In 1993, when author and World Wildlife Fund consultant Laura Lynne Williams accepted the task of installing a WWF office in Moscow, Russia, little did she know that decades later she would still be calling the former Communist country her home. Born and bred in the affluent environs of Denver and educated at a top boarding school and the ivy leagues, it was no small challenge to her upbringing and her mindset to accept the post.
The greater challenge came later, though, when a tall and handsome man walked into her cluttered Moscow office with a proposal — not a marriage proposal, though that does follow, in time — but a proposal seeking funding aid. The subsequent journey of discovery this chance meeting initiated is the subject of Williams’ new book, “The Storks’ Nest: Life And Love In The Russian Countryside.”
Even in lands as vast as Russia, the importance of conservation and preservation cannot be understated. Habitats are shrinking worldwide, and the efforts to protect these threatened areas requires huge commitments of money, will and national support, but the most vital component is a dedicated staff member, willing to put boots on the ground and to serve as a local presence, both respected in the community and faithful to the seemingly contradictory task of protecting the landscape.
Three hundred miles from the urban terrain of Moscow lies the Bryansk Forest, a shrinking haven for the endangered and iconic black stork. Threatened, too, by the modern world is the small village of Chukhrai, a former partisan stronghold during World War II and home to roughly 20 souls living off the land just as their ancestors would have done more than 300 years before. It is here that Williams finds herself drawn, initially to lead the WWF’s education program in the forest sanctuary and finally to immerse herself in the fairytale world of the wild village surrounded by even wilder lands.
With this fairytale comes the young prince, in the guise of the director of the fledgling nature preserve, the very same man who approached Williams for aid years before. Igor Shpilenok’s village is muddy, cut off much of the year by floodwaters and run down, with its few inhabitants set in their ways, unemployed (only two have jobs) and enamored of both pagan and Russian Orthodox traditions. Village cabins are rustic and smelly and lack running water. Some of the villagers bathe only once a year and spend their days drunk from nursing bottles of the local moonshine. More than once does the author have to navigate the already treacherous roads on her horse only to find intoxicated villagers passed out in the mud.
But Williams is mesmerized. The village functions as it has for centuries, finely tuned to its natural surroundings, in step with the seasons and the daily pulse of the land on which it depends. Barely looking back, Williams leaves behind the world of college term papers, grant proposals and the chance to rub shoulders with the likes of Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev, as she had in the early days of perestroika and glasnost. Instead, she finds herself raising an orphaned moose, then a stork, as well as an assortment of dogs, cats and horses. The day-to-day routine of life takes on a new simplicity, a beautiful existence at the end of an unpaved road that tapers to game trails, which gradually disappear into the undulating mists of the forest.
Alongside her deeply committed husband, Williams wages a philosophical battle with poachers and fisherman, bumping up against the old ways at every turn. Enforcement of conservation measures is difficult in such a remote setting, made even more challenging as Williams and Shpilenok understand that without game taken from the land, many of their neighbors would starve. But they persist, initiating several rare species reintroduction campaigns and focusing their energies on the youth of Russia, a generation more in step with the times and more receptive to change.
At its heart, though, “Storks’ Nest” is less a story of policy and conflict and more a tale of love and learning. In this deeply intimate narrative, the village of Chukhrai looms large with magical intensity, in its inhabitants, in its breath-taking setting and in its history, none of which are portrayed in half measures. Williams pulls the reader down into the river mud and forest brambles with her, until the reader is as intoxicated with love for the place as the author.