Happy People, by Werner Herzog

Brain Dropping #134

       Happy people.  It’s below zero this January morning in northwestern Vermont, but the sun is brilliant and the reflected light from the snow shocks the eye.  I can’t help thinking about Genady and Anatoli, two Siberian sable trappers of the Taiga.  The Taiga is a conifer forest in Siberia one-and-a-half times the size of the United States. As the Taiga advances toward the Arctic Circle the trees disappear and the treeless land becomes the permafrosted Tundra.  The lives of the two trappers, depicted in the film “Happy People” by Werner Herzog, are elementally, organically interconnected with their stark environment.  From their little town of Bahktia, on the banks of the mighty Yenisei River, flowing 3,420 miles to the Arctic Ocean, they set out during trapping season for remote trapping grounds a hundred miles or so from the village.  Each man has his own trapping zone of hundreds of square miles, where he sets his traditional traps made with a hand axe from the trees of the Taiga. In the Summer season, fighting off clouds of mosquitoes, he prepares several rudimentary trapping huts with provisions and firewood which provide shelter as he makes his rounds on handmade skis, to collect the trapped, frozen-solid sables. In the awesome silence of the forest he encounters bears, lynx, wolverines, moose and elk.
        Although Herzog paints an idyllic picture of folks who seem to be self-sufficient and perfectly comfortable in their remote surroundings, I have become concerned with Genady and Anatoli.  Genady, in particular  won my deep respect by his contemplative manner and quiet dignity.  When they are at home in Bakhtia with their wives and children, gardening (the growing season although short enjoys almost 24 hours of sunlight encouraging quick maturity in vegetables.) or carving traditional dugout canoes, the warmth of the community of trappers and their families makes for a happy life.  But when they set out in sub-zero temperature on their snow-mobiles and with trusty dogs running alongside, they are cut off from all communication.  In one amazing scene in the film, Genady in returning from the trapping grounds for Christmas with his family, travels on his snow-mobile for ten straight hours, through the winter darkness with his dog running along side, the dog never riding on the snow-mobile, never stopping to rest.
        The effect of this film and the lives of the trappers, has crept into my thoughts just before sleep comes to me under my down comforter. I worry about Genady breaking a leg, or his snow-mobile breaking down hundreds of miles from any safe haven, with no cell phone – no way of calling for help. As I drift off I think of strategies for getting Genady, his dog and his load of sables safely back home.
        When I was a young art student I was told that the very best brushes for oil paint were made from Russian Sable.  They are among my most prized possessions.  

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