A Karelian Journal

©1999, Jim Nollman

From the Interspecies Newsletter

Riding shotgun in an old Volvo station wagon, heading across Finland through uninterrupted forest of birch, spruce, and alder.

My driver, Rauno Lauhakangas, informs me we’re passing through the heart of the lake district. He hands over a roadmap displaying a labyrinth of freshwater spreading a hundred miles in every direction. Noticing a roadsign warning us to be on the lookout for moose crossing the highway, I compare the sway of these Finnish hills with Northern Maine, only to be interrupted by Rauno. "The name of my country is Suomi not Finland. The error got started by the Roman historian, Tacitus, who first made a reference to a far northern people called Finns." Then he brightens, "But I am happy to live with the mistake; having a fin appendage––like a whale." Rauno is a polymath, an engineer who’s designed and built products for the Finnish telecommunications giant, Nokia. He is also a researcher at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in CERN Switzerland. CERN is where the World Wide Web got started and

Rauno was there at the inception. When the new medium was first unveiled, Rauno explained its potential to his eight year old son, Ilmari, who responded that the web should be used to save the whales. That answer prompted Rauno to start The Whalewatching Web, (www.physics.helsinki.fi/whale), which promotes the idea that wherever whalewatching flourishes, whaling must wither. Today, the site flourishes with tens of thousand of hits every day, and has helped instigate the growth of whalewatching around the world, especially in Japan, the Azores, and Spain.

Rauno is also the president of the Finnish Society for Prehistoric Art, and an avid student of Northern European history which dates back several thousand years. "I am an aboriginal person even though I look like a white man." he smiles, as we pass through a scenic area of bedrock polished clean by recent glaciers. "Just a few centuries ago, we lived in self-sufficient tribes herding moose and reindeer. We almost suffered a genocide like native people in North America. Just before World War II, Stalin decided he wanted to take over Finland and march the entire population to Siberia. But we were strong and he failed to conquer us."

Scandinavian bedrock is adorned in many places with petroglyphs, some dating before 5000 BC. The images run the gamut from moose, swans, whales, ships, astronomical motifs, men with giant hands, battle scenes, and depictions of village life so effusive in their detail that they could have inspired Breughel. No one can say for certain whether this art was created by Finno-Ugric people (Ugric meaning Hungarian), or by ancient Saamis (Lapplanders).

Some of the best petroglyph sites are found in Karelia, the Russian Republic that shares a long western border with Finland. Well into this century Karelia and Finland have comprised a unified culture even though Finland came under Swedish domination from the Middle Ages, while Karelia has been controlled by Russia since the time of Peter the Great. Much of the oral folklore upon which the Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala, is based was actually collected in Karelia. This common heritage altered when Stalin conscripted hundreds of thousands of ethnic Karelians and other nationalities into labor camps during the 1930’s to construct a canal connecting the Baltic Sea with the Arctic Ocean. So many people perished on the project that, today, Karelia’s population includes about half ethnic Russians and Ukrainians. Yet despite the upheaval, Karelian cities still display street and shop signs in both Finnish and Russian.

With the new Russia experiencing economic meltdown, the provincial Karelian government increasingly turns to its prosperous Scandinavian neighbors for economic aid and co-development projects that reestablish their common heritage. This latter prerogative explains the primary reason Rauno has organized an international conference on petroglyphs in collaboration with the Russian Academy of Sciences.

It also explains why I’m riding shotgun as his beat-up Volvo speeds eastward toward a country named Karelia I never even knew existed a few months ago. Rauno’s secondary reason for organizing the conference relates to his compassion for whales. One of the best known Karelian petroglyph sites on the White Sea displays several reliefs that depict human beings interacting with cetaceans. Many scholars believe they are the oldest pictures of whales found anywhere in the world. The fact that belugas still reside in the White Sea, suggests to Rauno that whalewatching tied to a program of petroglyph interpretation could provide the spark to ignite Karelian tourism. Because Russia was one of the world’s most active whaling nations until ten years ago, the current economic pessimism could easily entice them to start it up again, perhaps focusing on coastal species like belugas. But if whalewatching is established on the White Sea, it will obviate the resurrection of whaling, while contributing one more building block to the edifice of Karelian self-sufficiency.

The three men in the Volvo’s backseat lustily echo this sentiment, punctuating Rauno’s dissertation with allusions to Karelian independence. Estonia is a former Russian province with a population also comprised largely of ethnic Finns. Two of our traveling companions in the backseat are Estonians, Vaino Poikalainen and Loit Joekalda, author and designer of the first book in English on the subject of Karelian petroglyphs. It is Vaino who has told us the horrific story of Stalin’s Canal as a way of explaining the death of his own father.

Our final traveler is Juhani Gronhagen, a Finnish archeologist who conveys the most uplifting story of the day’s long journey. Frustrated by the illegibility of ancient paintings found at a lakeside dig, Juhani brought in two Finno-Ugric tribespeople from Siberia to help interpret. The visitors glanced at the site then turned away, begging time to pray to their gods for permission to study the symbols more closely. When a thunderstorm broke late in the afternoon, the Siberians construed it as a license to proceed. They sat and stared at the painted rocks, and when they finally stood up, one of the men pointed offshore, where he said they would discover a treasure. A diver was sent down, and soon brought up amber talisman shaped into human and bear heads. These are now considered among the most important prehistoric artifacts ever found in Scandinavia.

The rest of our delegation joins us in the border town of Joennsuu (Yoin-su). Two Norwegians and a Dane administer successful museums constructed around petroglyph sites; and will provide expertise on preservation, and the promotion of the Karelian sites within the international community. Folklorist Eero Autio has written books that draw upon the oral tradition of the Kalevala to interpret the glyphs. Challenging the conventional presumption that depicts the carvers as men, he points out that ancient Finnish shamans were just as often female, and that a fair share of the art was carved to encourage fertility. Our lone woman is Maisa Siirala, a Finnish environmentalist keen on adding the Karelian sites to the UNESCO World Heritage program.


Upon viewing Mayan hieroglyphs for the first time, The poet Charles Olson observed that the same mystery that poses a dead-end for archeologists offers ripe ground for poets. Olson’s postulate explains why I have been invited to the conference. I am the lone non-European in the delegation, an American conceptual artist who works with themes pertaining to human/animal protocol; and a musician who has spent twenty years attempting to communicate with various whale species in the wild. Two years ago I staged a theatrical performance on the subject of shamanism in Helsinski, which was promoted by a poster displaying the above petroglyph.

I was astonished to notice how accurately the picture mirrored my own in situ experiences with whales, and the image sparked me to write an interpretation which Rauno posted on his whalewatching web. Rauno has invited me to close the conference by reading my essay. The only previous assessment of this glyph was made by a Russian archeologist, who described the rear figure as "an unidentified sea animal". Actually, the animal’s bulbous forehead, upcurved rostrum, blowhole, and lack of true dorsal fin makes for an anatomically precise rendering of a beluga whale. Belugas (also called white whales) are among the few cetacean species to naturally vocalize in air and were called "sea canaries" by 19thcentury whalers who often heard them chortling among their own kind. Beluga researcher Becky Sjare has concluded that the species’ produces more kinds of sounds than any other whale or dolphin. Dolphin communication pioneer, John Lilly, has described belugas as the best animal candidate for interspecies language research. I have listened to belugas vocalizing in the Canadian Arctic. Their calls reminded me, not so much of canaries, but of voices heard through a wall, obscuring the words, although the rise and fall of intonation still suggests a conversation is occurring. Tribes residing along the shore of the White Sea five thousand years ago would have experienced similar communicative behavior in the belugas they witnessed every day.

There are many documented examples of primitive cultures developing ceremonies ornamented by music that reflects animal vocalizations. Taking this basic idea one step further, I have played music with several different whale species, including belugas, often attracting animals to a sound source, and sometimes inducing them to improvise with my own melodies and rhythms. This is nothing new. Traveling in Norway in the 11th century, the monk Adam of Bremen, wrote of observing the Saami: "persuade huge whales to come to shore by murmuring chants with powerful words." Commenting on the text, Icelandic whaling historian, Ole Lindquist, asserts that the Latin phrase murmure verborum refers to a style of overtone or throat singing still in use by Saamis today.

The figure in the foreground of the petroglyph has been described as a "humanoid wielding a weapon". The position of the arms and the shape of the objects more likely endorse the performance of a musical instrument similar to claves. Australian aboriginal shamans have been documented clicking similar "dolphin sticks" underwater as part of a remarkable ceremony of interspecies cooperation. Animals respond to the clicking by corralling fish ashore which are then gathered by the people. The Imragen of Mauretania achieve much the same fishing relationship with dolphins by beating branches on the water, an event documented by Jacques Cousteau in the 1960s. I myself have attracted beluga whales by clicking "dolphin sticks" underwater, and can attest that friction demands the arms be splayed as depicted in the image in order to strike the sticks together with sufficient force to produce a sound. It seems germane that the Russian ethnomusicologist, Alla Ablova, has discovered percussive lithophones (musical instruments constructed of stone) at excavations near the Karelian sites. All these examples, make it seem plausible, if not likely, that beluga whales were not only a principle totem of the ancient Scandinavians, but correspondents as well.

Some scholars argue that the shaman in this petroglyph has been caught at the moment of shape-shifting, his penis already transformed into whale flukes. Vaino Poikelainen strongly disagrees, pointing to the swell of the figure’s breast to pronounce the shaman a woman giving birth to a whale. In fact all across the Arctic fables describe marriages between humans and whales. In a Yakut version, the baby whale is affectionately adopted by the tribe and kept in a special bucket by the side of his mother’s tent until he outgrows it, at which point he is freed into the sea. When foreign whalers arrive, they kill the adopted whale. The tribe responds to this violence by attacking the strangers. The Yakuts tell this story to explain how warfare first came to the human beings.



Karelia’s "blue highway" offers a glimpse of the nation I grew up regarding as the home of my enemy. The land here is largely uninhabited forest, broken up by the occasional farming village comprised of unpainted wooden houses. A few hours over the border, our bus passes through the industrial town of Pitkaranta, where Stalin’s legacy of ponderous architecture is amply demonstrated by a spewing paper mill surrounded by an immense apartment complex housing perhaps ten thousand families. Stalin treated humans as units of labor which led directly to the Collective. Centralizing rural people into a group housing not only negated the need for an expensive road and communications infrastructure, but made it far easier to keep control.

Despite the oppressiveness of central planning, I had fantasized Russian towns as European-clean, with rows of lit-up stores facing the highway, perhaps a riverfront park full of strolling lovers and old pensioners, teams of children in colorful uniforms playing soccer on a manicured field. What I now get instead is the worst of the Third World. The town is falling down before my eyes, as if years have passed since anyone bothered to change a street lamp, repair a window, or pick up the trash. The bus heads down the main prospekt where there are no gas stations, few cars, and not a single store outside a dense market square. Our driver pulls over to let us stretch and sightsee. But there is little to purchase here beyond the essentials of existence——soap, jackets, vegetables, medicine, vodka. The more prosperous vendors assemble inside trailers, propped up on high stools like bank tellers behind a slot. I drop my head sideways to catch the woman’s eye, point through the display window at a tube of toothpaste adorned with Cyrillic letters, which prompts her to set a price. Less prosperous vendors place their dead chickens, beets, and birch bark baskets on card tables in the open air.

Back on the bus, three more jolting hours pass before we finally arrive at the hotel in Petrozavodsk. Feeling bedraggled and carsick, we are met by our Karelian liaison, Nadezha Mikhailovna, a radiant, elegantly dressed woman who grants us half an hour respite before we join our hosts for an introductory dinner. The restaurant offers its own jolt. Arriving at the curb, Nadezha confers a moment with a surly young man dressed in an oversized leather coat leaning against a gray Mercedes with his arms draped around two underdressed young women. She rejoins us to inform Rauno that he must pay the restaurant in advance---and only dollars are acceptable. But Rauno has no dollars, only finmarks, and for a tense moment it appears as if our dinner is going to be a wash out. But I volunteer some dollars, as does the Danish delegate, Gerhard Milstreu. The Mafia man counts his money, and waves us inside.

Are Russians the only people on Earth who normally keep hard liquor on the table during a meal? I can think of no other. Nor can I think of another culture that treats the meal itself as an afterthought to the essential business of drinking alcohol. Only fifteen minutes have passed since we sat down at the long banquet table, yet we are already into our fourth toast. "To our foreign friends," shouts a beaming Nadezha. "To our Russian hosts", responds Rauno. "To the beautiful women we are dining with", adds Vladamir Shumkin, a Russian archeologist who, just a few months earlier, hit the jackpot by discovering an important new petroglyph site. A wry smile cracks my lips to hear a toast offering a reality check to this young evening. "To vodka", shouts a red-headed Russian man at the end of the table.

A friend who often travels in Russia warned me about vodka, that it is excellent, meaning "soft", actually meaning tasteless in the parlance of the serious drinker, and therefore dangerous to drink impulsively. I have been counseled to toast exuberantly, keep a smile on my face, tip my head back, then place the glass to my zipped-up lips. I notice a few others at the table performing the same gesture, although the majority seems content to get plastered. Like a light switch being turned on and off, the toasts afford us a brief moment to make eye contact. Then we sit down, our glances quickly retreating into the thickening haze of the occasion. Glasses continue to clink through dinner: to petroglyphs, to good company, to a more prosperous future for Russia.

This last toast is greeted more like a eulogy than a salutation. The economy here is in shambles, with a fair share of the woes blamed on the capitalist shock treatment imposed by a leadership content to let foreign corporations loot the country in exchange for personal wealth. This state of affairs is expressed best by a joke I overhear during dessert:

Q: What has seven years of capitalism accomplished that seventy years of communism failed to do?

A: Make communism look good.

The liquor continues flowing when we return to the hotel, now switched to an amber-colored Karelian vodka cured in casks lined with bread. I sit in Shumkin’s room, admiring photos from his newly discovered site at Kaanoyavro, a Saami name translated as "the lake where a shaman fired his small arrow into an enemy". Shumkin clicks his tongue to tell me local hunters have visited the area for centuries, although no one ever noticed the carvings. "When I asked one of the locals about it, the man insisted there were no petroglyphs at that place. So I led him to the site, then showed him the images. The man couldn’t believe it, got a tear in his eye, then said, ëI didn’t know how to look, so I just couldn’t see’." Shumkin clicks his tongue again, then raises his palms to the ceiling in bewilderment. My American sense of history offers another explanation, which I decide to keep it to myself. The locals were simply trying to hide the site from the Russian Bear.

Rauno sits down next to me to whisper conspiratorially in my ear. "I have just experienced the full impact of the Panoptikon." When I peer at him unknowing, he grabs my shirt. "It is the Soviet vision of hell expressed through architecture." He pulls me off my chair, into the hall, then to his room, number 125 where he proclaims that my own room is 225 and, actually, just ten feet directly above where we now stand. He folds his arms in front of his chest, and with a grin spreading across his bearded face, dares me to show him the quickest route to my room. I shrug my shoulders, then suggest we walk twenty feet to the end of the corridor and then climb the stairs one floor. He leads me there, but where I expected to find a stairwell is a dead end. Without further adieu, he guides me to my room: a hundred yards down one corridor, a hundred yards down another one, into a small lobby where a lone man sits reading a newspaper, then up the stairs to stroll another two hundred yards to my room. Once inside, Rauno explains his mischief. "The Soviets developed a paranoid architecture that funneled all activity through a single entry just to keep track of everyone’s movements in this huge hotel. Panoptikon means ëall-seeing’." He stares at me impishly. "You don’t really think that guy in the lobby is a guest reading a newspaper, do you? He winks, then closes the door behind him.



The conference is held in a gilded hall, rich with brocaded drapes, and massive busts of Marx and Lenin looming over the proscenium. The presentations are dry, focusing on techniques of preservation and cataloging. The petroglyphs are treated as objects to be measured, as if their overriding theme of totemism represents nothing but a bygone worldview that primitive people constructed from inaccurate information about how the world actually works. Only a few of the delegates, and none of the professionals, utter a word about the art providing a message across time, carved by our own ancestors into the permanent medium of rock to insure they got read by future generations. Ironically, this message speaks quite explicitly about forming right relations with nature which, to my mind, seems the most crucial lesson anyone could ever bequeath our own society. Disinterested in the presentations, I turn morbidly fascinated by the plumbing in this grand old building. Not only do the toilets not flush properly, but they lack toilet seats. In one drippy stall, a stack of shiny old faxes substitutes for toilet paper.

At the end of a long lunch break, two members of our delegation arrive back at the hall cradling rectangular packages wrapped in newsprint. When I ask to peek, one man enthusiastically unveils a stunning 19th century icon of a Madonna and child for which he paid the measly sum of $90. I want one, but when I ask for directions to the gallery, the Finnish folklorist Matti Reinikainen takes me aside to warn that it is illegal for a foreigner to exit the country with icons more than 75 years old. Since selling the icons is not the actual issue, the stores deviously target tourists. Juhani Gronhagen joins us, and in a quiet voice argues that it seems blatantly dishonest for members of our delegation to smuggle art out of the country while attending a conference focused on the preservation of art. He tells me of a recent newspaper story that ties the art shops to the Mafia. Some dealers are reputed to be former customs agents who collected their icons by seizing them one at a time from foreigners. Other galleries operate a scam, photographing foreign customers leaving the shop with art under their arm, then sending the pictures along to cronies working at the border. Four days later we cross into Finland without a second glance from Russian customs. My worries about getting strip-searched by uniformed men cradling submachine guns is proven to be unfounded. The ethical issue remains.



At the end of the second day of the conference, we board Boris Yeltsin’s hundred foot motor yacht for an overnight trip across the huge inland sea of Lake Onega to the Besov Nos (Devil’s Nose) petroglyph site. Most of our party chooses to go ashore before dawn to view the rocks by one of the archeologists’ favored methods, a flashlight shined at an acute angle to highlight the shadows and sharpen the edges of the glyphs.

I sleep in, which is the reason I am one of only three delegates in the first boat ashore in the morning. My companions are the Finnish art historian, Antero Kare, and Alla Ablova, who speaks no English. It is cold, the morning drizzly and overcast. Arriving on a dazzling purple sand beach tinted by offshore amethyst deposits, we head off through a spruce forest. The duff sprouts several species of mushrooms including the psychedelic (and toxic) red-and-white muscaria, reputedly eaten by Eurasian shamans as fuel for trance. Continuing onto a low headland overlooking the lake, the trees part before a sweeping expanse of glacier-polished granite. We are suddenly standing in the midst of the petroglyphs; obscure shapes chipped out of the bedrock, most of them less than an eighth of an inch deep, dimly revealing silhouetted profiles of moose, swans, a sturgeon, three men in a boat harpooning a seal.

Antero explains the predominant swans as Finnish symbols of death, totem angels who flew departed Finnish souls to the Golden Land of peace and prosperity. Then he guides me forward to several circles and crescents with short parallel lines jutting from one side, which he interprets as the sun and the moon. I smile to recognize the figures’ resemblance to muscaria mushrooms caught at two phases in their bloom cycle.

Closer to the water lie more dramatic carvings, three six-foot long images ostensibly chipped out of the rock by a single individual. The figure on the right is a lizard-like creature Antero identifies as an otter. On the left is a cylinder-shaped fish with whiskers on one end, probably a catfish. The center figure is distinctly cubist, comprised of several adjoining shapes that form a muppet-like face with eyes and mouth, arms, legs, a torso. The figure is cleaved in half by a natural crack in the rock, the edges beveled by a chisel, and reminiscent of the gutters Aztecs cut into their altars to drain the blood away during sacrifices. An orthodox cross defacing the torso of the figure was added by a monk three hundred year’s ago in an attempt to exorcise what the Church regarded as a portrait of the devil. Antero is very precise with his terms, and now he looks puzzled, asking rhetorically if a cross added so many years ago can still be called graffiti.



Vaino Poikalainen has advised me to be on the lookout for an angular lightning bolt with slight "wings" extending from each vertex, and capped by a triangular head which suggests a snake, even an adder. Antero helps me find it half-submerged in the lake. I pay close attention to the small waves surging across the figure. When viewed in a certain light, eddies swirl around the "wings", blurring the angles and bestowing the snake with an uncanny slithering motion. Vaino believes this animated effect is too obvious to be accidental, and that it must have granted enormous social status to the stone age Walt Disney who carved it.

Despite all these wonders, my first impression is of anticlimax. The figures are cut far more shallow than I expected, ephemeral, eroded, and difficult to distinguish in the overcast light of a gloomy morning. When Antero bends over the human figure to point out spirals, stars, and circles carved into the torso, I can not even see them.

Discouragement fades when Alla and Antero drift off to visit another nearby site. The solitude tugs at me, pulling my mind away from thoughts of judgment, and into a space of tranquillity I had not expected; as if the rock, the lake and the art conspired to draw me inside a sacred chapel built to worship nature for all of eternity. The longer I linger, the deeper I plunge into the void of the moment. I envision a naked man spending an entire month on this rock, patiently chipping away at the slab with an assortment of stone fragments. Finally he stands back to admire his handiwork, smiles with pride, then sweeps away the chips before jogging into the forest to gather his clan together. They stride out of the forest to admire the reflected image of their totem allegiance. I sit quietly on the sweep of the Besov Nos for a brief hour, gazing at the badly eroded silhouette of a moose, and reflecting on the timeless concepts of patriotism, spirituality, and creativity.



On the voyage back to Petrozavodsk, Andrei Spiridonov, Karelian Minister for International Programs, stops me on deck to pointedly ask why I am here. Taken aback by his uncommonly deep voice, I answer perfunctorily that, just like him, I’ve come to see the petroglyphs. When I mention the encounter to Rauno, his face lights up, he smacks his fist, then announces that the moment has come to introduce whalewatching to the Karelians. I feel I’m missing something essential, and ask him to elaborate. He sits me down and sighs deeply. "I can assure you, that man knows why you were invited. But don’t you see? You are an American, a master of the universe. This status places you beyond the localized orbit of the conference and gives your opinions added leverage." I nod, but tell Rauno he’s not answering my question. He searches my eyes as if the answer might be found there. "They are ready to talk about whales, that’s all."

Half an hour later, Rauno asks me to join a meeting in the galley attended by Andrei and Mark Shahnovic, curator of the Karelian Regional Museum. The two Russians express little hope of ever enticing Western Europeans and Americans to Karelia while the tourism infrastructure remains so underdeveloped. I mention the many boats I noticed moored in Petrozavodsk, and suggest that excursion-style whalewatching could begin almost immediately. Andrei confides that he knows little about whalewatching, then pauses a moment before tipping his head to ask, "Are you suggesting that tourists actually pay money to see whales?" Rauno has been preparing to answer this question for months, and he immediately starts spewing statistics about the logarithmic growth of whale-based tourism in Iceland and Norway.

With the discussion underway, this master of the universe begs to be excused. My mind isn’t working properly, some part of it left behind on the lakeshore trying to fathom the meaning of life found in the image of a cracked and eroded moose. Everyone I see on the boat is transformed to a petroglyph, mutated into a chipped-out silhouette of themselves writing in a journal, tipping a vodka bottle into a glass, a dreamer leaning over the gunwale to stare at the watery horizon, the cook peeling potatoes, a crew member hoisting a monstrous four foot pike caught while the rest of us were ashore.

A bus carries us back to the hotel where we shower, then convene at a nearby restaurant. There are two banquet halls, one comprised of our weary group of middle-aged experts, the other one brimming with song and laughter from a wedding party in progress. As our appetizers get served and the vodka starts to flow, the wedding party suddenly bursts through the doors. "I am sorry," announces the waitress, "but our dance floor is here." The room explodes with the tribal beat of Donna Summer chanting Disco. The lights get cut, a mirrored ball rotates overhead casting shards of light onto our beet salad while the dancers jerk and lurch under the nether glow of twin Pepsi cola signs. The sheer volume of the music maroons our party in silence, communication now limited to smiles, raised eyebrows, and a mimed toast. The song changes although the beat remains the same: "Our love is alive, now it begins, laid out on the table, tumbling in." I feel caught in a time warp. Who was it sang that song? I stare without blinking at the decked-out young woman and their sweaty dates in creased black chinos until my eyes manufacture a silhouette of the scene chipped from stone in broad strokes.

Rauno leans over the table to yell, "It’s all your fault. This is what happens when we let Americans become masters of the universe." I lift an eyebrow then turn into myself to imagine how an archeologist five thousand years in the future might interpret the meaning of a Pepsi cola sign. My mind draws a blank as the music throbs on. What would Rauno prefer they play? Sibelius’ dark and brooding Swans of Tuonela? Or how about the Beatles’ Back in the USSR? Not a chance.



Two days later I fly home to the land of Pepsi Cola. Weeks pass, during which a friend sends me a clipping from the Inyo Register in eastern California, describing a local Shoshone protest against white people visiting a petroglyph site near Owens Lake. Spokesperson Pauline Esteves announces that her tribe’s sacred images "are not there for people to look at."

The notion that tourism desecrates sacred sites seems all but lost in this age where every cathedral and shrine solicits tourists to enter and walk around, read the plaques posted in several languages, and gaze at worshippers as if they were actors hired to grant the place an aura of authenticity. When I call my friend to thank her for the story, she adds that the Shoshone controversy is more about native hegemony than a bonified concern about the site’s desecration. The only people who ever go there have to appreciate the art, because to even get there one has to walk miles into the desert.

I telephone the news to Rauno, who responds in his usual creative manner by paraphrasing Shumkin’s story. The Shoshone "see" the petroglyphs, and can not tolerate strangers arriving merely to "look" at them. To bolster this statement, he tells me that the Lake Onega site is open only to scholars who appreciate ther art’s cultural value. Locals are kept out because they deface the petroglyphs with graffiti and build bonfires on the rock which chars it’s surface. Recalling the conference agenda obsessed with measurement, I am left confused by the politics of looking versus seeing. My own presentation was the only item on the program that made any attempt to link the ancient messages to our own time. "Yah, but we only let you do that," interrupts Rauno, "because you were our token American clown. Don’t you see, that’s why I invited you."



And only a clown or a poet would dare predict the future of Karelia. When the Soviets banned independent thought, they left a vacuum in the memory of the people. Now that the old regime has departed to Krushchev’s ashbin of history, one imagines the vacuum filling up with any number of alternative worldviews. The two most often cited for Karelia are the agnostic, democratic socialism that holds sway in the rest of Scandinavia, and the mean-spirited autocratic capitalism that currently drives the Russian Mafia.

Charles Olson’s postulate permits an idealistic alternative that portrays the Karelians appropriating practical aspects of conventional politics, but also initiating a revitalized version of their own ancient nature religion. The concept of environmentalism merging with religion and economics already grows strong among Northern European visionaries, codified by the Norwegian philosopher, Arne Naess, and popularized by the Finnish Green Party who regard eco-culture as the only tenable politics for the 21st century. If this "deep ecology", with its reconstructed murmurs of totemism and sacred sites ever takes hold in Karelia, obviously, the petroglyphs——and possibly the whales as well——will emerge as arbiters of its disclosure. Since the Karelian people serve as gatekeepers to the European portal of the greatest intact ecosystem on the planet, the moose, swans, otters, seals and whales inhabiting the vast Siberian wilderness would emerge as unanticipated victors of this alternate outcome. On that note, one might imagine the old totemic shamans smiling down on Karelia from their high perch in the golden land, then raising cups to toast the successful delivery of their message after all these years.