It’s the middle of October, and every day it’s in the 90s here. This is probably the most dispiriting thing about living long-term in this particular American desert. After a time you get accustomed to the fact that it doesn’t rain for six months, and that in July and August you must move around each day more or less in the interior of a blast furnace. But the fact that sometimes you have to wear a Hawaiian shirt and shorts on Halloween . . . I mean, jeebus, this is the northern hemisphere, and not in the tropics, and there is supposed to be about now such a thing as autumn. But no. Not here. Not much.
Whenever I perceive that I am in some way suffering, I endeavor to reach out for proofs that my suffering is really not much suffering at all. As generally it isn’t. And so, when the thermometer gleefully rose into the 100s, there in the final days of September, I dug out my copy of Benson Bobrick’s East Of The Sun (a tome that survived the Great Clearing), and reacquainted myself with the Siberian wondertown Oymyakon, known as “the world’s pole of cold”; a place that, though temperatures in winter annually drop to -90 degrees or so, in July also offers days of 100 degrees and rising. It could be worse, I reminded myself. I could live there.
I have long been fascinated with Siberia, for No Known Reason. It certainly has nothing in common with the other places that over the years have tickled my fancy—Madagascar, the Mountains of the Moon, the French Antilles. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that, as I get older, I feel increasingly the tug of old relations: I live on the Pacific Coast, and before the continents got their Big Divorce, we here used to snuggle right up to the eastern edge of Siberia.
Or maybe it’s that when I was younger I ignorantly envisioned Siberia as one endless trackless waste of howling winds and bitter snow. And so it’s a pleasant surprise, a revelation really, when I discover that in certain places Siberia is like a thing right out of the deepest magic:
By a process still mysterious, but connected to the alternate thawing and freezing, expanding and contracting of the soil, the early summer melt collected into perfectly round lakes, and stones squeezed to the surface were often arranged in neat, decorously concentric circles, with the larger stones on the periphery and the smaller stones within. Ice-wedges, made by melt-water trickling into cracks or frost-fissures, also broke the soil into exactly drawn, even-sided polygons.
People pressed into exile in Siberia have found to their own surprise that, upon reflection, they had undergone experiences that were, in truth, gifts.
[He] described how the breath of a reindeer herd crystallized and fell like snow. He talked about salmon runs on Sakhalin, the white-headed eagles of the Aleutians and waterspouts that danced around the Bering Sea. He’d never thought before of what a catalog of experiences his exile had brought to him, how unique and beautiful they were, what clear evidence that on no day could a man be sure he should not open his eyes.
And yet that same landscape could, on any given day, also take your life—permanently close your eyes.
“The ‘Siberian Dilemma’ is a choice between two ways of freezing. We were out on a lake fishing through the ice when a teacher of ours fell through. He didn’t go far, just down to his neck, but we knew what was happening. If he stayed in the water he would freeze to death in thirty or forty seconds. If he got out he would freeze to death at once—he would be ice, actually. He taught gymnastics, I remember. He was an Evenki, the only native on the teaching staff, young, everyone liked him. We all stood about in a circle around the hole holding our poles and fish. It was about minus forty degrees, bright and sunny. He had a wife, a dentist; she wasn’t along. He looked up at us; I’ll never forget that look. He couldn’t have been in the water for more than five seconds when he pulled himself out. And he was dead before he stood up.”
And so it goes, here in this world, endlessly rocking: “good,” “bad,” “good,” “bad.” You can string it out into infinity, I reckon, working at it hard enough, on anything.
I guess it really is true what Van Morrison says, in “Who Was That Masked Man”:
and no matter what they tell you
there is good and evil in everyone
And the same is true too of places, and things.
In the morning it is supposed to be under 90. This, I’m deciding, is Good.