HighLevel Issues in EthnoBotany; Interdisciplinary Cross-Pollination

My Shrunken Head - 2008 - RyanDewey.org

I started getting interested in botany during my undergraduate years when I wanted to complement the technical linguistics training with a tempered understanding of some practical skills.  I have always planned on doing anthropological linguistics and in most locations people grow their own food; learning about botany and horticulture would be good for my survival.  And since talking with people about plants is a great way to collect data I wanted to at least have the competency to grow plants and have some familiarity with the lives of plants.  I took a job working summers and breaks at a 100-year-old tropical aquatics greenhouse where I learned to cultivate Lotus, Victoria Regina, Water lilies, marginal plants, and how to raise fish and maintain healthy ecological systems.  This got me interested in algae, protists, lichens, mosses, ferns, et cetera…

Even earlier in life, during primary school I took part in a Naturalist Aid program which taught me about the medicinal uses of plants, biodiversity, and ecology.  I guess my first encounters with plants was really from a pedagogical perspective on ethnobotany.

As I have grown older I have encountered people’s relationships with plants all around the world, Hawai’i, Papua New Guinea, Australia, England, West Africa, Central America, in different climates: deserts, cloud forests, canopy jungles, mountains, deciduous forests, and shorelines.  In each of these places I found my small education in botany to be useful in collecting new experiences with new understandings.  This is why I am posting this introduction today, I feel that it is important to understand the flora that surround us and the ways in which they shape us culturally and cognitively.

Basically this post is a list of resources on topics in EthnoBotany as a discipline, I hope you will dig into these resources and explore what interests you with an eye to expand your interests into how you can incorporate ethnobotanical studies into your own research.  While this is not meant to be exhaustive and academically complete, I am providing you with a vetted set of platforms from which you can explore further as your interests encourage you.

EthnoBotany and Art:

One of the first things I noticed during my experiences in anthropological inquiry was that natural resources (i.e., plants) provide for both the functional tools of a culture and their medium of expression and ornamentation.  I am not saying that this is across the board for all cultures, but the handful of cultures I have lived with have all relied on plant-based materials in their art.  This got me thinking about incorporating plants and botanical concepts and structures into my art work.  The three photos in this post come from categories in my 2008-2010 portfolio.

  • My Shrunken Head was an exploration in applied ethnobotany in a series that explored the incorporation of plants into productive works of art.  The head is made from a leathery frond of a staghorn fern, a handful of Bosc pear stems, some wire and a bunch of rose thorns. [see above]
  • Volvox Thinking came out of my study of algae during my aquaculture years and I started to associate the form with a type of dynamic construal…there is more to come on this issue if you are interested, so check back in the months to come. [see below]
  • The Bird’s Nest Fern sculpture comes out of my love for ferns and fiddleheads in general, but also came out of my apprenticeship/ethnographic research with an old Italian blacksmith in Cleveland Ohio.  I think it was the first day of my apprenticeship that he taught me to make scrolls in steel; these can be seen in the fiddleheads. [see below]

Ethnobotany and Ecology have been parts of Art Education for as long as I have been alive.  I pulled a few sites that have exceptional programming for arts education with strong ethnobotanical grounding. The Sitka Center for Art and Ecology – http://www.sitkacenter.org/1-0.html in Oregon, serves workshops and artist residencies. SKEA – Society for Kona’s Education and Art – http://skea.org/ on Hawai’i serves the community and children’s education with an emphasis on bringing ethnobotany into the classroom.  This is one of the things I miss about living in Hawai’i, the ease of access to plants and the vast incorporation of plants into the cultural education efforts.

Medical EthnoBotany:

Another domain of EthnoBotany is how cultures actually use plants in medicine.  There is so much information about this field that any definition I give here will be too narrow.  I suggest getting into it yourself.  If you have any interest in Medical Anthropology this is an excellent fortifying side-discipline to enrich your investigation and research design.

Check out these resources:

Horticulture as an Ethnographic Focus:

In addition to studying plants as medical resources, plants and botanical practice can be incorporated into general anthropological inquiry.  Remember that this is why I started studying botany, because everyone everywhere relates to plants in some way and being versant in the nature and habits of plants provides an entre into cultural investigation.  Spend some time looking through these public research efforts at botanical gardens to get a sense of basic botanical knowledge and then check out some of the books in the bibliography section at the bottom of this post.

EthnoBotany/EthnoBiology & Cognition:

Since I am a cognitive scientist I find that my own views of cognition start to feed into my explorations in botany.  I begin to look at image schemas that might come from plants, how people use agrarian metaphors in pedagogical settings (a post to come June 2011), and even analogies in patterns.  I have already mentioned the colonial algae Volvox sp., this has informed some of my attempts at modeling dynamic construal as a process of encyclopedic knowledge being accessed in conceptual integration and communication (paper to come in May 2011).  Anyway, take a look at the image below and then Google “Volvox” for some context.

Volvox Thinking - Assemblage - RyanDewey.org

I recently sat through a colloquia where a man was discussing the decision-making processes of certain bacteria and I know that cognition of micro-organisms is an important research domain, I wonder if there are any investigations on plant-based decision-making.  Volvox as a colony relies on each cell as a sort of biological photoresistor in which each cell moves toward light enabling the colonies to rotate and move through the water.  This is a sort of mechanical & binary decision-making faculty, but I don’t know if anyone has studied this further…I would appreciate some comments if anyone knows anything.

Cultural Migration:

I first became aware of ethnobotany as a discipline through reading Jared Diamond’s stunning book Guns, Germs, and Steel. After working as an ethnography intern in Papua New Guinea I came across Guns, Germs, and Steel which emerged after Jared Diamond was asked a question by a Papuan man about why Diamond’s people had so much when the Papuan people had so little; long story short, Diamond traces the answer through cultural migration and pinpoints some key developments along the way, one of which is the cultivation of plants.  Check this book out for a good overview on how cultures cultivated through history.

Here are some other resources:

Repoussé & Forged "Asplenium Nidus" (bird's nest fern) smithed from a upcycled steel file cabinet - RyanDewey.org

EthnoBotany and Legal Concerns for Cultural Intellectual Property:

Legal scholarship and debates on ownership of ethnobotanical knowledge, including remedies and other plant knowledge have emerged as part of a wider awareness of the rights to knowledge that a community has about their botanical resources…think about the exploitation of “traditional medicine” in the unethical commercialization of fix-it-quick fat loss supplements, et cetera.

and finally…

Bibliography/Book List:

Here is an excellent and authoritative EthnoBotany bibliography from the University of Texas.

There are a lot of interfaces of EthnoBotany into disciplines which can and should cross-pollinate with one another; this is an area of investigation that touches law, history, art, cognition, culture, agriculture, education, informatics, medicine, et cetera.  Hopefully you will find the time to explore more on your own.  I would love to hear what you have to say about the subject.  Thanks for reading. – SportLinguist.

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2 thoughts on “HighLevel Issues in EthnoBotany; Interdisciplinary Cross-Pollination

  1. ryandewey says:

    Just came across this paper: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1728261
    “Vanished Like a Dream” Traditional and other Fragile Knowledge in the Global Village – by David J Jones…

    Check it out.

  2. ryandewey says:

    Found another great paper on Hawai’ian traditional medicine: http://www.csuchico.edu/cjhp/1/hawaii/34-39-hilgenkamp.pdf

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