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In Memoriam: Natasha Luzhkova

In Memoriam: Natasha Luzhkova

Words by Nathaniel Scrimshaw – Chair, World Trails Network-Hub for Americas

…a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light enough to live, and then accepts the dark, passing unencumbered back to the earth…”
—Wendell Berry, The Country Of Marriage

With profound sadness I share the news that Natasha Luzhkova has died of COVID-related pneumonia.  Natasha was a researcher at the V. B. Sochava Institute of Geography, and Chief Research Scientist at the Barguzinsky State Nature Biosphere Reserve and Zabaikalsky National Park in Russia. Natasha was my closest colleague in the World Trails Network community, and a dear friend. 

Natasha and I served together as co-chairs of the World Trails Network’s Trails & Sustainability International Task Team, which was formed at the 2018 World Trails Conference in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. We were part of a group that walked a section of the Camino before the conference. Other current members of Trails & Sustainability Task Team, Maya Karkour and András Molnár, were on that walk as well. Together we outlined an initial vision for what our work could be.

While Natasha was a hard-nosed, empirical scientist, she was also keenly aware that to understand trails we need to integrate a variety of perspectives and methods. Under her leadership, the Trails & Sustainability Task Team took on an ambitious approach: consider the environmental, economic and social dimensions of sustainable trails and integrate the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

This required we not only look at questions of the trail design, construction and maintenance, but how trails contribute to local, regional or national economies, and how the success of a trail can be related to a “trails culture” within a society. We came to recognize that trails affect places at different scales, and so we examined both the fine grain of individual trails, and how trail networks fit into a larger landscape of biological corridors and connected communities, whether rural or urban.

Natasha was always quick to remind us that if we were serious about sustainability, our enthusiasm for trails needed to be tempered by the understanding that trails can sometimes harm the environment and tourism overwhelm communities—Natasha was fiercely protective of the ecological integrity of her beloved Barguzinsky Nature Biosphere Reserve and Zabaikalsky National Park. 

What made Natasha such a valued colleague was not just the professionalism and passion she brought to her work, it was her ability to connect to people. This was evident in focused meetings as we addressed the challenges of our complex topic. Natasha’s balance of clarity and flexibility made her a good consensus builder. But it was her laughter and warmth that made all difference. 

Natasha and I would communicate by video WhatsApp multiple times between our monthly task team meetings. We spent much of our time sharing news about our respective cats and dogs, vegetable gardens, how much snow each of us had in the back yard, or our most recent ski or walk. We found that Siberia and New Hampshire have much in common, from cold winters to similar alpine ecologies in the mountains.

Natasha had been working on new trails in the alpine zone in Zabaikalsky National Park. I work on recreational trails in the alpine zone in New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest. White Mountains trails are over 150 years old and the alpine zone is experiencing ecological damage from the magnitude of hiking and running. We had plans for Natasha to visit New Hampshire in 2022 as a World Trails Network Americas International Trails Fellow to review the White Mountain alpine zone and discuss how new trails in Siberia could  benefit from our experience. We planned a reciprocal visit to Siberia from people from New Hampshire. While Natasha can’t make this trip, it is my sincere hope that this exchange between Siberia and New Hampshire can happen someday, continuing her work and honoring her memory. 

Natasha was a light for her friends, family and colleagues, a sort of guide through the shadows of complex ideas, disagreements and life’s disappointments. Her laughter was one source of this light, ringing like a bell, it always dispersed darkness. Without Natasha we may feel this light is gone. Natasha was expecting a child in August. Her daughter, Nadezhda, was delivered by Caesarian section and I was heartened to see photos of a healthy-looking baby.

Nadezhda means “hope” in Russian. She was named by Natasha’s husband, Andrey. Hope rekindles Natasha’s light, not only in Nadezhda, but in all of us. Please join me in returning that light and love to Nadezhda, Natasha’s family and her many friends around the world. 


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