Mammoth mystery; caring for parents

A special on raising a behemoth and a hot-button drama

Imagine the most frigid weather you've ever endured (you in the Sun Belt, think ski trip blizzards), divide those temperatures by half, and you've barely gotten to summer in northern Siberia. Now, try to conceive of the effort it would take to dig deep into ground that hasn't thawed since the Ice Age.

Combine those two things, and you've only begun to glimpse the herculean task set before the team that decided to unearth the remains of a woolly mammoth embedded in 26 tons of permafrost 477 miles north of the Arctic Circle.

This is the feat that is chronicled in the documentary, Raising the Mammoth (Discovery Channel, Sunday, March 12, 8-10 p.m.). Set to air in 146 countries and 23 languages, the program documents the historic work of a team of scientists who in October 1999 recovered a 23,000-year-old mammoth and moved it frozen - and intact - to a research site.

The creature's nine-foot tusks were key to locating it in the frozen expanse of northern Russia. "The Dolgans, the native people of the Taimyr Peninsula, found the mammoth tusks," says Dick Mol, a mammoth specialist who heads the team of researchers who will start work on the mammoth carcass in April.

The ivory was a high-priced commodity, which the nomads wished to sell. This attracted the attention of French researcher Bernard Buigues, who had been working in the region for 10 years.

"When something interesting happens," he says of the Dolgans, whose region is populated by roughly 60,000 people, "or when they find something and don't know what to do, they contact me."

Besides being a treasure trove of archaeological and biological artifacts (beyond the animal carcass, green plant life from 20 millennia ago was retrieved), the recovery of such a well-preserved specimen has raised a more controversial proposition, namely, the possibility of cloning an ancient and extinct species.

The team of scientists set to work on the animal say they intend to explore that possibility.

"Why clone a mammoth?" asks paleontologist Larry Agenbroad, who served as a scientific and geological consultant on the expedition. "I say, 'Why not?' " He points to modern-day programs of reintroducing and protecting endangered species such as the grizzly bear as a model.

"I don't see any real difference between bringing back grizzly bears and wolves and the possibility of bringing back a mammoth clone," he says. The show is worth tuning in both for the excitement of the dig as well as the provocative new possibilities it proposes.

The preservation of the modern-day family takes center stage in Going Home (CBS, Sunday, March 12, 9-11 p.m.). Starring Jason Robards as a cantankerous former school principal, the drama explores the social phenomenon known as "the age wave."

"It deals with the dilemma we all face," Mr. Robards says, "of what to do with older people in our lives. In this society, we seem to just take the older people and put them away somewhere."

"The thing that we all stand on and whether we stand tall or not, is our roots," says Beth Polson, producer of the CBS drama. "We're the world that has stepped out of that responsibility."

When the father of the prolific documentary maker and television producer fell ill, Ms. Polson says she faced what promises to be the hot-button issue of the baby-boom generation - caring for elderly parents while maintaining a career and family in a different state or even a different country. She had to make the decision to sacrifice her own career and tend to what she calls the foundation of her life. It was the best decision of her life, she says.

"In Oriental cultures, it's an honor to care for older people, and I have to say that in the last five years of his life, my father taught me more than I'd learned my whole life about the kind of dignity and devotion to family that matters. He never put himself first, no matter how sick he got."

The drama depicts the anguished canvassing of rest homes for a father who can no longer care for himself. For the real-life Polson, nursing homes were not an option.

"When my dad was in the hospital, they sent social workers who said to put him in a rest home," she recalls. "That wasn't a possibility. I truly believe we have responsibility for our older people." She remembers inspecting the most expensive nursing homes for her own parent. "They're not caretaking," she says, "they're maintenance. I could not allow my dad in that as long as I had a breath in my body."

Polson says this crisis of the baby-boom generation will not be solved easily.

"We're the most educated, the most fit, the most aware generation ever," she says. "We have taken care of everything to do with the mind and body, and we've neglected the spirit. We come up short in matters of the spirit, and the biggest things in our life turn out to be matters of the spirit."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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