A Wonderful World

August 27th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Marinsk,   56.22 N   87.75 E

12:00 midnight Local Siberia; 12:00 Noon next day EST

High 74 F   Low 69 F    Rain

Today has been one long day of travel – and our day is not over yet. I’m calling from a little café in Marinsk, which is a town about 200 km east of Tomsk. It’s in the Kemerova Oblast and they tell me it sits the Kiya River.  The drivers are buying big cups of coffee.   Even though it is late and it is raining, our drivers say they still feel fresh and don’t want to quit.  Our goal tonight is the Hotel for Scientists, in Krasnoyarsk. 

We had planned to stop and camp for the night, but the sun set and rain started pouring down.  It just didn’t make sense to go find a camp down a bad road in soaking rain, just to sleep for a few hours.  We would have ended up soaked and cold.  We decided it would be smarter to find a room for the night in one of the big towns, but that hasn’t worked out.  Now we are only about 5 hours away from a real bed at our hotel. Our drivers are well-caffeinated and excited to drive on – so that’s fine with me.   I just hope that the Hotel will be open and have our rooms ready at five in the morning, when we arrive. 

Holes riddle a sandy cliff near the Ket River. Cliff swallows built these nests so they could raise their young in the summer. The nests are now abandoned, and the birds have headed south - a sign of the winter that will arrive quickly in Siberia.

As we left our camp this morning, I discovered something pretty interesting.  Next to the road there was a small sandy cliff, no more than three or four feet high.  It had a bit of grass on top, but the face of the cliff was all packed sand.  And the cliff was riddled with holes.  I think cliff swallows are nesting here.  

Slava confirmed that birds have used those nests, but he says they do not have pointed tails, like swallows do.  I don’t have a bird book with me, but I think cliff swallows have less pointed tails than others.  I’ll have to check this out when I get home.  At any rate, the nests are right at eye level, and I went up to take a close look.  No birds were to be seen.  I guess they have finished nesting for the summer and have moved on. A sign of the winter that will soon be coming, no doubt.

Another sign of the times was the sunset last night.  It was colorful, but it was as hazy as I’ve ever seen the sky in Siberia.  Then when the moon came out, it looked veiled, too.  It was almost full and it was bright, but the sky wasn’t clear.  I believe we are seeing the effects of the smoke from all the fires that have been burning to our west.  I can’t smell anything, and the air on our faces seems fresh enough.  But haze from fires can travel high into the atmosphere, and travel across the world.  So I think that is what we are seeing – a smoky Moon from those Russian fires.

I also learned that the camp we had last night had been used by geologists in years past.  They were studying the area for oil and gas.   So it’s all about using natural resources.  The geologists will use resources in a different way than the people who collect birch bark, or the timber industry – or us, too, for that matter.  We’re using natural resources, too,  just in a different way.  But our way also puts food our family table, just like the others who look to the forests for their work.

We climbed into our vehicles about 8:45 this morning, and haven’t stopped for very long – just for coffee and food.  For me, it’s been a long day sitting, watching the countryside go by, and thinking. 

It’s really been a privilege to be a part of this expedition and a part of the work we are doing.  Here we sit, a group of Americans and Russians, together, in Siberia, working side by side. For most of my life, there was a Cold War going on.  Russia and the US were bitter enemies, and tensions were high.  Who would have ever guessed that we would now be here, with common friendships, common goals – and working together to better understand the Earth that we all inhabit?  

It is also amazing to consider that work like this is being conducted all over the world.  We’re not the only folks on expedition this week. There are lots of scientists in the field all the time, working hard and also having adventures.  Science is a good career – and a worthwhile one.  We look for knowledge, and knowledge is power, or so they say.  I’m not very powerful, myself, but I do believe that sound knowledge paves the way for sound policy – and creates changes to make the world a better place.

Sunset on the Ket River. Three scientists enjoy the last evening in camp as the sky colors the evening sun. For the first time, the evening sky shows some haze from the fires burning in western Russia. The campfire is producing the plume of smoke in the foreground.

Road trips are good for talking, too.  I found out that Pasha lived for a full two months in a forest much like the one we’ve been in.  He was doing research on the biomass found in trunks, branches and needles of Siberian fir and Siberian spruce.   I can’t imagine, myself, living in a forest camp that long, but then again, that’s what scientists sometimes have to do – and what they are lucky enough to do.  Sometimes the forest is cold and wet and full of mosquitoes – but it’s sure a more interesting place than your average office.

Science is a pretty good profession for someone that likes to think, to travel, to question and be amazed, and to give something important back to the world  as well.   It’s a great community, one that fosters understanding among all people. I find it rewarding and comforting, as a senior scientist, to see the young faces on this expedition.  These young Americans and Russians will continue the work that Slava and I have started well into the future, and will create their own studies.  Our future here is in good hands.

As the miles went by, things got quiet, and I started thinking about the blog.  If there was just one thing I’d like to get out to the readers – to students and scientists and policy makers and my family and friends, and, well – every one – what would it be?

After much thought, there’s one thing that keeps coming to mind.  I do have one message today, for our readers.  I want to tell them “Keep your wonder”.  

Our world is an amazing place, with more depth, diversity and connection than can be imagined.   If you look at this world with a true sense of wonder, then you will ask questions.  From questions, comes study.  And from study, comes answers – and more amazing discoveries.

With wonder as your guide, your “wow, that’s just amazing!”  turns into “I wonder what makes that so amazing?”  And then you can set about to learn about that wonderful thing.   That’s science – learning about wonderful things.   It’s just so important to not get lost in the minutiae and the business of life.  It’s so easy to get swept up in the mundane.  But that doesn’t have to happen.  Keep your wonder, that’s all. 

It’s time to get back in the car, and to drive on through the Siberian night.   Hopefully we’ll be at our hotel by sunrise, and then enjoy a good day’s sleep.

4 Responses to “A Wonderful World”

  1. tammy le says:

    These articles are really cool, and very informative !

    i am a person who just loves to gain all the knowledge I can get, even if it is just a small amount about alot of things.
    Thanks for all the investigating you do, it makes reading fun for my son and I.

    sincerely,

    Tammy Lee & Jason Vincent

  2. Ranjan says:

    Those nests along the river are probably of Bank Swallows, which too do not have the longish, pointed tails. Also your comments about science remind me of Richard Feyman’s little poem: I wonder why, I wonder why, I wonder why I wonder why?
    Keep writing!

  3. Ranjan says:

    Sorry Richard, that should have been Feynman!

  4. Ranjan says:

    And the poem should have been: I wonder why I wonder why. I wonder why I wonder. I wonder why I wonder why I wonder why I wonder!

Notes from the Field