One thing I admire about my students and colleagues over here is their love for nature. I always ask them what they did over the weekend and I will have 80% of my students tell me, “Oh I worked in my garden with my family.” The other 20% will say, “I went fishing;” “I went hunting;” “I went hiking.” Slovaks are always outside and it’s wonderful to see that kind of lifestyle.
How are people connected to the environment?
Slovakia has deep roots in agriculture and farming, and even as I’m writing this blog post, I can see rows and rows of little home gardens outside of my kitchen window. Most families have gardens, where everyone works in the afternoons growing medicinal herbs, vegetables, spices and fruits. It’s really something to see because Slovakia is a developed country; yet people insist on growing their own food. When I ask my colleagues why they do this, they always reply, “Well, it’s cheaper, and it’s simply something we’ve always done.”
My village is located in the Danubian Valley, which is a rich agricultural and farming area. The other day I went for a very long walk through the farmers’ fields, and saw corn sprouts, sunflower sprouts, canola flowers (see the picture!) and alfalfa fields. For such a small country it always feels like there is so much space!
Slovakia is also a very mountainous country, and while its mountains don’t reach high altitudes like our own Rocky Mountains, they are incredible to see. There are several different ranges in Slovakia that run along the Carpathian mountain range in this part of Europe. The tallest mountains are called the Vel’ky Tatry, or High Tatras, which border Poland to the north of Slovakia. The mountains ranges go from gently rolling hills to bald peaks, granite summits, and castle covered highlands. It really is amazing: There are times when I am traveling in Slovakia and I think to myself, “I haven’t left Pennsylvania at all,” but then I travel 45 more minutes and I am reminded how far away from home I actually am.
What makes this environment special or different?
While traveling through the Orava region last week I passed through plains, valleys, mountains, crags and mountain passes. There is so much diversity with the topography in Slovakia that makes it aesthetically or visually pleasing. Slovaks care so much about their nature that they have established nine national parks that are always in use. In the summer, when I first arrived in Slovakia, several colleagues took me to the High Tatras and we hiked to some alpine lakes below the summits of the mountains. It was incredible to see so many people enjoying nature and hiking up the mountains: old people with canes, teenagers with cell phones, families with small children and people like me.
What parts of this environment help people to live here?
Slovaks farm the land and utilize as many natural resources as possible. A very popular activity in Slovakia is mushroom hunting. This is a family activity where families go into the forests and look for mushrooms that can be used for medicinal and cooking purposes. A lot of Slovaks also will forage for natural herbs and flowers that can be made into salves and teas to help with allergies, acne, blisters and burns. This tradition of making and using home remedies for small medical problems always takes me by surprise, because this country is quickly modernizing and then I am suddenly transported to the past.
The mountains are also very important to Slovaks, because they have coal and salt deposits within them. During the Soviet rule, the Slovaks were mining coal that was shipped all over the Soviet Union. Now Slovaks keep the coal for their own industry, and export or sell it to other countries. Mountains also contribute to the native cuisine, or the food culture. Sheep milk and sheep cheese are very important traditional foods. Most sheep products come from central Slovakia, which is a mountainous and grassy region, and offers a lot of grazing land for sheep.
What challenges do people face living in this environment?
Slovakia’s environment is temperate, meaning there are four seasons. While the winters are long, dark and cold, the springs and summers are warm, wet and perfect for growing food. The soil in Slovakia is very rich, and even people living in the mountainous parts of the country have tiny gardens and farms where they grow chickens, vegetables, fruits and spices. Consequently because people usually grow their own foods in Slovakia, there are not that many different fruits and vegetables. And because the winters are so long, if a family hasn’t harvested, canned and pickled enough vegetables, then they will have to go without until the spring.
How have people been adapting to this environment?
While a poor harvest can limit a family’s vegetable intake during the wintertime, nowadays there are also regular grocery stores, so that has changed how many Slovaks live. However, the winters do make it difficult to find fresh foods, and many families will jar and pickle their harvest to use over the winter. The pickling of vegetables has had an incredible impact on Slovak cuisine making it very salty and vinegar-y.