What got you interested in the kind of work you do?
I grew up in a small farming community in rural Kansas. And even though I didn’t have the aptitude or the encouragement to farm myself, to me the land has always seemed so obviously beautiful and wildly important. Like, of course people should care for cottonwood trees and rivers and wheat fields and sunflowers. So, learning about grassland history, and the cultural and economic forces that compelled settlers to plow up prairies and that have driven industrial agriculture to harm land and undermine rural communities, was at first unbelievable to me. How could it be this way? I had to try and understand why. And to grapple with what was changed as well as what has persisted, and what creative possibilities could emerge.
This led me to the interdisciplinary fields of Great Plains Studies and ecocriticism, the study of literature and the environment. My dissertation research was on literature and ethnobotany, which looks at human-plant relationships and the cultural uses of plants. I traced how Indigenous plant knowledge was documented by Euro-American scientists and remembered by Native American writers, and the different metaphors or ways of relating to plants that result. I taught and wrote about Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass. It was a germinal book for me that I recommend to pretty much everyone.
Graduate school at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln was also when I became a student of the Umóⁿhoⁿ (Omaha) language and accepted an invitation to join a collaborative project to create the first comprehensive Omaha language & culture textbook. It was a practical, educational project to serve language revitalization efforts. I worked with researchers at the university, elder speakers, and teachers at the school on the reservation for several years and learned more during the process than I can ever say or repay.
What brought you to TLI?
I first got to know The Land Institute when I was still an undergraduate. I was at Bethany College, just down the road, but I hadn’t really realized what was happening at TLI until my mentor Kristin Van Tassel noticed my interest in agriculture. She introduced me to Wendell Berry and suggested that I intern at TLI. (Little did I know that I would someday get to work even more with Kristin’s husband David, TLI’s perennial oilseeds breeder!)
Then when I was in grad school, Wes Jackson and Bill Vitek reinvigorated conversations at TLI about education with the first Ecosphere Studies conference in 2015, which I learned about again, thanks to Kristin. The conference raised fascinating questions about the future of education and introduced me to the ecosphere concept, but what especially resonated with me was the bringing together of many kinds of knowledge and different people to explore those questions together.
I came to TLI to be part of a diverse community of people committed to making something that will make a meaningful difference in the world—perennial grain crops and cropping systems—and to making it in a good way. Which means there’s a lot to learn. (And a lot to unlearn, and a lot to learn how to evaluate and assess, too.) Just from an ethnobotany perspective, for me there’s nowhere better than here to learn how to make new human relationships with perennial grain crops-in-process, and to collectively shape the cultural uses and valuation of these plants. Here at TLI I get to collaboratively imagine and investigate how people can increase the possibility of a just, perennial transition for landscapes and the human communities embedded in them.
You have many collaborators in the United States. Are you increasing your international partnerships as well? Can you talk some about your Palestine collaboration?
While the Great Plains are the heart of my world, every place is shaped by continental and global processes…including entangled processes of agriculture. So, there is much to learn with farmers and our partners in perennial agriculture all around the planet. I identify with the practice of “boundary spanning” (and am grateful agroecologist Alex Racelis introduced me to it through his efforts!) and I think boundary spanning in agriculture continues to be needed to connect and integrate knowledge, and to co-produce trust and results.
I met Omar Tesdell, a geographer who I also think of as a boundary spanner, in 2015 at the first ES conference. Omar went on to build the Makaneyyat research group based in Ramallah, in the West Bank, that is building and strengthening perennial agroecosystems in Palestinian landscapes. There are longstanding wild food plant and perennial tree crop traditions, especially with olive, that involve rich and resilient cultural relationships with plants. There are contested and threatened landscapes that nevertheless offer so much diversity, especially with legumes. I think that Omar and I’s conversations over the years have been mutually generative as we both share experiences learning to build ecospheric research teams and networks that have in common what we call a “social perennial vision.” Makaneyyat is also a transdisciplinary project that works with farmers, and our collaboration with them has brought together my ethnobotanical and cultural and educational interests with the scientific interests of Brandon Schlautman and David Van Tassel, TLI’s plant breeders for perennial legumes and perennial oilseeds. TLI’s visits to Makaneyyat have helped us all develop our understanding of domestication processes and strategize about how to scale up perennial agriculture research globally, especially in the Global South.
How are you using the arts and humanities to engage people in Ecosphere Studies conversations?
I’ve really learned from my teacher Mary Pipher and her teacher Joanna Macy (both of whom work in eco-psychology) about the importance of attending to human emotions at this time in planetary history. It’s not always easy to face up to reality, for instance as my colleague Stan Cox is doing with his analyses of energy. And there are so many unknowns. But courageously engaging with other people to tell the truth about our gratitude and grief, over and over again, might be part of how we catalyze and sustain healing actions. The arts and humanities help us use so many critical tools: images, languages, stories.
Over 2019-2020 ES offered a series of experiential workshops where we worked with some of these tools in different places and in the context of perennial agriculture. Participants included artists, scientists, activists, teachers, students, farmers…the list goes on. Rena Detrixhe, an interdisciplinary artist who was our ES research resident, was instrumental in developing a hands-on activity we used in workshops.
It was actually at an Ecosphere Studies creative arts workshop where one of our collaborators, the artist Carmen Christina Moreno, introduced me to civic science based on her work in Kansas City. There are a lot of different and useful ways to define citizen, civic, and community-based science. What Carmen suggested was that while citizen science often asks people to just submit data one time to projects, civic science tries to foster ongoing inquiry in projects where researchers and participants collaborate and learn with each other. That seemed like an apt goal to work toward for growing perennials and “perennial communities” over time.
Can you talk some about the silphium and sainfoin civic science projects – the impetus behind starting them, goals, and successes?
David Van Tassel realized that the plant he and others are working to domesticate, silphium, could benefit from being grown in multiple locations, to better understand where it survives and what kinds of pollinators, pests, and diseases emerge in those locations. And I realized that this was an opportunity for people to learn with silphium as well, and for us to more rigorously study that learning and generate better strategies for sustaining motivation and learning outcomes. Then some of my ecocriticism colleagues helped me see how this could also be a chance to do “public environmental humanities,” and gather textual artifacts like people’s stories and photographs, to start creating an archive for analysis.
We were delighted by the amount of interest in the silphium pilot project we launched last year and preliminary results from the first growing season were positive, as I shared at Prairie Festival. I love that people are getting to know silphium and talking with their family, friends, and neighbors about it. Now plants are re-emerging and this season the silphium will bloom.
Our goal is to learn with the pilot projects how to scale up perennial civic science communities, to involve more people and to collect more robust data. We think that can help us advance domestication in terms of broad adaptation and in terms of building social and economic support for these future food crops. It’s so important to connect with communities who are aware of and value these plants. It’s also deeply important to broaden access and overcome barriers to participation, so that multiple cultural traditions and ways of knowing are welcomed in community. So that is one thing we’re working on, along with our need for a digital infrastructure that makes it easier for people to interact and manages all the data collected.
I’m excited that we are launching a sainfoin civic science pilot community right now! I hope people in the US West will check out the application for that. And we may be looking for more silphium growers too—so I encourage anybody interested to be in touch and we will get you on the list for when the right opportunity arises.
A stated goal on the Ecosphere Studies site is intergenerational practices of learning – can you talk more about the why and how behind that?
Yes, intergenerational is about connecting people of different ages, from young to old. Civic science is a good example—some participants have said their motivation for growing silphium is to be able to learn with their children. A focus on intergenerational learning can counteract the way mainstream education tends to only group people of similar ages, and open up possibilities for learning from elders and children that are more true to most human communities’ ways of passing on knowledge and adaptively changing over time. Or at least that’s my experience at TLI, where I have the chance to learn from Wes and people of his generation, and to learn from young people in our thriving intern and research residents programs.
Intergenerational practices might be connected with care work, or work done in service of other people, to take care of them. For example, childcare, healthcare, and education. I have recently been exploring how care work might also be done in service of non-humans and places, of the ecosphere, over generations. The work of developing and rolling out new, ecologically intensified perennial grains will spread across generations…and maybe also is a practice of caring for plants and soils across generations.
Why is Ecosphere Studies valuable to the success of TLI and perennial agriculture?
“Transforming agriculture, perennially” to fit within ecospheric limits involves society as well as science, peoples as well as plants, stories as well as soils. In general, abstract terms that statement is easy enough to grasp. Figuring out how to apply it—figuring out the details and processes on the ground for effective sociocultural research and educational projects—is harder and to me more exciting work
It’s work that everyone at TLI is involved in, along with our collaborators and supporters, to some extent because we’re all humans interacting in a research community that’s trying to learn. ES has been a place within TLI to bring people together to dig deeper into the cultural dimensions of transformation. The current metaphor I’ve been working with is a threshold. We’re seeking to learn how to cross the threshold into a perennial future. And in this effort, it’s pretty inspiring to be able to cross one nearby threshold, into the building at TLI where actual perennial grains are being threshed.
What are your 5-10 year goals for the program?
There is urgency in the next few years, due to the intensifying ecological crisis and continuing systems of social inequity and oppression. To address this in the short and long term, our goal is finding effective ways to advance a just perennial, agricultural transformation. To do this, we are generating and pursuing new, transdisciplinary learning experiments—and actually learning from the results. We aim toward outcomes such as: materials, knowledge, and stories that help people provide long-term ecospheric care; tools, methods, and models to engage and sustain more collaborators and diverse communities in perennialization; and increasing cultural, social, and economic valuation of perennial grain crops-in-process.
Check out other interviews in the series!
Interview with an Ecologist: Tim Crews, Director of Research and Soil Ecologist
Interview with a Plant Scientist: Ebony Murrell, Crop Protection Ecology
Interview with a Plant Scientist: Kathryn Turner, Crop Protection Genetics
Interview with a Plant Scientist: Brandon Schlautman, Perennial Legumes
Interview with a Plant Scientist: Stan Cox, Perennial Sorghum
Interview with a Plant Scientist: David Van Tassel, Perennial Oilseeds
Interview with a Plant Scientist: Shuwen Wang, Perennial Wheat
Interview with a Plant Scientist: Lee De Haan, Kernza®
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