Thursday, October 18, 2007

Winter's a-comin'

Martuni is the most beautiful I've seen it this evening. An early season snow last night gave way to a cold autumn day, with great clouds billowing not up but across the sky, beyond them a deep, brilliant blue. Snowy peaks stand out like ancient elders on the horizon: to the south a dry range capped with snow, to the west one gigantic peak, standing above the rest, the Grandfather, as great and far away as you can imagine. To the north across the lake a long range hugs the coastline, their tops shrouded in clouds, the most distant peaks tiny and lumped in a line like the wall of a sand castle. It all stands, eternal, catching the reds and pinks of a setting sun, just visible, shooting rays around a huge dark cloud that hangs next to the Grandfather on the western skyline. The air is clear and cold like a block of ice.

The kids were wonderful today, twenty of them but with Lala's help it was a breeze. We taught the food chain, outside in the cold wind, the kids choosing animals or plants to be and building a pyramid, declaring their connections with the plants and animals above, below, and around them. My great appreciation goes to Joseph Cornell ("Sharing Nature With Children") for his activities, games, and great ideas.

I just talked to Emma Groetzinger online, a chance encounter. She is in Peru, heading back to Colombia soon, working on Peace Education with teachers in Bogota. I am reminded once again of how many friends I have who are living abroad and in the US, helping people, working for peace and freedom and justice. More power to all of you!

H.H. the Dalai Lama received the Congressional Gold Medal today, honoring his lifelong advocacy of religious harmony, nonviolence, and human rights, as well as his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Tibet issue through dialogue with China. The Medal is the United States' highest civilian honor, and was presented at a ceremony attended by President Bush, in spite of China's protests.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Transects and Cherubs

The Crough

This year, the EE volunteers decided to organize a mentoring project, to encourage collaboration between new and older volunteers and specifically to assist the new volunteers in implementing a community project within their first three months of service. So I went to Hrazdan to work with my friends Jason and Scott for four days.

Back in Soviet times, a huge electric plant and a cement factory were built in the area of villages forty kilometers north of Yerevan, near Tsakghadzor, Armenia’s only ski resort. With all the jobs created by the new factories came a huge number of Soviet-style flats and the incorporation of the surrounding villages into one new cement-clad city: Hrazdan.

The Compass-Bearer

Jason Rhoades is a lanky, bearded, blue-eyed New Englander with a bag full of plants. He plays a mean banjo. He is studying in the Masters International program through his school on the UP, Michigan, so his service here is part of a Masters in Forestry. We set out on these four days to sample soil and count vegetation at various points on one slope near Hrazdan. This slope has sections of pasture, 87-year-old forest, and a similar forest that was cut during the early nineties’ energy crisis. This “cut” section has not been managed, and now has as many as fifteen or twenty saplings growing from each stump. These saplings have to compete with each other, and the forest could regenerate better were these small trees to be thinned. The goal of Jason’s study is to test the soil at twelve points in each of the three sections, and provide a vegetative representation of the different areas through counting of the overstory, seedlings, saplings, and ground cover. We expect some sort of correlation between living flora and soil quality.

So we set out at dawn one morning to survey the area of our study, a mostly forested ridge facing the huge industrial area of Hrazdan, complete with cement smokestacks and gigantic gray cooling towers reminiscent of a nuclear power plant. The trees are oak, hornbeam, maple, and ash, in order of frequency, the older forest being mostly oak. We mapped out three sections of 100x125 meters and got to work, dropping transects (lines) down the slope at randomly generated points. We traveled the transects, digging holes and counting plants, Scott (our soil man) taking bulk density samples with a fancy device from a Yerevan University, Jason and I sampling vegetation from five places around every point.

The Caucasus is a mixing ground, a largely treeless, dry, high elevation mountain range with winds from Russia, Europe, Persia, Mesopatamia, and an incredible diversity of plants, even when there appears to be little life on the ground. Knowing none of the local or English names of the plants, our primary task was coming up with memorable, descriptive names like “Hairy Purple”, “Monster Cabbage”, “Alveola”, and “Tri-Saw”. Sometimes we dug holes for Scott, but he worked mostly alone, occasionally releasing a highly realistic Wookie scream into the forest. Jason had planned a week for the research, but our somewhat difficult PC Program Manager (who in their opinion offers no support, only restrictions) confined us to four days. So we worked like dogs, running uphill and down, measuring slopes and bearings and aspects, digging meter-deep holes in soil that is half rock, narrowly avoiding capture by countless flighty cherubs. Exhausted, we took our friend Vartan’s taxi home each night at dark, made food and drank beer, switching soil bags and pressing our plant samples (Jason will bring them to his Armenian botanist friend for identification). It was good, hard work, a relief of sorts from teaching classes where I can barely understand students’ responses and a lot of unquantifiable “community integrating” (read: hanging around). Other vols came and stayed with us in Jason’s place, we played and sang old folk tunes into the evening.

Scott hard at work

As for the mentoring aspect, it was great to spend this time with some more experienced volunteers, see what they're doing, and I plan to organize an environmental photo/art/poetry contest at my school in the next month. Hopefully we can get a bunch of submissions and hold an exhibition at school. I think it would be a great thing for parents to come and see, a creative and fun thing for kids to do.

Back in Martuni now, life goes on. We had the first ever "Martuni Clean-Up Day" Wednesday, run by a local NGO, which included a march through town with t-shirts, banners, speeches, pamphlets, and a hundred and fifty schoolchildren, but no bags or gloves or actual cleaning was involved. When I asked the leader when we would clean up, she seemed annoyed by the question, said "Tomorrow and the next day" but there were no events scheduled. It's a good thought, I think, and it could be a good start, but action is necessary.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Hacob, myself, cousin Anna, statue below Erebuni

My host family and I went to visit family in Erebuni, which was the ancient capital of Armenia, two thousand eight hundred years old, sitting atop a hill in what is now Southeastern Yerevan. From his castle there King Argishti could survey his kingdom and the surrounding hills in case of an invasion.

Today the walls of the apparently ancient fortress have been built up and capped with cement, which as to what is new and what is old. In one section of the fortress there were some clearly very old stones, the remains of the king's pre-Christian church, with ancient Armenian writing, a script of triangles and lines, on its stones. This was the writing used in the kingdom of Armenia before Mesrob Mastots gathered and compiled the letters of the current Armenian alphabet in the early fifth century C.E.

one of the old chambers of the fortress

the King's sigil

Monday, October 1, 2007


The stars were out in full tonight, Milky Way and all, as we took the long walk back from the lakeside. Felt like winter, especially with the chilly breezes off the water. Looking at the lake with the fish line out, I felt like all my memories and thoughts could pass before me, unproduced and free, open, traceless, appearing in all their forms without disturbing the radiant space, the open sky, the rippling water.

Recently I was down in the forest, and I tried out this bird call my parents always used when we were walking in the woods. It goes “pshhh...pshhh...pshhh...pshhh” -- like that, and then you stop and listen for a bit and call again. I found a good spot in some bushes, with some higher trees a bit distant, but nowhere for the birds to perch near me except for at my level. I was barefoot, squatting under a bush, making the call and looking and listening. Within a minute or two a group of little brown/white finches approached, and before I knew it they were jumping around in the bushes about ten feet from me, checking me out, very interested. We watched each other, and they gave out their short, sharp calls. After a couple of minutes I heard a magpie’s call from above me, and I looked up to see the bird, iridescent shining black in the evening light in sharp contrast with sharp white on the wings and belly, flying a wide but visible circle around me. I slowly turned to the chichran bushes where it might have come from, and noticed another magpie perched on the top of the nearest bush, clearly visible. How long had he been watching me? Then two more cousins, in the poplar nearby, then at least eight, scattered and grouped, hopping around in the bushes, watching, maybe thirty feet away. It’s a regular cinema here, I’m thinking, and suddenly they begin to take off. With harsh cries and flapping of wings they take to the air, following each other north toward the lake, and I realize there are a dozen, twenty, must be fifty birds flying after each other across the field and away.

Every time I go and walk quietly or just sit in the woods I see something amazing. Frogs sunning on a stream’s bank. A spider’s web. A hawk perching nearby, spreading its wings and soaring away. The natural world is a wonderful place, and it will quickly return to normal around you if you can still your body and your mind. Fall is an incredible time to be outside, especially on the East Coast where many of you are. Don’t forget to get outside and enjoy it!


Men walking by in suit coats and baseball caps
boys standing on the corner, looking, laughing, grinning
Women with long colorful skirts, high heels, dark eyes,
hair immaculately colored and shaped
dragging their kids by the arm along the dirt streets
behind the Soviet apartment buildings
Young Armenians with rosy cheeks
Children squatting in the lot, picking up stones
or kicking the football through empty goal posts
Tatiks with multicolor bandanas and purple sweaters
faces lined and grooved with sun and time
warding off the early fall