SACHA, KING OF THE TAIGA
In his quest for a sense of freedom that represents total independence, Sacha tends to his flock of a thousand reindeer. His daily routine revolves around caring for his animals. But his passion is also a constraint. It’s his whole life. Sacha’s days are difficult, harsh, wild, solitary.
While cities offer refuge to the feeble, several hundred kilometers away, you have only yourself to rely on. I’m astonished to observe how such inhospitable regions hold so much sway over those seeking freedom. But my surprise isn’t shared by Sacha, who believes that everything is connected. His life is defined by three inseparable elements, forming a perfect triangle between “man, reindeer and nature,” the very symbol of his existence.
Year after year, Sacha gradually moves further away from his village, putting a little more distance between his home and the private sphere of his life each time. A few times a year, he reconnects with his family, his last remaining ties to the village, providing them with the meat from his reindeer. Most of the year, the place he calls home is the taiga. A stranger to his kin, the bond he shares with his loved ones frays as the months pass.
Moving from place to place is further complicated by the absence of roads. In such conditions, life is a never-ending struggle against the elements. Danger, Sacha’s intimate friend, is his most faithful companion. Fear of even the slightest injury is a reminder of the ubiquity of death, which won’t wait peacefully for old age, and remains ready to strike at any moment.
Sacha’s people, the Evens, are animist. He believes that every element in nature not only has a soul, but protects him as well. The herder isn’t short on words when it comes to the spirit of the wilderness. He communicates with the fire and the trees, telling them that angry spirits are chasing him, before reassuring himself that the purity of his soul, cleansed by solitude, will save him.
Sacha has acquired ancestral knowledge that allows him to live in this environment so hostile to man, which he knows how to tame. Yet he also bears witness to his own powerlessness in the face of the slow and inexorable transformation wrought by climate change.
NATURE HAS THE UPPER HAND
Man is no match for nature’s splendor, said Dersu Uzala, Sacha’s fictional kindred spirit in the film by Akira Kurosawa. Yet humanity today believes itself more powerful than the earth. In an unjust turn of fate, climate change is not experienced directly by those who have recklessly sought to subdue nature, but by those who have attempted to live in harmony with it.
Rising temperatures (4°C in the last forty years) have dramatic consequences for the lives of indigenous peoples and those of their animals. Nomadic herders don’t necessarily have all of the figures at their fingertips, but they are the first to observe these environmental changes.
The fluctuation between frost and mild spells, snow and rain, can cause an impenetrable layer of ice to form on the ground for the hungry reindeer. Ice melt takes place much earlier in the spring and lasts much later into the fall. This in turn has forced herders to modify their ancient migration routes, as it’s difficult for the reindeer to move through the snowless taiga. Rising temperatures also affect the taiga’s vegetation, which is the reindeers’ only source of food.
As a matter of fact, most nomadic tribes have seen their populations dwindle because of isolation and climate instability, which make working conditions increasingly difficult. Many herders would rather move to Yakutsk, where they can earn an honest living.
For a disciple of nature like Sacha, living in the city would amount to heresy. For this lover of freedom, city life would be nothing short of a prison sentence. And it’s this city life that’s inevitably leading the world, his world, to ruin. Sacha is deeply attached to his ancient ways, perhaps the unwitting representative of an endangered world.
Will there come a time when Sacha’s life and that of his reindeer will no longer be bearable? Will he be able to adapt to climate change for much longer?
Over the course of his snow-covered odyssey through the Great North, Sacha attempts to find out who he really is. An age-old question, and undoubtedly the most difficult one to answer.
YAKUTSK IS WARMING UP
Yakutsk is the largest city in the world built on permafrost; in other words, the soil is frozen, up to three hundred meters deep in certain places. If temperatures rise by a few degrees, the permafrost could melt and cause the roads, houses and even the lakes to collapse dramatically.
Yakutsk residents are particularly concerned about the dangers triggered by melting ice. In the city, most of the multi-story buildings constructed under the Soviet Union were not designed to withstand climate change.
Yet according to estimates, Russia is warming up around three times faster than the rest of the world. When it thaws, the permafrost will release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Scientists worry that if billions of tons of greenhouse gases escape in massive quantities from the permafrost into the atmosphere, the global climate system will be affected in catastrophic ways. It’s truly a vicious and tragic cycle, as this consequence of global warming contributes in turn to perpetuating the climate crisis: this is what scholars call “positive feedback.”
Living in such conditions is synonymous with a constant struggle against nature and oneself. What amazed me most is this desire to live, this instinct for survival. The comfort and safety of our cities has made us forget that before building them, people lived in this way. And it was with this sense of astonishment that my adventure began.
All images and text © Alexis Pazoumian
Book By Alexis Pazoumian
By Alexis Pazoumian
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