DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Let's take a moment to hear the sound of cold.
(Soundbite of wind, bells and howling)
Now imagine a winter so cold that hot tea tossed in the air will freeze, then snow down in tiny crystals. That's what happens in Siberia, where temperatures can plunge to eighty, even ninety degrees below Fahrenheit. Since the last ice age, one creature's adaptation to that cold has both nourished man and shaped his destiny.
(Soundbite of reindeer call)
That's the sound of a man imitating a reindeer call. For thousands of years, native families have followed the migration of reindeer, first as hunters, then as herders.
Mr. PIERS VITEBSKY (Author, The Reindeer People): And when you see an experienced herder mount a reindeer, they plant their stick on the ground and just float into the saddle and the reindeer takes off, even before they've landed in the saddle. The reindeer understands exactly what the intention of the rider is, in which direction they want to go in.
ELLIOTT: Piers Vitebsky spent twenty years observing the reindeer herders of Siberia. He is the author of the new book The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia. I asked him how reindeer could survive in a land where the ground is always frozen.
Mr. VITEBSKY: Reindeer are incredibly well insulated. Their fur is very thick but also each individual hair has this extraordinary property of being hollow so that it retains heat. A dead reindeer will not freeze right through but will actually cement, with its own body heat held in by its fur.
Mr. VITEBSKY: Yes. Even the nostrils are convoluted in an extraordinary way so that they don't lose too much heat when they breathe, so that they can actually plunge their nose right into snow and ice when they're foraging for food.
ELLIOTT: Now most Americans associate reindeer with Christmas, you know, pulling Santa's sleigh and all. Where does this association with flight come from?
Mr. VITEBSKY: In Siberia, it's a very ancient idea. Stones have been found carved with flying reindeer dating back two or three thousand years. And on those stones, you can see the reindeer are leaping through the air with their hooves stretched in front and behind. And what really shows that this is an idea of flight is that the antlers have grown into fantastic wing-like structures and they've got tiny bird's heads and bird's wings on the tips. And then, when I was in the field, I met some very old people who remembered the ritual that they'd taken part in when they were children. On midsummer's day each person would sit on the back of their reindeer and then act out a flight up to the sun. So they said in this ritual the reindeer would carry them right up to the sun on its back to receive a blessing, and then would fly down again to earth.
ELLIOTT: So the image of the reindeer as a carrier of the soul?
Mr. VITEBSKY: Absolutely. It was there in living memory of the oldest people when I first got there
ELLIOTT: Now not only is there this spiritual connection, but there's a very real physical connection between the people of this region and the reindeer. Can you tell us about that?
Mr. VITEBSKY: It's what you could call a total reindeer way of life. And a total reindeer economy. Because human life would not be possible in these areas without the reindeer. And large parts of Siberia simply can't be reached by humans by any other means except of course helicopter, these days. So it seems pretty clear that the peopling of North Asia happened largely thorough the ability to ride on reindeer.
ELLIOTT: Now let's talk a little bit about what happened during the Russian revolution in 1917, and you talk about how it really changed the lives of the Iveni(ph), the people that you lived with. How did the demands of the Soviet Union effect life in Siberia?
Mr. VITEBSKY: The ideas of governments all over the world is nomadism is primitive, it's bad, we must change it, we must settle these people down. So they started a massive campaign to modernize these people. They built villages. This was something completely new to then. The villages, they were like typical Russian villages, they were made of log cabins, with rectangular houses and straight lines. The women started living completely separately from the men. The men stayed out on the land because the reindeer had to keep moving and somebody had to keep looking after them.
ELLIOTT: So under the Soviet system, reindeer herders became classified as industrial workers?
Mr. VITEBSKY: Yes, you could call it the industrialization of reindeer herding. The Soviet regime actually confiscated everybody's reindeer and put them into collective herds which were collectively owned. So the irony was, you would end up still herding the same reindeer, but they no longer belonged to you, they belonged to the state and you were being paid wages for looking after them.
ELLIOTT: Does that change the relationship that the people had to the animal?
Mr. VITEBSKY: I think it did, a lot, because it took away their judgment about where to take the reindeer, for example, the migration routes and the pastures were all decreed on maps with dates, when you should be in each place. It also took away their judgment about which animals to keep for breeding, which ones to expect to survive the winter and so on.
ELLIOTT: Now you write in the book about the way that these people live. You talk about how there wasn't a lot of conversation, but they were able to communicate with each other in other ways?
Mr. VITEBSKY: This is a vast landscape and the landscape creates a great sense of awe in humans and I think they feel this very strongly and I came to see it in the same way. So they feel that one shouldn't impose oneself on the landscape too much. And they even say that the spirits of the landscape get angry if you do. So you don't shout, you don't whistle, and you don't talk too much. Because words are so weighted, so powerful, that you mustn't waste them frivolously.
ELLIOTT: You wrote of how people would just sit and gaze into one another's eyes.
Mr. VITEBSKY: Yes, yes. These people, they know how to be, they know how to sit, they know how to gaze at the landscape and all the time they're observing it.
ELLIOTT: I'd like for you to read a passage from your book about the brothers Ivan and Yuro. They have a unique relationship with their riding reindeer which they call uchochs(ph)?
Mr. VITEBSKY: Uchochs, yes. Okay, hold on. "My friends' uchochs were workmates. As with one's human companions, they could have cooperative or obstructive moods. The reliable reindeer, for which there were several words, might sometimes behave like Gemichingen(ph), a sly devious uchochs who throws you over its antlers. Uchocks also had individual names. Some names made us a satisfyingly subversive political point, or an autobiographical comment about the owner. I thought Margaret Thatcher was just another name plucked from world affairs until Euro pointed out how he dominated his companions. Euro's own favorite uchoch, Sancho Panza, was light and graceful like himself but I gradually came to suspect that Euro saw himself as Don Quixote and the management of the state farm as his windmill."
ELLIOTT: And then later on, we meet a sexually promiscuous reindeer named Bill Clinton.
Mr. VITEBSKY: Yes. They have this mischievous sense of humor and I think that's one of the ways in which they face all the difficulties of their lives.
ELLIOTT: Now did the literacy and worldliness of these isolated herders surprise you at all?
Mr. VITEBSKY: I don't think it surprised me because I already understood that the Soviet Union had created the world's most literate society. And also with a cult of culture, you might say, so that everybody of every class and every level of education respected literature and thought it was a good thing and that one should read and they did read. They made much of a line in a poem by Pushkin, who is the great hero of Russian high culture and literature, because Pushkin had a poem in which he said, I will be famous, my verses will be recited till the end of time, even by the wildest tribes, such as, and then he mentions this very tribe, the Wild Tungas, which is another name for the Iveni. So these people go around making jokes and saying, I'm a wild tungas. And this is the way of taking the mickey out of Pushkin and all that he represents in high Russian culture.
ELLIOTT: What now is the place of reindeer in a new Russia?
Mr. VITEBSKY: Numbers have collapsed dramatically throughout the 1990s. And one reason was that they were exceptionally high beforehand. The Soviet system, by industrializing reindeer herding, turned it into a frantic over-production. The whole landscape was turned into a gigantic open-air meat factory. Those levels were artificially high and not sustainable. They relied on these huge inputs of veterinary services and helicopters. So when all of that disappeared, the number of reindeer crashed from about two and a half million to one and a half million across the Russian north. And the level is still much lower. But perhaps this is the level which is actually sustainable, so it may not be as much of a disaster as people sometimes say.
ELLIOTT: Piers Vitebsky is the author of the new book The Reindeer People: Living With Animals and Spirits in Siberia. He joined us from the BBC in Cambridge, England. Thank you for speaking with us.
Mr. VITEBSKY: Thank you very much for inviting me.
ELLIOTT: To read an excerpt of the book, go to our website, npr.org. We leave you tonight with music from the reindeer herding people, the Iveni of Siberia.
(Soundbite of singing)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.