The Raven's Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness

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9780312611774: The Raven's Gift: A Scientist, a Shaman, and Their Remarkable Journey Through the Siberian Wilderness
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Jon Turk has kayaked around Cape Horn, traversed the Northwest Passage and paddled across the Pacific Rim. But, the strangest trip he ever took was the journey he made as a man of science into the realm of the spiritual. In 2000, in the remote Siberian village of Vyvenka, Jon Turk met an elderly woman named Moolynaut, a Koryak shaman, and learned about her voyages to the spirit world. A year later, Moolynaut entreated the spirit of a great, black raven to help mend his pelvis, which had been previously fractured in a mountaineering accident. When the healing was complete, Turk was able to walk without pain. Turk, a scientist, could find no rational explanation for the healing and the experience changed his life, irrevocably altering his view of the connectivity between the natural and spiritual worlds. Searching for the spirit raven, he traversed the frozen tundra where Moolynaut was born, camping with bands of reindeer herders, and recording stories of their lives and spirituality. Framed by high adventure across the vast and forbidding Siberian landscape, The Raven's Gift is a life-altering vision of the ties between the natural and spiritual realms, informed by one man's awakening and guided by the ancient spirit bird with wide black wings and the power to heal.

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About the Author:

JON TURK is the author of twenty-five environmental and earth science text books and two previous adventure travel books. He alternates his time between Fernie, British Columbia and Darby, Montana.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Part 1 To Vyvenka by Kayak

I have seen that in any great undertaking it is not enough for a man to depend simply upon himself.

—Lone Man, Teton Sioux

A Walk with My Dog: Spring 1970

Forty years ago, I was a research chemist, working at night, in the absence of sunlight, buffered against all vagaries of weather by a precise climate control system. In an effort to probe into the nature of the chemical bond, that much studied but still mysterious collection of forces that holds all matter together, I blasted molecules apart with a beam of high-energy electrons and then accelerated the resultant fragments into a powerful magnetic field.

It was intense, stressful work, and one sunny weekend day, in the spring of 1970, I went for a walk with my dog across an alpine meadow in the Colorado Rockies. A few patches of crusty snow lingered in shady and north-facing aspects, but the open spaces were dominated by young, green grasses, the lifesaving nutrition for elk and deer after a long, hungry winter. The earth was moist and spongy underfoot and I knelt down to smell a glacier lily that had opened its petals to the warm, spring sun. My dog suddenly raced off at sprint speed for about fifty yards, leapt into the air like a fox, with his front paws spinning, and landed, digging furiously, clods of sod flying into the air. I felt certain that he was chasing a ground squirrel, futilely trying to dig faster than the rodent could run through its tunnel, the way dogs chase prey, as sport, because they know that a bowl of kibble awaits them back home and failure holds no penalties.

I sauntered over, but by the time I arrived, my dog had abandoned that hole, sprinted another fifty yards, and repeated this same odd behavior. There was no evidence of any burrow in the vicinity of the first hole, nor at his second, or his third, or fourth. Had he gone mad? I watched him more closely. Each time, after breaking through the protective sod, he shoved his nose into the earth and sniffed, then dug, and sniffed again. What did he smell down there? I squatted on my hands and knees and tentatively stuck my nose into one of his holes. Even my human senses could detect the sweet aroma of decay as mites and bacteria woke from their winter somnolence and began to munch and crunch, as only mites and bacteria know how, to convert bits of roots and old leaves into soil.

I assumed that my dog, with his animal instinct, was rejoicing in the process of spring, in the primordial smell of rebirth and renewed growth, a smell that originated when organisms first ventured onto the naked rock of the continents. By the time I reached the fifth hole, my nose and cheeks were smudged with dirt and bits of moist soil lodged onto the hairs of my nostrils, so the earth was inside me, as if we had just made a lifelong pact of togetherness. I lay on the grass, sandwiched between the chill spring dampness on my stomach and the warm sun beating against my back.

The next morning, I returned to the lab, as usual, but something inside me had changed. Although the dog caper, by itself, didn’t create an instant epiphany; it was the tipping point. Over the next few weeks, I realized that I couldn’t spend my whole life down there in that room, which suddenly felt like a dungeon, manipulating particles that I could never see, under the flicker of fluorescent lights, in a world permeated forever with the smell of acetone and benzene. A year later, I finished my thesis, stuffed my Ph.D. diploma in the glove box of a battered Ford Fairlane, lashed a canoe on top, and headed into the Arctic.

Since that time, my entire adult life has been a balancing act between science on one hand and the smell of the earth that became so seminal that spring day in the Rockies on the other. I have made the bulk of my living writing college-level textbooks on geology, environmental science, chemistry, physics, and astronomy. At the same time, I moved to a ski town and became involved in high-intensity rock climbing, skiing, kayaking, and later mountain biking. Climbing a vertical granite wall in a remote region of the Canadian Arctic—vulnerable to gales from the North Pole—involves a different level of intensity than smelling the spring earth. But the relationship between the two is stronger than most people would suspect. During expeditions, the often razor-thin margin between life and death depends on a tactile, sensory awareness of the environment that incorporates but also transcends logic. My first introduction to that awareness occurred on a spring day when I was walking in a meadow with my dog.

Over the de cades, these two aspects of my dichotomous personality have forged a comfortable symbiosis. I have grown to enjoy the exhilaration and toil of arduous expeditions to remote, dangerous, and beautiful places, and at the same time I am always happy to return home, sit in a comfortable office chair, and distill complex scientific concepts into sentences that a college student can understand and appreciate.

But if I thought I understood my relationship with these two disparate worlds, nothing had prepared me for the day when I stood naked on one leg before Moolynaut, a one-hundred-year old Siberian shaman and healer, with my right hand behind my back and my left arm pointed straight in front of me. When I stabilized my balance, she chanted herself into a trance and asked Kutcha, the Raven God, to heal my overused and battered body.

My First Visit to Vyvenka: July 10, 2000

Misha and I paddled our kayaks toward shore and then paused when we felt the waves steepen as they touched the seafloor. Dense, saucer-shaped clouds raced across the Arctic sky, piling up against one another as if there weren’t enough room to dissipate across the vast tundra. Wind drove spume and rain in horizontal sheets until you couldn’t distinguish the boundary between air and sea, but I needed to ignore the mayhem and "collect my forces," as Misha would say. Tantalizingly close, we could clearly see the town of Vyvenka, a ramshackle collection of tar-paper shacks, rusted machinery, and the roofless gutted skeletons of old Soviet apartment buildings, perched precariously on a sand spit, nine time zones from Moscow. But refuge was still two hundred yards away—just beyond the surf. From our vantage on the backs of the waves, we couldn’t see the break, but we could hear the roar as waves dropped onto the beach, churning sand and rocks in their turbulence.

Misha looked at me, smiled to reveal his prominent gold tooth, and repeated his boyhood Soviet slogan, "Labor and Defend."

Weeks before, I had charged into the surf yelling Crazy Horse’s battle cry, "It is a good day to die!" But Misha objected, so now we rallied behind "Labor and Defend."

"Da, conyeshna [yes, of course]," I replied in Russian. Then I pointed my paddle like a lance. "Labor and Defend."

I paddled toward shore, turned to watch the wave patterns behind me, calculated my timing, and took a few hard strokes. My kayak balanced on the tip of a breaking wave until the liquid mountain collapsed into a dark, ominous tube, and I dropped into its maw. Water cascaded over me, blocking out the daylight. Inside the wave, I reached out with my paddle, like a blind man, to find a pillow of upwelling water that would support me, as firmly as if I were leaning against solid ground. At the same time, I cocked my hips to drive the chine of my kayak, like a ski edge, into the wave. In a few moments, my head rose out of the gray-green darkness, even as my shoulders continued to be massaged by churning foam. Then the boat hit the sand and bounced onto the beach. I stumbled out of the cockpit and fell when I tried to stand.

Eleven hours earlier I had stuffed my torso into the cramped kayak and then I had paddled steadily, chilled by the subarctic seawater that constantly rolled across the deck. Now I was stiff and my pelvis was letting me know in no uncertain terms that it didn’t want to support my weight. I had ripped my pelvis apart in an avalanche a few years previously, and the screws and bolts that held me together didn’t do nearly as good a job as the original equipment that I was born with. Another wave rolled up the sand, enveloping me in its Arctic iciness. With my paddle in one hand, I crawled through the sandy foam as the swash threatened to pull my kayak back to sea. A skinny, shirtless boy in wet, baggy underwear appeared out of nowhere and held my bow steady.

Using my paddle as a cane, I struggled to my feet and slowly regained my balance as my joints painfully rearranged themselves toward verticality, as if I were the first ape coming down out of the trees. I looked back out to sea and waved jauntily to signal Misha that everything was fine; even though it wasn’t, because the surf was steep and dangerous.

Now Misha accelerated and dropped into the surf. But he had inadvertently chosen an extraordinarily steep wave and he capsized, swimming to the beach alongside his overturned and waterlogged kayak.

After I helped him to his feet, he smiled sheepishly and then regained his composure and proudly repeated, "Labor and Defend."

We laughed together, retrieved his boat, and spilled the water out of the cockpit. A woman approached across the wet sand. She was Koryak, a member of one of the indigenous Siberian tribes that have traditionally lived in northeast Siberia. Even though it was mid-July, she was dressed in an ankle-length woolen Russian peasant coat and a bulky dog-fur cap. Her large, round cheeks and high cheekbones stood out from the fur, overshadowing her almond eyes and small, O-shaped mouth. She spoke in faltering, grammatically tortured but carefully enunciated English.

"Welcome. I am good to see you. My name is Lydia. I am wait to you because I am knowing that you are to come at this place. Maybe that our great-grandmother—how do you say this?—has made it to be that this storm did brung you to our village."

I turned and watched the surf pounding the b...

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