Sunday, August 12, 2007

Petrov Island

I had read a lot about Lazovsky Zapovednik and Petrov Island before coming on this trip. Due to the weather I had to wait 5 days for my first trip to Petrov Island, until August 4. Because of all the reading I’d already done I was waiting with great anticipation to set foot on an island that has occupied so many imaginations. I had high expectations! And when I finally got to go, my expectations were more than exceeded. Petrov Island is an amazing place, where you really can feel nature. It seems like a completely different world.

Petrov Island is exceptional from the ecological standpoint (here there is virgin forest that has never been logged, and there are 396 species of plants on this tiny 36 hectare piece of land) and from the archeological standpoint (5 different cultures lived here between 6000 BC and 1200 AD). However, more than that, this is a place that, it seems, cannot be completely explained by science, and legends and fairy tales about the island abound. If you are there, you begin to believe them – you want to believe them – and for you they become a part of the island and how you imagine it. As one archeologist who I met on this trip told me, “People create fairy tales about the places that they treasure” («Люди наделывают сказки местам, которыми они дорожат».)

In the pictures above are the sign for Petrov Island, noting that this is a nature reserve and unsupervised visitation is not allowed, and there a group of tourists waiting on shore to go to the island. Below a group of tourists is arriving to the island. I went with these tourists on my first tour of Petrov Island, with Olya as our tour guide. What with the foggy weather and all my anticipation of visiting here, along with Olya as a guide (Olya tells many fairy tales about the island very well), on my first trip Petrov Island truly seemed mystical and other-worldly to me.

I later went to Petrov Island with Nadya in clearer weather (Nadya’s tour reminded me of how a Forest Service or National Park Service ranger would give a good tour), and then with Sveta during the kids’ camp. Olya, Nadya and Sveta are all very impressive tour guides, and below is what I learned about Petrov Island from all of them.

This picture is at the entrance to the yew tree grove, what Petrov Island is most famous for. When you start the tour your guide has everyone stand single file, close their eyes, put their hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them and bend down. Then the guide leads everyone into the yew tree grove and tells them they can open their eyes now. They do this especially to sharpen your impressions, and it works. You feel like you are in another world when you enter this yew tree grove. The air is different. (On a warm day, it is also much cooler.) You feel like there is a completely different energy.

There are 8 total species of yew trees, and the species found in the Russian Far East is the Japanese yew tree (тис остроконечный). It is also known as the “red tree” due to its very red wood, as you can see in the picture above. (This tree branch was broken in a storm.)

Yew tree wood is not only red but also very durable; it doesn’t rot. Above is a yew tree that is completely hollow inside (you can test it by dropping a pinecone in one of the holes at the top – it will come out at the bottom) – but is still alive. Yew trees used to be very common in the forests of Primorye and the Russian Far East, but now you can only find individual trees here and there, and yew trees are officially listed as a rare species. There are only 10 such “groves” of yew trees left in Primorye like the grove on Petrov Island. The yew tree grove here is the only such grove found on an island. Yew trees are also found in Japan and Korea. There used to be a lot of them in China, too, but now there are hardly any because the Chinese used to bury people in coffins made of yew tree wood. Moreover, they followed the Russian nested doll principle: richer Chinese would order as many coffins of yew tree wood as they could, and they would be buried inside multiple coffins, one inside the other.

Yew trees have quite the crowns, and their tops let through very little light. That’s the reason there is almost no undergrowth in Petrov Island’s yew tree grove. Yew trees love the shade, but they need plenty of moisture. The way the trees’ branches grow together in the island’s yew tree grove is also really something. The shapes are amazing. Yew trees are the only coniferous trees that don’t have resin in their wood or bark. Yew trees are also poisonous: everything (bark, wood, needles) except their berries contains a weak poison.

Yew trees grow very slowly, and a 30-year-old tree will only be about 3-4 feet high. Yew trees only bear fruit after about 100 years! The yew trees in the grove on Petrov Island are about 800 years old, and the largest yew tree on the island is about 55 feet high with a diameter of about 20 inches. In fact, the yew tree grove on Petrov Island starting growing at about the same time people stopped living the island. When ancient peoples lived on the island from 6000 BC – 1200 AD, there was probably very little vegetation here. And although the trees growing in the yew tree grove seem to grow in rows, as if people had planted them, that is not the case.

In fact the yew trees starting growing up around the remains of the dwellings of ancient peoples. Archeologists have found the remains of 23 dwellings in the yew tree grove, and a total of 100 dwellings on the whole island. In the picture above it looks like someone placed stones around this yew tree. In fact those stones are the remains of an ancient house! Archeologists think that the seeds for the tree fell into an ancient chimney that had since collapsed, and the tree is growing out of that chimney. Moreover, the trail that visitors walk along through the yew tree grove was not created by cutting down trees and clearing a path – it already existed. It’s possible that the trail was actually an ancient street from when people used to live here hundreds of years ago.

This picture is not a bunch of rocks; it is the remains of the wall of an ancient fortress. The wall doesn’t go all the way around the island, but rather just at the lower elevations on the northern end, since the island’s sharp, high rocky slopes (cliffs, really) provide protection on all other sides. The highest point on Petrov Island is 113.7 meters.

Back to ancient cultures: a total of 5 cultures lived on Petrov Island (неолит, янковская культура, кроуновская, бохайское государство, империя чжурчжений). The main part of the populace would have lived on shore, but if there were about 100 dwellings on the island, then about 400 people could have lived here. They were probably the political and religious elite – the elect. They could walk from the mainland to the island across a sandbar. The place where this sandbar was is pictured above – now you can just see some rocks and waves here. But as little as 100 years ago people could cross to the island over this sandbar, getting wet only up to their knees.

The yew tree grove is home to other trees besides just yews. Here is a linden tree with huge knobs on it. The knobs are a sign of some kind of disease, and on the mainland a tree with these kinds of knobs would certainly not live long. Yet this linden continues to grow on Petrov Island, and nobody really knows why. There are theories that perhaps the yew trees play a role, and there is an idea that yew trees and linden trees complement each other, like yin and yang, and that linden trees have a female energy, while yew trees are male. Whether or not you accept this, yew trees and linden trees grow next to each other everywhere on Petrov Island, and sometimes it even seems that they are embracing, or that they make an extra effort to be near each other. Scientists can’t explain why this is, because linden trees and yew trees do not grow next to each other on the mainland.

Here is another yew tree and linden tree all wrapped up in each other in the yew tree grove.

One of the lindens in this picture has a yew tree right next to her, but the other linden bent over and grew horizontally all the way across the path to be next to a yew.

This is a 5-trunked linden tree at the end of the yew tree grove. There is another 5-trunked linden at the end of the tour of Petrov Island – as if one linden tree is welcoming guests at the tour’s start, and the other is waving goodbye.

This is the most interesting composition of lindens and a yew tree next to each other on Petrov Island. Here the yew seems to be supporting the linden on its strongest branch (left side of the picture). In fact the two trees have actually grown together – have fused – in this spot. Two different trees truly growing together is rare anyway, but this is almost unheard of – a yew tree is a conifer, and lindens are deciduous.

(Another view of the same linden and yew – from this angle it seems like they are dancing!) Of course, there are fairy tales to explain why the linden and yew have grown together this way here. According to one legend, an ancient warrior was returning back to Petrov Island, fighting his way back against enemy troops. His mother was waiting for him on the island. From the island she could already see him fighting his way back, but she realized that he was suffering a defeat, and that she was seeing him for the last time. She asked the gods not to separate them. The gods interpreted her request in their own way, and turned her warrior son into a yew tree, who will forever support his old mother – the linden. The trees of the yew tree grove are the warriors of her son’s army, forever keeping guard over Petrov Island.

In total, in addition to the linden tree that is growing right on the yew tree branch, there are 5 other lindens here. Thus there is another legend about this yew and linden composition. The last, great empire of ancient peoples on the island, who were exceptional warriors (both men and women), were fighting the Mongols. The leader of the ancient tribe realized that they were defeated. He and his son were on the mainland, and he sent his son back to Petrov Island to tell his mother and five sisters the news of defeat, and to give them his last bow. His son traveled back to Petrov Island, and from there he and his mother and sisters continued to fight the Mongols. Seriously outnumbered, they gave battle for a long time. Suddenly a Mongol arrow struck all 5 sisters at once. Their mother embraced them, and at the same time she was struck by a spear and also left this world together with her daughters. Her son, left with no other weapons besides his own hands, lifted his mother and sisters up high, so that the Mongols would think they were still alive, and that their empire was still strong and undefeatable.

Here is a view of the same linden with the large knobs on it. This spot is called the “fairy-tale clearing,” although I’m not sure why – except that to me, if did feel like one of the most magical, energy-filled spots in the yew tree grove. The twisted vine on the left side of the picture is in fact a vine, not a tree! It is a liana, and it is the second largest liana in the Russian Far East. It is 37 cm in diameter, while most lianas are 5-7 cm across maximum. Below are a couple more views of it. Pretty amazing.

The tree that Nadya is leaning against in the picture above is called a “cork tree.” Its bark (which feels kind of like cork) is really used to make cork (like for wine bottles, etc.), and actually, if you strip its bark off correctly, it doesn’t harm the tree – the bark will grow back and even be of better quality. There are not many of these trees left now in Primorye, however, because many cork trees were harvested for their timber. Cork trees’ black berries also have medicinal uses, e.g. against colds. The Chinese call this tree the “black pearl.” There is a legend that a Chinese emperor had a favorite pearl, a black pearl. He used to like to take it out in the evening and look at it in the palm of his hand on the shore of the river in the sunset, when it caught the light and made beautiful colors. One day a strong wind blew the pearl away into the river and downstream. Although the emperor’s servants searched for the pearl, they never found it. But downstream a tree grew up, and in the fall it was covered with black berries – black pearls.

This tree is called “demorfant” in Russian, and I cannot find what it is in English. It is cool because it protects itself against being eaten by deer when it is young – it has little needles on its bark. The needles stay around up to 50 years, and we could still feel them in a couple of places on this tree. (Honestly, I’ve never been a huge botany fan, but I learned so much interesting stuff on Petrov Island!)

These tourists are standing under a Mongolian oak, which does not grow in Mongolia, by the way. This tree makes up 60% of Primorye’s forests, mostly because it is very fire-resistant. (Wildfires are a problem here.)

This is one of the 5 natural springs on Petrov Island. You can drink the water here and it is really quite delicious, I tried it (despite the fact that minks and squirrels like to go swimming here, as they told us). According to legend women who drink from this spring will be beautiful, young and fertile, and men will be strong. However, you cannot touch the water with your hands and drink from your hands – you must kneel down and drink directly from your lips.

In the Chinese historical chronicles there is a story of an island inhabited only by women, where there was a spring like this one. A woman who looked into the spring would give birth to a son in 9 months. (How the island remained a place with only women with all those boys getting born is another question…)

The ancient peoples of Petrov Island were shamanistic and believed in gods of nature. There is a spirit of Petrov Island; his name is Leshii. He lives in the hollows of old trees. If a person wanted to do something on the island like cut down a tree, for example, he should ask permission from Leshii. You can also whisper to Leshii a good wish and ask him to bring you some luck or something pleasant (for example, to see a squirrel or mink on your tour of Petrov Island – on one tour we saw two black squirrels; squirrels came here from the mainland). Below this girl is whispering to Leshii.

Below is a Korean pine tree. They say that a Korean pine tree will absorb negative energy from you – but not if you touch it as this little girl is touching it. Instead you should stand with the back of your head, you spine and the backs of your calves touching the tree.

Here is a ripe, green Korean pine cone along the cliffs of the coast of Petrov Island.

And here below are the remains of a ripe pine cone that a squirrel ate. The Korean pine is a very important tree in Primorye’s forests, and its bark, wood and pine cones (nuts) are all used. However, much Korean pine has been logged in the past and continues to be logged (often illegally) today. It grows in virgin forests.

There are 396 species of plants on Petrov Island, while there are only about 50 on neighboring Beltsov Island. There is a fairy tale to explain this, too. When God went to plant trees in the Primorye Region, he had two angel-helpers. One angel was very responsible; he did things as he was told and on time. He got his seeds, counted them out, separated them into packages, and started sprinkling them around, not hurrying and distributing the right amount of seeds in the right places, in the correct proportions. The second angel was not so organized. He was always starting one thing, rushing rushing rushing, and then starting another thing before having finished the first. When he got his seeds he did everything at the last minute, as usual. The last place the two angels got to were Petrov and Beltsov Islands. The first, responsible angel went to Beltsov Island – he had just the right amount of seeds left for a place that size. The second, last-minute angel got Petrov Island. And because he did everything at the last minute, he hadn’t gotten rid of enough of his seeds yet – he had a lot of seeds left, of all kinds! And he scattered them all over Petrov Island, hence there are so many different plant species there today.

In fact the real explanation is probably that people lived constantly on Petrov Island for centuries, and they probably brought seeds over from the mainland (in their clothes, etc.), while there were not continuous inhabitants of Beltsov Island.

These are the roots of a huge fallen Korean pine. You can see that there are stones in the roots – this pine was growing on ancient peoples’ artifacts. Archeologists sure were excited when this pine fell, as they cannot do any digging on Petrov Island, since it is a strict nature reserve – they can only observe with their eyes. (They can dig along the beach on shore, though, where there is no reserve.)

There are 4 rocks that look just like this one on Petrov Island, all equally spaced exactly 80 meters apart. No one knows how they got that way. Archeologists think there is another, 5th rock in the ocean. They say these rocks have a special energy, and that some people can feel a current coming up from beneath them, as if there is some kind of black magic here.

There has only been one fire on Petrov Island, and it was in this spot. It happened in the early 1980s, when the Russian Far East navy was considering setting up a training base on Petrov Island (nature reserve or no). Two sailors were walking around the island in the fall, when it is fairly dry, and the first sailor was smoking. He tossed his cigarette butt aside and a fire started. The two sailors put out the fire, but one yew tree and a few other trees died. Later that year there was a fire on the boat that the first sailor served on, and he was the only one who died.

Visitors today are not allowed to smoke on the island, of course.

This is a spot where archeologists think ancient peoples may have made animal sacrifices to the gods (on the stones below).

This bay is called the Bay of Love or the Secluded Bay. There is a fairy tale about this spot – an ancient peoples’ Romeo and Juliet and origin myth all in one. A young man and woman from two warring tribes fell in love. They knew their relatives would not approve, and so they fled from the mainland to Petrov Island’s Secluded Bay, where for a time they lived happily and undetected. But one day they heard noises that told them that their relatives had found their hiding place and were approaching by water. The youth took his bride’s hand and led her up the steep coast. (cont’d below)

At the top of the cliff over the coast of the Secluded Bay the youth asked the gods to protect them. And at that spot there grew up a huge fir tree (pictured above) that blocked the relatives’ entrance to the island from the bay and cliffs below. The youth retreated with his bride to the interior, and they became the first inhabitants of Petrov Island.

The yew tree above is a wishing tree. It has a lot of holes in it that are like ears, so it can listen to the wishes you whisper to it. But you should wish for only non-material things, and then your wishes might come true. Here some visitors are wishing away. I have to say that all the visitors I saw on the trail on Petrov Island truly were very interested in what they were learning and behaved themselves very well – they didn’t lag behind, listened very respectfully, did not go off the narrow path, etc.

This yew tree looks like a bonsai. The zapovednik loves to tell a story that they once had Japanese tourists here who wanted to buy this tree because it reminded them of their homeland. They didn’t want to cut the tree down – they just wanted to buy the plot of land. Lazovsky Zapovednik had a hard time explaining to them that that’s not allowed in Russia’s nature reserves.

If you look at this oak tree carefully, you will see that the knob growing on it looks like a Mongoloid face. As you walk past this tree the face is always looking at you. It’s as if someone is watching the behavior of Petrov Island’s guests. Olya says that once she had a visitor who waved his hand disrespectfully in front of the face, and the whole rest of the trail he kept tripping over roots…

This is a view of Beltsov Island from the end of the trail around Petrov Island. (The trail makes a big loop.) Here you can see Beltsov Island well because this part of Petrov Island was logged in the early 1930s, when a few people who were part of a marine expedition lived on the island. They built a 2-apartment house and banya on the island, had a garden, pigs, cows, chickens, dogs, and cats. They worked here for 4 years and left in the mid-1930s. The landscape is totally different in this spot – no trees, only tall grass. In 1936 Petrov Island became part of Lazovsky Zapovednik, and so now there is not this kind of threat to the rest of the untouched forests here.

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