Monday, November 5, 2018

Awe, Glitter, Motherhood, Home, Mbiras, Clay: the Watsons Return

Every August, forty Thomas J. Watson Fellows set off from the United States in different directions, never having contact with one another, occasionally crossing paths but seldom knowing it.

I love to picture the Earth as a blue ball floating in space. At any point in time, forty Watson Fellows are crawling slowly over its surface like ants, independent, alone, asking questions and gathering stories on their own little ant trails.

One year later, these forty (or so) ants convene and meet one another for the first time at the Returning Fellows' Conference, held every August on the campus of a participating college. Simultaneously, the next batch of Watson ants are dispersing from their homes to embark on their trails around the world.

A sunny afternoon at the 2018 Returning Fellows' Conference.

From August 2 to 5, my Watson class convened at Pomona College. Each of us presented a ten-minute talk on our year, an impossible task. I captured each talk in watercolor and ink with a simple sketchnote. (Click on a photo to launch a high-resolution slideshow.)

Words to live by:

"Let go of the conflation of motion with progress. Value digestion over excretion."
––Sheila Chukwulozie

"This whole year I thought I was looking for a home. Turns out, I was looking for a treehouse."
––Paulus van Horne

After the conference, I had the chance to watch Tomal Hossain perform music from across the Islamic world in his home neighborhood of Little Bangladesh, Los Angeles.

Did I forget to mention: Tanner Byer's talk was presented by his fabulous alter-ego, Eve O.G. Woman. (My kit of watercolor paints is now home to countless flecks of glitter thanks to Tanner's presentation.)

Sheila Chukwulozie asked the audience whether we'd like to hear her prepared talk, or sit in a circle and listen to a children's book she wrote during the year. We chose the children's book (see above sketch of Momo the Goat). Sheila's project focused on the reawakening of awe through West African textiles, which she brought for us to admire.

For the first time, someone sketchnoted my talk!

Emily Ross appreciated my sketchnotes and decided to return the favor. I was gushing. To see my talk through someone else's eyes was incredible, and it gave me a little window into the audience's perception of my story. Thank you, Emily!

Visit the Watson website to read more about these projects and meet the crew of 2018 Fellows who were spreading out across the world just as we were condensing in toward one another. May you all feel as humbled and inspired as I did in the presence of these incredible thinkers and feelers.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Leading Book Club for the Planetary Health Alliance

Co-authored by Nina Finley and Federico Andrade Rivas. Cross-posted to the Planetary Health Alliance website.

The first meeting of the Planetary Health Alliance Book Club discusses The Wayfinders by Wade Davis

Imagine a warm fire on the hearth of a dark wooden room, its flames throwing orange light onto shelves of antique books. We sink into a circle of plush red armchairs, swirling mugs of tea, preparing to discuss literature. When we think “book club,” this is the scene that comes to mind.

Now imagine the blue-white glow of your laptop, pixelated faces coming into focus over webcams, unfamiliar voices through headphones, a chat box for comments. This is what the Planetary Health Alliance’s inaugural book club actually looked like.

A digital meeting might not sound like the romantic book clubs of yore, but we—Federico and Nina—couldn’t have been happier to co-lead a discussion of this month’s book, The Wayfinders by Wade Davis, with Planetary Health Alliance members Laura Feldman, Sabine Gabrysch, Perri Sheinbaum and Erika Veidis first thing this morning.

To begin, we each read a quote that struck us.

Federico led off. “The myriad of cultures of the world are not failed attempts at modernity, let alone failed attempts to be us. They are unique expressions of the human imagination and heart, unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive?” (19).

We heard from Erika next. “Culture is not trivial. It is not decoration or artifice, the songs we sing or even the prayers we chant. It is a blanket of comfort that gives meaning to lives. It is a body of knowledge that allows the individual to make sense out of the infinite sensations of consciousness, to find meaning and order in a universe that ultimately has neither” (198).

As Laura said, this is a bold assertion, and powerful. Laura picked up the quote where it left off, continuing, “Culture is a body of laws and traditions, a moral and ethical code that insulates a people from the barbaric heart that history suggests lies just beneath the surface of all human societies and indeed all human beings” (198).

Nina added her own: “The point is not to suggest which perspective is right or wrong. Is the forest mere cellulose and board feet? Was it truly the domain of the spirits? Is a mountain a sacred place? Does a river really follow the ancestral path of an anaconda? Who is to say? Ultimately these are not the important questions. What matters is the potency of a belief, the manner in which conviction plays out in the day-to-day lives of a people, for in a very real sense this determines the ecological footprint of a culture, the impact that any society has on its environment” (122-123).

The strength of Western culture, Davis points out, is technology. We (and we say “we” because everyone in the book club identified with Western culture) are amazing scientific tinkerers. We put a (male) human on the moon, and we are now dreaming of conquering Mars. But we are lacking in other realms, and Davis points out that other cultures excel in our weak areas: sustainable use of resources, kinship, connection to land, spiritual generosity––what Laura summed up as, basically, “Planetary Health.” If the Planetary Health movement is an attempt to address Western culture’s weaknesses, does that make it inherently a practice of humility?

Lessons of humility can be found at our knowledge and experience margins, places that many indigenous and traditional peoples have already traveled. Davis writes of the Kogi, Arhuacos and Wiwa mamos, or priests, of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. These spiritual leaders call themselves the Elder Brothers of Mother Earth and other peoples the Younger Brothers. In 2004, amidst accelerating violence, a group of mamos issued an international declaration: “We invite all the Younger Brothers to be guardians of life. We affirm our promise to the Mother, and issue a call for solidarity and unity for all peoples and all nations” (147). It is humbling, Davis writes, to realize that the mamos are admonishing and advising us right now from their sacred mountain homeland, only a two-hour flight from Miami but a world away.

If the globally dominant thread of humankind had adopted the Aborigine lifeways of Dreamtime and Songlines instead of Western culture, writes Davis, we would not have put a man on the moon––but “we would not be contemplating today the consequences of industrial processes that by any scientific definition threaten the very life supports of the planet” (159). Would the Planetary Health movement be necessary if Western culture had not become dominant? Would the interaction and connection of traditional and indigenous groups with Mother Earth have prevented humanity from reaching our planetary boundaries?

We asked: how can the Planetary Health movement help address Western culture's weaknesses and improve scientific practices that often don’t acknowledge other sources of wisdom? What lessons could be learned from the Elder Brothers, and how could the Planetary Health Alliance better embrace a role of Younger Brother?

Federico explained that his institution, the University of British Columbia (UBC), acknowledges the indigenous peoples on whose land its property sits and collaborates with indigenous groups on research and community development. Although far from having achieved a complete reconciliation, UBC’s strategic plan includes the priority to “partner with Indigenous communities on and off campus to address the legacy of colonialism and to co-develop knowledge and relationships.” These first steps, part of a long path to promote a decolonized knowledge sharing, could serve as an inspiration to the Planetary Health movement.

We discussed the challenge of integrating indigenous knowledge into Western culture when our goal is not a homogeneous global culture, but the ongoing right for both Western and non-Western societies and cultures to flourish. How can we work to make transfers of knowledge ones of consent, respect and humility rather than ones of coercion, exploitation or tokenization?

Laura brought up the point that soundbites are not sufficient to convey a worldview; immersion is necessary to begin to grasp the depth and complexities present. How to immerse without encroaching on space, disrupting others, and using a lot of natural resources in travel? We were excited about one answer: the PHA has a full-time staff member who produces in-depth Planetary Health case studies from around the world and shares them on social media. Her combination of photography, story and presentation bring the viewer to a fuller understanding of the project and the worldview underlying it. We want the PHA to amplify the voices of the many cultures that are speaking. For example, if the PHA had existed in 2004, it could have used its power and prominence to spread the declaration of the Kogi, Arhuacos and Wiwa farther than the mamos could on their own.

After a nurturing discussion, and almost forgetting that we were separated by thousands of kilometers and only connected though our laptop screens, Erika invited us to conclude our hour in a simple yet wonderful way. “I’d just like to know,” she prompted, “what each of you envisions as an ideal world?”

Laura Feldman, a participant in the Planetary Health Alliance Book Club’s inaugural meeting, shows off her digital copy of The Wayfinders.

Although we lacked luxurious red armchairs, and no fireplace was lit, we were committed to the goal of a book club: to exchange knowledge and create a new understanding of our lives by discussing an inspiring book. Accepting Erika’s invitation, we shared our vision of an ideal world. It would be one with more listening and more attentiveness to one another, a world in which our own Western culture takes up less space—our few languages, our profit values, our resource use and industrial methods—so that more space is available for everyone, human and nonhuman, to coexist in their own lifeways.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Fourth Quarterly Report: How to Sum Up a Watson?

Here is my fourth quarterly report from the Watson Fellowship. If you're into math, you might notice that means it is also my final quarterly report. How to sum up a Watson year? It's impossible, but here goes. Below, find the briefest description of my final three months, followed my take-aways from the year as a whole. To catch up, feel free to (re)visit my firstsecond and third quarterly reports here.
A sign in the Edmonton Airport, on my way to study changing pathogen ecology in the Canadian Arctic.

Fourth Quarterly Report

Date: September 1, 2018
Countries you were in: Indonesia, Malaysia, Scotland, England, Canada
Countries for next quarter: United States, Madagascar (!)
Current location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

Dear Watson Foundation,

Quviasupit? Are you happy? This was the question my friend and fellow scientist Mialisa Nuna asked me the other day as we walked down a dirt road in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut. We were on our way to buy candy char, a smoked and sweetened treat of pink-fleshed fish.

“How do you say, ‘yes’?” I asked her. The sun was stooping toward the northern rim of the sky. But up here, 200 miles above the Arctic circle, it wouldn’t dip below the horizon all night.

Iiiii,” Mialisa replied, a slow, falling-off assent formed in the throat.

Iiiii,” I imitated poorly. She smiled and nodded. Good enough. I was happy.

My home at the High Arctic Research Center in Cambridge Bay, Nunavut during a midnight rain.

How else could I answer, after a year of exploring collaborative survival with microbes? Since I last wrote, I have dived among bombed coral reefs on Pom Pom Island, painted a nest-box for endangered hornbills in Malaysian Borneo, presented research on sand fleas and climate change at the Planetary Health Alliance Meeting in Edinburgh, glued backpacks onto hedgehogs on North Ronaldsay, interviewed the founder of the One Health MSc program at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and flown in a helicopter to follow snow geese across the Canadian Arctic. Already I sense memories slipping away: place names, faces, the order of things. The product, it turns out, is not an album of discrete pieces but a multidimensional picture of my world that continues to be sculpted.

Postcards collected from Malaysia, Indonesia, Scotland and Walla Walla. Written in Canada. Mailed to England, Malaysia, Seattle, Walla Walla, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Guam.

As I explored wildlife disease, I thought often of Aldo Leopold’s lament that “one of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Leopold meant that a trained ecologist senses with painful clarity the damage humans inflict on ecosystems. But as I shifted my focus from macroscopic hosts to the microbes themselves, I came upon a somewhat hopeful truth: humans are not actually wounding the world. Rather, we are shifting power to the microbes. 

Consider, for a moment, the various pressures we exert on our planet, and notice how each one benefits microorganisms. Plastic pollution and oil spills: bacteria eat that. Stressed human bodies: an ideal home for pathogens. Endangered species in small populations: a more homogenous pool of immune systems with which to cope. Rapid environmental change: no problem when you evolve one million times faster than a human. Warming climate: faster replication. Overuse of antibiotics: an ideal situation for evolving resistance. I came to realize that we are not ruining our planet beyond capacity for life––we are simply heading for a microbial future. Microbes run our bodies and our planet; they are creative and intelligent; and if we wage a war against them, we are going to lose. Nobody wants to wage a losing war, so I set out this year to explore an alternative: not annihilation, but collaborative survival with microbes.

An ode to the Black Death of Edinburgh, Scotland---a microbial past.

A stuffed-microbe of Yersinia pestis, the bacterium behind 50 million deaths in medieval Europe.

I want to share four of the tools for collaborative survival to which I was introduced. First, to live well with microbes, we may need to place ourselves back into functioning ecosystems. This idea came to me during a tour of Dr. Renato Andreotti e Silva’s lab in the dusty cerrado of Brazil. Here, forest is rapidly being converted to pasture. Cattle ticks have become resistant to pesticides in the past decade, and the bacterial diseases they spread are costing the cattle industry billions of dollars. Dr. Andreotti researches alternatives to pesticides, principally vaccines, but we also discussed a fungus that attacks ticks, the restoration of habitat islands for tick-eating birds like cattle egrets, and a native forest canopy that would decrease livability for ticks. It dawned on me that organisms have been relying on food webs for their healthcare since life first evolved three-and-a-half billion years ago. After all, a pathogen of a pathogen is a friend. Modern healthcare, on the other hand, is a recent invention based on medicines that lose their usefulness after a few decades. It seems to me that inserting ourselves (and our cows) back into functioning, complex ecosystems will become an important component of healthcare in our future.

An Amblyomma tick through a microscope in Dr. Andreotti's lab in Campo Grande, Brazil.

Cattle art on the wall of Dr. Andreotti's home, depicting the local Nelore cattle.

In order to see creative solutions like the ones I discussed with Dr. Andreotti, we need to stop thinking of microbes as invisible agents of badness and start respecting them as interesting, capable organisms. That brings us to our second tool: noticing microbes with curiosity. One of my favorite writers, Anna Tsing, writes that a smelly brown mushroom called matsutake “can catapult us into the curiosity that seems to me the first requirement of collaborative survival in precarious times.” I find that microbes serve the same purpose. In Bali, I met a man named Nyoman Sugiarta who quit his job as a tourism hotel operator ten years ago for the life of a volunteer coral conservationist. When I asked what had caused this drastic change, Nyoman cited the day he learned that coral is not an inert rock, as his parents’ generation had assumed, but a living thing. It is a microbial monster composed of gelatinous, tentacular animals harboring verdant, single-celled algae within their translucent skin, under attack by an invasion of whip-tailed Vibrio bacteria. This epic entanglement is invisible to the incurious eye, but to Nyoman, it became the cause of a lifetime. “Once I knew all that,” Nyoman told me, “I couldn’t let the corals die. There’s so much left to learn!” My conversation with Nyoman was but one example of how powerful a force curiosity can be, allowing us to discover previously unimagined opportunities for collaborative survival with unrecognizable forms of life.

Diving to clean algae off a coral nursery near Pom Pom Island, Malaysia.

"Explore beyond what is visible or known." I found this perfect journal in the Edmonton Airport as I headed home on the very last day of my Watson year. I think that swirly design must be a single-celled organism---don't you?

Curiosity on its own, however, is not enough. I met many people who were unable to pursue their curiosity because they were hindered by poverty. The third tool is nothing new, but it’s critical: if we are going to live well with microbes, we must do something serious to reduce economic inequality. One of the most bruising stories comes from Josia Binamandraisoa, a woman I met in the outskirts of a Malagasy rainforest, and 67 of her neighbors who told me of their experiences with a skin parasite called the sand flea. Everyone with whom I spoke had been affected by the itchy pain of these fleas burrowing into their feet, and sand-flea season is expanding due to climate change. The nauseating reality is that this disease is preventable by simple measures—floors and shoes—yet these items remain unaffordable luxuries to workers in much of Madagascar, where the average daily income is only 70 cents. Instead, parents resort to spreading kerosene and insecticide over their children’s feet to prevent sand fleas from biting. This cheaper remedy is not an agent of collaborative survival, but a toxic weapon that damages both microbial and human life. The solution is obvious, but until a full-time job earns enough money to purchase shoes and a floor—the living wage it deserves—we will not have the resources to live well among microbes.

A sand flea embedded in a farmer's toe near Ranomafana, Madagascar.

At times, the suffering and intractability of poverty and neglected diseases got me down, especially because solutions to poverty often appear at odds with attempts to conserve our first tool, functioning ecosystems. Then, I came across the fourth tool: Planetary Health, an embryonic movement that seeks win-win solutions for ecosystems and human health. I was introduced to this concept by Etty Rahamawati and the rest of the amazing staff at the Alam Sehat Lestari hospital on Indonesian Borneo. In this region, illegal logging to pay for healthcare is a major source of deforestation contributing to the decline of endangered orangutans. To address this primate’s impending extinction, Alam Sehat Lestari was founded to provide high-quality healthcare for non-cash payments, including native seedlings. The hospital also buys-back chainsaws and offers microloans to help loggers shift to alternative livelihoods. Since its inception ten years ago, 25,000 hectares of secondary forest have grown back, and microbial diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea have decreased substantially. This is Planetary Health, the recognition that human and environmental health are deeply entangled, and any solution aimed at improving one will find greater success if it integrates both.

To support community health, Alam Sehat Lestari provides goats and training to widows in the community of Sukadana, Indonesia. Here, Ibu Hafsah and Ibu Setiawati check for pregnancy.

Ibu Hafsah's goat house against a backdrop of rice paddy and tropical rainforest.

At the Returning Fellows’ Conference in California, I presented these ideas to my 36 fellow Watsons and watched their presentations in turn. Each of us took a different approach to the year: focusing on one corner of a continent or circling the equator; navigating megacities or settling in rural communities; offering a listening ear to people in pain or celebrating self through glitter; probing a trauma from the personal past or launching into the unknown of strange lifeforms. As I felt inspired by each project, I also critiqued my own, and I realized that although gender and race are woven into the fabric of collaborative survival with microbes, I did not go to the same lengths as some of the other fellows to draw out these threads. As I return to my project sites in Madagascar and Borneo this year, I will challenge myself to be more educated, compassionate and willing to feel discomfort as I listen to another person’s truth. What I am helping and hurting with my presence? What problems and solutions have I overlooked because of my own privileges?

My sketch-notes of three talks from the Watson Returning Fellows Conference. 

My fellow Watson Fellows.

A month ago, the village next to Centre ValBio in Madagascar was ransacked by armed bandits called dahalo. Between eight and 20 bandits robbed five homes and multiple stores in Ambatolahy, stealing $1,100 and murdering Jean François Xavier Razafindraibe, a biodiversity guide with Centre ValBio. Western tourism and research have resulted in employment and, just last year, electricity for the village––a step toward living well with microbes––but they have also put Ambatolahy on the map for bandits. I am reminded that when I enter another’s home, even well-meaning actions can have unintended consequences. I don’t think the solution to banditry and violence is to remove myself from international research, but I do feel a renewed sense of caution when engaging with affairs that are only partly my own. When I return to the lemurs and viruses of Madagascar in October, I will do so with the light step and attentive ear of a guest.

Here I am making brownies for a dinner party outside the house of my friend and guide, Menja Raboavola, near Ranomafana, Madagascar.

At the beginning of my Watson journey a year ago, I sat in a patch of Brazilian sun, struggling to translate my day’s interviews with cattle ranchers, when my host Lygia Freitas sat down beside me. “Aqui é aroeira pica-pau,” she told me, squeezing my shoulders with her arm. Aroeira is a hard-timbered tree, the kind a persistent woodpecker might spend hours hammering only to dent. The phrase means, “Here is an aroeria woodpecker,” here is someone who doesn’t give up. At the Watson conference, I met people who struggled to cope, who dismantled and reassembled their itineraries, who overcame crises, who revised their dreams, who care deeply. I am humbled, inspired and challenged by all of you, my new family of aroeira woodpeckers.

A crimson-crested woodpecker explores Quinta do Sol in Brazil, my first home on the Watson.

To everyone: obrigada, misaotra, suksma, terima kasih, nakuukmik, quana, thank you.