Tag Archives: culture

Well-Formulated Plans

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, I’ve been on one hell of a journey in the last two years. Shortly after my last post, I picked up a third part-time job to help make ends meet. I was working well over 40 hours a week and did not have the time and energy to keep you guys updated on my journey.

That said, I’ve had a wild ride! Post-2015, I wanted to put my health and happiness first by cleansing and purifying my life. I wanted to reduce my life down to the essentials in an effort to cultivate mindfulness, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency.

But you know how all well-formulated plans work out in the end… I thought the answer was to throw myself into anything and everything that came along. I thought the answer was to follow my immediate desires, I told myself that I would do what I want when I want how I want. As a result, I had six part-time jobs at one point in 2016 (only three of which were actually paying me anything substantial). On the plus side, I ended up losing a lot of weight but that was only because my income varied between $500-$1300 per month and I just couldn’t afford to feed myself. Whoops.

This clearly was not working out. I had to come up with a new plan, so I officially closed down my store at the end of 2016 and started to look for full-time positions. Luckily, I was able to negotiate a promotion with one of the companies that I was already working for and became their Business Development Director at the start of 2017.

This was it, I thought. This was The Job that I had been waiting for. They knew me, they liked me, they believed in my abilities, and, above all, I was finally going to get a proper living wage! They were excited for me to get to work and get their business organized, systematized, and self-sufficient. I dove into everything related to business management, I read books like:

Image result for the coaching habit

 

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

An excellent book for managers of all types, Stanier gives concrete steps on how to connect with your staff members in a way that focuses their efforts, saves time, and develops their potential. Highly recommend.

 

Image result for one minute manager

 

One Minute Manager Series by Kenneth H. Blanchard and Spencer Johnson

Another excellent book for managers, Blanchard & Johnson provide three very simple, easy-to-follow steps to give both negative and positive feedback to staff members. Highly recommend.

 

After studying business management for a while, I started to notice this trend of connecting with staff members in a way that was not really taught in business school. These connections were forged using honesty and integrity in a direct and compassionate way. Successful business leaders were coming out and saying that, yes, interpersonal skills actually matter. Pushing ahead through sheer force of will and ambition was no longer seen as effective, and, in fact, could be downright destructive to a business’s success.

This idea (and the issues that I was seeing in my own job when it came to people management) pushed me to start looking a little deeper. It seemed like, at the end of the day, an organization could only grow so far as its staff members’ willingness to self-improve. Basic business skills could be taught, but there would be no growth beyond the fundamentals unless the staff members were willing to see room for further improvement within themselves. If you’re trying to get new results, you have to try new things.

I have to admit, I was absolutely enraptured by this concept. Since I was on my own Transformative Journey, I immediately saw the potential benefits in this type of approach. But, first, I had to convince everyone else of its merits, so I picked up books like:

Image result for an everyone culture


An Everyone Culture
by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey

A great examination of how to build successful businesses by investing in your employees. The whole concept of “An Everyone Culture” revolves around how to make growth mindsets not only encouraged at work, but a required part of day-to-day routines. How can leadership embolden and drive employees to constantly and consistently self-improve and push their personal boundaries? Highly recommend.

Image result for radical candor


Radical Candor
 by Kim Scott

Scott is a genius. She somehow manages to boil down the idea of driving employees to embrace growth mindsets to the simplest formula: care personally but challenge directly. She provides salient examples of what goes wrong with Ruinous Empathy, Manipulative Insincerity, and Obnoxious Aggression in the workplace while simultaneously displaying the merits of using Radical Candor instead. Highly recommend.

I spent a lot of time trying to translate these concepts to the people I was working with, but had limited success. Then, out of the blue, the universe blessed me with a little nugget of gold via my step-sister’s Instagram. She posted a picture of an article that she was reading as part of a work conference. I don’t remember which article it was in particular, but it was published by this organization called the NeuroLeadership Institute.

The NeuroLeadership Institute? You mean, they combined leadership theory with neuroscience? Like, they can actually see how the brain functions in leadership scenarios? I just HAD to look into this, so I googled it up and found a sole Handbook of NeuroLeadership available on eBay. Sold!

I was instantly hooked and, a couple weeks later, I found myself reading the 600 page tomb of research articles for fun! (I mean, really, who does that?) But I found article after article absolutely fascinating, from how insight happens and the neural substrates of decision making to the neuroscience of mindfulness and applying empathy and mirror neuron concepts to neuroleadership.

When I discovered that the NeuroLeadership Institute offered online certificate courses, I knew I had to enroll. But that’s a story for another time! I will cover how the NeuroLeadership Certificate course changed my life in my next blog post. Until then, love, peace, and clarity to you all!

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Bookmarks

Who Knew? Arts Education Fuels the Economy – The Chronicle of Higher Education

http://m.chronicle.com/article/Who-Knew-Arts-Education-Fuels/145217/

Leave a comment

Filed under Spotlights

Thoughts on Life and Art

I’ve had a lot of time to think in the past couple months, mostly due to my general unemployed-ness (I’ve been picking up a few odd part times jobs here and there to pay the bills, of course, but I mostly consider myself unemployed).

And one thing, among many, that I can’t help but notice is the apparent continuation of the contemporary trend I wrote my thesis* on: western society’s overwhelming transfiguration of “the other.” Or, in more simple terms, our glorification of, adoption of outward form and appearance of, and transformation and attempt to constructively collaborate with “the other” (aka other ethnicities, other genders, other sexual orientations, and so on and so forth).

This trend first developed in the world of “high art” as a response to the deconstructive-ness of postmodernism. Postmodern artists deconstructed the hierarchical western canon, claiming, for example, “Hey! Black and women artists are just as important as those old white guys!”

But once the canon was turned upside down, artists were left feeling a bit lost. It’s like emerging from a bomb shelter after a nuclear war and realizing that all is chaos. Thus, artists started returning to the basics, the building blocks of how living things interpret and experience their environments.

This caused artists in the 60s and 70s, for example, to start exploring the five senses and performance art; how the audience directly experiences a piece of art.

Some artists have started to glorify and exalt “the other,” effectively starting the transfiguration movement. One more contemporary, popular culture example of this is the 2004 film version of Phantom of the Opera with Gerard Butler as the Phantom.

In the 1909 book, the Phantom is an ugly, terrifying creature. In the 1925 film and the 1976 musical, he is human, but remarkably deformed. In the 2004 film, he is a downright sex object. He is viewed as a valid romantic interest for Christine and we, as the audience, are encouraged to empathize with him.

Other artists glorified the imperfect human body since the western canon had previously only accepted the idealized human body The imperfect human body, here, is considered “the other” simply because it had been previously ignored or sugar-coated in art. This includes artists like Jenny Saville and Kiki Smith (see below images).

 

High-res →

Jenny Saville – Hem
oil on canvas – 1998-1999

 

“Semen” — part of “Untitled”, Kiki Smith, 1987-90.

In the second phase of the transfiguration movement, artists wish to change their own outward form and appearance to adopt the appearance of “the other.” This includes artists like Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena (see below image.)

But this phase also includes more contemporary artists like Iggy Azalea and Lady Gaga when they dress in Middle Eastern and Indian garb (see below images).

Some would argue that the above artists are involved in cultural festishization, but that is a discussion for another time.

In the third phase, artists wish to transform global perspectives and encourage constructive collaboration across cultures. They do this in a variety of ways, some involve the audience in the artwork giving the spectators the chance to become the art-makers (performance art) and some attempt to understand the world from “the other’s” perspective.

Take the picture above, for example, that is a perfect example of the internet’s response to the infamous Shark Week. We are encouraged to place ourselves in the shark’s position, an animal typically feared or “other-ed.” But instead of fearing the shark, we empathize with it.

This phase is also evident in recent Disney movies like Finding Nemo and Shrek. No longer are sharks and orges scary monsters, but relatable protagonists.

 

image

 

This transfiguration movement is not just cultural, either, it has extended into politics and society at large. It is seen in the LGBT movement, the movement to accept those with mental, emotional, and physical disabilities, and, in the popular culture world, the hipster movement; it is now hip to be geek.

I see instances of contemporary transfiguration every day, and every time I see one, I want to scream out “There! Look, people!” Because art is no longer separate from culture. And culture is no longer separate from politics and societal movements.

I now use Tumblr and Facebook as my primary news sources, with a little New York Times and NPR thrown in for fact-checking. I no longer need to subscribe to fashion magazines because it’s all here.

That is what makes the regulation of the internet so troubling for some. How can we control the flow of knowledge and information if everything is available to all? Who can hold power?

That is exactly why I’m excited and scared by the future at the same time.

At this moment, actually, I’m staring at the Tumblr-suggested post to the right of my screen (if I can, I will reblog it once I finish this post, but I can also describe it for you guys just in case).

It’s a drawing of a computer (laptop?) and emerging from the screen, breaking the fourth wall as we call it in theater, are three raised fists. One is white, one is yellow, and one is green. And there are two sets of three “action” lines on either side of the hands. I see these as the hands of people around the world, sharing, learning, collaborating, and exalting through the computer, the internet.

I think I read somewhere that recently some organization gave a bunch of laptops to a poverty-stricken town in a third world country in Africa. They rigged the laptops so that they had limited capabilities for the people in the town, so that the people “would use them for the right reasons.” The people received these laptops, the first computers they’ve seen in their life, and within hours they had hacked into them and deleted all the restrictions the organization had programmed into them.

That is exactly what people in power are afraid of: giving the oppressed, the poor, the uneducated unlimited access to the information of the world.

I realize this post has veered off course, if this were an academic paper I would be agonizing over how the fuck I was going to conclude this in any logical way. But, hey, I just wanted to get my thoughts out of my mind and this is what happened.

Call it art. Call it bullshit. Call it what you will.

Welcome to Claire’s (unemployed) mind.

*thesis can be found at: https://www.academia.edu/1504353/Contemporary_Post-postmodernism_Transfiguring_the_Imperfect_Human_Body

1 Comment

August 8, 2013 · 9:35 pm

What the Brain Can Tell Us About Art

By ERIC R. KANDEL

Published: April 12, 2013

“THIS month, President Obama unveiled a breathtakingly ambitious initiative to map the human brain, the ultimate goal of which is to understand the workings of the human mind in biological terms.

Jonathon Rosen

Many of the insights that have brought us to this point arose from the merger over the past 50 years of cognitive psychology, the science of mind, and neuroscience, the science of the brain. The discipline that has emerged now seeks to understand the human mind as a set of functions carried out by the brain.

This new approach to the science of mind not only promises to offer a deeper understanding of what makes us who we are, but also opens dialogues with other areas of study — conversations that may help make science part of our common cultural experience.

Consider what we can learn about the mind by examining how we view figurative art. In a recently published book, I tried to explore this question by focusing on portraiture, because we are now beginning to understand how our brains respond to the facial expressions and bodily postures of others.

The portraiture that flourished in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century is a good place to start. Not only does this modernist school hold a prominent place in the history of art, it consists of just three major artists — Gustav KlimtOskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele — which makes it easier to study in depth.

As a group, these artists sought to depict the unconscious, instinctual strivings of the people in their portraits, but each painter developed a distinctive way of using facial expressions and hand and body gestures to communicate those mental processes.

Their efforts to get at the truth beneath the appearance of an individual both paralleled and were influenced by similar efforts at the time in the fields of biology and psychoanalysis. Thus the portraits of the modernists in the period known as “Vienna 1900” offer a great example of how artistic, psychological and scientific insights can enrich one another.

The idea that truth lies beneath the surface derives from Carl von Rokitansky, a gifted pathologist who was dean of the Vienna School of Medicine in the middle of the 19th century. Baron von Rokitansky compared what his clinician colleague Josef Skoda heard and saw at the bedsides of his patients with autopsy findings after their deaths. This systematic correlation of clinical and pathological findings taught them that only by going deep below the skin could they understand the nature of illness.

This same notion — that truth is hidden below the surface — was soon steeped in the thinking of Sigmund Freud, who trained at the Vienna School of Medicine in the Rokitansky era and who used psychoanalysis to delve beneath the conscious minds of his patients and reveal their inner feelings. That, too, is what the Austrian modernist painters did in their portraits.

Klimt’s drawings display a nuanced intuition of female sexuality and convey his understanding of sexuality’s link with aggression, picking up on things that even Freud missed. Kokoschka and Schiele grasped the idea that insight into another begins with understanding of oneself. In honest self-portraits with his lover Alma Mahler, Kokoschka captured himself as hopelessly anxious, certain that he would be rejected — which he was. Schiele, the youngest of the group, revealed his vulnerability more deeply, rendering himself, often nude and exposed, as subject to the existential crises of modern life.

Such real-world collisions of artistic, medical and biological modes of thought raise the question: How can art and science be brought together?

Alois Riegl, of the Vienna School of Art History in 1900, was the first to truly address this question. He understood that art is incomplete without the perceptual and emotional involvement of the viewer. Not only does the viewer collaborate with the artist in transforming a two-dimensional likeness on a canvas into a three-dimensional depiction of the world, the viewer interprets what he or she sees on the canvas in personal terms, thereby adding meaning to the picture. Riegl called this phenomenon the “beholder’s involvement” or the “beholder’s share.”

Art history was now aligned with psychology. Ernst Kris and Ernst Gombrich, two of Riegl’s disciples, argued that a work of art is inherently ambiguous and therefore that each person who sees it has a different interpretation. In essence, the beholder recapitulates in his or her own brain the artist’s creative steps.

This insight implied that the brain is a creativity machine, which obtains incomplete information from the outside world and completes it. We can see this with illusions and ambiguous figures that trick our brain into thinking that we see things that are not there. In this sense, a task of figurative painting is to convince the beholder that an illusion is true.

Some of this creative process is determined by the way the structure of our brain develops, which is why we all see the world in pretty much the same way. However, our brains also have differences that are determined in part by our individual experiences.

In addition to our built-in visual processes, each of us brings to a work of art our acquired memories: we remember other works of art that we have seen. We remember scenes and people that have meaning to us and relate the work of art to those memories. In order to see what is painted on a canvas, we have to know beforehand what we might see in a painting. These insights into perception served as a bridge between the visual perception of art and the biology of the brain.

So how does our brain respond to portraiture? As we look at a portrait, our brain calls on several interacting systems to analyze contours, form a representation of the face and of the body, analyze the body’s motion, experience emotion, and perhaps, empathy. Along with these instantaneous responses, we form a theory of the subject’s state of mind.

The brain’s representation of faces is especially important to the beholder’s response to portraiture. Our brain devotes more space to reading the details of faces than to any other object. We react strongly to the expressionist works of these Viennese artists, in part, because our brain contains specialized cells that respond powerfully to the exaggerated facial features these painters portrayed.

Moreover, the sense of stimulation we often experience when we look at a portrait is thought to be due in part to the activity of “mirror neurons.” Signaling by these cells in the motor areas of the brain can make us perceive the actions of others as if they were our own.

All of which goes to show that the real “eye” of the beholder is the brain itself.

Eric R. Kandel, a professor of brain science at Columbia University, a senior investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a recipient of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, is the author of “The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present.””

Leave a comment

April 15, 2013 · 2:41 pm

For 40 Years, This Russian Family Was Cut Off From All Human Contact, Unaware of World War II

  • By Mike Dash
  • Smithsonian.com, January 29, 2013
The Siberian taiga in the Abakan district. Six members of the Lykov family lived in this remote wilderness for more than 40 years—utterly isolated and more than 150 miles from the nearest human settlement.
“The Siberian taiga in the Abakan district. Six members of the Lykov family lived in this remote wilderness for more than 40 years—utterly isolated and more than 150 miles from the nearest human settlement. (Wiki Commons)
 

Siberian summers do not last long. The snows linger into May, and the cold weather returns again during September, freezing the taiga into a still life awesome in its desolation: endless miles of straggly pine and birch forests scattered with sleeping bears and hungry wolves; steep-sided mountains; white-water rivers that pour in torrents through the valleys; a hundred thousand icy bogs. This forest is the last and greatest of Earth’s wildernesses. It stretches from the furthest tip of Russia’s arctic regions as far south as Mongolia, and east from the Urals to the Pacific: five million square miles of nothingness, with a population, outside a handful of towns, that amounts to only a few thousand people.

When the warm days do arrive, though, the taiga blooms, and for a few short months it can seem almost welcoming. It is then that man can see most clearly into this hidden world—not on land, for the taiga can swallow whole armies of explorers, but from the air. Siberia is the source of most of Russia’s oil and mineral resources, and, over the years, even its most distant parts have been overflown by oil prospectors and surveyors on their way to backwoods camps where the work of extracting wealth is carried on.

Karp Lykov and his daughter Agafia, wearing clothes donated by Soviet geologists not long after their family was  rediscovered.

Thus it was in the remote south of the forest in the summer of 1978. A helicopter sent to find a safe spot to land a party of geologists was skimming the treeline a hundred or so miles from the Mongolian border when it dropped into the thickly wooded valley of an unnamed tributary of the Abakan, a seething ribbon of water rushing through dangerous terrain. The valley walls were narrow, with sides that were close to vertical in places, and the skinny pine and birch trees swaying in the rotors’ downdraft were so thickly clustered that there was no chance of finding a spot to set the aircraft down. But, peering intently through his windscreen in search of a landing place, the pilot saw something that should not have been there. It was a clearing, 6,000 feet up a mountainside, wedged between the pine and larch and scored with what looked like long, dark furrows. The baffled helicopter crew made several passes before reluctantly concluding that this was evidence of human habitation—a garden that, from the size and shape of the clearing, must have been there for a long time.

It was an astounding discovery. The mountain was more than 150 miles from the nearest settlement, in a spot that had never been explored. The Soviet authorities had no records of anyone living in the district.

The Lykovs lived in this hand-built log cabin, lit by a single window “the size of a backpack pocket” and warmed by a smoky wood-fired stove.

The four scientists sent into the district to prospect for iron ore were told about the pilots’ sighting, and it perplexed and worried them. “It’s less dangerous,” the writer Vasily Peskov notes of this part of the taiga, “to run across a wild animal than a stranger,” and rather than wait at their own temporary base, 10 miles away, the scientists decided to investigate. Led by a geologist named Galina Pismenskaya, they “chose a fine day and put gifts in our packs for our prospective friends”—though, just to be sure, she recalled, “I did check the pistol that hung at my side.”

As the intruders scrambled up the mountain, heading for the spot pinpointed by their pilots, they began to come across signs of human activity: a rough path, a staff, a log laid across a stream, and finally a small shed filled with birch-bark containers of cut-up dried potatoes. Then, Pismenskaya said,

beside a stream there was a dwelling. Blackened by time and rain, the hut was piled up on all sides with taiga rubbish—bark, poles, planks. If it hadn’t been for a window the size of my backpack pocket, it would have been hard to believe that people lived there. But they did, no doubt about it…. Our arrival had been noticed, as we could see.

The low door creaked, and the figure of a very old man emerged into the light of day, straight out of a fairy tale. Barefoot. Wearing a patched and repatched shirt made of sacking. He wore trousers of the same material, also in patches, and had an uncombed beard. His hair was disheveled. He looked frightened and was very attentive…. We had to say something, so I began: ‘Greetings, grandfather! We’ve come to visit!’

The old man did not reply immediately…. Finally, we heard a soft, uncertain voice: ‘Well, since you have traveled this far, you might as well come in.’

The sight that greeted the geologists as they entered the cabin was like something from the middle ages. Jerry-built from whatever materials came to hand, the dwelling was not much more than a burrow—”a low, soot-blackened log kennel that was as cold as a cellar,” with a floor consisting of potato peel and pine-nut shells. Looking around in the dim light, the visitors saw that it consisted of a single room. It was cramped, musty and indescribably filthy, propped up by sagging joists—and, astonishingly, home to a family of five:

The silence was suddenly broken by sobs and lamentations. Only then did we see the silhouettes of two women. One was in hysterics, praying: ‘This is for our sins, our sins.’ The other, keeping behind a post… sank slowly to the floor. The light from the little window fell on her wide, terrified eyes, and we realized we had to get out of there as quickly as possible.

Agafia Lykova (left) with her sister, Natalia.

Led by Pismenskaya, the scientists backed hurriedly out of the hut and retreated to a spot a few yards away, where they took out some provisions and began to eat. After about half an hour, the door of the cabin creaked open, and the old man and his two daughters emerged—no longer hysterical and, though still obviously frightened, “frankly curious.” Warily, the three strange figures approached and sat down with their visitors, rejecting everything that they were offered—jam, tea, bread—with a muttered, “We are not allowed that!” When Pismenskaya asked, “Have you ever eaten bread?” the old man answered: “I have. But they have not. They have never seen it.” At least he was intelligible. The daughters spoke a language distorted by a lifetime of isolation. “When the sisters talked to each other, it sounded like a slow, blurred cooing.”

Slowly, over several visits, the full story of the family emerged. The old man’s name was Karp Lykov, and he was an Old Believer—a member of a fundamentalist Russian Orthodox sect, worshiping in a style unchanged since the 17th century. Old Believers had been persecuted since the days of Peter the Great, and Lykov talked about it as though it had happened only yesterday; for him, Peter was a personal enemy and “the anti-Christ in human form”—a point he insisted had been amply proved by Tsar’s campaign to modernize Russia by forcibly “chopping off the beards of Christians.” But these centuries-old hatreds were conflated with more recent grievances; Karp was prone to complain in the same breath about a merchant who had refused to make a gift of 26 poods [940 pounds] of potatoes to the Old Believers sometime around 1900.

Things had only got worse for the Lykov family when the atheist Bolsheviks took power. Under the Soviets, isolated Old Believer communities that had fled to Siberia to escape persecution began to retreat ever further from civilization. During the purges of the 1930s, with Christianity itself under assault, a Communist patrol had shot Lykov’s brother on the outskirts of their village while Lykov knelt working beside him. He had responded by scooping up his family and bolting into forest.

Peter the Great’s attempts to modernize the Russia of the early 18th century found a focal point in a campaign to end the wearing of beards. Facial hair was taxed and non-payers were compulsorily shaved—anathema to Karp Lykov and the Old Believers.

That was in 1936, and there were only four Lykovs then—Karp; his wife, Akulina; a son named Savin, 9 years old, and Natalia, a daughter who was only 2. Taking their possessions and some seeds, they had retreated ever deeper into the taiga, building themselves a succession of crude dwelling places, until at last they had fetched up in this desolate spot. Two more children had been born in the wild—Dmitry in 1940 and Agafia in 1943—and neither of the youngest Lykov children had ever seen a human being who was not a member of their family. All that Agafia and Dmitry knew of the outside world they learned entirely from their parents’ stories. The family’s principal entertainment, the Russian journalist Vasily Peskov noted, “was for everyone to recount their dreams.”

The Lykov children knew there were places called cities where humans lived crammed together in tall buildings. They had heard there were countries other than Russia. But such concepts were no more than abstractions to them. Their only reading matter was prayer books and an ancient family Bible. Akulina had used the gospels to teach her children to read and write, using sharpened birch sticks dipped into honeysuckle juice as pen and ink. When Agafia was shown a picture of a horse, she recognized it from her mother’s Bible stories. “Look, papa,” she exclaimed. “A steed!”

But if the family’s isolation was hard to grasp, the unmitigated harshness of their lives was not. Traveling to the Lykov homestead on foot was astonishingly arduous, even with the help of a boat along the Abakan. On his first visit to the Lykovs, Peskov—who would appoint himself the family’s chief chronicler—noted that “we traversed 250 kilometres [155 miles] without seeing a single human dwelling!”

Isolation made survival in the wilderness close to impossible. Dependent solely on their own resources, the Lykovs struggled to replace the few things they had brought into the taiga with them. They fashioned birch-bark galoshes in place of shoes. Clothes were patched and repatched until they fell apart, then replaced with hemp cloth grown from seed.

The Lykovs’ mountain home, seen from a Soviet helicopter.

The Lykovs had carried a crude spinning wheel and, incredibly, the components of a loom into the taiga with them—moving these from place to place as they gradually went further into the wilderness must have required many long and arduous journeys—but they had no technology for replacing metal. A couple of kettles served them well for many years, but when rust finally overcame them, the only replacements they could fashion came from birch bark. Since these could not be placed in a fire, it became far harder to cook. By the time the Lykovs were discovered, their staple diet was potato patties mixed with ground rye and hemp seeds.

In some respects, Peskov makes clear, the taiga did offer some abundance: “Beside the dwelling ran a clear, cold stream. Stands of larch, spruce, pine and birch yielded all that anyone could take…. Bilberries and raspberries were close to hand, firewood as well, and pine nuts fell right on the roof.”

Yet the Lykovs lived permanently on the edge of famine. It was not until the late 1950s, when Dmitry reached manhood, that they first trapped animals for their meat and skins. Lacking guns and even bows, they could hunt only by digging traps or pursuing prey across the mountains until the animals collapsed from exhaustion. Dmitry built up astonishing endurance, and could hunt barefoot in winter, sometimes returning to the hut after several days, having slept in the open in 40 degrees of frost, a young elk across his shoulders. More often than not, though, there was no meat, and their diet gradually became more monotonous. Wild animals destroyed their crop of carrots, and Agafia recalled the late 1950s as “the hungry years.” “We ate the rowanberry leaf,” she said,

roots, grass, mushrooms, potato tops, and bark, We were hungry all the time. Every year we held a council to decide whether to eat everything up or leave some for seed.

Famine was an ever-present danger in these circumstances, and in 1961 it snowed in June. The hard frost killed everything growing in their garden, and by spring the family had been reduced to eating shoes and bark. Akulina chose to see her children fed, and that year she died of starvation. The rest of the family were saved by what they regarded as a miracle: a single grain of rye sprouted in their pea patch. The Lykovs put up a fence around the shoot and guarded it zealously night and day to keep off mice and squirrels. At harvest time, the solitary spike yielded 18 grains, and from this they painstakingly rebuilt their rye crop.

Dmitry (left) and Savin in the Siberian summer.

As the Soviet geologists got to know the Lykov family, they realized that they had underestimated their abilities and intelligence. Each family member had a distinct personality; Old Karp was usually delighted by the latest innovations that the scientists brought up from their camp, and though he steadfastly refused to believe that man had set foot on the moon, he adapted swiftly to the idea of satellites. The Lykovs had noticed them as early as the 1950s, when “the stars began to go quickly across the sky,” and Karp himself conceived a theory to explain this: “People have thought something up and are sending out fires that are very like stars.”

“What amazed him most of all,” Peskov recorded, “was a transparent cellophane package. ‘Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!'” And Karp held grimly to his status as head of the family, though he was well into his 80s. His eldest child, Savin, dealt with this by casting himself as the family’s unbending arbiter in matters of religion. “He was strong of faith, but a harsh man,” his own father said of him, and Karp seems to have worried about what would happen to his family after he died if Savin took control. Certainly the eldest son would have encountered little resistance from Natalia, who always struggled to replace her mother as cook, seamstress and nurse.

The two younger children, on the other hand, were more approachable and more open to change and innovation. “Fanaticism was not terribly marked in Agafia,” Peskov said, and in time he came to realize that the youngest of the Lykovs had a sense of irony and could poke fun at herself. Agafia’s unusual speech—she had a singsong voice and stretched simple words into polysyllables—convinced some of her visitors she was slow-witted; in fact she was markedly intelligent, and took charge of the difficult task, in a family that possessed no calendars, of keeping track of time.  She thought nothing of hard work, either, excavating a new cellar by hand late in the fall and working on by moonlight when the sun had set. Asked by an astonished Peskov whether she was not frightened to be out alone in the wilderness after dark, she replied: “What would there be out here to hurt me?”

A Russian press photo of Karp Lykov (second left) with Dmitry and Agafia, accompanied by a Soviet geologist.

Of all the Lykovs, though, the geologists’ favorite was Dmitry, a consummate outdoorsman who knew all of the taiga’s moods. He was the most curious and perhaps the most forward-looking member of the family. It was he who had built the family stove, and all the birch-bark buckets that they used to store food. It was also Dmitry who spent days hand-cutting and hand-planing each log that the Lykovs felled. Perhaps it was no surprise that he was also the most enraptured by the scientists’ technology. Once relations had improved to the point that the Lykovs could be persuaded to visit the Soviets’ camp, downstream, he spent many happy hours in its little sawmill, marveling at how easily a circular saw and lathes could finish wood. “It’s not hard to figure,” Peskov wrote. “The log that took Dmitry a day or two to plane was transformed into handsome, even boards before his eyes. Dmitry felt the boards with his palm and said: ‘Fine!'”

Karp Lykov fought a long and losing battle with himself to keep all this modernity at bay. When they first got to know the geologists, the family would accept only a single gift—salt. (Living without it for four decades, Karp said, had been “true torture.”) Over time, however, they began to take more. They welcomed the assistance of their special friend among the geologists—a driller named Yerofei Sedov, who spent much of his spare time helping them to plant and harvest crops. They took knives, forks, handles, grain and eventually even pen and paper and an electric torch. Most of these innovations were only grudgingly acknowledged, but the sin of television, which they encountered at the geologists’ camp,

proved irresistible for them…. On their rare appearances, they would invariably sit down and watch. Karp sat directly in front of the screen. Agafia watched poking her head from behind a door. She tried to pray away her transgression immediately—whispering, crossing herself…. The old man prayed afterward, diligently and in one fell swoop.

The Lykovs’ homestead seen from a Soviet reconnaissance plane, 1980.

Perhaps the saddest aspect of the Lykovs’ strange story was the rapidity with which the family went into decline after they re-established contact with the outside world. In the fall of 1981, three of the four children followed their mother to the grave within a few days of one another. According to Peskov, their deaths were not, as might have been expected, the result of exposure to diseases to which they had no immunity. Both Savin and Natalia suffered from kidney failure, most likely a result of their harsh diet. But Dmitry died of pneumonia, which might have begun as an infection he acquired from his new friends.

His death shook the geologists, who tried desperately to save him. They offered to call in a helicopter and have him evacuated to a hospital. But Dmitry, in extremis, would abandon neither his family nor the religion he had practiced all his life. “We are not allowed that,” he whispered just before he died. “A man lives for howsoever God grants.”

The Lykovs’ graves. Today only Agafia survives of the family of six, living alone in the taiga.

When all three Lykovs had been buried, the geologists attempted to talk Karp and Agafia into leaving the forest and returning to be with relatives who had survived the persecutions of the purge years, and who still lived on in the same old villages. But neither of the survivors would hear of it. They rebuilt their old cabin, but stayed close to their old home.

Karp Lykov died in his sleep on February 16, 1988, 27 years to the day after his wife, Akulina. Agafia buried him on the mountain slopes with the help of the geologists, then turned and headed back to her home. The Lord would provide, and she would stay, she said—as indeed she has. A quarter of a century later, now in her seventies herself, this child of the taiga lives on alone, high above the Abakan.

She will not leave. But we must leave her, seen through the eyes of Yerofei on the day of her father’s funeral:

I looked back to wave at Agafia. She was standing by the river break like a statue. She wasn’t crying. She nodded: ‘Go on, go on.’ We went another kilometer and I looked back. She was still standing there.

Sources

Anon. ‘How to live substantively in our times.’ Stranniki [‘Wanderers’], 20 February 2009, accessed August 2, 2011; Georg B. Michels. At War with the Church: Religious Dissent in Seventeenth Century Russia. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995; Isabel Colgate. A Pelican in the Wilderness: Hermits, Solitaries and Recluses. New York: HarperCollins, 2002; ‘From taiga to Kremlin: a hermit’s gifts to Medvedev,’ rt.com, February 24, 2010, accessed August 2, 2011; G. Kramore, ‘At the taiga dead end‘. Suvenirograd [‘Souvenirs of Interesting places’], nd, accessed August 5, 2011; Irina Paert. Old BelieversReligious Dissent and Gender in Russia, 1760-1850. Manchester: MUP, 2003; Vasily Peskov. Lost in the Taiga: One Russian Family’s Fifty-Year Struggle for Survival and Religious Freedom in the Siberian Wilderness. New York: Doubleday, 1992

A documentary on the Lykovs (in Russian) which shows something of the family’s isolation and living conditions, can be viewed here.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history-archaeology/For-40-Years-This-Russian-Family-Was-Cut-Off-From-Human-Contact-Unaware-of-World-War-II-188843001.html#ixzz2JTjvqnNx 
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter

Leave a comment

January 30, 2013 · 4:56 pm