‘How I got Here’ – Priscilla Wehi

An interview with Dr Priscilla Wehi, an interdisciplinary conservation researcher at Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research and Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Excellence for Complex Systems – Dunedin. Priscilla’s website is here. Dr Wehi will be taking up a new position in the Centre for Sustainability, University of Otago in early 2021. Twitter: @cillawehi

Please describe yourself in your own words. Do you consider yourself primarily an ethnobotanist or do you have another way of seeing yourself?

I describe myself in lots of different ways, and probably more as more of an ethnobiologist than an ethnobotanist. One of the reasons for that is because I am interested in the relationship between lots of different things, such as plants and animals. I see myself as a conservation biologist because protecting plants and animals for future generations matters a lot to me.

Describe your work/what you see as your mission

I was drawn into science because I was really curious about the world and how everything worked. As part of growing up in New Zealand, I spent a lot of time outside, walking in forests, and on the tops of mountains, and looking at tiny things on the ground as well – moss, ferns, insects.  I love picking apart how things work – how ecology influences evolution, and how language embeds human knowledge of biodiversity for example. I am passionate about helping other people see how incredible the web of life and the world is. But as I have gone on in science, I have become aware how important it is to protect all of that web of life – which is what got me into conservation. My mission is to take people on that journey with me.

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

I studied at University of Canterbury for my undergraduate years, and learned a mixture of languages including English, Greek and Māori, as well as botany and zoology. When doing my PhD I was living in the Waikato in the North of New Zealand and ended up studying in the School of Māori and Pacific Development, or as it is known in Māori, Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao. The reason I did that was because I started my PhD in biological sciences but never quite felt comfortable there. I ended up transferring to Te Pua Wananga ki te Ao and it felt right. I think one of the reasons it felt right was because it meant that tikanga was the norm, which is when you study and live and work and breathe in a school where Māori cultural practices are centred. Everything is done accord to those norms, and that feels the right way to be studying ethnobotany. I learned a great deal from studying there. It absolutely influenced how I wanted to go on in my career. It drew me to understand that the framework and philosophy of how I approached my work really mattered in terms of what flourished, and what came from that process. And of course, I made amazing friends. The name Te Pua Wānanga ki te Ao also speaks to the relationship people have with plants.  The name relates to a  clematis that flowers at the beginning of each spring, and has cultural significance.

Did you ever think you would be an ethno/botanist growing up? [Or work with plants?] If you were not an ethnobotanist, what would you be?

No, I didn’t want to work with plants, I wanted to be a writer when I was growing up! But as a scientist and especially an ethnobotanist,  so much of what we do is around story. It is about allowing data to speak, and revealing that story. As ethnobotanists (or if we work in biocultural conservation), we are really interested in  the relationships people have with plants, the stories we share with those plants, and with those landscapes. So being a scientist is, is about telling, and writing, those stories as well. A different kind of creation, but equally satisfying for me.

I notice in these interviews with many ethnobotanists that storytelling seems to be a recurring theme when I ask people about what they do in their leisure time. Do you also write in other ways?

I used to write a lot of poetry, though I don’t do much of that anymore. I am currently writing a book for young adults.

What else do you do in your downtime?

I love walking on the coast – it helps me think. I live near a beach and spend a lot of time there. Pīngao (Ficinia spiralis) is a  lovely little sand binding plant I love. When it dries it is a deep orange colour and is used in weaving. I have woven with it a little, although mostly I have woven with another plant, harakeke (Phormium tenax) that I wrote about in my PhD. I also love walking through forests.

Pīngao (Ficinia spiralis). Image author’s own.

Who was the most influential person(s) on your career? Was there ever an act of (kindness/fate) that changed your life course?

That is tricky as there have been so many people who have influenced my career. When I was growing up on Stewart Island right down in the South with my godparents, they would take me out on the inlet in their boat, visiting different gullies and nuggets – tiny islands. They knew and loved many of the plants there, so I spent a lot of time looking at plants  – especially ferns – and birds such as kakariki and kaka – NZ endemic parakeets and parrots -and learning the names of those things with them. Just being out in the forest in the summers was a huge influence.

My children and  family have also shaped me of course. By the time I came to do my PhD I had 3 small children aged 5 and under. I had done a lot of zoology and I love animals, but because I was a parent with 3 very small children, I had to think about how I could study and be a parent at the same time. We were living in the Waikato at the time, in my husband’s tribal area. He had family living nearby on the rural west coast, where his mother grew up. Because I wanted to do research that was meaningful for me and the family, and that I could do looking after small children, and that included my interests in the natural world – well, that’s how I got into ethnobotany. In a sense, my career choice came about because of the family relationships that I had. These relationships are still one of the most important drivers of why I do what I do. It is very humbling when people trust you with knowledge and share what they know with you. When you live in a community where plants and animals matter deeply, you realise how important it is to be able to protect these for future generations, our children and those yet to come. It is our responsibility.

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

One of the highlights for me has been working on the ecological knowledge embedded in Māori oral tradition. I love this work because I collaborate with two linguists and a computational biologist. We have been working together to draw out the knowledge around plants and animals that is embedded in these forms of oral tradition. They have become lifelong friends. Because the nature of the work is very interdisciplinary and requires all of our diverse skills, I am now able to think of the world in different ways. It is incredibly satisfying to be part of a project where we can weave together different knowledge systems, different perspectives and understandings. That has led to another of my highlights –  about 18 months ago I became the incoming Director for Te Pūnaha Matatini (meaning “the meeting place of many faces”) which is a Centre of Research Excellence in Complex Systems. We focus on complexity and interdisciplinary and how we can use those approaches to help solve some of the big problems we are facing globally, such as the loss of biodiversity. This opportunity arose because of the interdisciplinary work I had been doing, working with Indigenous ecological knowledge woven with other disciplines.

More generally, it is wonderful to be able to explore ideas and be creative in our work. To experiment, and understand the connections that link ideas and practice. As well, I have found people – friends – who share my passion and love for nature, and my interest in the intricate web of the world.

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?

After I finished my PhD I knew I was passionate about research and it is very difficult to find a post-doctoral position. But I applied for one in South America and wrote a proposal with my proposed mentor. I was offered the position and accepted.  I was so excited that I would get to go to work there for a couple of years. I felt that I was about to launch my career. But what happened next was immensely disappointing. When I wrote to the institute and said I would be looking for a house for myself, my partner and 3 children,  they wrote back to say that the PD was not suitable for someone with children (even though my partner would have been the primary care giver). It was a real lowlight, I felt angry and I thought I wasn’t going to be able to find a career in science doing the research I loved. It was a very difficult moment. I didn’t get to do a post doc overseas.

However, a few months later I managed to get a postdoctoral position in NZ working with Mary Morgan Richards. She is a woman scientist with 2 children of her own, and an extremely astute but also wonderfully supportive mentor,. She is someone who really believes in the potential of her students and post docs. I count myself incredibly lucky to have had her as a mentor. That was a turning point in itself.  There are silver linings.

Priscilla teaching. Image author’s own.

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

Take the time to walk amongst your plants or animals, spend time with them. It is one of the most valuable things you can do – to watch, observe and listen. See how they change with the seasons. Build a relationship with them. I have learnt so much amongst the plants and animals watching and thinking. Just being with them without an agenda and allowing your mind to wander.

Be courageous in your work, and experiment.

How do you see the future of ethnobotany?

I think first up, we all need a relationship with nature wherever we live. With more and more of us living in cities, I’ve come to see urban ethnobotany as under-researched.

It is also important to grow a new generation of students and other people, communities of people, who can care for the world in the future. Plants are vital for ecosystems everywhere so when we care for plants, we care for all our relatives in those ecosystems. So, helping to grow a new generation of people who are going to do that work is vital.  As ethnobotanists, we are also coming to understand how critical our community partnerships are. We partner with our communities because we need to walk together in this work. In a sense, this is about the social justice frameworks, as well as the world views and practices that underpin the journey. We need to see all of this as working hand in hand. More and more researchers are doing this work, and I think ethnobiologists often lead the way on this in the research community. The worst research is extractive and exploitative. Our job is to be ethical and collaborative working in partnership with communities.

Favourite ethnobotanical researcher?

I love Nancy Turner dearly. I was lucky to have her as one of my PhD examiners, and she has been so incredibly generous to me from that time on. She has shown me the kind of researcher I would like to be. I am in awe of her.

I would also like to mention another woman, Whakaotirangi . When the ancestors of Māori migrated through the Pacific to come to New Zealand, one of these groups that landed came from the seafaring vessel, the  Tainui, which my husband belongs to. Whakaotirangi is a famous ancestor of the Tainui people, and when she came she brought Kūmara (sweet potato) seeds which she then planted and grew in famous gardens at Kawhia. She is thus one of the first gardeners and I would say, ethnobotanists in New Zealand. She developed an immense knowledge of the plants, the soil, the growing conditions as she both observed and moved through the landscape there. To know there have been strong women such as Whakaotirangi from the beginning of human settlement in this country has been a powerful inspiration.

Have you any ‘must read’ ethnobotany books?

I would definitely say Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer and also Nancy Turner’s work.

Kidney Fern, Hymenophyllum nephrophyllum. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

What is your favourite plant?;

When I was growing up and I used to visit the Stewart island with my Godparents, and we would go out in the boat to a special kidney fern gully. To this day, I have a vision in my mind of  visiting this place with them, with its riot of kidney fern (Hymenophyllum nephrophyllum) tumbling down the tree trunks and banks. Especially after rain, it is translucent and shines with water, as other filmy ferns also do, because it is only 3 or 4 cells thick – it is shaped like a kidney and sporangia are crowded along the margin. When the kidneys are open, they have this incredible, light green glow, a lovely shine. And this is what I love about ethnobotany; when we think of our favourite plants, it is not just  the way they look, their form or purpose that is important, it is that we have all of these memories that are part of the relationship that we have with them. So, for me, I particularly love kidney fern because I recall visiting that place as a child. I can still hear my godmother pointing them out and turning to me to say “look how beautiful they are.” She gave me a love of ferns. We would go and collect the fronds or sporophytes, lay  them out on paper and then collect the sori so the gametophytes and then the ferns could grow . To this day I have a very soft spot for ferns.

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

One thought on “‘How I got Here’ – Priscilla Wehi

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  1. Loved reading this interview about my sister in law, she is an amazing lady, I now have a better understanding of how passionate she is about her work, and how hard she has worked to become an Ethnobiologist, I’m sure we will be reading/seeing more of Dr P Wehi’s experiences and career path. Thankyou Serena U 🍃🌱


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