How the Mammoth’s Blood Flows
These islands are merely telescopic images of the future. In the long dusk of the northern skies, I sometimes see Arctic foxes scrounging for food, and the most human part of me, the part devoid of scientific and biological knowledge, wonders at the long winter the fox has survived. How has he endured the months of darkness, of hunger?
My father has lain dead longer than I’ve been a citizen of the north country, but his voice still echoes in my head: “Don’t get on that boat,” I hear him say. “Don’t go away to that forsaken island. There’s nothing there but bones and snow.” As it turns out, that is exactly why I did go there.
Is there anywhere on earth more difficult for a person to reach than the New Siberian Islands? My body has grown accustomed to the travel—whether by boat, by snowmobile or by air—but I have never learned to love the islands. In the past twenty years, I have made twice that many journeys here from Yakutsk, my adopted home. I will gladly make a hundred more, but I will never love the islands themselves, the unending sheets of white ice, the blowing northern winds, the frigid waters of the Laptev Sea. There are few comforts on the islands, no human neighbors at all. On the islands, the cold seeps into your bones, and the tea is never hot enough to thaw your marrow.
But, I’m a mammoth hunter. My life is dedicated to these extinct beasts, and every hunter knows that you must follow wherever the hunt takes you.
* * *
The Arctic Ocean is nearly always frozen. From June to October, the ice opens briefly and passage to the islands can be made by ship. From horizon to horizon there is only snow and ice. Helicopter flight now allows us to excavate sites earlier and earlier in the season, before the snow melts in the weak summer sun.
For some inexplicable reason, I am closest to my father when I’m here, in this place where he never would have ventured. It’s as though the veil between our worlds is thinned by the mysteries of the Arctic cold. Perhaps it’s the constant presence of danger that makes me think of him.
What would he say if he saw me testing the electric fence we use to keep bears from entering our camp? What would he say about the nights when the generator stops working and our shanty grows cold and silent in the unending, open fields of snow? What would he say about the times I walk alone into the depths of the island without even a gun and turn myself in circles, growing disoriented, until his voice expands in my head?
* * *
My father was hardly cold in the ground when I first traveled to Yakutsk, the major city of the Lena River and capital of the Sakha Republic. It’s a strange and distant city but the best place in the world if you devote your life to mammoth hunting. Today, Yakutsk is a city of slightly more than 250,000 people, bustling in its own way. The city sits on the western bank of the wide, cold river. The waters of the Lena cut us off from the rest of the world. There are no bridges to cross from bank to bank. In summer, the highway on the river’s eastern shore ends abruptly, and drivers must ferry across. In winter, the Lena freezes solid, creating a temporary route that only brave ice truckers travel to deliver supplies. Now in 2015, the first railroad is under construction that will link the city to the rest of the Russian rail network and the world.
I often wonder if my father would have thrived here, surrounded as we are by our protective borders of water and ice. Like my father in his darkened bedroom, I find comfort within my confines in the loneliest of times. Small pleasures—a cup of hot tea in the middle of the night or the echoes of music wafting from a neighbor’s home—can sustain a man through long winter after long winter.
The city is home to the Northeast Federal University, the Underground Laboratory of the Institute of Cryogenics, and most importantly, the famous Mammoth Museum. When not digging in the ice of New Siberia, my true home since I left my father’s house—and the first place where I didn’t feel I was an outsider—has been the museum.
I came to Yakutsk as a student, and over time, my loyalty and commitment, not to mention a religious-like devotion to my studies, were rewarded. Now I’m the first assistant to the museum’s director, Grigoriy Semyonev. Last year, Semyonev and I led the New Siberian Island team that discovered the best-preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology.
I was standing knee-deep in snow and mud when the miracle occurred. God is peculiar in that way, providing his most spectacular gifts at a time when you least expect it. As a mammoth hunter, there are only two great miracles that I have prayed for. The first, to find a specimen with enough viable DNA, would bring us ever closer to the second: the return of the living mammoth to Siberia.
* * *
My father spent his whole life waiting to die. According to him, every movement loomed with potential for accident. Death lurked in every shadow. His life was a series of warnings to the rest of us of our fragility and inevitable doom. Crossing the street was dangerous. Crossing the continent was foolhardy. Crossing any large body of water was blatantly suicidal. If he knew the risks I’ve willingly taken in my quest for mammoths, he would weep. He would have locked me these last twenty years in the safety of a cage before he allowed me to expose myself to frostbite, icebergs and bears.
My mother says when they met, he was like every young man, intent on proving something great to the world. She says the agoraphobia and whatever you call the fear of living came later. My brothers and sisters and I don’t believe her. We can’t imagine him out in the world long enough to meet and marry our mother. But it was later, she says, that the unanswerable questions came. It was later that he became afraid and waited for death like it was an old school friend he didn’t want to meet but for whom he could never stop searching.
* * *
When a layman thinks of fossils, he pictures the heavy stone bones in museum displays. Those are cast fossils, formed when an animal body deteriorates and the flesh is replaced with minerals that eventually harden into rock. In the New Siberian Islands, we search for ice fossils: actual flesh trapped in ice and frozen for thousands of years.
In the instance of the best-preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology, an adult female—a rare find in itself—fell into water. Or, perhaps, she became bogged down in a swampy ravine. The mammoth could not free herself, and she died. Along with the water, her body froze. Even though the specimen’s upper half had been thawed, rotted and been partially eaten by predators, the lower half was encapsulated in pure ice, preserving it perfectly for the last 10,000 or more years.
Ten thousand years seems a long time, but it’s not the length of time that matters. It’s the consistency of the preservation that matters, how deep and how thorough the freeze. The Siberian permafrost has been perfect for preservation. Now, the permafrost is melting, and it’s our task to find the best remains before the specimens are compromised.
To dig in such conditions, we use short poll picks to chip away the ice surrounding the body. I was digging that day along with my new assistant, a student named Benedick, on his first excursion to the islands. It was early June, which is near the end but very much still winter in the Arctic. I was dressed well to repel the cold ocean winds, but we had been carving away the ice for a long time, and we were all tired.
In one slight miscalculation of metal pick to ice, we pierced the mammoth’s flesh. And it bled. The blood was very dark, and it came from muscle tissue that we later discovered was also the color of fresh meat. Large drops fell heavy into the packed snow of the pit where we dug. The blood oozed over the poll pick, and then it oozed onto the fingers of our gloves. It reminded me of the olive oil the priests use when they baptize a new life and pray, with Christ's help, that he will elude the grip of sin.
It took a few moments for my mind to catch up with what my eyes saw. But then I knew that this blood was a blessing better than gold.
“How is it possible for the blood to remain in liquid form?” Benedick asked.
“The blood of mammoths likely had some cryo-protective properties,” said Semyonev. “We think their hemoglobin let go of its oxygen at cold temperatures. It would have allowed them to live in extremely cold environments and survive. Think of it as a natural anti-freeze.”
When Semyonev later spoke to reporters, he said, “This is the first time we have managed to obtain mammoth blood. No-one has ever seen before how the mammoth's blood flows.”
* * *
The islands of this archipelago were first sighted in 1773 by a Russian merchant. Over the next hundred years, various ships brought back mysterious and unreliable reports of these islands. Rumors spread that they were made entirely of mammoth bones and tusks. Before this land became tundra, it had been the home of the mammoths and other great beasts from the Pliocene epoch. Besides their bones, they left some of the purest ivory found anywhere in the world. The islands, however, were not built of ivory as the first explorers said; the New Siberian Islands were constructed the same as any other islands: of rock and dirt, sand and ice.
I believe everyone who ventures into the wasteland of the Arctic does so with the intent of pushing open the borders of the world. In 1885, a young Estonian Baron named von Toll joined the first party set to explore Great Lyakhovsky Island, Bunge Land, Faddeyevsky Island, Kotelny Island and the western shores of New Siberia Island. In 1893, Toll led his own expedition into previously unmapped areas of the New Siberian chain. He headed again to the arctic in 1900, this time as the leader of the Russian Polar Expedition. His chief mission was to find Sannikov Island.
Sannikov, meaning “phantom,” was more sand and ice than any other material. Men had seen it and swore it existed, but there was no proof. Could an island completely disappear? Yes, of course. The ice and cold devour everything. If the perpetual winter of the Artic could destroy all the mammoths, then a small island could be easily consumed.
* * *
People who live in the Arctic know that, while perpetual winter will make you cold, wet and exhausted, you must never allow yourself to exist in more than two of these conditions at once. Survival depends on such simple rules. This is the first axiom taught to those of us visiting the tundra. What they don’t say is that the most important survival tool in the Arctic is never to lose hope.
Twenty years ago, like my father with death, I feared but longed to see a polar bear. Always, we’ve taken the bear threat very seriously, but now I worry when the polar bears are absent. The first one I saw was terrifying but majestic. The last one I saw was dead from starvation. He had no remaining fat. Reduced to nothing but mere bones and hide, he died where he dropped.
Climate change is affecting the whole world, or it will. Ice levels are already reduced to record lows. The warming planet thaws the permafrost and allows us to find perfectly preserved specimens of woolly mammoths. The warming earth also reduces the arctic sea ice where polar bears live and hunt. Less sea ice causes polar bears to range extraordinary distances in search of food, more and more unsuccessfully.
My father was afraid of so many things: of rats in the attic, of trees too close to the house, of bad drivers on the roadways. If he had known all that I know to be afraid of, he would not have brought children into this world.
* * *
Like elephants today, mammoths lived in matriarchal herds. This mammoth would have been grazing with her sisters when she decided to step farther into the watery ravine. From a cursory look at her teeth, she was nearly fifty years old. That’s a good age, but had she avoided this watering hole on this day, she might have lived another decade or longer. Maybe she was sickly already. Maybe that’s why she ignored any warning signs of the swampy conditions and proceeded into the lake. I imagine she drank long and greedily at the frigid water. It was too late when she realized the mud and debris at the bottom of the ravine had claimed hold of her. She would have struggled, of course, but thick mud can out-wrestle even a mammoth. The other females of her herd might have come to her aid, but in the end, the mud was too strong. She would finally have given up in exhaustion, collapsed into the water. Surely, the weight of an adult mammoth would have rippled the mud. No longer able to breathe, her trunk and mouth fell under the surface. That is why the lower jaw and the tissue from the tongue are so well preserved. Later, after the herd had mourned and left the body like an island in the sea, some predator—perhaps a saber tooth cat—came along and made a good meal on the upper torso left above water. Soon after, the temperature dropped. The water began to freeze. Snow fell. Ice formed. This happened again and again for thousands of years, preserving this ancestor of all future mammoths.
* * *
I spend too much time worrying I’ll become like my father even though I have worked my whole life to be exactly the opposite. I want to move forward instead of sitting still. I want to go out and see the world instead of lament its dangers. I want to stare down my fear instead of cower from it. Isn’t my life as a mammoth hunter proof?
My father had little faith in God and less in science, but he taught me to pray. Specifically, he taught me to pray to accept the things I can’t change. He never understood what wonderful changes we can bring to fruition. My own hands have collected mammoth wool and bone marrow, soft tissue and fat tissue. Now, I have seen the mammoth’s blood flow. Ten thousand years old, and still it flowed as if pumped through a living, beating heart. Never before have we been closer to our goal to bring back the mammoth.
I have worked to change the unacceptable. My father never spoke that part of the prayer with conviction. If he were alive today, he would forbid me to mention the New Siberian Islands, let alone travel to such a place. “There’s nothing there but bones and snow,” he would say. But he would be wrong. There is life buried beneath the snow, deep within the permafrost. There is life everywhere if you’re brave enough to see it.
* * *
The best-preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology died about 10,000 years ago. We estimate that other mammoths survived in small pockets across the Yukon and Siberia up until 3,000 years ago. Our planet was changing as much then as it is now. The same time the last of the woolly mammoths, Mammuthus primigenius, walked and ate and breathed, the human population was busy doubling from seven million to fourteen million souls. The Mesopotamians built the first cities and invented proto-cuneiform writing. The Mayans counted the days and devised their calendar. Upper and Lower Egypt were unified. Women in what is now Columbia formed the first clay pots of the new world. Otzi the Iceman was murdered viciously in an Alpine mountain pass. Men in Newgrange built an underground observatory and searched the skies, perhaps, for the same answers we look for.
These are only a small number of events that we remember or rediscovered over time. In another 3,000 years, what will our descendants remember about us? That we traveled to the moon for the first time? That we endured atrocities of war and genocide? That we harnessed atomic power, for better or worse? Should the human species survive another 3,000 years, this will be the century that humans are recorded either as yielding to the depravities of global warming or turning back the damage we caused. Our descendants will speak of this time either as when foolish humans brought about the extinction of the polar bears or as the time when de-extinction returned mammoths to planet earth.
* * *
I wish I could say that it was my own hand that slipped and brought forth the flowing blood from the mammoth, but it was young Benedick’s. His usually steady hand succumbed to cold and missed the intended layers of permafrost. Once we tempered our shock, we collected several vials of the blood, some for our own lab and others to be shipped immediately to our scientific partners in South Korea. Then, with renewed energy, we freed the carcass from its 10,000-year-long tomb. We wrapped the beast in plastic and made preparations to transport it to our laboratory in Yakutsk. We made every precaution to keep the animal safe until we could extract the genetic material we needed. A find such as this one was exactly what the Korean lab had been hoping for, and our excitement gave way to estimations of how long each next step would take. How much longer before the entire mammoth genome could be sequenced? How soon could DNA material from our mammoth be placed on the backbone of an Asian elephant, resulting in stem cells? How much longer until stem cells derived from this work would inseminate an elephant egg? The results will not be exact, but eventually, a new mammoth will be born, and sometime later, there may be an entire herd. If the samples from our find are as pure as we hope, our mammoth will be, perhaps not the mother, but the grandmother of all future mammoths.
Despite his earlier enthusiasm, Benedick looked troubled.
“I don’t know that it was ever real to me,” he said after I pulled him aside. “Not until I saw the blood for myself. Then, all the possibilities became eventualities. And because it seemed improbable, I never worried myself about the ethics.”
“It’s complicated,” I agreed. I had worried about the ethics of it already and for a long time.
“I’m not sorry I was there,” Benedick said, “but I feel more uncertain about what we’re doing than I felt before.”
“It’s because you’ve now come so close to the reality of it,” I said.
“Doesn’t any of it scare you?”
“Of course,” I said. “But we should face what we don’t understand. Have a bold heart, Benedick!” He was such a serious boy, so earnest. It was easy in such moments to see my younger self in him, and because of this, I began to understand the fatherly feelings that had grown in me for the boy.
“Think about the tundra as it exists today,” I said, and I, too, pictured the shrubs and gangly larch trees that grow there. “In your lifetime, you will see mammoths roaming the land, as well as millions of grass-eating animals like wild horses and musk oxen. If we bring back the mammoth—if we re-wild the tundra—we will transform the frozen north into grassland. We could even reduce the temperature of the entire earth.”
The science behind this was sound and relatively simple: The permafrost is thawing at an alarming rate. Grazers keep wild grasses short. The grasses send up new growth shoots throughout the summer and autumn. The animals’ manure nourishes the plant life. The complex root systems of the grasses stabilize the frozen soil. Without animals, snow in winter insulates the ground, but with animals trampling down the snow, the cold air is better able to reach the earth. The cold air keeps the permafrost from thawing and releasing greenhouse gases.
“If we can bring back the mammoth and transform the tundra,” Benedick said, “the odds increase that we will save the polar bear.”
“Not to mention the countless people who will die every time the earth’s temperature rises another degree.”
“It really is like a miracle, isn’t it,” Benedick said.
I knew this wouldn’t be enough to satisfy Benedick. He would need time and much more reflection to find his own peace with our role in creating a new world, but he went to bed somewhat comforted.
I was exhausted too, but I left our hovel to wander outside. Why I felt careless on such an important day, I couldn’t explain, but I did. I was cold to the bone and a little afraid, but I passed through the electric fence and walked away from the sound of the sea waters, deeper into the island where there was plenty of snow still on the ground. The sun never slept at that time of year, but it was lazy and dull, and I would have given my last pair of clean, dry socks for a sun with some heat in it.
I very much believed all that I had said to Benedick.
Chekhov once wrote how man should recognize himself as superior to the beasts around him, superior to all of nature, or else he isn’t man but a mouse. The same argument has been used for decades by industrialists and capitalists, polluters and gas-guzzlers. Reading Chekhov is like reading the Bible. You can twist a verse to get whatever meaning you like, but it doesn’t make it true. You have to find the truth within the core of your being. Your works will show whether you’re pure or tainted, and until there are works to show, there is only your conscience.
* * *
Further into the island, it was easy to forget the time of day, as well as the year and even the millennium. The land probably hadn’t changed very much from 3,000 years ago or even 10,000 years ago when the best-preserved mammoth in the history of paleontology lived and breathed. The cliffs were exposed, whipped rough by the wind. There were no trees. Only earth and sky. I imagined the scene as it must have been then, without people but not without life.
I felt in my pocket, and I found one of the vials of the mammoth’s blood. We had collected so many, I had held this one back. Had any human ever carried such magic in his possession? At that moment, samples of it were flying across the globe to South Korea. Vials just like this one had been numbered and were waiting myriad tests back in Yakutsk. And there was still the remainder of the carcass that certainly held more of the mammoth’s blood.
I removed the glove of my right hand and then the lid of the vial. With fingers shaking from the cold, I painted my face with the rich red blood.
My father’s voice asked, “How will you explain that when you return to camp?” but something without words spoke to me even stronger.
I loosened the wraps around my neck and my heavy parka.
“You’ll catch your death on this God-forsaken island,” said my father’s voice. “What if a bear smells the blood?” his voice asked. “What if the blood is full of toxins? What if you’re poisoning yourself? Aren’t you afraid? You should be very afraid,” he said again and again.
Wetting my finger again, I reached under the neck of my shirt and drew a line from the base of my throat as far down my chest as I could reach. Before it dried in the cold air, the blood felt slick on my skin, the memory of my finger against my chest lasting a few seconds longer.
My cheeks stung from the wind, and I wondered how long it would take until my skin stopped feeling anything at all? Part of me wished I could sit down in what snow remained and plant myself there for eternity. In that short time, my core temperature dropped. I quickly secured the vial and replaced my warm clothes.
I thought of my father and how afraid he would have been of my life. He never could have sunk into the cold dirt and felt at peace with this island of death and genetic new beginnings. His eyes would have scoured the horizon for the hungry polar bear that was going to eat him. I shouldn’t make fun. It’s not a lie that the bears are dangerous. Just this year, one broke through an electric barrier in Canada and mauled a hunter before being killed. Like all polar bears in these sad days, he must have been mad with hunger.
I was also mad with hunger after so many years of trying to understand my father and his fears.
For two decades, his voice in my head was strong and enduring, but it was a false echo ringing in my brain. The voice never answered my questions. He never explained why he gave up the fresh air of the outdoors, the green grasses of summer, the public places where he might have met his friends and shared a drink. And finally, he wouldn’t tell me what it was like to have embraced his death after so many years of hiding from it.
I realized I had taken all these unarmed, solitary walks into the island to keep my father’s voice from falling extinct in my head. What would he say if he knew that I’d taken such risks just to be nearer to him?
For the first time, I couldn’t think what my father would say. I went deep inside of myself, searching for his words, but there was only the sound of the wind as it blew off the sea and across the island. My father’s voice had disappeared. There was a terrible silence.
I remembered mornings before school when I would enter the cave of my father’s bedroom, where he sat in a stuffed armchair like a defeated king, the curtains drawn against the rising day. I would bend down to tell him goodbye, and he would place his hand on the crown of my head and warn me of all the dangers I might face. If going for a walk in the woods, he would caution me to look up and watch for limbs that might crash down on me from above and kill me before I could return to the safety of our four walls. Such was the best blessing he knew to give, though more often, it felt heavy as a curse. I grew older and he grew weaker. At the end of his life, he reached his hand across my skull but said nothing.
I carried the weight of his hand in my memory for many years, but that day with the mammoth’s blood painted across my chest, I had a new thought. Perhaps my father had been like the mammoth whose blood I now wore. He had been bogged down in panic and fear for so long that there was no way out but death.
In his last great adventure, the explorer Baron von Toll and a few men became stranded on these islands during a terrible winter. When no ship could reach him because of the thick ice, he attempted to cross the frozen Laptev Sea on foot hoping to reach the continent. I pictured those men walking across the water. No one knew what happened to them, but history accepts that they did not reach safety.
I like to imagine von Toll and his men might still be out there somewhere, still walking. Maybe they walked far enough back in time so they had seen the herds of woolly mammoths and the saber tooth cats. Maybe they walked so far forward that the mammoths of the future surround them.