August 4, 2008
Nature is her classroom:
Ecologist opens doors to living, and learning, from the land
By Carol Clark
For Jessica Seares, ecology and social justice are not just academic subjects — they are a way of life. The Environmental Studies lecturer has wintered in a crude cabin in Alaska; “homesteaded” 64 acres in the Catskill Mountains; worked as an ox drover at a living history museum in New Jersey; slept on an animal skin in a Masai family’s hut in Tanzania; and been arrested for activism in Mexico, Seattle and Columbus, Ga.
“I do feel it’s important to stand up for a cause and, at the same time, if you’re going to be a scientist, to make sure you’re adhering to the rigors of your field,” Seares says.
During the 1999 World Trade Organization gathering in Seattle, before being caught up in a police sweep and spending four days in jail, Seares met a woman from the West Indian island of St. Lucia whose banana farm was affected by deregulation. That led to an invitation to work on the farm, and eventually to Seares’ dissertation on the effects of trade liberalization in the Eastern Caribbean.
Seares’ perspective changed through her research, as she discovered many shades of gray in the struggle between local farms and globalization.
“It’s such a complicated issue. That’s what I love about science,” she says. “When you allow yourself to be falsified, sometimes you find out that what you think you’re seeing is not necessarily the full picture.”
Before joining Emory last fall, Seares taught a mobile political ecology course for Boston University. The class spent nine months on the road, studying the response to environmental degradation among communities in England, India, Mexico, New Zealand and Tanzania. They sometimes slept in barns, under a tree, or on the floor of a local family’s home.
“I had 19 students and 15 of them got malaria,” Seares recalls. “That was probably one of the hardest things about being in Africa.” The students were treated at a local clinic and continued on their way.
Fresh-faced and outdoorsy, with a head full of springy brown curls, Seares looks slightly out of place in the kitchen of her rented Druid Hills bungalow. “We’re living in the middle of a mature hardwood forest,” she says, marveling more at the giant trees than the elegant homes of the neighborhood.
A certified “Georgia porch dog” lies at her feet as her husband, Leon, strolls beyond the open windows, cuddling their 3-month-old son, Lucian.
Seares’ former motto of “have backpack, will travel” recently changed to “have baby, will teach in one spot.”
She grew up near the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. During the summer, her family would go to the Catskill Mountains, where her grandmother had created a camp for developmentally disabled children. The camp eventually closed and the abandoned property became a dump. Seares couldn’t bear it. She paid the back taxes and reclaimed the property, taking a break from her graduate studies to live on the land. She hauled out mountains of trash by hand and winterized a former camp cabin.
“It’s an experiment in sustainability,” she says. “There’s no running water or electricity and we use a composting toilet and a wood stove. I feel a real sense of place there. It’s beautiful.”
Seares enjoys hosting reunions for former students at the cabin, where she teaches them to chop wood and haul water. “You really learn to value a natural resource like water when you understand the strength it takes to move around 25 gallons of it,” she says.
Many of today’s youth lack a connection to the environment because children don’t spend as much time splashing in creeks and climbing trees, Seares says. No doubt Lucian will be getting plenty of time in nature. The baby’s name means “bearer of light,” and is also a reflection of one-half of his heritage — St. Lucia.
“We want him to grow up with a strong sense of place,” Seares says, adding that she is optimistic about the world Lucian will inherit. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to control climate change, and I think that individual actions are definitely going to be a big part of that.”