Happy People, Redux

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A trapper’s shack in deepest Siberia

This piece originally appeared in The Nugget News, January 11, 2017.

The great battery of recent storms has made things interesting. Cars are off the road, pipes are freezing, heat pumps are failing, and I’ve got three snowy mounds down in the corrals I think contain horses. By the time you read this, we may have received another 15 inches, which will raise the stakes considerably.

Yesterday, while snowshoeing from the house to the barn, I kept thinking about Werner Herzog’s brilliant documentary, “Happy People, A Year In the Taiga.” The film chronicles the life of fur hunters near the remote village of Bakhta, along the Yenisei River, in the deep Siberian taiga.

They get real winters around Bakhta, and it’s a tough life for the Happy People. They have some modern conveniences, but it’s truly a life without much luxury. They make their own skis, smear a kind of birch-bark porridge over themselves against mosquitos in the summer, charge around the dense taiga on rickety Soviet snowmobiles, fish the river from questionable boats, and in one epic scene, a trapper returns to his cabin after checking his lines only to find it has been crushed by the incredible snow load. It is a matter of living or dying for him to get a fire started against the brutal cold, but he just quietly whistles his way through to solving the problem.

It’s at that point in the movie when we understand why it is called “Happy People.” They just are. It’s a mindset, a quiet embrace of their circumstances, a gut-level resilience in the face of daily weather and wilderness hardships that defines who they are. They seem to be happy because they aren’t mentally at war against the realities that surround them. They aren’t imagining sun-soaked beaches in the Caribbean and torturing themselves with comparisons.

We do better when we do that, too.

There is no question that all of this snow, and below-zero temperatures, have brought some hardship. Simple tasks take twice as long, getting anywhere is dangerous, and we can start to worry about things we don’t normally think much about. Ice dams, for instance, or the EM function on a thermostat – which I didn’t even know existed until our heat pump motor decided to unbuckle itself and fall over. Some of our neighbors have reported ominous sounds in their ceilings, and last night one of our dogs growled at snow falling from the trees.

Things can get weird fast when the weather goes wonky.

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Making skis

But the Happy People have far more difficult challenges than we do, and for far longer, and seem to take everything in stride. As Laurence Gonzales wrote in his fabulous book, “Deep Survival”: “The maddening thing for someone with a Western scientific turn of mind is that it’s not what’s in your pack that separates the quick from the dead. It’s not even what’s in your mind. Corny as it sounds, it’s what’s in your heart.”

It seems to be that, at some level, the Happy People of the taiga have made a lasting peace with the notion that the challenges and inconveniences of life are natural, and healthy, and can even be fun. Hunting cabin in the middle of nowhere collapsed? No problem, I’ll just build a little fire and whistle a little tune. It’s hard not to love a mindset – a richly lived nonchalance – like that.

I’m not proposing that shoveling snow off the roof, thawing out pipes, watching three hours of plowing magically disappear, or thinking about the flood I’m certain we will fight off in the barn this spring is fun. But there is certainly a way to bring myself around to enjoying the challenges, to shrug a little bit more in the face of consequences and occasional setbacks that I may not like.

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Horse, meet tractor.  Tractor, meet horse.

And there is, in fact, a tremendous upside to these storms. One of the reasons I’ve embraced this episode of incredible weather is that it has convinced me, after several years of procrastinating, that I need a tractor. More importantly, it has also convinced my lovely bride. I’ve been toying with the tractor notion for some time, throwing the idea up in the air to see if it landed in the need, or the want, box. But perpetual plowing and shoveling has made the decision for me. And so the great snow of 2017 has come like a gift from the heavens, because it convinced me that I both need, and want, a tractor.

And that makes me very happy, indeed.

  1. 1. Mindset and heart is everything.

    2. Happy People is wonderful. It’s available streaming on Netflix.

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    1. They are our best tools in adversity. Culturally, we are teaching a different message–which is dangerous to us all.

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  2. Thanks, I look forward to the movie, another good one (book) that details hardships, time spent in cold and stranded on ice. “Endurance; Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” by Alfred Lansing. There are several books available recounting this incredible expedition to Antarctica, however, this one is considered the best account and compilation of the the crew their struggles and the day to day hardships they endured.

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    1. Funny you should mention Lansing, not five minutes ago I was staring at it on the bookshelf. A terrific read, and a valuable addition. And you will love the movie. It is, I think, something of a masterpiece of filmmaking.

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      1. Thanks…funny life’s small coincidences, hard to imagine the hardships the crew endured.

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      2. Indeed. That was a constant misery. Hell. Very difficult to imagine.

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  3. I forgot, nice new John Deere and beautiful horse stalls….

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    1. Many thanks, the tractor has truly been a life saver over the last week or so. Or at least I tell myself that to keep justifying it 🙂

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      1. My guess is you’ll like it more as it will serve you well…..

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  4. Regarding your new JD Tractor, yes do absolutely take advantage of it’s advantages. The right tool always makes the difference, and besides it frees up your time to post more of your writing here for all to enjoy. All work and no play…
    Your winter musings resonate. I have had plenty of experiences both good and bad with winter weather. It definitely can test your preparedness or lack of it when you are dealing with 25 below or more. Those temps. takes it (down) to a completely different level. No room for error as you know. Those that have lived it year by year are usually prepared for the contingent situations. Other than that it stimulates a biological response to surviving and with the right heart for it as you say, you just deal with it. The good thing is that when in a comfortable shelter listening to the howling frozen wind outside or seeing a white-out blizzard from comfortable confines, it gives one a feeling of real content and is conducive ( for many anyway ) to reflection and writing. You no doubt are one of those. Spring fever will strike soon enough, so enjoy it while you can. I think that more than justifies riding with Deere…

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  5. I can relate before we built this Ranch we so lovingly call home, we were clueless. We have become Happy people in the face of adversity not much rattles us anymore . 11 years of learning don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff yihaaaaa

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    1. You had the guts to chase down your dream. That’s what matters.

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  6. I watched the movie Happy, Wow, Herzog hit it out of the park, my Pug Tyrone sleeping next to me, i know was out of the corner of his eye watching the part about the dogs…he’s a people dog, but he got a taste of the ‘wilderness dogs’ his bros….! thanks

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    1. Thx Todd. Am replying to this from a tent in the hills of AZ in the heart of Apache country. What a strange world and so glad you loved the film. I thought you would. 😁

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