Exploration and re-enchantment of the world
Close your eyes, and picture for a moment all those expedition flags on the moon, mountain tops, the North Pole. The silly pieces of silk express: We were here first. We conquered this giant mountain or that huge ice covered piece of land. There for we own it. Next, those places, mountains, rivers are given a name, often ignoring the fact that they already had a name. One that might be difficult to pronounce for a western tongue, but a name nonetheless.
Exploration is not a neutral activity. We, explorers, represent a culture in which nature is defined in terms of economical and social use. I never thought much of it until I came to know people in the Altai-Sayan mountains in South West Siberia. It took a while to understand that their worldview is totally different from ours. For the Altaians Nature is a living being, to be honored and worshiped for Itself, and not for the practical purposes It has for us, humans.
Even after I understood this intellectually, the concept didn’t really sink in. As an ecologist I always thought that I deeply cared for the natural world, not untrue, but still, in my view nature is there for us to enjoy. That’s why it is our job to save the planet for future generations. A human centered point of view. And that’s okay. But the beautiful thing about learning from other cultures is that you come to realize that Reality as we perceive it is just one possibility out of many. The world we live in does not exist in some absolute sense. We each experience ‘reality’ through our own cultural lens. Funny! We inhabit the same planet, but when it comes to worldviews, cultures might as well live light years apart. .
Anyway, I am not writing this to preach or teach, but to share my excitement about the creativity of the human mind. As a biologist I thought that biosphere mattered most to the well being of our planet. In the Altai I discovered the importance of ethnosphere, a term coined by Wade Davis (ethno-botanist, researcher National Geographic). Ethnosphere is the spiritual web of life, it is the sum total of all thoughts and intuitions, myths and beliefs, ideas and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness.
I must confess I had big problems with the Altaian worldview when I first traveled in the region. People who believe in spirits and shamans who claim they can travel through time and space…. Come on! The understanding came slowly, it took me years of struggling with and reading about this issue before it hit me: The point is not who is right and who is wrong. That is not interesting at all! What matters is to celebrate diversity and human potential. And to welcome different ways of thinking. Those of us who travel with an open mind, can learn first hand how other people view the world – and that’s how we can rediscover the enchantment of the world.
My next expedition – Searching for Paradise – will just do that. This summer, together with Wayne Poulsen I will circumnavigate the AltaiMountain range in the heart of Central Asia. Some 1500 km on horseback, meandering in and out of an imaginary circle. The journey takes us through Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia.
My personal aim: Reach a better understanding of the meaning of (sacred) landscapes. And I have found a beautiful way to do just that. En route I will create a map on a big piece of animal skin, the map will connect the physical geography and the geography of the spirit
In the end, when the circle (and the map) is completed, the map will point out where Paradise is.
Arita Baaijens is an explorer, a biologist, author, photographer and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and The Explorers Club. Twenty years ago she gave up her job as an environmentalist, bought camels and made a solo crossing across the Western Desert of Egypt. Today she has made over 25 expeditions (3-6 months at a time) with her own caravan of camels all over Egypt and the Sudan. She is now preparing he biggest Expedition, read more here at http://www.aritabaaijens.nl/index_en.php
Thanks for this beautiful and thought-provoking post, Arita. I’m not sure if this is quite the same as you are saying, but I feel that we need to preserve our natural world because we are inextricably intertwined with it, and when we damage and disrespect it, ultimately that is going to rebound on us. I realise this is still a human-centric view, but being a human I confess to a certain bias in my worldview!
What a wonderful world we live in – we would do well to appreciate it and cherish it.
Thanks for the response. Your point of view is also valid, it just strikes me that some cultures respect Nature for what it is and not for the use it has for us. I find that thought provoking and inspiring. Doesn’t mean that all is pink and perfect in the Altai….environmental pollution is on the rise (launch satellites, investors, factories, mining)..
YURI BADENKOV’s comment
Gregoriy Choros-Gurkin true Altaian, artist, philosopher, writer (1870 – 1937) during all his rich and dramatic life was a celebrator of Altai mountains – Sacred Khan-Altai. He wrote: “Altai is not just a mountains, forests, rivers, waterfalls, but a Living Spirit, generous, rich giant. Fabulously beautiful by it’s multicoloured dress of forests, flowers, grasses. It’s fogs as transparent thoughts are running to all countries of the World. It’s lakes – is it’s eyes looking at the Universe. Waterfalls and rivers – are it’s speech and song about Life, about beauty of the Earth and Mountains…”
There are many thousands people around the world now who knows well where Altai is situated on global map. But very few of them deeply understand the role and place of Altai plays in global Biosphere and Cultural agenda. Located in the geographical centre of Asian continent where four countries China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Russia meet each other the Great Altai represent one of Last Places of the world where the Nature, Culture and Traditions are not destroyed seriously, yet. That is why Altai was recognized by UNESCO as World Nature Heritage.
But in era of globalization and Climate Change the situation is changing very fast: Gasprom plans to construct strategic gas pipeline to China (under the name “Altai”!), tourism declared as only one way for surviving the Altai region, glaciers are melting… Do we have opportunity to reconcile development and conservation goals in Altai?
Arita Baaijens expedition is brilliant initiative addressed not only to people living in one historical and eco-cultural space divided by states borders, but also to global community. For better understanding of unique value of such places as Altai. Looking on it and appreciated it by different yardsticks and approaches. But always doing it with love and open mind.
Arita has a great experience in solo expeditions (25!) on horse and camelbacks in Sahara desert. Planted on sacred Altai landscapes it should give very interesting and rich harvest, sure. We have a right to see it even after the first “scout” phase of the expedition – Searching for Paradise. At least, all of us who knows Arita are looking forward to see her “animal skin map connected the physical geography and the geography of the spirit” and where the legendary Shambala or Paradise is!
We wish success to Arita and her partners in circle journey in Altai!
Yuri Badenkov, Dr., Prof. Inst of Geography, Russian Academy of Science.
Choros Gurkin! His words and his vision will accompany me on the journey.
Thanks for this piece, Mikael and Arita! I wish Arita and Wayne smooth travels on their great circle tour.
I completely agree that nature exists until itself and that it owes us humans nothing. It is our responsibility to minimize harmful impacts to the environment, and strong indigenous peoples and traditional lifeways are one of the keys to a sustainable natural environment in balance with human activity.
Let’s make it happen!