‘How I Got Here’ – Andrea Pieroni

*An interview with Andrea Pieroni, Professor of Ethnobotany at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo/Bra, Northern Italy and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. 

Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?

I slightly prefer the term Ethnobiologist because it is a little broader. Ethnobotany, we all know what it means but it gives immediately the feeling that you are completely obsessed about plants which is reductionist. People also have other loves in life, good lord!

Describe your work/what you see as your mission.

It is a good question. To me if I look at my path and where I would like to go is to make this knowledge relevant especially where there is a need. I see this in two or three main directions. For community-based strategy of biological conservation, let’s say ethnoecology like Ulysses Albuquerque’s or Vicky Reyes’ works. Another direction is how Ina Vandebroek and others works, with community health. The other direction for me is food and sustainable gastronomy. I think we need to make Ethnobiology relevant without transforming the work of an ethnobiologist into the work that has to be done by NGOs, which is a different story. Some of us may be interested in becoming NGO specialists but if we talk about academic ethnobotany the point is to make it relevant in these three main directions. I am sorry for people studying plant basketry (which I adore!) and ritual plants, but at the moment these look to me the most relevant areas. There would be a fourth direction, but it is still in its start: plants & art. But if we want to group together the relevance of biological things and new ideas about management of a socio-ecological system, bio-conservation, community health and food need to lead when it comes to making a point with stakeholders. This is not just about getting grants but in influencing political decisions considering the crucial role of plant people relationships.

As a student aged 17 (third from right).

What/where did you study? Do you think this influences you in any particular way?

I studied pharmacy but I was a very unhappy student. I didn’t like most of it, just the medical botany, pharmacognosy, phytochemistry and social pharmacy. But I liked that this kind of weird discipline was trying to be aware of how “humans think”: consumers, or patients as they were called then, also have a say. It is not just a discipline of rerum natura as the Germans say. In pharmacy, there is a light on the perceptions of what is called compliance of patients. So we know that if in prescribing, they aren’t going to take it or think it is bullshit, they aren’t going to benefit to the extent it was supposed to be. The human dimension is so important.

Did you ever think you would be an ethno/botanist growing up? Or work with plants?

When I was a child I was interested in minerals and geology. I collected them for many years of my life. So, everyone was sure when I started secondary school that I was going to go into Geology. But during that time, I became interested in plants and this was via a different way. I mean, I come from the mountains and plants were always in my house and people were always collecting plants but in the last year of my secondary school [17 years old] I joined a course on herbal medicine. It was very expensive, I had to put my little savings apart. I did it over 12 weekends, it was very heavy but I loved it. It was taught by a few naturopathic doctors who specialised at that time in what we called phytotherapy. It changed my mind completely and I switched from minerals to plants.  

Most of the attendees were adults, older women interested in herbs and then me! I remember there was a lecture on the philosophy of health from an Italian TCM expert. He was always asking, ‘did you observe this morning your piss and shit?’ It is a crazy story but I liked his philosophy, it was opening my mind. So later when I studied pharmacy, I was like a rebel. I was saying this is the kind of thing we need to be asking people!

Another story is that my father, before passing away, tried to explain to me why in his opinion I was so interested in herbs (something he never really found worth in) and confessed to me that I was conceived while he and my mum were foraging wild greens on a spring day of February 1967!

Resting during mushroom hunting with mum and brother (I am the little one) Tuscan Apennines, about 1972

Who/what was the most influential person(s)/moment on your career?

Nowadays I could say that there have been a number of older grannies who were informants in the field who were very influential and I talk about some of them on a video (see here). But during my time as an unhappy pharmacy student, I became interested in ethnobotany, not only because I was a countryside boy and my biographical roots as my family collected plants, but because at that time I became interested in peace studies, rural development and how to make the world a better place. At 19 I was the youngest leader of the Friends of the Earth association in my city where I had moved to (Leghorn). I very much got involved  in the green and peace movements and in this ethnobotany was very much fitting. Then when I started to read ethnobotany in the last years of university, Nina Etkin was the person who influenced me most. She was an extraordinary anthropologist who wrote about ethnobotany at the intersection between food and medicine. I was very much into food too. I remember the first time I met her later, years later, I was like a young child meeting the hero footballer, the dream of his life! I think she was surprised, this little Italian, why is he so excited about me and ethnobotany? She passed away in 2009 –I admired her for her incredible intuitions at the crossroad between traditional food and medicines and her very crystalline theoretical frames. See her “testament” here.

What was the highlight of your career? A moment you were proud of?

I was really proud when I published my first article in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Maybe because this was the first study I entirely thought out, designed, conducted, and reflected upon.

And a lowlight? Was there ever a point you looked at yourself and thought what am I doing/how the hell did I get here?

In Istria I conducted a field study between 2003 and 2005, but I could not collect basically anything, because locals were very old persons, who had lost most of their Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). I was at that time extremely frustrated, but nowadays I can see that with another eye and appreciate the beautiful feeling and freedom to be “lost” somewhere. It is a huge privilege to be “lost” and confused, without having a clear direction. These horrible pandemic times could actually be also very nice, if seen under this light.

What would be your top advice for a student of ethnobotany?

Everyone is special, unique, and should follow his/her/their vocation. NEVER doing a research just because “there is research money there”.

THINK A LOT ABOUT THE STUDY RATIONALE/DESIGN.

Most ethnobotanical works are wonderfully conducted and analysed but often they have not been well thought out.

Field research in Southern Italy, 2000.

How do you see the future of ethnobotany? i.e. new trends, areas not yet researched, areas that are over researched? What do you see as the most important mission of ethnobotany for the future?

The future of ethnobotany is in my opinion needs to go along two main directions:

1. To better design ethnobotanical studies with much more care/reflections. To design a study takes MONTHS if not years!

2. Applied ethnobiology, i.e. articulating the process of the whole participatory research and its “after” as one of the main aims of research itself.

This process nowadays is facilitated by new media and continuous online contacts we can have with young community members living in our study areas. As Tim Ingold would put it, we need to (re-)implement the very essence of anthropology via reconciling reality and imagination, co-creating and co-experiencing processes. Not the “study of/on” but the “study with”.

Over-researched are surely mere lists of used plants, without any attempt to humbly present a cultural interpretation of the data – the kind of ethnobotany that is still pretty common in many botanical departments.

The most important mission of ethnobotany for the future is to give its crucial contribution to a truly citizens’ science (science for the citizens made TOGETHER WITH the citizens) and to foster “holistic” sustainability (environmental AND social) 

Favourite ethnobotanical researcher?

As well as Nina Etkin who I mentioned before, my most inspiring teachers and colleagues include Nancy Turner, Ina Vandebroek, Renata Soukand, Lisa Price, Lukasz Luczaj, and the unforgettable Justin Nolan (who passed away last May) – for their serendipitous and deep vibes – they are/have been not only great ethnobiologists but incredible inspiring friends. Special to me was also Maria Elena Giusti, an Italian anthropologist who maybe very few knew abroad, who focused on popular literature and ethnobotany I worked with in the field for ten years – she passed away one month ago. She taught me everything about “how to be in the field”.

What do you do in your downtime? Any secret hobbies?

Cooking like crazy, collecting plants in the parks or cemeteries in the city. The cemetery I regularly visit for foraging in my hometown Cologne is a large green area near my house. I am not shy to collect from there, I find it completely OK. I also cook a lot, not just things I forage. I like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen. My other big love in life is reading poetry. I have a big library of contemporary 20th and 21st century poetry from the most traditional to the most experimental. I do not play football. In this way reconfirming the bias that most scholars do not practice much sports. I like sports in a moderate way and walk a lot but don’t go to the gym.

Andrea’s ravioli. A symbol of love.

I have noticed many ethnobotanists like cooking, and reading or writing poetry, it seems to be a big theme

Yes, it is true! I have seen on many occasions that ethnobotanists like cooking strange ingredients. If you are visiting an ethnobotanist, you do always a good thing if you bring an unusual traditional food item from your area. And this is a problem because if you do that with friends who are not ethnobotanists, it doesn’t work!

The most relaxing thing for me in the kitchen is making homemade pizza, always from scratch and ravioli. I love filled pasta, for me this is the quintessence of cooking. Making spaghetti, even with a nice original sauce, is easy and can be done in 10-15 minutes, but if you really love someone then you have to make homemade filled pasta and the filling has to be extraordinary: sauerkraut, wild herbs, wild game. It is the most labour-intensive task showing love and is very good. What is funny is that in 15 minutes it has gone! Three hours cooking and then gone so quickly. This is life!

What is your favourite plant and why?

The plant I most like to eat is Raspberry. I can go crazy for it, ice-cream, juice, syrup, distillate, pastries. Raspberries! If someone sees me angry, bring me raspberry stuff in any form and my mood will be good again.


*An interview with SEB Student council member, Kim Walker. This is part of a series interviewing ethnobotanists on their career path and experiences. To read more of these, click on the Interview/Bio category in the side panel. If you would like to interview someone, please email Kim at students@econbot.org

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