Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Faces of Ethnobiology: Dr. Nancy Turner

Photo courtesy of Dr. Carla Burton

This article by author Katherine Gordon was first published in Focus Magazine and appears here with her permission. The article may not be further reproduced without her prior written permission. Katherine's next book, We Are Born With the Songs Inside Us, profiles young First Nations women and men talking about their lives in 21st century BC. The book will be published by Harbour in November 2013.

After Nancy Turner received her honours degree in biology from the University of Victoria (UVic) in 1969, she applied for a position as a sales clerk at Eaton’s. She was turned down: “Not suitable, I’m afraid,” said the interviewer. Listen closely – that quiet roar you hear is the echo of thousands of voices exclaiming, “Thank heavens!”

“But I was crushed!” complains Turner, only half-joking. “And I needed a job.” Since then, however, rejection has been a rare experience for Turner – now Dr. Nancy Turner, and Distinguished Professor in the School of Environmental Studies at UVic. Her specialist field is ethnobotany: her string of credentials – PhD (Botany), FLS, OBC, FRSC – sounds a little like the Latin name of one of the hundreds of native plants of British Columbia that she has researched in the course of her illustrious career. 

Turner has produced more than 150 publications in her field, including sixteen books, and received a string of prestigious national and international awards. Her name has become synonymous with working with First Nations people in British Columbia to record and document their ethnobotanical knowledge; her most recent work, Plants of Haida Gwaii, is being released this month by Sono Nis Press. She has been named a Woman of Distinction in the annual greater Victoria YM-YWCA awards; been appointed to the Order of British Columbia; elected to the Royal Society of Canada; and named one of the “top ten thinkers of BC” by the Vancouver Sun newspaper. But she is also one of those rare individuals who command complete respect and affection from friends, students, colleagues, and academics alike. First Nations elders she has worked with call Turner a “jewel,” and have bestowed on her at least two aboriginal names. In the Tahltan language, she is Jije Eghaden, the “Berry Lady.” Wade Davis, National Geographic magazine’s explorer-in-residence in British Columbia, describes Turner as a “national treasure.”

It’s been a long and indirect road since the days when Turner played “store” as a child with her sister, using “money leaves” from aspen trees near their rural Montana home; although she believes those early experiences were influential in her eventual choice of career. When her entomologist father moved the family to Victoria in the early 1950s, the nine-year-old joined the Victoria Junior Natural History Society. Turner credits then president Freeman King, or “Skipper” as he was fondly known, with encouraging her to pursue botany when she left high school. But she is refreshingly frank in confessing that she had no clear career plan at all; certainly no specific ambitions in mind. “It was really just a natural chain of events.” 

One week after graduation, she married Bob Turner, now well-known throughout North America as an author of books on historical forms of transportation. When her new husband received a scholarship to the University of British Columbia (UBC), the pair moved to Vancouver and Turner started looking for work. After being turned down by Eaton’s, she eventually landed a job as a plant technician at UBC. One thing led to another, and in 1970 Turner found herself taken on as a graduate student by Dr. Roy Taylor, then director of the UBC Botanical Garden. It was a chance to complete her doctorate that the young woman seized with both hands. Drawing on the anthropology courses she had taken as part of her undergraduate degree, Turner decided to focus her attention on native plants and the relationships of First Nations people to those plants. The eager student threw herself into her work with a passion, travelling back and forth to the interior of B.C. and up to the Queen Charlotte Islands dozens of times during her four-year research program. 

But in 1974, the Turners returned to Victoria, and a year after producing her thesis – on the plant taxonomic (classification) systems and ethnobotany of the First Nations of the Queen Charlottes, Bella Coola, and Lillooet regions – Turner produced another pride and joy: the couple’s first daughter, Sarah. Over the course of the next fifteen years, while her PhD was put to occasional use in producing research papers, articles, and some handbooks about British Columbian plants, Turner was also busy raising three daughters. “I worked on the side whenever it was possible, but I can’t say I had a real job,” she reflects. “Then in 1990 I was visiting my sister in California, and she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Turner was astonished to hear herself reply, “I want to teach ethnobotany at UVic.” It was a decision made out of the blue, but – as fate sometimes conspires to do with those who make such decisions – shortly after her return home to Victoria, she opened the newspaper to find an advertisement for a sessional teaching position in ethnobotany at the university. Turner applied, successfully; by the spring of 1991, she had tenure.

Ethnobotany could be described simply as the study of native plants and their uses, but Turner has redefined the parameters of the field – she considers that the techniques and principles of sustainability that aboriginal people have used for so long when gathering plants could be integrated into contemporary resource management and scientific methodology, to the environmental benefit of all. Just as importantly, she applies to her research and teaching an unshakeable belief that the knowledge she is gathering from aboriginal people is a gift to be returned to future generations. 

Turner became fascinated with the role of native plants in the lives of aboriginal people in B.C. when she worked with Tsartlip elder Christopher Paul during her third-year anthropology class. “We’d visit together weekly and he’d take me for walks to show me plants, and talk about how they were used.” That’s important knowledge for all of us to have, she says, because we all have a “deep historical relationship” with plants, whether for sustenance, medicine, or ceremonial use. But many of us take native plants for granted, and have little notion of the richness of our environment. “Indigenous people generally have a better understanding of this because plants have sustained them for thousands of years. They were a fallback when protein wasn’t available – a low run year in the salmon fishery, for instance. And they had many sophisticated techniques to ensure that plant resources were maintained and even enhanced.” Turner is thoroughly convinced that First Nations in the interior used fire to increase tree and plant diversity. They sometimes used what she calls “phonological indicators” – names which can be used as seasonal guides. The sagebrush buttercup, for example, is called “spring salmon eye” – the flower is said to be the colour of the first fish swimming upriver in the spring. When the sagebrush buttercup blooms, it’s time to look for the first run of fish. 

When traditional knowledge is translated into contemporary practices, the impact can be stunning. Reese Halter of Global Forest Science in Alberta credits research undertaken by Turner’s students on the sustainable harvesting and economic potential of non-timber forest products like salal, for instance – that wiry evergreen bane of forestry workers that until recently has more or less simply been regarded as a nuisance plant – as being highly influential in turning salal into a $15-$20million annual industry on Vancouver Island alone. Peek inside your local florist, and you’ll see why: salal is now widely used as the greenery in bouquets.

Praise is widespread and fervent regarding the outstanding content of the work Turner does. But it is when the conversation moves to how Turner deals with people that she is catapulted into megastar status. Eighty-eight-year-old Tahltan elder Julia Callbreath loves the fact that the “Berry Lady” has taught her the proper names of the plants she used to gather in Telegraph Creek years ago. But what Callbreath and her granddaughter, Judy Thompson – one of Turner’s students – appreciate even more than what she is teaching them, is Turner herself. “She’s so special,” says Callbreath. “She loves everybody.” Thompson, a teacher herself, says Turner’s generosity and genuine affection for people is remarkable. “She’s helping a whole generation of aboriginal people become the next teachers of our people. And she is always there for us when we need her."

Listening to colleagues or students, aboriginal and non-aboriginal, speak about Turner is more or less a repeated exercise in unqualified homage: the expression of a unanimous view that the common thread running through all Nancy Turner’s work – her unqualified generosity of spirit, respect for culture, and dedication to the people she works with – places her in a class that is, quite literally, of her own. As Mohawk biologist Laurie Montour puts it: “Nancy doesn’t talk about respect, she walks respect. When she talks to elders and works with native community members whose formal education is less than hers, she finds ways of taking away the barriers that all of us so easily put up in defence to avoid getting hurt again. She gives me hope.” 

Dr. Rosemary Ommer, the Principle Investigator overseeing the five-year environmental research project Coasts Under Stress says: “She’s an extraordinary researcher.” Like Montour, Ommer adds, “She immediately breaks down barriers by the respectful way she approaches people.” Wade Davis agrees with that analysis emphatically: “Even the way in which a question is asked will affect the quality of the data gained. She is so unassuming, so sincere – her demeanour just completely disarms people.” It’s those kinds of traits, says Davis, that make the difference. “When you’re travelling into a community for research, then good manners, a willingness to help, to sleep on the floor, to eat whatever’s given you – that’s what it takes, and she has all of that.” Reese Halter describes Turner enthusiastically as a pioneer, an inspiration, and an “angel.” It’s not just her research; it’s the fact that she shares knowledge and support freely. “Her students will be her best legacy,” he says – a sentiment echoed by Barbara Wilson, among others.

Wilson is Haida, and the Cultural Liaison Specialist for the Gwaai Haanas National Park reserve on Haida Gwaii. The two women have known each other for about twelve years. Wilson went to a presentation given by Turner on introduced species; Turner “lit a little candle in my mind. It was a turning point for me.” Wilson persuaded her to come back to the Queen Charlottes, to help train the Gwaii Haanas Watchmen – Haida people who help protect sensitive sites in Gwaai Haanas. Turner succumbed readily to the temptation to return to old stomping grounds. Coming back for the Watchmen program was also the stimulus to begin the project that, working with Wilson and the elders of Haida Gwaii, would culminate in the comprehensive Plants of Haida Gwaii.

Wilson describes a relationship in which Turner fostered her hunger to learn, gave her the encouragement she needed to go to university, and acted as a mentor whenever she was needed. Turner has been given the name K'ii7lljuus NaanGa, meaning grandmother, as a sign of the respect the Haida people accord to her. “She says teaching the young people here about their heritage is her way of repaying the elders who taught her so much back in the 1970s,” says Wilson. “Maybe it is, but she has also helped our young people so much. They get so excited when they know she is coming. So do the elders! You know, I’m older than her, but I think of her as my K'ii7lljuus NaanGa too.”

Proceeds from the book, which includes stories from the elders and illustrations by Wilson’s brother, Giitsxaa, will go to the Watchmen program. It’s another example of the way Turner goes about her business – an approach that she considers critical to the integrity of her work, and the faith the First Nations people she deals with can have in how she handles the information she receives from them. This notion of returning the knowledge to the young people is a theme that all her colleagues and friends return to: her dedication to her students. When Wade Davis received an honorary degree from the university in 2003, Turner’s students uniformly described her to him as the most inspirational teacher any of them had ever had. 

Andrew MacDonald is a development officer at the university, with an office across the hall from Turner. He sees how many people go into her office daily with requests for help; no-one is turned away. MacDonald is working on a campaign to secure funding for a research chair for Turner in ethnoecology – the objective is ensure that the legacy of her work is carried on. He uses the chance to put in a plug for some help: “We need to raise two million dollars. But it’s important that the money come from a source that fits with the type of work being done. When you think about it, a lot of the knowledge she gathers has been held by the women, who worked on the gathering and preservation of the plants. So backing from women for the chair would be fantastic.”

I ask Turner what she does for fun. But she simply doesn’t know how to answer the question: everything’s been fun the whole way. “I’m an optimist,” she says. “I’m just endlessly fascinated.” Where other people might find the physical challenges and stress daunting, Turner seems genuinely to get excited just thinking about research trips into the mountains, about helping students who are struggling to get past their barriers, and about her next projects – more books on the way. “Umm…I do like walking to work,” she offers hopefully. “And I love reading books about mountain-climbing.” Last May, the Turners took a rare holiday – to Italy, to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary. “And I have a new little grandson I will get to see soon,” she adds, her voice alight with pleasure.

In the meantime, Turner isn’t stopping working. “It’s so important for everyone to pay attention to this knowledge,” she says, “It’s a whole philosophy of sustainable use that we should be trying to incorporate into our contemporary lives. That’s true whether it’s a decision being made by a government, or whether it’s someone in Victoria deciding to replace their lawn with native species that will bring back local animal and insect populations.” Turner is saddened when she sees exotic trees like palms being planted in Victoria, for example. “I just feel like we’re losing track of our own heritage,” she told the Times Colonist newspaper in 2003 when the city started planting palms on medians in an effort to achieve a “Mediterranean” look. “If a Mediterranean look is wanted, why not plant arbutus? They’re a Mediterranean tree, too.” Turner pauses for a moment, then adds: “It’s vital that traditional wisdom and knowledge about our own wonderful biota is recognized. By understanding it, we may all be able to live more gently on the earth.” 

“If there were only more Nancy Turners in the world,” says Julia Callbreath wistfully, “wouldn’t it be a wonderful place?”

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