Friday, June 15, 2012

last year in taatta

sunset on the road at tüngülü, menge khangalas ulus, june 2011

These are photos I took almost exactly a year ago, last June, when I was still in Sakha, and hadn't yet lived one of the most difficult, surreal years of my life. I was nearing the end of 10 months in the field, and that was a strange time too; I was anxious and sick and weary, and frustrated, too, yet sometimes now I find myself thinking of these people and places with a smoothed-over, glowing nostalgia. I wish I was back there, sometimes, with all the confusion and overwhelmed-ness that life doing fieldwork in Siberia entailed. I wish, above all, I could have appreciated the moments there more, without worrying so much about what I was doing; wish I could have dwelt with ease in a succession of presents without feeling so scattered across time, across space. But considering my father's (lack of) health at the time, considering what I was carrying with me (that I always carry with me), I am trying not to be angry with myself, trying to be compassionate to what was roiling about within me at the time.

we are in a very old church tower, chörköökh, taatta ulus, june 2011

I am lucky I got to create some beautiful relationships, and explore lives, share with people in Sakha. As difficult it is right now, to think too far into the future (months at a time, now) I do look forward to at least planning a visit back there in less than a year's time. Even if I felt out of place, never fully connected during my time there, now I am beginning to understand the impressions made, what my experiences there carved into me. The parts of the place and people that moved into me, and those into which I moved. I didn't fully comprehend them at first, these pieces I carry with me, but they are becoming clearer and sharper now. These realizations have emerged gradually, but now it seems that I am stopped mid-thought by their clarity: it's like how you must hear bird songs repeatedly before you come to associate them with their singers, the way they suddenly begin to come forth from a background of muddled, inchoate sound and call to you singularly and simply, like newly-learnt words in a language emerging from the chaotic flood of speech. Like the moment when you begin to feel a language becomes something you can really live in, not only something you use.

chörköökh, taatta ulus, june 2011

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon talking with my supervisor's cousin, Saaska, who was visiting Scotland. He's from Sakha, with roots in Taatta, the place where all these pictures were taken just a year ago. He's a kind, funny, serious man, a shaman of sorts, a ritual specialist. An algyschyt, perhaps to be most precise: a blessing-giver. And many of the blessings he bestows are those of sound. Of music, played on the khomus, most beloved of instruments for Sakha people. It heals, he says, it's good for you. It has the same power that some shamans would traditionally carry in their drums. And we talked too, about speech and silence, the powers they can carry and convey to us.

field in an alaas near chörköökh, taatta ulus, june 2011

One of the most important beliefs for many Sakha people is that language is ichichileekh; that is, words possess a spirit, an ichchi, the same as a river or place or a fire. Saaska told me that part of that spirit arises out of the sounds themselves, the resonance of vowels, and part of it from the intent of the speaker. His thoughts on it sparked something brilliant for me in terms of the structure of the first chapter in my dissertation, but perhaps more crucially, they reminded me of why language (and studying it, learning it) inspires me so, and why I was drawn to anthropology over linguistics. That words are magic, that they carry a power with them, inherent to what they CAN do, and there is beauty in their linguistic forms--those permutations of sounds, and their morphosyntactic weight--but there has to be the speaker to fully realize their power. A word is empty without the speaker, and  a speaker needs that system to make meaning.

birchbark baskets, chabychakhtar, in a summer dwelling, or uraha, chörköökh, taatta ulus, june 2011

I always knew that I left pure linguistics behind because there were no people in it, but what Saaska clarified for me about how words possess their ichchi illuminated in a way that solidified my reasoning. And it gives me the push to take the hard stance on it and remind those generativists that you know, you can't study language without people. And just studying their brains and those synaptic potentialities doesn't count, Chomsky and Pinker et al.; it's like trying to sever body and mind. Your 'pure' science, formal linguistics, is fundamentally incomplete until you take into account the context of every utterance, the whole of communicative practice, the spirited word. You cannot have one without the other, at all.

so many sylgy n'urguhuna, chörköökh, taatta ulus, june 2011

But Saaska, yes. So nice to speak with someone who knows Taatta, knows this place that I never spend so long in, but felt so deeply. Such lushness, there in the early summer, between two great rivers, the Lena and the Aldan, up at 62 degrees latitude an oasis dotted with alaases, Sakha heartland, home of the word. Place of so many respected olonkhohuts, those who recite the epic Olonkho, and so many of those who first put Sakha words on paper, the first Sakha authors who suffered so much under the Stalinist regime but whose words are still heard.

sacred tree, an al-luk-maas, with offerings, orthodox church in background, chörköökh, taatta ulus, june 2011

 sylgy n'urguhuna (wood anemone) and sir simeghe (forget-me-not) in oyuunskii's alaas, taatta ulus, june 2011

I was not long in Taatta, but I think perhaps because of two particular days there I remember it so well: one of the worst migraines of my life, complete with panic, aphasia and vomiting that culminated in an injection of some very heavy painkillers from the village doctor, a woman who in my delirium I accused of being the 'horse doctor'; followed by one of the most idyllic days of that year, in which I traipsed through the countryside with good friends, visiting places where they grew up, and then lay upon the earth listening to the birds, eating fresh food (oh my goodness the butter, and the wild garlic), bathing in a banya, and feeling some of the first flickers in what had been a long while of feeling good, and whole, and pure. And a feeling of re-inspiration, of remembering why I was doing what it is I do. And somehow I feel now that encapsulates the whole fieldwork -- the struggle, and then the re-dedication, the reward.

horse in oyuunskii's alaas, taatta ulus, june 2011

weeping birches + sunken bridge, oyuunskii's alaas, taatta ulus, june 2011

I mentioned Saaska's explanations about why tyl -- ichchileekh (language has a spirit) because remembering that re-inspires me too, especially at a time when I am amidst the slogging of writing, the fits and starts, the flows and barriers of trying to construct a doctoral dissertation. When I am pushing myself to remain submersed in the middle of my notes, my data, and produce a narrative out of months of accumulated experience, and at the same time live the uncertainties of an early academic life, where I am also forced to constantly plan ahead, plan where money will come from, plan the next steps in a path that I am ultimately not quite sure of, within the confines of a socio-economic climate that doesn't really place a high value on the work that I do.

a kulluruut, or wood sandpiper, in oyuunskii's alaas, taatta, june 2011
forget-me-nots, an old serge at the balaghan in platon oyuunskii's home alaas, taatta ulus, june 2011

I question what I'm doing a lot, its meaning and sense, and why I put myself through what I do. Why I ever thought it was a good idea to do what I'm doing. Why did I decide when I was twelve years old that a PhD and a life in academia was what I was going to do with myself? I knew nothing then, nothing about that, nothing about anything. I know a little more now. I try to remind myself that deep down I know that what I am doing has significance, that it can be meaningful. That I can give it meaning. Tyl -- ichchileekh. Language has a spirit.

memorial monument to platon oyuunskii, one of the first sakha writers, at his home alaas in taatta, june 2011

monument to an olonkhohut, rest stop at the border of taatta ulus, june 2011

I do believe we need to understand how language works, how communicative practices shape us, and how we shape the world through language. Shape our relationships, the way we relate to each other. Shape the transmission of knowledge, and ideas, and meaning. And I think there's a lot to be learned from understanding communicative practices in the context I'm writing about, in a northern place, through the lens of mobility and changes, of resurgence and resilience, of following trajectories and reflecting on how they shape peoples' lives in the midst of social processes on a broader scale. I think it's worth something, to learn about these things and to transmit and share that knowledge with others, to teach. That's something I know I want to do, along the way.

al-luk-maas, the world tree. yhyakh site, ytyk-küöl, taatta ulus, june 2011

wagtail on the serge in the yhyakh site outside ytyk-küöl, taatta ulus, june 2011

Of Taatta, I remember the sound and silence of the field. The wind in the grass like the sound of the khomus's tongue plucked. The cuckoo calling, the soft snorting of horses, their footsteps swishing in the green spilling out across the alaas like the memory of water. Saaska and I also talked about silence in relation to speech, and the fear of silence in many cultures that leads people to try to fill it with half-formed, ill-thought words for the sake of making sound, and he compared this to the way some people try to fill a silence within their mind by immersing themselves in surface noise, material distractions in most cases, because of that terrifying quiet. 'So then they will have all these things', he reasoned, 'but then they will not hear the sounds that matter'. 

o. by the taatta river at the rest stop between taatta and churapcha uluses, june 2011

I try not to listen to criticisms of what I do -- the endless questioning of what I am going to DO with a PhD now, of accusations of the ivory-tower cloisteredness -- because I do believe that understanding how people speak can tell us a lot. And it sounds simplistic, but I do often retort to those who insinuate my work is useless that they should think about how we might accomplish things (you know, building fancy bridges or cars or being lawyers, etc, all the valued professions that deal with money, and basically anything at all) if we did not possess linguistic abilities. So, you know, it might be a good idea to understand what communicating in certain ways might mean to people, yes? I am not trying to say that being a researcher and teacher of/about communicative practices is better or more noble than anything else, but I am indeed saying that it's just as essential as any of these other jobs. That's all.
cows and horses grazing by the side of the kolyma road, tüngülü, menge-khangalas ulus, june 2011

Saaska said, 'I like what you do,' meaning me and his cousin, my supervisor, as anthropologists, 'because your job is to listen to stories, to socialize and converse, yes, but always to listen'. And I don't deny that it's always nice to hear that about your chosen profession, but it strikes me particularly because those words really served as a reminder to me of the dialogic aspect of language, of again, how the analysis of language as interlocking syntactic systems is nothing really until you consider it in relation to other parts of that system; how existence itself is dialogue. I learned during fieldwork how the old pre-Russian-contact traditional Sakha greeting, kepseen! (speak!) emphasized the invitation to dialogue, to share the the sound and spirit of the words: let them fly like birds out into the spaces between us. Tyl dorghoonookh, tyl ichchileekh buolar. The word has sound, and so it has spirit -- and I will always listen.

o. waits for the ferry on the east bank of the lena river, june 2011

Monday, June 11, 2012

every single night (fiona apple)

Look! Fiona Apple made a new song, and it's about my brain.

Every single night i endure the flight
Of little whims of white flame
Butterflies in my brain
These ideas of mine percolate the mind
Trickle down the spine
Form the belly swelling to a blaze

Thats where the pain comes in
Like a second skeleton
Trying to fit beneath the skin
I can't get the feelings in

Every single night's a fight
With my brain

This is approximately how I feel when I can't sleep, which is often lately, and usually because I am thinking too much, and am too anxious to stop thinking, etc. My hypnogogic hallucinations (transitioning from wakefulness to sleep) don't feature quite the same calibre of visual imagery; though I think being more of an aural/oral mind I get the linguistic equivalent. Often when I am really tired, and I can no longer make sense of my thoughts, I tend to experience what feels like multiple conversations going on in my head and I can't follow a single one, and usually the content is about as surreal as what's pictured here. So I appreciate the visual of the octopus on her head, because that's what it feels like, all those tentacles of twisting thought, head squeezed, too many things, unable to sleep.

I also enjoy the touch of the man-bull in the bed -- totally a minotaur in the labyrinthine brain. Best just to embrace it and hope for the best, it isn't going anywhere...

Also, isn't she lovely? That voice! The clever orchestrations, and turns of phrase. Someone I listened to in high school, who I can listen to without cringing...

Saturday, June 09, 2012


My dad, in Kananaskis, June 2009

“…I search desperately to find the obvious meaning…” 
– July 24th entry from Barthes’ Mourning Diary.


My dad’s sense of humour was (or perhaps is? Does your particular brand of amusement as a genre die with you?) always a bit weird. My mama often said that even after knowing him nearly 40 years, she still didn’t always know when he was joking. My mama tends to appreciate a good pun most of all, and while my dad too was fond of wordplay, most of the time he was just silly. He took great pleasure in the pure absurdity of the surrealist joke, which I remember him teaching to my sister and me when we were quite little. He told us that when he was our age, this had been quite the fad in his elementary school.

These jokes could be relatively basic, where you ask someone a known riddle-beginning, like “Why did the chicken cross the road?” But, when they give the assumed, predictable response, or tell you they don’t know, you say something like, “No! Because elephants don’t make pancakes!” And then you cackle wildly with glee, as Caity and I would do, for a very long time When we got tired of this ‘Why…’ and ‘Because’ formula, we’d then play with the syntax, so not only were our responses non-sequiturs, but our phrasing rather idiosyncratic:

Q: What is the difference between a camel and a pie? (etc.)
A: Fish pee in a lake! (and so forth…)

These jokes came to resemble ridiculous parodies of koans; we’d say each word very slowly and with great gravity, partially because we were just making things up as we went along, and also because we were trying not to laugh, and also because it was funnier that way.
When I was a bit older, my dad and I would go on long drives to the mountains to hike and camp. On these journeys, I’d inevitably be reading, and from time to time I would tell him interesting tidbits of information that came up in a book, or things I’d think of while looking at the scenery. We were both quite content with silence, or with music in the background, so often these little snippets of fact came out of nowhere (or out of something I said hours earlier), often leading to hilarity.

For example, at one point, we have a conversation about what the difference is (in English) between legumes and other vegetables. 100km later I remark, seeing a field of clover: ‘Did you know that clover is a legume?’

These sorts of random remarks then became new go-to phrases for surrealist-joke punchlines.

Aside from his surrealist jokes, my dad also had a repertoire of about three otherjokes, which he’d often repeat to us, over and over again. ‘Did I ever tell you the one about the—‘ ‘Yes!’ These jokes then became monstrosities, compound variations that were basically a series of intertextual references of joke fragments.

The purpose was not to understand them at all, of course, but simply to delight in one that was particularly well-timed and reached new possibilities of ridiculousness in the remixing of the standard elements. My favourite trick was to pretend to begin asking something serious:

‘I was wondering if I could ask you a question?’
‘Sure, of course!’
‘What did the bicycle with egg on his face say to the little boy as he rode around the block on the horse?’

This could go on for entire trips, until he finally got weary of my persistence and made threats about making me ski the rest of the way to the mountains, or walk back home. I’m not always good at letting it go.


I mention these jokes not because they are funny outside of the context, or the moment, outside of what we shared, but because summer is coming and I am filled with such yearning and swallowed-stone sadness for our fishing and hiking trips, that I sometimes feel like I am going to choke, what I wouldn’t do to be able to go again, I can’t even articulate. I can’t.

Because it’s getting harder to deal with, because time does not soften grief, but sharpens it with the edges of his absence; time pulls at me, slowly unravelling the realization that this is real, that I am truly not inhabiting an alternate timeline. Because I feel nauseous sometimes with the vertigo of that understanding, and because sometimes when I am up awake, unable to sleep, my mind is plaintive, I am such a child again, with the persistent and infinite ‘why’, trying to make sense of this: Why is he not here?

Because when I am faced with this, I tell myself that perhaps many things work as the smallest atoms do; on the broader scale, there are causes for things, but the smaller things get the more a-causal everything becomes. An element may have an established half-life, but it is utterly unpredictable when an individual atom will decay.

Because perhaps when you ask why your father died as he did, the best answer you can even hope for is something along the lines of ‘because elephants don’t make pancakes’, and then you can laugh so as not to weep.

Monday, June 04, 2012

scottish sunshine, pt. 1

Seaton Park along the Don, Aberdeen, mid-May, illuminated beech and maple leaves, sweet cicely, river run, small creatures, and such light!