May 24 | Reading Group: Eben Kirksey on Emergent Ecologies

Tuesday, May 24, 2016 | 4:00-6:00PM | Oakes College Mural Room

In an eEmergent Ecologies - book coverra of global warming, natural disasters, endangered species, and devastating pollution, contemporary writing on the environment largely focuses on doomsday scenarios. Eben Kirksey suggests we reject such apocalyptic thinking and instead find possibilities in the wreckage of ongoing disasters, as symbiotic associations of opportunistic plants, animals, and microbes are flourishing in unexpected places. Emergent Ecologies uses artwork and contemporary philosophy to illustrate hopeful opportunities and reframe key problems in conservation biology such as invasive species, extinction, environmental management, and reforestation. Following the flight of capital and nomadic forms of life—through fragmented landscapes of Panama, Costa Rica, and the United States—Kirksey explores how chance encounters, historical accidents, and parasitic invasions have shaped present and future multispecies communities. New generations of thinkers and tinkerers are learning how to care for emergent ecological assemblages—involving frogs, fungal pathogens, ants, monkeys, people, and plants—by seeding them, nurturing them, protecting them, and ultimately letting go.

Selected Readings: Emergent Ecologies: Chapters 5 6 7

Eben Kirksey is a permanent faculty member in Environmental Humanities at UNSW Australia and a Visiting Research Scholar at The Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is the editor of The Multispecies Salon and the author of Freedom in Entangled Worlds: West Papua and the Architecture of Global Power, both also published by Duke University Press.

Feb 20 | Plant Intelligence or Plant Signaling?

In recent years, plant scientists have been increasingly interested in complex forms of plant behavior, including in the ways in which plants communicate with each other by long distance electrical signals and by vesicle mediated transduction of auxins and other chemicals. For some scientists, the capacity of plants to anticipate, remember, and learn, is best captured by the concept of plant intelligence, in the emerging field of ‘plant neurobiology’, which focuses on plants’ capacities to share important information. For some researchers, the very term ‘neurobiology’ is a potentially distracting anthropomorphism which diverts attention from the actual capacities of plants which they see as utterly different from human conceptions of intelligence. Anthropologist Natasha Myers has studied practices of anthropomorphism in the natural sciences, and described how anthropomorphism can enable research questions as well as limiting them. In this event, Elizabeth van Volkenburgh will present her research on plant growth and adaptation to stress and then engage in a conversation with Natasha Myers around what is gained or lost by seeing plant communication as a form of intelligence.

Hosted by Andrew Mathews

Read Rap Report > Plant Intelligence or Plant Signaling?

Listen to event >
part 1: 

part 2:


Natasha Myers, Associate Professor of Anthropology at York University, Canada, is Director of the Institute for Science and Technology Studies. As an anthropologist of science and technology, her research examines a range of visual and performance cultures alive in the contemporary arts and biosciences. Her forthcoming book Rendering Life Molecular: Modelers, Models, and Excitable Matter (Duke University Press, 2015) is an ethnography of an interdisciplinary group of scientists who make living substance come to matter at the molecular scale. It explores how protein modelers’ multidimensional data forms are shifting the cusp of visibility, the contours of the biological imagination, and the nature of living substance. With support from SSHRC and an Early Researcher Award from the Ontario Government, she convened the Plant Studies Collaboratory to serve as a node for interdisciplinary research on plants in the ecologies and economies contoured by technoscience. In new work, she is investigating how the phenomena of plant sensing and communication are galvanizing inquiry in both the arts and the sciences.

E. Van Volkenburgh majored in Botany at Duke University (B.S. 1973), and worked for two years as a technician, at the Smithsonian Botany Department and at the Duke University Phytotron. She obtained a Ph.D. in Plant Physiology from the University of Washington (Ph.D. 1980) and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana (1980-81), University of Lancaster, UK (NATO Fellow 1981-82), and the University of Washington (1982-1985). Following two years as Research Assistant Professor, she was hired as an Assistant Professor in Botany at the University of Washington (1987) where she remains as Professor of Biology, and Adjunct Professor of Environmental and Forest Science. Her research is focused on the physiological mechanisms regulating cell and leaf expansion in plants. This work includes photobiology, electrophysiology, and connections to ecophysiology and agriculture. She is also exploring the new field of plant behavior, and leads the Society for Plant Signaling and Behavior.

Co-Sponsors: Departments of Anthropology, Environmental Studies, Literature, and Sociology.

"Plant Intelligence or Plant Signaling?"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
20 February 2015
Rapporteur Report by Samuael Topiary
In this provocative presentation, a packed house audience was treated to a fascinating
exploration of the ways in which one biologist is exploring the idea of plant intelligence.
Prof. van Volkenburgh presented her long time research into the ways in which corn and pea
crops deal with stress. In this work, van Volkenburgh studies the differences between wild
and cultivated plants in their responses to light exposure and water conditions in order to
understand the genetic aspects of drought tolerance. Comparing growth rates under different
light conditions, she was able to understand that plant photoreceptors that absorb blue & red
light are not chlorophyll but rather that the plant’s cells manage their growth based on light
and water conditions. She further explained that for certain strains of poplar and corn
hybrids, growth rate predicts yield and that certain types of commercially bred corn seed can
be shown to have less advantageous yields under drought conditions since light signaling
pathways influence growth rate. She thus concludes that high yield corn hybrids, which had
been selected for density and shade avoidance have inadvertently limited the (wild) corn’s
natural drought tolerance. She also demonstrated the ways in which corn, although
genetically perennial, has been bred as an annual and thus modern maize hybrids are not as
sensitive to light.

Van Volkenburgh concluded with a quote from Ambrose Bierce (1909) who suggested that
plants belong to the philosopher's class. She suggested that if we can increase our awareness
of what plants do, we might be able to breed plants that can deal with food scarcity in

Natasha Myers, explained that she had originally trained as plant molecular biologist before
becoming an anthropologist. She explained that in her work, she studies stories about
energetic process and plant stress and suggested that there is a whole literature connected
with plant signaling and behavior, which addresses how plants respond to wounding,
environmental change. In looking to plants coping mechanism, Myers suggest that we can
learn how to cope with environmental changes. She also suggested that this is an
opportunity to imagine that plants are experimenting with ways of living and that whether or
not we accept that plants think, as we understand this term, we can see that plants also cope
with and transform in relationship to their environments.

Myers asked the audience to consider what we learn about curiosity from the ways that
plants explore the world? She pointed out the issue in the language we use to talk about
plants: whether to speak about plant behavior in a passive or an active voice, and how the
language we use points to the problems of telling stories which situate plants as agents with

How do we talk about plants' interestedness? Wary of the temptation to anthropomorphize
and raising the issue of its taboo in plant neurobiology, Myers challenged us to play with
and against this concept. She asked us to consider what is possible and to think about the
role of the passive voice in sciences, questioning whether conceptions of intentionality are
allowed into stories of biology. Van Volkenburgh responded to this provocation by asking
what anthropomorphizing means; whether it involves imbuing an object with human traits or
“my own human traits”? Highlighting the professional risks of being taken seriously as a
biologist, van Volkenburgh stated that she felt anthropomorphizing limited possibilities by
risking adding bias or limiting what could be imagined as possible within biology.

Myers followed up this idea by exploring the use of analogies as ways of opening up our
understandings of biology. She suggested that stories about interspecies co-evolution, such
as the intermingling of the wasp and orchid physiologies, offers new possibilities for
understanding. And yet, she points out that the literature seems to police pleasure. She
suggests that the scientific proscription against agency mirrors certain concepts in the social
science and humanities, such as theories by Foucault, which suggest that we have no
freedoms, and that this conceptualization is echoed in conceptions of biology, such as we are
just what our genes want. Myers asks: “does anything that is not human have intention?”
She suggests that if we push a little further and “plantify” our imaginations, perhaps
understandings of plant phenomenon can change our conceptions about ourselves.

Myers and van Volkenburgh discussed reasons to “plantify” concepts of communication and
cognition as offering possibilities to test assumptions currently in place in animal behavior
models. Van Volkenburgh cited Philosophy of Plant Cognition by Paco Calvo as a book
which draws attention to ways people look at plants and explores the concept of plants as
reactive as compared with humans as proactive. She suggested, rather, that we think of this
as a spectrum and matter of degree and preference; undermining the notion that humans
have some special or unique role in evolution and encouraging us to see all biological
organisms as connected. She suggested that there are two ways of looking at cognition: a
bottom up way of learning which accumulates the info that constructs knowledge; and a
difference way, where consciousness knows something in general and then takes info and
compares it with what comes as surprising or inconsistent with that vision and where the
element of surprise drives learning. In this second philosophy of cognition, plant cognition
is a better way to look for that kind of approach to knowledge and learning.

When asked about her feeling about the book The Secret Life of Plants, van Volkenburgh
revealed that it was the book that made her apply to grad school. However, she said that
funding at the NSF dried up and careers were sidelined and that she wasn't only one who
received pushback from older plant physiologists against this way of thinking. She said,
however, that what arborists, farmers and vegetable gardeners know what they know and
that she has had an arborist bend her ear about this kind of knowledge, but that generally,
scientists are not open to it.

Myers talked about research on electrophysiology done in the late 19th century in India,
looking at the behavior and misbehavior of metals and plant irritability, and how that line of
inquiry was denigrated by colonial science and racism. This line of research got swept up
into the interest in what psychotropic plants can do to humans. However, she suggests, now
is the moment for the re-legitimization of plant neuro-physionomy.

Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, UCSC)
stated that this panel brings up questions of metaphor and language, such as those used in
primate behavior studies where competition was quantifiable and friendship was ‘woo woo’.
She suggested that the “machinomorphic” language, which is seen as non-anthropomorphic,
really does the opposite. Haraway questioned the use of the word “neuro-physionomy,”
suggesting that changing the “neuro,” (which she suggested is “over-owned,”) might be too
up hill, but wondered if there were other words which could get at "the stuff plants are up
to" which are less colonized. Van Volkenburgh responded that the choice of the name was a
product of organizational compromises. Haraway followed up by asking her what are the
words she would use if she had control over the scene? Van Volkenburgh spoke about
another possibility which had been floated but it was felt the name had to be something that
is commonly recognized to mean 'what plants are up to.' Myers interjected that plants are
so much cooler than humans and why denigrate plants with these human terms? Why put
plants on level of consciousness when they're going to lose; they'll always be lesser us. She
asked why not foreground those things that plants can do that we can't and attempt to and
foreground these capacities, like photosynthesis, which would bring out another sensibility
of plant capacity and thus implicitly suggest how unskilled we are?

Beth Stephens, Professor of Art, identified herself as an ecosexual, tree hugger and talked
about doing workshop in which the participants hug trees and playfully asked about whether
the tree can consent? She suggested that watching a cellist hug her cello, or seeing books, or
the wood molding in the room, demonstrated the generosity of plants. She said that plants
are giving us oxygen and food, and what are flowers if not the ultimate in play—the
genitalia of plants? Stephens said that if we took anthropomorphizing seriously, we would
have to take responsibility for all the destruction of plants that we have wrought. She
followed up by asking about the possibility of plants using different types of signals,
wondering if they could use dishonest signals and whether plants have any capability of
intention? Van Volkenburgh responded that her definition of signal was rudimentary and
that a signal for her means only incoming information. Myers clarified that plants are
responsive to information coming from their environment, such as changes of temperature,
light, and heat. In plant behavioral ecology, plants generate bouquets and create an
atmosphere of senses that can be picked up and turned into signals for other plants and
animals. In this sense, dishonesty would be a kind of mimicry that thwarts the signal as
information, in other words, a kind of disinformation. This notion is of honest and dishonest
is stuck in a model of the world with internal vs external realities, in which organisms can
fail or succeed in representing and is based on a representationalist model of the senses.

Myers continued this line of thinking by asking: “why begin with doubt?” Plants can pay
attention and they have a willingness to stick it out. Their sensory antennae are such that if
they fail to pay attention, they are dead. Why not think of plants as beings that are sensing
and changing their environments and are anticipating the future. In this way, Myers
suggests, plants have a model of the future, seen in the vernalization process. Sunflowers
can be thought of as anticipatory, opening to where sun will come up. We have to shift our
assumptions about these concepts and think about what they might need to know about the
world to cultivate different kinds of respect for these organisms.

Feb 11 | Collaborating to Learn about Wicked Problems: Water, Food, and Energy in Rural India

Ashwini Chhatre, Professor of Geography at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Senior Research Fellow/Visiting Professor at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad presented a talk about sustainable development in rural India as a wicked problem.  Hosted by Andrew Mathews, SJRC Acting Director, the discussion following the talk was moderated by Ben Crow, Professor of Sociology, UC Santa Cruz.

A wicked problem is difficult or impossible to solve because of complex interdependencies, and the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem reveals or creates other problems. This is particularly true for agriculture-based rural livelihoods in India’s vast hinterland, which require tightly, connected household strategies to secure water, food, and energy under the shadow of an unpredictable monsoon regime. Interventions to improve rural livelihoods, with the best possible intentions, fail to have an impact in an unacceptably high proportion of cases, and often produce unintended and undesirable consequences for society and the environment. For example, an intervention to increase organic manure to improve soil fertility can easily set off a cascade where cowdung is used as domestic fuel. Women will have to collect more firewood, perhaps from farther forests, decreasing forest condition. The firewood will be of inferior quality, increasing adverse health impacts from indoor air pollution. Greater workloads for women will translate into higher classroom absenteeism and some girls will drop out of school completely. The diversity of disciplinary lenses required to simply outline the boundary of such a cascade is challenging enough; to try and bring these diverse perspectives to bear on improving the actual outcomes is a herculean task. But the pattern of outcomes is not unusual at all. Such a pattern with respect to a long list of well-meaning development interventions can only be described as shooting in the dark, and occasionally shooting ourselves in the foot. This requires a creative response to the design and evaluation of interventions for improvement of rural livelihoods. It requires harnessing research, education, and practice in ways that enable a learning-while-doing approach to sustainable development. By definition, wicked problems do not have a solution. The sustainable development challenge can, however, be formulated as one of identifying the combinations of interventions necessary in specific contexts that improve the possibility of improvements and reduce the incidence of adverse outcomes. This presentation describes such a collaboration between NGOs, researchers, and public agencies in India, with an emphasis on the challenge of producing a body of knowledge that is credible, legitimate, and salient with all relevant actors across multiple scales.

Ashwini Chhatre has recently relocated from the University of Illinois to India from the US to serve on the faculty at the Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Ashwini has an undergraduate degree in Economics from the University of Delhi and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Duke University. In between, he spent 11 years working with local communities and social movements on democratic governance of natural resources in India. Ashwini was the Giorgio Ruffolo Post-doctoral Fellow in Sustainability Science at Harvard University during 2006-07, and serves as a faculty member in the Department of Geography, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign since 2007. Ashwini’s research investigates the intersection of democracy with environment and development, with a more recent focus on rural livelihood dynamics in rainfed systems across agro-ecological and socio-political contexts. Ashwini has co-authored one book and published articles in Science, PNAS, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Conservation Biology, Journal of Peasant Studies, World Development, and other journals.

Ben Crow is a professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz. He trained and worked as an engineer in London and Africa, and was an activist and volunteer in South Asia, before becoming a social scientist. His PhD is from Edinburgh University in Scotland, and he taught at the Open University in UK and at Stanford and UC Berkeley before coming to UCSC. He has done research on conflict and cooperation over international rivers in South Asia, leading to a book Sharing the Ganges: the politics and technology of river development; on traders, township markets and the making of social classes in rural Bangladesh (Markets, Class and Social Change: Trading Networks and Poverty in South Asia); on global inequalities (The UC Atlas of Global Inequality (online) and The Atlas of Global Inequalities, with Suresh Lodha). His current work explores how access to household water in low-income urban settlements shapes the time and constrains the prospects of poor households and how the global idea of adequate water access promoted by international institutions - ‘safe drinking water’ - limits understanding and social change to improve water access and reduce poverty.

"Collaborating to Learn about Wicked Problems: Water, Food, and Energy in Rural India"Wednesday,
SJWG Rapporteur Report
11 February 2015
Rapporteur Report by Samuael Topiary
Professor Chhatre provided an introduction to the “wicked problems” of sustainable development in rural India
where attempts to alleviate poverty and malnutrition and develop new approaches to agricultural development can
create unintended consequences. He provided us with stories, lessons and insights from his work on
interdisciplinary approaches which seek to link disparate perspectives from academia, journalism and NGO work in
order to change attitudes, restructure public investment in agriculture and produce desirable outcomes.
Professor Chhatre began by explaining that wicked problems are ones in which there is no clear solution to a
problem and that all efforts to address this problem create or reveal more problems. He suggested that this situation
creates a boundary problem whereby issues cascade across disciplines and make the original problem seem
impossible to address. In attempting to seek solutions to the huge issue of rural poverty and malnutrition in India,
Prof. Chhatre described a three-pronged approach in which small-scale “proof of concept” projects are created in
seven different locations in India. He stressed the importance of the scale of each project, which had to involve
several thousand people, in order for the scale to be large enough. These pilot projects involved the integration of
multiple layers of interventions: approaching the issue of rural poverty and malnutrition by intervening in different
aspects of agriculture and food distribution. These multiple layers include soil, seeds and water access, converged
with public investments. The multidisciplinary approach of his work included economic analyses of agricultural
subsidies (who receives what subsidies and where) as well as of food storage systems and places in which food
waste occurs.

Professor Chhatre described a system-wide approach to analysis which includes environmental cost considerations
and can generate alternative ideas, such as implementing incentives which advocate for better food production (what
plants can be most environmentally efficiently grown where) and the distribution systems (how can transportation
and storage needs be modified by growing more food locally). He stressed the importance of collaborating with
government agencies in order to generate knowledge and change behaviors, as well as the importance in generating
knowledge which captures the complexity of rural livelihoods. This approach thinks about agriculture in relation to
other systems and is founded on place-based knowledge about local cultures which can bring an awareness of
unintended negative consequences and can make improvements that learn from problems. This approach, a learning
while doing approach, leads to a research framework which can thus make claims about what works and what
doesn’t work.

After discussing this approach as a general interdisciplinary framework for research, Chhatre described three
concepts that “get in the way,” and serve as ideological blindspots which naturalize the status quo in ways that are
difficult to see. These concepts are 1) the Discount Rate as a predictor of the future; 2) price as indicator of
scarcity; and 3) productivity per hectare as a measure of performance. In each case, the economic assumptions
which underlie the capitalist system at work in agriculture are seen as obstacles which must be understood,
debunked and overcome.

Following Prof. Chhatre’s presentation, Ben Crowe asked how is he able to work with economists in the face of his
underlying critique of standard economic ideologies. Chhatre responded that he cannot collaborate with economists,
but rather he finds it more productive to work with philosophers. Because he questions underlying assumptions
about Economic Growth and “fetishized” assumptions about India’s rate of growth (generally understood to be 5.5%
annually), Chhatre suggested there would be no need to confront tropes of economic growth if people are better fed
and that the question for India should be focused on equity and distribution of wealth rather than growth. He also
suggested that one road to amelioration of India’s poverty issues is in open outcomes, where farmers have the option
of going to market on their own terms. A number of questions in the audience focused on labor issues and the notion
of the aspirations of young people growing up in rural areas.

Donna Haraway (Distinguished Professor Emerita of History of Consciousness, UCSC) asked about the issue of
scale and Chhatre’s early suggestion around thinking about abundance, rather than being trapped with scarcity
thinking. Chhatre responded by explaining that in order for NGO’s to act as a substitute to government and to
become an agent for government change takes a long time. The instinct for NGO’s is to help people directly, but this
does not produce long-term, systemic change. Therefore, Chhatre suggests there must be new approaches tried.
One of these approaches is using middle school children for data collection and reporting. For example, they have
the school children collect rain fall data and when certain flowers start blooming. In this way, they reduce the need
for expensive monitoring equipment, and include students in the process; allowing them to visualize ideas for
themselves and seeing themselves as the drivers of change.

Andrew Mathews asked how to avoid creating wicked problems. Chhatre clarified that his approach reframes
situations not as choices between but rather as a choice to put together elements differently in such as way that a
system of public investments can be put in place and combined in ways which work locally so that it is possible for
these new approaches to happen. For example, in creating an incentive for farmers to use organic manure in order to
replace chemical fertilizers they have to work through the cascades of effects that this change will create. So, being
able to see that this change in fertilizer means that the use of cow dung will be diverted from its previous use as fuel
which will also mean that women will have to spend more time transporting the dung to the fields and collecting
firewood or shift to inferior fuels. In other words, this shift to organic fertilizer will end up increasing a burden on
women and could also result in increasing girls’ absenteeism from schools. People intervening in soil don’t think to
ask about the state of the local forest or whether girls go to school. Chhatre’s approach shifts from a focus on
singular intervention to combining multiple interventions, which can account for the energy deficit and therefore
combine the shift to organic fertilizer with kerosene subsidies, so the cascade effect can be nipped in the bud and
women’s labor valued. This approach necessitates asking what else is missing and how to monitor that? Mathews
points out that this focus on multiplicities avoids “empty world thinking.”

The conversation continued with other questions about water systems and questions which address new ways of
understanding the legacy of the Green Revolution. Haraway added that this approach emphasizes actual knowledges
and practices of actual workings over modeling and abstractions or theory. She suggested that we have outmoded
notions of knowledge and that this complex systems theories in which multi-factor processes allow us to let go of a
certain need for precision. She stressed the importance of interdisciplinary communication and expressed optimism
for this approach.

Is Bamboo the Next Green Gold?

 "Is Bamboo the Next Green Gold? Balancing the Needs of Vernacular Builders, Non-human Forest Dwellers and Green Architects in the Age of Sustainability"

One of the fastest growing plants in the world; bamboo has emerged as a silver bullet for sustainable design and architecture. However, bamboo also has long been used in artisanal construction in Asia and South America, where it is part of important ecological and cultural systems. Its commercialization brings us back to a now familiar problem: How should we manage nature without damaging the systems that bring us these materials? Can bamboo satisfy all its lovers or – like sugarcane for ethanol – will it become the next green gold? Darrel DeBoerJennifer M. Jacobs and Rudolf von May will examine this significant problem, while focusing on tropical bamboo as an emerging case study.

Panel speakers

Darrel DeBoer is a leading figure for Architects for Social Responsibility and Green Building, who was named by Metropolitan Home magazine in 2001 as “one of the 100 most influential designers” and by Natural Home magazine 2005 one the 10 “Green Architects.” In thirty years of practice, he has used structural bamboo, straw bales, earthen & lime plasters, earthen floors and salvaged materials in an effort to find alternatives to toxic or scarce materials used more often today. Darrel has written and co-authored seven books on building with these materials, including Bamboo Building Essentials and The Art of Natural Building. In addition, he has taught sustainable building techniques through UC Berkeley Extension, the Academy of Art University, Merritt College, the County of Alameda and the City of San Francisco. See his work at:

Jennifer M. Jacobs is a biologist, who has studied bamboo forest biodiversity in Peru’s Amazonian region. Her latest research focused on beetle community ecology in bamboo forests. In collaboration with Rudolf von May, she co-authored the article titled: "Forest of Grass: Discovering Biodiversity in the Amazon's Bamboo Jungles" in the Journal of Natural History. Jacobs is also interested in teaching environmental education in K-12 schools.

Rudolf von May is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley, who grew up in the rain forest region of Central Peru and has studied frogs living in bamboo forests. For the last 15 years, in collaboration with other scientists, he has been tracking amphibian biodiversity in the Andes-Amazon region. This research has been featured in National Geographic and Los Angeles Times, among others (see video at:

Co-Sponsored by the Departments of Anthropology, Politics, and Sociology | Hosted by Luz Cordoba

November 19, 2014 | 4:00-6:00PM | Engineering 2, room 475

"Is Bamboo the Next Green Gold?: Balancing the Needs of Vernacular Builders, Non-human Forest Dwellers and Green Architects in the Age of Sustainability"
SJWG Rapporteur Report
19 November 2014
Rapporteur Report by Luz Cordoba
First, Jennifer M. Jacobs and Rudolf von May presented their research on Guadua
bamboo ecologies in the southwestern Amazon. Creating a “patchy” topography, Guadua
bamboo is a fast growing clonal plant that creates mono-dominant patches that span more than
300 square kilometers. Yet, in the southwestern Amazon, Guadua bamboo adds to the
heterogeneity of the rainforest by sheltering and interacting with a diversity of species.
Bamboo, Jacobs stated, experiences mass flowering and collective die-offs, even when
patches are non-contiguous. Luz Cordoba asked how are egregious flowering and collective dieoffs
temporally coordinated across these disconnected patches of bamboo? Jacobs responded that
some theories suggest that there is speciation among patches. Darrel DeBoer, our third presenter,
pointed out that the Guadua Jacobs referred to are smaller varieties. Larger varieties reproduce
mostly asexually because the seeds of the largest species of Guadua are not viable. He stated that
“if you go back far enough (to study these patches) you may find that an entire species is one
plant.” Most of these bamboos spread asexually through a rhizomatic root system, which give
rise to new bamboo culms. Through this underground system, one individual may spread and
“colonize” large and often non-contiguous territories, creating new patches. Despite its
separation from the mother plant, these patches are temporally synchronized, which results in a
species dominating different territories, but also disappearing at once.

Bamboo forests, Jacobs suggested, are largely understudied, particularly in the area of
genetics and ecology, but during the last twenty years, recent advancements in satellite
technology have allowed researchers to study large patches in the Amazon. Researchers
speculate that the spread of bamboo forests may have come from wild fires or native people’s
swidden agriculture. For instance, the study of mound formations in Argentina has shown that
pre-Columbian people worked with bamboo. Jacobs’ research on Enema Pan (rhinoceros beetle)
was inspired by these anthropological discoveries. In the Southwestern Amazon Jacobs and von
May found similar mounds in bamboo forests. Upon excavation of these large mounds, they
found E. Pan. E. Pan, working at the base of the Guadua bamboo, shreds open the culm,
exposing its sap and allowing other insects to feed off the sap. The male E. Pan forms the mound
when digging its burrow. The male beetle then guards the burrow at its entrance. Jacobs
speculates that they feed on Guadua and use these tunnels to raise their larvae.

Von May finished their talk with a survey of the different species that inhabit the inside
of bamboo. He explained how a weevil makes a hole in bamboo, which opens it to other species.
Surprisingly, amphibians are a large group of species that live, reproduce or find shelter in
Guadua. In particular, he called our attention to a particular poisonous frog that uses the inside of
Guadua as a breeding space. In southeastern Peru, this small frog, less than an inch in length,
takes advantage of the structure of Guadua by laying eggs on the walls of the bamboo after
mating inside of it. The nodes of the bamboo are usually filled with water. The male frog looks
for available pools free of predators while carrying hatched tadpoles on their back. Von May
pointed out that this phenomenon of amphibians using bamboo as a breeding ground is not
particular of Peru, but takes place wherever there are these types of bamboos. To date, scientists
have documented at least another five species of amphibians that use Guadua bamboo as shelter.
Like frogs, there are a number of vertebrates, such as birds, that use bamboo as shelter, retreat
and breeding grounds. Von May concluded by pointing out that it takes millions of years for
such species to develop such strong relationships with plants like bamboo, “making us wonder
what would happen if the bamboo habitat disappears?”

DeBoer spoke about the importance of thinking about land use in today’s environment.
He stated, “there are millions of people who would accept living in really high density places in
order to save other land for other things.” In order to do that, DeBoer asked, “What do we need
to be building?” He thinks that we should be constructing as densely as possible buildings that
are “at least 4 to 5 stories high, as densely as possible.” In order to build sustainably, DeBoer
thinks the goal is to get “people to live in 25 units per acre.” This translates to about 1,500 square
feet per unit. He points out that under the right conditions, “transit works without subsidies when
you have 25 units per acre.” Sustainably constructing these spaces will depend also on the
materials we use. DeBoer highlighted how concrete is responsible for 8% all our greenhouse
gases and 30% of our energy goes to building and another 30% goes into transportation, so
building densely will save all of that energy, he argued. Bamboo is a perfect material to build
dense cities because some of its species, particularly, Guadua angustifolia, have strong walls that
can sustain human structures.

In reference to Cordoba’s question of how do you take a natural material like Guadua,
and use it without industrializing it, DeBoer explained that people have found techniques to
transform it without capital/energy intensive processes. Andrew Mathews asked DeBoer whether
he foresees people building their high-density bamboo cities next to their bamboo forests?
DeBoer responded that one way to see this is that one must grow as much bamboo as the area to
be built with it. So, “if you want a house this big, you plant that much bamboo.” And he, pointed
out an example in Asia where people were directed to grow bamboo next to their lots in order to
build their own homes. DeBoer continued to explain that to build with soft wood, the current
paradigm, would take a few acres to build the same house, partly because of the nature of the
fiber of bamboo. Mathews asked whether there are “big industrial projects to build with Guadua,
and is there a fear of destroying these large bamboo forests?” Von May said that in Peru bamboo
is used in small-scale projects but in Brazil there are paper projects where large tracks of bamboo
forests are cleared. In these last cases bamboo is very profitable. However, von May highlighted
that it is very common that people think of bamboo “as a weedy plant, a grass” and they are more
concerned with clearing up land for agriculture because it is more profitable. Kristina Lyons
added that one of the things that has been left out of the conversation are the legal structures that
forests farmers must adhere to in order to make decisions about what plants to cut. She stated, “it
all depends of what Amazons you are talking about, because they are many Amazons. The
Amazons are many worlds.” In Colombia, which still follows a colonial system, farmers must
clear 3 quarters of the land in order to obtain legal title over the land. Farmers want to
incorporate forestry into their farms but they cannot because of this, and if the forest is not
farmed, the mining and oil companies are free to exploit it. She pointed out that these policies do
not protect the forest, but mostly protect the rights of multinational corporations to exploit it.
Lyons raised an important point that we must be mindful of the geopolitical, constitutional and
economic forces that force people into certain relationships with the forest.

Lastly, Karen Barad pointed out the constant use of the verb colonize in order to describe
the ecologies of bamboo. She suggested that, as insiders, scientists get really used to using
certain terminology. Barad asked the scientists what they have thought may be the implications
of using this term, “and what epistemological and methodological issues may arise from the use
of that terminology?” Rudolf responded that in ecology and biology there are few
generalizations. One, he said, is the Island Biogeography where organisms that arrive from the
main land are conceived as colonizers. Thus, in ecology is common to describe organisms that
arrive from another place as colonizers and the process described as one of colonization. Jenny
added that although she uses this terminology, rather than colonization, she sees it as movement
rather than colonization. Barad commented that while she understood that this word has a
genealogy within the sciences, it, nonetheless, carries an array of meanings and assumptions that
take place without thinking about it. She commented that colonization “…is a term about
insertion, rather than a welcoming or a kind of invitation.” Barad’s pointed out that, “the words
we use as scientists do all kinds of work for us and they carry entire models with them…(they)
may be a vehicle for background assumptions.” Andrew added that thinking about beetles
colonizing bamboo makes us think only of a one way relationship, but, he asked, “is the bamboo
getting anything out of it?” Parasitization, he pointed out, is often not a one-way process and
thinking of it in this way we may pay more attention to the return not just the arrival. Karen
finished the conversation by summarizing this discussion with an important question. She asked:
What is not being asked as the result of that or being pay attention to?