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Sunday, October 21, 2012

60) Woolly Mammoth

Mammuthus primigenius

In August this year, an eleven-year-old boy walking along the banks of the Yenisei River in Russia’s far north found the preserved carcass of a Woolly Mammoth.  The body was frozen; the remains were astonishingly well-preserved.  The animal’s fat-hump, like the hump of a Camel (Camelus), was still intact – the first time an adult mammoth had been found with such an appendage.

The Woolly Mammoth was but one of several species of Mammoth, but so ingrained is it in the popular consciousness that for most people – certainly for me – the Woolly Mammoth is the Mammoth.  Though the species went extinct thousands of years ago, it’s not unusual for specimens to be found from time to time; though the end of the ice-age probably doomed the Woolly Mammoth to extinction, those parts of the world where it lived – including modern-day Russia – are still cold enough to have preserved the remains of countless animals, and not as fossils but as organic matter.

The remains found in August will be transported to St Petersburg for study.  That city is already home to perhaps the most famous Woolly Mammoth in the world, the so-called Berezovka Mammoth.  The Berezovka Mammoth is a nearly-complete animal mounted in a glass cabinet in the Zoological Museum of the Russian Academy of Science.  It’s old – it was discovered a century ago – and it has a mothballed appearance: there’s little evidence of the wool that once covered the animal, and half its trunk is missing.

I was lucky enough to visit St Petersburg – and to see the Berezovka Mammoth – in 2003.  Though my primary reason for travelling to St Petersburg had been to visit the Hermitage – I spent two afternoons there, and still sometimes gasp at the memories – a host of secondary attractions piqued my interest, and one of them was the Zoological Museum, and its Mammoth in particular.  Seeing the animal was something of a disappointment, as it happened: it was tattered and shabby. The lighting over the cabinet that enclosed it had a particular dimness that suggested parsimony rather than the need to preserve the specimen from damage.  The display seemed almost deliberately downbeat.

Yet it was there, all the same: stuffed, tattered, faded; but still a Woolly Mammoth.  As iconic a creature as has ever lived.  Like the Mammoth discovered this August, the animal in St Petersburg was found by a river – the Berezovka River, naturally, far away in Siberia.  So much is found by rivers, by bodies of water.  Leaving the Zoological Museum I walked back east across the Dvortsovvy Bridge, across the Neva River towards Nevsky Prospect, the grand boulevard which terminated at the Hermitage.  By the Neva, at a distance, I saw a man with a docile Bear (Ursidae) on a lead beside him: the animal, whose standing height can have been barely taller than its captor, looked forlorn and despairing.

Entirely by chance, I visited St Petersburg in the year of the 300th anniversary of its founding.  To make the city presentable on such an occasion great amounts of money had been spent on cleaning and restoring public areas and historical buildings and monuments.  The money was provided by the Russian government, and it’s surely not a coincidence that Vladimir Putin is a son of “Peter”, as Russians call the city.  When I was there, for only five days, every golden statue glowed; every piece of marble shone.  The Church on Spilled Blood was dazzling, as if some jewel-encrusted cave had been flipped inside-out.

The trams were dirty.  The cars were beaten and run-down; the river had an exhausted look to it.  Beyond the glamour and beauty of Peter the Great’s “Venice of the North”, there was an actual city full of people whose lives were no more or less extraordinary for all the glory of their royal home.  When I visited St. Petersburg it was September, autumn, well outside the mid-summer tourist season.  The skies were grey and hung low and heavy with rain; the hotel where I stayed, though expertly run, was infested with Mosquitoes (Culicidae), a remnant and a reminder of the swamp that the city was built upon.  Their presence made sleep impossible until sheer fatigue at constantly swatting them set in.

My companions in the hostel for the five days I was there were a mix of English, Americans, and particularly Canadians.  One of the Canadians had learned not even the most basic of Russian before his visit to St Petersburg, and when attempting to communicate with the Russians he did so with a rudimentary language of finger pointing and miming.  Yet when interacting with other English-speakers such as myself he was a perfectly hospitable companion, funny and sociable.  There’s an instinctive camaraderie that comes with travelling, and for five days he and his fellow Canadians were the best friends I had in the world.  Each night we’d reconvene at the hostel and recount our experiences of the day – what we’d seen, what had happened to us.  The weather was dispiriting; the city was magnificent but aloof; most of all we relished being able to communicate with one-another in our own language, without thought or effort.

If my Canadian friend’s communication with the Russians seemed strange or even obnoxious, perhaps the people of St Petersburg did not invite upon themselves any great degree of politeness.  When I first arrived in the city I found them pushy, and rude, and after the warmth and openness of my previous two months among the Danes, the Swedes, and even the more reserved Finns, the Russians seemed brusque and unfriendly and even slightly threatening.  Fortunately there was a lifetime of distractions in St Petersburg, and even in the ever-recurring drizzle, walking around the city was a mesmerising experience.  Any perceived rudeness from the city’s populace barely seemed to matter.

Of course, the residents of St Petersburg disregarded me because they had no way of communicating with me; I realise now that I felt the same way towards them, yet had not the grace to acknowledge that the fault lay anywhere but with them.  This attitude began to change when I met a man who tried to sell me books.  He was hawking them on the street; he accosted me as I was leaving a restaurant where I’d been eating dinner.  I didn’t buy anything off him – I didn’t have the money to – but he had a few words of broken English and we chatted for a few moments, bonded by a shared love of literature.  Our conversation amounted to little more than monosyllabic expressions of delight and appreciation – but it was all that was needed.

Subsequent to that encounter I realised that if I could break through the language barrier that was isolating me from the natives of St Petersburg, their character seemed to change completely.  Where once they had seemed pushy and rude, elbowing me out of the way in queues at the metro, they now – those few with whom I was able to communicate – seemed extraordinarily generous – with their time, with their advice, with their sense of common humanity.  A woman working behind the counter in a gift shop talked me out of buying a cup and saucer there, pointing me instead in the direction of another shop with far better, and cheaper, products; at the end of my trip a man went out of his way to lead me to the station from which I had to catch the train back to Finland.  Perhaps it’s the collective memory of long decades of totalitarianism that creates such communal attitudes.  It saddens me to think that many tourists, cowed with fear by the stories of crime and con-artists that attach themselves to any large foreign city, might never experience the generosity and kindness that I came to think of as the authentic Russian character.

The Russians had seemed rude at first because I wasn’t making the effort to see them as anything else.  Likewise the Berezovka Mammoth had seemed underwhelming because I wasn’t taking it on its own terms.  Had I seen it immediately for what it was – the nearly perfect remains of an animal that had been alive perhaps tens of thousands of years ago – maybe I would have been astonished, perhaps I would have overwhelmed.  The Mammoth discovered in August by the Yenisei River will not take the Berezovka Mammoth’s place – despite being nearly intact it’s skin and bone, like the bodies of ancient people dragged from bogs – but it may not be so long before we find another specimen comparable to the Berezovka Mammoth.  Is this something to look forward to, though?  The Yenisei Mammoth may well be “the Mammoth of the century”, but despite the excitement, its discovery is not something that we should be eager to celebrate.  Hidden at the end of the ABC News Online story through which I found out about the Yenisei Mammoth’s discovery, is the following sentence, ominous in its banality:

Global warming has thawed ground in northern Russia that is usually almost permanently frozen, leading to the discoveries of a number of Mammoth remains.

Things are not always what they seem.  We have to make the effort to understand them.  It was global warming that, at least in part, led to the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth.  It’s global warming – this time of our own creation – that is bringing them back to us.

Image of the Berezovka Mammoth sourced from

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