The relationship between Mongolian nomads, their animals, and the landscape through which they move is both complex and tender. Traditional nomadic life is based upon livestock herding, and upon the efficient and organic interaction between human and non-human persons. The slaughter of an animal initiates not only the production of nutritious food, but also of materials for clothing, sheltering, herding, and even entertainment: nothing is wasted, and no trace is left. This ecological imperative is driven by considerations both practical and spiritual: for a herding family to waste any part of one of their own animals is to lose out on vital and fragile resources, and to deny the natural cycles of the Earth, and so cause offense to their ancestors, to local guardian spirits, to the Buddha, and to the shamanic sky god Tenger.
Charlotte Marchina’s new book is an important cross-border study of these relationships in two primary field sites: one in the region of Aga-Buryatia (in the Russian administrative division of Zabaykalsky Kray), and the other in Mongolia’s Arhangai aimag. This distribution is particularly interesting in the light of how the Buryat nomads consider themselves in relation to Mongolian nomads: “I realised that, for [the Buryats], ‘nomads’ was a return to the livestock breeders who live in an ‘old-fashioned’ way and in ‘encampments’ - that is, to use their term, ‘primitive’ people.” (“Je compris alors que les «nomades» renvoyaient pour eux à les éleveurs qui «vivent à l’ancienne» [jivut po staromu], sur des «campements» [stoibishche], bref, des gens «primitifs» [primitivnye], pour reprendre leurs termes.” pp.12-13) Reading Marchina’s book with this distinction in mind makes her achievement in distilling the nature of Mongols’ 'nomad’s land' all the more admirable.
The book’s four chapters deal with nomadic movement, the idea of homeland (Mongol nutag; Buryat nyutag), the negotiation of nomadic space between pasture and encampment, and the interactions between species within the nomadic space. This superficial overview fails to show the natural Venn diagram which develops among the chapters as the book progresses, and the conceptual cycles which connect and revisit the key elements of the narrative. Indeed, while this is a solid work of anthropological enquiry, there exists also the constant substratum of the nomadic cosmovision, common to both Buryat and Mongol herders, in which extended transspecies space (of a family, of a community) is shared with awareness of different capacities, intelligences, and needs. So, when Marchina asks a herder why he places goats and sheep together in one herd, his explanation is both logical and (for western readers perhaps) surprising: “Sheep are stupid, they don’t know where they live. But the goats know. If we don’t put the goats with the sheep, [the sheep will] head off without realizing they’re not coming back home.” (“Les moutons sont stupides, ils ne connaissent pas leur maison. Les chèvres, elles, savent. Si on ne mettait pas de chèvres avec les moutons, ils iraient toujours tout droit sans se rendre compte qu’ils ne rentrent pas à la maison.” p.81) I have now become used to watching cattle wandering home across the steppe in the later afternoon, but this transspecies collaboration of the nomadic community – though it might be “natural”, and unrecognized perhaps by all but the humans involved – is striking in its simplicity, but also indicative of an inclusive attitude towards non-humans all but absent from contemporary human society.
The maps scattered throughout the book respond effectively to the text, and reveal the daily and seasonal movements central to the lives of herding communities. By showing the way in which different families cleave to much the same routes and herding trajectories, the graphics emphasize as much the significance of social interaction and community learning as how the landscape determines, and even assists, herding behaviors. The maps, moreover, are complemented by black and white photographs, the majority of them merely indicating humanity by dint of their very existence, or by the occasional ger (yurt). Mongolia’s landscape, as presented in these photographs, might appear empty to the eye of an untrained reader, but (as I can attest) the trained nomadic eye notices incremental topographical shifts, and the movement traced by the maps illustrates choices based upon such topographical features, like the ones shown (if you look closely) in the photographs.
The complexity of the ecological relationships which Marchina describes from her fieldwork on both sides of the Russo–Mongolian border resonate even in our own more urbanized and ‘easier’ lives. In her conclusion, she points out that Mongol nomads do not live “‘symbiotically’ or ‘in harmony’ with their environment” (“«en symbiose» ou «en harmonie» avec leur environnement”), as some might wish to believe, but that their situation nonetheless offers us the chance “to reflect on the relations which we would like to enjoy with our own environment” (“de réfléchir aux relations que nous-mêmes voulons entretenir aujourd’hui avec notre environnement” p.206). This of course is key to a profitable engagement with such a work of anthropology: a book like Marchina’s, while valuable as scholarship and as a way to broaden our understanding of how ‘other people’ live, also asks us to think about our own lives. The ways in which we interact with the non-human persons with whom we share our environment, our treatment of our shared environment, and our attitude towards tradition and innovation together define the ‘broad vision’ according to which we as a society move forward. Such are the questions which this book provoked in me, and for that – as well as for its eloquence and elegant production – it is to surely be recommended.