Turkey's ‘School of Nature': Reminding Us of What We Forgot

by Güneş Sönmez

The view from the porch at the School of Nature. Photo by Güneş Sönmez, used with permission. 

Located in the high reaches of Eski Orhanlı, an abandoned mountain village close to the town of Seferihisar, Doğa Okulu, or School of Nature, is not a regular school. There is no fixed teaching staff, nor is there a curriculum. At Doğa Okulu everyone is nature's student, re-engaging with the primeval knowledge inherent to natural living by imitating nature itself: experimenting, experiencing and evolving collectively without rigid schedules.

An hour from the Aegean coast in the province of Izmir, Eski Orhanlı looks out over a fertile valley. The climate and soil provide a home to free-growing olive trees and grape vines, as well as the region's trademark oaks. The village was inhabited for thousands of years before it was vacated in the 1980s, as Eski Orhanlı's locals decided to constitute a new village in the valley, with better transport access to the fields where they work.

One school replaces another

Eski Orhanlı's derelict primary school was donated to Doğa Okulu for research purposes. It was restored with help from Doğa Derneği (a prominent Turkish environmental NGO), villagers of the region and Seferihisar‘s municipal government. The very creation of Doğa Okulu turned out to be the first lesson the school offered humankind: volunteers blended ancient crafts with sustainable solutions from the present in order to reconstruct the timeworn building. Doğa Okulu opened its gates in February 2014.

This wall art was done by the architect of Doğa Okulu expressing the nature surrounding from Doğa Okulu

This wall art was created by a Doğa Okulu architect expressing the nature surrounding the school. Photo taken from Doğa Okulu and used with permission.

The concrete structure of the old school was replaced with the soil and stones of the village. Power for the school comes from solar panels and crushed olive seeds, or prina. The school's website refers to the building as “the living building”  as it “breathes” through clay plaster. The place where Eski Orhanlı's children once learned to read and write now hosts workshops, master-apprentice courses and no shortage of conversations. The new residents of Orhanlı train urbanites in crafts such as producing olive oil by hand, using that same olive oil in turn to create natural soap.

Raziye, a Turkish folklorist and a volunteer at Doğa Okulu writes in her blog post:

Orhanlı’da köy sakinleri hala kendi sabununu yapmaya devam ediyor. Biz de köy sakinlerinden Pembe Teyze’yle konuşup sabun yapmaya karar verdik. Hem sabun yaptık hem de sabun hakkında değerli bilgiler öğrendik. Mesela öyle her aklına estiğinde sabun yapılmazmış. Sabun, yaz ağzı denilen ilkbaharda ve güzün katımaya (sertleşmeye) uygun zamanlarda yapılırmış. “Sabahın bereketi üzerimize olsun” diyerek erken vakitlerde avluda ateşi yaktık.

The residents of Orhanlı continue to produce their own soap. Talking to one of the inhabitants, Aunt Pembe, we decided to do so as well. Now we have learned how to make it, we are also learning essential information about soap. Apparently, one cannot make soap whenever he or she pleases. The appropriate time to produce soap is at the dawn of the summer, spring time and when fall starts to get harsher. Saying “shall the abundance of morning be upon us”, we built a fire early in the morning.

Master-apprentice courses are typically two or three-day events with a wide range of topics. For example, the First Steps into Nature course, running June 20-21, was an introductory course for newbie nature enthusiasts. Attendants came to understand the key points of living in nature, recognizing many of their urban habits as unnatural and unsustainable.

One of the participants in the course, Merve Ozayitgu, tweets:

Good morning from Doğa Okulu, Orhanlı! My aubergine, pepper and tomato seedlings from local seeds are waiting to be planted.

MAGMA, an emerging Turkish geographical magazine, is another key supporter of Doğa Okulu. The magazine's co-founders Kemal Tayfur and Özcan Yüksek held an evironmentally-themed writing and editing apprenticeship in July. 

On social media students of the school pine for the Doğa Okulu experience long after they depart.

Tonight, you are in our dreams, School of Nature.

Other recent courses include one on the production of natural clay plaster and adobe September 5-7, while a course on birdwatching will follow later this autumn.

An ordinary lesson/chat  by @doganinaskina

An ordinary lesson/chat in Doğa Okulu
by @doganinaskina

A hub for activism

Other than re-teaching the life lessons of Anatolia's ancestors, Doğa Okulu conducts environmentally-focused research projects with the support of Doğa Derneği volunteers and academics. The Seferihisar Natural Heritage Project is one such project, aiming to map the flora and fauna of Seferihisar. Seferihisar's local government initiated the project March 2013 and since then participants have gathered crucial information about the nature surrounding Seferihisar. A colony of Cory's shearwater was discovered in gulf of Sığacık, for instance. 

Moreover, the school provides a platform for ecological causes such as Alakır Kardeşliği (Brotherhood of Alakır), which opposes the construction of a giant Hydro Electric Dam in the Alakır Valley.

Ozcan Yuksek of MAGMA tweets against the construction of the dam, indicating the area is legally protected land:

  Alakır is a 1st degree naturally protected area! This project is against nature and should be cancelled immediately!

Changing the mindset

Some visitors spend months on end at Doğa Okulu. Sevcan Gizem Gürüz writes in her blog post about the beginning of her half year's experience there.

İlk vardığımda yolun üzerindeki dere yatağında çalışan çocuk ve gençler gördüm. Gülümsüyorlardı. Şehirdekilerin aksine. Bir kısmı fidan dikiyor, bir kısmı çöp topluyordu. Üzerlerinde şalvar ve uzun sarı çizmeler. Oysa benim üzerimde yeni aldığım kot pantolon, ayağımdaysa kırmızı “Converse”ler…

O an fidan dikmek zor geldiği için çöp toplamaya karar verdim. Derenin öte tarafındaki çöplere yöneldim. Bir cesaret, ilk adım… Eyvah! Daha ilk adımda çoraplarıma kadar ıslandım. Neyse dedim ve o anı Instagram’da ölümsüzleştirmek adına telefonuma sarıldım. Olamaz! Hayatında ilk defa inek gören köpeğim Roma avaz avaz havlıyordu, susması için ona doğru hamle yaparken ayağım taşa takıldı ve kendimi derenin soğuk sularında otururken buldum. Hayır! O da ne? Yanımda yüzen telefonum mu yoksa?  Hay aksi… Belli ki buraya alışmam biraz zaman alacak!

Yine derin bir nefes aldım ve  bir solukta geri verdim. İlk iş bir şalvar ve bir çift çizme almam gerekiyordu. Kendime “Onlar gibi olmalıyım” dedim. Şimdi düşünüyordum da… Ne kadar yanılmışım. Onlar ve ben… Her kör nokta bu ayrımla başlıyor zaten. Doğada ayrım yok. Her şey bir. Biz de biriz…

When I first arrived, I saw children and teenagers working along the river bed on my way to the village. Unlike the people of the city, they were smiling. Some were planting trees, some were collecting garbage [that had fallen into the river]. They wore shalwar and long yellow boots, while I had my brand new jeans on me, red “Converse” shoes underneath…
I decided to collect garbage because I found it difficult to plant trees at the time. I headed for the garbage across the river. With a wisp of courage, a first step…Ooops! My socks were soaked in water. “Whatever,” I thought, taking hold of my phone to immortalize the moment on Instagram. No way! My dog, Roma, who had just seen a cow for the first time in her life was barking continuously. Just as I moved to calm her, I stumbled on a rock and found myself sitting in the cold stream of the river. Oh, no! What is that? My phone swimming next to me? Damn… Apparently, I will need more time to get used to things around here!

I took a deep breath again and exhaled. The first thing I needed to do was get a shalwar and a pair of boots. “I need to be like them,” I said to myself. Now I am thinking… How wrong I was. Them and me… Every deadlock begins with discrimination. There is no discrimination in nature. Everything is one. We are one…

Thanks to the efforts of its local government, Seferihisar became the first place in Turkey to join the Cittaslow/Slow Food movement. Cittaslows are culturally and ecologically protected settlements that aim to shield local environments and culinary traditions from the pervasive nature of globalization. Every week Seferihisar municipality supports local production by facilitating slow food bazaars, where producers sell their products directly to consumers. In order to increase food diversity and quality, there are regional festivals where producers can meet to exchange crops. 

Age and origins are not barriers at Doğa Okulu. Here residents enjoy a dhat in the amphi by Güneş Sönmez

Age and origin are not barriers at Doğa Okulu. Here residents enjoy a chat in the amphi. Photo by Güneş Sönmez, used with permission.


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