Utne Blogs > Wild Green

Wild Green

Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.


Environmental Lessons from a Russian Trapper

 by Keith Goetzman


Tags: Keith Goetzman, environment, literature, nature writing, hunting, trapping, Russia, film, Dersu the Trapper, Akira Kurosawa, Resurgence,

Dersu the TrapperThe 1921 Russian novel Dersu the Trapper “is one of the earliest and most powerfully realized examples of environmentally conscious thought in popular literature,” writes Patrick Evans in Resurgence magazine. The book by Vladimir Arsen’ev became a hit upon its publication, enthralling readers with its purportedly true story of a deep nature-based friendship between Dersu, a hunter and trapper, and Arsen’ev, an army captain:

In the story, the persona of the captain is initially placed firmly in the acquisitive “hunting” tradition of shooting wild game, exploiting wild land for the greater good of the empire, and subjugating the natives to imperial command; yet Dersu’s knowledge of the wild forests is so rich that soon the captain in forced to see things differently. Slowly, the soldier relinquishes his killing instinct, only allowing himself and his men to shoot what they can reasonably eat. Increasingly, he spends his time observing nature and soon he begins to despise the advance of civilization into wild areas, seeing it as highly destructive.

The story has held its power over the decades, and was even made into an Oscar-winning film, Dersu Uzala, in 1975 by legendary director Akira Kurosawa. “Today it survives in thirty languages,” writes Evans, “yet outside Russia it remains largely and puzzlingly unknown.”

I read Dersu about a decade ago, after a hardcover English version was published in 1996 by MacPherson & Co. (it remains in print). I was immediately drawn in by the storyline and the vivid descriptions of life on the Russian taiga, but was even more intrigued by the environmental ethic at the core of the tale, especially since “environmentalism” and “Russia” are not typically associated in my mind. Evans is certain that the book still has wisdom to share:

It speaks of a place most of us will never visit, in a language now outmoded. Yet it is time that a new English-speaking readership evolved to champion a long lost but never fully extinguished cause.

Watch the trailer for Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala here:

Source: Resurgence (article not available online)