Monday, January 16, 2012


I thanked the Goeres family for the excellent food and opportunity to finally do some scythe-wielding and made plans to head on over to the nearby town of Saschiz. I had learned of the Fundatia Adept organization and wanted to find out more about the scope of their work, but their website actually does a very good job of explaining what they're about. But first I should give a little background info about the region in which they work and which I had been traveling in for the past couple of weeks.

Transylvania, which is basically the entire hilly central part of the country ringed by the Carpathian mountains, has a very complex history that has been complicated even more by the recent fall of communism and migration patterns resulting from that. Starting around the 1200s, a mix of Saxon (Germanic), Hungarian, and Romanian peoples lived here and it changed hands several times between different empires, though it was probably part of Hungary for the longest time. After World War I the current Romanian border lines were drawn and many of the Hungarians and Saxons who stayed felt disenfranchised by the new power structures. As communism set in after World War II, there was a steady migration of Saxons back to Germany which greatly increased after the fall of the eastern bloc in 1989. Now they are a very small minority, and the distinctive houses and villages they left behind have now been inhabited by Romanians and Moldovians seeking to establish independent property ownership and farmsteads in the wake of decades of communal ownership. The Hungarians are still around in much greater numbers but many of them refuse to speak Romanian!

Fundatia Adept was founded to preserve the very eco-friendly forms of agriculture that had developed in these rolling hills over centuries, and which is now in danger because of European Union policies that favor large-scale farming over the small-scale "peasant" approach. Romania is home to some of the most traditional (i.e. straight from the Middle Ages) forms of farming that can still be found in Europe, but practices like local butcher shops, village-level milk distribution, and even horse-drawn carts are in danger because of the EU's drive to sanitize and modernize the Romanian countryside. Personally I think the traditional ways are much better and deeply rooted in culture, and I strongly wish that we had preserved more of this in my homeland of Eastern Kentucky. Fundatia Adept has established various ways to make small-scale farming both legal and economically viable by setting up centers for milking, value-added production (jams, pickles, etc), and marketing assistance so that peasant farmers can meet EU codes and survive financially in the 21st century. All in all it seemed to be a good model for something similar I'd like to set up back home.

Back on the bus to the next locale, this time crossing through to the other side of the Carpathians to a monastery in Suceava county. I didn't expect to be farming with friars but the description of this place on the WWOOF site made it seem pretty interesting as it was sort of a nursing home that grew a lot of its own food on site. The bus journey was yet again breathtaking, and I really enjoyed seeing the local architecture style of the houses and churches change so dramatically from one region to the next. Eventually I made it to Targu Neamt and was given a ride to the monastery some 45 minutes away by a veterinarian who is friends with the friars. One thing that I didn't expect or realize is that monastic friars in Romania both make homemade liquor and drink it. A LOT. In fact my first experience upon arriving at the monastery was to be led down into a brick dungeon and be given glass after glass of very potent ţuică (lovely moonshine made from plums), and for some reason it seemed like a good idea to serve dinner right afterward!

Myself and a random WWOOFer from Seattle (Aaron) spent the next several days working with a team of local dudes harvesting hay that had already been cut. It was a bit of a weird experience as the locals seemed a bit resentful toward us since we were working for free whereas they were doing this for income; they also seemed a bit impatient with our lack of knowledge of how to be Romanian farmers, and the intense language barrier didn't help. Aaron and I left before too long as there didn't seem to be very much to learn here and to my aggravation it turned out that they didn't even use scythes to cut grass and instead had a big ol' tractor.

Suceava county is famed for its very old painted monasteries, so we spent a couple of days hanging out and checking out the medieval murals. Definitely amazing in that sylistically creepy sort of way. I decided to head west for Maramures where I had learned of some interesting farming country and Aaron split off for Bulgaria or somewhere. I made a brief stopover in Sighetu Marmație to check out the "Merry Cemetery" in Săpânţa, one of the weirdest and most endearing places I visited in Europe. This place is filled with sweetly decorated wooden epitaphs that depict people either doing something normal in their lives or sometimes actually getting killed, and apparently the inscription below is funny and poetic. Some of the illustrations were truly bizarre, with everything from somebody getting their head chopped off to drunken angels partying with moonshine-making musicians. The same small town on the Ukrainian border is also home to a church that I was told is the tallest wooden structure in Europe.

Before heading back into farming country, I spent some time at a very sobering museum about the secret police (Securitate) during Romania's communist era, housed in a former prison for political dissidents. The period of communist rule from 1947-1989 and especially the rule of Ceaușescu from 1965-1989 left a very deep mark on this country, especially the last 10 or so years of the regime which saw ordinary Romanians struggling for survival in a terribly mismanaged communal agriculture system. The Securitate had a reputation for being very brutal and routinely killing any and all dissidents, and throughout my time in this country I could still feel the sense of suspicion and paranoia present in the minds of most people over 30.

My last real stop on the entire year long trip would be the sleepy little town of Groşii Ţibleşului deep in the Maramures hinterlands. I had randomly made contact with Ryan, a Peace Corps fellow teaching English in this village, and he had assured me that I could once again get my scything fix if I came. I certainly got that and much more. I knew I was in the right place when my hitchhiking driver and I had to dodge through a herd of water buffalo as we were coming into the town, and I was very enthused by the beautiful hilly farm country and handbuilt traditional houses. My biggest regret about this place is that I didn't know about it sooner, because I probably would've spent the vast majority of my time in Romania here. Unfortunately I had less than a week til my flight back to the US.

The week was filled with copious amounts of ţuică (the villagers would make me drink it before breakfast and right in the middle of hard field work!), a couple of full days of scything and other hay work, lots of visits to extremely generous and friendly villagers' homes, and a foray out to a goat and sheep milking and cheese-making operation deep in the forested hills. This last bit was especially wild as it was a pretty treacherous road to get out there, the Romanian sheep dogs were very intimidating, and only one person could speak limited English, but it was a great time nonetheless. These folks milked the animals by hand and boiled the milk over an open fire in a cauldron, and used hand-harvested stomach enzymes to get the cheese to separate. The first piece they gave me to try was shaped just like Kentucky and tasted great! One of the Gypsy youth working as a shepherd completely whooped me in arm wrestling, and my sort of English speaking guide later took me to see her father's homemade ţuică (moonshine) still and let me hear the very awesome traditional Romanian folk music group she sings with. Despite the really bad Eastern European techno that everyone there listens to, I had a really, really good time hanging out in this village for almost a week and wished I could've stayed a bit longer.

Other than a brief stopover in yet another pretty old Romanian city (Cluj Napoca) on my way back to the Bucharest airport, my time in Romania and the rest of the wide world was done. There's really no way to sum it up concisely or effectively; there was just too much variety and intensity across the spectrum of places and people I spent time with. From the former colliery towns of South Wales to the very active strip mines of Jharkhand, India, from the highly efficient bioenergy villages of rural Germany to the somewhat less efficient bioenergy plants in rural Karnataka, from the peaks of Poland's highest mountains to the foothills of the tallest mountains in the world, I have been extremely blessed with an incredible diversity of experience over this year. There were many ups and downs as I haphazardly blundered my way through 12 countries, 3 continents, and hundreds of people, organizations, hostels, couches, and tent spots, and while I'll always wish I had done some things differently I can only be deeply thankful to everyone and every place that shared some time and knowledge with me.

As I write this from a cabin in Knott County, Kentucky, I'm still struggling with how to translate these experiences into something meaningful for my homeland. We live with an economy and environment dominated by a dying industry desperately clinging to what profits remain in its last days, and it has successfully brainwashed the people into thinking that without it they will die and that any destruction is justified based on the few temporary jobs it provides. This, combined with a general suspicion of most things "green," "progressive," or generated from some outside influence creates a challenging environment for starting projects that could create a healthier and more sustainable Appalachia. But this is the place that my family has called home for the past 200+ years and it is thoroughly a part of my psyche and being; I feel a strong sense of responsibility to try to do something that improves or at least preserves this place.

The truth is that I don't know how or if this journey will be of benefit to me in any obvious way. In fact part of me wonders if I've seen too much, if I've been spoiled by experiences and understandings that make it more difficult to return to a fairly mundane life in East KY. There's no way to relay any of this in a way that comes close to capturing the true experience to anyone who has never been to the places in question, which is the vast majority of Eastern Kentuckians (and Americans for that matter). This doesn't make me feel superior to anyone else, just somewhat alien and in possession of an unexplainable and uniquely personal load. But at the same time, I treasure the vast majority of the moments that make up that load and wouldn't trade them for anything in the world. Thanks for reading,

Nathan D. Hall

1 comment:

  1. It is indeed a bittersweet moment; the journey is finished and this story is told. I have so enjoyed this blog and felt like I was looking over your shoulder and being vicariously touched by the countries, cultures, and people. It gave me a sense of understanding about your trip as well a sense of comfort by knowing where you had been. Well, not always a sense of comfort. At least the danger was over by the time I read of it!
    While these experiences may not immediately translate into tangible change in our homeland, I believe that they will. As time goes on, I believe that you will draw upon moments and people from this journey for the creativity and patience to lead our people toward change.
    I am immensely proud of you. May "The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn His face toward you and give you peace."