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Far North — an introduction

The seed of Far North was planted during a trip I made to Ukraine in December 2000. At that time, I was writing and presenting a number of programmes about the former Soviet Union for British television. During that period, I visited northern Siberia four times, travelling deep into the Russian arctic by plane and reindeer sleigh, reported from the bombed out ruins of the Chechen capital Grozny, interviewed the then President of Azerbaijan, and talked to victims of state repression in Uzbekistan.

It never occurred to me then that the things I had seen might be material for a novel. Apart from anything, it was hard to imagine what united the refugees and the reindeer herders, the oil-rich strongmen of the Caspian, and the cowed and bereaved people I met in the Fergana Valley — apart from the geographical accident of sharing what had once been the territory of the Russian Empire.

Then in December 2000, I met a woman living with her elderly mother in one of the abandoned settlements inside the 30 kilometer exclusion zone around Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station. She was one of the so-called “self-settlers” — people who have ignored the ban on residing within the zone to return to their former homes and live, as they did before the accident, by farming a small-holding.

Her name was Galina Petrovna. She was in her late fifties, had buried her husband — an alcoholic — kept a cow, chickens, and raised cabbages on the tainted land of the exclusion zone. She earned a little money labouring at the experimental farm inside the zone where the effects of radiation on animals and crops were being studied.

She was very friendly, teased me with salted mushrooms that she knew I would be too faint-hearted to eat, and gave me some of her powerful home-brewed spirit. Despite my imploring her to speak Russian to me, she kept slipping into a regional dialect which I couldn’t follow.

Apart from the bizarre location of her small wooden house and its fields, there was little in her life to set it apart from that lived by many people in rural areas of developing countries. I suppose I saw her existence as an image of how my great-grandmother might have lived had she stayed in rural Italy rather than emigrating to the United States. Galina seemed to me to embody an aspect of my cultural past. There was a lot to admire in her doughtiness, her practicality, her resourcefulness, self reliance, and her total lack of self-pity. And of course, there was a dose of condescension in my thinking these things about her: the driver in his new car tooting his horn and waving as he passes a horse-drawn cart.

In 2004 I made a feature-length documentary for British television about climate change. In the course of filming it, I travelled to Alaska, Calcutta, glaciers in the Swiss Alps, and returned to Chernobyl and its exclusion zone to consider whether nuclear power might be one solution to the problem of our dependence on carbon-emitting fuels. I was also lucky enough to interview James Lovelock, a British scientist who has done much to shape our thinking about the Earth, its environment, and humanity’s relationship to it. He is the originator of the so-called Gaia hypothesis, which posits that the Earth functions as a single, self-regulating organism. He has warned repeatedly that humanity’s appetite for oil and coal has brought us to the brink of catastrophic and irreversible climate change.

He said much the same thing when I interviewed him, but his gloomy prophecies were lightened by a mischievous manner and the obvious pleasure he took in the beautiful countryside around his North Devon home. What he said then also made me think that the science of climate change — the ice cores and the graphs of carbon concentration, mystifying talk of clathrates, and thermohaline conveyors — obscured simpler insights about our utter dependency on the planet for our wellbeing, and the truth that underlying the whole course of human evolution is a basic struggle for food and shelter.

I was struck in particular by Lovelock’s observation that the very sophistication of the life we have grown used to renders it susceptible to upheaval. Very few of us have any grasp of the technology that makes our lives easier and more productive than the lives of our ancestors.

It’s clear that as civilization advances, certain kinds of knowledge become obsolete. The farrier’s son puts on a tie and gets a job in a bank, or at a call centre, or as a tour guide. At the same time, the wide knowledge and physical competence that was characteristic of his forebears is replaced by specialization. This is the price of progress.

It’s hard not to feel that many of us have lost a once instinctive relationship with fundamental natural processes. We have come to accept the extraordinary unhesitatingly, and to give ourselves too much credit for the pure accident of our birth at this historical moment, when centuries of technological expansion, of investment, and sacrifice — and the profligate use of the planet’s wealth — have allowed us to live blindly, without feeling the cold, or the heat, or understanding the engines in our cars, the microprocessors in our phones, or the food in our refrigerators.

Returning to Chernobyl in 2004 I began to wonder if I had got things the wrong way round. Galina might be ignorant of the benefits of the world-wide web, mobile telephony, and sushi restaurants, but in a reduced world, a world of hardship brought on by famine, or disease, or war, or the kind of industrial accident that had happened in Chernobyl, or the upheaval envisaged in the direst of Lovelock’s predictions, my specialized kinds of knowledge would be of very limited value, while the ability to recognize edible mushrooms, grow cabbages, or preserve food, would be precisely what was needed to survive. And since women are naturally more long-lived than men, it struck me that the endgame of human existence on this planet might resemble life in the Exclusion Zone — wildlife reinvigorated by human absence, a woman with no heirs, past childbearing age, growing food on poisoned land.

The speculative books and films I grew up with tended to assume that the passing of time would only enhance our scientific expertise. I suspect this is an assumption peculiar to our epoch. For a thousand years after the fall of Rome, the cultural and technological highwater mark of human achievement was considered to be behind us. I wondered if our descendants might look back on us with the same combination of awe and mystification that a mediaeval goatherd would have felt among Roman ruins, or that the self-settlers might feel in Pripyat, the post-nuclear Pompeii, among the ghostly relics of Soviet power.

I thought too about Westerns, where stories about lawmen and outlaws, cowboys and Indians, are also allegories about the coming of civilization to a wild and lawless land. And I wondered if it was possible to conceive of a Western that took place where civilization was unravelling.

And I began travelling into a world where Galina’s life was a glimpse not of my ancestor’s past, but my children’s future. And that is how this book began.