Ethnobotonist offers challenge at Flagstaff symposium
By S.J. Wilson
The Arizona Ethnobotanical Research Association held the Third Annual Ethnobotany Symposium and Concert September 15-17 on the campus of Northern Arizona University. R. Carlos Nakai, Theodora Homewytewa, Gail Tierney and Gary Paul Nabhan were just some of the individuals who assisted in this educational event.
Phyllis Hogan, the AERA executive director, opened the symposium on Friday evening with a warm welcome and a blessing by Michael Sockyma, Hopi. Following the blessing, Hogan delighted the audience of 200 with a give-away of gifts which included Native American arts and crafts, jewelry, music and natural salves and lotions. She went on to introduce her friend and colleague, Gary Paul Nabhan, Ph.D.
Nabhan took the podium and began his inspirational talk by honoring Hogan. "She has been teaching for a quarter of a century, in her gentle way, that there are things at our doorstep that can heal us. I believe this is one of the most powerful messages we can give the community we live in."
In Nabhan's opinion, the saddest part of Hogan and other ethnobotonists' message is perhaps that the knowledge that everything we need for food and medicine is more important now than ever in the past. "We are at a crossroads in human hisotry where we will either return to the earth or go even further from the things that can heal us."
Ethnobotony is the study of plants, humans and the earth and their interrelationship. That study shows that there have been dramatic changes in how we as human beings obtain our foods and medicine, Nabhan explained. For example, for the first time in human history, half of what we spend for food is on meals not made in our own homes. "Humanity's ecological footpring is larger than ever," he said. And Americans are one of the biggest offenders.
"On the average, our food travels 2,000 miles before we ingest it. The average amount of land needed to produce food for one person in the world population for a year is two and a half acres," Nabhan continued. "For the average American person, the average is 21 acres of land for a year." Quoting another scientist, John Ryan, Nabhan said that if everyone in the world was eating like the average American we'd need four planets to grow food on.
While that might sound confusing to some, the reality is simple. The increase in acreage takes into consideration land needed to feed cattle which is used as food. We are a nation of meat-eaters.
Trends in foods spiked with medicines (nutrapseuticals), genetically altered crops and corporate takeovers of small farms all foretell a sad story. "While someone is making money on all of this, it ain't the herbalists or the farmers," Nabhan said. "There are only about 5,000 small farms left. Land is in the hands of less people. More and more people are concerned about this than ever."
Nabhan proposed a "modest manifesto" on how to return to the earth. His efforts began in his own home, where he and his wife vowed to make four out of five meals from their own area. "What if each of us began with obtaining our food within 250 miles of where we live? What if we obtained all of our foods and medicines from sources within our area and stopped reshaping environments into those of another region? Why are we using enough water to fill an Olympic swimming pool to grow food the equivalent of one hamburger? Why aren't we using traditional foods instead of marshmallow-plastic fruit-loops?" he challenged.
Ultimately, his goal would be to use only those foods and medicines within 30 miles of his own home. The indigenous cultures of the Colorado Plateau offers diverse knowledge of where to find food, how to grow it, and how to use it. "If we were to support these people, we would create jobs in areas where no other employment exists. The whole point is to bring us back to what can heal and nourish us. There are local farmer, people who have the knowledge, we should be supporting so that they can continue to practice and teach rather than having to move to some city to find employment."
From his own decades of desert research, Nabhan envisioned a Desert Walk for Biodiversity and Human Health which began at the Sea of Cortez in March. "We discussed this with elders of the Tohono'o'odam Tribe, who agreed to support us. And so 15 to twenty students, elders and Indigenous people began a twelve day, 240 mile-long walk back to the Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. By the end of the walk, the pilgrims numbered 180. And, far more amazing, the walkers ate only locally grown foods and used locally grown medicines.
"A number of us said that they had never walked more than four miles a day in their life. Some of us began that first day with an absurd feeling that in twelve days we would be in Tucson. But we hung together and took care of each other."
The walkers traveled an average of twenty miles a day. They visited sacred sites, conducted healing circles, ate an amazing array of native foods. No less than 300 people were involved in gathering and preparing food for the pilgrimage.
"When we arrived at the Arizona port of entry, eight loaves of Wonder Bread were stomped flat." A documentary film of the walk showed a man dancing with gusto on top of the bread. This, according to Nabhan, was one of the many rites of passage of the walk.
"Elders picked medicine. We had a lot of burns, blisters, and aches, yet we were better taken care of than in any clinic," Nabhan exclaimed. "It was extraordinary to see food back in its sacred context, prayerfully prepared."
Presentations of Hopi plants for food and medicine, basketry ecology and demonstration of Mayan style basketry and primitive skills as well as overviews of gardens of antiquity, heirloom seeds were just some of the other offerings of the AERA Third Annual Ethnobotony Symposium.
Hogan expressed her gratitude in those many people who helped make the symposium a reality. "I want to thank Miguel Vasquez of the Southwest Studies Program, NAU's Anthropology Department, The City of Flagstaff's Science and Arts Department."
"Those many who are not mentioned are all held close in her heart," a friend added.