Turkey’s butterfly man

How many of us immigrants have made a spectacular success of our lives abroad? Ahmet »»

How many of us immigrants have made a spectacular success of our lives abroad? Ahmet Baytaş has, like many from the Artvin area who have emigrated in search of a better life.

"I was born in Yaylalar, in the foothills of the Kaçkar Mountains," Ahmet explains. “My family moved to İstanbul when I was about 3, like many other neighbors. Life in the village was very difficult; we lived in poverty and there were no jobs, no schools. My family only had a little land -- at 2200 meters the climate and landscape weren't too favorable for agriculture -- and one or two cows and sheep, so all they could do was eke out a subsistence living. So I grew up in Beyoğlu, İstanbul." After graduating from Boğaziçi University in 1980, he was on the move again, this time to the US, to Brooklyn, Manhattan, and then Montclair, New Jersey, where he's been teaching economics at Montclair State University for the past 23 years. "There were few opportunities to obtain a PhD in economics in Turkey at the time, so many of us aspiring to be academicians went abroad," he explains. One thing led to another. He met his wife, Aimee, who's American, in 1981 and they have two children: Claire Baris, who is at Oberlin College studying literature and French, and Robin Osman, who is at the New England Conservatory in Boston studying jazz percussion.

So what's it like being a Turkish expat in the US? "When I say I'm from Turkey, mostly people smile and find it interesting; they often tell me about visiting Turkey, about how hospitable people were and how delicious the food was," he points out, adding: "I know much of Europe has become ethnically diverse recently, but I think the US is still unique in that it has a very short history -- excluding the Native Americans -- and most people are first, second or third-generation immigrants. Walking in Manhattan you hear many different accents. People here are used to all kinds of nationalities."

Ahmet describes himself as a "global citizen." "I'm not too big on ethnic or national identity and identify more with humanity in general," he highlights. "But this doesn't mean I deny or don't value my background. On the contrary, I try to remember at all times where I came from, who I really am. I love my village in Turkey more than any place in the world. There is a Turkish community with restaurants, coffee shops and stores in a nearby town. I go there a couple of times a year to have Turkish tea and food. I also have one or two Turkish friends, former students. There are also several other Turkish professors at the university and a couple dozen Turkish students on campus. Some of them visit me for tea and a chat in my office. These days, I almost always speak English. I even dream in English! We also speak English at home: my wife knows some Turkish, enough to get by in Turkey alone, but my children know very little." And what about keeping up traditions, such as bayram? "Our household is very secular but we don't forget our friends and relatives here or in Turkey at holidays. I love Christmas and the New Year in the US though because it means time off work! It's usually a festive time for us too, because we all gather together as a family. We try to make this holiday non-commercial and use it as time to reflect, remember the needy and the poor."

Calling butterfly enthusiasts to Turkey

Despite a very full life in the US, Ahmet has also researched and published the first guide to butterflies in Turkey, "A Field Guide to the Butterflies Of Turkey," available in both Turkish and English.

"I was always interested in wildlife and nature -- it must be partly genetic, since I was born in an area of exceptional natural beauty which is also exceptionally rich in biodiversity," he highlights, adding: "When I lived in Brooklyn in the late 1980s, I became an avid birder and I gradually became interested in ecology, conservation and other wildlife such as butterflies and dragonflies. In the early 1990s, there was a huge increase in the number of butterfliers in the US. Within a few years, the membership in the North American Butterfly Association increased from a few hundred to several thousand. I was part of this change, sparked by two factors that made identification of butterflies in the field easier and possible: the publication of several field guides to butterflies, and the availability of close-focusing binoculars. During my first visit to Turkey for butterflies in 1999, I was struck by two facts: first, even though Turkey is amazingly rich in the number and diversity of butterflies compared to every other country I had been to in the temperate zone, there was no field guide, no easily accessible resource for the general public and nature lovers to be able to identify different species. Second, I also knew that conservation efforts would be more meaningful and successful if those involved knew the distribution and the status of butterfly species. So I decided to prepare a field guide -- the first -- to the butterflies of Turkey."

To write a butterfly guide from scratch is no easy task. It took him 10 trips to Turkey from 1999 to 2007 to gather enough photographs and information to publish the book. "There were various challenges involved; for example, financial constraints," he explains. "I wish I could have afforded longer and more frequent trips to various parts of Turkey and photograph more butterflies. Parts of eastern and southeastern Turkey were more accessible than others: it was very challenging to visit some remote sites in Van and Bitlis, for example, to photograph butterflies because of ongoing military operations and conflicts. At times I felt quite stupid and irrational being in the middle of nowhere with a camera and a pair of binoculars. I was also questioned by the military and the police a few times and was once detained for a day and interrogated by a person who identified himself as a police intelligence officer in Uludağ, Bursa, of all places! Most of the photographs are mine, but I did borrow some from friends and other scientists or amateur naturalists."

So how does Turkey compare with other countries for butterfly sites? "I'm surprised that groups go from New York to Colorado or from Colorado to the Swiss Alps in search of butterflies, but not to Artvin," he tells us. "I know from personal experience that you can see more species in one day in Yaylalar than in one week in the Alps. There aren't many places in the temperate zone as rich in terms of birds, butterflies and plants all at the same time. I know that the Artvin-Erzurum area is one of the best in terms of butterflies and plants. In the Çoruh Valley, for example, there are various habitats; in a short space of time you gain hundreds of meters in elevation, and pesticide and herbicide use is limited. From mid-July to early August -- the peak flight time -- you can find well over 200 species, over 50 percent of those in Turkey. What makes the observation of butterflies most exciting are the mud puddles where one can easily find several dozen, sometimes hundreds of whites or blues."

"I think there's great potential for ecotourism in the Kaçkars, in the entire area from Yusufeli to İspir, for example," he continues and explains: "It's all about advertising, reputation and infrastructure. There has to be a way to reach butterfliers in Europe and North America and let them know what richness they would find in northeastern Turkey. I don't know if ecotourism will ever become big enough -- as in Mexico or Costa Rica -- to put a stop to dams, but the more local villagers, children and hostel owners appreciate and know what they have and the more they are aware that people from abroad come to see them, the better it is, I guess."

And how does he envisage his future? "At this point I cannot think of retirement because I have to support my family and pay for my children's college education, which is very costly in the US," he explains. "So, as long as I'm capable physically of working, I intend to work. I will probably retire here, but I intend to spend some part of my retirement, probably summers, in Turkey. I may build a small summer home in my village."


Expat Zone

Columnist: THERESA DAY