Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Burning Ground of Siberia

     On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers. Who could resist buying a book with that title? No even my wife, who is a slow and perfunctory reader. It turns out the original edition was published in 1892, the year after the events described, and the year the author, Kate Marsden became the first woman elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Geographical Society. She presents as an upper crust English spinster with a strong Christian vocation to help the needy. As a girl of 19 she served as a nurse in 1878 in the Russo-Turkish War, where she first witnessed the ravages of leprosy. When she heard of a mythical herb used to treat leprosy which grew only in the Yakutia, she was determined to find it, and in late 1890, armed with referrals from Queen Victoria and the Empress of Russia, she set out on a 3,000 km journey into the heart of Siberia in order to locate the plant, to report on the condition of the lepers, and to otherwise lend assistance to them.
     Her account includes descriptions of being packed like human sardines in guest houses where the stench of body odour was overwhelming, and being wrapped in so many layers of clothes that, looking more like beach ball and unable to move her legs, she had to be lifted onto the sledge. As for the lepers, their condition may well be imagined, for life in Siberia is terribly hard, even to the fit and healthy. However, what is of particular interest here is her description in chapter 11 of a section of her trek in Yakutia, in particular, the second night's journey from a place called Sredni Viluisk.
     By this time, they were traversing a deep forest while it was still daylight, and she was no longer on a sledge, but mounted on a horse, for only the second time in her life. Then she noticed that the horses' footsteps sounded strange, as if walking over a tunnel.
The tchinovnick [protodeacon] explained that this was one of the places where the earth was in a state of combustion. The fire begins a long way below the surface, and burns slowly, still more slowly when there is no vent for the smoke. The burnt earth creates great hollows, and there is always danger of a horse breaking the crust and sinking into the fire. I thought little more about the matter except speculating on the causes of this alarming phenomenon in the bosom of Mother Earth.
     Night came on, and all was gloom around us. By and by I thought I saw in the distance several lights; going on a little farther the lights became a glare, and then my horse grew restive and almost unmanageable. We emerged from the forest and stood in an open space. What an unearthly scene met my eyes! The whole earth, not the forest, for miles around seemed full of little flickers of fire; flames of many colours - red, gold, blue, and purple - darted up on every hand, some forked and jagged, some straight as a javelin, rising here and there above the earth, and, in places, seeming to lick the dust, and then, having gained fresh energy, springing as high as the others . . . Coming, full of nervous apprehension, out of the dark forest on to such a scene, I half fancied that those flames were endowed with life. The lurid spectacle looked like a high carnival of curious creatures, let loose for a time from their prison-house, careering about in fantastic shapes. Blinding clouds of smoke every now and then swept into our eyes, and the hot stifling air almost choked us.
     They had no choice. Unless they turned back, they would have to go through it. While the horses hesitated, snorted, and trembled, they picked their way through the flames. Miss Marsden slipped her feet onto the edge of her stirrups, just in case she needed to dismount in an emergency. She never expected to get through it alive. However, all went well for about three miles, when suddenly one of the baggage horses in the rear bolted, having stumbled into one of the holes. It was all they could do to prevent the others from doing the same, but once the horses had calmed down, she loosened the reins and let her own mount choose its own path, for she could not see a thing through the smoke.
     Once past the burning ground, her ordeal was still not over. Back again in the dense forest, she found herself blinded by the darkness, and while her horse repeatedly stumbled, her own face kept being struck by branches. Fortunately, she said, she had a collie dog which always followed their Yakut guide. It was black with a white tip to its tail, and that tip of white became her guiding point through the darkness.
     What could have caused this unusual phenomenon? Fires issuing from the earth are not unknown in other parts of the world. What is needed is a combustible substance and access to air. There are some cases of derelict coal mines where fire has been smouldering for ages. It is unlikely that anything like that was involved here. I suspect that the combustible material was something like peat, or natural gas, perhaps methane clathrate. Perhaps fissures or natural tunnels provide access to air, and the fire was started naturally or deliberately. Do anybody have any ideas?

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