Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Faces of Ethnobiology: Evelyn Roe

I grew up in the West Highlands of Scotland, where I had the privilege of roaming free and wild in the hills and in our rambling back garden. Digging up and chewing pignuts, sucking on sweet new grass shoots, and lying back on springy heather clumps with the high sound of skylarks: that’s how I remember those early days.

But Africa called me, and I found my way there in my late twenties, teaching biology in Botswana for 10 years. As soon as the final bell rang, at the end of each term, I’d pack up the camping gear in my old Land-Rover and head off into the Kalahari. That’s where I really fell in love with Africa.

Having felt the call to wildness once again, I left my job after 10 years, and took a leap into the unknown, moving to an island in the Zambezi, in Zambia, where a friend runs a simple camp called Jungle Junction! I had no job, no income, and no research project to structure my days. I allowed myself to ‘be’, for a while. I got to know the plants on the island, learning their local names, how they’re used for medicines or fibres or food, and I tasted a bit of the wild every day.

In that way, I ‘became’ an ethnobotanist and, after a few years, I began to be invited to take part in research projects in southern Zambia. I had many teachers, in the form of local herbalists and the plants themselves, but no mentors to support the more academic parts of my work, so it felt like a good time to venture out into the world of formal study.
My new adventure, in 2012, was to apply for a Masters in the UK, and a beautiful thing happened: I was invited to be a student on the Masters in Holistic Science programme at the transformational Schumacher College in Devon, England. However, while still in Zambia, I came across the invitation to attend the ISE Congress in Montpelier...and there I was astonished to find hundreds of people like me! I was no longer alone and could revel in all the plant conversations and other people’s fascinating projects. This came in the months just before starting my MSc programme, so I went to college feeling a stronger sense of identity, and an appreciation of where I sit on an imaginary spectrum of ethnobiologists: in the phenomenological whole-plant realm, where the plants are ‘green beings’ (to use a phrase I learned from my mentor and friend, the late Frank Cook).

The Masters is complete, I’ve been back to Zambia to do more fieldwork into the sustainable harvesting of plants such as Mongongo (Schinziophyton rautanenii) and Seto (Harpagophytum) which is better known as ‘devil’s claw’, and now I find myself back at Schumacher College in the UK.

Coming here was an intuitive move, and it has brought another exciting invitation: to be a teacher at the college on the Holistic Science programme, starting in August.

With this in mind, I’m keen to develop my mentoring skills, and I hope that I can offer something to other emerging ethnobiologists at ISE workshops and conferences in the future.

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