To the Hero Fish, with Thanks (August 19, 2013)

[Part 14 of 14.  Solovki 2013]

In the day before heading north from St. Petersburg to Solovki, several of us spent a lovely afternoon visiting the town of Kronstadt just outside of St. Petersburg.

Kronstadt is a naval town—the equivalent of Annapolis in the US, or Portsmouth in the UK—and was a closed city in the Soviet days, so I had never been there before even though I’d visited Petersburg (and Leningrad when it was called Leningrad) many times over the years.

The town and its quiet streets have much to offer and are steeped in history.   It was founded by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703, was the site of a famous rebellion against the Bolsheviks, and has truly remarkable shipyards and shipbuilding facilities.

There is a pleasant beach, where swimming is not recommended but one can find a very nice glass of Kvas, Russia’s beloved soft drink.

It was also here, as many plaques remind the casual walker, that the radio was invented by Aleksandr Stepanovich Popov.   [Popov, generally unknown in the West played a very important role in the process, although he was hardly alone.]

But, for me, the most memorable part of the day was a modest plaque standing inconspicuously by one of the canals giving tribute to all-too-often forgotten heroes of World War II:   small fish.   If the Soviets in many respects won the war in Europe (and by inflicting 80% of all Nazi casualties in the war and holding off the German onslaught for months alone, there seems little argument that they did), then it was fish that made much of that victory possible.

During the 900-day siege and blockade of Leningrad, food supplies were at such a low level that inhabitants were rationed to 125 grams of “bread” a day (quotation marks because much of the ingredients weren’t bread as traditionally understood, including a fair amount of sawdust).   In these horrible circumstances, protein fished from the waters was a crucial supply of calories for the sailors and civilians to survive on.

The same was true further east, where fish were being scooped out of rivers and lakes at unprecedented rates to feed the hungry Soviet people and soldiers.   In many respects, the fish stocks of Lake Baikal (the world’s oldest and largest lake in terms of depth and water volume) have never fully recovered from the extraction of fish during these years.

And it is nice to see, for once, a memorial to all the fish who gave their lives so that humans might live; a testimony to all the animal victims who suffered the extraordinary destruction that humans unleashed on each other.

A Plaque to the fish

To the Blockade Stickleback

The shelling has fallen silent and the bombing too,

But, to this day, praise is sounded

To the blockade little fish

That helped the people to survive

                        — M. G. Aminova

                        –plaque erected for the 300-year anniversary of Kronstadt.

A Hasty Retreat (August 22, 2013)

[Part 13 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

Word is spreading through the town that a storm is approaching and the ferries may be shut down the next day.   The woman behind the desk at the excursion bureau tried to calm the growing number of people questioning her.   No, she didn’t know if the ferries would stop running but yes a big storm was promised.   But why worry, she asked.   Life will go the way it goes.   Stay and enjoy the island, and if you are stuck here another day, no problem, it is just another day of holiday, no?

I tried to take her island advice, but with a train to catch to take me to my plane to catch back home, I decided safer was better than sorrier.  And I joined an ever increasing horde of travelers advancing on the ferry.

It was a packed boat but we all made it on (although I wouldn’t have wanted to test the number of lifeboat spaces).

We fed the seagulls as drizzle came down

And I was reminded that even now with all the powers that humans have to transform the natural world, sometimes we still need to change our plans and to adapt our lives to the vagaries of weather.   Storms still keep ships in harbor.   Human aspirations are buffeted by high seas and white capped waves.   We are controlled less by the vagaries of nature than our forebears, but we are still not in control.

The rains, winds, and waves did come, and the ferries did stop running the next day.   I was happy to have made the right decision, but very sad to leave Solovki.

Next year Chernobyl.

a view of Solovki

Silence and Solitude (August 22, 2013)

[Part 12 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

I’m thinking a lot about silence and solitude

Standing on a large rock outcropping on the shore of the island away from the center of town, there is no sign of humanity anywhere.  And even more marvelously, no sound of humans or other animals.   Just the soothing melodies of the strong wind rushing past my ear and the sound of the water on the rocks.

The silence was an intense reminder of just how noisy our lives have become.  If you are anything like me, you don’t even notice the noise any more until it is gone.

And the silence is lovely and refreshing.

Earlier that morning outside the bed and breakfast, I met a woman from the Netherlands.   She was travelling with a group of Orthodox pilgrims from that country who had come to see some of the amazing and majestic monasteries in the Russian north.   She wasn’t Orthodox by birth, but married into the faith.

She had lost her daughter earlier that year.   The daughter suffered from epilepsy and, alone when an episode struck at night, suffocated.   And as she sat smoking a small cigar, she hoped the trip to Solovki, with its long spiritual tradition and powers, would bring some clarity and relief from the pain.

Did I mind travelling alone (which I was at that stage of the trip), she asked me.   She was a little worried, I think, about my fate all alone in the Russian north.  No, I said, I didn’t mind.  It gives me time to think.

Taking a deep drag on the cigar, she stared off ahead:  she couldn’t do it alone, she was sure.

Standing in the silence of the wind, I was struck with how hard it is these days to find places truly to be alone.   The spaces imprinted with human footprints and human voices and human machines grow ever larger, and the non-human spaces on the planet grow smaller.

And I thought of Savvatii and German, who so many hundreds of years ago had attempted to become closer to God by escaping humanity and paddling and walking as far from human settlements as they could.   For them, distance, sea, and nature was a buffer to protect them from the temptations and sins of the human world, and more easily live in a godly way.  Isolated in the trees, and surrounded by the seas, they could calm their souls and fulfill their spirits.

Of course, their hopes were foiled.   Other humans followed them to emulate their godliness.  And the aspirations of Savvatii and German (and others after them) for isolation and separation from humanity were buried in the arrival of other humans.

Solitude and silence in nature.   Did Savvatii and German have a lesson for us today?

Gulag (August 22, 2013)

[Part 10 of 14.  Solovki 2013]

I have taught the history of the GULAG—the forced prison system of the early years of the Soviet Union—for many years now.   And as many of my students will attest, I often have a hard time getting through the discussion without tears in my eyes.   For all the years I’ve studied the past and wrestled with what it means to be human, I’ve never quite come to terms with the horrifyingly deep capacity of humans to unleash terrible and unspeakable cruelty on other humans.   We are gluttons for our own doom, and particular gluttons for the doom of others.

Yet, for all the years teaching and reading about the Gulag, I had never actually visited the site of one.   I’d seen prisons, to be sure, but never a camp.  And I was intrigued to be there to feel it and sense it.

Solovki plays a special role in what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously called the “Gulag Archipelago.”   It was in many ways at Solovki that the Gulag got its start and also began its horrifying expansion.  It was also at Solovki that the idea filtered into the minds of certain members of the Soviet leadership that the camps could be economically profitable.   They never were, it turns out, but the idea of profit from penal labor was held onto tightly and ever hopefully.

The monastery was shut in 1920—not an unexpected decision from an atheist state.   But then what to do with the marvelous buildings and infrastructure?   The monastery had been used for centuries as a place of banishment and exile for opponents to the tsarist regime and to the Orthodox Church—and some prisoners had lived for decades cramped into tiny, dark, stone cells.   There had never been that many prisoners, and the prison function was always a minor part of the larger monastic religious purpose.   However, it set a precedent and it was not a huge leap of imagination to turn the entire monastic complex into a prison camp.

In 1923, Solovetskii Monastery became known as the Solovetskii Camp of Special Importance (SLON in its Russian acronym, a word that means “elephant” in Russian.  There were endless plays on words.)

The camp saw some 80,000 people come to it, about half of whom perished there and are now part of the Solovki ecosystem.   [There are archeological digs going on in the mass graves—but I noted that the tour guide was uninterested in taking us there.]

The types of prisoners that came to Solovki tended to be elite ones:  political opponents of the Bolsheviks (especially members of other socialist parties), former tsarist nobles, officers of the Imperial Army or of the White Army that fought the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, great Russian intellectuals and cultural icons.   In the words of one tour guide:   “the very light of the Russian nation.”

And they were horribly mistreated.   The savagery of humanity was once again on nauseating display.   Who would do these things, I kept asking myself, and how can we avoid a repeat?   (And just how naïve a question is that?)

Cold, poorly clothed (if clothed at all), jammed into cells to sleep, and then marched through the islands to carry out various forms of work (logging in particular) with insufficient food and clothing, and broken, inappropriate tools) .   Daily life was extraordinarily hard and abusive.

On Sekirka, one of the hills of Solovki, a Church stood (with a lighthouse on top) and during the Gulag period it was used as a place of special punishment.


As Roy Robson descries in his book:  “there, men were made to sit perfectly still atop the “perch” or “pole”—about an arm’s width wide—for hours on end, stripped almost naked, teetering on the high-ceilinged, unheated Church of the Beheading of St. John.   Though they shivered and caught frostbite, the slightest movement was reason to falling off and a beating.  At night, the prisoners lay three or four atop another, hoping to stay warm.”

Savage creatures we humans are.   And there are so many hundreds more of these savage stories.

Dead or almost dead bodies were strapped to a log and sent careening down the staircase on the far side of the hill.   365 stairs to the bottom.

Ironically, these stairs had long before had a different meaning.   They were the way that pilgrims would walk up to the Church, and the word was that for every step one walked up a sin was forgiven.  With the Gulag, it was the world turned upside down.

Here the human-nature relationship was also transformed.  The cold climate, geographic location, and very physical characteristics that had kept humans from the islands for so long (and had made the archipelago such a good place for monks seeking solitude and fortitude) met up with human aspirations to punish and torture those who might challenge the dominant political ideology.  Over the centuries, people had come for fish and in search of God.  Now they came because they were arrested and forced.   Now they came for the pain that Solovki’s nature—manipulated by humans—might unleash on other humans.

Pilgrim stairs, Gulag stairs. Sekirka. Solovki.  Looking down.

Pilgrim stairs, Gulag stairs. Sekirka. Solovki. Looking up.

I went to see Sekirka with a group of Russian tourists, and it was fascinating to watch them as they came face to face with the horrors of their history.   All peoples and countries have moments of horror in their history, where violence and cruelty shine through.   We humans share this tendency.   What is different is how we then deal with the memories and the legacies of the cruelty, and how do we make amends.

The guide spared no horrible detail for the group.  And there were tears all around as she told story after story of torture and the wanton brutalization of some humans by others.  I don’t know what these tourists knew or didn’t know about the Gulag and Solovki before arriving, but they left with their souls weighed heavy by the knowledge.

Interestingly, the tour guide never at any point discussed any details about the Gulag system that didn’t directly relate to Solovki.   So, any sense of the larger political context wasn’t discussed—of the Bolshevik efforts to hold power, later of Stalin, the purges, collectivization, forced deportations, or of the larger Gulag system that stretched across the whole Eurasian landmass.

The focus here was only local; on the terrifying treatment of the people who came to Solovki between 1923 and 1939.

But perhaps that was enough.

Russians and Seagulls (August 22, 2013)

[Part 9 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

On any boat ride I took to and from Solovki, I was lucky to witness (again) the Russian love of feeding seagulls.

As soon as the boat left the dock, and the horn blew to announce our departure, the seagulls appeared flying alongside the boat.   Pavlov would have been proud.   Two ferries a day over months and years had trained these birds well to respond to the particular growl of the ferry motor and the piercing of the horn.

And it was a great reminder that humans affect the flora and the fauna around them.   The whole pattern of nourishment for the seagulls (from the food they ate, to the timing, to the manner in which food was obtained) has been entirely transformed.

As the birds came swooping in again and again, I was bemused to think of the chain of events that made possible this feeding of the birds:   the fact that some farmer somewhere further south had worked to grow the grain, which was then transported to be made into bread, transported again north to this region, and sold in stores to be handed off by humans to the eager seagulls.   I wondered what the farmer would think if he knew his efforts and his grain were making the birds around Solovki fat.

And I wondered to myself what the attraction was.   I guess I’d thrown bread to the ducks at the park as a kid—and my boys loved doing the same thing when they were small—and there was something exhilarating about wild animals responding to your food and eating out of your hand.

Or perhaps, it was the fun of seeing an animal do something it wasn’t really supposed to do.   I remember years ago watching sadly as a caged bear at a roadside stand on the highway north from Tbilisi (Republic of Georgia) was offered a plastic bottle of Fanta by an excited little boy.   The bear could unscrew the cap and then chug the soda without difficulty.   And the bear drank soda after soda after soda as a roadside attraction.   Kept the stand in business, I think, and the passing motorists happy.   But, I’d have hated to see the bear’s dental bills.


The Botanical Gardens (August 22, 2013)

[Part 8 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

In addition to the Canals and the Monastery complex, perhaps the most marvelous site on the islands was the Botanical Garden, about four kilometers from the main village.

Founded in 1822 by Archimandrite Makarii, The Gardens are located in a little ravine-valley that produces its own micro-climate (a micro-climate within the micro-climates that are Solovki).   Here, the walls of the ravine block out the wind and the temperature during the year is warmer than other parts of the island.

And this micro-climate allowed the monks to be able to grow all sorts of plants and trees that were non-native to the region and generally would otherwise be unable to survive such a northern location.   Here, both monks and others experimented with what sorts of plants and trees might grow there, and learned a great deal about the effects of temperature, latitude, wind, water, and other factors on the growth patterns of this flora.

The monks grew here all sorts of medicinal herbs and plants, which they could then also sell on the mainland.

They also planted trees from different parts of the Russian empire.    Some trees that grew out of the protective shield of the valley had their tops knocked off again and again.   (see Yertle the Tree below, showing wind damage and regrowth).

Botanical Gardens. Solovki. Tree with wind-damage and re-growth of two trunks

A lovely tree-lined pathway was planted, but the trees were planted too close together and their branches, as you can see from the photos below, primarily grow out on the outside of the alley.

Botanical Gardens. Solovki.

Botanical Gardens. Solovki. Tree-lined path, with branches mostly facing out because trees too closely planted together.

Some photos of the gardens.   Still very active.  Very unuusal flowers for that far north!

Botanical Gardens. Solovki.

Botanical Gardens. Solovki.

Botanical Gardens. Solovki.




Lakes and Canals (August 21, 2013)

[Part 7 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

I was glad I chose to rent the high-performance mountain bike as I bounced my way up the roads of the main island to spend an afternoon rowing, paddling, and otherwise exploring the remarkable system of lakes and canals that run through the island.   This was one of the most beautiful and peaceful systems of water I’d been to in years, spreading a calm serenity through me each time I pulled with the oars—definitely one of the highlights of my trip to Solovki.

At the boat rental dock, the young man asked if I was with the two young women who had arrived at about the same time.  He responded with a forlorn face when I explained, inexplicably it seemed, that I was planning to paddle alone.

He handed me two oars and a paddle.   “Why all three,” I asked, cursing yet again that I only had two arms.   The oars were for rowing the lakes, the paddle for the narrow canals.  “Lifejacket?” I inquired.   “As you like,” the forlorn expression turning to perplexed.

There are no rivers on Solovki, but there are some 500 permanent lakes that fill high each spring from the melting snow.   In spring, the lakes would often overflow and the waters would flow overland from one lake to another.

If the White Sea offered the monks a seemingly endless bounty of fish to eat, they had to work a little harder to ensure fresh water for their communities.    And they did so through extensive hydrological engineering systems that connected the different lakes together to provide both fresh water and also water transport possibilities up and down the island.   (Even today, plying the water in a small rowboat was much more pleasant than bumping my away along the roads on bike).

Over the course of the 15th to 19th centuries, about 20 lake-canal systems were developed across the archipelago.

As the first parts of the monastery complex were being built in the 14th century, the monks needed to ensure a constant supply of potable, fresh water.    They dug out a lake on one side of the monastery to capture water and then filled that lake with water carried down island by canals dug through the forests.  The water was then channeled through pipes and other water transport systems through the monastery (where a water wheel for milling was eventually set up, and where a collection tank for water was kept to ensure water in times of attack) and then back out through a weir to the harbor and sea.

The system of lakes and rivers that flowed down into the Sacred Lake next to the monastery connected from 70 lakes and canals up the island.

The system worked well.   They ensured that the water in the collection lake didn’t sit stagnant but moved through the mill canal, powering the wheels, and then out to the harbor.

the Sacred Lake providing fresh water storage for the Monastery

The hydrological works of the monks are a reminder to those of us accustomed to water appearing as if by magic from a tap in the kitchen, that extended effort was and is so often needed to make sure that there is sufficient, usable water available for communities.   And that great physical efforts and reconfigurations of the land and waterways were/are often needed to achieve this task.

Perhaps most remarkable for me as I paddled along were the canals, built in the early 20th century by the monks for transportation purposes, that connected many lakes together.

Over the years, the monks had watched the natural flows of water over land when the lakes overflowed in the spring.   And, when they decided to carve connector canals between the lakes, they followed these paths of least water resistance.

And the canals were a marvel.   The monks dug out the canals to allow row boats and small steam powered boats to go through.   They lined the banks of the canals with large stones.   And they built underwater wood and stone foundations to keep the canals open and navigable.

They were both form and function.   Boats could now navigate their ways up and down the islands through the lakes.   And fresh water would be in uninterrupted supply.   But the canals also created tree-covered aqua-pathways.   As I paddled through I felt a certain warm embrace of the trees and green shores on either side.

True, I reminded myself, forests by any waterway offered ready camouflage for a surprise human attack—as had happened so often in history.   But, the feeling of comfort from the surrounding trees and straight rock paths quickly banished such more fearful thoughts.

Canal. Solovki

Canal. Solovki

Our Ever Changing World (August 21 2013)

[Part 6 of 14.  Solovki 2013]

On Solovki, I’m reminded at every turn of the ever-changing, ever-shifting world in which we live.   Even the rock under our feet is not always as solid and sedentary as we like to believe.

It is now centuries and centuries since the last glaciers retreated from atop the geological formations that now make up the Solovetskie islands.   Yet, the effect of the glaciers is still being felt.

As in many places, the weight of the glaciers compressed the stone of the islands, and since the glaciers departed the islands have been experiencing a rebound effect, rising ever so slowly as the weight of the ice no longer holds them down.   As a result, the islands are getting, bit by bit, a little higher out of the water.   (And scientists talk about this a great deal with Greenland too, as the ice cover melts away there, freed from the weight, Greenland will rise up.)

Now, you can’t see or feel this rise day-to-day, but you can see its effects on things that humans have built.

When Russians built a church on the Big Zayatskii Island, they also built a little harbor of stone walls for boats to weather storms.   Once there were five slips for boats, but today the island has rebounded to the point that there is but a trickle of water that runs through the entry way.   [The picture below shows the now-narrow entry way to the harbor and the berths for the boats, outlined in stone, are now dry land.]

Old harbor Big Zayatskii Island

The same is true of an amazing fish pond that was built several hundred years ago.  Up the coast a kilometer or two from the monastery complex is the Filipp fish pond.   Built in the 16th century, the pond is formed by a small bay on the island that the monks cut off from the rest of the White Sea by building a wall of stones.   They did this to create a saltwater enclosure where they could keep fish they caught fresh before eating them.   The stone wall was built ingeniously more or less at the surface level of the water to let in some water to keep the pond from going stale but at the same time to keep the fish in and prevent them from escaping.

If you go to see the fish pond today, the wall sits well above the water level, the result of the island rising up after the glaciers.

It’s a reminder that as we plan for our future on this planet, we have to plan for change:  in the climate, in the flora and fauna, and in the landscapes and geologies we move on.   Change, Solovki reminds us, is as constant in the non-human world as the human.

Labyrinths (August 21, 2013)

[Part 5 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

I’ve spent my career studying and teaching what historians call modern history—that is, events and processes from the 16th century on and especially after the mid-eighteenth century when industrial change began to be felt.

Yet, as I travel, I find myself more and more amazed and fascinated by the creations and constructions that were erected by humans thousands of years ago.  Standing at Stonehenge earlier this summer, I was amazed at what people of that time could not only conceive of but build.  The thought and care (not to mention muscle power) that went into the designs of these stone constructions boggles the mind—especially, as in the Stonehenge case that some of the stones were brought at great distance from quarries in what is now Wales.

These stone monuments to human ingenuity and vision—like the menhirs in Brittany (France) or the native mounds in Ohio, not to mention the pyramids and Valley of the Kings and Queens in Egypt, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, and any number of sites in China, India, and Central America—are a reminder that human history is so much longer than we usually care to remember; that our current industrial moment in the human story is just a tiny sliver in the larger run of homo sapiens sapiens on the planet.   They are also a reminder of how humble we should be when we look back in time.  Indeed, if learning about the past tells us nothing more—and it offers us much more—it should teach us humility and a realization that we today are not as special as we might like to believe.

Of course, we may never know how humans in the past built these amazing structures, or perhaps more importantly, why.   Why and for what purposes did they build such amazing creations (and did they expend so much of their energy doing so)?

Solovki offers its own prehistoric stone structures.   On the Zayatskie islands there are some 20 labyrinths and about 900 stone piles and funeral mounds.

I found the labyrinths endlessly interesting.   While no two were the same in design, they are spiral figures with a system of intricate paths lined with stones.  They were made, it appears, by first tracing the patterns in the dirt and then placing the stones along the sketched patterns.    The largest of the labyrinths has almost 5000 stones.   The stones are now covered in plant growth that shows off the circular patterns.




Labyrinth designs Solovki

No one knows for sure what they were for or why they were built.   But, there they are nonetheless, challenging us today to wrap our insufficient brains around what fishing communities in the first millennium before the Common Era might have been thinking as they took time out of their days to move these stones into concentric shapes?

Some have argued that they were designed as part of the fishing experience.   That fishers began the fishing season by walking through the labyrinth to the center.   The hope was to help the fisher find his way to an abundant catch and then return from the sea safely.

For others, the fact that the labyrinths are so close to burial mounds indicates that these labyrinths were somehow connected to the spiritual world; and the circular paths were the paths that a spirit would walk to make it to the spiritual world.

Whether we know why or not, I’m simply impressed that they did it all, and that they are still sitting there, much as they have always done.   I feel certain that my day’s work today–and this blog post–won’t be around for future generations to ponder a few thousand years from now.  Having stood by these monuments to human aspirations and ingenuity, I feel a connection across time and place to these other humans that doesn’t come as readily from reading about places in books or on the web.

Not far from the Labyrinths are other rock piles and burial mounds, whose purpose seems much clearer.

Near the burial mounds is a much more recent layout of stones: a cross of stones laid out near the burial mounds in an effort to consecrate and Christianize what the monks saw was an unacceptably pagan site.  [See the photo below, with the stones of the cross covered in plant life]

Cross of stones on Big Zayatskii Island. Christianizing the Labyrinths

It is of course not unusual in Christian history for priests and others to erect crosses or paint/draw on crosses over prehistoric sites in an effort to consecrate them.   The petroglyphs at Lake Baikal’s Sagan-Zaba, for example, had crosses carved across them by nineteenth century Orthodox priests.

But, I was struck at Zayatskii Island how the priests had laid out stones to materially endow the place with specific meanings— just as the people before them.   The shapes may have been different—crosses versus labyrinths—but the effort to use stones for cultural and religious purposes remained in many ways constant, reflecting the similar building materials these people—separated by so many centuries—found available for these purposes on the island.

That both the cross and the labyrinths have both similarly been covered over in plant growth reflects— Ozymandias style—the way that the best laid plans and aspirations of humans disappear, collapse, or are engulfed over time.

More recently, larger, standing wood crosses have been erected on the shores.

Cross on shores of Big Zayatskii Island

The flora and fauna of Solovki (August 21, 2013)

[Part 4 of 14.   Solovki 2013]

The islands of Solovki have one of the most amazing, varied, and distinct set of ecosystems in the global north.   Located at the border of the arctic climate zone and the boreal zone, the islands are characterized by their own, distinct micro-climates.   The combination of the softening influence of the White Sea, the circulation and meeting of winds in the atmosphere around Solovki (and the meeting of different climate zones), as well as differing topographies and landscapes have all come together, with other factors, to make Solovki so distinct.

Here on Solovki, within just a few miles of each other, one can come into contact with climates and ecosystems that on the mainland would be many hundreds of kilometers one from the other:   pseudo-tundra, forest-tundra, and taiga, along with swamps and lakes.

On an archipelago that covers only 300 square kilometers, one encounters a natural museum of northern ecologies.  No wonder it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Exploring the extraordinary variations of the islands drove home for me the incredible importance of place and the intricate interactions of landscape, wind, temperature, flora, and fauna in developing the specifics of these micro-climates.   Even small distances between island and island matter immensely.  How the wind hit one island and not another, or how high the land stood up above the sea, could mean the difference between tundra and taiga—and these meant significant differences in flora and fauna.  And differences in flora and fauna meant different soil types, which in turn affected the possibilities of what plants and animals might grow and how the local ecology evolved.

We are accustomed now to speaking of the climate in global terms—“climate change”—and well we should.   But, Solovki reminds us that, as in politics, in many respects all ecologies are also local ecologies.   Slight differences in the intersections of water-soil-wind-living ecosystems could create (even in closely neighboring northern islands) remarkably different outcomes.

Solovki was also a marvelous place to begin our work—to study the environments of the past, and the historical relations of humans and the non-human world.   Here one could see and feel the diversity of outcomes that different combinations of natural phenomena could bring.

To stand in the openness of the tundra-like Zayatskii island, looking down at the myriad berries growing, was a completely different experience from standing in the forests of main Solovetskii Island.   To be in nature was to appreciate anew what people in the past looked at and felt as they tried to make sense of nature and to make a life for themselves there.

On Big Zayatskii Island, the winds affected the trees in remarkable ways.   Small, bonsai-like birch trees, small, nestled themselves together in valleys where the winds couldn’t knock them over.   Those that might dare nudge their tops out over the protection of the valley wall would feel the payback, and over time only the short survived.

Short Birch trees protected in small valley on Big Zayatskii Island

And these were so different from the forests that grew in the heart of the main Solovetskii island, protected from the wind.

Forest on Solovki

Below is a picture of the tundra-like landscape of Big Zayatkii Island, and then a photo of the widespread berries growing.

Big Zayatskii Island

Big Zayatskii Island

Big Zayatskii Island