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Ethnobiology, Heritage, Sustainability, and Truth

A recent conference at the University of Arizona offers an inspiring glimpse into how researchers are working to protect and preserve traditional ecological knowledge for the future.

April 7, 2016

I often decide what to do based on my gut.

So several months ago, when I saw that the Society of Ethnobiology Conference was to be held in Tucson, I plunked down my registration fee even though I had to look up what the word “ethnobiology” meant.

Turns out I would be looking up a bunch of words. Even the various tracks—archeabotany, pedagogy, zooarchelogy—had me furrowing my brow.

I’m not an academician. Yet I’ll be sitting in a classroom for two days at the University of Arizona during spring break (very serene) with a series of scholars who are presenting their work in 15-minute sessions. They talk very, very fast and tend to go over their time slot—there’s a lot to say.

But first there’s an opening night reception.

After falling in love with Tucson last summer, I made it my home. And though I’ve only been in the Old Pueblo for six weeks, I swelled with pride at Native Seeds/SEARCH’s conservation center, where the event was hosted.

As the sun recedes in a mango-tastic glow and the desert air cools, attendees—as you might expect, there were lots of Birkenstocks, ponytails, tats and sunburned cheeks—enjoyed a delicious buffet of Sonoran foods, including tepary beans, cholla buds, and a variety of salsas and mesquite cookies, washed down with prickly pear lemonade.

That night I talked with folks from the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean, Europe and Mexico. We discussed the relative merits of mountain versus beach towns, agreed on the enduring appeal of hippies, decried shrinking water tables and swapped recommendations on the best restaurants in Tucson.

An undergraduate student from the U.S. Virgin Islands was knocked out by the landscape.

“I didn’t know cactus grew so big.”

I smiled in agreement.

“And it’s so quiet here.”

Yep. She gets it.

These are my people.

— ‡ ‡ ‡ —

The field of ethnobiology has major scope. But the specificity at the conference is stunning: Birds of Mongol; Intensive Hunting and Early Animal Management in the Southern Levant; Ethnobotany of Castanopsis in Fengshui Forests of Southeast China; The Use of Plants in the Treatment of Snakebites in Burkina Faso: Therapeutic Itineraries; The Relationshjip of Maori to Sweetpotato.

Much of what they share goes way, way over my head. I hope I at least feign comprehension.

Though some speakers are more effective than others—the ones who don’t read their slides, but rather have a conversation inviting the audience to engage—what’s unmistakable is the how impassioned these folks are. To a person, they seem tireless in testing theories, collecting data, sussing out patterns and sharing conclusions.

Still, a number of topics touched on issues familiar to Edible Baja Arizona readers: farming, foraging, winemaking. There was even a track dedicated to ethnobiology in national parks (coinciding with this year’s 100th anniversary), which included a spirited discussion about plant harvesting ethics.

An overarching theme emerged in session after session about the value of TEK or traditional ecological knowledge. That’s an acronym that encompasses the inherent value of indigenous communities and seeks to empower elder knowledge-keepers to pass along the old ways to youth. In his presentation, Tucson-based Sonoran herbalist John Slattery dubbed this “cultural intellectual property.” Its worth is inestimable. Indeed, I was struck by how many of the presenters kicked off their talks in their own native tongue, honoring ancestors.

In the end, though I may have been puzzled by much of the content I was exposed to, I walked away hopeful and inspired.

This is a group of deeply capable people committed to the tenets of collaboration, heritage, inquiry and sustainability. Even when they are frustrated—all too often, by funding or government roadblocks or privately driven greed, or sometimes all three— they remain resolute in their mission.

Turns out being in Arizona is a homecoming of sorts for the organization, which was founded four decades ago in Flagstaff. Fittingly, Tucson’s own Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan was named 2016 Distinguished Ethnobiologist.

And even though (I’m told) it was March Madness and the Wildcats were playing, the auditorium was packed for a free lecture, Indigenous Lessons for the Future, a panel featuring Nabhan, Jesus Garcia of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and Canadian educators Nancy Turner and Verna Pepeyla Miller, who kept the crowd rapt for nearly two hours. These guys are rockstars in their field.

The insights—too numerous to detail in this blog—filled pages in my notebook. I looked around, and others were nodding their heads, too, in recognition of the truths being spoken.

I’ll proudly sport my forest green conference tote bag when running errands. And if I’m mistaken for a researcher, hey, that’s cool with me.


After falling in love with Tucson, Suzanne Wright moved to the Old Pueblo in February 2016. She loves to eat and then hike the beautiful mountains to burn off (some) calories. She’s written for AAA Highroads Arizona, American Way, Arizona Highways, Go Escape, National Geographic Traveler and USA Today.

Header image by Aidan Heigl.

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