Salmon and Insomnia on the Varzuga

Songs of Travel

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Where the sun plays hide-and-seek
Along the jagged-edge horizon
And the midnight light is soft
As the river mist starts rising,
Where the tundra lasts for days
And men are but a vague suggestion,
I squinted through my magic haze
And asked them all my question.

I asked the lords, with their vile broads,
Who swapped their privileged returns
For daily torture by mosquito hordes,
And tortured salmon in return.
They said:
“What would, what would we do
But tease the river with our flies?
Back home we’ve hooked them all already
And squeezed the rivers dry.
Out here, away from disapproving eyes
We pay the local boss our duty,
And sing until the mists arise,
And drink to drown the beauty.”

I asked the chopper pilots,
Black oily eyes and saggy jeans
Forever ferrying the guests, and all the rest,
In creaking Soviet machines.
They said:
“What can, what can we do
But drink until the bottle’s dry.
We see the same old empty wastes
No matter where the hell we fly.
The boss makes sure our chain is short;
Routine and risk is just our daily duty.
We drink until the mists arise,
But we don’t see the beauty.”

I asked the tired red-necked ‘jacks,
Pushing timber through the shallows.
The river states the laws and facts
And nothing else is hallowed.
They said:
“What could, what could we do,
Our loyalties are wheat and rye.
We drank instead of rafting wood
And now the river’s dry.
The boss will punish us some more
For getting drunk on duty,
But we felt free, for those few days,
And thats a rare beauty.”

I asked the poacher in the wood,
A crucifixion for his hungry sin,
Tied naked to a trunk all night,
Mosquitos feasting on his skin.
He said:
“What can, what can I do?
Survival is a bitter treat.
They pay the boss and throw them back,
But I just want my kids to eat.
These English lords and Yankees –
They think they’ve paid their duties;
Well, my eyes are bruised and swollen
And I cannot see the beauty.”

I asked the portly group of ministers
Old visitors from provinces and ‘Stans
They came to feast on caviar and crab
And toast like Russians can.
They said:
“We do, what we have always done.
We’ll eat raw quail eggs and drink
To the accordion’s oh! melancholy sounds –
Let workers worry and let others think.
We’ll toast to friendship’s constant ways
While others pay our dues and duties;
We’ll sing until the mists arise;
We have no need for beauty.”

I asked the boss, his handlebar moustache
A crowning symbol of his league,
Retired admiral and now provincial czar
In permanent caloshes and fatigues.
He said:
“What can I do, but what I must?
In this rare beauty life is bleak.
We’ve ended up here for a reason –
A reason I’ll not seek.
I’ll rent the river to the English lords.
I’ll force the drunkards to their duty.
I’ll tie the poachers in the woods…
This is no place for beauty.”

Kola Pensinsula, Russia, June 2005

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you can also see an account of this trip at

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