This report comes from our colleague, Andrea Myhre, currently working with the Peace Corps in Mongolia. She's included lots of pictures, so try out all the links!

It may seem that our world is a very "scientific" place. Every event has a perfectly logical explanation and there are no fuzzy lines between what's reality and what is just a story. Many cultures, before "scientific" methods of answering questions came about, developed stories and legends of their own to explain why things happened. Often, these stories were based on their spiritual beliefs.

For instance, some Native American tribes tell legends about how earth was actually created on the back of a giant turtle. Even though we know that our planet is actually made of stone and hot liquid rock, it's a good story. Sometimes, however, the stories people have about why things happen the way they do is a mixture of "scientific" facts and spiritual beliefs. I discovered this when I first came to Mongolia, a country rich in good stories.

As new Peace Corps volunteers in Mongolia, before we could go to our site and start our jobs, my husband and I first had to complete a training course that stretched over the summer. We had to learn about Mongolian government and history, how to teach English, and how politely say no when a Mongolian offered us a cup of Airag, which is fermented horse milk. We were all shipped to a small town outside of the Mongolian capital called Zunn Mod, which means "hundred trees". Zunn Mod is located in a wide valley, up against the edge of the Bogd Khan Mountains Strictly Protected Area. From Zunn Mod, we could see the dry foothills of Bogd Khan and thousands and thousands of trees.

Just outside of town, there is a small tourist resort and museum that is set up against a mighty-looking rocky cliff. Years ago, there used to be a beautiful Buddhist monastery that housed around 350 monks and had 20 temples. Some of the building foundations still remain, but most of the buildings were burned and knocked to the ground 50 years ago when the communist Mongolian government decided that Buddhism and all other religions were bad for their people. Thousands of people in Mongolia, mostly men who were Buddhist monks were killed or sent away to prison at this time because of their religious beliefs. Now, there is a new temple on the site of the old monastery. It was built after the fall of the communist government in the early 1990's. It is small and only a few monks have started practicing there again, but the cheery colorful little house with a hat-like roof can be seen from miles around. People In Zunn Mod can see it from almost anywhere and it reminds them of their ancestors and also of their hopeful future.

Bogd Khan itself has long been considered a sacred place by Mongolians. Bogd Khan Uul (which means "holy king mountain") is probably one of the oldest nature preserves in the world. The sons of Chingis Khan first protected the area from logging and hunting in the 12th or 13th centuries. Even though they were busy conquering Western Asia and Eastern Europe, Chingis Khan and his family found time to be environmentalists as well. Chingis enacted a set of environmental laws called the Kalkh Juram Ikk Zusag, which told people when they had to move their herds to keep from overgrazing the land.

In those days, people also called the earth and sky "great Father and Mother" and paid respect to them by asking permission through chants and ceremonies whenever they took something from nature. From Bogd Khan Uul, a small river simply named the Zunn Mod starts as a trickle out of the swampy meadows near the mountain ridge. It runs through the rocky forest to become a sizable, swift-flowing stream by the time it reaches the monastery.

Wildflowers line the river of every size and color are spread along the riverbanks like 3-D wallpaper. As the river winds down the mountain to the valley it flattens out to feed the lush pastures. The river does something interesting at this point. When the river hit the boulders and the flat spongy ground that lay at the bottom of the mountain, it goes underground, The river sinks into the valley floor to reappear a few hundred yards later where it turns into a hundred little fingers that spread out like a shiny web.

I was lucky enough to spend a weekend camping in the area of the mountain, the monastery, and the river at one point in the summer. The trip was like a virtual reality journey into history. Walking among the ruins of the monastery, I could imagine monks chanting and meditating near the river and on the cliffs above. The marshes and meadows near the top of the mountain were full of lowers and clean, cold water trickled from then in tiny streams.

On the top of the mountain, there was a huge Owoo, or a pyramid-shaped pile of rocks with blue hillocks, or prayer scarves tied to the pole in the middle. As tradition says, each traveler or pilgrim should contribute three rocks, and walk three times clockwise around the Owoo while saying a chant to thank the mountain for providing safe passage. It was obvious by the pile that many visitors had been to the mountain over hundreds of years. Standing on top of the mountain looking for miles in every direction, I was struck by how beautiful and ancient this place was. The trees and rocks, both twisted because of the wind and severe winter weather, looked like old and wise.

Near the end of out time in Zunn Mod, I sat with my class of 9 and 10 year olds along the Zunn Mod, which flows very close to their school. They were my "Practice Teaching" English class. We were getting ready for a River cleanup planned for the weekend. As a part of the class, we were required to do a community project and our students had to pick a project they'd like to do. The kids had overwhelmingly voted to do a river cleanup.

While we were at the river, I asked the students questions about their river an driver pollution. I wanted their ideas about the problems surrounding the Zunn Mod but I also wanted them to think about their impact on the watershed. "How so you use the river? Who in the community uses the river and what do they use it for?" I asked them. People go to the river to get water for their gers (round dwellings made of felt and canvass) to wash their clothes and bring their animals to the river to drink, they replied. The students also said they go to the river to play and swim.

"What do people do that hurt the river?" , I asked. "People are selfish", they said, and they throw their garbage in the river and dump their laundry water in it. They don't realize that they make the river dirty for people who live down the river, they said. I was impressed at what sophisticated students I had, that they knew so much about their environment.

I asked the next question, "Where does the water in the river come from?" They all looked at each other and started talking at once. They kept saying a word in Mongolian that our translator didn't know in English. The translator pointed to a word in the dictionary that meant "a special or sacred place" The kids all nodded their heads and pointed to the monastery and the mountain.

At first this confused me. Being a good environmental educator, or so I thought, I started to correct them and tried to explain that the every river has a watershed and that water comes from all around and joins together as a stream. My students all seemed to know this, however, because of the kind of "duh" looks I got from them as I tried to draw in the dirt. Then, I thought maybe they didn't know about how the river simply goes underground and comes back to the surface near town, but when I asked them about this they said the word in Mongolian for "spring".

Before I went further in trying to explain what a watershed was, my translator said to me "I think they may be talking about the monastery and the mountain. These are special places to Mongolians and the river is part". A lightbulb turned on in my head when I began to remember my reaction to these places on my hiking trip.

The river joined all these special places together. The rain and snow that falls on the mountain and the monastery all flow to the river. I began to understand what my students meant and was pleasantly surprised at how they not only knew the real usefulness of the river, but they also recognized it's spiritual value as well. They would make Chingis and the monks proud.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What do you think "spirituality" means? What makes a place spiritual?
  2. Can you think of a place that is special or "spiritual" to you? What makes it special or "spiritual"?
  3. Do you know of stories about why things happen that aren't "scientific"? (think of ancient cultures you've heard or read about or stories maybe your grandparents used to tell you when you were little) What do you think about these stories? What kind value do they have or what makes them important?
  4. Do you agree with the students in this story? Do you think rivers can have a spiritual value or special importance besides just being something human can use?
  5. What do you think happens when the river goes underground? What is this phenomena called?

Center for Global Environmental Education
Hamline University Graduate School of Education
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