During Sunday dinner in Biloxi, Mississippi, my grandmother would put down a plate full of mustard greens, okra with andouille, black-eyed peas, rice and Tabasco to the side. At the end of the meal, slices of cool watermelon would appear – a seed fight and a hosing down to follow. I was six years old, having spent my entire life in Bangkok and Hong Kong, now experiencing my family culture for the first time. It would take several years before I understood how the plants from our meal came from the African American slave diaspora. In sharing cultural knowledge about food and plants, I have always found connection. My students seem less aware of their own cultural roots, and it is in this cultural vacuum that they tend to view differences through the prism of race.
I teach biology at Montgomery College, Takoma Park, which draws a multi-cultural, largely urban student body. While engaging students in conversations about their involvement with plants, I became curious about how their cultural beliefs on plants as food or medicine contributed to their sense of difference and commonality. My goal is to empower students from my biology classes to explore plants from their own cultural heritage, and to find the links between cultural and biological diversity. They live in an urban setting, which is not modeled as a biosphere in their textbooks. By relying on their own racial/ethnic identity, can they create solutions to the environmental challenges we face? Can students contribute to the design of an intercultural, urban ecosystem on the campus of Montgomery College capable of lowering our carbon footprint, while incorporating and honoring diverse student ethnicities?
Historically, indigenous communities have produced biodiversity from limited landscapes. These approaches have recently re-emerged as an ecological gardening practice called Permaculture. This system takes advantage of the additive and synergistic effects of complex ecosystems. Each element in a garden performs multiple tasks. Trees hold soil, provide shade, leaf litter and nuts or fruit. Flowering plants release volatile chemical signals to limit insect damage and to attract pollinators. Edible fungi release nutrients back into the soil, limiting the requirements for soil amendments. Permaculture uses plant guilds – grouping of plants, insects, and other natural components that work together to help ensure sustainability. This approach is particularly well suited to constructing urban ecosystems requiring smaller tracts of open land.
To that end I am developing and incorporating introductory lectures on Ethnobotany, Permaculture and Urban Ecosystems. I am also creating several active learning modules for students to: 1) identify and present the cultural and ecological importance of a plant from their own culture; 2) collaborate within small groups to organize plant guilds; and 3) integrate the various plant guilds into a functional urban ecosystem during a final class period. A nascent, permaculture garden project has already begun on campus. The project can be expanded with ideas generated by student assignments. These modules can be incorporated into several courses, including General Biology for non-majors, Principles of Biology for majors, Environmental Science and Human Nutrition.
- Lakota Permaculture Project Promotes Self-Reliance and Regeneration (treehugger.com)
- Permaculture ethics: Why permaculture is different (energybulletin.net)
- Discovering Permaculture in Jordan (Video) (geteconow.com)