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Knights of the Vine RUSSIA


Nature and Wildlife in the Russian Countryside
Claire Marsden

oving to another country, learning a new language, and developing an organization to promote an environment- and wildlife-friendly way of life in a country not known for its ecological sensitivity would be challenge enough for most of us. However, American environmentalist Laura Lynne Williams takes her overseas adventure one step further. Her new book, The Storks’ Nest: Life and Love in the Russian Countryside, tells the story of her life-changing move from the hustle and bustle of Moscow city living to the remote countryside of the Bryansk Forest.

In the style of a personal diary she explains how one fateful meeting in the Moscow office of the World Wildlife Fund with Igor Shpilenok, now her husband, and the extraordinary experience of helping deliver a baby on board a train, led her to the village of Chukhrai. Once a thriving town, Chukhrai’s population has dwindled to less than 20. The aging locals are survivors — of World War II, of post-war famine, of isolation and harsh winters.

Williams brings us along as she leaves behind the relative comfort of Moscow and arrives, after eight hours in her trusty if decrepit Lada, at her new home, a wooden hut with no running water. She and Shpilenok have come to this community of simple, self-sufficient folk to set up an education center at a zapovednik, a strictly protected nature reserve, in the area. The symbol of this successful reserve, and the premise for the book, is the fight to protect the endangered black stork.

This remarkable book is separated into seasons, and we witness her vegetable patch develop and grow in parallel with her relationship with Shpilenok and her understanding and mutual acceptance of life in the Russian countryside. Life is not all smooth sailing, of course, and we learn of the couple’s battle to ward off and educate poachers (who have been supplementing their meager pay packets with timber and livestock from the area for generations), their attempts to raise a menagerie of orphaned wild animals, and Williams’ subsequent heartache when things do not go to plan.

Learning of the abundance of opportunities to observe wildlife in their natural habitats and the plans to reintroduce animals to the countryside makes you want to take a journey to Chukhrai, if only for a weekend, but it is the human stories that interest this reader most. The portraits of the village drunks, who don’t bat an eyelid when they see Williams’ visiting father fall face first into a pool of muddy water (it is oft en the place where they end up!), and the history and advice dispensed by Olga Ivanovna, the local witch who becomes an unlikely friend, are wonderful. They and their tales of curses and strange traditions are in as much need of preservation as the wildlife that surrounds them. A particular favorite is the village post lady who walks six miles to Smelizh to pick up the mail yet has to rely on her drunken Ukrainian boyfriend to deliver it as she is terrified of dogs.

The life that Williams has chosen is a simple one and so is her writing style. Her honest observations of the wildlife, the people, and their ways, make her story a consuming read, despite the occasional superfluity of detail (the author wears size 8 trousers, mainly in green, though black when out in the evening). Nevertheless, The Storks’ Nest is well worth reading and whets the appetite of those of us who have failed to venture out of Moscow into the countryside. It reminds us of the wild and wonderful parts of this diverse country that are out there waiting to be explored and promotes the necessity to protect the beauty of the landscape and the creatures that reside there.

The Storks’ Nest: Life and Love in the Russian Countryside by Laura Lynne Williams.
Photographs by Igor Shpilenok, Fulcrum Books, 2008, 336 pages.

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