, spreading it and poking it with yellow plastic spoons. Several minutes later, a cry went up. A tiny amphipod was found and ceremoniously delivered to a ceramic bowl. Then, several pairs who were locked together in preparation for mating. The scientists found that perplexing since mating usually occurs in May. The process continued, with more and more goo lifted to the surface and meticulously inspected. When 20 amphipods were identified, they were cleaned, wrapped in labeled packets, and lowered into a cylindrical sample case filled with liquid nitrogen designed to keep them alive on their trip to downtown Irkutsk.

After a potluck lunch, we all rushed back to the Lake, this time to gather samples of the amphipods that inhabit the coastal zone. The scientists had arranged with a diver to plunge under the ice and scoop samples of amphipods from the bottom of the Lake. His formidable white mane and moustache revealed him to be in his sixties. Despite the sub-freezing temperatures, he gamely donned aging gear that left part of his face uncovered and disappeared with a sudden splatter unseen below the ice.

A half hour later, he emerged in an explosion of bubbles, bearing a cornucopia of wriggling Lake life. Dozens of organisms were immediately identifiable, from tiny darting crustaceans no bigger than a fingertip, to large, bright orange amphipods with lengthy tentacles and menacing armaments that stretch more than 4 inches long. These were also meticulously sorted, cleaned, labeled and deposited into the sample case in a process that took several chilly dives and multiple hours.

In a flash, the scientists were on the move again, thanking their diving companions, packing equipment and beginning their journey back to Irkutsk, where the amphipods will inform critical research about the impact of temperature changes on aquatic life. Research at Irkutsk State University confirms that most amphipods evolved to live at a specific depth and within a specific temperature range. The Central Siberian Plateau is one of the three areas experiencing the most rapid climate change, and summer surface water temperatures on Lake Baikal have increased by over 2 degrees Celsius over the past 60 years. As temperatures continue to rise, amphipods will be forced to migrate to unfamiliar depths. The result will be competition with other species, loss of population, and disruption of the entire food cycle.

Two days later, we were up early again and on the road to Baikalsk, a city that is best known as the site of a notorious paper mill that was the biggest industrial polluter of the Lake. The paper mill shut down in 2013, more for economic reasons than as a result of ongoing protests. Environmentalists were thankful when it shuttered, but its closure did not end the threat. More than 6 million tons of toxic sludge are stored in unsealed tanks that continue to leach into the groundwater, and they could be propelled directly into the Lake in the event of a mudslide or an earthquake.

The plant’s closure also created an economic crisis, since most residents relied on the mill for their livelihood. Importantly, environmentalists didn’t forget about these families. They established training programs and incentive grants for former workers to reinvent the economy based on sustainable ecotourism. For example, a program created by Elena Tvorogova challenged local residents to devise plans for profitable businesses that leave the Siberian taiga and Lake Baikal pristine and untouched. The School for Environmental Entrepreneurship has already held 14 session, with more than 600 participants, and it has led to the creation of 28 new startups and assistance for 22 ongoing businesses. Successful -- and sustainable -- new businesses include cycling services, yoga, teas from local herbs, handmade chocolates, wood ornaments derived from logging waste, and oils and butters from local plants.  

But the new economy in Baikalsk is wider than these innovative products and services. On the slopes overlooking the Lake, a sprawling resort has opened for skiing and snowboarding. And the city has initiated a well-known festival that celebrates the uniquely delicious strawberries that grow in the Baikalsk area. While many were skeptical it would succeed, the festival now draws significant numbers of hungry tourists each Spring.

And idealistic activists like Evgeny Rakityansky are busy building new tourist trails and bridges in the region with the help of Russian and international volunteers. Rakityansky speaks with glowing pride of the increased safety and improved respect for nature that new trails have created in nearby Sludyanka and Kultuk. But he is most animated when he describes his vision for overcoming differences between nations through shared, loving work in the taiga. His summer camps for trail construction have already drawn participants from more than 10 foreign nations including the United States. With two trails already close to completion, he is now planning a trail in Baikalsk, and he is initiating a reality show on YouTube that will unlock the “inner spiritual code” of the landscape.

Throughout the Baikal region, environmentalists have a vision of creating a future of ecotourism that brings more visitors to support local residents and minimizes their ecological impact. But an economy that goes beyond slogans to build genuine ecotourism is difficult to forge. One activist, Roman Mikhailov, defines authentic ecotourism as a low-impact form of tourism in which participants enter wild nature, leave no trace, learn from local people, and provide concrete benefits for the local community. However, the number of visitors is expanding much more rapidly than strategies for minimizing their impact. As many as two million visitors arrive at Baikal each year, and the New York Times named Olkhon Island to its list of the 52 most important places to visit in 2019. Tourists arrive in a region where most businesses haven’t ever heard about ecotourism, let alone implemented its principles.

Baikalsk, with its many initiatives around sustainable development, is in the forefront of efforts to jump-start ecotourism in the local economy. Elsewhere, in places as far-flung as Listvyanka, Buguldeyka, Bolshoe Goloustnoe, and other locations around the Lake, a new style of guest house offers home stays or lodgings for only a few tourists at a time, a welcome alternative to the large hotels that have proliferated in recent years.

These promising initiatives represent real progress. But to implement full-fledged ecotourism, attractions around the Lake need to do even more. Research shows that waste leaching from guest houses and homes is the main source of nutrients that create widespread blooms of algae around the Lake and choke endemic coastal organisms. It’s essential for tourist enterprises -- and the government -- to embrace rapid advances in sewage treatment, septic systems, composting toilets, and strict limits on discharges into the Lake. It will also be important to offer tourists some form of an ecological rating system, so they know which claims about ecotourism match actual practices.

Right now, peace trails and strawberries are leading the way toward a more sustainable future, but these valuable initiatives can’t keep pace with the increased burden on the Lake. If we hope to save Baikal’s precious amphipods -- and its singular ecosystem -- we must wriggle free of our current thinking and make a rapid leap forward on eco-tourism.

Baikalsk, the site of a shuttered paper mill that once was the largest source of industrial pollution in Lake Baikal, is trying to reinvent itself as a center of sustainable development and ecotourism. Environmentalists are in the forefront of efforts to train a new generation of socially conscious entrepreneurs.

Cyberian Dispatch 12: A Note on Temperature

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

We made it through the Siberian winter.

It snowed today and it’s not exactly lovely yet outside. But with the vernal equinox upon us, we can look forward to temperatures that are much warmer than before.

We’ve resisted a post about how cold it is in Siberia, since that’s the biggest cliche about the Far East. But Siberia is cold -- even here in the South, not too far from the Mongolian border. And if you have any aspirations of visiting here, or another place that’s as frigid, we have some insights to offer.

The first thing that locals will tell you is that Siberians are not people who are used to the cold. Instead, they are people who know how to dress well. You don’t necessarily need the highest tech gear, or the most expensive. You need many thermal layers. You need heavy coats that cover as much of your legs as possible. Kidneys are a sensitive spot -- keep them as snuggly as possible. You need very warm boots and several layers of socks. The locals swear by “unti,” boots made from reindeer fur that are allegedly the warmest around. We couldn’t bear the thought of harming a reindeer, so we bought very expensive European boots that were still somewhat problematic on long hikes.

You need mittens -- they’re much warmer than gloves. Unless you need to operate a camera, in which case you are really in a quandary. Bare hands last only moments in serious “moroz” (literally, frost, but Russians use this word to denote temperatures of -20 Celsius or lower). Thin gloves allow some mobility but are little better than bare hands. Thick gloves remove most ability to reach camera controls, and mittens eliminate it completely. There’s no good solution, and often we found ourselves pulling off most hand coverings, shooting briefly, and then balling our aching hands inside our mittens to restore circulation and slowly ease the pain.

You need to cover your face during moroz. The first time Mark walked around in -25 Celsius without covering his face, a woman said, “You need to touch your nose.” He thought his nose was dripping. But that’s not what she meant. She could see, by its white color, that his nose was starting to get frostbite. Russians avoid this literally by putting their mittens or gloves on their nose to warm them. A better way is to cover your face with a scarf, a ski mask, or a balaclava. The problem is that the balaclava is soon moist and then frozen from your breath. This is how we got the icicles on our eyes that we featured in our popular holiday card.

Everything that is exposed during the worst cold will hurt, especially eyes. They may drip like a faucet, a way of expressing severe distress. But it is not only what is exposed that may suffer from the cold. Along with many locals, we experienced a form of “winter psoriasis,” or red, dry and peeling skin that results from the extreme temperatures, even in places that were covered. Our friend even developed hives on her face. While there’s some winter cream for babies you can spread on your suffering skin, it’s more of a placebo than anything else. True relief comes only from warmer weather.

The worst cold we experienced all winter was in December in Buguldeyka, a village near the Lake. Not only did temperatures drop to -40 Celsius at night, but a stiff wind was blowing the whole time we were there. During the day, the gale threatened to topple us from the hills right into the water, and a two to three hour hike proved to be the outside limit of what we could endure. At night, we huddled near a very toasty Russian pechka, or wood-burning stove, so we kept quite warm. But even a quick visit to the outhouse was an ordeal and forthrightly dangerous for sensitive skin. Beware.

We realize that, so far as Siberian winters go, we were spared the worst. There was very little snow compared to last year, when plows couldn’t keep up with it. And while we did experience serious moroz, temperatures were among the warmest in memory in February. This is consistent with the growing body of evidence suggesting that Siberia is warming much more rapidly than most places on the planet.

Lake Baikal is home to one of the longest running environmental monitoring programs in the world. A leading scientist, Mikhail Khozhov, began the program in 1945. He was first assisted by his daughter, Olga Khozhova, and then his granddaughter, Lyubov Izmest’eva. Now the Biology Institute of Irkutsk State University maintains the program, routinely logging temperatures and other critical statistics.

These data show incontrovertibly that temperatures are changing over time. As far back as 2008, a major paper by Russian and international scientists, using the Khozhov’s data, concluded that water temperatures in Lake Baikal had increased 1.2 degrees Celsius since 1945, with corresponding changes in the Lake’s plant and animal life -- dramatic increases in chlorophyll and “cladocerans,” or miniscule crustaceans commonly called “water fleas.”

In 2009, scientists predicted that Baikal will become “warmer and wetter” by the end of the century, significantly affecting the amount of ice cover. In turn, the changes in ice cover will likely affect the entire ecosystem, from small diatoms (single-celled algae) that feed the Lake to the world’s only true freshwater seal, the nerpa. As we noted in our last post, nerpas rely on ice cover to safely raise their pups. And the entire food chain relies on ice -- and the transparency of that ice -- that is diminishing now in response to climate change. Melting permafrost in surrounding mountains is likely to worsen existing problems with industrial pollution and eutrophication (the increase in nutrients from detergents, fertilizers, and sewage from tourism sites).

A major 2016 study confirmed the trend. Scientists found that surface water temperatures have increase a full 2 degrees Celsius Lake-wide between 1977 and 2003. As a result, populations of non-native, warm-water organisms increased dramatically. Luckily, the study showed that populations of native, cold-water organisms remain stable, and dangerous nutrient loading is restricted to coastal waters. In 2018, another major study reinforced some of the positives. By analyzing the remains of diatoms in the sediment on the Lake’s floor, scientists found that damaging effects of warming over the past 20 years are thus far restricted to the South basin, despite significantly reduced ice cover throughout the Lake.

The title of this post, “A Note on Temperature,” embodies the inspiration for one of our ongoing projects: we’re plotting compelling scientific data as musical notes to create compositions that musically express the Lake’s ecological status. In recent years, a team of scientists led by Maxim Timofeyev at Irkutsk State University has focused extensively on the impact of temperature changes on the Lake’s native and non-native amphipods, or crustaceans, which are absolutely critical to the Lake’s health. This latest composition draws on data from one of their recent studies, showing that amphipods undergo severe stress when subjected to changing temperatures.  

In this work-in-progress, “Izmir Ambience” represents the stress response of native amphipod Eulimnogammarus verrucosus, “Reflective Strings” represents the stress response of endemic amphipod Ommatogammarus flavus, and “Nylon Shimmer” represents the reaction to changing temperatures of non-native amphipod Gammarus lacustris. Higher notes for each electronic “instrument” in the composition represent increased stress response among the delicate and beautiful crustaceans.

The upshot of all these studies? Baikal faces real danger, but unlike many other bodies of water around the world, it is not too late. There is still time to reduce nutrient inputs and pollution, and to prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Our own data show that two American artists and researchers can survive the Siberian winter (and capture some photos and videos without too much frost nip). But the reality is that we cheated a bit. Rapid warming in Siberia likely made the ordeal more tolerable. And our small victory hints at a major defeat unless rapid action is taken.

There is a prominent bright spot. Russian and international scientists and ecologists are fighting to be heard -- and fighting for change. Russia has the unique opportunity to stand out -- as the place where the worst damage to one of the world’s most precious bodies of water was avoided.

We can all drink to that -- voda, not vodka -- a clear, fresh glass of pristine Baikal water. That’s still possible to find, at least in most places on the Lake.

Images in this blog post were captured at Lake Baikal, frozen in ice, and then rephotographed.

Images in this blog post were captured at Lake Baikal, frozen in ice, and then rephotographed.

Cyberian Dispatch 11: Expedition to the Rookery

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

In the middle of Lake Baikal is a remote archipelago called the Ushkanii Islands, including Big Ushkan Island, and three smaller islands, Tiny, Round and Long. These secluded and rugged isles are primarily known as the site of a rookery.

Can’t remember what a “rookery” is? Neither could we. defines it as “a breeding place or colony of gregarious birds or animals, as penguins and seals.” The Ushkanii Islands are the mating spot of the world’s only entirely freshwater seal, or nerpa, the exceptionally cute mammal that is at the top of Baikal’s food chain.

A few days ago, we had the unique opportunity to embed with a group of scientists from the Baikal Museum. The Museum operates a number of live cameras that let you peer into Baikal’s depths, scan its shoreline, and most impressive of all, view the summer rookery of the nerpas. But one of their cameras on the Ushkanii Islands was disabled, and they planned an expedition to repair it.

Outfitted with ample warm clothes, sturdy boots, flashlights, sleeping bags, dry food, and high hopes, we climbed into a truck called “Bongo” at 7:00 am. After stopping for more provisions, our driver Alexander, the Deputy Director of the Museum, stayed in touch by walkie-talkie with another group of scientists, including Director Alexander Kupchinsky, driving a truck called “Patriot.” Gradually we made our way from Irkutsk to the southern end of the Lake and started up the eastern side, entering Buryatia. By nightfall, we had reached a very modest national park hostel in Ust-Barguzin. There, amidst celebrations and libations, we attempted to sleep in a common room, some on cots and some on the floor.

The next morning, we entered Zabaikalsky National Park on the territory of a peninsula known as the “Holy Nose.” Winding our way on dirt roads through the park, we eventually reached a set of signs with a variety of prominent warnings in Russian. Here the expedition would enter the open ice of Baikal and travel to the Ushkanii Islands.

It was only one week earlier when we first rode in a marshrutka (or minibus) on Baikal’s ice, on our way to Olkhon Island. It was quite fantastical at first because the mind can’t fully comprehend how ice safely supports an entire bus. But at Olkhon, the frozen road is marked and monitored by authorities. This time, we were sneezed out of the Holy Nose to navigate on our own.

Sometimes Google can find your car on Lake Baikal.

Sometimes Google can find your car on Lake Baikal.

Sometimes it can’t.

Sometimes it can’t.

And the ice is not without perils. This year, there are a startling number of large cracks, many stretching kilometers in erratic patterns. Some have refrozen and can be crossed easily with four wheel drive. But others are “live,” meaning they are still actively piling massive, bright blue ice boulders in front of passenger vehicles, or exposing dangerous open water into which truck wheels -- or an entire truck -- could plunge.

In fact, we quickly met several obstacles of piled ice that were insurmountable, and we were forced to drive many kilometers searching for a suitable location to pass. And then we came upon open water that emphatically blocked our way forward. We waited uncertainly, wondering if the mission might need to be abandoned. But the resourceful scientists were ready. They lay long wooden boards across the lapping waters and navigated the vehicles across an improvised bridge to the other side.

This maneuver enabled our arrival by evening to living quarters on Big Ushkan Island, hosted by Tatiana, a kind-hearted Russian women who lives year-round in this location. We warmed ourselves next to a traditional pechka (Russian stove) and feasted on simple but satisfying dishes.

In the morning, we left camp, driving a short distance in Bongo and Patriot to the base of a hill. We darted up the steep slopes, across the snow and through the forest to the peak, where the broken video camera was situated. Here, reticent Volodya quickly diagnosed the problem, and Anka, a spirited guide from the museum, descended to the trucks to retrieve a critical part.

In the meantime, we savored the delicate, precious quiet that is so rare in today’s world, with only a woodpecker and the gentle wind punctuating the silence. And we stood in awe, gazing from the heights at miraculous vistas. The unending expanse of ice, interrupted only by massive cracks. The majestic mountains of the Holy Nose, rising in perfect triangles that betray the story of their cataclysmic, seismic origins. The smaller Ushkanii Islands, their thick larch forests blurred by a nebulous fog. They are all incomparable to any other place we know.

Repairs were accomplished quickly, and after one more night at the camp, we found ourselves departing this Shangri-la -- and again searching for ways across Baikal’s serpentine crystal blockades. Tatiana attributed the large number of cracks to the sudden temperature change in February. In the beginning of the month, the Baikal region was still experiencing “moroz,” or the severe frost of -20 to -40 Celsius. But by the end of the month, temperatures had soared to between +5 and -15 Celsius.

Of course, no one event can be attributed specifically to climate change. Instead, it is the trends over time that establish scientific validity. But back in Irkutsk, Daria Bedulina, a scientist at Irkutsk State University’s Institute of Biology, wrote a telling post on Instagram. “The planet heats unevenly,” she wrote. “On average, since the beginning of the 20th century, the temperature on the Earth’s surface has increased by 1 degree, but in polar regions and in Siberia, this is happening two to three times faster.

“Ice is very important for our lake, and it is gradually going away,” she continued. In 50 years, the duration of the ice has reduced by 14 days. And this did not happen without any impact for cold-loving native species. Their numbers began to decline sharply, and they were replaced by heat-loving non-native species that are plentiful in other lakes.”

Sadly, we did not see any nerpas at the Ushkanii Islands. At this time of year, they are still hiding under the ice, and will emerge later in the season. You, too, will be able to view them on the newly repaired live web cam, located on the Baikal’s Museum’s website. (See especially the top two web cams on the left side of the screen.)

But nerpas, like other native species, rely heavily on the ice for their survival. It is under the ice that new pups are raised, and if pups don’t completely molt while the ice is still standing, they will become ill or suffer attacks from birds. Also, the nerpas eat fish that, in turn, feed on smaller native species that are negatively impacted by rapidly rising temperatures. It is an unfortunate fact that the entire ecosystem of Baikal is at risk if there are drastic changes in the ice cover.

Daria Bedulina’s post was immediately disputed by climate skeptics claiming that warming is cyclical and not a serious issue for the Lake. But she defended the findings of Russian and international scientists, and she called attention to simple steps we can all take to reduce negative outcomes.

As we crossed huge cracks in Lake Baikal’s ice, we worried about our own safety. But it is the safety of Lake Baikal that should be foremost in our minds. We must not let fissures in society turn us away from incontrovertible evidence. Nor can we let Baikal’s ecosystem be irreparably fractured.

A Buryat legend suggests that Lake Baikal was created after an epic earthquake when fire sprang out of the earth and local people chanted, “Bai, gal!,” or “Fire, stop!” in the Buryat language. Now, the Lake is threatened by a new type of fire -- temperatures that are rising more rapidly than scientists expected.

This time, an inferno did not erupt from the earth in a sudden convulsion. Instead, accumulating heat creeps and glides and insinuates itself under Baikal’s precious ice. But a cry of “Fire, stop!” is just as apt today as it was at the moment Baikal was born.


Shark Conservation

Jessica Zychowicz

“Shark Conservation,” Jessica Zychowicz. Oil-pastel crayon and charcoal. Berlin. 2019.

“Shark Conservation,” Jessica Zychowicz. Oil-pastel crayon and charcoal. Berlin. 2019.

There are no sharks in Berlin. There are no sharks in Poland, either, not in any of the 2,000 lakes of Masuria. You would think that they might be thrashing around somewhere in Russia’s unfathomably deep Lake Baikal, but no, they are not. Maybe it is too icy and cold for them there? What about Israel, you say? There are even two seas there, and they are warm and bright greenish and muddy---the perfect habitat for many different kinds of sharks. But there are no sharks in those places, either: not in the Red---or in the Dead!

There are no sharks at all, in fact, wherever we might expect to find them: not in my neighbors’ swimming pool (I looked there first!), or in the sink where I like to rinse my coffee cup in the morning, or in the dark spooky space under the garden hose, next to the stairs in the backyard, where the spiders live.

There are no sharks in the wide ocean where they used to be—I looked for them with my special goggles in San Juan, but found none.

There are no sharks at all anymore. I have given up.  

Or so I thought!

One day in February, on a rainy and grey Wednesday afternoon (sharks like Wednesdays!)—I found exactly what I had been searching for. I did not expect to find so many sharks smiling at me from every single corner of this magic place that I discovered! There were funny sharks and mean sharks, big sharks and small sharks, polka-dotted ones and striped-ones, and even a very colorful lady shark with glasses and a funny hairdo who sang and danced the tango and salsa! There was a poet-shark wearing a yellow plaid scarf, and a shark with a camera who could swim really fast and talk about very important things to all of the other sharks. I even met a tiger shark with a bicycle who likes to eat French fries as much as I do.

Their teeth were so terrifying, and their fins so powerful, that I almost imagined that I would never want to meet a shark again! After all, I was just as surprised as you are to find them all swimming around inside of Lindenstraße 9-14, 10969, in Berlin, of all places. I was sure that I had checked everywhere: high and low, near and far. Had they been hiding all of these sharks? Did someone put them here? Why didn’t I see them before? Why were they here, and not in the other places that I thought they would be?

But I changed my mind. It doesn’t matter why they were here or there, instead of in the deep lakes, or in the greenish muddy seas, or the wide ocean, or in the sink where I like to rinse my coffee cup, or under the garden hose next to the stairs in the backyard. I love sharks wherever they are! Maybe someday I will even visit them again and invite them to my next birthday party. I wonder if spiders like birthday cake, too?

Berlin, February 2019

in “A Curious Guide to Ecology”

by Jessica Zychowicz

“Voided Void,” Daniel Liebeskind. Shoah Memorial Space, Jewish Museum, Berlin. Photos by the Author. February 27, 2019.

Cyberian Dispatch 10: Baikal Speaks in Music

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

The oldest, deepest and largest lake by volume cannot be fathomed easily, but one way to plumb its remote depths is to listen. And if you listen to Baikal, it quickly becomes obvious that the Lake is speaking. It is not speaking in words. Instead, the Lake expresses itself in music.

We have written before about its sloshing waters, its merciless winds, its frolicsome crows, and other inimitable Baikal sounds. But the most formidable -- and also terrifying -- sound of Baikal is the sound of its ice cracking.

It starts as a sort of science fiction-y pinging, a bit like the sounds you associate with old movies about submarines. These pings and bwowops vibrate and stretch across vast expanses, often followed by a sharp crack or two or more. Then, if you are lucky (or unlucky, if you are as fearful as us), you may hear tremendous thunder as the ice actually sunders apart somewhere nearby.

The first time we heard a large crack while walking on Baikal’s ice, it registered in our brains as an earthquake (small ones are not uncommon here), and we leapt to our feet and ran immediately toward the distant shore (as fast as one can on a spectacularly slick surface). Then we noticed the locals, who went on skating and cavorting on the ice without pause. And we stayed for more of Baikal’s pinging, gurgling and cracking -- its unsurpassable music.

Music is unquestionably among the most treasured arts in Russia. Since the moment we arrived, we have been meeting musicians, sound artists, and people who simply love to sing or dance or play. To them, Baikal is always calling, as an inspiration and a unique location to summon their artistic best. As one of them recently put it, “Baikal is a mystery, and music is a way to understand it.”

At every holiday or gathering, Russians with beaming smiles will inevitably sing favorite songs that they pass on from generation to generation. Thus we found ourselves on Olkhon Island, listening to the songs of a ceremony called “maslenitsa” that welcomes Spring. The celebrants danced energetically in a circle around a bonfire built directly on the ice, singing for a thaw and new life in the coming season.

Two days later, all ages were represented at a maslenitsa celebration at the open air architectural museum at Taltsi, between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

A small number of musicians, like Evgeny Masloboev, literally play Baikal’s ice and water. In several recent concerts in Listvyanaka, he and his fellow Irkutsk-based musicians played instruments crafted from Baikal’s ice, and dipped other instruments into Baikal’s water to create fresh sounds. An exceptionally talented and innovative artist who views every single sound in the world as potential music, Evgeny knows from experience that Baikal’s ice and water have a unique sound that can’t be found anyplace else.

Others run with Baikal’s inspirations in many different directions. At the Blue Ice Festival on Olkhon Island, a French acapella group called Soli Tutti interpreted a traditional Buryat song and the local band Etno Beat created cosmopolitan rhythms. Moscow-based composer Marina Shmotova debuted an entire contemporary work based on the story of the Baikal icebreaker Angara that played an outsized role in local history and is still on display in Irkutsk. The Moscow-based artist Olessia Rostovskaya made church bells resonate across the Island in the morning, and that same evening debuted a nine-part contemporary classical composition based in part on recorded sounds of Baikal’s ice. Among many other talents, she is an expert on the theremin, an instrument invented in Russia that is played without touch, instead relying on manipulation of the electromagnetic field surrounding its antennas.

The Festival’s organizer, Natalya Bencharova, also hosted a discussion about the creation of a Baikal sound bank that will allow visitors near and far to access the sounds of the Lake. It is quite telling that she proposes a sound bank instead of a trove of videos or photographs. The sounds of the Lake are powerful and meaningful to locals...and to visitors. One of the first contributors to the sound bank is French sound artist Andre Fevre, who recently spent time camping on the ice around Olkhon Island in order to best capture the sounds of the ice talking. His efforts suggest the Lake is most vocal in mid-morning and late at night, when undergoing significant temperature changes.

As photographers and video artists, we are not immune to the call of Baikal’s sounds. We came to Siberia with a strong focus on the visual, but we immediately found our lensed devices limiting. There is no way to properly convey the enormity of Baikal, its constantly changing textures and moods, and its eternal inscrutability, with cameras alone. As a result, our project has moved emphatically in the direction of including sound and music.

From early on, we gathered local sounds to share with Baltimore-based composer and musician Maria Shesiuk, an extremely sensitive and versatile artist. Although she has never been to Siberia and we have never met her in person, she nonetheless uses her magical powers to conjure an authentic feel of Baikal in her original compositions that have debuted in this space. If you have not already, please listen to her songs titled Fog and A Walk Through Sleeping Land.

We also found that the data points in key scientific studies about the Lake’s ecological health can be plotted as musical notes, and we started to create compositions that directly reflect data on temperature changes and the impact of those changes on Lake organisms, such as the amphipods (small crustaceans) that are critical to the Lake’s cleanliness and its complex food chain. Although these electronic compositions are somewhat mechanical, we think of them as a starting point and as an innovative way to convey important scientific findings about the Lake. We are now in the process of sharing them with Maria and local musicians to see if they can help us interpret them.

For example, the following work in progress draws directly on findings from compelling new studies by scientists at the Biological Institute at Irkutsk State University (ISU), led by Director Maxim Timofeyev. In the composition, a “shimmering flute” represents data about temperature at four different depths in Baikal in Summer 2016 (Physiological and Biochemical Markers of Stress Response of Endemic Amphipods from Lake Baikal: Current State and Perspectives).

Separately, Russian scientists gathered evidence showing that the average summer surface water temperature at Lake Baikal has increased by 2 degrees Celsius since 1977, among the sharpest rises in the world. As temperatures continue to rise, scientists in Timofeyev’s department are researching what those changes will mean for amphipods. “Reflective strings,” “deep round synth bass,” and “grand piano” represent crustaceans that live at different depths in the Lake. The scientists’ work shows that amphipods unique to Baikal are comfortable at specific depths and temperatures, and may face danger or death if forced into different zones (Preference Ranges Correlate with Stable Signals of Universal Stress Markers in Lake Baikal Endemic and Holarctic Amphipods). In this composition, higher notes represent increased stress response among these exceptionally beautiful creatures, which are critical to the Lake’s future.  

You can see what some of Lake Baikal’s spectacular amphipods (also known as “gammarids”) look like here, in a video created by Russian diver Kiril Ivanov.

We also continue to gather local sounds. The unique voices of the people, whether Russian or Buryat or Evenk. Their own compositions, from folk songs to classical music to church bells to throat singing to popular music. But most of all, the sounds of the Lake itself...the ice that speaks so emphatically...the many voices of the Lake and the more than 300 rivers that feed it...the multitude of bird calls...the harsh and implacable winds...the murmuring sighs of moody spirits from high and low.

Baikal is a mystery that is endlessly intriguing and incomprehensible. We continue to capture its pixels, but when we wave our cameras at the Sacred Sea, sound waves back.

From DC to LA: Out of the Swamp and Into the Desert

Todd Forsgren

While writing this post, it has been raining in Los Angeles and much of America has been plunged into a deep freeze caused by the break-up of “the polar vortex.”  But these bits of weather are at odds with the broader trends happening in our climate right now.

Last year I moved from Washington DC to Los Angeles, California (although when my current President talked about “draining the swamp,” I assume he was thinking about folks with more political influence than me). So, for my first post to Atlantika’s blog, I want to reflect on moving from a city built near a swamp to a city built in a desert, and the urbanization and development of the American landscape in between DC and LA. I think that this resonates with my interest in contributing to the Atlantika Collective, as well as recent changes in Atlantika’s vision and scope.

I lived in DC for seven years. That’s longer than I’ve lived anywhere aside from Ohio, where I grew up and my parents still reside. So, DC was home. I formed a lot of very meaningful relationships there... It was where I met many of the founders of Atlantika (you may remember I was interviewed by Gabriela Bulisova and Joe Lucchesi a few years back).

My photographs have long been about climate change and globalization. I’ve photographed urban and community gardens in Cuba, Mongolia, Europe, Japan, USA, and elsewhere. I think that these tiny patchwork gardens seem to exemplify the environmental mantra of “think globally, act locally” and that such gardens will become an increasing necessity for food security as our planet’s population increases. Then there are my Ornithological Photographs, images I made alongside bird scientists that consider the abstraction from individual bird to concerns for species and ecosystems. My World is Round project is a more direct confrontation of this battle between the senses and reason/data. All three of these projects consider how hard it is for us humans, observational creatures by nature, to really grapple with abstract thinking.  

Lately I have been crisscrossing the United States as I move from one coast to the other. During these trips I’ve been using my 35mm camera with black-and-white film to document America, and these are the images I’m using to illustrate this post (and which I plan to make into a limited edition book from sometime in 2019, once I finish developing and editing all the film I’ve shot).

The series, which I’m calling The California Trail, reflect more directly on the history of Manifest Destiny and American Modernist photography than any other work I’ve made to date. This move from northeast to southwest has been consistent throughout America’s post-colonial history. It has also been a move from forests to deserts.

To a certain point, the B&W photograph I have been taking feel indulgent and sentimental. Yes, I feel guilty as I run the sink in my Los Angeles home for half-an-hour to wash my film. And I feel a bit guilty too, burning the fossil fuels required to take two road-trips from east to west (one in my wife’s car, followed by one in my car). But these trips were when I took the majority of these pictures, although a few other excursions have helped to round out the series. I also feel a tinge of guilt for another reason... sentimentally looking back at an era of photography that I have long tried to turn a blind eye to: the American modernists.

I ran away from American photography in graduate school, instead studying in the Czech Republic and becoming steeped in the parallel traditions of photography and modernism that have thrived in Central Europe. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Japan, because of my wife’s research, and there I have become really engaged in the history of postwar Japanese photography. And while these European and Asian traditions do influence this series, it is the American Modernists that I have really been thinking about, finally.

This move from east to west has placed me directly into the history of Europeans movement across America in a very tangible way. As I drove across the country, looking at all the other evidence of this movement, all the scars across the landscape, I often found myself thinking about a computer game I used to play called The Oregon Trail. Though I have seen a lot of America before this move, The Oregon Trail and its simple early computer graphics kept coming to mind: a wagon drawn by oxen across an ever-changing landscape. As I saw an iconic scene in front of my eyes, I’d think back to the tableaus depicted in these early computer graphics. And how the game also tried to portray the hardships faced by the pioneers via text descriptions (i.e. “You have died of [dysentery, cholera, typhoid, diphtheria or measles]”).

My initial choice to use 35mm film to document my road trips was practical: if I took just one roll of film a day during these drives, it would be a constraint that would limit my obsessive photographic impulses. Having only thirty-six frames per day would also mean that my photographic addiction wouldn’t drive my wife crazy during our road-trip, constantly stopping the car to get the right shot. In fact, many times I wouldn’t even stop the car, instead shooting from the moving vehicle in hopes of both finding unexpected compositional solutions as well as limiting my OCD large-format oriented photographic mind from trying to take too much control.

I didn’t have any serious intentions at the beginning of the road trip, but by the time we got to Montana I was already scrambling to find more film, as I had certainly gone over my one-roll-a-day limit! Though they’d started as impulsive documents, my ideas for why I was making these photographs kept growing as I was becoming very interested in the challenge of trying to make “good” and “fresh” photographs of these sites that had been photographed so many times before by so many great photographers.

The last time I drove across the country was 15-years-ago, and the only camera I had was a large-format camera. I was thinking about Bernd and Hilla Becher, Hiroshi Sugimoto, and Pavel Baňka as I photographed the urban and community gardens. On this more recent trip, with my 35mm camera at the Grand Tetons, or at hotels in small towns across the country, I couldn’t help but think of Robert Frank, Robert Adams, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand and Lee Friedlander.

So, let’s just go over the routes I took... Trip one (with wife and three-year-old daughter): Washington DC to Cleveland, OH to Chicago, IL to Minneapolis, MN to Bismarck, ND to Miles City, MT to Yellowstone National Park, WY to Grand Tetons National Park, WY to Salt Lake City, UT to Zion National Park, UT to Las Vegas, NV to Los Angeles, CA. Trip two (partially with my father): Washington DC to Cleveland, OH to Nashville, TN to Hot Springs National Park, AR to Dallas, TX to Guadelupe Mountains National Park, TX to Albuquerque, NM to Grand Canyon National Park, AZ to Los Angeles, CA. That’s over 100 hours and 7000 miles of driving through 25 states. And I’ve picked up five more states since then!

You won’t be shocked to hear that I noticed the landscape change as I went from east to west and north to south. Nor that what those early travelers like Lewis and Clark and the pioneers on the Oregon Trail had seen, those wide open and natural spaces, are now in quite a different state. The New Topographics photographers certainly showed us as much! Where there once were deserts, there are now oil derricks or huge pivot agriculture arms watering fresh green lettuces.  The ruins of rusty infrastructure are everywhere. The bison that used to have thunderous migrations from north to south across the plains are now confined to a series of relatively small parks and reserves.

These wilds have been photographed, thought about, and written about by so many intelligent and thoughtful people (and yet, against all reason, a frightening percentage of the American population has not changed their opinion on this landscape since the days of Manifest Destiny and "Go West, young man, and grow up with the country." To me, this is the miraculous thought: not just to go West, but the need to grow up. To think about the complicated and messy world that we live in in a way that will preserve it for the future. To bear witness to the landscape’s current state.  This landscape is interesting to reflection upon. There are many aspects of American history that I’m proud of, but also so much that needs a critical eye. This is essential in identifying problems and my own role in shaping its future. And that’s what I hope to be doing in this series of photographs.

But as I reflect on living in a desert on the West Coast, my mind has drifted more and more to the sea. And so, for my next post, I’ll be writing about another new project of mine called Full Fathom Five.

Fog: New Electronic Music


This composition came together as a response to Mark Isaac’s and Gabriela Bulisova’s blog post about the Angara River, the only river flowing out of Lake Baikal. They are documenting the effects of climate change on the most ancient and deepest lake in the world. You can read about it here:

I spent some time looking at the images they took of the river and its endlessly mysterious, foggy landscape. In their blog post they mention the legend of Angara. The legend has a romantic twist to it. Angara, Baikal’s beautiful daughter, ran away from her father to meet a young man she was in love with. Father Baikal did not approve of this young man and wanted Angara to marry someone else. Baikal cried so much that his tears formed the lake. This is just one of many Buryat legends about Angara and Baikal. 

I reflected on the photographs, the legend, and Mark and Gabriela’s magnificent description of the river. I then tried to paint an audio image of it with my Moog model D synthesizer. The spacious, wobbly drones represent the vastness of the fog and the water. In addition, the spooky, birdlike sounds created with the Moog along with slightly unnatural sounds of water and wind give the music a quality of otherworldliness. My vocals (high and low) represent the spirits of Angara and her grieving father, Baikal floating in the fog.

I specifically used field recordings of water and wind that Mark and Gabriela sent me. Their samples served both as a vehicle to bring me closer to a place I have never actually visited (Siberia), and as a launching pad for this composition. When I listened to the field recordings and looked at the photographs, a certain mood, feeling, and image of the Angara came over me. I then channeled this feeling to write the music. 


MASLO is a project of Maria Shesiuk

“Fog” released January 28, 2019 
Track mixed (but not yet mastered) by Nathan Moody 
Field recordings courtesy of Mark Isaac and Gabriela Bulisova 
Photo credit: Maria Shesiuk

All rights reserved

Cyberian Dispatch 9: Playing Hide and Seek with the Angara

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac

There are more than 330 rivers that flow into Lake Baikal, filling the cavernous Lake with one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. But there is only one mighty river that flows out: the Angara.

In Irkutsk, the largest city on the Angara, the River is half a block from our apartment, so we have almost daily encounters with its intensely different moods, striking range of colors, and its habit of hiding from local residents.

There is a longtime legend in Siberia that Angara was the exceptionally beautiful daughter of Old Man Baikal, and he was filled with love and admiration for her. But one day, while Baikal was sleeping, Angara slipped away to try and meet the young Yenisei. Grandfather Baikal was furious, and ripping a cliff from a nearby mountain, flung it at Angara, who was pinned at her throat. Angara begged her father to give her water, since she was parched, but her father refused, saying she was condemned to nothing but her own tears. And since that time, it is her tears that flow from Baikal to the Yenisei River, far to the north and west. Today, the cliff that Grandfather Baikal threw at Angara, called Shaman Rock, is visible at the Angara’s outlet from the Lake.

But the Angara itself is not always visible. Especially in winter, the warmer water flowing from Lake Baikal meets a shockingly cold Siberian air mass, and the result is tuman (туман), the Russian word for fog. In Irkutsk, it might start with a little steam rising off the river. A few hours later, the fishermen in the middle of the River are visible one minute and lost the next. Soon, the three main bridges fade away. The sun is faint, then fainter, then slips completely from view. And finally, there is nothing, only a wall of light gray that obscures everything but the wonderland of icy frosting deliciously decorating the trees along the banks. It is a fog to end all fogs, an ethereal display that lends the entire city an unearthly glamour.

It is also rich with human activity and sound. Near the statue of Tsar Alexander III at the foot of Karl Marx Street, Russian radio is broadcast from loudspeakers, often featuring English language pop songs or Christmas music. On Ostrov Konnyy (literally, Coney Island), near a towering ferris wheel, children gleefully exclaim as they sled from ice sculptures, ice skate, or play hockey. On the frozen shores, fisherman cut holes in the ice with enormous drill bits and wait for hours in the numbing cold to extract a meal. Listen carefully and you will hear lapping waves against the ice, the murmur of ducks foraging, and the sound of a muskrat surfacing and then diving. And most prominent of all, the reverberating announcements of departures from the main railway station, which echo across the invisible water, coupled with the rattling of invisible trains en route to remote destinations.

The alluring tuman is a signature feature of Irkutsk and the Angara, but unfortunately, beneath this exquisite veil some disturbing secrets are hiding. Each major city along the Angara, including Irkutsk, is a site where significant amounts of pollution enter the river, including industrial wastes that seriously threaten the river’s health. Also, the Angara has been dammed four times since the 1950s. The dams chop the river into pieces, blocking any navigation and impeding the transit of fish and other native species. And the creation of numerous reservoirs has radically altered the ecology of the waterway, harming endemic species and increasing the amounts of algae that deprive the River of oxygen.

One of the most important historical voices against dam-building and the diversion of rivers is the late Russian author Valentin Rasputin, who was born in Irkutsk Oblast. Rasputin’s views on this subject were heavily influenced by the fact that his own childhood village along the Angara was destroyed to create a massive hydroelectric plant. His 1979 novel Farewell to Matyora is focused on a fictional village that suffers a similar fate, and a later non-fiction work, Siberia, Siberia also dwells on this theme. Although some consider his work “anti-modern,” and his conservative politics were controversial, his influence on environmentalism in this region -- including the fight to save Lake Baikal -- looms large. (Those who are interested in a film treatment of his work can search for the 2008 Russian film, Live and Remember, in which the Angara plays a starring role.)

Dam-building continues to be an issue that is central to the future of the entire region. Among the threats to Lake Baikal’s health are proposals to build several dams on the Selenga River and its tributaries that flow from Mongolia to Lake Baikal. The plans threaten to disrupt the ecology of the Selenga River delta, the largest source of Baikal’s water and a major habitat for Baikal’s endemic species. They will also affect the water level, water quality, and ecosystem throughout the Lake. In 2017, activists achieved a small victory when the World Bank froze its support for the planned projects, but efforts by Mongolia to become energy independent, together with lavish Chinese financing, mean the fight is by no means over.

Here in Irkutsk, we play hide and seek with the Angara and its veil of tuman almost every day. We hide ourselves in its blanket of white, embracing the ghostly nothingness for as long as our arctic mittens and winter boots will permit. We take endless photos of its spare visual delights. But we also seek the truth about the environmental health of the Angara and of Lake Baikal. Irkutsk’s homegrown environmental leader, Valentin Rasputin, was one of the first to understand that there is “damming” evidence of harm. All those concerned about the future of our waterways must join together to respond.