North of Siberia (Part 2)

Wrangel Island

Still on Wrangel Island (red arrow)

For those of you who read my previous bog post, I still haven’t left Siberia’s Wrangel Island. In the island’s tiny cemetery, among several rows of Russian Orthodox crosses, I noticed a Star of David. There was no name on the grave, so I asked one of the scientists on the island if he knew who was buried there.

“A Jewish doctor, Nikolai Vulfson,” he told me. “Killed by fascists.”

Later I researched Vulfson for a book I was writing on the Arctic and learned that he hadn’t been killed by the fascists. At least not by those of the German or Italian persuasion during the Great Patriotic War, so-called.

Let’s travel back to the 1930s. Vulfson was Wrangel’s doctor, a man who was dedicated to the health of the local Eskimos (Siberian natives never call themselves “Inuit”). In this, he was opposed by the island governor, Konstantin Semenchuk, who said: “If you give Eskimos what they want, they’ll become lazy or turn against us. Then we would have to shoot them.”

On December 26, 1934 Semenchuk seemed to have a change of heart. He told Vulfson to visit the village of Mys Florens and investigate an apparent typhus outbreak. The doctor left the main village of Ushakovshoe by dogteam, accompanied by Semenchuk’s henchman Stepan Startsev. Only Startsev reached Mys Florens. He told the Eskimos that Vulfson had somehow gotten lost in a blizzard. But there hadn’t been a blizzard at the time.

It wasn’t until January 4 of the next year that Vulfson’s bullet-riddled body was found. Someone, perhaps Vulfson’s widow, radioed for a government investigation, not believing the death was a suicide, as Semenchuk had professed. An investigator arrived and began collecting information about Semenchuk, who not only seemed to have been responsible for Vulfson’s death, but commonly raped young Eskimo girls and also promoted famine conditions on the island. He was recalled to Moscow.

At Semenchuk’s trial, his prosecutor called the governor “human waste.” Semenchuk protested. He was a visitor from Mars, he said, and thus was not subject to the same rules as a typical Soviet citizen. The court did not buy this defense. Along with Startsev, Semenchuk was declared an enemy of the State and executed by a firing squad.

If I had known Vulfson’s story in advance, I would taken a photograph of his grave. No, I wouldn’t have taken a photograph. For I would have been too saddened by the fate of this good man to reach for my camera.

North of Siberia

The more remote the destination, the happier I am, so in the summer of 2003 I joined a Russian expedition to Wrangel Island, a 5,180 square kilometer chunk of Arctic real estate several hundred miles north of Siberia. Such is the island’s remoteness that its first documented visit didn’t occur until as recently as 1881, when the American whaling captain Calvin Hooper briefly went ashore with the naturalist John Muir.

Wrangel Island

Wrangel Island (red arrow)

Wrangel is a state nature preserve, the Russian equivalent of a natural park. But unlike Yellowstone or Yosemite, it has no facilities for the public (no public, either). We first went ashore at Rodzhersa Bay, where there was a small Russian research station. For want of funding, this station was remarkably rundown. I got the impression that the half dozen scientists who worked here did so for love. They certainly weren’t here for the money.

Inside a makeshift barn were four baby musk oxen, descendants of 20 animals brought here from Canada in 1975. Something about Wrangel’s air must be aphrodisiacal, since now more than 800 musk oxen roam the island.

I asked one of the Russians — a lavishly-bearded man who resembled the young Dostoevsky — whether a large invasive species like the musk ox might have a detrimental effect on the local ecosystem.

“Is problem, da,” he replied, “which is why we will be sending these babies to the mainland. We have another problem — no womens.”

Before he could mention any more problems, a border guard approached me and said: “CIA?” The look on his face was very serious.

“Nyet,” I replied. “Ph.D.”

The border guard burst into laughter, and I was off the hook. But if I had been found guilty of stealing local secrets, such as (for instance) whether insects or the wind were responsible for early spring pollination, what could he have done? Send me to Siberia?

Later I decided to hike the several miles from Cape Litke to Cape Uering, where members of the 1914 Karluk research expedition had overwintered. I should say some of them had overwintered. Of the 25 expedition members, 11 died of food poisoning, malnutrition, and hypothermia. If it hadn’t been for Captain Bob Bartlett’s heroic heroic sledge journey back to civilization, all of them would have died.

Half a mile into my hike, I came upon a group of tumbledown wooden huts and an outhouse, perhaps the northernmost structure of its kind in the world. A broken anemometer suggested another Russian scientific station fallen on financial hardship.

Soon I was walking over seemingly endless rolling tundra. Birds were everywhere. Screaming tour-a-wee, tour-a-wee, a female black-bellied plover feigned a broken wing, a maneuver designed to lure me from her nest. Wildflowers were everywhere, too. Blue harebells. Red rose root. Yellow poppies. Bright pink bistorts. Lilac fleabanes. Buttercups. Such an explosion of color gave the lie to the notion that the Arctic is a dull, achromatic place.

And then I reached Cape Uering. Whatever might have survived of the Karluk expedition was gone, either picked up by the Russians or reclaimed by the Arctic itself. The site was now buried beneath a veritable carpet of moss campion, harebells, and purple saxifrage. This pleased me more than any Karluk artifact would have done. But then who would not be more pleased by a small, perfect wildflower vibrating in the wind than by a scrap from an old tent or a rusty tin can?

A living trilobite

Here, at last, is a bog posting set in a bog — specifically, Chickering Bog in Calais, Vermont. Like many so-called bogs, it’s really an intermediate fen, which means that it’s not isolated from ground water like actual bogs are.

Recently, I visited Chickering with my friend Charles Johnson, author of Bogs of the Northeast, and his naturalist wife Nona. As we strolled past buckthorn, golden saxifrage, and bog rosemary, I asked Charles how he became interested in bogs. Nona answered for him, saying, “But how can a person not be interested in bogs?”

Bazzania trilobata

Millipede weed: Bazzania trilobata, by Bob Klips

Soon we were surrounded by pitcher plants, and I bent down and sniffed one. Ah, what a sweet perfumey smell! People who’ve never sniffed a pitcher plant have no idea what they’re missing.

“While humans are a threat to bogs, maybe a bigger threat is dogs,” observed Charles. “They jump in, splash around, and drive out the small amount of oxygen that exists in a bog’s upper layer.”

“That’s why I prefer dogs in satay sauce rather than in a bog,” I said, citing one of my previous bog postings.

Charles and Nona, who loved dogs, understood. A bog (or even an intermediate fen) is a sacred place and should not be defiled.

I needed to answer nature’s call, and rather than defile Chickering with my uric acid, I ventured back into the woods. All at once, in a grove of hemlock, I saw a trilobite! Ancient though it was, the trilobite seemed no less alive than I was. Likewise, it had the distinct odor of sandalwood.

I delighted in the trilobite’s small teeth at the tip of each leaf. I delighted in the way the leaves overlapped each other like shingles on a roof. I even delighted in its resemblance to a millipede, so much so that in some place it’s been called “the millipede weed.”

Okay, I’m being a bit disingenuous here. What I saw was not a marine arthropod, but the liverwort Bazzania trilobata, and I somehow didn’t think “A Living Trilobata” has very much caché as the title for a bog posting. Still, Bazzania trilobata and trilobites are not altogether unlike each other. For liverworts are among the most primitive of all plants, perhaps even the most primitive, and their ancestors were almost contemporaneous with trilobites.

What’s the moral of this little tale? Heed nature’s call, and nature herself might come calling…


thanks to Bob Klips, a fellow admirer of wee green things, for kind permission to use his photo.

Kitchen Art

heikki leis' moldy artistry

Afterlife: photography by Heikki Leis

You don’t have to go foraging in the distant woods to find fungi. All you need to do is go into your kitchen and inspect your vegetables, fruits, breads, and cheeses. If you’re lucky, no, I probably shouldn’t say lucky…rather, if you’re observant, you might see one or more molds growing on or more of these food items. Consider Rhizopus stolonifer, for instance. It looks exactly like a furry critter sleeping on your strawberries. Charming!

In a Wired Science interview — specifically, in comments on mold-inspired artwork — Cornell mycologist Kathie Hodge offers a series of captivating insights into the ubiquitous yet often overlooked world of fungal molds. Obviously, she delights in their presence. My favorite of Kathie’s comments re mold: “Maybe it’s like having obnoxious neighbors. Why expend energy shunning and avoiding them? You might as well befriend them. They probably have interesting parties.”

So make haste to visit this site:
http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/05/afterlife-rotting-food/

Small Wonder

Henningsomyces at von Engeln bog

Henningsomyces candidus

Here’s a bog posting about a bog. I went on a foray at von Engeln Preserve (a kettle bog) outside Ithaca, NY yesterday and found a variety of remarkable fungal entities. My favorite entity was, and remains, Henningsomyces candidus, for which I feel boundless love. For more information about this species, go to my mini-essay about it at the Cornell Mushroom Blog (sic).