Art and story telling, mixed with fragments of research and reflections on my professional development, are both a literary device and a personal joy in the telling of this memoir.
Painting: Detail from "Temagami Moon," 2018.
Art and story telling, mixed with fragments of research and reflections on my professional development, are both a literary device and a personal joy in the telling of this memoir. I started the project by curating a collection of my photographs and paintings to support and prompt interviews with people I have worked with over the years. The images were entry points into multiple conversations, which covered personal perceptions of the work we did together, fact-checking events long past and reflections on how and why I evolved as an artist, activist and anthropologist. I then drafted each chapter around the stories and ideas shared, adding in broader context and themes as needed. I sent these drafts, and links to albums of photographs and paintings, back to friends, family and colleagues for feedback. In these diverse voices I found continuity, celebration and common concerns.
My friend and colleague Jacques Chevalier gently coached me into this framing of my research methodology by encouraging me to start with the individual interviews rather than group interviews as I had originally planned. The project needed the intimacy of one-to-one conversations if I were to create a safe space for people to express certain things about my story, perceptions of me, our professional relationship, our friendship, things that happened, and my contributions to outcomes. He also helped me accept the idea of being the centre of my own story and avoid the artifice of a conversation only about research projects long completed. This approach made sense to me intuitively, and once I started to work this way the words began to flow like wine.
The project first occurred to me in March, 2020, the start of the pandemic in Canada. When restrictions on travel and gatherings brought to an abrupt end my normal consulting practice of group facilitation and evaluation, I decided to make my forced professional retirement voluntary and permanent. I continued with various volunteer projects in Ottawa and in my neighbourhood, but let go of the computer time and stress of paid assignments. The breathing room was refreshing. When I made the retirement official with a zoom party on my 65th birthday November 12, 2020, I also realized that I was in something of a sweet spot professionally, with professional and personal contacts still in place going back to my youth. What better time, I thought, to reflect on my experiences and learning as an anthropologist, activist and artist than now (before they fade away)?
Initially I rejected the idea of writing a book-length memoir because it would involve hours sitting with a computer, something I had resolved to avoid in retirement. However, the more conversations I had with friends and colleagues, the deeper and more animated the reflections became. As with any memoir project, I became more self-aware and happier for having reconnected to the many people I worked with over the years.
The writing started with the chapter “Dawson Days,” not only because it came before all else but also because it grounded me in my own inner voice, much like the people and beauty of the place. I have not, however, followed the writing advice I received from the influential Canadian sociologist Wally Clement as I struggled with my Master Thesis: “Just do it”, he said, “every day, all day, until it is done.” (my colleague Jacques works that way too, sometimes to my great consternation). I had received similar advice from an art teacher overseeing my work in the 1970s as an illustrator for Mexican archaeologists. When a drawing of a collapsed Mayan temple I had been working on for days became muddled, he told me to sit down and redo it in a single session. I did, making a successful product and prompting him to remark that I had the makings of a professional artist.
When writing the memoir, I tried to hold both the quality of concentration needed to make steady progress and the sense of letting go that comes from living in a time of pandemics, impending climate catastrophe and any number of other plausible dystopian futures. Walking, skiing, family ties and the ever-present volunteer projects in my city and neighbourhood have meant that the writing of the memoir took longer than it strictly needed to. However, I’m not complaining.
Artists tend to serve two functions in the world. They reveal beauty and horror by holding up a mirror to the human face. They also invent new aesthetics by turning conventions on their head. I try to do both with this memoir, by telling the stories that matter most to me while also highlighting interesting research findings and collective impact over individual achievements. My life shows that nothing worthwhile happens alone or in isolation. Everything in the world — people, plants, suffering, joy, animals, the elements — is in relation to each other. To all my relations, I give thanks. Miigwech.
The American poet, Mary Oliver, asks, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This memoir is my telling of four decades of my professional life. It is self-published, first as a blog and then as an ebook, to facilitate reading by an audience wider than my immediate circle of family, friends and professional colleagues. This optimism may prove unfounded, but my motivation is the same whether it is read by one or by many. I’ve been fortunate to have lived in or visited many unusual places and to have worked with remarkable people on important global issues, something that may interest adventuresome readers. I’ve also learned how to be an activist academic, an approach to research growing in many fields and disciplines inside and outside of university settings. The book shares lessons from this experience, potentially of interest to students and young researchers trying to make sense of action-oriented research, the many methods available and what it means to be an engaged researcher in the real world.
Artifacts from my life as a visual artist and photographer are matched with the writing, with a view to deepening the readers’ connection to the people and places behind every story I tell. Throughout, I share firsthand accounts, from me and others, of the situations unfolding before our eyes and the people who lived through them. When possible, I try to pull together both personal and professional reflections on the unity of art, activism and anthropology in a single life, my own. I am happy to be alive to share it.
The book starts in the Yukon, where as a young man I pursued an artist’s life. The place and the people inspired paintings and photography of the bush lifestyle of the 1970s and the raw beauty of rivers, mountains and the night sky. The experience grounded me, and connected me to an inner life I have only occasionally forgotten since. Chapters 1 and 2 are dedicated to this period and its’ stories, including my first encounter with Mexico, a place that became a second home to me and birthplace of both my sons.
My transition from artist to anthropologist began in Mexico, where I developed empathy for people living on the edge and curiosity about Mexico’s language, history and revolutionary art.
Chapter 3 recounts stories of the people and issues from my first research project, a study of the Yukon River salmon fishery that became my Master Thesis in Canadian Studies. I also tell the story my thesis failed to cover, involving the collapse of the fragile King Salmon population of the Yukon River due to political maneuvering between Canada and the USA.
Returning to Mexico for my PhD studies provided an opportunity to tell a more complete story about the political ecology of what my teacher and partner in the research, Jacques Chevalier, called “the stupid machine”, a.k.a. a capitalist system in the throes of self-destruction. My fiancé, Debra Huron, captured the core of the dissertation by suggesting the title: Cattle, Corn and Conflict in the Mexican Tropics. Chapter 4 and 5 explore my relationships with the people, places and problems on the Mexican gulf coast, and briefly relates a near death experience — my encounter with metastatic cancer — and unexpected recovery.
For a third time I returned to Mexico, sponsored by The Rockefeller Foundation as a post-doctoral fellow with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT). During this period, starting in 1990, CIMMYT was just beginning to shift away from the seed-fertilizer technology of the Green Revolution towards sustainable agriculture, and from consultative on-farm research to more participation by farmers in the research process. My arrival and research on a farmer-developed technology involving a “green manure” called Mucuna, was a quintessential example of farmer discovery leading researcher discovery. Chapter 6 and 7 delve into the “Green Manure Revolution” that unfolded over several decades in Central America, Mexico and West Africa and my initial experiments in participatory research and activism focused on indigenous and farmer livelihoods.
My work in Mexico with participatory and action-oriented research methods was lifted to an entirely different level, thanks to opportunities to work with remarkable people in South Asia. Chapter 8 tells of a highly original study led by three fierce critics of industrial agriculture and Green Revolution centres like CIMMYT – Farhad Mahzar, P.V. Satheesh and Farida Akhter. Our research details how women transform uncultivated plants (a.k.a “weeds”) they collect from fields and field-edges into nutrient-dense foods through the technology of cooking and the social dynamics of common property. Bina Agarwal, a distinguished Professor of Economics and feminist scholar, said in the foreword to our book that the research “compels us to rethink what constitutes food security, women’s knowledge systems, and common pool resources. It makes us see much that we would casually walk past, that we might never taste, that we cannot purchase. Flourishing in the interstices of the cultivated and the uncultivated, the public and the private, the field and the forest, are innumerable leafy greens, fruits, tubers, roots, small fish, grasses, and other forms of food life hidden from our gaze that constitute the daily diet of numerous villagers across South Asia.” The chapter tries to bring the lessons of this work alive with farmer accounts, photographs and researcher observations on the wealth of the social landscape.
A return to work with Farida Akhter on alternatives to tobacco farming in Bangladesh is the focus of Chapter 9. It represents a period when I reached my stride as a researcher interested both in global issues and the methods that carry us to research conclusions. It is also the most successful work from a policy perspective, thanks to the persistent and culturally grounded advocacy of Farida and the people she works with. I examine the research to policy path — the holly grail of research funders — and draw some lessons from and for international development agencies such as the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) that funded the research and where I worked for ten years. I also share photographs and stories of how natural it felt for me to sit with people in Bangladesh, and experience their joy. This time is when the spiritual traditions of Bengal I had learned earlier from Farhad Mahzar became concrete for me in the form of people steeped in Tantric, Sufi and Bhakti practices of devotion and compassion.
Research with marginalized communities is the weft and warp of my professional life, embodied more than anywhere in work with Rajeev Khedkar, Bansi Ghevde and the Katkari of Maharashtra in south western India. The Katkari are a former “Criminal Tribe,” labeled as such by 19th Century British lawmakers and sociologists who believed that the offspring of nomadic groups were born to criminality. The Katkari carry this stigma even today, and it was a key factor enabling other groups and individuals to forcibly push the Katkari out of home and hamlet. Chapter 10 shares stories of the remarkable lives of the Katkari through firsthand accounts by my co-authors of the book “Fighting Eviction.” It also summarizes my reflections on the role of participatory methods in changing the course of Katkari responses to the crisis. It is a hopeful story, and one that sustains my approach to activism to this day.
Chapter 11 departs from the topical focus of chapters set in such-and-such a place and time. It explores instead what has been for me a remarkable journey of learning from and with my close friend and colleague Jacques Chevalier. Between 2005 and the present day, we worked together on the development of a unique approach to participatory action research that is our joint legacy with Jacques’ partner Michelle Bourassa. Together, we have tried not only to change the world, as activists intend, but also to make a difference to the world of academia, something I would never have aspired to do on my own. The chapter is an account of tendencies, influences and lessons that shaped our work together and our working relationship. Many of the insights are already written down in the books we published together, with Jacques’ theoretical and methodological touch. In this chapter, I add my narrative voice and reflect on the magic of our personal and professional differences and similarities — the patterned fabric we wove together.
Chapter 12 is a potpourri of anecdotes and highlights from my work at the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and afterwards as a consultant working on my own and with Jacques under the auspices of our company SAS2 Dialogue. It reflects on our practice of working with people, as opposed to doing studies about people as most academics do or simply working for others as most consultants do. Rebels in Nagaland in northeastern India, peacemakers in Central America, archers in Bhutan and high school drop outs in northern Canada challenged me to walk the talk, and force me to do better. Successes, and failures, both point to what is and what could be the path of activism informed by research and guided by the people most directly involved.
The final chapter focuses on my advocacy for municipal action on the climate emergency, and the love of trees I share with my wife and life partner Debra Huron. It is comprised of ten short stories modelled on the famous “Ten Ox Herding” pictures used to support Zen meditation practice. In the pandemic period (2020-2021) while I wrote this memoir, between the Chinese year of the Rat and year of the Ox, I ended my professional life and set myself firmly on the volunteer path supporting people and causes I believe in. This was not really a major departure from earlier stages in my professional life, except that the freedom from deadlines other than my own may also give me time to pick up the brush once again and paint my own Ox Herding pictures. Writing this book is part of the preparation to let go, let be and lean into the light and the dark that gives shape to all that is.
Painting: Detail from "Temagami Burning," 2018.