Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Diversity and Belonging: The Field of Ethnobiology

November 6, 2002

Nature Notes – From the Backyard to the Biosphere. Diversity and Belonging: The Field of Ethnobiology

Diversity and belonging: distinct, yet uniquely linked; two concepts of prime importance in an age of homogenization and rootlessness. Diversity: variation, polychromaticity, species of endless description, cultures with myriad ways of seeing and understanding the world, languages as diverse as the worldviews of those who speak them. Belonging: a sense of home, rootedness in place, knowledge of specificity, a contextual outlook.

The field of ethnobiology is one that seeks to understand the relationship between people and the environments in which they live. Questions asked include: how is the environment perceived? What uses are made of various environmental features? What makes some more important than others?

Ethnobiology as a discipline is exciting in its revelation of two things: the enormous creativity and ingenuity of humans, and a vision of people as a part of the natural world. In an endless variety of environments, people have figured out how to exist in landscapes not always hospitable to habitation. The diversity of places people call home is immense: from lush tropical forests to the drought-stricken deserts: from the vast plains of Africa, Asia and North America to the high arctic: cold and harsh. Within such diversity of environments, landscapes, species, and ways of existing lies a common thread: an intimate knowledge of and connection to that tiny subset of global reality that each culture calls home.

As an urban planner recently explained, an environmental home can exist at many scales. The smaller, or closer, one gets, the more refined becomes the connection to and understanding of the place. Ecological knowledge at the level of specificity held by many indigenous cultures could only have arisen through a deep relationship with, a supreme sense of belonging in, the natural home environment. Multi-step food preparation processes that reduce plant toxicity; timing to the day the harvest of one species after another to ensure adequate winter reserves; an encyclopedic knowledge of organisms with healing versus harmful substances: these are only a few ways in which people have learned to live within their endlessly complex environments. The knowledge is detailed, it is immense, and it is being lost.

A prominent ethnobiologist stated that, at a conservative estimate, 50% of cultural and linguistic diversity has been lost in a matter of only a few generations. With such loss of human diversity comes also a loss of the unique, contextual understandings of environmental knowledge held by people. Habitats, species, cultures and understandings are becoming less diverse. Diversity, variety, is part of the human experience – diversity derived from multiple occurrences of humans belonging, deeply, in their unique natural environment. The study of such diversity, the study of people in and of the natural world, is thus both a fascinating endeavour, and one with immediate impact in terms of conserving human knowledge of nature.

For more information on ethnobiology, have a look at the following site:, and get your hands on any book by Wade Davis, or his mentor, Richard Evans Schultes. For those of you in, or contemplating, graduate studies at AU, check out the course web page for ANTH 591, an online ethnobiology course, at

Zoe Dalton is a graduate of York University’s environmental science program, and is currently enjoying working towards a Master of Arts in Integrated Studies with Athabasca U. She can be reached for comments or questions at