Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Faces of Ethnobiology: Morgan Ruelle




My name is Morgan Ruelle and I grew up in West Bolton, Vermont. I am currently a PhD student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I am conducting my dissertation research with farming communities in northern Ethiopia. Three words that describe my research are plant diversity, ecological knowledge, and food sovereignty.


Ethnobiology allows me to weave together interests in culture and ecology by examining multiple dimensions of relationships between people and other beings in our ecosystems. I am coming to ethnobiology from a background in the biophysical sciences, with a BS degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. After graduating from college, I spent two years working as a wildlife biologist in the Mojave Desert of California. I then joined the U.S. Peace Corps as an environmental education volunteer in Armenia. When I returned from Armenia, I served as an Americorps*VISTA volunteer in the Standing Rock Nation on the border of North and South Dakota. I worked for a tribal government agency that provides services to elders, including traditional meals that are prepared from local gardened and gathered plants. For my Master’s degree at Cornell, I continued my work in Standing Rock to understand the seasonal availability of important plants, facilitate foodways workshops and gathering trips for elders and youth, and connect elders to gatherers and gardeners at a new farmers market. 

I first went to Ethiopia with my sister and her husband, who is originally from Addis Ababa. For my PhD research, I have been fortunate to spend almost two years living in Debark, a market town on the edge of the Semien Mountains National Park. I work with a relatively small number of farming families who I visit on a regular basis, conducting a wide array of ethnobotanical activities and generating an integrated knowledge base about local plant use. Ultimately, I am interested in how plant diversity contributes to farmers’ food sovereignty, or their ability to determine their own food systems. Farmers in Debark know how to use hundreds of plants, not only as food but for many other aspects of their food systems. Since my first visit to Debark, the road to the larger city of Gonder has been paved, providing many new opportunities as well as some challenges for farmers. In addition, farmers are already observing many local effects of climate change, including shifting patterns of rainfall that require farmers to modify their agricultural practices. I believe farmers’ knowledge about plant diversity is an important adaptive asset as they respond to these and many other changes that affect their systems.

I have many incredible memories from my time with farmers, talking about their lives, their landscape, and their food. I am not sure where my path will lead, but I want to continue to work in Ethiopia, Armenia, and Standing Rock, to build on friendships in each of those places, and to conduct research that is applicable and meaningful for people who have been so generous with their time, energy, and wisdom. I am particularly excited about finding ways for farmers in different mountain communities to share their ecological knowledge with each other, so that they can anticipate common problems and locate innovative ways forward.

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