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Food, Forests and Fisheries: A Journey In Conservation and Food

Among budding wildflowers stood Vlad, a man waving a long metal hook as he gestured excitedly at our group. Despite him being slightly shorter than me and capped with a large and friendly-looking sunhat, I couldn’t help but feel intimidated. Laughing, Vlad explained how he voluntarily chased off poachers out of this wetland with the same hook before being hired as a field biologist and educator. I looked around me at the low bushes, marshes, lakes, and the trees that only barely concealed the skyscrapers of Bucharest towering around us and wondered what exactly I had gotten myself into.

My dialogue of civilizations was quite simply an experience that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. We began our journey in Romania at Văcărești Nature Park, an accidental wetland in the vibrant capital of Bucharest. Next, we headed into the Făgăraş Mountains. There, we worked with Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC), an organization that is working to protect the Carpathian Mountains and its biodiversity, with the goal of establishing the largest forested national park in Europe. Our typical day would consist of a group breakfast and paper discussion with our dialogue leader, Dr. Tara Duffy, followed by a day of hiking, exploring, and learning from a team of biologists, rangers, and conservations experts. I learned about invasive species, tracking and monitoring large carnivores, ecosystem services, and biodiversity indicators, which are traditional aspects of conservation biology. The FCC team took this several steps further, talking to us about government policy and the distinction of protected lands, what that means for the people who use or own these lands, and how the communist history of the country has influenced conservation.

The best part was that most of the learning was done in the field; I was able to see the concepts that we discussed in action. I hiked in ‘virgin’ beech forest, waited quietly in a bear hide, and collected samples with field rangers patrolling for scat, fur, and DNA of wolves, bears, and lynx. Most of the field professionals we worked with were locals, so I also learned about herbal medicines, how to dance traditional Romanian folk dances, and a two-way exchange of knowledge. One of my favorite memories is of the time I got to hear a traditional Romanian folk band while sitting on hay bales at a working farm. After the performance, I was able to talk with the group about music, tradition, and learning.

Next, we flew to Greece, learning about food sustainability in the Mediterranean with NYT bestselling author, Paul Greenberg. We started on the large island of Crete to focus on the definition and evolution of the traditional Mediterranean diet. This part of the dialogue was built mostly around outings to farms, wild areas, and even locals’ homes. I learned from different professionals each day on site visits to the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research, local markets, and olive oil processing plants.

Heading to a snorkel site on the island of Crete. For being an oligotrophic (low nutrient) sea, we found a lot of sea cucumbers and other fauna! Photo from Caitlyn Ark

Heading to a snorkel site on the island of Crete. For being an oligotrophic (low nutrient) sea, we found a lot of sea cucumbers and other fauna! Photo from Caitlyn Ark

We examined how the Mediterranean diet has evolved due to globalization, tourism, and climate change. This was intertwined with cultural experiences; hiking the Samaria Gorge, snorkeling in caves, and visiting the Minoan Palace of Knossos. Learning about the historic culture was crucial to my understanding of the Mediterranean diet. We visited ancient cemeteries and historical sites to look for evidence of food and what that meant to Greek culture to frame our investigation in a historical context.

This is us building nesting sites for European pond turtles in Văcărești. These specific sites are on an east-facing slope, which is favorable for the temperature and incubation of the turtles, and will hopefully boost the hatching success rates.

This is us building nesting sites for European pond turtles in Văcărești. These specific sites are on an east-facing slope, which is favorable for the temperature and incubation of the turtles, and will hopefully boost the hatching success rates. Photo from Caitlyn Ark

In Glyfada, a town just outside of Athens, we visited an aquaculture facility, organic farm, and volunteered at the only turtle rescue center in Greece over our remaining week. This experience culminated in an individual research paper based on an aspect of the Mediterranean diet that interested us and we presented our findings to our peers.

Even though our time abroad was limited to a summer semester, I was able to learn about the cultures in a way that only immersion allows. I loved picking up bits of the language, learning relevant phrases like how to ask for more water (we hiked a lot!), and figuring out that the Romanian word for lynx also means laugh. I admired how the Greeks praise everything as ‘beautiful’, and how their generosity reaches past language barriers. These pieces of culture made this trip significant and irreplaceable. It encouraged my passion and desire to travel and learn through the exchange of ideas. This experience is for wanderers, people who thirst for knowledge, and those who are searching for spontaneous adventures that build memories and cross cultural boundaries.

 

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