Freeing the Fixed Mind

I have just finished 6 months of teaching in the US at the community college level after twelve years of teaching at the undergraduate level overseas. Most of my students are actually still in high school and are attending community college as part of the Running Start Program that funds high school juniors and seniors to attend community and other public colleges for both high school and college credit. I expect the high school students to do exactly the same work with the same level of maturity as any college freshman. Obviously, some flexibility is necessary, and I am particularly aware of the need for faculty to provide what the British call “pastoral” care for undergraduates. High school students, no matter how advanced they might appear through testing, will need more of a helping hand than the usual undergraduate. After twenty years of teaching at the undergraduate level, including that twelve years spent in various locations throughout Asia, I was stunned by some of the issues I ran into. The most stunning was the absolute lack of preparation students had for independent and critical thought.

With few exceptions, these students, supposedly the most advanced, claimed that they were only taught to take the test. Some students just could not adapt. I was criticized by students on their formal evaluations and at an informal site (that allows students to rank a professor’s relative “hotness”) for two main issues: first, I was not sensitive to their Christian beliefs. This came about because I begin American history with the migration of peoples across the Bering Land Bridge at least 13 thousand years ago. This history conflicted with the students’ professed belief in the 6000 year-old age of the Earth. So, in their minds, I am anti-Christian. These complaints prompted some academic advisors to suggest students stay away from my classes because “there have been problems.” This is a public institution.

The second point of criticism was the amount of work I assigned. While this is not an unusual complaint (I’m a tough teacher), the form in which it was expressed was bewildering. Apparently, students were upset because I asked them to write a paper on a topic that we did not cover completely in class; in other words, I asked them to write a research paper for a freshman level college class. I did not give the students a grading rubric because I wanted them to have as much freedom as possible in selecting and researching a topic. I provided general guidelines and (despite being adjunct faculty without an office or being paid for hours spent outside class) willingness to meet with a student at any time to discuss their progress on the their papers. English Composition is a required prerequisite for the class. Yet, some students were unable to generate curiosity about a topic other than one discussed formally in class. Furthermore, some students were unable to complete an essay exam without being given the questions ahead of time. On evaluation complained that a take-home essay exam was in fact an unfair paper assignment because he or she had not known the questions before being handed the exam. To hand out the test questions is what many of my students call a “test review.”

Of course, the fault for this does not lie with the students or the high school teachers. Teaching for the test has become the dominant teaching philosophy in the American system. As a result, even the most advanced students are graduating expecting “fairness” to be having the questions and answers provided to them. Independent and critical thinking is not absent from my classroom. I teach my students how to think critically, to assume that all information is prepackaged by experts and that it is incumbent on the individual to assess the creditworthiness of a source and the spin intended by the seller, especially if that purveyor is an expert of some sort. When they leave high school, however, students are taught to rely exclusively on the authority of the test writers, givers, and graders. When faced with criticizing the question or the source, students react fearfully and offensively, projecting the insecurity of being cast into a cold universe of independent thought onto the one who asks them to have an informed opinion. In this case, that person is I.

There is no better job on this Earth than that of being called to teaching. Encountering the creativity, curiosity, challenge, optimism, and candor of a mind uncluttered with cynicism and unburdened by calcified opinions is a glorious job description. Those encounters are becoming less and less common. Instead of instilling a young mind with wonder at the possibilities of truly independent thought, I am suddenly faced with outrage by children when I dare to destabilize their force fed worldview. In what world does a 16 year-old child, no matter how bright, have all the answers boxed and tied up with a bow? In ours, apparently. Instead of arriving curious and ready to argue about the nature of everything, students are emerging from high schools with minds as fixed as bayonets on an infantry charge, education being a tool—a means to an end—rather than an opportunity to explore the universe in all its mysterious glory.

I am an expert in setting up American-style liberal arts higher education overseas. Having returned to the US after being founding faculty in three international schools, I have to emphasize that the kind of education I have been providing is extinct at all but the most exclusive schools in the U.S. I set up American-style education, as opposed to the current quality, because no one would want to intentionally implement American anti-intellectualism and shortsightedness guaranteed to produce a dependent and uni-dimensional class of non-thinkers. Unfortunately, when I did encounter genuinely open and curious minds, the rigid walls of administrative rules refused to bend to allow students to play with their ideas.

We have already reached the post-apocalypse, and it is conformist, narrow, and potentially civilization ending. Its name is corporatism and it strives for regimented sameness and the absence of creativity and spontaneity in everyday life.

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Mourning Over the Inland Sea

As much as I want legroom when I fly in cattle class, I always choose to sit by the window for daytime flights. However, what I see below, on this trip from Kyrgyzstan to Istanbul, is tragedy only in the sense that it was caused by human hubris. The violence of poverty and ignorance are written on the face of the Earth below. I cannot document the devastation well enough on my iPhone, but I can tell a sad tale. The route appears to follow a traditional VOR route just to the south of Russia until the Black Sea, when the plane turns left and heads directly for Istanbul. There is so much light brown earth that the view seems monotonous, unless one realizes that most of what the plane is flying over used to be water.

The abstract beauty of devastation as seen from five miles up.

The abstract beauty of devastation as seen from five miles up.

I am, of course, referring to what was once known as the Aral Sea. To my historian’s brain and my photographer’s eyes, I can see a lot of things that are no longer there, first of which is water. Either Turkish Airlines is using maps made in the 90s or the desertification has accelerated because everything that marked in blue on the map is now brown, tan, or black interspersed with wee bits of green next to a brown “river.” There is no blue where there should be. I know the maps are accurate because I can feel the airplane turn at the appropriate VOR, which is supposed to be on a coastline. Now the plane turns in an anonymous-looking piece of desert.

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This entire area is rendered in blue on the aviation map. That’s not good.

Of course, I saw more than the missing blue where the authority of the map told me it would be. I hopped into my historian’s time machine and looked back further in time than my own study of geography in the 1980s, when the Aral “Sea” was considerably bluer and, as I naively thought, had not begun to shrink. I read that the Aral Sea had been shrinking for some two decades now, but it has been shrinking for a lot longer than that. We, the parasites who live on this planet, only noticed or cared twenty years ago. Any fool can see from 36,000 feet that the entire basin had once been a great inland sea, spread from Tashkent and Bukhara in the (arbitrary East) to Baku in the West.

Yes, Baku. When I say that the entire basis was a great inland sea, it must have stretched from Azerbaijan to Tajikistan, south to Iran. Of course, I am writing from 36,000 feet up, not as an archaeologist digging a meter under the sun-baked crust of no man’s land, the land of Alexander, Mongols, Infidels, and Intifadas. But as much as one can see on the scarred Earth the impact crater that in grade school I learned had the name “Yucatan,” I can see the bottom of a prehistoric (or a very, very old) ocean.

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Sand dunes where there once was a freshwater-fed, saline inland sea.

Sadly, no one else on board this metal tube seems to notice or care. I was nearly weeping watching those around me drink their clean water from plastic cups and thinking what have we wrought? The fighter still remains.

I had seen this same tableau when I flew over in 2012. The area was cloudy in 2013. The new things I saw this trip freaked me out the most: empty oxbows and sandy fields. Oxbow lake occurs when sediment fills in a meandering bend in a river, cutting off the meander, and creating a semicircular lake. The strong flow of the river continues in a deep and straight channel. In stable environments, oxbow lakes usually take some time to form. Sedimentary buildup is not a quick process when water is flowing freely. Oxbows are rare, except in places where water levels drop quickly. In the sand below, the unmistakable shape of an oxbow lake lay in the middle of a desert with no river nearby. The lake was completely dried up. So, if this whole area was once covered in water, the oxbow formed from a river that had had a fairly constant source even when the surrounding water had disappeared. The river flowed long and strongly enough to etch a meander in the soil and then filled it in with silt. Since then, the river itself had completely stopped flowing, and the oxbow lake either dried or was drained. That’s some serious devastation.

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Image The meandering white line is a dried river bed. Just on the edge of the shadow, an oxbow (now dried) is clearly visible. The river kept flowing after the oxbow formed. The unmistakable grid of human settlement is the dominant feature on the bottom third.

 

The second and almost unbelievable sight was abandoned and desertified agricultural fields nowhere near water. The Aral Sea did not disappear due to some natural disaster (unless one considers human habitation a natural disaster). The manmade Janus-faced disasters of poverty and greed are at fault. As evidenced by the oxbow, water flowed into this dry place from some wet place. Humans used the water faster than it could be replaced and permanently altered the ecosystem. The Aral Sea died to irrigate, of all possible crops, cotton, one of the most water hungry and lucrative plants around. Poverty and commerce drained the sea, and when the water receded from overuse, the fields were abandoned and moved closer to the ever-decreasing water. Circular fields testify to machine irrigation; rectangular fields were probably hand or canal irrigated. All of them are now just patterns in the sand.

 

ImageThe white patches on rectangles are sand dunes on what were fields. New fields are interspersed, most at the top of the image and in the depression in the bottom third, where the oxbows are forming. I’m curious what it will look like next time I fly to Kyrgyzstan.

 

Sigh. More in Istanbul. The drinks cart is coming. …

 

Archaeology of Bukhara

The Aral Sea Crisis

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Filed under Environment, Environmental devastation, Flight, Greed, Poverty, Travel, Ugliness, Witnessing

Women’s Work

We are moving all our belongings to the States next week. After a continuous ten years abroad, we have accumulated a rather large amount of art and other stuff. I went thorough and discarded much in the way of knick knacks and teaching materials, but ars longa, vita brevis. Some things are more important than others. I took the job at the United Arab Emirates University in 2004, long before iPhones, ebooks, and Kindle; if I was going to teach and research American history, I had to carry some core essential texts. Also, I mailed 4 large boxes to myself in Al Ain, UAE. When I took the job in Qatar, I had even more books shipped. We took extended vacations in amazing places like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman, Turkey, France, and Germany and picked up beautiful artwork, ceramics, and lots of old metal. Starting with 2 suitcases apiece and four boxes of books, we last moved 1200 kg. of possessions, from Turkey to Bishkek in 2011. The art collecting continued. Nonetheless, it is time to downsize. When we move abroad again, I will not to need so many books, and most of our art has not seen a wall since Qatar, so it will be happy in storage. Like a fellow bibliophile once said, moving books is like moving wet sand. We have also been moving dry sand.

Carpets, kilims, and shyrdaks make up a substantial amount of our shipping weight. Neither the Kyrgyz felted shyrdaks nor the kilims are heavy in themselves (even considering volume), but the wool carpets are difficult to lift, especially after lying on a floor for any length of time. The air in all of the places we’ve lived in the last decade has carried particulate matter: desert sand in the UAE and Qatar, pollen in Germany and France, Anatolian topsoil, and greasy miasmic coal effluvium in Kyrgyzstan. Our lungs and our floor coverings have absorbed much of this matter. The gunk that settled into our rugs just about doubled their weight. Since we are paying by the kilo for shipping to Seattle, I wanted to shed some of that international dirt. First-worlders would go out and rent a steam cleaner; I headed into the courtyard to find some place to beat my carpets.

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Beating carpets is women’s work in non-industrial societies. It makes sense. Women generally have care of the children. Carpet beating means staying in one place for an extended period of time. Since the task is communal, someone can always have her eyes on the kids. It also makes sense because the task requires physical strength and stamina and patience rather than only water buffalo killing strength. For example, the Lewis Hine photograph below shows the communal nature of doing the washing in a pre-industrial society, Tennessee in 1933 [Hine worked a month for the TVA. See Lewis Hine As Social Critic, chapter 6 for a complete analysis of the photograph]. Note the child next to the house. I say non-industrial rather than pre-industrial because Kyrgyzstan, as a former Soviet republic, is not industrialized, although it once had been. In this sense, I think of it as a Roman province, sometime around 600 CE. More on that later.

 

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I did not have a proper mattenklopper, a carpet beater, so my task was made more difficult. “Right tool for the right job,” Dad always said. I tried an aluminum cane, but parts kept falling off and it wasn’t flat (see the picture at the bottom). I had better luck with my next implement of beating, but I had to be careful using it because it also was not flat, it didn’t bend, and it was much too short. I used the billy club my grandmother stole from a policeman. He stepped into a speakeasy in the 1920s to use the loo. With my mother in tow, granny secreted the club under her dress and headed out into the street. I loved that woman. I wielded the cane like a baseball bat, which was awkward, but at least I now know how to lay down a bunt with my left hand. It was necessary to switch sides every few strokes. Otherwise my right arm might have fallen off completely. The club was easier, but it had its own drawbacks; it was too short, and I was in danger of leaving marks on some very expensive floor coverings.

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The correct implements for rug savagery.

I had absolutely no idea of the laboriousness of the task. I had difficulty lifting the sand sodden carpets over the only bars available, so Doug, my husband, came out to help me. Wow. When I started with the small carpets which I could woman-handle over my head, I actually disappeared from view. Even after living in this Soviet flat block for 3 years, people still stop and gawk when I walk through. I’m taller than most Kyrgyz men and chose to dye my very short hair fire engine red. Remarkably, the minute I started swinging at the rugs, I was no longer an object of any interest at all. I was just another woman doing the spring cleaning; the most ordinary thing in the world. However, when Doug came out to help me, you could’ve heard a chin drop (phrase stolen from Phil Vassar). Men.Do.Not.Beat.Carpets. I’m sure the men questioned my husband’s masculinity and the women thought I was completely unfeminine (by needing a man’s help lifting a 50 kilo carpet—culture, it’s a funny thing).

You know, women’s work is HARD. I pride myself on being strong and physically resilient. I spent hours with my purloined night stick pounding the sand and dirt and coal smoke out of my rugs. The Subaru parked next to my carpet beating bar ended up covered in dust, as was I. The weather here is very dry and in late May very warm. After a few hours of the most boring and difficult labor one can imagine, everything hurt and I looked like I ran a marathon. My hands were bleeding from blisters and rug burns. Still, when Doug came out to help me pound, I shooed him right back in. While I was working, several women came by to inspect my work and examine my Turkish carpets. I’ve seen these women around for three years, but none—until that day—ever acknowledged my existence. One actually spoke English to me. She assessed the (very nice) carpet and asked “How much?” Assuming she meant “How much did you pay for it?” I tried to answer in a combination of Russian, Kyrgyz, and Turkish. Glorious clucking ensued. I am not very feminine by many standards, but standing there in my shorts and Tevas, sweating and bleeding, wielding my grandmother’s stolen billy club, I was the girliest I’ve ever been.

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Everything is reused here. My beater-cane is propped against the tree, eclipsed by my wonderful neighbors.

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Filed under #bishkek, Autobiography, Cultural differences, Expat life, Feminism, good things, Kygyzstan, Lewis Hine, Women, Work

No Cracks in the Pavement

I wrote this a few years ago, but facing my imminent and rather unwelcome exit from academia, I might find myself in this situation again.

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After looking for work for six months in every country except Saudi Arabia, I have buckled down and accepted a job contributing to the inanity of the Internet. I write “content,” a term that inspires no greater understanding of information exchange than its plain meaning. The infinity of the Internet beckons those who will fill it with everything and nothing. I write for those how-do-I-do-it sites, often resorting to offering well-written but incomplete and virtually useless knowledge (as per guidelines). And, I am paid $15 per “article” for constructing the written equivalent of a painting by numbers.

Now, I am not saying that this is by any means a fruitless endeavor. Yes, income of any stripe is always welcome, but there are deeper truths about our society to be gleaned from the questions posed by the merely average to so-called experts such as myself. In this banal existence, I may have found some mystical knowledge about the human condition.

One question in particular has inspired this commentary: “How do I install a drain after the cement floor has dried?” There is an innocent beauty in that most obviously wrong of questions; we call it hope. Any one of us could be that do-it-yourselfer who, while presenting his (or her) beautiful new garage/basement/party room floor to a spouse is asked the innocuous question, “Where is the drain?” This belongs to the realm of Haiku:

Flat, dry, unyielding

Still, a windless graying sea

What do you mean, “Drain?”

Insight dawns. Visible physical deflation ensues.

Thus begins my travel from a purely academic understanding of the human condition through a portal to the true core of humanity. Whether college professor, middle manager, or waitress, the Sisyphean futility of life becomes manifest when grasped in the pathetic frustrated hands of imperfect and imperfectable human life; we are all one—there is a Zen moment in here—when in our DIY projects we neglect the most obvious and necessary. One can imagine that poor schmo standing before the computer, having been told that the Internet has all the answers, praying to the binary god, typing frantically, “How do I …?”

Now this foible of humanity lands on my desktop. Rather than gently passing on the bad news that, no, there really isn’t anything to be done now, I open my article formatter and type in the box labeled step one: “First thing, rent a jack hammer and protective ear covering …”

Next assignment: “How do I get a date for my sister?” It is going to be a long night.

signed, the content hack

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The Correct Word

“The night was sultry.” Throw Momma From The Train

As a writer, a teacher of writing, and a sometimes translator, I spend a lot of my time looking for the right word. English is beautifully protean, so full of nuance that there is often an exact word to express any idea. Even when English can provide no precision, the language will be true to its larcenous past and will  execute a linguistic five-finger discount, usually purloining from German or French. Still, the contemplation of the right word is one of the joys of writing.

Last week, a student stopped a colleague in the hall; they stood with heads bent in silent contemplation. Curious, I asked what concerned them so. They were looking for a word. Now, our students are not native English speakers–for them English might even be their third or fourth language–but English is our medium. The student explained the idea she wanted to convey. We tried direct translation to no avail. I promised to think upon it. A few hours later it hit me: parasite, or even better given the belittling ferocity of the context, leech. Thus are the joys of a large lexicon.

Yet, this pastime–which makes it me very hard to best at Words With Friends and a whiz with the New York Times Crossword–has a non-vocabulary analog. For me, a photograph has the same potential as the correct word, the potential to transcend mere comprehension in favor of epistemological metastasis. For me, a photograph is kin to the right word. A seamless composition of reflected light can be as complex as Michelangelo’s La Pietà. Stare long enough, and you might see it move.

A small college wishes to commission a work of art to express some very complex and contradictory aspects of one world historical figure. Since my medium is the non-posed photograph made in available light, my art is relatively easy to make. I do not need a studio, artificial light, models, props, or any supplies beyond my camera and my eyes. If I were to apply to that competition, I know that I could make a photograph that would express the correct sentiment; I could find the right word to express an idea precisely. Yet, since there is no fussy material cultural in my process, would the elegance of precision be enough? Will a nearly two dimensional print fill their space with an appropriate (and, one expects, massive ) object.

Hemingway wrote the shortest tragedy in the English language: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” Because of its brevity and precision, is it less powerful than Hamlet? The shortest horror story should be compared with the shortest tale of psychological anguish: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a knock on the door.” Compare: “The last person on Earth sat in a room. There was a lock on the door.” Perhaps brevity is the soul of wit, but it is also the essence of elegance. And skill.

In the years since World War II, Abstract Expressionism has competed with photography for elegance and brevity, especially with  images of the Shoah. Can a  sculpture ever inspire the same level of distress as a photograph of the Einzatzgruppen gleefully completing their loathsome task? Enormity of feeling needs to be met with enormity of scale. Subtlety and efficiency may be too severe and thus insufficiently oppressive to wrap one’s head around the brutal immediacy of a photograph.

I will not submit a proposal for this commission, mostly because most people do not think a photograph can inspire the same sense of gravitas  as a sculpture or installation. I will, however, undertake to make the image as a test for myself. After all, the exercise, like journey’s relationship to destination, is as important as the output. Whether it be the correct word or the precise image, thinking is the cure for the restless spirit.

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Filed under criticism, Ideas, Letters, photography, teach writing, teaching, Thinking

One Possible Outline for Reexamining Positive and Negative Liberty

If you're not lead cow, the view never changes.

If you’re not lead cow, the view never changes.

I am in the process of writing a new definition of positive and negative liberty as it applies to the the U.S.

I teach Kant every year. This time I decided to write a paper for my own assignment. Blame the broken foot for such pedantry. Kate

“Virtue never tested is no virtue at all.”
Billy Bragg

Thoughts on Kant, “What is Enlightenment?”

According to Kant, enlightenment and competence equate in the individual to the same thing. Following the age of majority, when one examines with inborn reason ideas previously imposed, one becomes competent. This is release from self-incurred tutelage, Kant’s definition of individual enlightenment. In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” the philosopher explains that a society can become enlightened when all barriers to individual competence are removed.

Despite the fact that it is human nature to think for oneself, people choose to think as they are told to out of fear and laziness. In essence, they happily accept their status as sheep under the guardianship of a shepherd. The most absurd situation occurs when such a guardian is him- or herself incompetent and unenlightened, simply mimicking the ideas of others. Ritual is passed down from high, and liturgy becomes mere repetition of words, devoid of any real meaning and exciting no passion or faith. Unchallenged faith is not worthy of its name.

Certain social conditions must exist before one can become competent; one cannot and should not dissent in every situation. A society needs rules in order to function. (Even kings are subject to the rules of grammar, e.g.) The enforcement of regulatory rules equitably creates a stable society in which a person has room to question all authority, even the logical basis of said rules. Strong centralized government is required to preserve external freedom so one can concentrate on exercising internal freedom of thought. One thinks only of security if security is not otherwise guaranteed.

Kant thus explains the difference between the use of private and public reason. In one’s daily discharge of duties and engagement in social coexistence, individuals must obey even if obedience conflicts with one’s own opinions. This is private reason. When one is not performing a social, cultural, occupational or other standardized duty and answers to no one, then the individual has a duty to question all authority and speak publicly about objections to doctrine. Obey, but disagree. Such disagreement on one’s own time is public reason. The scholar-teacher is obviously the exception; in her, the source of public and private reason occupies the same space and creates a duty to question all authority. This is called academic freedom.

Public reason presumes an a priori guarantee of freedom of speech maintained by a strong centralized government, what I call positive liberty or state enforced egalitarianism. Weak centralized government with a minimum of enforced rules, what I call negative liberty, fails to protect equitable freedom of speech. Rather, it encourages licentious behavior, the growth of petty dictatorships, and trampling of others’ rights. It is rule by the loudest or the biggest. Taken too far, negative liberty can devolve into anarchy just as positive liberty can devolve into dictatorship.

When addressing “What is Enlightenment?” Kant explains how individuals become enlightened and offers a calculus to determine whether a state is currently in an enlightened age or in an age of enlightenment. An Enlightened Age exists if all external barriers to critical thought are absent and each individual is capable of challenging and digesting for oneself all information on which he or she has previously been fed. It is the death of the intellectual fait accompli.

Kant concludes that that his society had the perfect government in the monarch Frederick for the enlightenment process to proceed. Frederick asked external obedience but not total control over internal thought. No monarch would tolerate consolidation of power in the hands of any other than the ruler’s. Conversely, in a republic, with its permissive growth of petty dictatorships, institutions may evolve that prevent the individual from rejecting tutelage. Kant did not, however, examine the historical likelihood of malevolent monarchs.

In essence, Kant describes a positive liberty society that refuses to foster consolidation of power in the hands of the few but is powerless to proscribe social dictatorship. When such conditions exist, even though their influence wanes, a society can be described only as an Age of Enlightenment, a transitional period moving toward the universal exercise of individual reason.

Kate Sampsell-Willmann

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Filed under Higher Education, Intellectual History, teach writing, teaching, Theory, Uncategorized

Kyrgyzstan’s Cornucopia

 

Left to right: rhubarb, garlic, oregano, thyme and rosemary, mint

Left to right: rhubarb, garlic, oregano, thyme and rosemary, mint

Yesterday, Doug and I went for a walk in the Issyk Ata gorge, about one hour’s drive from Bishkek. I had forgotten that we had just spent 16 days at sea level and that my body greatly prefers generous amounts of oxygen, so we did not get far into our hike. As always, the scenery was magnificent, the sun warm, the breeze cooling, and the company fine. Add to that cold beer at the end, and it was a near perfect day.

Giving the option of a do-over in life decisions, I would have liked to pick up a degree in botany along the way. If I hadn’t been convinced that girls cannot do math, I would have probably become a doctor rather than a lawyer. But, as I constantly remind my students, the physical sciences are indeed part of the liberal arts. I’m a sucker for plants.

One of my great loves whilst living in the US was wildflower and edible plant identification. Travelling through Nova Scotia one visit, I met a Parks Canada ranger who was from the M’icmaq people. He and I gabbed for hours over edibles and medicinals on that amazing island. We each parted with a book neither had, an exchange of like minds.

A colleague of mine, Valeri Hardin, is an encyclopedia of the natural world. If I could go hiking with him, I’m sure my brain would be overwhelmed with raw data on what one can eat and what one can cure from the natural bounty of this place. I cannot hike with Valeri, however, because he is just so damned fit. My seal level-bred oxygen needs just will not allow me to follow his mountain goat speed. Luckily, Doug will let me set the wheezing pace, so I can spend a lot of time looking at plants.

Wood Sorrel

Wood Sorrel

So far as I can determine, there is no book published in English, French, or German to assist one in identifying wildflowers in this country of such rich flora. There is one book on medicinal plants of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (and it’s available in a Kindle version!), but even the e-book is $150. Luckily, many of the plants in the Tien Shan and Altai regions are similar to other alpine regions around the world, and I have been able to pick up some tips from Valeri and from what I see in markets.

Yesterday’s walk turned into a foraging expedition for our tea. I have a deal with Doug: when we go camping, he’s responsible for catching and cleaning the fish; I’ll do the cooking and gather the rest. If yesterday’s uniformed forage (I only eat what I’m sure I can identify) is any inclination, we’ll eat quite well.

The path lines with mint and wild sage

The path lines with mint and wild sage

On my first gasping stop, I sat down in a grove of wild sage. It has a much more delicate flavor than the European sage that Americans use for their poultry, Turks for their çay, and Brits for their pork. The first thought that leapt to mind: “pork chops wrapped in wild sage and baked in wine with a savory strawberry glaze.” Yum. As I looked around, I realized that I had stumbled (literally) into a wild herborium. I found three distinct varieties of mint and thought “mojitos!”

At this point, I was crawling through the low growth wrinkling leaves and sniffing my fingers. I can only imagine how I would have appeared to any passers-by on the trail, much like truffle-hunting boar, I suspect. Doug has the patience of a saint.

Wild oregano grew in vast patches, as did wild rosemary with its lovely lavender flowers; wild thyme grew nearby. In addition to various potherb vegetables, I stumbled upon clumps of wild garlic (no ramps alas). I managed to dig two clumps while Doug liberated ten. At that elevation, we were just on the cusp of collecting bulbs over the strongly flavored and woody stalks (great for cutting into sections and storing in olive oil). Since the tomatoes are coming in from the Fergana Valley, I decided on a foraged spaghetti fresca (molta fresca!) for our evening meal.

Doug convinced me that perhaps we had rushed into the land-without-air and should turn back before I developed cerebral edema or something. My hiking boots were getting tight from my swollen feet. I’m much happier at depth than at altitude, but I love the mountains. Slow acclimation is the key.

On the way back down, I continued to rub leaves, sniffing for essential oils, when Doug stopped and looked at a plant. He doesn’t usually do that. He usually has hunting on his mind in the outdoors. Next thing I know, he’s pulling this waist-high plant out root and stem. Only then did I see the delightful purple on the stalk. He found our dessert. Although I had seen strawberry plants, we were too high for ripe berries. But, the lowland collection had begun, and our local souk had freshly picked mountain berries by the kilo.

Our evening meal was quite delicious, finished off with a strawberry rhubarb crumble served right out of the oven. Given more time, say on a camping trip, I could have made everything from what we were able to scavenge, including flour made from dried angelica and cattail roots (very labor intensive). Olive oils and wine would be a problem, but if we camped up there, we’d have horses, so I could travel with those and other bare necessities.

Fields of poppies, without the slaughter

Fields of poppies, without the slaughter

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Filed under Expat life, good things, Gustatory Delights, Kyrgyzstan, Travel