Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Balkans Redux: Summer 2018

The Accursed Mountains in Northern Albania and Valbona National Park ©Bennett Barthelemy

Some pivotal experiences are realized in less than expected ways. This was true of my trip to the Balkans in October of 2017. A region that had escaped the internal radar in terms of high on the list locales to experience. Yugoslavia had disappeared in name decades ago, it had broken up, separating from communism. I did remember the associated turmoil/war in the 1990s with ethnic cleansing and it seemed surreal that such a thing could happen in Europe. I imagine this added to the etherealness of the region, placing it fairly far outside the focus of awareness in relation to the better expressed travel destinations of Europe.

Locally in Ojai I have been intrigued and over the years written a couple of editorial features about the vestigial reality and detrimental effects of one dam, the Matilija, just below my home in the Los Padres National Forest. It's been a blight and ripe for demolition for decades but a lack of money to bring it down and convoluted politics seem to keep it alive. Last year, from a visit there with a group of journalists that had been brought in by Patagonia, I learned from Paul Jenkin of the Matilija Coalition that all interested parties were finally on board for seeing it go and how... There were still financial hurdles but it seemed imminent that the dam would finally come down soon and that the Steelhead may yet have a chance to spawn again far up Matilija Creek, the river could once again feed the challenged watershed. It was this span of local concrete, less than 2 miles from home, that is what catapulted me into worlds so far from my comprehension. Within a few months I would be bound for terra incognita. And in June of this year I am committed and set to return again. This distant land has fixed a place in my reality, perhaps my purpose.

I quickly learned that it was not just me that allowed this place to fall off the map - much of the rest of the world has as well but that is quickly changing as the Balkans hold some of the last pristine landscapes/rivers in Europe that have become targets for exploitation - and that the lack of awareness means that these hydropower projects that were far from "green" were being slammed through before the locals could effectively fight it and the rest of the world could raise dissent.

A highly contested hydropower diversion project in Valbona National Park Albania still underway.

I went alone and on my own dime to the Balkans to learn and to share as I could about the concrete and waterways that were threatened or already being exploited for capital gain - 3,000 hydropower projects from Slovenia to Albania.  I crossed some 19 borders in a few weeks and met some of the more inspirational humans yet in 5 countries. I felt a very real sense of urgency and solidarity by the locals, a grassroots flourishing to protect the front and backyards, their livelihoods, their right to healthy drinking water and to be free from unchecked development by money hungry investors and politicians that seemed to care little for the future of the environment and its people. This is for sure happening in our backyards too, with Trump and the gutted EPA and this awareness and solidarity and grassroots activism needs real awakening and flourishing here too.

One thing powerfully shared by Rok Rozman, Slovenian grassroots leader was that the locals protecting the rivers in the Balkans want outside awareness about what is happening, " put fear into the bones of politicians doing the dirty work." He eloquently shared that just because a river might be in Rok's backyard it does not belong to him, it belongs to everyone. We should not be divided by borders or religion or politics because that is what the developers and governments want so the exploitative work can go on.

Filmmaker and grassroots activist Rok Rozman on his home river the Sava in Slovenia, his initiative Balkan Rivers Defence is going strong in the Balkans

Catherine Bohne of TOKA - The Organization to Conserve the Albanian Alps - talks to reporters with locals from Valbona National Park/Tropoja in Albania after the 12 court case in Tirana fighting the unchecked development that is diverting the river in the National Park.

Omer shaing a poster brought by another nearby village that started their own non-profit to help locals become educated and aware what is happening to their rivers.

Denis Cizar on his beloved Mura River, a river guide and activist in Slovenia.

Arif, an Albanian shepherd in Valbona National Park, Albania. 

A Croatian hydropower plant... it is believed by many that no one locally gains much from new hydropower projects and that is really just about financial gain for a few, their is enough power generated already. Perhaps looking at and changing levels of consumption internationally can help this?

Omis and another dammed river... Amazing climbing/recreational opportunities are also threatened by the developments.

Croatian climbing destination, epic limestone.

German climber Wolfgang works to help sustainably develop tourism in Valbana National Park along with locals there...

A group of women stand guard keeping out the trucks and developers that wish to take over their water source in Krusica, Bosnia. These women and other river defenders will be featured in Patagonia's new film premiering this month, The Blue Heart of Europe.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Finding Community Through Tragedy

A deer that perished in the Thomas Fire, seen while doing trail restoration work near the Topa Topas

One of my favorite authors, Charles Bukowski, titled one of his books - "What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through The Fire". The last couple months have certainly had many of us finding this out... The stories of so many locals in Ventura and Santa Barbara County, including myself - are about the things that cannot be replaced. I lost 10 years of original slides, some 98 percent had never been backed up anywhere. Some lost vintage guitar collections and classic cars. Many stories of fire crews suddenly being called elsewhere and leaving homeowners and friends left alone to save a house... But through the fire and ash one thing became clear. So much is just stuff.  Attachments to items that ultimately mean little.

More than a couple times I was brought to tears by a very simple gesture of generosity that caught me off guard when was in need during the thick of it all. I had escaped to Joshua Tree from the smoke and had cancelled my lost credit card and was out of cash for a day until the bank would open the following day. Crossroads Cafe refused to take an IOU for my breakfast and the manager went further and invited me to spend Christmas day with the family if I had no where to go. Later I went to Joshua Tree Outfitters, needing to rent a warmer sleeping bag but did not know for how many days. When I explained why I did not know how many days exactly I would need it for the owner found a bag and just insisted that I keep it without paying anything.

What began to surface in many ways was a resurgence of a more human side of things. A reaching out to connect directly, share stories and commiserate. An offer for clothing or tools to someone in need... Some volunteered for clean up, gave time or expertise in a needed area. There was also a grassroots, from the bottom up kind of revitalization in the community to share information and resources. Events organized and realized to help many that suffered serious losses - especially in Montecito where many perished from mud flows following the slopes that were now devoid of any vegetation. Ojai was somewhat isolated from crazy debris flows, at least so far... My sincere hope is that this engagement continues and that folks see that it doesn't require great tragedy to have this. It should be the norm to give without expectation to someone in need. To pull the focus to others.

One of my favorite things about the local Ojai region is the ability to explore the front and backcountry so easily on the trails. Run, ride, climb, sunshine, views. This is something that nourishes my soul and helps keep me sane. It is difficult now that many of the trails are closed, specifically the Los Padres Forest Service ones. I was grateful that I got to engage in helping keep them somewhat happy post fire and rains these last few weeks building waterbars and clearing burned brush and trying to help sustain this gift for others. It is encouraging to see that through such devastation that the local landscape repairs itself... Wild cucumber is exploding on the blackened soils, chamise and sumac are sprouting from tiny stumps. Lily is pushing through the moon-scaped soil...

I know many have done similar restoration work these last couple months on the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy trails volunteering with them. I am grateful that this has happened and that more people are stepping up.

There will be more mudslides, more fires... We will all suffer losses of one kind or another and hopefully through the strength and resillence of a connected human community we can continue to endure them.

all images ©Bennett Barthelemy 2018

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Value and Vigilance: Protected Lands

"When it comes not just to nature but to questions that concern humanity in general I think there should be no borders... " Rok Rozman, Slovenia.
Climbing in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah 

 Certain people we meet have the ability to challenge, inspire and shape our world view. Sometimes it just takes one sentence to suddenly trigger this deeper awareness. Are we listening?
"When it comes not just to nature but to questions that concern humanity in general I think there should be no borders... " Rok Rozman, Slovenia.
I listened to many individuals on my trip through the Balkans last month. History in not an abstract there. It is alive for them. The Ottoman Empire, Communism, World Wars, Yogoslav Wars, Bosnian Conflict. This region has been through more than most in terms of conquesting. There is a deeper awareness of shared value here that I have not experienced so directly before. 

A sense of pride over a tiny stream and an open sharing of what it means to keep it healthy. I know this awareness is alive and well throughout the globe, but so many of us have yet to open our eyes, experience what is there and what it means to lose it before we can know the value. Now we are about to lose much of it in the West... 

I came to the Balkans wanting to hear the human stories, the struggles. To listen to the rivers, to float on them, to climb above them. 

The people in Balkans' communities around rivers are united against political agendas and development interests that are working to quickly destroy their backyards for a quick return on investment. An investment that disregards the balance of nature and in many cases a sustainable future that is finally being realized after generations of war. They are organizing and asking for accountability of their governments through lawsuits. They are starting their own NGOs dedicated to protecting the environment. Communities are beginning to help others and share knowledge and resources against developers.

Value is something that transcends money. Value is having clean drinking water for you and 100,000 of your neighbors. Maybe we only know that value after months spent sleeping at the source with guns and grenades as happened in 1993 in Kruscica. 

This value is certainly understood by native cultures in the US as well. Being so transient, so nomadic, consumers, as most of us are in the so-called First World, how do we adopt and share this understanding?

I am hopeful that NGOs and companies are now stepping into the fray in the US over Utah's public lands. But it is the force of all of us that is needed to push back against shortsighted government and development. It is a universal struggle. Worth defending, worth protecting.

all images ©Bennett Barthelemy

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Balkans Rivers... October/November 2017

Residents of Omis listen to experts describe what would happen to the Cetina River if a proposed gas plant is built. The river water would be used to cool the plant and it would raise the temperature of the water and have disastrous effects on fish and other wildlife.

A raft on the Mura River in Northeastern Slovenia. This river is part of a river system called the Amazon of Europe. If the proposed dams are built the rafting will no longer exist and with the changing of the microclimate within a few years the vineyards and the wine industry here would suffer catastrophically.

Albania and a day in court calling the government out for grantubg concession for hydropower in Valbona National Park in the Albanian Alps. Construction is ongoing as the court threw the case out saying that the people had no right to bring a case against the government. Appeals will be filed along with criminal charges by local Valbonans and 
Women of Kruscica that are guarding a bridge 24 hours a day in peaceful protest to keep trucks from arriving to being work on the river again. Some of these women told me that they would die to protect this river. They have already faced off and suffered violence at the hands of Bosnian special police.

A man from the US climbs a two month old via ferrata above the Cetina River and Omis in Croatia. An area that relies on tourism but is currently dealing with a gas plant that wants to build at the headwaters. The river will heat up killing fish and other wildlife and jeopardize freshwater as well as the tourist economy the region survives largely upon.

A local activist shares photos showing before, during and after of a realized hydropower project from a nearby village. The village came forward to share what would happen if they let hydropower interests have their way. Rivers are diverted and all but disappear. Over 100,000 people depend on this river for drinking water and the locals fear that the construction could sacrifice the flow and quality.
A climber in Valbona National Park. The river is just below and the region has vast potential for climbing, kayaking, fishing and many other outdoor pursuits with tourism being the mainstay for sustainable economic viability in the region.

All images and video ©Bennett Barthelemy

The last three weeks I spent in the Balkans. 

I floated rivers in kayaks and rafts and cut brush to help fish habitats - I met with NGOs and river activists and explored 6 countries in this region that is little-known to much of Europe and the West. I crossed country borders 17 times and without fail was met with incredible hospitality from the locals. 

Currently governments and developers are pushing to realize 3,000 new hydropower projects that will or are already drastically challenging sustainable livelihoods as the rivers are dammed, re-channeled and drying up. The diverting or damming of rivers destroys wildlife habitat, alters life-ways people have had for centuries, compromises drinking water and tourism opportunities. 

One positive outcome this struggle is realizing is a sense of community - bringing together diverse individuals in defense of rivers and promoting natural resource awareness and goals for long-term sustainability. Rivers express little regard for borders, nationalism, political corruption, corporate greed or religions affiliation. It seems that when individuals begin actively promoting the health of a river that they will engage this reality as well.

With this groundswell of local activism in the Balkans the rest of the world might begin taking notice to what is happening and what is clearly misnamed as "Green Energy." Perhaps pressure will be put on politicians and governments from not only the inside but from the outside as well to stop these hydro projects and to more fully embrace other energy alternatives like wind and solar and let the rivers run free...

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Mass Shootings, Human Rights, Community Healing

Honored to be present among some amazing photographer/artists this year...
I received two International Photography Awards for work in Orlando, Florida this last June for the one year acknowledgment of the lives lost at Pulse Nightclub - at the time it was the worst mass shooting in modern history - now superseded by the Las Vegas event. 
You can see the Orlando gallery and read about it here.  
I spent a week with my sister, Melissa Barthelemy an activist and academic within LGBTQ+ and public history, visiting memorial sites and meeting with community members as well as attending events via non profit advocacy groups. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have had as a human in terms of perspective building and solidarity.
An expanded gallery and captions can be found here at Social Documentary Network.
Images ©Bennett Barthelemy

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Public Lands: A photo essay

Interesting times regarding the future of not only the planet with climate change - but also here in the larger backyard of the American West with the renewed and vigorous threats to public lands.

I have spent the better part of my existence outside walls and beyond the concrete jungle. I still prefer the stars as roof and am most often beneath sky.

The cycles of sun and moon transit through my days as blood and I believe I can yet feel as part of the pulse of the earth while on dirt trails, rock faces, swimming in pools deep in wilderness... Avocation became vocation long ago with the sharing of these more wild places. I feared that without awareness of them they would become more compromised with humans inexorable march of "progress".

So my personal path as wilderness guide, photographer and writer allows me a continued access to these wild places, and selfishly it turns out, has become central to my well being. This simple connection to the Earth is quickly becoming less simple. The Earth needs more people with lived awareness to effectively raise a collective voice in its defense. Please feel free to start now if you have not already.

It shocks and frightens me that in only a short span of months an administration and president can undo and compromise what little ability we still have to connect to these wild places, challenge our deep heritage to an indigenous past, call into question even more severely our ability to keep something more pristine for future generations.

There are now much smarter ways to procure energy, simpler ways to live - that use less energy - that are slowly being rediscovered...

I am heartened that Patagonia is stepping up to raise awareness and challenge our currently myopic federal government. A good piece of reporting here via The Guardian today...

Here is a gallery of a few images from public lands that share a bit of the magic and mystery that still is out there to be shared, explored, protected...

all images ©Bennett Barthelemy