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Kate Morkeski (at far right) with Polish high school students in the city of Grudziadz.

In Poland: Tradition Meets Ecological Innovation

Kate Morkeski, research assistant at the Ecosystems Center, spent the month of May in Poland on a Rotary International Group Study Exchange fellowship. "The entire experience was rewarding. The people were very welcoming and pleased to show us their country."

"We saw another way of dealing with the landscape. It is a different ecosystem within the same biome as ours," Kate said. "Everything in Poland has been modified by people, and continues to be touched by people."

"There is a lot of agriculture, but fields were broken up by forested areas," she noted. "The people kept telling us that 'We are a traditional country.' That is true –many things are done in the traditional way. People work their farms by hand, tend beehives and small orchards, and a few use horse-drawn wagons."

But it is still a country of contrasts. After seeing a coal powered train that uses 12 tons of coal per run, Kate visited the power plant for the city of Grudziadz, which produces electricity and steam for municipal heating by burning pellets pressed from straw grown there. The straw fields do not have to be watered, fertilized, or treated with insecticides or herbicides. The city is still also using coal, but is planning to produce most of its electricity and heat from biomass by 2020, in part by growing acres of Miscanthus, a grass, that will be used to make biofuel.

Kate, who works with Bruce Peterson on a study of nitrogen cycling in streams at the Plum Island Long Term Ecological Research site in northern Massachusetts, was one of three young professionals to participate in the Rotary exchange, along with a Rotarian who led the group. The purpose of the exchange is to foster international understanding by sponsoring a cultural and vocational exchange opportunity for business people and professionals between the ages of 25 and 40 who are in the early stages of their careers. In seven cities, Polish Rotarians hosted the Americans, giving them the chance to observe how their vocations are practiced abroad, develop personal and professional relationships, and exchange ideas with their Polish colleagues. Kate was sponsored by the Boothbay Harbor club of Rotary district 7780. Four young professionals from Poland and their team leader spent a month in New England to complete the exchange.

In the city of Olsztyn, the president of the Rotary club, Alfred Szlaski was former chief of forestry for the region, and showed Kate the streams and lakes and approach to forestry of the Warmia-Mazuria region. Kate also visited the Polish Academy of Sciences Center for Ecological Research outside Warsaw. Kate said it is similar to the Ecosystems Center but funded solely by the government, and funding is scarce. "It is doing well with limited resources, though, and able to produce the Polish Journal of Ecology and Wiadomosci Ekologiczne, a Polish-language journal."

In each city, the fellows met with the mayor or president and regional government officials. They visited Polish Parliament and the prime minister’s residence in Warsaw and they were featured on TV, radio and in the newspaper. They were interested to hear the officials they met in Warmia and Mazuria specifically mention ecological sustainability as a goal for the economic development projects of the region, which is known for its lakes, forests, agriculture, and cultural events (e.g., reenacting the battle of Grunwald, traditional food festivals).

"The Polish people are excited to create improvements in their quality of life. Their border with Belarus and Ukraine marks the edge of the European Union, which they joined in 2004 and which gives them opportunities and funding they did not have previously. Right now, Poland is in a major construction phase." EU funds are supporting road improvements and revitalization projects in city centers. Single-family home construction has been booming in Poland for the last several years.

"They were happy to tell us 'Now, we can drive all the way to Portugal!' thanks to the open borders of the Schengen Zone. To have Europe open to them is awesome," Kate said.

"The people were very warm and friendly. Everywhere we went, we were treated to tea, coffee, cookies and cakes. At dinner, we ate boar, smoked fish and kielbasa as well as the more typical meal of pork cutlet, potatoes, and cabbage."

According to Rotary International, in a typical four-week tour, applicants participate in five full days of vocational visits, 15 to 20 club presentations, 10 to 15 formal visits and social events, two to three days at the district conference, three to four hours per day of cultural and site tours, and three to four hours per day of free time with host families.