GOOD PEOPLE + PLANT SCIENCE = MINDFULNESS in ACTION 2016 Society of Ethnobiology Conference

2016 Society of Ethnobiology Conference

I am NOT your average student. My academic journey has been less than linear. I started off pursuing and completing a paralegal degree in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Then switching paths to academic training in Culinary Arts, but never pursued it as a career, because I chose to say in the better paying field of Information Technology. I had made a decent income with all the perks, benefits and travel that I loved at the time, but life still seemed to lack something. I had accomplished all the things I was told were expected of me by society, way ahead of schedule of my peers, but it all seemed so shallow. After a few twists and turns over a couple of years, I found myself back in school again, this time for Sustainable Urban Agriculture and Horticulture. It was the beginning of something new and it took me down through a wormhole into a new world. I was hooked.

To me, the progression seemed natural. Moving from paralegal training taught me the value of paying attention to the details, while drawing connections between seemingly disparate ideas. Next move was to food, which taught me approaches, equations and scientific properties of ingredients to achieve a desired effect. Then comes sustainable urban agriculture, where I can get my hands dirty to think and grow solutions for community challenges. My mind and my heart were opened – I felt alive. I had ideas. So many ideas of how to help initiate steps toward resolving issues within specific communities that have not been addressed by domestically-born and benefit those who need it. I joined WWOOF (Worldwide Organisation of Organic Farmers) to learn through labour, gather and share knowledge for 2.5 years over 8 countries. Still, more was needed, namely access to both fresh produce, customized-cultural gardening, and socially-applicable health knowledge. This is something all people can benefit from. My mission is to create a preservation database for traditional plant knowledge from the farm to the fork. My goal is to start this idea small, start local. I’d like to establish local ‘Ancestor Gardens’ representing the local, ancestral, and indigenous cultures of New Orleans. So, this is where my passion for plants as food, and health & wellness brought me to the conclusion that I need to further my knowledge on the Health & Wellness aspects. Enter Tulane University.
I decided on three goals to focus on once I discovered the existence of an ethnobiology conference. The first, was to admit I don’t know what I don’t know. With this in mind, I needed to find a mentor who agreed to make time and wanted to help me with direction. I need to know how to further my research, academic, and project related goals.
My second goal was to learn from experienced people about presentation formats and styles, since I plan to present at the 2017 Society of Ethnobiology ( conference. My last goal was to go with an open-mind and take it all in, learn something new and hopefully have my mind blown.

Please note, I’ve been working full-time since I was 17 (I finished High School early), I have attended a number of conferences for CRM (Customer Relationship Management) Software to NADA (North American Dealer Association) and various Health & Wellness Food related conferences. The Society of Ethnobiology conference was the best experience I’ve ever had at an alcohol free gathering of professionals. A perfectly organised conference. Here’s a recap:

The Presenters: From the Great Wide World of Ethnobiology
For the most part, this conference was a massive smooth running machine, boasting of over 140 presentations over 3 days, including constant tours during breaks and after presentations. The workshops started with coffee, tea and water, mid-morning croissants, cakes and other delectables at 8:30am. Most of the presentations ended around 6 or 7 in the evening, followed by more food and scheduled networking. The presentation covered the span of topics ranging from Ornithology and Environmental Impact with a research team from Oxford, to Maori foodways and preservation from New Zealand, to a team from New Jersey working with native groups in Costa Rica who WANT their traditional plant medicines validated by western science so that people in their village will continue to use it. I swear, just reading the program schedule made my cheeks hurt from smiling, there were so many presentations I wanted to hear! Fortunately, most of them were in the same room. For the ones I missed due to conflicts, I could refer to their published papers the presentation was based on, or my new colleagues who may have attended to give me a rundown or detailed notes. One of the most telling traits of the energy shared among the attendees/participants was that it seems as if everyone I crossed paths with were not only willing to share ideas and collaborate, they were insistent to hang out AFTER the presentations.


Workshops from Throughout the Day presented by representatives of Indigenous Groups from Around world, Canada to Fiji to New Zealand, as well as various Authors.

The Program: Content Rich Foundation Where Inspiration Grew
I’m glad I made the conscious decision to go into this conference experience with a clear and open-mind, with hopes, not expectations. I hoped to learn what was out there and how anything I was working on might fit in or align with the works of others. I could not believe how many different angles of field Ethnobotany existed. Ethnobotany presentations included topics such as: Medicine, Ethnozoology, Birds & Relationships (About reciprocity), Zooarcheology of American Southwest & Northern Mexico: New Pathways and Future Directions, Conceiving Venomousness (about venomous snakes), Archeobotany, Ethnobotany, Ethnobiology in National Parks (which I felt was genius), Ethnobiological Ethics Lab, Landscape Management and Agriculture, Foraging Theory: Zooarchaeology and Archaeobotany, Pedagogy, Multi-scales of Human Interaction with Aquatic Environments, the Historical Ecology of Cultural Keystone Places of the Northwest, First Farmers + First Farms: Landscape Ecology of the Early Neolithic and one of my favorites which I feel started the event with a bang: Introduction to Community Seed Banking and Seed Libraries, courtesy of Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Center. ( They also hosted the General Reception and open house. This amazing business model hold over 1900 seeds from around the world and shared upon request. They offer classes on seed saving, germination and propagation of plants throughout the year. They were kind enough to offer a 6-hour workshop, complete with hands-on demonstrations and provided us with all the demonstration materials presented during the workshop, including a variety of seeds to take home. Unfortunately, I missed the workshop that happened on the other side of the city, Innovative Teaching in Ethnobotany, which conflicted with the Native Seeds Workshop during the second half of the day.

A few samples from the Native Seeds / SEARCH Conservation Education Table

Native Seed / SEARCH Conservation Center’s Massive Refrigerated Seeds Storage Room

The free Student-Mentor Lunch was a nice touch.
Apparently the seats filled quickly. I signed up the moment I saw the email seeking participants to sign-up. It wasn’t quite what I expected. We sat at a table with a PhD who either directly leads research or has an interest in an aspect of Ethnobiology. There were five tables with five to six students each and one ‘mentor’. Each participant went around the table to discuss what they were studying, a little background, why they were in attendance and what their goals were. The point that came up after I spoke about my goals was one that I’d never considered. He mentioned the importance of scholars receiving publication credit for contributions to my database. This is a consideration brought to my attention that is outside of my experience. I was grateful for the time, even if this wasn’t the opportunity find a long term mentor that I sought.

Building Value Through ALL Senses
There was so much FOOD! Not just the standard cheap, toxic white bread sandwich with cold cuts and highly processed cheese, etc. As a trained Chef who has circumnavigated the globe by air and sea, it was AMAZING to have a banquet table of indigenous and desert fare for the first time. The spread ranged included Cactus fruit (Tuna), Cactus buds (Cholla Cactus), even Cactus pads (Nopales) itself. The cactus fruit was made into juice and jelly confections. Desert tree pods were ground into flour and made into cookies, cakes and tart shells. Even traditional indigenous growing techniques were cleverly turned into a clever dish: there was a 3-sisters medley consisting of Blue corn, Tepiary beans (indigenous desert bean) and diced squash. It was all amazing. My mind was running on all the potential, the recipes, the growing conditions. Imagine what can be grown in a sustainable fashion, in food deserts and a step towards community food sovereignty, in a variety of climates. The elevated level of excitement about the food was only matched by the buzz and delight of the networking conversation as we all chatted at the very first networking event of the conference. What a way to set the pace of the next 3 days.

This experience has also expanded my critical thinking skills with regard to my academic direction. I no longer feel the need to pursue a degree the field of ethnobotany, since many of the leaders in this industry do not. I have met people whose interest in ethnobiology and have degrees in other fields, many of those degrees overlap. Medicine and wellness has been a passion of mine for years. I was comforting for me to learn that I can plan my academic career.
Relating to the area of focus within the subject of Ethnobiology, I was surprised and concerned about the omission of entire sections of the globe and lack of public health inclusion. I discovered while there was a void in the study of plants of the African diaspora, there was also nothing of the Caribbean, South American nor pan-equatorial countries. Enter: my specific area of focus. There is definitely a place for my interests and goals in this field.

Indigenous and Desert Foods provided by Native Seeds / SEARCH Conservation.

When I boarded the plane, I felt sad about leaving.
I loved the entire experience from the people, the message, and the environment. I’ve never been to a desert before. It is an incredibly beautiful place.
What I took from this conference is much more than I could have imagined. The fire of excitement and gratitude still burns inside me as I write this. I got more than I anticipated. I found several people who offered to support my interests and gave me their contact information, told me to keep in touch without me even having to ask. There are other people who’ve inspired me to view parts of my own research differently, which broadened and deepened my work. I’ve established networks that I intend to foster. I have confirmed there are others who see some of the challenges as clearly as we see the possible solutions. We are all working enthusiastically towards different aspects of the same goal. We passionately pursue the outcome.

My next steps include drafting a few research papers on suggestions towards reducing the loss of traditional plant knowledge, areas of further research in the use of Traditional Plant knowledge and the reasons for their loss throughout the Caribbean and Possible integration of African and Indigenous plants of the Americas. I believe these may be ideas worthy of scientific and academic research to be reviewed by peers and mentors. I will create a presentation and possibly a presentation poster outlining the features, benefits, and values of my project idea.