Notes from the Field

The Kulak Forest

August 15th, 2010 by Joanne Howl

Tomsk Oblast    57.83 N 86.7 E

11:30 pm Siberia, 11:30 AM EST

 High: 56 F    Low 57 F     Light rain

Today started both early and suddenly, when Mikal decided it would be healthy for us to wake up and enjoy the day.  He jumped into The Pill and started honking the horn vigorously.  Then he walked all around camp, singing away.  It was a unique awakening, but effective. 

 Our camp turned out to be the site of an old forest fire.  On one side of the road, the fire had been a ground fire.  On the other, a stand-replacing fire.   A ground fire burns the forest floor.  They usually stay low and clear away understory and debris. They tend to leave adult trees scorched, but alive.  After a ground fire, seeds will quickly germinate and new growth, called regeneration will shoot up.  So on that side of the road, we see tall, scorched trees with an upper canopy of green needles, with a dense growth of young trees underneath.  A stand-regenerating fire burns hot and high.  It burns everything in its path, including mature trees.  So on that side of the road, we see a field of new green growth, with some blackened, dead trees scattered about.  

The regeneration – the young trees – can tell us how long ago the fire came through.  Scots pine put out one new set of branches, called whorls, each year.  So if you can count the whorls on the trunk, you know how old the trees are.  These young Scots Pines have 6 sets of whorls, so the stand burned six or seven years ago. 

After we tore down our camp, Mikal drove us east to a spot near the forest, and turned us loose.  We walked into the woods, using the GPS to find the first GLAS footprint, where we began to make measurements. Mikal returned to camp and Slava spent the day getting a leaking tire fixed. 

We measured 9 plots today – a good day’s work.  Sometimes we split our team into two groups, so we can work two plots simultaneously.  But today was calibration day, so we decided we’d work all together in one plot.  By staying close, we could make sure each hypsometer was measuring correctly, as well as make sure everyone was measuring in the same way.  It’s really important to calibrate everything – including human technique.  Getting ground-truth to be repeatable and accurate is absolutely vital if the data is going to be useful. 

 For lunch, we had a picnic in the woods.  We had bread, canned fish and caviar.  Well, that’s what the can said, in Russian … “caviar”.   I guess it was sort of a Russian joke, because the can was full of a red vegetable paste, with a salty taste and a consistency vaguely resembling fish eggs.  As it turned out, if you put “caviar” on a piece of bread, add a little canned fish and a thick slice of fresh onion, it’s really quite delicious. I’m not sure I’d do that in a nice restaurant, or where anyone could smell me afterwards, but here, in the forest, it was a real treat. 

 This forest has a lot of species diversity.  Which species predominates depends mostly on the drainage of the soil.  Birch likes the boggy, wet soil.  Spruce and pine prefer upland, dryer soils.  You can make a good guess about the soil, just by noting what species of tree is growing. 

I was also impressed by the large size of the trees.  Many are about 100 feet tall and ½ meter in diameter.   The tallest today was an aspen.  It was 34 m tall, with a DBH (diameter at breast height) of 67 cm. 

Tall trees with large diameters growing in thick stands means a lot of biomass, and a lot of biomass means a lot of carbon.  There is a great deal of carbon tied up in this forest, for sure.  How much carbon is tucked away in Siberian forests is exactly what we are trying to understand. 

In the forest, we came across signs that someone had been working here many years ago.  We could see that trees had been selectively cut down.  Timber had been harvested maybe 80 or 90 years ago.  That would have been in the 20’s or 30’s, in the time of Joseph Stalin. 

 When Stalin came to power in Russia, one of the policies he created was collectivization.  All private farms suddenly belonged to the State, and individual farmers suddenly worked for the common good, not for themselves. Certain farmers, usually the more successful ones, the ones that had the most to lose, didn’t think this was a very good idea.  They protested, either by talk or by refusing to turn over all property to the State.

Stalin had no tolerance for disagreement – it was a cooperate-or-be-destroyed era.  He decided to end protests by removing these farmers, called kulaks, from Russia.  Some kulaks were tried for “crimes” and executed.  Some were sent to the Gulag (the Russian prison system), where most died.  The lucky ones were merely exiled from their homeland.  They were transported to Siberia and deposited there, in the most uninhabited and uninhabitable land that could be found.  Allowed almost nothing but the clothes they might be wearing, they were totally unprepared for living in the frigid, cruel land. 

But the land has it’s gentleness and the kulaks tended to be hardworking and excellent farmers. Many kulaks ended up surviving in exile.  I am told that descendants of the exiles that worked this timber nearly a century ago are still living in the area, and some are doing very well for themselves.  It was terribly hard to be exiled – there was true suffering here, in this forest and this community.  But many endured, and many thrived. 

As I was looking at the stumps, doing my own easy work, I felt connected to those men.  I felt tired today, although I had good gear, good food and good clothing.  It was hard to imagine how bone-tired they must have been, in frigid weather, with minimal clothing and a poor diet.  In a way, I felt them with us, their spirit and memory here in this forest.  And I felt humbled.   

At the end of the day Pasha called for a ride on his cell phone, and Mikal and The Pill showed up promptly.  Russia has cell phone towers everywhere, and our colleagues seem to be able to talk to each other in the most remote places on earth with no trouble.  It is just amazing.

We rode into our new campsite, tired, cold, dirty and hungry, knowing we still had to make camp and dinner before we could rest.  But we were in for a treat.  Not only did we get excellent taxi service, but when we walked into camp, it was like walking into a friend’s home.  The tents were up, a fire was roaring, tea was simmering and there was warm food ready to eat.   What a delight! 

And there stood Slava, welcoming us home and calling us “heroes of the expedition”.  With true Siberian hospitality, he offered a ceremonial toast fit for a hero’s return.  What a marvelous thing, to be so tired and chilled, then to return to such a warm scene.  The food was fabulous, and soon we were sleepy from the day’s work, the good nourishment and the warm fire.  I have to say, they do know how to make hard work fun.

One Response to “The Kulak Forest”

  1. Jesse Allen says:


    That “caviar” dish you had is ikra (which translates, literally, as caviar). There’s a whole set of similar vegetable dishes called ikra, usually with some adjective at the front that Russians drop off “because everyone understands it already.” Bakhlazhanaya ikra is zuchini caviar, for example (fine chopped zuchin, carrots, and onions cooked together in sunflower oil with a bit of salt: one of the really good things you can make with those zepplin-sized zuchini in the garden). Add eggplant and it’s another variety. What it sounds like you had probably was the eggplant variety with bulgarian red pepper (sweet red bell pepper). In a restaurant, it would be a small side dish on the plate, but spreading it on bread is no more gauche that doing the same with red caviar (krasnaya ikra: caviar from salmon eggs, which is caviar for normal people instead of the beluga caviar from the Volga delta which costs obscene amounts of money).