Why am I here?

Last night we had an opportunity for some interesting dialogue with Egbert Giles Leigh, Jr. Following his talk on mutualisms, we got to hear his reactions to our own research, and his first response to my own work, looking at resistance to mining in the Comarca Ngäbé-Buglé, was something along the lines of “That sounds interesting, but I’m not sure what this course has got to do with you.”

While his response was certainly the most direct, he’s not alone in raising an eyebrow at the one anthropology student in a room full of biologists—in all honesty, while it’s a dream to be spending January wandering through and learning about tropical ecosystems, I’ve been raising my own eyebrows from time to time at exactly why I’m missing the first month of two courses in Montreal to take a field course in tropical biology with people whose grasp of and involvement in science is a bit more robust than my own.

Having said that, based on the first week, I would respond to Dr. Leigh’s question by saying that this course has, in fact, got quite a lot to do with me. On one level, learning the ecological relationships of a place is an invaluable orientation, an opening through which to think about the human-environment entanglements that make a place a place. Learning ecology populates the landscapes with narratives, making it so much richer and suggesting connections between things or angles from which to approach problems. My work in particular, looking at how the politics around mining might be enacted in quotidian interactions with environments through agriculture, will benefit from building a layer of nonhuman context.

There are also some broader connections to think about. An obvious one, how do the same processes that contribute to incredible biodiversity in the tropics influence vernacular agriculture in tropical places? How might people work with or through ecological interactions, particularly in vernacular subsistence agriculture? How do people outside academia and science learn and communicate about subjects that we treat scientifically?

This last question bridges to some other questions that this course has been raising for me, relating not so much to research as to academia in general. Science and the humanities ask different kinds of questions and approach the world in different ways to access different kinds of understandings; these differences are legitimate and valuable, and in the history of anthropology we can certainly see why many anthropologists would be wary of approaching their study too scientifically. But, how can we have conversations across these different kinds of seeing? I’m not entirely sure what it would look like, but I think there is much to be gained from such interactions, and in the remaining few weeks I am excited to continue to explore these differences in approach and the connections across them.

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