Maria Fadiman: The Narrative of People and Plants


Sometimes-if we're lucky- we come across people that move on a different frequency than most. Their essence is the almost-perfect balance between mirth and earnestness, humor and meaning. Because of this, they become a force-field of energy that attracts others and makes them listen. It’s the perfect recipe for a storyteller.

Maria Fadiman is this kind of person. In less than two seconds her tone can switch from the elasticity and bounciness of a joke, to the mellow seriousness of someone who knows there’s something more profound and vital in her message. As an ethnobotanist, geographer, and National Geographic Explorer, Maria works with people and plants to bring awareness to the inherent connection that exists between them.

There are the stories she tells her students in the class room at Florida Atlantic University; or, when she’s walking on a TED stage pretending to sword fight the air with a machete. Then there are those she records of plants in booklets for indigenous communities. "What I think stories do for people and for me its that they make things come alive. If you feel something about a topic, you're more likely to take action."

What's particular about these stories is that most are not about her. She collects them, only to place them at center stage so that other people’s realities and ecosystems become tangible. And more importantly, accessible.

Achuar indigenous man living near (but not in) oil areas.

Maria had always been interested in conservation, but science had never truly appealed to her. While studying Latin American literature in college, she “finagled” (as she put it) her way into being a rainforest volunteer guide. It was there, after battling spiders and snakes and counting the days to go home, where she first learned about the thread holding all the pieces together. The fact that every living thing on this planet contributes to its existence, and that it wasn’t only about the plants, but also about the people who we’re teaching her about them.

“I think its inherent in us, because were all connected,” she says. “We’re all made up of the same stuff. When I go out in the Redwoods, I feel myself fill up, and there’s something I just can’t explain about the feeling of being in nature.”

It’s almost unfair, blasphemous, to try to define that feeling; the force of it, the way it flaunts itself, with its coy posture and volatile, artistic temperament. Language, a man-made tool, fails us. So while we talk we have to rely on mimicking the effects it has on the body: that hold-your-breath feeling, or how you feel yourself expanding and shrinking at the same time.

Felipe wrapping the duck in leaves to carry on his back.

She has encountered this feeling her entire life. Once, she recalls, she was walking behind a Maori guide in the forests of New Zealand, when they came upon a Kauri tree- of spiritual significance to the Maoris. She remembered thinking his body movements emulated the forest, as if he we’re just another part of its ecosystem. The man took out a small bag full of rice, and a coke bottle filled with water- sprinkled the rice first, then the water- and asked Maria to put her forehead against the trunk and then tell the tree whatever it needed to know.

“It’s hard to find the words sometimes to describe something that is such a sensation. An instinct,” Maria says. “There was this moment, when I realized I was with somebody who knew what’s going on, on a whole different level.”

But to her, the most exciting thing is to watch people using plants in an everyday way. For example, watching basket makers weave vine together to create an item that wasn’t there before. Or when she was in Ecuador, and Felipe, whose home she had been visiting, wrapped a duck they had gifted to her in leaves, so he could carry it on his back on an 8-hour trek back to the research station.

“It just made so much sense to me. To live that way. And to understand that everything around us is useful,” says Maria.

Our day to day encounters with nature go unnoticed in more urban spaces. But, Maria says she likes to focus on the ways we are still connected. “I was in Shanghai- where you can’t even breathe the air and if there’s a blue sky everyone takes pictures- working at the parks, looking at p