Dissolving Earths

Chapter 1: Geological Liminality 
Chapter 2: Dreary Cacophony 
Chapter 3: Bubbling Cultures from the Subsurface 
Chapter 4: Histories Dissolving Earths 
Chapter 5: Inscribed Bodies 
Chapter 6: Reaching Out To Touch Deep Time 
Chapter 7: Decaying into Newly Forming Futures 
Chapter 8: Permafrost as Cosmos

The Dissolving Earths programme has been a journey through imaginations and evocations of worlds as they dissolve and reform, revealing a multitude of pasts and ominous futures. The precarious permafrost landscapes hold the deep past, suspended for millennia in their frozen realities, yet as the annual thaws of their upper layers deepen into their core, these long-undisturbed pasts are emerging to redirect the contemporary in precarious and unimaginable ways. This vast expanse of frozen organic matter is gradually degrading; rotting plant, animal and microbial ecosystems from millennia past are released into the atmosphere. The unfathomable quantities of methane and carbon emerging from the deep will change the face of our planet’s future for eons to come. In the immediate moment, microbial lives and viruses emerge from slumber; alien to our contemporary they exacerbate change in our already rapidly shifting global ecologies. Locally, these shifts are palpable; landscapes and livelihoods face new challenges that disrupt knowledges of the land that have been passed down from generation to generation no longer stand true. From a distance, these out-of-sight seismic markers of change risk being out of mind; their imminent threat to global catastrophe only visible on the horizon for those paying attention. Dissolving Earths is a fabric of interlinking conversations between artists, scientists and thinkers, both those whose lives are embedded in the land across Sakha (Yakutia) and Buryatia regions of Eastern Siberia and those tracing their implicit entanglement in the land from afar.

Chapter 1: Geological Liminality

The silences immersed in the permafrost hold a particularly poetic and philosophical position in what is otherwise seen as a linear histography of the earth’s crust. In geology, era are neatly taxonomically delineated, each divided by an agreed ‘golden-spike’ in the strata: a marker in the geologic record of a global event that has led to long lasting environmental changes imprinted on the enduring geological material. Contrary to the familiar, cohesive geological diagrams and timelines displayed on school room walls, a complete geologic record doesn’t exist anywhere in the world: it would have been necessary for an area to have been receiving sedimentary deposits continually ever since the origin of the earth, without erosion and redistribution. On my home shores of Margate, the fossilised remnants of the Cretaceous period resurface with the daily tides; further along the British coast in Devon, the Jurassic period erodes from cliff-sides. Throughout the planet’s lifetime, Cambrian has intermingled with Devonian; Permian with Triassic, Palaeocene with Pliocene. Where these clues from the past reveal themselves to us in the present, they intermingle with the Anthropocene reconfiguring their materiality for future eras.

Permafrost, on the other hand, refuses these clear-cut delineations from the offset, instead, it holds a constant space for intermingled pasts. Covering almost a quarter of the world’s landmass, soil, rocks and sand is held together in an icy cocoon, and suspended within it, unable to decompose in the deep cold, lies the organic debris of a multitude of past eras. In one of the Dissolving Earths podcasts, cultural theorist Astrida Nemanis rethinks her premise for water being in a constant want to move and reform; the underlaying premise for what she has coined Hydrofeminism, a lens through which to see watery existence as our entanglement with ecology, planetary beginnings and time. Instead, through her conversation with Sakha-based permafrost hydrologist Nikita Tananaev, water in the form of permafrost becomes a body that wants to stay still, accumulating in age and holding the past undisturbed. As the planetary climate warms this is increasingly refused; and as this land shifts, animates and dissolves, so do the stories and heritages it holds.

Artist, Peter von Tiesenhausen was the first to satiate my curiosity in permafrost. Having started out in his twenties in the extraction industries, first logging and then in the oil field – the pre-set path for young men born on the Canadian Prairies – von Tiesenhausen is intimately aware of the destructive nature of our species and the ease at which millennia of nature’s cultivation can be destroyed by willing hands. He admits he cut down more trees than anyone could plant in their lifetime. His specialism became drilling through permafrost, first in Northern Canada and later in the Acrtic. He relays stories of the ecosystems he would discover on digs; entire forests frozen underground, mosses, tangled roots, animal remains and mammoth tusks. As they surfaced the dug-out frozen soil, millennia-old grass seeds would sprout to life; yet out of their prehistoric environment, they lacked the ecosystem to pollinate and once grown, would wilt back into the past. The organic material suspended in the permafrost holds captive more carbon than all the planet’s contemporary forests combined. As the planet warms, the permafrost is thawing at an alarming rate, releasing its gigatons of carbon and methane. Newly-unfrozen ancient microbes, bacteria and viruses, some known to be at least 400,000 years old, reawaken from their dormancy to infiltrate and unbalance our current fragile ecosystems. But it also offers new scientific knowledge and possibilities. This geological body holds and reveals a multitude of entangled pasts, yet its activation of these pasts – reawakening them in the present – will determine futures. The permafrost is not only a liminal space, but one of potent agency.

Chapter 2: Dreary Cacophony

Two years ago, paleontologist Alexey Galagin wrapped a heavy polecat fur coat over my shoulders and ushered me down a staircase below the offices of the Permafrost Institute in Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic. Above the surface a coal-faced Soviet block housed a labyrinth of labs, research collections, and a warren of narrow corridors of small, florescent-lit offices, each stacked with books, folders, papers, and – in the case of Alexey – femurs, jaws, vertebrae, tusks, and unlabelled bones of the ancient inhabitants of the far corners of this land. The chambered stairway, through which we were now descending, was filled with rails of hanging furs of different colours and textures, pelts of animals I couldn’t identify. It felt like entering through the cupboard of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and we were indeed stepping into another world. The door at the bottom of the stairs case led to another, and yet another going deeper into the earth; each staircase door closing out a warmth and welcoming a thicker, mustier coldness.

I had traveled for days to be with this: to touch it, to smell it. Yet the permafrost was nothing of what I was expecting. Now I understood Alexey’s bemusement beforehand, at my insistency that we visit the tunnel: he knew I would be disappointed. Peter had coloured my imagination but it had only become more vibrant in my mind’s eye as I sought out more tantalising information. In conversations with paleontologist Tori Herridge, at the Natural History Museum in London, I had heard of 12,000 year-old-moths still bright with ice-age age pigment and the dazzlingly golden feathers of an 8,000-year-old horned lark. In the Soil Cryology Laboratory in Moscow, a seed cache of Silene stenophylla, a plant native to Siberia that had been buried by an Ice Age squirrel near the banks of the Kolyma River 32,000 years ago, was geminated into flower. And newspapers told stories of 42,000-year-old microscopic nematode worms returning to life after a long-term slumber in the Siberian Arctic permafrost.

The city of Yakutsk is built entirely on permafrost, yet underpinned by piles bored deep into its frozen soils – from the surface, it looks like any other city, with its coffee shops, bus stops, monuments and malls. Having taken the pilgrimage to the city known as the ‘coldest city in the world’, 4,900 kilometers as the crow flies from Moscow and 24-hours drive to the next city in good weather – I was hoping to meet and be with an ecosystem of thousands of years ago. Like Jules Verne’s inversion of Plato’s Cave, I was expecting a cacophony of worlds within worlds, that I could reach out and touch and swim through in the imaginary. Instead, what surrounded me in the fluorescent strip-lit tunnel was non-descript, earthy walls of frozen soil. Ice danced on the pipework above that carried the electricity for the piercingly blue-white lights overhead, hexagonal florets building angular architectures of captured moisture across the ceiling. But the permafrost soil itself seemed dry, motionless and devoid of liveliness.

It was in the coming days, over steaming cups of coffee, bus journeys struggling to stand on slippery icy floors and shared packed lunches offered in paleontologists’ offices that this unanimated soil came to life through a multitude of tantalising anecdotes and intimate stories as a flood of new people entered my life. 

Chapter 3: Bubbling Cultures from the Subsurface

Our worldview forms from our geological subsurface; our thoughts bubble up from below. During my time in Sakha, I was struck by the facelessness of the landscape: arriving by air at dawn, the sun’s first rays poured over the land unhindered. The flatness allows the light to wash over it; devoid of undulations or landmarks, a liquid expanse of uninterrupted, icy white. Later, speaking with anthropologist, Lena Sidorova, she recounted her equal awe at the stone and brick architectures of Cambridge in the UK: most of the buildings are from 19th-century urban expansion, but the city centre and most of the university buildings are much older, some dating back to the 13th century. A brick-and-mortar register of time. Whilst I grew up with material relics of the past, marking my existence within in a linear temporality of the world, made of histories, the Siberian tundra lacks stone, as such markers of time have much shorter lifespans; ‘the museums here are filled with artifacts and people talk proudly about their long heritage. But these revered 19th-century artifacts are like yesterday in comparison to the time you are surrounded by in the UK’. Sidorova doesn’t talk about the wider taboo implications of this, but I later learn of the repressed history of ruthless colonisation of the tundra and oppression of the indigenous Sakha communities. Throughout human history, the processes of colonisation are often a campaign of decoupling local relationships born from the landscape; hierarchically structured doctrines, a combination of religion, language, culture, and social and political structures are deployed, wrenching colonised peoples from their cultural and environmental roots. Traditionally the indigenous Sahka communities are mainly nomadic hunters or reindeer herders, or on the coast, some are seal hunters or fishers, but since the Cossack’s conquest of Siberia during the 16th and 17th centuries, numerous genocides, expulsions, destruction of ecosystems and refusal of land rights have largely extinguished this way of life. This decoupling from the land took a drastic acceleration during the 20th century; incompatible with Soviet ideals, nomadic and tribal life was condemned through various regulations. Education became mandatory, encouraging the adoption of a Soviet lifestyle from a young age and undermining links to traditional practices and values; torn away from their families, children were forced to attend Russian-speaking boarding school for eight years. A resettlement programme, throughout the 1950s and 60s, forced remote families to relocate to towns and cities, and without access to their traditional livelihoods of the land, they were forced to take up Soviet jobs. Throughout the Soviet era, indigenous populations across Siberia suffered huge cultural dissolution, disconnecting their kinship with the land. The human rights violations continue today, preventing a return to indigenous relationships to the land that was taken from them. But this sadly is nothing unique; the violence of colonisation, throughout human history, is one of severance and uprooting. Furthermore, the drive of the capitalist programme and the thirst for overconsumption has driven a global detachment from the lands, ecologies and realities that make life on our planet possible. In his 2018 book, Down to Earth, Bruno Latour argues that the perspective of the Global – the view solidified in the popular consciousness of the planet as a falling body among others in the infinite universe of Galilean objects – grasps all things ‘from far away, as if they were external to the social world and completely indifferent to human concerns’. Humanity has seen the planetary from the viewpoint of space, a globe to be capitalised in a universe waiting to be conquered. He argues that this has caused us to become detached from the vital planetary relationships that make life on Earth viable; ‘Little by little, it has become more cumbersome to gain objective knowledge about a whole range of transformations: genesis, birth, growth, life, death, decay, metamorphoses.’ Since mobilisation is not possible as long as nature is conceived of in the abstract, we need to resituate our concept of ‘homeland’, linking ourselves not to false notions of nation-states, but to a soil – a Heimat, as Latour writes – with all the dangers that link soil and people. Learning new ways to inhabit the Earth is our biggest challenge; Latour argues that ‘bringing us down to earth’ is the new political task.

In the concrete of the industrialised world, we find it hard to empathise with the ecosystems out of sight. Discussions of the Anthropocene take place in academic settings: concepts debated rather than experienced. As with most of the people I met in Yakutsk, Sidorova is native Sakha and was born in a countryside dacha, moving to the city when she was older. But her anthropological work has been with the nomadic people of the North, a small and dwindling minority who have managed to maintain some of their traditional autonomy. She explains that while we in the metropolis believe ourselves as being at the ‘centre of things’ and those living remotely as being detached and on the periphery, conversely that those small communities still living in the harsh remote regions of the tundra feel themselves to be innately at the heart of the world: closer to the earth, stars, moon, sun and sky. As opposed to the industrialised linear time of endless onwards progress to the point of exhaustion and ruination, these communities–attuned to the seasons and nature’s circadian rhythms–live within a circular sense of time, one of renewal and reciprocity. Without stone, culture is ephemeral and oral, demarcated by the metronomes of the seasons, moons, stars and life cycles of both human and non-human inhabitants of the land. Sidorova relays the tradition of gifting a baby at its birth a newly written song, the child carries the song with them through life and it disappears back into the earth at death. In the context of the Anthropocene, it feels vital to learn from this entwined and sustainable way of life, to tune ourselves back into an empathetic, symbiotic rhythm with the planet.

Чистые песни луны
Воспеты во многих стихах
Дивные крылья северного сияния
Описанны многими словами
Но этой ночью я подумал
Что лишь мое сердце знает
Истинное звучание этой луны
Верхушки замерзжих деревьев проносятся мимо
Искры ночного неба
Мерцают над тихим лесом
Острая стрела пути
Пронзает сердце ночи
И месяц тихо тихо
Бежит передо мной
Мысли скользят мимо
Уносясь к северному сиянию
Мой олень с крыльями ветра
Несет меня к моей судьбе
Песня кончаясь сливается с тьмою
Когда нибудь я снова вернусь
На землю при такой же луне

– Mikhail Umanov

I ask Sidorova about their relationship to the permafrost, but she dismisses the question, ‘It’s just the ground! I had never heard this word ‘permafrost’ before coming to Yakutsk.’ She remembers her bus coming into the outskirts of the city, pausing at the stop outside the Permafrost Institute and the word permafrost lingering with her; a realisation without explanation of its study-worthy implications. ‘We used it though; each house in the dacha has an ice cellar carved out of the permafrost, traditionally used to store meat and dairy’.

Whilst the concept of the permafrost is relatively new, the culture of the diverse Sakha communities is nevertheless shaped by this frozen ground. World over language, customs and beliefs are born from their local landscapes; this is what binds communities together in collective identity and shapes our concept of the world around us. Subsequently people live in very different conceptual spheres: as linguist Benjamin Whorf describes, ‘for the Hopi a new sun rises every day’ and ‘the Navaho-speaking people categorise colours by intensity rather than hue’. Decoupled from the daily life of their native landscapes, world views fall into irretrievable silence. In Sakha, communities grasp of their traditional culture is palpably fragile. Throughout the 20th century, there have been attempts to relearn indigenous knowledge and rekindle lost culture. For example, during his prolific career, artist Stepanov Timofey Andreevich (1943-2003) created more than 300 paintings, capturing in imagery the remembered, fragmentary cultural histories, legends and beliefs of the Yakut people. In thirty large-scale compositions, Yakut Heroic Epic – Olonkho (1979-1997), Stepanov tells the stories of Olonkho, a series of Yakut heroic epic tales from an aural tradition, where each can contain several tens of thousands of verses. Yet, whilst the cultures born from the historic landscape are held precariously, recent stories are relayed of the equally precarious contemporary land: by mid-December the rivers should be frozen, enabling ice-fishing and herding routes that so many people depend on for their livelihoods, yet the warmer climate means not only the postponement of this staple food source but tragically stories of fatal accidents on unstable thin ice. In Yakutsk–with its concrete, tarmac and sweltering central heating–it’s easy to forget that below our feet we are underpinned by this precarious frozen matter. Those who I spend time with at the Permafrost Institute and the University of Yakutsk–paleontologists, permafrost geologists and cryomicrobiologists–all grew up much further north; villages embedded in the life cycles of the permafrost and the resurfacing of the deep-past. They each relay common childhood experiences of playing out in the countryside in the steaming summer, to come across bones, absconded from the ice during the spring thaw. Though their various Sakha, Chukchi, Evenk, Even and Yukagir heritage has minimal lasting material memories, their relationship to a much longer ancestorial heritage is ingrained in their worldview, beyond our species and entangled in contemporary life.

For the Dissolving Earths programme, I spent many hours in deep discussion with artist al-yené. She grew up in the village of Zyryanka, nestled on the northern edges of the Kolyma River, three hours flight from Yakutsk. Built-in the 1940s, by those in exile or seeking work in the then-lucrative coal mining industry, it is now a rapidly disappearing community, as its inhabitants flee the expensive costs of living so remotely, dwindling opportunities and increasingly destructive annual floods. The village now slips into degradation, physically and in the memories of those who once lived there. Her new film, örüstyla, ventures into this dreamlike space with its shifting land and river; where lost language is intertwined with the imagination of the landscape and the non-human communities it holds. Names of animals and birds are depicted in the original Sakha script, holding on to a kinship with the local Sakha ecologies that has slipped with contemporary life, imprinted by Soviet politics of linguistic homogeneity. Commissioning the typeface, especially for the piece – which didn’t previously exist as a digital font – al-yené re-enlivens the disappearing landscape of Zyryanka with the poetic remnants of her endangered mother tongue and its forgotten original script.

At the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, Maksim Cheprasov, Director of the Mammoth Museum, himself Yukagir, unravels the innately interwoven relationship between the landscape, ecology, the animals of the past and human history; they can’t be studied in isolation from one another. To study the mammoth is not only to study biology, paleontology and geology but also to study anthropology and mythology. According to the Yakut mythology, the universe consists of three divided worlds, which were formed after the long war between the tribes of Uluu Toion, Ürüng Aiyy Toion and the leader of evil spirits Arsan Duolai: the upper worlds (the sky, populated by the gods), the earth as an in indeterminate space in between (the land of the people) and the lower worlds (the abode of the malevolent spirits, called the Abaasy). Horned cattle and sacrificial horses were offered to appease these underground spirits and mammoths are believed to be the only traversal creature, emerging from the depths of Arsan Duolai’s satanic underworld, able to travel between each of the worlds. It is often argued that mythology has a commonality across the globe and Sakha worlds have been likened to Christian heaven and hell; from a Jungian perspective this is explained as expressions of the collective unconscious, embedded in the land and expressed as part of the human species as a whole, encoded in our psyche. However, the interpretations of mammoths within differing local depictions and variations on the mythologies undeniably reflect the varying historical relationships with the creatures; whilst some communities lived alongside them as contemporaries or would have found thawing whole beasts emerging from the ice as the land mass changed, others depict them as horned bulls, most likely because they have only come across bare tusks and bones. Cheprasov explains that in some Sakha traditions, as the mammoth travels from the lower world to human one, and comes into the light and the air, it dies when confronted with the new atmosphere. Remains of the mammoths in many of the indigenous communities were–and still are–seen with suspicion or fear, not wanting to anger the lower world. The Abaasy can drive people mad, send calamities and diseases, and feed on the souls of animals and people: the mammoths are seen as their messengers. Could this have been a reflection of the real life dangers of coming into contact with ancient defrosting animals in time of thaw, carrying with them viruses from past ecologies? The Yukaghirs, Koryaks and Chukchi more accurately describe mammoth’s anatomy in historic depictions that other indigenous groups and traditionally see them as an assistant to the shaman rather than a beast to be feared. Reading the variations in these mythologies has helped Cheprasov and his colleagues chart the historical relationship between humans and the mammoth: it’s likely that the Yukaghirs and the Chukchi in the North were the last to see the living mammoth. Cheprasov’s research has found that these mythological stories correlate with the scientific evidence: people arrived in Siberia at least 44,000 years ago and started to settle down on the land, while many of the mammoth remains found in the Kolyma River region are only 32,000 years old. Stories around the mammoth vastly differ in each communities’ tradition, depending on their historic movement over the land through the generations; tracing the mythological depictions in cave drawings and oral traditions, give vital clues to paleontologists and geologists about the changing land and climates. And so mammoths, like their mythical portrayals, have taken on a traversal role in contemporary science also: narrators of the many silenced pasts of the Siberian landscape.

Chapter 4: Histories Dissolving Earths

Near Chertsey, at the extremities of Northern Yakutia, permafrost defrosts into a murky, stinky decomposing sludge and washes away in streams, revealing ancient bones as ecologist Nikita Zimov tours the land of his nature reserve.

As Anna Tsing et al write in their opening argument of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, ‘Anthropogenic landscapes are also haunted by imagined futures. We are willing to turn things into rubble, destroy atmospheres, sell out companion species in exchange for dreamworlds of progress.’ The permafrost is a brutal example. In Yakutsk, permafrost geographer, Alexander Federov, documents the eroding of Viliui Sakha villages; over a ten-year span aerial photographs of one village sees it slump into disarray, houses sinking and crumpling unable to hold themselves up on the degrading permafrost below. Underground softening shows itself on the surface as a pattern of circular islands of persevering landmass. There is little that can be done; the only option is to uproot the entire village and transfer it to more stable land. Federov describes the necessity of humans to adapt; adapt by moving their settlements. Yakutians are on the front line of the climate crisis, yet in the depths of winter, many leave their engines running overnight to prevent them from freezing, pumping out their fossil fuel gases to warm the atmosphere further. At first this attitude could be seen as a dominance of the capitalist drive for progress, making us feel invincible in the security of the metropolis and exponential development of technology, promising the eventual emancipation from organic life that we have thus far depended on. Yet, as I spend more time meeting other geologists, paleontologists and geographers at the University and the Permafrost Institute, I realise a fundamental difference in our concept of time, theirs born from more circular traditions, and surrounded by bygone species, an awareness of our momentary existence on the planet.

A vast, sparsely populated and harsh region, Sakha reaches up to Russia’s northern coastline, far above the Arctic Circle, and southwards to Lake Baikal and the Aldan Plateau. Though seemingly desolate, it teams with life below the surface. In the Williams Museum of Soil and Agriculture, in Moscow, vast rooms map earth core samples, each visibly different, recording the recent history of the land, its ecosystems and dynamics. This upper layer of the earth’s crust is alive with feedback loops of mutual exchange; this underground biome, quietly operating out of sight, gives life to the planet. The seemingly vast uninhabited landscapes throngs with life below: small mammals and birds, insects and worms, and a vast complex network of microbial communities, in harmonious balance of life and death, organic and non-organic. From a planetary perspective the biosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere mimic these feedback loops on a larger scale. Fedorov’s research maps these relationships over extended periods of time as they impact the permafrost geographies, from that of living memory to maps tracking changes over millennia; an exercise in the analysis of change, in particular its innate and precarious relationship with humanity.

Chapter 5: Inscribed Bodies

These ancient bodies, emerging from the ice, carry with them the inscriptions of their past connectivity and interrelations. Bodies are always inscribed with history.

al-yené tells me of an issue that has been burdening her and her visits to a Sakha shaman who traces it back through the generations; pinpointing a globule of taught history knotted into her corporeal tissue. My body too is inscribed with the unknown inherited trauma passed down through generations of Jewish mothers, its genesis long forgotten but manifesting palpably in the daily struggle with generalised anxiety disorder of myself, my sister, mother… grandmother…. great grandmother.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a rigorous exploration of ‘the body as archive’ within contemporary art circles. The eminent choreographer, Okwui Okpokwasili, whose work unfolds the innate inscription of history on the female black body, accumulated over the generations, once poignantly she asked: ‘What do you carry that carries you?’ This may sound like mere poetics, but the body is as much an archive as any other collection of histories pieced together. Our behaviours and genetics have been irreversibly altered throughout the centuries, accumulating the interactions with their quiet bruises, both social and environmental. They surface with us daily, bubbling always underneath. A striking example is traced in the DNA of Caribbean populations, the history of violence is clearly read in the predominance of indigenous and black female chromosomes, coupled with the vast majority of male white chromosomes in the contemporary populations: a clear lineage of colonisation, slavery, murder and rape. In our new urgent ecological era however the idea of the ‘body’ can no longer be limited to the human. All bodies hold archives: human and non-human; organic and non-organic; from the cellular to the geographical; mountains, waters, air. Asking the same questions but in a palaeontological context, Cheprasov reads the life story of each mammoth through clues left in the dental structure: clearly delineating times of pregnancy and weaning, lack of food in periods of drought, physical strain when moving territory or in illness. Paleobiologist, Daniel Fisher, has been visiting Sakha regularly over the past 20 years and has developed even more intimate technologies for reading the ingrained stories captured by the mammoth remains. Fisher discovered that in the cross-section of a mammoth tusk, visible delineations depict annual cycles, with obvious periods of prosperity and struggle. Scanning the tomography of mammoth tusks further revealed a detailed diary of the daily life of the mammoth; annual rings possibly divided into 364 daily finer rings, grouped into seasonal shifts and moon cycles. The mammoths’ stories, laying dormant for tens of thousands of years, now sit in dialogue with ecosystem mappings of the past; and in doing so help the cryogeographers and other scientific teams forecast the futures of the permafrost landmass and its repercussions.

Sharing the land for some 30,000 years, the bodies of butchered mammoth remains show signs of early human intervention into the Siberian ecosystems; changing climates forced a battle for species’ survival, many now extinct, whilst humankind continues its plundering of the planet. While most indigenous populations live in ecological equilibrium, sharing the land with other species for collective cross-species kinship, the contemporary landscape is now imprinted by human intervention beyond the local. The gas-heating of the room I sit in to write this text, the clothes I wear, the metals of my laptop components; all intertwine with the multitude of inflictions on the entangled planetary ecologies that shift the moss growth of the Northern-most Siberian shores, or thaw the Chertsky ice a few feet deeper this summer, or….

Chapter 6: Reaching Out To Touch Deep Time

I had initially considered titling this text, The Smell of Siberia in the Summer. It quotes a second-hand story of a pre-eminent paleontologist’s joyous exclamation and a deep sensuous inhale of the stench of the laboratory air when arriving at a mammoth autopsy. The Siberian permafrost landscape always smells of slowly rotting organic matter in the summer thaws. In the walk-in freezer at the cryobiology lab with Maksim Cheprasov, at the North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, I stroked the coarse fur on the trunk of a 32,000-year-old mammoth. I could smell its decomposing flesh; 32,000-year-old particles of organic matter floating through 21st-century air and absorbing into my body.

When two hands touch, in the seemingly simplest of interactions, a seismic clash of individual experiences, histories, and socio-political contexts collide momentarily together. The same is true of the interactions between the deep-time era of the permafrost; ecosystems reaching out from another epoch. As the permafrost melts away, uncovering and enlivening the past, it touches the present. Barad’s human bodies can be stand-ins for these geological ones: ‘Many voices speak here in the interstices, a cacophony of always already reiteratively intra-acting stories. These are entangled tales. Each is diffractively threaded through and enfolded in the other.’ For human touch though, there is an impenetrable boundary at an atomic level. A physicist’s description of touch would be one of its innate impossibility; ‘touch’ is an electromagnetic repulsion between the electrons of the atoms that make up your fingers and that of the other. The geologic, on the other hand, refuses to recognise its boundaries; it oozes, seeps and permeates. When what appears to be the stability of our environment, reveals itself to be a state of non-linear flux, this larger narrative throws our conceptions of ‘society’–a mass of interrelated delineations, bound together and vibrating amongst one another in the modern era–into existential quandary.

It is this desire to reach out and touch – to care and show compassion – that underpins much of the conversations that we have undertaken within the Dissolving Earths programme. For those of us who are not from Siberia, it is a complex web of questions of what it means to be implicated in a landscape, yet is nevertheless one which we have little or no first-hand experience of. And even for those participants, who have been born in, live in, have lived in or have spent time in the Sakha and Buryat regions, the full expanse of these regions, let alone the entirety of the permafrost landscape, is so vast and so diverse that personal perspectives are necessarily anecdotal. We know it is vital and urgent to talk about the permafrost, but how does one attempt a dialogue with a landscape so impenetrable and so far from home?

Pleistocene Park is just over a thousand miles northeast of Yakutsk, in the Russian Arctic. In the summer, it is a four-day drive from Yakutsk, but by late autumn the route becomes impossible. A six-and-a-half-hour flight from Yakutsk to Chersky would have got me a little closer, but the journey would have ended there. The land closes itself off to humans for the winter. It had been one of my main reasons for wanting to visit Sakha, yet these vast distances and the impenetrable landscape didn’t dawn on me until later. Arriving in Yakutsk, over the icy flat brilliant-white expanse, piercing in the low early morning sun, for a Londoner had seemed like arriving at the end of the earth; yet this is the gateway for a thriving world, most of which sits beyond the realms of any human eye.

It was not until the early 20th century that permafrost was named and an interest grew in studying and exploring this underworld phenomenon. In 1927, scientist Mikhail Ivanovitch Sumgin, initiating the study of geocryology as an independent branch of science, published Permafrost Soils in the USSR; this seminal book brought together disparate studies of crystosphenes (some dating as far back as the 18th century) and delineated the boundaries of what constituted permafrost with ground-breaking insights and hypotheses. In naming and categorising, he hauled the frozen matter out of the ubiquity of generalised ‘ground’. Once bounded linguistically, it could become a space of contention, and its permeations tracked, quantified and politicised – though seemingly not protected. Artist and researcher, Nikolai Smirnov first introduced me to Sumgin’s ambitions to instrumentalise ‘the present for the sake of the Future’ in his concept of the Subterranean Museum of Eternity. He proposed that the permafrost offered a place to preserve valuable documents, samples of plants, animals and even corpses of people for future research, relying on the natural preserving properties of the frozen soils; though only partially completed, it followed in the lineage of Soviet utopian projects, most notably the space programme and Nikolay Fedorov’s Russian cosmism movement. Dubbing the permafrost the ‘Russian Sphinx’, a nickname imbued with the unfathomable enigmas it concealed, Sumgin recognised the permafrost as a place of scientific esotericism.

However, the study of permafrost is a conflicted zone; between plundering for present gain and gaining knowledge of the past in order to plan for the future. Modeling the permafrost was instrumental in conquering the harsh landscapes of the Artic regions, enabling destructive engineering and construction projects; yet so too has an imaginative space arisen for cutting-edge ecological, medical and biological technologies. Since the 1980s, in Northern Sakha, near to the Arctic town of Chersky, geophysicist Sergey Zimov has been monitoring shifts in the carbon cycle, methane fluxes and paleoclimatic trends, and has charted the link between permafrost soils and carbon sequestration; he has subsequently devoted his life to a rewilding project, Pleistocene Park, reintroducing large herbivores to the Siberian tundra in an attempt to reproduce (or at least mimic) the subarctic steppe grassland ecosystem that flourished in the area during the last glacial period and slow the permafrost from further thawing and degradation. It is an attempt to offer a possible model to reverse global warming.

For Sergey, the permafrost is not only a space of ideological thought but a body that seeps into his being: ‘It’s in my genes. I always knew I had a mission: to bring back life here. Because for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres, this vast territory is now a biological desert.’ It is a project that holds an intimate dialogue with the deep past to create hope for a better planetary future. The Park is now co-directed with his son, Nikita Zimov. For the Dissolving Earths programme, Shezad Dawood has been corresponding through a series of hand-written letters to Nikita. Both have three daughters; both are parents anxious about the future of the planet for their children. Shezad reaches out through the tactility of the handwritten letter, a form harking back to a not-so-distant past where travel, communication and consumption was slower, in a contemporary world where human desire to colonise the planet, extracting to the extreme seems to have brought us to a terrifying tipping-point of no return. Their letters to one another, intimately touch from afar; with a shared allegiance for imagining a better future.

Chapter 7: Decaying into Newly Forming Futures

To travel underground into the permafrost is to travel at once into the past and the future; the icy tomb is a hypnotic space of geometric ice-formed crystals and layered frozen soil, thronging with silent unknowns and reawakening histories. But the overwhelming experience is that it smells: putrid. Vegetation and dead animal matter, suspended for millennia in the deep freeze, now starts to decay in its thawing state. According to the 14th century, theologian and mathematician Henry of Langenstein these deformities created through the process of decay can progress to such an extent that one species might engender an entirely new species, an unheard-of thing, a universe whose reality can only be speculated upon. The gradational movements of decay–its vermicular liquidation across all latitudes and longitudes–thus create fields of differential deformity wherein the rotting corpse of one species or formal category interpolates between all other known species. Eight millennia latter, we face this on a global scale. For Negarestani, decay of an organic body is analogous with the decay of a political body, and as such world politics and its systems–whether erected as a form of outright repression or on the side of emancipation–have every reason to be wary of a politics of decay. These two propositions merge however when considering the Anthropocene. The decay of the permafrost can be read–metaphorically, but terrifyingly also literally–as a sign of the decay of our social and political structures; the global equilibriums of pre-industrialisation have been knocked off kilter. The symbiotic evolution of modern living entities–human, non-human and ecosystems–and global socio-political structure, has pivoted on our pillaging of fossil fuels, the decay of the past, creating a contemporary life structure which itself is now on the brink of its collapse. The complex, fragile ecosystem of the modern era will decay into the earth’s surface to renew once again, in a post-human era.

In Yakutsk, I am surprised by the ambivalence of the scientists, geologists and geographers I spend time with. Their world view–shaped by circular time and situated so palpably in a lineage of deep-time within their ancient landscapes, littered with the remains if other eras–is also one focused on the evolutionary necessity of constant adaptation. Modern human’s colonisation of the globe is fleeting in the planetary timeline. Negarestani argues that systems or constructions are perceived or read as wholesome as various points in the gradation of decay. Edwin Abbott Abbott’s seminal satirical novella, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, describes characters living in one-, two- and three-dimensional worlds, bewildered, overwhelmed and angered by the unfathomable concept of other dimensions, only believing in their own dimensional reality. When the narrator, a square, travels to the three-dimensional world, he is unable to see anything other than a circle when he encounter’s a sphere. The story, intended as a critical analogy of strict Victorian society, can be used to consider our own determined fixation on linear progression within the fourth dimension; encumbered by our anthropocentric three-dimensional perception, we are out of touch with the porosity of time and matter in constant flux across infinite dimensions.

Across Siberian tundra thermokarst terrain pockmarks the land; temporary domes form in winter under the pressure from heaving frost, and in the thaw of spring ice thaws into clusters of freshwater lakes. A surface pattern marking the degradation below. Four hundred miles north of Yakutsk, one such depression holds the largest permafrost crater on earth, known locally as the Gateway to Hell. Daniel Fisher first heard of the Batagaika crater through palaeontologists at the University, excited about the exposure of new specimens. He describes it as catastrophic; over a 100-metre-deep crater has opened up, more than a kilometre across. The land began to sink due to the thawing permafrost in the 1960s after the surrounding forest was cleared; subsequent flooding enlarged of the crater and it has continued to expand exponentially as more and more surface area becomes exposed to the warmer atmosphere. This terrifying, expanding chasm into the earth crust, can be read through Negarestani analysis of decay’s inherent relationship to time, beyond a linear trajectory: decay as a space perforated by time.

These thawing permafrost openings into the earth, exposed nets of time and matter, through which the past, with its ancient creatures, resurface, perhaps explain where much of the Siberian mythology has emerged from: often blurring interiorities and exteriorities, entities and non-entities. As scientific knowledge develops it increasingly aligns itself with indigenous knowledge accumulated over millennia, tuned in to the circadian rhythms of the planetary that have fallen out of hearing range when living in modern society. Quantum mechanics describes the world as a reality comprised only of the relations between physical systems: rather than a world made up of ‘things’, ‘things’ only exist because they enter into relations with one another. The world of quantum mechanics is not a world of objects: it is a world of events.

To see the world through the reality of quantum movement, therefore, is to acknowledge delineation and taxonomy as fleeting–and as such a moot activity should one wish to exist in reality. To navigate a world determined by static categorisations is to shoehorn the nature of the universe into easily digestible anthropocentric two-dimensions rather than accepting the porosity of being. With this new understanding of reality, everything that we perceive as bounded–objects, people, land mass, oceans, the Earth itself–can no longer be described by its properties but instead has to be reconfigured in our minds as a set of relationships in flux. Whilst this leaps into unfathomable stretches of the imagination at a quanta level, the permafrost and the narratives that emerge from it can act as both an analogy and a tangible exemplar; the layered land in flux as an archive of interactions, revealing its past, present and future constellation of relations. The upper active layer of the permafrost–ever reinventing itself, a permeable skin to the earth’s crust–exhales and absorbs, reforming itself in a renewed solid state with every annual turn. Deeper into the more stable matter, where the deep past has been suspended over the millennia, ecosystems and ancient creatures exist in both the past and the present, in collective contemporary imagination and in the imagination of their peers, now diffused into other matter, they are inscribed by the past, as well as agents for inscribing the future.

* * *

Chapter 8: Permafrost as Cosmos

Many of the scientists and theorists who we shared dialogues with for the Dissolving Earths programme, both in Siberia and those from international projects working in collaboration with them, are working at the very edge of the scientific imagination, bridging the sci-fi imaginary with increasingly tangible realities. In 2011 study scientists extracted DNA from bacteria found in 30,000-year-old permafrost; and currently a Molecular Paleontology project led by Lena Grigor at the Yakutsk University is making steps to clone ancient cells, with the potential of recreating the mammoth and other extinct creatures. Cryonics companies in Michigan and Moscow, who hope to bring their ‘patients’ back to life in the future, follow these breakthroughs with vested anticipation; each study bringing them slightly closer to science fiction future. As the permafrost reveals its secrets, ancient agents creeping out of their long silent existence, seismic activity of unimaginable consequence will unfold and the balance of the planet’s ecology–and with it the future of all human and non-human populations–lays precariously at its mercy.

Reflection and refraction dances across this vast land’s surface in different and divergent ways. The exposed dark soils seep thawing heat into their depths during the warm summers, but the thick bright white snow of winter somewhat paradoxically insults the earth’s skin, holding in the summer warmth and refusing the land to refreeze into its depths it needs to survive. In Pleistocene Park, the Zimov’s cultivate grasslands to wrap the land in a natural protection; grasses reflect the penetrating sun’s rays far more than shrub and forest dominated tundra that has taken hold over the land in the past 10,000 years. Lake Baikal shimmers in the summer, its mirrored surface reflecting the sky back at herself; looking upon the lake it is clear why mirrors play such a prominent role in Buryat shamanistic practices.

Having traversed these vast lands through our collective imaginaries, from the thermokarst lakes of the north, the Zimov’s rewilding nature reserve, al-yené’s disappearing village, the Batagaika crater, the River Lena, and much more between, each time delving from the surface to the under lands below, I wish to end this narrative with the place that has captured my imagination throughout: Lake Baikal. Depicted as a wise old man in Buryat cosmology, the lake looms large in the cultural consciousness across region and has played a magical role in the imaginations of this project. The deepest and oldest lake on our planet, about 80 percent of the more than 3,700 species found at Lake Baikal are endemic, found nowhere else on Earth. The lake is kaleidoscope of creatures and ecologies. It’s estimated that there are more organisms in the soil under a single human footprint than humans on earth. Bacteria, fungi, protozoa, microarthopods, earthworms or millipedes, thousands of species teaming out of sight. In the soil of the tundra permafrost this multiplies indefinitely, as era are suspended in the deep freeze below. And below Lake Baikal, lies permafrost intertwining with nutriet rich hot springs bubblingup from worlds below. The frozen winter waters of the lake hold the deep water neutrino telescope, looking out to the universe, hearing the odd notes from the beginning of the universe. But I’m happy to bathe my imagination here in the waters: the lake is a vibrant cosmos in itself, a messy complicated and fraught entanglement of global ecologies and world views. It holds the story from the start of planetary being, and will retain these stories well beyond our fleeting presence.

During the summer, M sends me photos on WhatsApp. The icy landscape is burning, turning the skies orange. I can taste it in my future dreams.

Sophie J Williamson

Sophie J Williamson is a curator based between London and Margate. She is the initiator and the curator of Undead Matter, a project about the entangled lives of geological ancestry, deep time and ever-turning matter.

We are all bodies of water.

To think embodiment as watery belies the understanding of bodies that we have inherited from the dominant Western metaphysical tradition. As watery, we experience ourselves less as isolated entities, and more as oceanic eddies: I am a singular, dynamic whorl dissolving in a complex, fluid circulation. The space between our selves and our others is at once as distant as the primeval sea, yet also closer than our own skin—the traces of those same oceanic beginnings still cycling through us, pausing as this bodily thing we call “mine.” Water is between bodies, but of bodies, before us and beyond us, yet also very presently this body, too. Deictics falter. Our comfortable categories of thought begin to erode. Water entangles our bodies in relations of gift, debt, theft, complicity, differentiation, relation.


Even while in constant motion, water is also a planetary archive of meaning and matter. To drink a glass of water is to ingest the ghosts of bodies that haunt that water. When “nature calls” some time later, we return to the cistern and the sea not only our antidepressants, our chemical estrogens, or our more commonplace excretions, but also the meanings that permeate those materialities: disposable culture, medicalized problem-solving, ecological disconnect. Just as the deep oceans harbor particulate records of former geological eras, water retains our more anthropomorphic secrets, even when we would rather forget. Our distant and more immediate pasts are returned to us in both trickles and floods.

And that same glass of water will facilitate our movement, growth, thinking, loving. As it works its way down the esophagus, through the blood, the tissues, and to the index finger, the clavicle, and the left plantar fascia, it ensures that our being is always a becoming. An alchemist at once profoundly wondrous and entirely banal, water guides a body from young to old, from here to there, from potentiality to actuality. Translation, transformation. Plurality proliferates.

–Astrida Neimanis, Hydrofeminism: Or, On Becoming a Body of Water


Blocks of amethyst, walls of sardonyx, masses of rubies, needles of emeralds, colonnades of sapphires deep and slender as forest pines, bergs of aquamarine, whorls of turquoise, mirrors of opal, masses of rose gypsum, and gold-veined lapis lazuli all that the crystal kingdom could offer that was precious and rare and bright and dazzling had served as the materials for this astonishing specimen of architecture; and, further, every form, even of the vegetable kingdom, seemed to have been laid under contribution in the wondrous work. Carpets of mineral mosses soft and velvety as the finest gauze, crystalline trees loaded with flowers and fruits of jewels recalling the fairy gardens of Japanese art, lakes of diamonds, palaces of chalcedony, turrets and minarets of beryl and topaz, rose pile upon pile, and heaped together so many splendors that the eye refused to grasp them. The decomposition of the luminous rays by the thousands of prisms, the showers of brilliancy that flashed and flowed from every side, produced the most astonishing combination of light and color that had ever dazzled the eyes of man.

–Jules Verne, The Southern Star (1884)


The life of a region depends ultimately on its geologic substratum for this sets up a chain reaction which passes, determining their character, in turn through its streams and wells, its vegetation and the animal life that feeds on this, and finally through the type of human attracted to live there. In a profound sense also the structure of its rocks gives rise to the psychic life of the land: granite, serpentine, slate, sandstone, limestone, chalk and the rest each have their special personality dependant on the age in which they were laid down, each being co-existent with a special phase of the earth-spirit’s manifestation.

–Ithell Colquhoun, The Living Stones