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