The Way of the White Cloud

Tuva, Siberia. Photo: Jules Pretty / The Edge of Extinction.
Tuva, Siberia. Photo: Jules Pretty / The Edge of Extinction.
In his search for alternatives to consumerism and industrialism, Jules Pretty travelled around the world to find surviving nature-based cultures. In this extract from his book 'The Edge of Extinction', he tells of the Tuva people of the Siberian steppe - proud of their traditions and closeness to the land, but very much part of the modern world - strictly on their own terms.
Later we stopped again to watch a cumulus cloud cast its shadow on a distant hill. Between the quivering grass and the sky, a small falcon cried, a shrill music over a wide land of grass.

The notion of the inevitable benefits of all material progress is a modern conceit. Hunters and foragers, many farmers and herders too, tend not to hold that their current community is any better than those of the past or at other places.

Past and future are no more or less valued than current time. But economic development too easily justifies the losses of both species and special places, as we expect losses to be offset by creating something much better.

Our environmental problems are thus human problems. Disconnection from the land, in the form of non-regular contact, already has the capacity to damage and even destroy cultures. Yet many talk of the need for escape, to get away from it all.

Something important remains elusive to many moderns. It is much happiness. We do not have clear answers, but the proportion of people in industrialised countries describing themselves as happy has not changed since the 1950s, despite a trebling of wealth.

Consumer culture has transformed the old equations about people and land. Global connectedness now illuminates the upsides of consumption, and aspirations are converging. But now come considerable environmental and social side-effects, so serious they threaten this finite planet's capacity to resource all our wants.

Conventional economic growth encourages a race to the top of consumption, even though large numbers of people currently have no prospects of escaping poverty or hunger. We still call this 'progress'.

A voyage of discovery - to The Edge of Extinction

My new book The Edge of Extinction contains stories beginning in the west Pacific and travelling east to west to end again at the Pacific Ocean.

I walked with local Māori people along the coasts of the Pacific, climbed newly accessible mountains in China with thousands of others, and journeyed into petroglyph-rich deserts of Australia where oil and gas have come but the locals are extinct.

I travelled with nomads across the continent-wide steppes of southern Siberia, walked and boated in the inland swamps of southern Africa rich with wildlife, and journeyed out onto the Arctic cold with ice-fishermen in Finland.

I explored the coasts and inland marshes of eastern England and the coastal glens of Northern Ireland, and trekked with Innu people across the taiga's snowy forests and lakes of the Labrador interior.

The passages continued in the Americas on the small farms of Amish horse-cultures that thrive alongside the failing cities of the rust-belt, then with Cajun swampers of the deep south's largest inland swamp, and finally in the deserts of Death Valley in the west where are both the lowest and highest places.

This book is about people defending nature-based cultures, proud of their relationships with the land, and only willing to join with the modern world on their terms. Lessons for moderns may lie in some of the stories from these places.

Later we stopped again to watch a cumulus cloud cast its shadow on a distant hill. Between the quivering grass and the sky, a small falcon cried, a shrill music over a wide land of grass.

Yet reason and evidence have not compelled us to care enough for nature. A good future will not be a return to something solely rooted in the past: we need medical, farm and transport technology, certainly computers and modern communications. But a hybrid vigour might be created through both-and practices rather than either-or.

Making green economies work

A new green economy in which material goods have not harmed the planet would be a good economy: even better if production processes could improve natural capital. The great majority of non-industrial cultures which maintain links to the land have done so through local cultural institutions, often manifesting in nature a variety of spiritual symbols and stories that command respect.

If we wish to convince people to manage the planet sustainably and consume in different ways, then we will have to embed 21st century lifeways in a new texture of beliefs, emotions and experience.

We will need moral teachings and wisdom about the environment and our duties as individuals. Through a different kind of consciousness of the world, perhaps our impact can be changed.

The affluent in this world consume too much; the poorest do not have enough. Yet as countries and cultures successfully conquer poverty, they may follow the same path as the affluent. This planet does not have enough resources for all 7 billion people living as the affluent currently do.

Population will grow to 9-10 billion and then stabilise, but if material consumption grows too, this planet will not cope. It will break. Hence there are three urgent requirements for the affluent - to:

  • reduce total and per person material consumption;
  • substitute green or sustainable technologies and processes for material consumption;
  • substitute non-material consumption for material consumption.

Green consumption activities that are proven to decarbonise the planet include sustainably produced food, renewable energy, electric and automated vehicles, integrated water and sewage management, bio-oil synthesis, zero-emissions housing, seawater desalinisation, wearable robotics, vertical farms, and self-diagnosing materials.

Non-material consumption activities and behaviours that are proven to increase well-being and happiness include activities in nature (e.g. gardening, angling, walking) and activities in communities (e.g. volunteering, sports, meetings, community ceremonies and rituals).

The Way of the White Cloud: Tuva, Siberia

An eagle soars faint in the thin air, far above the rippling grasslands. A single cloud is static on the dome of the sky. A stream bubbles over a gravel wash. Carpets of spring flowers are turning pastures yellow and purple.

A herd of heavy-headed Siberian horses grazes as buttons of sheep and goat trail up an olive-green slope. The mountain steppe of Tyva has been home to nomadic herders since livestock were domesticated. Life is lived according to the way of that white cloud.

The smooth military road is tarmac all the way to Kyzyl and the Mongolian border beyond. It winds inside taiga of spruce and larch. At the lunch halt, bowls of red berries and jars of pickles are laid on tables, and the vendor in long leather jacket and padded hat beckons.

On the café terrace are two stuffed brown bears, arms outstretched. From the smoke-filled kitchen, another woman serves sweet tea and greasy pork on slivers of spruce. Army trucks grumble into the puddled car park. A raven croaks as we stroll back.

High in the snows, watery sunlight washes the snow piled along the cleared road. Another raven caws, perched on top of a burned spruce. A wide area is scorched, the stumps charcoal black.

A prayer tree marks the border. Tied to branches of the tree are hundreds of prayer flags, saturated silks of bright red and blue, green, yellow and white, many faded and wind-frayed, their prayers dispersed. The raven ambles to another tree, and attaches itself. The flags crackle with intent.

At a road block, police with tall peaked caps keep the car waiting until a donation is made. Then the road drops sharply into the capital on the shore of Siberia's greatest river, and we descend though coal smoke that pours from chimneys and seems to fill the valley.

Shamans with a long stride

Tyvans are a people with a long stride, indicating to them freedom on the land, and so we talk to the local shamans. They celebrate four treasures: beauty of the natural landscape, the reassuring presence of animals both domestic and wild, respect for family life, and an enduring humility before the spirit masters.

Their charm-laden coats are multi-coloured, trailing with ropes and braids representing snakes. Bird feathers suggest flight, antlers the speed of deer.

We had come to a perfectly normal neighbourhood of Kyzyl. We think we're going just to talk and listen, but a ceremony will transport us away. The society was formed in 2001 by Kara-ool and three colleagues to work for the revival of Tyvinian traditions and culture, and now there are forty shamans.

We are shown to a shadowy room with a small window where Kara-ool sits at a desk. Six fully-masked shamans sit in a row. The blue-green walls are backdrop for a menagerie: three bearskins pinned out, surprised skulls of ox and wild boar, eagles in flight, a bow with arrows, wild sheep skulls, prayer flags and many braided ropes and beads. A snake, a squirrel, a horn.

Victor holds a drum as large as a shield, the north-south cross beams carved into helmeted heads, the membrane representing the border between worlds. The room is silent. There is no sign of any other world. What would moderns make of this?

A mobile phone rings, and a female shaman steps out. No one blinks.

Kara-ool explains.

"To become a shaman, you have to know the voices of nature and the language of spirits."

"Our goal is the renaissance of a traditional culture", adds Victor.

Kara-ool then sits back, and says, "We are modern people, using mass media and the internet."

Lake Tore Khol

On the way to the lake, we stop at a blue lorry beached by the roadside. Two men have the engine laid out on wooden platforms. The sun beats down on them, on the glistening black oil on their arms, on the front wing pushed to one side. At Lake Tore-khol, we arrive at the cusp of winter and spring.

A sprinkling of iridescent snow covers the ice, but two metres have melted at the shore, and the water is utterly clear. We seem too close to the cirrus that are stretched across the radiant cornflower sky. The air is quite still, up here at 1,200 metres above sea level, at the centre of Asia.

Mergansers gabble across the water. An egret flops by the shore. A raven, shockingly black against blue and white, cries in flight across the water and ice, and is gone into the steppe, leaving a crashing, embracing silence. Melting ice then cracks, and a wader burbles. There is no movement of air.

A bubbling laugh drifts from the small yurt. It was a bitter night in the tiny rooms attached to the town's administrative centre, but now it's warm enough to melt ice. A gull squeals at an echelon of whistling geese.

At a platform used by pike fishermen, the poles for drying nets cast half shadows, the rimed scales of fish glinting. The light has the quality of moonlight - the sun is bright, and yet the shadows are not dark for there is so much reflected light filling the air from snow and cloud.

In the glare, I shade my eyes. The water is full of filaments of ice. Smoke curls from the felt and lattice yurt on the sandy shore, solar panel on the roof.

"Come and eat!" calls Dolaana across the beach.

I walk back and see that pike steaks are frying in oil over the hissing stove. A large loaf is chopped into pieces, and fills a cardboard box.

Livestock on the steppe

Tyva has been shaped by millennia of nomads. Beauty to Tyvans is a landscape that is both wild and domestic. The winter camps can be dusty and dirty, but in spring and summer, the sheep and goats are bright on the green steppe.

Beauty is also rocks, water, the few trees, birds calling, grass rippling to the horizon, an eagle or falcon, circling and calling. In summer, the grassland is covered with flowers, and the livestock are fatter too. A traditional Tyvan greeting is are your livestock healthy; are they well?

At the camp, the single canvas yurt looks modest in the wide steppe, but when I dip beneath the low entrance, a warm world opens up. The central metal stove sits on a wooden plinth, and the pipe chimney leads to hole in the roof that lets in suffuse light.

The pleated roof of blue leads to a wooden lattice that makes up the walls, hung with embroidered textiles. We sit on red rugs. Outside, lambs bleat. In here, I learn a horse-racing game using the knuckles of sheep. Before long, the carpet is covered with lines of bones.

We walk out to the neighbouring byre, improbably white lambs wandering aimlessly. Some have black noses, stripes on their necks, black tails, black heads; a few are jet black all over. They are awaiting their mothers. There is not a tree in sight.

I climb a hill sheltering the winter camp, and look down on the yurt and animal byre all alone on the steppe. Over the brow of low hill a few dots appear, and then a white stream of returning ewes.

And the lambs go wild. The mothers charge on spindly legs. The lambs crowd up to the fence, and the land is filled with collective joy. All are calling, bleats, squeaks, warbling cries, murrs and whispers. Each individual speaks differently.

For fifteen minutes the mothers crowd outside the fence, and the youngsters jostle into the wall of sound. I look to the distance, and over the rise now comes the shepherd on his shaggy brown horse, walking slowly, its large head dipping. He nods. Says nothing, ties up the horse. Walks slowly, unhooks the great spruce gate.

And pandemonium. The mothers charge in, the latecomers still out on the steppe now rattling along. The two worlds of sound clash, intermingle, pair up and walk back out. Within moments a contented soundscape emerges.

I sit and watch a single dark lamb, just a few hours old, crying as it stumbles out, bleating, searching. It is alone. All have gone from the fold. Two lambs race each other, back and forth, and the tiny one joins them, stiff-legged.

The sun is dropping behind the hill to the west, and I look down again on yurt, byre, water tank and blue tractor. The shepherd stands stiffly in the mythic light of the steppe.

The sacred mountain

At the mouth of the canyon leading into sacred Kezhege mountain, Slava Kanzai piles offerings on a stack of kindling. He looks up, and we move closer. He lights them with the metal clink of cigarette lighter, and smoke wisps towards the pole tied with prayer satins of blue, red, yellow and white.

After a time, when the spirit of the mountain is content, we walk up into the pink sandstone canyon sculpted by water and wind. A central well opens up. It is good luck to leave something that relates to a wish, and there are baby dolls, children's toys, model houses and cars, and plastic animals placed on every surface. More flags are tied to bushes and fingers of rock.

A narrow fault leads to the roof of this world, and yet the steps are slick with several inches of ice. We can just about go up; how will we get down? At the top, I crawl out to an outcrop that overlooks the crater. And smile.

Behind, the land slopes gently away to the valley floor. The song of insects is deafening, grasshoppers and the buzzing of bees. But when I sit down, all fall intensely silent. Yellow lichen leaks down the far wall, and a carving on a vertical face seems far from anybody's reach.

I sit wrapped in the hushed quiet, and absorb into this place, melting away, as if closed off from the rest of this world, entering another.

As we walk away to the nearby river, leaving the insects to the mountain, an arctic halo forms around the sun. We stare irresponsibly. It is a sign in the ice crystals of the sky.

Later we stopped again to watch a cumulus cloud cast its shadow on a distant hill. Between the quivering grass and the sky, a small falcon cried, a shrill music over a wide land of grass.



Jules Pretty is Professor of Environment and Society at the University of Essex. See his website for details of the 100 Hearts and Habits blog, which combines stories of ways of living well with 100 ideas for new habits that could help save the planet.

This article is an extract from Jules' new book, The Edge of Extinction, just published by Cornell University Press.

Other books: Jules' books include This Luminous Coast (Full Circle, 2011) has also been published by Cornell in paperback. It was the winner of the New Angle Prize for Literature (2013), and shortlisted for the Writer's Guild Book of the Year (2011). Earlier books include Agri-Culture (2002), and The Earth Only Endures (2007).

Photos: all photographs by Jules Pretty in Tuva, Siberia.

See also #100HeartsandHabits and #EdgeExtinction.


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