Lessons from Mongolia: Trip may boost prairie project
By Frank Vaisvilas Correspondent July 1, 2013 9:00PM
Patricia Gennardo stands in front of her ger on the steppes of Mongolia. | Supplied photo
Updated: August 3, 2013 6:39AM
BOLINGBROOK — When Bolingbrook High School science teacher Patricia Gennardo returns to class this year, she’ll have the experience of a lifetime to share with her students.
Gennardo, 56, recently returned from a trip to Mongolia — more than 6,000 miles across the globe — where she researched nearly extinct animals.
The work was part of her master’s degree program from Miami University in Ohio in conjunction with Brookfield Zoo. Gennardo spent much of her time living in a portable hut that Mongolians call a ger and that can withstand the high winds on the Mongolian steppes.
“The landscape is hard to describe,” she said. “It is wide open with no fences and very vast. ... It’s a stark, rugged beauty. Travel took a lot of time.”
She said it took her and more than a dozen other students four hours to travel about 60 miles in a vehicle because there were only dirt roads or no roads.
Gennardo was looking for the palace cat, a species that was nearly extinct before recently being reintroduced into the wild. She also learned about and saw another nearly extinct species called the Pzrhevalsky horse, a wild horse depicted in ancient cave drawings and used by Genghis Khan’s army.
Gennardo said rural Mongolians live a hard life because of the elements and have to move to where there is water during different seasons. But she said many are educated, and some even use solar panels to power satellite TV in their gers.
She was impressed with how nomadic Mongolians stay connected with nature.
“They live in a real harmony with nature,” Gennardo said. “So many of our kids (in America) are not outside in nature.”
Her experience with environmental conservation in Mongolia helped renew her enthusiasm for a plan to reintroduce a native Illinois prairie landscape in a 12-acre field by Bolingbrook High School.
She’s working on organizing a committee for the project, which she said would not only replace invasive species with native plants but would be good for the environment and serve as an outdoor laboratory for students.
“It’s bringing participatory science to students,” Gennardo said.
Jay Womack, director of WRD Environmental, said restoring the field to a native prairie from turf grass would save the school district maintenance costs from mowing.
Womack received an award for his landscape work at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Bolingbrook and has been in discussions with Bolingbrook school officials about restoring the field at the high school.
Over time, Womack said native plants would help to better replenish and cleanse local aquifers than turf grass does.
Gennardo expects that the project would take two to five years to complete. While the school district could pay for some of the project, Gennardo said she has to apply for grants to finance much of it.
Labor and other organizing efforts, she said, would likely come from volunteers, students and members of the high school’s PTA.