Interpretation Broadens Horizons
By Cindy Carpenter
It’s 4 a.m. on a mid-June morning. Already sunshine and a fresh breeze stream through my hotel room’s open windows. A cuckoo calls repeatedly from the woods nearby, but I don’t mind being awakened this way. I am in Belarus, on assignment with the US Forest Service’s International Programs to teach NAI interpretation principles to college students, employees from national parks, reserves, and travel agencies, and independent guides from around this eastern European country. Another Forest Service CIT and I engaged 18 English speakers in the 4-day CIG workshop, followed by a three day non-certification workshop for 16 Russian speakers, working through translators. Our host was the Belarusian Association of Agro- and Ecotourism “Country Escape,” a non-profit, nongovernmental organization working to help rural economies through tourism.
We were moved by the passion participants in both workshops conveyed for their country and culture in discussions and in their presentations. Topics for the 10-minute CIG presentations included traditional women’s costumes, stork conservation, illiteracy, the endangered Belarusian language, rural life, a historic castle and church, hiking safety, mushroom gathering, traditional festivals, and river and biodiversity protection. Can you imagine the challenge of presenting in a language not your native one, let alone tackling the literature review? Sam Ham’s Interpretation- Making a Difference on Purpose is the only CIG book translated into Russian, the language most common in Belarus.
Participants in the non-CIG course worked in small inter-generational groups to develop plans for four multi-day tours, including interpretive themes and experiences along the way. One revolved around the theme “landscapes create history,” others on wellness, birding, and clean air and water. A challenge that came out of these is the unpredictable nature of traffic and the timing of public transportation across Belarus.
The workshop participants’ patriotism became particular poignant for me when I compared the context of their lives with mine. Those closest to my age had parents who lived through World War II which devastated Belarus. They experienced life under communism when part of the Soviet Union, the fear created by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986 and Belarus independence in 1991. Their presentations celebrated their nation.
The workshops took place on the Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve northeast of Minsk, the nation’s capital and most populated city. Forests, meadows and bogs provide habitat for diverse life that includes what is considered Europe’s “Big Four” – elk, moose, brown bear and bison, and a number of rare species. One night the sounds of wolves flowed into my room. Reserve naturalists guided both classes along a fascinating ecology trail with signage along the way identifying flora and fauna and interpreting natural processes, most in Russian with attractive artwork, sometimes with cartoons. On two evenings I enjoyed music gatherings and fondly recall the shared enthusiasm with which the two generations of workshop participants sang traditional folksongs.
Belarus tourism emphasizes personal interpretation. The experienced guides had previous training in a European model and know their subjects well. Mythology is often used to convey ecological concepts and attract interest. However, the power of a strong theme and the concept that audiences make their own meanings were new to them to put into practice.
Heritage interpretation certainly crosses many boundaries- age, culture, national, ecological. Like travel, it broadens one’s horizons. I learned more and was inspired more than I can convey by the people I met, their wonderful work in the workshops, and conversations outside class. I hope that through applying interpretive best practices and creativity, everyone I met can make the facts matter to their audiences, enhance the context of their fascinating stories, inspire protection of their special places, and be, as I am, continually enriched by Interpretation.
Workshop participant Sviatlana Pametska explains features of an interpretive sign along an ecology trail on the Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve.
Katsiaryna Bernatskaya and Anastasiya Rashetnikava share aspects of the ecotour plan that they designed.
“Bog Man” teaches about life in these unique habitats protected on the Berezinsky Biosphere Reserve.