Archive for the ‘Simone Whitecloud’ Category

A cool thing about being part of an interdisciplinary group focused on understanding Polar Environmental Change is that everyone knows I am studying Arctic mosquitoes, so when the ethnobotanist/linguist pulls out an obscure text on lifestyles and languages of the Iglulik Eskimos, they can alert me to scientifically informative passages, such as “Of the lower animal world may be mentioned the mosquito which, in the short summer – from the middle of July to the middle of August – can make life in the open air a torment. The low, swampy land on Southampton Island is said to be particularly bad in this respect; there are fewest mosquitos [sic] in Cockburn Land, although at certain places, for instance round the trading station at Ponds Inlet, they can be extremely annoying.” Therkel Mathiassen, in Material Culture of the Iglulik Eskimos, a report from the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-1924

Although brief, it’s relevant to what I am studying- the distribution, abundance, and phenology of mosquitoes in the Arctic. I suspect that the humanities literature, especially accounts from historical expeditions, is full of useful references and tidbits of scientific information. Without interdisciplinary collaboration, much of this information would remain elusive.

IGERT POWER. And thanks, Simone.

Greenland 2012 411
[Aedes nigripes posing for a photo in front of the Greenland Ice Sheet.]

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Ethnobiology is the study of humans and their relationship to things biological, from plants to animals to nature itself. Sessions ranged from “Archeological methods” to “Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Ethnobiology in the 21st Century (and Beyond): Changes, Innovations, and Issues of Justice” to an entire session dedicated to Acai. The Archeological Methods session was fascinating — Linda Scott Cummings presented a chemical analysis of residues found on ceramic sherds (in this circle they are called sherds and not shards) as support for the use of a plant in the Euphorbia family (same family as your Christmas friend, the pointsettia) in Samoa over 2000 years ago. Another presenter, Caroline A. Dezendorf, used her master’s research to recreate various processes of preparing maize. Using heirloom varieties of maize, she found that those kernels which underwent a lyme treatment match those found by archaeologists. Steve Wolverton used skeletal remains of white-tailed deer to determine that increased hunting pressure resulted in larger deer (due to increased forage).

While there I presented my results from my 2011 field season in South Greenland (see previous post). I was happy to share with the audience that plant knowledge is not disappeared from Greenland, but instead is shared among a small community of enthusiasts. I am working with my collaborator, Lenore Grenoble at the University of Chicago, to pull our results into a manuscript for submission to a journal. Unlike ecology journals, ethnobotanical journals favor including all the data within a paper. So far our manuscript is 4 pages long and the table with the results of our interviews is 10 pages long.  I’ve never seen more table than paper in an ecology journal!


Every talk about the Arctic requires acclimating the audience to a different perspective of the globe, one where the North Pole is the center of our perspective.

We found that knowledge varies from merely knowing who is knowledgeable about plants within the community to extensive knowledge about collection, preparation, storage and use of plants. We documented 171 uses of plants, divided into 7 categories: beverage, craft, food, medicine, fuel, spice or condiment, and ritual. The majority of uses were as medicine (~25%), food (~23%), beverages (~14%), and craft (~12%). Beverages include mostly teas and three instances of fermented drink. The craft category includes funeral wreaths and decorative bouquets of dried and fresh materials, including fabrication of Christmas trees from Juniperus communis. Medicines are topical and internal. Fuel includes material for fire and candlewicks. Spices are those plants used during cooking; condiments are those that are added to food once cooked. Ritual describes uses connected with spiritual practices, in this case to cleanse the home of bad energy or ghosts. Our work indicates that while few individuals hold knowledge, it does persist within the community and plants are used today both traditionally and with Danish influence.


A stormy day in the Rocky Mountains.

One of the highlights of the trip was a field trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. The four hour bus ride allowed plenty of time to get to know other conference participants, including Steve Weber, the founder of SoE, and a paleoethnobotanist. His research investigates how and why people adopt subsistence strategies. What I appreciated most about our conversation was to learn that he uses techniques with which I am familiar thanks to my IGERT connection with Earth Scientists, but to ask very different questions. My IGERT colleague, Laura Levy, uses lake core samples to measure the past extent of the Greenland ice sheet. Steve uses them to understand climate and agricultural practices in Pakistan. It was empowering to jump right into a conversation with the founder of an esteemed society with full understanding of his methods. Thanks, IGERT!

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I am working with Prof. Lenore Grenoble, linguist from University of Chicago and IGERT’s Director of the Nuuk seminar, to document knowledge of plant uses and names across Greenland. During our preliminary work last year in Nuuk, it was recommended that we visit southern Greenland, where milder climate contributes to greater vegetation and plant diversity.
This year we will travel below the Arctic Circle to the southern most region of Greenland, known for it’s greenness and beauty. It was here that the Norse settled 1000 years ago.

Lenore and I at a reconstructed Norse structure

By propeller plane from Nuuk to Narsarsuaq, by motor boat 14 kilometers westward across Tunulliarfik (Eirik’s Fjord), Lenore and I travelled to Qassiarsuk, a sheep farming settlement of 60 people.


Sheep herding was introduced to the area in the 1920s by Otto Frederiksen, and many of the towns people are his descendents. We had the pleasure of staying in the home of Laura Frederiksen, an elder in the community who was patient with my single-word attempts at Greenlandic and our many questions about plants.

Laura's house. Note the stone sheep barn in the foreground and hay bales in the back ground. The red building is the church, and the green building is the dormitory for 6 children who come from even smaller settlements for elementary and middle school.

Our hostess beams at our excitement about her 'kimmernasaat' garland pictured above her head. (See below for another use of this plant).

The trip was a great success! Besides Laura we interviewed her teenage granddaughter, her daughter-in-law, and three teachers from the local elementary school. A highlight was being invited to teach at the local school. Lenore worked with 6th-8th graders on conversational English, while I taught the 3rd-5th graders (a class of 5 children, the entire school has 26 students, 1st-8th grade). They are each making an illustrated dictionary of Greenlandic plants and animals in English. I taught them English names for some of their favorite plants (anything with edible berries!).

Excerpt from a fourth grader's dictionary.

Many of the plant uses we learned about during our interviews are culinary. At breakfast one morning we enjoyed a unique homemade preserve made of ‘kimmernaasat.’ A beautiful deep red color similar to cranberry sauce, it was very sweet and had small, crunchy chunks in it that reminded me of pomegranate seeds. Laura taught us how to make this delicious treat from Cornus suecica, a member of the dogwood family.

Our kimmernasaat preserves

Plants are also often used decoratively. Laura had fresh and dried arrangements throughout the house and changed them often. She also made this wreath of native plants and roses she grew indoors to bring to a friend’s funeral.

Laura's handmade heart-shaped wreath. The red berries are kimmernaasat, the roses and begonias were grown indoors.

We are now further south in Nanortalik to continue our interviews. Check back soon for an update on our research!

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Hopefully our blog imparts the sense of urgency that comes with field season. Time is limited, and a lot of effort and funds go toward maximizing the success of a project. The last thing a researcher wants this time of year is to be stuck at a desk trying to iron out details of a new method. Yet here I sit for the fourth day scanning papers, emailing and telephoning experts in an effort to determine how to process the 25 root samples I have waiting in the refrigerator. These roots are from plants in the order that contains the heath family (Ericales), which means they have a symbiotic relationship with underground fungi called mycorrhizae. I want to know which species of mycorrhizae are growing on the roots, and what percent of the roots are colonized by the fungi. The details I’ve gleaned so far are that the roots must be processed within 10 days (they are now 5 days old), and that of all the possible mycorrhizal fungi to study, these are the most difficult to handle and isolate. One expert encouraged me to switch to a different system to avoid the challenge entirely! Sadly, that is not an option, so I plunge further into the cutting edge of mycorrhizae study, with the knowledge that the primary reason there are so many great unanswered questions is because of the effort required to develop techniques to study these mycorrhizae, not because no one has thought of them yet.

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Hello from the State side! While some of my cohort has been busy carrying out their research in Greenland, I’m continuing my work in the alpine zone of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Thirty percent of the alpine flora of New Hampshire is left over from the last ice age, which means they grow in the Arctic as well as New England alpine zones.

Mount Lafayette and Potentilla tridentata, which also grows in Greenland

My work investigates how these plants interact for resources — are they competing, or are they working together to maximize resources? The best way to test this is to remove the neighbor to see how it responds. The photo below shows one of these removals, where I’ve trimmed back the Diapensia lapponica, a soil-forming cushion plant, that was growing around Vaccinium uliginosum, the alpine blueberry.

Soil probes in a treatment plot will measure the soil nitrogen

Because both of these plants also occur in Greenland, I also have research sites in Vulgaris Valley, although the cushion plant I removed is Dryas intergrifolia rather than D. lapponica. If the blueberry grows better in the absence of the cushion plant, it implies competition is taking place between the two species. If blueberry growth decreases, these results imply that the cushion plant was facilitating the blueberry. Tune in later for results — I have to wait until the end of the growing season before I’ll have results.

Not all plants are shared with the Arctic. This rare flower, Geum peckii, is found only in the White Mountains.

I look forward to the new cohort meeting the flora of Greenland next week and seeing what flowers they post on the blog.

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Inuugujaq from Kangerlussuaq, Greenland! We arrived yesterday afternoon after smooth travels thanks to the 109th Air National Guard. This is the third year in a row I’ve been to Kangerlussuaq and I feel incredibly grateful to be here. This is the earliest in the season that I’ve been here and the biggest difference (besides the presences of mosquitoes!) is that many of the tundra plants are flowering! During the past two trips to the region, I learned how to identify many of the tundra plants from Simone Whitecloud, IGERT fellow and botanist extraordinaire. Today I put on my interdisciplinary “hat” and tried to remember everything she taught me! Below are some of the beautiful flowers I saw today.

Rhododendron lapponicum. Much smaller than rhododendrons found in New England!

Moss campion. A tiny cushion plant!

Monchhichi (for scale) amongst the Dryas octopetala.

Stay tuned for more posts as our stay here continues!

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How does something 10,000 feet tall and 1.7 million square kilometers melt? After hearing and feeling loud rumbles from our field site, we hiked to the source, Russell Glacier, to watch the calving. It was a warm August afternoon, and the ice had been in the sun for at least 12 hours by the time we arrived. Below is a sample of the magnificent process.

For size perspective, here are a few members of the team during a calving:
Russell Glacier calving. Laura, Gifford, Lauren and Chris for scale. Photo by Matt Ayres.

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