Mother (and father) Russia

July 22nd, 2011 by Arboretum Education Supervisor, Patrick Mulligan









We had made our presence felt in Vladivostok, now it was time to take our act on the road.  First stop:  Userisk, a large town due north, to present to a group of college students at the Pedagogical Institute.  These students were a mix of Geography and Ecology majors.  I majored in geography as an undergrad and almost all of the electives I took in grad school had to do with ecology, so I felt right at home.  Before going on, we had a sit down with the director of this 101 year old university and a few of his professors.  We learned that pedagogically speaking, Russian schooling is based more on the German system than the American one.  Students are in large part still viewed as empty vessels needing to be filled with knowledge by their teachers.  I illustrated this mentality by taking a bottle of water and pouring it into an empty cup (the things we do to communicate when language isn’t an option).  One of the professors picked right up on the analogy, took another empty cup and pretended to throw the water out under the table, mimicking a common response from students who are force-fed their education.  We all had a good laugh.  He went on to tell us that educational reform is happening in post-Soviet Russia, but as with all large movements, it just takes time.

I started my talk with a 5 minute crash course on the geography of Puget Sound (as requested by the professor) and then dove into the “what, who, why, and how of EE” that I presented the day before at the conference.  During the “what” I explained how EE has been such a difficult thing to pin down in the U.S. in part because in English the word “environment” can have a plethora of meanings depending on who you ask.  The word “education” is equally divisive.  So when you put the two words together, one can see how difficult it could be to arrive at a clear definition.  This logic doesn’t work in Russian.  They have a very specific word, “ekologia”, that they use for environmental education and it’s very similar to our notion of ecology.  So while this started us off on a slightly confusing foot, it did lead to an interesting discussion and help turn our presentation into more of a dialogue.

I ended my part with a challenge.  In one of my slides, I showed a brief timeline of educational reform in America that included only a few noteworthy dates.  One was the launching of Sputnik in 1957 that led to the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965.  This was the act that provided federal funding to states and helped make public education accessible to everyone (keeping America competitive with the USSR).  The next major reform I discussed was the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001 which in turn led to the more recent “No Child Left Inside Act”.  The main motivation behind the latter is to help ensure America’s leadership position in the emerging “Green Economy”.  So the challenge I laid down for these Russian teachers in training was to ask if they were willing to sit idly by and watch us take that lead.  The most challenging issues we face today are global ones; I figure a little healthy competition of who can be greener can only be good for society – certainly better than “who can have the bigger nuclear arsenal”.

By the time Sally finished her part of the presentation on the Mountains to Sound Greenway, the students were ready to jump out the windows of our now breathy conference room.  We’d talked straight through lunch, so we called it a day and said dasvidanya.  We had a 5 hour drive ahead of us to Kavalerava (Nadya’s hometown), and in addition, had been invited to visit a “nearby” natural history museum located at the edge of a large zapopriendik (protected area).  The woman who ran the place, and managed the associated EE program, had been in attendance the day before in Vlad, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  So while it was out of our way and put us a little behind schedule, it turned out to be really cool and I’m glad we did it.  The drive out there was our first real chance to get a feel for the forest in Primorsky Krai.  It reminded me of where I grew up in Shenandoah Co., Virginia.  Lush green pastures set amidst rolling tree covered hills carved by meandering streams.  It was hard to imagine tigers and leopards in such a setting, but sure enough, when we arrived to the museum, we saw them in the flesh.  Granted they were poorly stuffed and somewhat dusty, but it was still quite impressive.  And the big cats are but a smidgeon of the biodiversity in the Russian Far East.  Housed within this quaint one room exhibit must have been several thousand specimens representing all the various taxa groups and collected on site.  Mongolian bears, wild boars, little deer with vampire fangs, countless insects, and a rich stock of birds and reptiles as well.  We’d learned the night before from Alexander that Russia has something called “The Red Book” listing all their threatened/endangered species.  It turns out that a majority of these species are endemic to Primorsky Krai, and a fare number of them were on display for us here in the boonies.










We left the museum, now really behind schedule, and high-tailed it to our next destination.  Nadya’s parents had arranged a fancy dinner to welcome us, but we had one very special stop to make before hand to meet Nadya’s grandparents.  “Salt of the earth” is the best phrase I can come up with to describe them.  These are the Russians that live in the pages of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, skin leathered by years spent in the soil, backs and hands as strong and capable as adults half their age.  We had found “mother (and father) Russia”.  I have no idea what they must have thought about their granddaughter showing up with us to their little plot in paradise, but I could see the pride swell in both their eyes as they embraced.  We sat and gorged ourselves on freshly made crepes topped with strawberries, cream and honey and time suddenly ceased to exist.  It came out that Nadya’s grandfather had once been in a choir, and so naturally we asked for a song, and just as naturally, he sang one.  His bellowing voice filled our little kitchen concert hall belying his 80+ years – a haunting melody about a white daisy that still echoes in my head.  In the dying light, we left their farm reluctantly and arrived to dinner around 11pm to find Nadya’s parents fuming.  It was obvious that they had been waiting for some time, and that we were the only reason the restaurant was still open.  Part of me felt bad, but most of me didn’t care, our delay had been worth every heartfelt note.