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Go Back: Home > Earth Island Journal > Issues > Fall 2003 > Everyone Has a Story

Everyone Has a Story

Everybody’s got a story

Courtesy gary cook

gary cook, director of Earth Island's Baikal Watch project, is fluent in several languages, including Russian, acquired during a childhood spent living abroad. An educated man, cook has earned his Ph.D. in Resource Economics. With a strong interest in linguistics, a long record of spearheading environmental success stories, and a wealth of experience in international relations, wouldn't gary cook make a remarkably interesting subject for a magazine article? We think so. Unfortunately, gary cook quite adamantly disagrees.

Cook (who prefers to spell his name with a lowercase "g" and "c") agreed to be interviewed for this story on one condition - the focus would be on the work and not him, and, above all, he would not be portrayed as any type of environmental "hero." "We should all be environmental heroes," says cook. "We have to be. If we aren't, then our environment will be destroyed. We all need to be responsible for our own behavior, and there's no one person who can rescue us."

He's right, of course. But the reality is, some people take on more tasks and make larger sacrifices than others; cook has devoted the last 13 years to a job that requires him to be away from his home three to five times a year for five to six weeks at a stretch. Since 1990, cook has served as director of Baikal Watch, a project envisioned by Earth Island's founder David Brower after a trip in the late 1980s to what was then the Soviet Union. "Brower came away from that trip with the impression that a number of emerging environmentalists in the Soviet Union would love to connect with the international environmental community. After talking to people there about their environmental concerns, Brower learned that in terms of a place that symbolizes the natural beauty and the natural wealth of the country, Lake Baikal is as unique as it gets," says cook.

Brower began to look for someone to carry the project forward, and cook, who was working for Earth Island Institute's Marine Mammal Project at the time, was soon identified as the best man for the position. Ever self-effacing, cook feels he was chosen due to his "outward way" of expressing himself, and because he had "bragged, I'm sure, copiously" about how fluent he was in Russian, "which wasn't necessarily the case at the time."

Although the Baikal Watch project focuses primarily on Lake Baikal, cook understands the need to put his work in a larger context. "You can't help just one area. It (the lake) is not in a vacuum," says cook, who views the world's biggest, oldest, and deepest lake as the hub of his spiral of environmental outreach. As he extends his endeavors to include various other Russian environmental concerns, cook continues to find ways to overcome the obstacles inherent in his job. cook says the Russian language literally has no word for either "challenging" or "frustrating," but he has indeed met with both challenging and frustrating situations in dealing with Russian government. "To work as an environmentalist, one has to be a sly dog. Many of my colleagues in Russia, and I too, have lots of experience in being fairly sly because that's how we're able to do things under the Soviet regime. By 'sly,' I mean you understand the regime you're working with and try to work around it, through it, and ultimately reach your goal despite it," says cook.

A current goal for Baikal Watch is the construction of the Great Baikal Trail (GBT), which began in June 2003. When completed, this 1,000-mile path will join three national parks and reserves, connect Russia with Mongolia, and have over 100 campsites along its route. With technical support from Earth Island Institute, the trail's construction will bring together several international organizations, numerous environmental and local public interest groups, and also volunteers from around the world. This mammoth undertaking, however, plays just a small role in what cook sees as Earth Island Institute's function in Russia.

"The biggest accomplishment Earth Island can claim of Baikal Watch is that for many people in Russia, it made the world a smaller place. It connected them to a world community when they lived in the most isolated society, perhaps, in the history of mankind," comments cook.

But for cook, it's the human connection that makes his job so fulfilling. "The most appealing thing about working in Russia is the people. They are truly amazingly resourceful people," he says.

Undoubtedly, cook's Russian colleagues would say the same thing about him. But he probably wouldn't let them.

   

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