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What is My Dissertation About? A Synopsis.

Updated: Nov 13, 2020

I recently wrote this synopsis of my dissertation for a Dissertation Completion Fellowship for the University of Colorado Boulder. Since describing the work I've been doing can be hard (still working on my elevator pitch), I thought this summary of my dissertation outline was a (hopefully) succinct way of summarizing what I've been doing! Please reach out with any questions or suggestions...

What does it mean to think with wild plants in the Anthropocene? This question has animated my three years of dissertation fieldwork. Each chapter centers on an individual edible plant: sacred osha with its medicinal taproot; chokecherry bushes with their ruby red berries; dandelions, the contested yard-weed brought to the New World as a trusted food source; cheatgrass, an edible grain often villainized as an ecological nuisance; and alpine mushrooms, with their underground webs of silky white mycelium in complex symbiosis with microorganisms, soil, and trees.

My research uses a multisited, interdisciplinary methodology, rooted in my training in cultural anthropology, to analyze how wild food, defined as uncultivated edible plants, has the potential to provide human and ecological relief in a changing climate. These methods include: (i) qualitative ethnographic data concerning the experiences of people who forage wild foods in Colorado, (ii) historical analysis of the legal and cultural trends informing contemporary foraging, (iii) quantitative soil samples measuring the microbial diversity of uncultivated land to theorize how wild food diets may beneficially alter soil viability and human gut health. This multifaceted approach allows me to ask critical questions about Indigeneity and colonization, government regulation of wild lands, pesticides and soil biodiversity, and human-ecological resilience, all tied together through a focus on people who forage wild plants.

This dissertation begins in the dirt. The Introduction examines how soil microorganisms impact plant nutrient density and, when ingested, the human gut microbiome—a vast array of microorganisms that is increasingly connected to diseases of modernity such as cancer, autoimmunity, and diabetes. As soil health depletes at staggering rates through industrial agriculture, human health becomes replete with food-related disease. This chapter lays the ground for the following chapters by analyzing the connections between farming methods, wild plant polycultures, soil biodiversity, and implications for human-ecological resilience.

The trends leading to current crises in ecological and human health have deep roots. In Chapter 1, “Osha,” I examine how colonial enterprises in the U.S. suppressed Indigenous and Black land rights to secure political and economic control for white settlers. The legal structures born by racist colonial histories remain present in modern day foraging governance, in what food lawyer Baylen Linnekin calls “a complicated and oftentimes contradictory tangle of federal, state, and local regulations.” I think with osha—a medicinal and sacred plant for Indigenous people, and an increasingly popular herbal commodity—to explore this tangle.

Many modern foragers, finding themselves lost in this regulatory tangle, rely instead on alternative ethical guidelines for wild plant harvest and land stewardship. Drawing on ethnographic stories from my research, such as an informant who personifies chokecherry as “a mother” whose “root-breast” feeds her ecological kin—chokecherry saplings, birds, humans—Chapter 2, “Chokecherry,” looks at cosmologies of animacy, kinship, and reciprocity employed by Indigenous and nonindigenous foragers.

Chapter 3, “Dandelion,” explores a single group—the foraging community of Turtle Lake Refuge in Durango, Colorado. Working with Turtle Lake in 2018, I reviewed soil samples (Heterotrophic Plate Counts that measure microbial biomass), comparing the Refuge foraging land and a neighboring plot that had seen heavy pesticide use. Such quantitative research illuminates the microbial, ecological, and human health ramifications of pesticides. The damage wrought by pesticides structures my analysis of the cultural construction of “weeds,” revealing how American notions of edibility and aesthetics have been significantly shaped by the surprising history of the house lawn.

The history of lawns is one example of how food systems and food knowledge have been influenced by the legacies of settler colonialism—legacies that are being challenged through modern movements to rethink food in the United States. Chapter 4, “Grasses,” centers on cheatgrass (considered an invasive grass) and rice grass (a native grass), both edible grains with storied pasts. These two grass species raise themes of restoration and reparations. I present two modern wild food movements in the United States: one, to “decolonize the diet,” aims to restore Indigenous subsistence lifeways and food sovereignty. A second, the “Invasivore” movement, incorporates wild plants considered to be “invasive” in ecologically-informed diets.

My Final Chapter, “Porcini,” looks at ways wild plants work together as self-perpetuating, symbiotic systems—perhaps best represented by the vast networks of mushroom mycelium in old growth forests. Drawing on research on the benefits of food grown in polycultural contexts, this chapter ties together the far-reaching themes investigated in my research project, symbolized as a “food forest” of knowledge about issues that have human and ecological saliency for our times.

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