A Recipe for Conservation*

* Disclosure: this was written as an assignment for partial completion of BIO 675

This past May I had the opportunity to travel to Guyana as part of my graduate studies with Miami University’s Global Field Program. Last summer took me to Baja, Mexico, where my classmates and I were given a crash course in environmental fieldwork. This time our focus would be on traditional knowledge and methods of conservation.

Flying from Georgetown to Iwokrama Forest

Guyana is a land of unfathomable greenness. Somehow resisting the pitfalls of its neighbor Brazil, Guyana remains largely (80%) forested. Bullet wood and mora trees soar high into the canopy; star-shaped kofa seed pods litter the forest floor. Frog songs fill the night; a harpy eagle keeps watch by day. Nestled near the Brazilian border is a unique biome, the Rupununia flooded savanna. We spent the majority of our time in the Rupununi learning from the Makushi Amerindian people. While we hiked mountains, saw petroglyphs, and caught a fleeting glimpse of a jaguar, some of my strongest memories revolve around food.

Seed pod from a kofa tree (Clusia grandifolia)

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that food is a recurring theme. Perhaps that is because, as a child of immigrants, the deepest ties to my cultural roots revolve around the smells, tastes, and textures of my mother’s improvised Japanese dishes. Or could it be that, as a woman, I inevitably see the preparation of food as both my birthright and my burden? In Guyana, these themes of culture, food, womanhood, and preservation seemed inextricably—perhaps essentially—twined.

Peeling cassava (photo by Adam Dewey)

One of my most memorable experiences was the day we spent learning about the many ways in which the Makushi use cassava (Manihot esculenta). While you might think you’ve never heard of or had cassava, you may have encountered it as yuca, manioc, tapioca, or another name for “sweet cassava.” Sweet cassava isn’t actually sweet, it is simply a different variety.

As with all Earth Expeditions (EE), we learned through participation. In the photo above we are peeling “bitter cassava” at a community cassava “processing plant” (that’s me in the foreground, sporting a “Volunteer” t shirt from Elephant Nature Park). Because bitter cassava can contain lethal levels of cyanide, it must be prepared carefully. After peeling, the roots are washed and grated. The grated pulp is then put into a hand-woven tube called a matapi, which is used to squeeze out the poisonous liquid. The liquid is then reduced to make a sauce base called cassereep.

Two images of cassava preparation: squeezing out poison and making cassava bread.
L: packing grated cassava with a matapi
R: making cassava bread

The pulp itself can be toasted into a grain dish called farine or made into a flat bread, as seen above. I marveled at the tireless strength of the women, the ingenuity of their methods, and the variety of foodstuffs they produced from a single crop. Not even the poison was wasted! And the unwashed cassava leaves were used as part of a fermentation process to transform soaked, browned cassava bread into parakiri or kasiri, a cassava beer (Henkel, 2005). We sampled a mild version but were told that the alcohol level could be increased to hangover-inducing levels through prolonged fermentation.

While so much of what we saw and did on that day showcased women’s knowledge of a single crop, farming and food production are deeply tied to land usage, conservation, and biodiversity. In the developed west we are facing the possible extinction of coffee and bananas because of our dependence on single crops; the Makushi cultivate 29 varieties of cassava (Elias et al., 2001). America leads the world in food waste; the Makushi know how to turn a poison into a product.

Making kasiri, a wild yeast-fermented cassava beer

Women have long been called the bearers of culture. Among traditional and immigrant communities it is they who pass on folktales through bedtime stories, prepare and preserve traditional recipes (Beoku-Betts, 1995; Singh, Rallen, & Padung, 2013), and whose very bodies act as symbols of culture through prescribed dress and behavior (Winter, 2016). I do not mean to romanticize the Makushi in this post. Like many indigenous communities they endure problems ranging from a lack of opportunity to domestic violence. But my time in Surama Village has made me more attentive to the ways in which activities such as gardening, cooking, and pickling can constitute acts of conservation. A dusty jar of muscadine sauce in a cellar pantry holds remnants of the previous season. The humble okra plant is a botanical memory of the slave trade.

I am not a gardener, and some of the plants linked to my cultural heritage are considered invasive here in the US, such as kudzu and bamboo. But I do like to cook. Each time I visit the farmer’s market, I seek out interesting produce I’ve never tried and will return home with Bishop’s Crown Peppers or Dragon Tongue Beans, More often than not the vegetables and herbs I discover are not ones from my mother’s childhood memories (like me, she takes great pleasure in food), so I take comfort in the fact that my impulse buying supports local growers and agricultural biodiversity. Sometimes, however, I think about the complex spice routes and imperial endeavors that brought Latin American chilis to Szechuan and South Indian cuisines. It is in those moments that I see my cooking as more than mere sustenance. Trained by my mother’s discerning palate, I try to create dishes that not only capture the past but render it too tempting to forget.

How I cook, sometimes

References

Beoku-Betts, J. A. (1995). We got our way of cooking things: Women, food, and preservation of cultural identity among the Gullah. Gender & Society, 9(5), 535-555.

Elias, M., McKey, D., Panaud, O., Anstett, M. C., & Robert, T. (2001). Traditional management of cassava morphological and genetic diversity by the Makushi Amerindians (Guyana, South America): perspectives for on-farm conservation of crop genetic resources. Euphytica, 120(1), 143-157.

Henkel, T. W. (2005). Parakari, an indigenous fermented beverage using amylolytic Rhizopus in Guyana. Mycologia, 97(1), 1-11.

Jordan, J. A. (2010). Landscapes of European memory: biodiversity and collective remembrance. History & Memory, 22(2), 5-33.

Singh, R. K., Rallen, O., & Padung, E. (2013). Elderly Adi Women of Arunachal Pradesh: “Living encyclopedias” and cultural refugia in biodiversity conservation of the Eastern Himalaya, India. Environmental management, 52(3), 712-735.

Winter, B. (2016). Women as cultural markers/bearers. The Wiley Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, 1-5.

Is My Veganism Sustainable?

Back in October I wrote that I had recently enrolled in a new degree program, and right now I’m deep into my second full semester. One of my courses is Issues in Biodiversity. In addition to doing a lot of reading and writing, we have all been tasked with designing a personal Biodiversity or Sustainability Action Plan for the semester. Some of my cohorts are elementary school teachers, and they’re devising wonderful projects that involve their students, such as planting a pollinator garden or creating compost for a community garden.

The assignment directions note, “Making a behavior change that positively impacts sustainability can be done simply through your choice in which products you buy, or how much you use your car.” As someone who doesn’t own a car, is an all-weather bicycle commuter, shops at farmers markets for a lot of my produce, carries all my groceries in my backpack, keeps my thermostat set at 65-67 degrees in the winter, and refuses to install central air conditioning, I jokingly said to some classmates, “What? I have to give up more?” But the idea of making a personal change struck me as a terrific challenge.

Some of My Vegan Cooking

Lately I’ve been coming across articles claiming that veganism was less sustainable—less eco-friendly—than several omnivore diets. In some cases, the conclusions were based on false comparisons, like imagining that vegans lived solely on exotic foodstuffs with high carbon footprints (avocados, for example) and pitting them against omnis subsisting on locally grown organic meats and vegetables. Still, I found these articles to be somewhat troubling. Cowspiracy (2014) contributed to my decision to go vegan. Since its release, critics have debunked several facts presented in the documentary, especially the percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions produced by industrial farming. Nevertheless, it still seemed—at least to me—to make implicit sense that eating a plant based diet was more environmentally sustainable than one including animal products.

For my Action Plan, I’ve decided to investigate the sustainability and carbon footprint of my diet and see how many positive changes I can make. I’ll be blogging about my discoveries, the changes I make, and posting recipes here. This blog will also be linked to my Instagram account, so that people who like my food photos will have the opportunity to learn more about the ecology of their diet. Wish me luck!

Photo of desert landscape en route to Baja, Mexico

Gaining Perspective

This past January I made an impulse decision to apply to a graduate program I’d recently discovered. Although I regularly juggle multiple interests through work, volunteering, hobbies, and travel, I’ve often wished I could do more to make a difference in the world. One day, while cycling through Chanthaburi, Thailand as part of Bike for Elephants 2018, I learned about a program that suddenly made my aspirations seem possible.

Group photo
Earth Expedition Baja I – photo by Jessica Seevers

Fast forward to June, and I’m hiking through 107-degree heat with eighteen other eager minds studying ecological field methods in Baja, Mexico. We were all first-semester students in Miami University’s Global Field Program, an innovative graduate program that combines summer field coursework with online learning during the school year. 

One reason the GFP appealed to me is that I’ve always loved travel. My experiences abroad have introduced me to extraordinary people and practices, shown me new ways of appreciating the world. But because we would be studying desert ecology—sleeping outdoors, abandoning the comforts of home, and being the only people wherever we went—I didn’t expect those sorts of revelations. I honestly didn’t know what to expect.

Photo of Rancho San Gregorio
Rancho San Gregorio

One of our first assignments required us to map our location, Rancho San Gregorio. My map resembles a pre-Renaissance doodle: there is no world beyond a few structures, everything is two dimensional, and each building is front-facing, albeit from multiple points of view.

In addition to lacking perspective, my map is also bizarrely scaled: the gardens and open spaces have been minimized, the central building (seen in the photo above) is oddly compressed, and the cacti are wildly misproportioned. I’m not really sure what drove me to make such odd choices, but I believe my college art professors would not be impressed.

photo of hand-drawn map
My map

The significance of scale is a theme to which we returned time and again. In one learning activity, we read about the relationships between the area of a habitat and the number of species inhabiting it (Gotelli, 2008). We then used this concept of species-area relationship (SAR) to estimate the minimal sample area needed to characterize the local ecosystem, a sort of scale model for biodiversity.

The process we used is called the relevé method. Four teams measured out initial 5×5 meter square areas (quadrat) and then expanded them to 10×10, 15×15, and so forth. Each team identified and counted species within their quadrats: cardon, boojum, ocotillo, creosote … the total number of species increased with the size of the quadrat … until it didn’t. Once each team expanded their squares past 25×25 we rarely found any new species. We had found our minimal sample size.

Photo of me with a giant cactus
Me, pointing to scarring on a cardon (Pachycereus pringlei) – photo by Samantha Lee Arner

Why is this important? Imagine looking at a small corner of a meadow. You might see a cluster of flowering clover. While this could make for a beautiful photo, it doesn’t capture the meadow as a vibrant community of plant life. In fact, that clover might be an island surrounded by a sea of wild grasses. Examining random plots of the right sample size would give you a much better sense of the meadow’s species richness.

Although I am back in Philadelphia, I’m still thinking about scale—especially in terms of time. This semester I’m studying our city’s green spaces and interviewing people involved in greening the city. One person enthusiastically listed many things street trees bring to a neighborhood: shade, beauty, habitat. But another person claimed, “Trees are easy.” He explained how street trees provide a form of immediate gratification. And while that isn’t a bad thing per se, street trees can give residents a false sense of how green our city really is, which might make us less willing to support efforts whose effects we might not see for decades.

Photo of neighborhood tree planting
Street tree planting in Philadelphia – click for source

Many early cultures used a technique called hieratic scale in their visual arts. With hieratic scale, the most important figures appear the largest. Looking back—my map of the ranch, a close up of a flower, and greening a sidewalk—all these employ a form of hieratic scale. My map, for instance, reveals both my awe of cacti and my inability to distinguish much beyond man-made structures. The sudden popularity of trees suggests that we urban dwellers have difficulty investing in things we cannot see or touch.

My GFP cohorts and I are hoping to join a network of individuals engaged in conservation efforts around the world. My wish, of course, is to help the elephants. But I suspect that I’ve been looking at elephants as if they were clover, and I were strolling past the edge of that meadow. While the clover might seem sparse and precious to me, the meadow is not my home. If it were, the clover might appear abundant, maybe even a nuisance. If I want to make a real difference someday, then I will have to learn to accept multiple truths, embrace multiple perspectives.

References

Gotelli, N. J. (2008) Island Biogeography. In A Primer of ecology (pp. 154-177). Sunderland, Massachusetts, USA: Sinauer Associates.

Handbook for collecting of vegetation plot data in Minnesota: The relevé method. (2013). Retrieved from https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/mcbs/releve/releve_singlepage.pdf.