Native Land

Native Land

This article appears in Volume 20: The Homelands Issue

never been more uncomfortable than when sleeping with the
Nenets – reindeer herders in
far north.

The night-time temperature had dropped. The reindeer skins laid
over me were so heavy that I could barely move. I smelt of
wood-smoke. There was no en-suite bathroom to speak of, nor any
Nespresso machine to look forward to in the morning. For a luxury
as simple as coffee I not only had to bring my own supply, but also
needed to melt a block of ice for water. For four nights this was
my reality – a nomadic chum, or teepee, which the Nenets pitch five
or six times every winter in pastures new as they move across the
Arctic tundra. The only source of heat and light was a wood-fired
stove at the heart of a tent where four of us slept hugger-mugger,
our breath frosting in the air.

Yet I would go back in a nanosecond – for a glimpse of the
Northern Lights above a polar landscape, for the sound of an Arctic
fox padding over ice, or the starburst of ptarmigan birds. These
white, grouse-like creatures are camouflaged by the drifts until
they break cover and lift up like a squall of snowflakes. I would
return to Siberia to watch the herders round up their reindeer,
using a lassoing technique that writes circles in the air. Most of
all I would return for the fragile authenticity of living among
people who call this wilderness home, who are willing to accept
foreigners in their chums on the simple condition that they aren’t
asked to adjust their way of living in order to play host to the

I would eat the Nenets’ reindeer meat. I would catch their
grayling. I would move about the tundra on the back of a sledge
pulled by a snowmobile. I would listen to their stories about
avalanches, shamans, and alcoholism, which is the scourge of many
Nenets who have moved to the cities for another future.

@Sophy_Roberts |

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