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.

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