Sara Wheeler – Stairway to Heaven

Some years ago, marooned in the Russian Far East, I fell in with a family of marine mammal hunters. They were Chukchi, one of over thirty groups of indigenous peoples spread across the Russian Arctic. Imperial, Soviet and subsequent Russian authorities have consecutively dragged all those hunters and herders into the cash economy with disastrous results – they have become disenfranchised, marginalised, abandoned.

But they still believe in something, which perhaps we don’t. To the Chukchi, the natural world is sacred. It is part of a larger spiritual universe, connecting people with the land on which they depend, and, crucially, with their ancestors, who used to build antler towers as seal-oil lighthouses. The Chukchi don’t own that land: they are but stewards. For generations, they have performed ceremonies to thank bowhead whales and walruses for the provision of food, shelter, fuel – and sacred objects that embody meaning. These hunters have always carved the bones of their prey. I bought this – to my mind beautiful – bone from a Chukchi elder. ‘These things’, he said, eyes gleaming as he ran his fingers over the bone even in the midst of the degradation of his ancient culture, ‘pave our path to the greater world above and below us.’

Image Sara Wheeler

The bone is a baculum, a walrus penis. (Fact of the day: walruses have the biggest penis bone, relative and absolute, of any mammal). It is about 40 centimetres long and carved with a totemic human face and hands along with a walrus head and flippers. My work as a writer means I am often among indigenous peoples, or the disenfranchised of other kinds, and this object has become a beloved travelling companion, on my desk and in my head. (My children also regularly used to brain each other with it.) I often try to break world, one broken in a different way, and think of the dignity encapsulated in this bone away from my own.

Sara Wheeler is an award-winning travel writer and bestselling biographer whose ten books include Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica, of which the Daily Telegraph reviewer said, ‘I do not think there will ever be a better book written about the Antarctic’. Her latest volume, Mud and Stars is, according to the Times Literary Supplement, the place ‘where Russian literature brilliantly meets life’. Sara is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, a contributing editor of the Literary Review, and a trustee of the London Library.