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Book Review: New Path – A Window on Nenets Life by Alegra Ally

For the four-year-old Christina the vast open landscape of the tundra in autumn is her playground, and she makes a game of breaking the thin ice that forms over the pools of water. Gradually as the winter comes, the air becomes crisper and temperatures begin to drop consistently. The layers of ice begin to thicken and Christina finds great joy in rolling on the thick frozen ice.

In 2016, documentary photographer and anthropologist Alegra Ally travelled to the Yamal Peninsula in the Russian Arctic to study and document the way of life of the indigenous Nentsy. For two months, and accompanied by Zalphira, an interpreter. “The Khudi family, whom I lived with, is one of 12,000 Nenets still migrating along the same routes as their ancestors did for centuries.”

This book, she writes, needs to be seen “as part of a larger initiative called The Wild Born Project. Since 2011 I have used ethical photography and ethnography to document the traditional practices and beliefs underlying the major life events of indigenous women, From early rites of passage, through to pregnancy, birth and postpartum rituals, the world of women’s experience and wisdom has been the inspiration and foundation for my work as an anthropologist and documentary photographer. It is my intention, through these expeditions, to create awareness and appreciation for traditional knowledge and practices, and to contribute to the revitalization and traditional ways of life for future generations to come.”

Praskovya is 96 years old, and the oldest Nenets grandmother living on the tundra. Even at 96, her age does not stop her from spending many hours outside, helping with the herd, and cutting firewood.

I readily admit that after reading this I did not feel at all like spending time with this tome. Ethical photography? – give me a break! Document the pregnancy of women who are close to giving birth in order to create awareness and appreciation for traditional knowledge and practices? – sounds like one of these attempts of trying to identify a niche in our marketing-minded times. Moreover, I’m not into traditional knowledge and practices, my goal is to free myself up from social conditionings. Nevertheless, I had a good laugh when I learned that Nenets women, who are used to giving birth quietly, are in the Russian hospitals encouraged to shout and scream.

Anyway, I did not put the book away. Instead, I decided to concentrate on the aspects I warmed to – and learned quite some interesting and useful facts about the daily lives of nomads. And, about climate change. But first things first: What immediately caught my attention when opening this tome were the photographs of the wide and icy landscape on the first few pages – I simply love them! To me, this is how eternity looks like. Apart from these, my favourite pic shows four-year-old Christina rolling on the thick frozen ice – this pic alone is worth acquiring this book!

“Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is,” the Bhagavad Gita says. And, as much as I agree, there are also facts that do exist regardless of what my belief is. That the climate is changing, we all can observe, and feel. And that means it is getting warmer. Alegra Ally experienced it first hand when she thought the Nentsy would embark on the first leg of their migration across the tundra with a herd of about 800 reindeer when she arrived in autumn – yet it had to be postponed for winter was late this year.

The sledges are an important aspect of the Nenets way of life. They are used for all aspects of their
travel and migration, as well as for storage. There are at least two sledges designated for food storage. Like portable refrigerators, these sledges are used to store frozen meat, bread, butter and other staples.

“Without the snow, they cannot begin their migration. Uncommonly warm temperatures and unstable weather patterns that have temperatures rising and falling dramatically have created a muddy wetland that is unstable and treacherous for the reindeer to traverse, Lyonya tells me, ‘Ive never seen the soil so muddy in autumn’.”

It was quite a trip for Alegra to get to the Khudi family camp – a flight from Moscow to the northern Siberian city of Salekhard, followed by a 12-hour journey in an all-terrain vehicle across the tundra. “Arriving at the family’s camp, I see only a vast empty horizon and two dark pyramid.shaped chums with crisp plumes of smoke rising from their tops.”

If you want to understand what climate change really means in daily life, this book is a valuable introduction that also provides you with a glimpse of the intense life that the Nentsy are leading.


New Path – A Window on Nenets Life
by Alegra Ally
Published by Schilt Publishing available in stores and online for $50 https://www.schiltpublishing.com/shop/books/new-releases/new-path-a-window-on-nenet-life/

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

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