Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Playing Games in Poland

Written by Ilonka Zlatar and Shelli Hellman

We arrived bright-eyed (albeit a bit disconcerted) in Wrocław (pronounced vraht-suave), late to our first meeting, after learning that arriving trains can change platforms with no warning. After copious apologies we began discussing our plan for the following morning with Piotr, our collaborator (and life-saver) from the Centre for System Solutions. All of our training from the past month was to be tested in the next few days, as we finally observe what had come to be known simply as "the Game". 

We had played the game, observed ourselves in a video recording of a community meeting -- which in itself was an interesting learning experience; personally, I discovered annoying things I never knew I did, and that I can somehow come to conclusions that nobody wanted! -- learned to observe verbal and non-verbal communication, and discovered our unique personal bias toward how people interact (I'm definitely an optimist!). In Hungary we bonded with the land after which the game was modeled, and acquired a deeper understanding of the complex social-ecological system. We had discussed our research questions and had our observation sheets and materials ready to go. Were we really ready to do this? A bunch of culture-shocked natural scientists about to drop the calipers to pick up just a pen and paper, the tools of observation for this social experiment. I'm sure we learned more about ourselves -- our doubts, fears, strengths, and weaknesses --  than we ever imagined by stepping out of our comfort silos. 

Our question seemed simple at first:
Do relational activities affect content outcome?

In other words, does the way that people interact with each other change the financial and ecological success of the game? Does balanced leadership, having rules for communication, and sharing a common understanding of the problems produce more capital? More stable systems? The answers to these questions would be much more difficult than we thought.

The next morning, we took the trams to the Wrocław Research Centre EIT, where we observed our first game with researchers, students, and environmental professionals. I think each of us felt a bit overwhelmed trying to interpret what was happening, filling our evaluation sheets and furiously taking notes as the "years" kept rolling by faster than you could learn to pronounce Wrocław (, no vra...). 

Knee-deep in gameplay. Photo by Maggi Sliwinski
Pondering life and everything... Yep, the game does that. Photo by Noelle Hart

 After an exhausting day of observation, which gave us a new respect for those who do this frequently, it was off to a fantastic Polish meal with our hosts. The next morning brought a tour of Wrocław, and we discovered the charm of a city that is still rebuilding itself after Poland broke away from the Soviet block in 1989. Many sculptures around the city are beautiful reminders of the struggles of a country with a complicated history of invasion and revolution. I was surprised by how beautiful Poland was. It's one of those countries that you don't really hear about much, not a tourist destination for most travelers I've known. I was enchanted by the architecture and the history that dripped out of the buildings. 
Just a door. In Poland. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar
Gnomes are the emblem of the revolution in Wroclaw. Photo by Victoria Chraibi

Dinner with our hosts, Piotr and Magda. Photo by Shelli Hellman.
A statue, commemorating the efforts of students who carried books out of the library that was flooding by the historic flood of 1994(5?). Photo by Ilonka Zlatar
 As the week went on, we visited Rzeszow and played another game at the University of Rzeszow. The participants were mostly students studying for a Master's degree in Economics. Having previously worked with participants who study or work in policy and natural resources, the economics students offered a refreshingly new outlook on the problems presented in the game. During the lunch break many of the IGERTs had the opportunity to chat with the Polish students about the differences in graduate education between Poland and the U.S. The university and the students were exceptional hosts, and the experience gained in the second game made us all more comfortable with the observational process.

Participants discussing their game plan. Photo by Victoria Chraibi
 Once again we had to bid farewell to another city and after a near-death van ride, we arrived at the last destination on our Polish itinerary. We observed our third and final iteration of the game at the University of Science and Technology in Krakow. The game was lively and kept us on our toes. 

The participants convene for a community meeting. Photo by Shelli Hellman.

 Our hosts arranged another tour the following morning. The enthusiastic tour guide went well beyond the original scope of the tour and some of the IGERTs were treated to more than five hours of history, architecture, and culture in Krakow. 

IGERTs touring Krakow. Remnants of a fortress in the background. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar

In the old town, within the ancient city walls. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar

Awesome buildings everywhere. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar

Beauty abounds in Krakow. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar

Castles everywhere. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar

The underground museum next to us, the chapel in the main square behind us. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar
 After our game observations concluded, the IGERTS parted ways. Some returned to Vienna while others spent an extra day in Krakow and made a trip to Auschwitz. Being there, in a place where millions of innocent people were robbed of their lives, will stay with me forever.  
A few from the mountain of glasses taken from the victims. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar

Auschwitz. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar

Auschwitz. Photo by Ilonka Zlatar

 Poland was a beautiful surprise. The people were warm, the architecture beautiful, and the cities charming. I had no expectations when I arrived, but I left knowing that someday I will return.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Companion Modeling In Montpellier, France (Written by Hannah Birge)

The Sand Hills reach up and take hold of you. Rooting from deep in the earth, through the bottom of your feet and anchoring your heart to their depths. The landscape is at once strange and achingly familiar. It rolls and falls away from you forever, a million secrets in its shadows, ghosts slowly wandering the hills. The grass is an endless sea, ebbing and raging in silvery green torrents against their roots and the wind.  It’s a place where, when the wind drops, you can almost hear the cells shuttling through your brain. Where you could lay down a square of your soul and stitch it into earth, a piece of you forever quilted into the land. You can never truly leave this place once you  give yourself over.

            Overlooking the Niobrara River in Lynch, NE. Summer 2013. Photo credit Hannah Birge

When I decided to run my first marathon I was living in Lynch, NE in the eastern Sand Hills completing the first season of my PhD  fieldwork, and looking forward to an academic semester abroad in central Europe. “Decided to run” might not be the right phrase. Instead, following a  successful field day (rare) and a few glasses of red wine (not rare), I felt invincible. So at 11pm on a Wednesday in late June, I clicked “confirm” to deliver my 90 euros to the organizers of the Athens Classic Marathon with nothing but ribald confidence. Immediately, a tiny doubt-voice niggled at me: But you’ve never really run more than six miles and it’s really, really, really hot here to be training for a marathon. And hilly! Don’t worry; I told me, I got this. Yeah!; said the wine, she’s totally got this.

It wasn’t until 6am the next morning, five minutes into my second bird survey and miles from the nearest cup of coffee, that I remembered. Not an unfamiliar feeling; my skeptical self is no stranger to recovering a few steps behind my more optimistic self.  And skeptical self is very persistent until its been stifled with a combination of coffee, yoga and, of course, wine. Skeptical self is such a downer.

So instead of my default glass of wine and data entry (the latter desperately requiring the former), when I got home that evening I laced up my running shoes. 

Hills of Lynch, NE. Summer 2013. Photo credit Hannah Birge

Sometimes the sun and heat were relentless, beating down down until my legs felt were so heavy that dry dirt road felt like it was sucking, ankle deep mud. And sometimes torrents of rain turned the road into actual mud, creating an slick treadmill of every upslope and a rock-filled slip’n’slide of the downs. Deerflies, ticks, chiggers, gnats. Poison ivy in places where poison ivy should never be. Illeotibial band syndrome. Foot pain. A particularly unpleasant mid-season migraine. Every time I laced up my shoes I was preparing for battle. Marching against the weather, the road, the weight of the hills and my body.  

What’s funny about the wars we wage is how they change us. The victory, the answer, is often in our own defeat, our own transformation.

So, very slowly, my body relented. The rain cooled my face, the sun eased my shoulders. My legs and heart grew strong and light, and I moved deeper into the hills, closer to some answer I didn’t know I needed. Moving through the achingly beautiful landscape with nothing but my own strength. Stuck with my own thoughts. Stitching the rhythm of my feet into the flow of the earth, joining a million cadences of life that create the beautiful, chaotic orchestra of July. Tumbling into to a place where patterns emerge and dissolve like waves falling back on themselves, without purpose, but forever moving and rising, a story told in ephemeral scraps of seeming nonsense. How do you find answers and meaning from that? From something that refuses to reveal any single answer for more than a fleeting moment? Do I stand still and try to capture something before it recedes, or do I chase it over the next crest, hoping that the truth I glimpsed is still there, waiting for me in perpetuity as long as I never stop running?

L'Arc de Triomphe at dusk. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge

Walking the streets of Paris in the rain, I find myself moving backwards in time. I’ve been in Europe for nearly two months, and pushed my body to limits I didn’t know possible (20+ mile runs!?). That familiar tattoo of my feet growing stronger and faster, the new landscape slowly rooting up through my feet, holding and showing me its own tightly held little secrets.

As I walk along the Seine in Paris, I’m transported to my 16-year-old self, on an exchange program with one of my closest friends, Kara*. We were young, lost, innocent, and tangled up in our own myopic egos, like nearly every 16 year old in the history of 16 year olds.  I remember laughing and crashing around the city, experiencing the terror and thrill of being abroad for the first time together, giddily planning our futures over our first in-public experience drinking wine (high school in rural Vermont doesn’t offer much in the way of entertainment). I think it was the first time we were forced to be something new, and it suited us.

 Then life swallowed Kara up. Within two years, Kara lost her mother to Lou Gehrig’s, her sister to mental illness and her father to that impossible type of depression that comes from losing your high school sweetheart and the mother of your children. She dropped out of college to care for her mother during the worst stages of the disease, her sister gave birth to a little girl whom she promptly abandoned to Kara’s care, and she watched her father slide away into helpless despair. We lost touch, and I’m not proud of it. I’m back here in Paris, and all I can think about is how her life spiraled so hard away from our plans. I can only guess why she turned to crystal meth. Maybe as her once-tight family dissolved around her, meth offered her the support, comfort and escape that was ripped away by her mother’s death and its fallout.

The last I heard of Kara, she met a boy in rehab and they have a son together. I hope she doesn’t blame me for being so wrapped up in my own college experience and leaving her to fend for herself, but I can’t imagine why she should. It’s funny how being here brings her back to me somehow, looping back around to remind me of the bitter and pointless things that happen. That no matter how you plan and prepare and think you’re finally chasing the right answers, it can all be made to feel so small and silly in light of catastrophe.

            The Schönbrunn gardens in Vienna, Austria. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge

To be a traveler, you need to experience a journey within and beyond yourself. You need to learn when to move and when to let yourself be moved. To expose your deepest answers to a new sun, letting them shimmer and fade, swell and fall in on themselves as they're challenged under a different light. When you truly travel, you fall into an endless, iterative tide of growth and collapse, slowly careening towards a gleaming pearl of universal meaning, expanding beyond who you think you are.

Sculpture in Wrocław, Poland. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge

Any single “-ology” can provide us with an elegant, simple explanation of life. It can give you answers that you can really hang your hat on. That resonate and make you want to shout them to the world. But just as ecology cannot explain the idiosyncrasies of the free market and economists can’t explain the chemistry of love, no one –ology captures the essence of reality.

But this is sticky: as we combine individual -ologies to get at a more whole story, they rapidly lose their elegance and simplicity. Their answers start to collide with other answers, and nothing is deliciously easy anymore. You start to question your answers, where they came from, what constrains them, at what point they break down. And this is a problem, because the innate desire for a powerful, simple solution is highly successful in human history.

The Mediterranean Sea 60km outside of Montpellier, France. Fall 2013. Photo cred: Hannah Birge

Fossil fuel exploitation, synthetic crop fertilizers and stream engineering, to name a few, are triumphantly effective to furthering human civilization. And yes, these simple, powerful answers inevitably bring with them smaller, negative tradeoffs. But these are historically ignored at no great consequence.

Yet, the problem with life, again, is that it doesn’t always do what we want or expect it to do. Our planet and its systems are wildly complex, and exploitation of one thoroughfare in that system is only successful to a point: as the smaller reverberations began to slowly erode the integrity of the system, we approach a threshold where the system begins to breaks down. Only then is the true complexity of the system revealed: as it starts yielding catastrophic and unpredicted outputs. 

For example, damming streams produces electricity, prevents major floods and ensures water availability during droughts, all of which impart undeniable benefits to society. However, river engineering also disrupts wetlands, natural flow variability, sediment transport, and ground water dynamics. And with this ecological disruption comes, for example,:

1) a significant loss of natural hazardous waste removal (e.g. fertilizers, heavy metals, etc) by microbiota who rely on saturated soils for their habitat,  
2) decreased soil fertility as intermittent floods are repressed and the land becomes ecologically disconnected from the river, and
3) increased risk of crop-debilitating soil salinization as ground water tables drop.

That these ecological side effects are ignored should come as no surprise: the economic boon of river engineering is overwhelming against the effects of ecological degradation in a cost-benefit analysis to society. 

St. Stephens Cathedral illuminated at night in Vienna, Austria. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge

But as more rivers are dammed and swelling human populations put increasing pressure on already over-appropriated rivers, the ecological costs mount. And as they smaller costs add up, there begins a more rapid degradation of the system as a whole. And we are simply running out of the capacity of complex social-ecological systems to absorb these costs. Even more daunting, at some threshold, it will be impossible to reinstate all of the moving parts required for the system to return to its original, reliable functioning (an effect known as hysteresis).

Some find it helpful to use the Humpty-Dumpty analogy to explain this concept: keep adding king’s horses and men to the case, but he’s never going to look or act like the original Humpty-Dee. Granted, eliciting help from a horse to repair an anthropomorphized bird egg can’t be the most thoughtful approach.

So how can humans, whose linear problem solving approach to complex problems is successful and efficient, ever hope to manage the complexity of social-ecological systems to maintain their function and relative predictability? First we need to get rid of a singular –ology. Economics, ecology, psychology, sociology and hydrology all give us their own, clear picture of the system, but all are limited to a narrow slice of the truth. But when combined, different –ologies don’t neatly fill in the remaining pie. Instead, they clash with other –ologies, losing their clarity and power of explanation as their fundamental assumptions are wildly undermined, ignored or even directly opposed. Think of it as trying to fit mismatched, randomly shaped slices into a pan without a shape. Yeah, it’s messy.

 Defending his turf. Rural Hungarian village. Fall 2013. Photo cred: Hannah Birge

And that’s where we come in, we who adopt this ugly, cumbersome, intellectually uncomfortable mess as our –ology. Think about this: we’re scientists by training, trying to understand reality using a structured, analytical approach, and the basic tenant of our work is that uncertainty is intrinsic to all complex social-ecological systems. And no matter how hard we work, fight, discuss, yell, sob or write, we only reduce uncertainty to a point. Who wants to listen to the answer that there is no clear, reliable answer?

Experts like Drs. Francois Bousquet and Olivier Barreteau, whom my NSF IGERT cohort had the incredible pleasure of meeting at CIRAD-IRSTEA in Montpellier, France, are some of the foremost experts inhabiting the bizarre intellectual space. Their approach to selling the-answer-is-that-there-is-no-answer conundrum is to make proverbial lemonade (or some uncertain yellow drink; users beware!). They make use of an iterative, fluid process called “Companion Modeling”, whereby they constantly readjust and fine tune their questions as they learn. They effectively let the goalposts meander as their questions and assumptions shift. They gather information by casting a wide net,  glean small truth fragments from wherever they can find 'em: experts and data from the different –ologies, anecdotal data from non-experts, and the robust meanderings of their own brilliant minds. And even though their approach is satisfying to a new PhD student grappling with the discomfort of uncertainty, it’s still really, really uncomfortable and doesn’t emotionally stack up to a singular –ology. Moreover, human institutions are in no way set up to handle the uncertainty of companion modeling.

In fact, the societal institutions that drive civilization are intrinsically designed to war against uncertainty. And so far, that war has worked to our advantage. But things are changing. The wild spaces that buffer the worst of our ecological assaults are shrinking as human demand is growing, and the systems we inhabit are starting to grumble under our weight, threatening reveal the depths of their complexity as they breakdown.

At some point, we will cross a threshold and those systems we heavily exploit will cease to function in the way we've come to expect. Maybe then we’ll relinquish the need for simple answers and certainty, turning instead to the creativity, strength and adaptability that also define us. And as spaceship earth careens through outer space, maybe we’ll embrace the uncertainty and endless learning required to reveal those precious pearls of understanding from within the chaos.

Or perhaps we’ll reject uncertainty and repeat our mistakes, spiraling off onto a new iteration of the past.

             Central Cemetery of Vienna, Austria. Fall 2013. Photo Credit: Hannah Birge

The power of work like that of Drs. Bousquet and Barreteau is that the groundwork is being delicately laid: we are beginning to understand how to study complex social-ecological systems in all of their messiness. And as humans grabble with failing systems, this work will be unmatched in its value to society as we begin to look for answers in a new way.  

Standing on Lovelock Bridge in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Fall 2013. Photo credit: Hannah Birge 

The reality is that I haven’t been very faithful to my marathon training program. I ran a lot over the last five months, but probably not enough. Injuries, traveling for the program and an annoyingly time consuming statistics class are neat excuses. I have no idea what the marathon is going to be like. I have no idea how long it’s going to take me. I have no idea if it’s going to really, really hurt after mile 22 (ok I have some idea that it’s going to really, really hurt). But I do have a good idea that I will finish. And I have a good idea that as I carry myself those 26.2 miles, I’m going to move across boundaries within myself that have never been tested. And that’s ok, because afterwards I’m going to sit back and let some answers chase me for a change.  

*Name changed for privacy

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Tisza River, Hungary

Over three days, from Oct. 7th-9th, the UNL-IGERT group learned about the Tisza River and the Great Hungarian Plain from our hosts/guides/teachers, Péter Balogh, and Béla Borsos. The Tisza River is the basis for a case study of a complex social-ecological system. Here's some more insight into its physical geography, hydrology and geomorphology, and a bit more discussion about the "shadow network's" story to re-connect the floods with the plain.

This post compliments the one previous (Nagykörü, Hungary). 

Béla (left) and Péter (right)

The Tisza River is a large tributary of the Danube River (both are major rivers in Central Europe). The river basin (156,000 km2) covers five countries (Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, and Serbia), but the Tisza is considered to be mostly a Hungarian river ("Hungary is bordered by itself" since the Hungarian Empire was separated after WWI). The shape of the basin is exceptionally important for flooding, since the arc-like shape of the Carpathians causes stormwater flowing from the tributaries to converge on the main river channel after storms in near unison. The mountains receive 3-4 times the amount of rainfall as the plains (2000 vs. 600 mm/yr). These factors make the Tisza "flashy" with flow rates changing by a factor of 50 or more, accompanied by sudden (24-36 hours) and extreme (up to 12 m) rises in river stage.

Geographic setting of the Great Hungarian Plain, surrounded by the Carpathian Mountains to the north and east (image from

Humans have a long relationship with river engineering along the Tisza. Sometime during the Medieval period (c. 1100-1200), a Fok-system of dikes (with sluices) was built to control inundation of floodwaters onto specific areas of the floodplain. In the 1700s, Hungarians used the floods as a means to fight against invading Ottoman soldiers. Also during that time, the Tisza was deepened and shortened (by 400 km) and more dikes were built to prevent flooding of wheat fields and settlements.  From 1860 to 2000, a series of seven construction phases occurred, in which the dikes along the Tisza were expanded and raised as a means of flood defense. Today, the dikes are 4-6 m above the river. The seven phases were required for at least two reasons: 1) The headwater regions in the mountains were largely deforested leading to less storage of water and more runoff; and 2) The floodway (within the dikes) continually aggrades (rises) over time due to sedimentation. The latter process has continued as a positive feedback until the dikes (earth embankments) reached their physical limits and now they cannot be raised any further (as evidenced by dike breaks becoming more frequent). Currently, 2700 km of dikes "protects" 17,300 km2 of land along the Tisza within Hungary. In total, dikes within the Tisza River valley stretch 4500 km, and have reduced the area of the active floodplain by 90%.

Map of historic (c. 1700s) areas inundated by floods within large sections of the Hungarian plain (right) and neighboring Danube River valley (left). Péter is pointing to his village, Nagykörú (big circle). He explains to me that the village would not, in fact, have been inundated by floods during this time since it was built on a high natural terrace (relict of an older floodplain).  

Historically, settlements were situated on high lands—only later with man-made dikes did these areas become inundated by floods. Today ~$39 billion is in risk of damage by floods. Over the past 20 years, rising high waters have been overtopping the dikes. The largest and most damaging flood was in 2010. Therefore, there are real consequences, and the issue of flooding is pressing. 

The rise that the road follows is only 1-2 m higher than the surrounding land, but this is enough to be considered on "high" land, which was historically safe from floods.

Péter explaining the physical geography/geomorphology of the region and the potential for a Fok-polder system. Low elevations on this Digital Terrain Map (DTM) are in dark blue, and high elevations are in red-orange. Polders are natural depressions, or "old river beds" that have been preserved as the meandering river has migrated.

The situation for the Tisza River valley is quite bad now as the potential for devastating floods increases. Also, the river channel has degraded (lowered) its bed, thus lowering the water table during dry periods; but the dikes contain many large flows in the active floodway, and thus raise the water table during wet periods. Because of these processes, and because of the spatially varying capacity of the floodway to transmit water, during any given time there can be areas within the Tisza valley flooded and other areas in agricultural drought. Cash crops continue to be subsidized, and subsistence farming is rare to see (but it still continues to some degree). 

The vision explained to us by Péter and Béla (of the Fok-Polder system), is to adapt human infrastructure and our own desires so they balance with the provisions of the natural environment, and to stop adapting/engineering nature to fit human needs by continuing to protect against floods with dikes alone. All that would be needed are strategically located sluices in the dikes, and appropriate land use changes. 

One last statement offered by Péter: "What do you need to break a dike? ... a dike."

The Tisza River looking downstream (SE) from the ferry on the way back to Nagykörú.

Posted by Nathan Rossman

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Nagykörü, Hungary

Post written by Maggi Sliwinski

On October 7th, we began the first of our three big IGERT trips. We left our hostel at 6:15am and headed to the train station, where we would begin the half-day journey to Nagykörü, a small town in Hungary where we would spend 3 days. We traveled to Budapest, where we caught a train to Szolnok, where we were picked up by our hosts Peter and Bela, plus Motszi the dog. Motszi was not too happy to have new people around, but he got used to us eventually!

Our first quick stop was at a flowing well that was tapped into the aquifer over 1000 feet below ground. The water was hot and sulfury, but Peter filled up six jugs to take home for drinking water. The sulfur smell did wear off, and it tasted good. The water in Nagykörü was chlorinated, so that's why Peter wanted the fresh aquifer water. There are apparently lots of hot springs throughout Hungary, and also some geothermal electricity capacity. The spring was also near our first view of one of the tributaries to the Tisza River, the river our trip would be focused around. The tributary was channelized, and was almost empty.

Flowing well

View of a tributary to the Tisza River

We arrived in Nagykörü where we had our lunch at the local restaurant. We were served tomato soup and fried fish and potatoes. It was a really yummy meal, but there was lots of food to eat. Lots of us couldn't finish, I just hope our hosts and the chef weren't offended by our small stomachs. After lunch we dropped our stuff at the guest house, Gazdasági Ellátó, and had a bit of free time to relax before evening workshops. The evening workshop took place in the local community center, which was a really nice building. To start us off, they served shots of Palinka, a local fruit brandy, to us all. Apparently this is a traditional practice before meetings.

Community center
Palinka being served before our first meeting.
Our cute guest house rooms.
The Tisza River is able to rise 10m (30 feet) in just a day or two during spring time with snow melting. Historically, the water would flow onto the flood plain, where it would scarcely be above my hips and only in the lowest lying areas at that. The yearly flood of the river would reinvigorate that land with nutrients and soil moisture, and would allow fish to spawn. Before the river was managed by humans, the region was widely known for its highy productive fisheries, and its huge variety of hardy fruit trees. The region was also well suited to raising cattle and pigs, since they can wade through shallow floods and consume native vegetation. What is not well suited to this periodic flooding is monoculture crops of corn and wheat.

The town was full of flowers.
The town also had lots of fruit trees, which would
have been abundant in the landscape before
monoculture cropping was introduced.
The river has been heavily managed since the mid-1800s because someone then decided that the region should be used to grow wheat, because of high demands for wheat coming from expanding cities and frequent wars. Today, the people in the region depend on the government to protect their farm fields from the river, and fear river flooding, even though it used to be the life blood of the region. There is no memory left, accept in historical records, of how the Tisza River used to be. This region is also impoverished because there are a lot of absentee landowners and corporations run the farming enterprises from afar.
One of the dikes and Motszi the dog

Our first speaker was Atilla Lovas, the water engineer for the local water district, responsible for managing the Tisza River in this region. He told us about the establishment's way of managing the Tisza River, which involves dikes, dams, and emergency reservoirs. The emergency reservoirs are low-lying areas on farmers' fields, which can only be used when the river is at dangerously high levels. The farmers are compensated if their fields are flooded. Atilla was quite proud that his agency had moved away from simply continually raising the dikes to trying to figure out how to lower the water levels through the use of emergency reservoirs. The dynamics of the river make it particularly important to manage well, although we heard from our hosts that there are other frameworks through which to view water management.

One of the control structures leading into an emergency reservoir.
Our hosts Peter and Bela, both geographers, are sifting through historical records to determine what the region used to be like, and using sophisticated models and theories to determine what the region could be like in the future. If the river were allowed to flood more naturally, and people were more flexible and adapted to the river rather than adapting the river to their demands, it could change the region for the better. Floods would not be a surprise, but a welcome re-invigoration for the land, and a locally based economy could be a means to relieve poverty. Peter and Bela are part of a "shadow network" of people who are making sure that everything is in place (research, models, planning, support) when an opportunity arises to actually shift the region to this new way of sustainable thinking and acting.

Our second day was spent at the Tisza Lake, which is actually a reservoir formed by a dam for flood control. It's a beautiful reservoir, but it's being clogged with sediments falling out of the river, making it less capable of holding high water levels. However, this makes the area a prime spot for migrating and nesting birds. The government is trying to establish eco-tourism around the lake--we were joining in a small meeting of service providers who were working on establishing more "complex" programs--such as birding tours. It was nice to be outside and it was really warm, so we enjoyed our few hours around this place. I asked Peter if this lake and tourism center fit with his vision for the Tisza River, it does not. The reservoir is part of the unnatural river regime, and it would probably not survive if the river's natural flooding regime were to be restored.

The new building at the Tisza lake.
Tisza Lake dock.
Tisza Lake
Me searching for birds....not the right time of year!

After our trip to the lake and through the new tourism centers animal exhibits, we headed out to see two oxbow lakes--one that was cut off from the flooding river and one that is still flooded periodically. The one that is flooded periodically is much healthier looking.
Cut-off oxbow lake, more clogged with trees.

Flooded oxbow lake, less clogged with trees.
On Tuesday evening, Ilonka, Shelli, Hannah, and I took the opportunity to go see Peter's horses and help him move them to a new spot. We all also got a chance to ride bareback. Two of Peter's kids came along too, although they know English they seemed very shy to talk with us. But it was heartwarming to see Peter interacting with his children, it's clear that he loves his family and his home, which is probably why he wants to see the Tisza River restored to what it used to be.

Peter and his son, plus the wild horse (that I did not ride)
Ilonka and I on horses at sunset with a crescent moon behind us.
On Wednesday morning we had a couple more presentations from Peter and Bela to talk about shifting the river out of its current management regime and to a new, more sustainable one (we also had another shot of Palinka--at about 9am!). One thing that spoke to me was Bela's portrayal of the the nested hierarchy. People often show the three-legged stool for sustainability, with society, economy, and ecology contributing equally to sustainable thinking. Bela's diagram looked like this:

This diagram is very similar to something I had come up with on my own about a year ago because I am dismayed that people think the environment is only one leg of a three-legged stool. Everything that humans need and manufacture starts somehow from the environment. This diagram makes much more sense and should help people to re-frame how they think about sustainability.

After our morning presentations, we had a chance to meet with a local goat farmer who makes hand-crafted goat cheese. We took a walk to the Tisza River and then had to head to Budapest. This trip was really awesome because we met two actors in the "shadow network" that we've read about in papers, and had a chance to see the landscape that the role-playing game is based off of first hand. It will be helpful to have this in mind when we see the game played again in Poland this coming week.

This young man sold us locally produced and hand-made goat cheese.
He milks his herd (about 15 goats) every morning, by hand, by himself.
The group (minus Marie--sorry!) with our hosts Peter and Bela.