By Stephen Collins ’74
Colby researchers plumb the secrets of Ethiopia’s ancient “church forests”
In a faraway land, in a province named South Gondar, the arid landscape is dotted with ancient Orthodox Christian Tewahedo churches. Forests encircle these churches—hundreds of green spots visible in satellite photos—and they are about the only stands of trees surviving after the Amhara people expanded their agricultural fields by cutting down more than 95 percent of the old forest for fuel, crops, and grazing.
A scenario out of J.R.R. Tolkien? An imaginary land in the game Myst?
No. It’s the situation Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Travis Reynolds encountered in northern Ethiopia two years ago. Now these so-called “church forests” are living laboratories for Colby undergraduates conducting original research likely to yield new species and destined to help preserve these unique island ecosystems.
Lydia Ball ’13, who grew up in Philadelphia eager to become a globetrotting herpetologist and photographer, was one of the first two Colby students to visit the church forests in summer 2012. Both made the trip with support from Hollis Foundation Student Research Fund and Environmental Studies Program research funds.
Her goal was a biodiversity inventory—survey data on frogs and insects in two of the forests, which are known to contain endangered plants and have already produced new species of insects. As an environmental studies major with a concentration in science, Ball worked with Ellen Evangelides ’14, an environmental policy major who was conducting interviews. “That’s what we’re trying to merge together. It’s taking our scientific knowledge to make policy recommendations and to formally preserve these church forests,” Ball said.
But not so fast. Among the reasons these refuges still exist at all are church policies that have kept outsiders out for more than a thousand years. So, on the first Colby research trip, Ball, Evangelides, and Reynolds “weren’t allowed to step one foot inside,” Ball said. They respected the prohibition in the interest of building a relationship, and she collected her specimens around the edges of the forests.
Trust established, when Reynolds took three Colby students back last January, they had necessary church and government permits and were welcomed in.
“When we finally entered the church forest, it was an amazing and powerful experience,” Ball said of her second trip. “The churches themselves are fantastically old with these really amazing paintings. … It was very much an otherworldly experience.” She described priests and students living in ancient dwellings in the forests and all of the people “so kind and open and sharing what was happening in their community.”
“Magical,” Reynolds called it………
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