American companies have tried to put together deals to harvest Siberian timber, but as a rule the deals go wrong. Executives of these companies eventually give up in disgust at Russian business practices, particularly the corruption and bribery. In one story - hearsay, only - a major timber company of the American Northwest withdrew from negotiations after its representative in Siberia was taken up in a helicopter, ostensibly to look at some trees, and then was dangled from the door until he agreed to a contract disadvantageous to his company. He agreed, landed safely, and advised his company to get out of Siberia. Some environmentalists say that Russian corruption is the Siberian forests' true preserver and best friend.
Geologists have always liked Siberia, especially its eastern part, where a lot is going on with the earth. Well into eastern Siberia - to a north- south range of mountains roughly paralleling the Lena River Valley - you are still in North America, tectonically speaking. The North American Plate, sliding westward, meets the Eurasian Plate there, while to the south, the Amursky and the Okhotsky plates complicate the collision by inserting themselves from that direction. All this plate motion causes seismic activity and an influx of seismologists. Eastern Siberia is among the most important places for seismic studies in the world. Farther west, Siberia offers other remarkable geology, in a formation called the Siberian Traps. These are outpourings of volcanic rock that covered a huge portion of present central Siberia 245 million years ago, in an event that is believed to have caused the massive die-off of predinosaur species known as the Permian extinction.
Paleontologists come to Siberia not for dinosaur fossils, which are not found nearly as often as in the Mongolian steppes to the south, but for more recent fossils of prehistoric bison, mammoths, rhinos, and other species that lived ten thousand to fifteen thousand years ago. The Siberian mammoth finds alone have been a bonanza, some of them not fossils but the actual creatures themselves, still frozen and almost intact, or mummified in frozen sediments. A museum in Yakutsk displays the fossilized contents of a fossilized mammoth stomach, in cross section, beside a whole preserved mammoth leg with its long, druidical hair still hanging down. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, discoveries of mammoth remains were so common that for a while mammoth ivory became a major export of Siberia.
Excerpted from Travels in Siberia by Ian Frazier. Copyright © 2010 by Ian Frazier. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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