I am the Arrell Chair in Food, Policy, Society and Associate Professor of Geography at the Department of Geography and Arrell Food Institite, University of Guelph.
I grew up in coastal Maine. I spent a lot of time on the beach, and around fisheries. In high school I worked at a lobster pound, pulling soft-shells out of traps, weighing them, and writing tickets for the fishermen. I used to fish for bass off the banks of the Scarborough marsh with my friend John, then jump in when we got too hot and float down to the beach. Its no surprise to me now that so much of my work focuses on food and the coast, though it was a bit of a journey getting here.
In 2001, I was on my way into a lucritive career in information technology. Then, I read two books that would ultimately motivate me to abandon this path in favor of pursuing a life in sustainability research and education.
The first of these two books was Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. The second was A Yupiaq Worldview, by Angayuqaq Oscar Kawagley. Collectively, these writings reveal the epistemological errors that plague contemporary civilization, and argue that there's a better way for people to live, a way beyond civilization. Neither Quinn nor Kawagley have a specific design for that future, but rather they argue that (some) of its fundamental principles can be seen in tribal societies past and present.
Collapse or Transformation?
In 2005, I completed my long-delayed undergraduate degree. Considering graduate school, I volunteered for an Earthwatch archaeological expedition to Chocolá, Guatemala, a highland coffee farming community located at the site of extensive Pre-Classic Mayan ruins. It was not my first multicultural experience, but it was my first experience as an adult witnessing how local people are working to develop more sustainable food systems and livelihoods, but are constrained by global forces such as coffee markets and Fair Trade networks. I stayed an extra week to continue the experience, and further deepen my awareness of, sustainability and social justice issues. I learned two lessons in Chocolá: the first was that the systematic destruction of indigenous life-ways through economic and political marginalization and exploitation is still underway and far more pernicious than I realized. The second was that contrary to the picture painted by Jared Diamond and others of the Maya as an icon of collapse, that the Maya (still the world's largest indigenous group) are in fact an icon of resilience and transformation despite the trappings and failures of civilization.
Ultimately, I chose to pursue graduate degrees at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, recognizing Alaska as a front-line for Indigenous communities dealing with social and ecological change and seeking to develop more sustainable and self-reliant food systems. I was accepted into the Resilience and Adaptation Program, and received a master's degree and a PhD under the direction of Dr. Craig Gerlach, who has since become a life-long friend. I studied anthropology, ecology, and Indigenous studies. I also had the great pleasure of studying under Angayuqaq Kawagley before he passed away in 2011.
My research and studies covered a lot of ground. One main lesson that emerged was the importance of flexibility and diversity to the sustainability of foodways in the North, Indigenous or otherwise. Where people could adjust and experiment they were resilient to challenges such as environmental and climatic change; where they were constrained, perhaps by hunting policies or private land holdings, they were vulnerable.
Why So Many Cycles?
One additional detail–the ubiquity of cycles–has stood out to me as important as I've worked in the North. Cycles abound in the natural world, from the citric acid cycle that generates energy in our cells, to the cycles of fire-driven succession that characterizes the Boreal Forest. Cycles also abound in human cosmology--the Ouroboros and the Mayan Calendar, for example--and in human social systems, such as the myriad seasonal "subsistence rounds" of indigenous cultures and even the cycles of government and human history.
A goal of my work is to examine the scientific and philosophical implications of these cycles in human and ecological systems, specifically as a basis for sustainability. If we understand why cycles are so ubiquitous, and what this means for the relationship between stability and change, I believe that we can use this knowledge to develop more sustainable behaviors and relationships with the (rest of the) natural world.