Despite reading about these temperate rainforests, this is not the Turkey I imagined. This might not be the Turkey most people imagine. I’m really not sure what you envision when you think about Turkey. A dry, open landscape? That is what I thought until I stepped into Artvin Province. Because what I saw there was green, steep, lush, heavily forested. Really? Yes!
In prepping for our pilot research in the temperate rainforests of Turkey, I pulled out the travel guide to get more background. I love going to the history section and learning the long-term trajectory of the people and region. Man, talk about long term and a wide mix of culture. There cannot be too many other places that have that mix of people and culture. At the end of the trip, I was seeing the ecology of Turkey in the same way.
After a day getting settled in Istanbul, my colleague and host, Dr. Nesibe Kose, flew with me to the far northeast corner of Turkey to catch up with another colleague on this project, Dr. Dario Martin Benito (post-doc at the TRL), and Nesibe’s former MS student, Tuncay Guner, who agreed to help with our planned field work. They flew out two days earlier because our original “domestic” flight was canceled just two weeks before our trip. So, they headed out early so we didn’t lose too much time, given our very tight schedule.
How far east did we have to fly to reach Artvin Province and our ultimate home away from home on this trip (Borçka)? Georgia! Not the Georgia next to South Carolina, the Georgia bordering Azerbaijan and Armenia. It is so mountainous in northeastern Turkey that the best place to land is apparently in Turkey’s neighboring nation. An agreement has been worked out so that we can then board a bus and pass through the border as though we are still on a domestic flight. Except that in Hoopa, on the Black Sea, we actually had to transfer buses and go through a border check. Traveling from Istanbul to beautiful downtown Borçka takes about as much time as it took to go from NYC to Istanbul. And, we were not going that deep into northeast Turkey.
This winter has been weird in many parts of the Northern Hemisphere. Northeast Turkey is no exception. It was still snowing in early April and it was said most of the roads where we wanted to go were blocked. I swear I heard the phrase ‘7 meters of snow’ when discussing this last winter in the region; Istanbul was covered in snow in late-January. So, on top of the canceled flight, we had to work around the unusual winter of 2011-2012. Our plan was to sample in Camili Biosphere Reserve. Snow covered roads forced us to work around Artvin. This is often a reality in fieldwork: unexpected conditions overrule the best-laid plans sometimes.
It is a shame we were not able to make it to Camili. It sounds like a kind of heaven. A survey indicated 990 taxa and 432 genera. Importantly to our project, there are 946 angiosperm taxa (BROADLEAF!). As we learned on this trip, bees and bears are an important part of the culture here. UNESCO states, “The basin is the only area where the Caucasus bee race has remained without its purity being damaged. It is one of the three most important bee races in the world.” We saw this in action over breakfast one morning. They asked us how many kilos of honey did we want to take home to the US. Dario and I both answered, “Kilos?” I offered that ½ a kilo would be fine with me. Our local hosts looked extremely disappointed. From the discussion of honey that followed, some bear genes might have migrated into the human genome in northeast Turkey.
As you will see as an extreme example in a future post and as a mirror of the people and culture of Turkey, the ecology of the flora in this part of Turkey is incredibly mixed. The floral survey indicates that the sources of the flora in Camili come from three regions: Euro-Siberian, Irano-Turanian, and Mediterranean, with about half being multi-regional. So, our team, being composed of a Mediterranean European (Dario) and a Turk, was set for all the vegetation that would be thrown at us.
We finally decided to head up a remote valley east of Borçka. What I learned on this portion of the trip is how amazing and adaptable the human race is. We traveled up a narrow valley with steep mountains for several miles before we saw anything that looked old. Much of the forest, unfortunately, had been heavily cut. The trees we found were quite large, but as you know, that doesn’t make them old.
We cored several species that day, but focused mostly on the Oriental beech. There were some outstanding individuals on the landscape, but none more outstanding than this one.
We soon realized that there has been heavy cutting in the high elevation, steep portion of the older looking forest. Most of the trees were young’ish (maybe only 150 years old). Most of the older looking trees we spied turned out to be ‘bee trees’. These were trees left behind to ‘house’ bees.
One of their specialties is to take logs and use them as bee hives. It apparently makes a better honey. Most of the larger beech turned out to be host trees for these log homes.
And, the value of these special bee hives is clear in how they were protected from the brown bear inhabiting these woods.
The fun part for me working in these was the chance to be around natural chestnut trees. The American chestnut is essentially gone, though we still live with its lore. The sweet chestnut in the rainforests of Turkey likely rival what was growing in the southern US. A roadside chestnut blew us away, but it was the old stump we found late in the day that was the clue to how big the sweet chestnut trees could grow.
Seeing sweet chestnut in temperate, old-growth rainforests of northeastern Turkey will have to wait for another trip.
All in all, it was a very fun and eye-opening day. Besides the massive trees, perhaps the most interesting thing was the avalanche we witnessed. We were hydrating after swimming through Rhododendron throughout the warm day when all of a sudden I hear a low rumble. I realize we had not heard a plane all day (this region is only a bird corridor, not travel corridor). I looked up and saw nothing. The low rumble kept getting louder and was sustained. I finally spotted it. Across the valley we saw snow pouring downhill. We didn’t see any trees come down, but the force of the snow looked tremendous.
I’ll sign off with some scenes from our early days in Borçka.
A true bonus of tracking old trees in various parts of the world is that it takes you to some real outposts of the human race. Artvin was no different. First, it was really interesting to live among people who you could pluck out of Poland, Bulgaria, or perhaps anywhere in central and eastern Europe. Making it more interesting, the population is predominantly Muslim. It certainly would blow commonly held stereotypes held in the US. It was really interesting, too, to be in a heavily forested region that looked like a combination of the Adirondacks and Rocky Mountains and hear a call to prayer throughout the day.
Second, we reserved a table in a local club to see local folk music. It is hard for me to describe – it sounded like gypsy-infused eastern European music. The crowd was just as interesting. In near opposition to most of the restaurants we visited, ~65% of the audience was female. Curiously, the restaurants were almost always 90% men.
The night we were there, it seemed a famed emeritus musician was in the crowd. They honored him partway through the set.
Enjoy clips of the music we heard that night.