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