Wednesday, October 1, 2014
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"We do not lead our animals. They lead us."

On a trip like this there are many things one misses - running water, cold drinks, familiar food. But there are other absences that contribute to the positive aspects of being here. One is the absence of artificial light. Although most gers now have solar panels that generate electricity to fuel a single, high efficiency light bulb, these are used sparingly and are always inside the windowless gers. Thus, even where there is a human presence on the steppe, itself a rarity, there is still no light to compete with the dazzling display of stars that wash the sky with an intensity impossible to experience in a more urbanized place.

"We do not lead our animals. They lead us."

A thunderstorm on the Hentie steppes. (Photo by Robert Peck)
A thunderstorm on the Hentie steppes. (Photo by Robert Peck)

On a trip like this there are many things one misses – running water, cold drinks, familiar food. But there are other absences that contribute to the positive aspects of being here.

One is the absence of artificial light. Although most gers now have solar panels that generate electricity to fuel a single, high efficiency light bulb, these are used sparingly and are always inside the windowless gers. Thus, even where there is a human presence on the steppe, itself a rarity, there is still no light to compete with the dazzling display of stars that wash the sky with an intensity impossible to experience in a more urbanized place.

Sounds too are far more intense without the competition of automobiles, airplanes, and mechanical gadgetry. And they travel long distances: the drumming of the hooves of a hundred sheep and goats; the whinny of a horse; the metallic rattle of a water can being wheeled to fill at the bend of a meandering stream.

Last night a thunder storm rolled across the valley in which we were staying. We could hear it for hours coming, then receding beyond the farthest ridge. The sound of the rain drops made mesmerizing music on the absorbing surfaces of grass, soil, and the felt of our sheltering ger.

I like the absence of a schedule, save that provided by the sun and punctuated by the twice-daily milking of our hosting families’ cows. Many of the herders we have visited own clocks, but the time they show often bears no relation to the abstract system the rest of the world has constructed to track the hours. There must be calendars too, but I have not seen them. Given the uncertainty of the weather and seasons here, the herders are better served by observing their surroundings and responding accordingly.

Since grazing can differ widely from one valley to the next, from one month to another, and from year to year, the seasonal shifts in a nomadic family’s location are often quite different. In this case, the absence of a schedule is key to survival. “We do not lead our animals,” one experienced herder explained to me when I asked about moving. “They lead us.”

That kind of perspective changes the way one thinks. In Mongolia the absence of a line between self-determination and reaction to forces beyond one’s control may be the most telling absence of all.

 

About this blog
The age of exploration is not dead. Over the next six weeks, Robert Peck and colleagues from the Academy of Natural Sciences and the University of Pennsylvania will be traveling in Mongolia, reconnecting with herdsmen Peck met 17 years ago and checking for evidence of climate change. Peck will chronicle his travels in the land once ruled by Genghis Khan on a blog at www.philly.com/treks


Robert McCracken Peck, senior fellow of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Peck is a writer, naturalist, and historian who has traveled extensively in North and South America, Africa, Asia and Europe. He has been honored by the Academy, the Explorers Club, and other organizations for his contributions to exploration and the interpretation of natural history. In 2007, the U.S. Department of State and the White House chose him to represent the United States at Mongolia’s 800th birthday celebration. Peck is the author of Land of the Eagle: A Natural History of North America (1990), Headhunters and Hummingbirds: An Expedition into Ecuador (1987), and other books and papers.

Clyde Goulden, Director of the Asia Center of the Academy of Natural Sciences
Goulden’s research in Asia began in 1994 when he and Academy colleagues were invited to initiate studies on a large lake in northern Mongolia, Lake Hovsgol. His work at the lake has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Global Environment Facility through the World Bank. He is associated with a research program to study the impacts of climate change on the lake’s watershed and the nomadic herders of Mongolia.

Tuya Goulden, researcher and international travel liaison
Tuya Goulden moved to the United States in 2006 from Mongolia and is a citizen of the U.S. In addition to college degrees from Mongolian universities, she has a master’s degree in tourism management from George Washington University. Goulden has been active in organizing expeditions in Mongolia for scientists in from the Academy and other universities. She is a research assistant for the Mongolian NSF-PIRE project on climate change impacts and serves as the translator for interviews with Mongolian nomadic herders.

Dakin Henderson, videographer
Henderson, a Boston filmmaker, has produced fiction and non-fiction short films, music videos and science-education documentaries. His films have won awards at Colorado College, the Shoot Out Boulder competition and the Ecological Society of America EcoFilm Festival. He currently works with the award-winning production team, Vital Pictures. Visit his website at www.shaxentertainment.com.

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