Ethnobiology for the Future, 2016

Ethnobiology holds a special place in the hearts and minds of many because of its dedication to celebrating the knowledge and values of some of the most distinctive cultural practices in some of the most distinctive places on Earth. Yet we live in a world of diminishing natural and linguistic diversity. Whether due to climate change or capitalism, homogeneity is trumping the once-resplendent heterogeneity all around us.

In this important new collection, Gary Paul Nabhan puts forth a call for the future not only of ethnobiology but for the entire planet. He articulates and broadens the portfolio of ethnobiological principles and amplifies the tool kit for anyone engaged in the ethnobiosphere, those vital spaces of intense interaction among cultures, habitats, and creatures.

The essays are grouped into a trio of themes. The first group presents the big questions facing humanity, the second profiles tools and methodologies that may help to answer those questions, and the third ponders how to best communicate these issues not merely to other scholars, but to society at large. The essays attest to the ways humans establish and circumscribe their identities not only through their thoughts and actions, but also with their physical, emotional, and spiritual attachments to place, flora, fauna, fungi, and feasts.




Cumin, Camels, and Caravans: A Spice Odyssey, 2014

Gary Paul Nabhan takes the reader on a vivid and far-ranging journey across time and space in this fascinating look at the relationship between the spice trade and culinary imperialism. Drawing on his own family’s history as spice traders, as well as travel narratives, historical accounts, and an ethnobotanical exploration of spices and their uses, Nabhan describes the critically important roles that Semitic peoples and desert floras had in setting the stages for globalized spice trade.

Traveling along four prominent trade routes—the Silk Road, the Frankincense Trail, the Spice Route, and the Camino Real for chiles and chocolate—Nabhan follows the caravans of itinerant spice merchants from the frankincense-gathering grounds and ancient harbors of the Arabian Peninsula, to the port of Zayton on the China Sea, to Santa Fe in the desert Southwest. His stories, recipes, and linguistic analyses of cultural diffusion routes reveal the extent to which aromatics like cumin, cinnamon, saffron, and peppers became adopted worldwide as signature ingredients of diverse cuisines. Cumin, Camels, and Caravans demonstrates that two particular desert cultures often depicted in constant conflict—Arabs and Jews—have spent more of their history collaborating in the spice trade and suggests how a more virtuous multicultural but globalized society may be achieved in the future.



Food, Genes, and Culture – Eating Right for Your Origins

by Gary Nabhan

Vegan, low fat, low carb, slow carb: Every diet seems to promise a one-size-fits-all solution to health. But they ignore the diversity of human genes and how they interact with what we eat.

In Food, Genes, and Culture, renowned ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan shows why the perfect diet for one person could be disastrous for another. If your ancestors were herders in Northern Europe, milk might well provide you with important nutrients, whereas if you’re Native American, you have a higher likelihood of lactose intolerance. If your roots lie in the Greek islands, the acclaimed Mediterranean diet might save your heart; if not, all that olive oil could just give you stomach cramps.

Nabhan traces food traditions around the world, from Bali to Mexico, uncovering the links between ancestry and individual responses to food. The implications go well beyond personal taste. Today’s widespread mismatch between diet and genes is leading to serious health conditions, including a dramatic growth over the last 50 years in auto-immune and inflammatory diseases.

Readers will not only learn why diabetes is running rampant among indigenous peoples and heart disease has risen among those of northern European descent, but may find the path to their own perfect diet.

“Gary Nabhan is one of the most important food writers we have in this country. In this eloquent and fascinating book, he shows us how our food and culture are so deeply rooted in our land and agriculture.” – Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse

“This exploration of the coevolution of communities and their native foods couldn’t be more timely…Mixing hard science with personal anecdotes, Nabhan convincingly argues that health comes from a genetically appropriate diet inextricably entwined with a healthy land and culture.” – Publisher’s Weekly





Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land – Lessons from Desert Farmers on Adapting to Climate Uncertainty

by Gary Nabhan
Foreword by Bill McKibben

With climatic uncertainty now “the new normal,” many farmers, gardeners, and orchardists in North America are desperately seeking ways to adapt how they grow food in the face of climate change. The solutions may be at our back door.

In Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, Nabhan, one of the world’s experts on the agricultural traditions of arid lands, draws from the knowledge of traditional farmers in the Gobi Desert, the Arabian Peninsula, the Sahara Desert, and Andalusia, as well as the Sonoran, Chihuahuan, and Painted deserts of North America to offer time-tried strategies, including:

  • Building greater moisture-holding capacity and nutrients in soils;
  • Protecting fields from damaging winds, drought, and floods;
  • Reducing heat stress on crops and livestock;
  • Harvesting water from uplands to use in rain gardens and terraces filled with perennial crops;
  • Selecting fruits, nuts, succulents, and herbaceous perennials that are best suited to warmer, drier climates; and,
  • Keeping pollinators in pace and in place with arid-adapted crop plants.

“Emulating and refining these adaptations may help us secure food in the face of climate change,” writes Nabhan.

A certain type of agricultural history was made in 2011 when more than 500 food-producing counties in the continental United States were declared parts of disaster areas because they suffered weather-related crop failures. The searing heat waves and dry conditions suffered across seven-tenths of the United States during the summer of 2012 proved even more devastating: 2,228 counties were designated as federal disaster areas, where crops and livestock were either severely affected or lost to drought.

“Drylands are home to 40 percent of the world’s people: a figure sure to rise in the coming decades as our world grows more parched. That is why Gary Nabhan’s latest book is indispensable.  Everyone who grows food — make that, everyone who eats food — should be grateful he wrote it. An homage to old wisdom and to the latter-day soil magicians who are Nabhan’s living muses, it is a rich herbarium of delicious, hardy sustenance and a manual for our future.”

Alan Weisman, author, The World Without Us and Countdown





Desert Terroir Desert Terroir, Exploring the Unique Flavors and Sundry Places of the Borderlands

Gary Nabhan

Available Now
Comments by: Diana Kennedy, Rick Baylees and Rowan Jacobson
Cover art by: Paul Mirocha

Why does food taste better when you know where it comes from? Because history—ecological, cultural, even personal—flavors every bite we eat. Whether it’s the volatile chemical compounds that a plant absorbs from the soil or the stories and memories of places that are evoked by taste, layers of flavor await those willing to delve into the roots of real food. In this landmark book, Gary Paul Nabhan takes us on a personal trip into the southwestern borderlands to discover the terroir—the “taste of the place”—that makes this desert so delicious.

To savor the terroir of the borderlands, Nabhan presents a cornucopia of local foods—Mexican oregano, mesquite-flour tortillas, grass-fed beef, the popular Mexican dessert capirotada, and corvina (croaker or drum fish) among them—as well as food experiences that range from the foraging of Cabeza de Vaca and his shipwrecked companions to a modern-day camping expedition on the Rio Grande. Nabhan explores everything from the biochemical agents that create taste in these foods to their history and dispersion around the world. Through his field adventures and humorous stories, we learn why Mexican oregano is most potent when gathered at the most arid margins of its range—and why foods found in the remote regions of the borderlands have surprising connections to foods found by his ancestors in the deserts of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. By the end of his movable feast, Nabhan convinces us that the roots of this fascinating terroir must be anchored in our imaginations as well as in our shifting soils.

“This latest book by Gary Nabhan shows him as an historian, an adventurer, a cook, and an ethnobotanist and, as such, a keen observer of the landscape around him. Ever since his first book, The Desert Smells Like Rain, I love to read his finely tuned descriptions of the natural world and here, once again, in Desert Terroir he makes us acutely aware of the never-ending variety of the plants, trees, and landscapes through which he is passing and through which we may have passed without taking heed.”

Diana Kennedy, author of Oaxaca al Gusto: An Infinite Gastronomy (2011 Cookbook of the Year, James Beard Foundation) and other classic books on authentic Mexican cooking


Desert Terroir is deceptive. In these simple stories of people foraging and farming the lands of the Southwest, Gary Nabhan has captured the essence of the desert, and just maybe the essence of the place itself. Desert Terroir will make you crave wild oregano, mesquite tortillas, and yes, even camel sausage, but it will do more than that – locked within these pages are the secret codes to understanding life’s myriad answers to earth’s ancient questions. Read it, and see the wonder and the mystery through fresh eyes.”

-Rowan Jacobsen, author of American Terroir


“In the two decades I’ve known Gary Nabhan and the words he’s collected into books, I’ve eagerly anticipated every meeting, every new work. He remains ahead of the pack, exploring dimensions of agricultural heritage and food justice that most writers neglect. In Desert Terroir, he returns to what he does the best: telling delicious stories, rooted deeply in people and places, that will enrich our relationships with our favorite foods.”

-Rick Bayless, chef/owner of Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and XOCO in Chicago; host of PBS’s Mexico – One Plate at a Time; and winner of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters




Chasing Chiles Chasing Chiles – Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail, 2011

Kurt Michael Friese , Kraig Kraft , Gary Nabhan

Chasing Chiles looks at both the future of place-based foods and the effects of climate change on agriculture through the lens of the chile pepper—from the farmers who cultivate this iconic crop to the cuisines and cultural traditions in which peppers play a huge role.

Why chile peppers? Both a spice and a vegetable, chile peppers have captivated imaginations and taste buds for thousands of years. Native to Mesoamerica and the New World, chiles are currently grown on every continent, since their relatively recent introduction to Europe (in the early 1500s via Christopher Columbus). Chiles are delicious, dynamic, and very diverse—they have been rapidly adopted, adapted, and assimilated into numerous world cuisines, and while malleable to a degree, certain heirloom varieties are deeply tied to place and culture—but now accelerating climate change may be scrambling their terroir.

Over a year-long journey, three pepper-loving gastronauts—an agroecologist, a chef, and an ethnobotanist—set out to find the real stories of America’s rarest heirloom chile varieties, and learn about the changing climate from farmers and other people who live by the pepper, and who, lately, have been adapting to shifting growing conditions and weather patterns. They put a face on an issue that has been made far too abstract for our own good.

“A treasure trove of chile lore and a wake-up call to everyone who cares about real food, Chasing Chiles will amuse and alarm you. These three gastronauts carry a wealth of culinary and botanical knowledge, and their journeys in their Spice Ship uncover an incredibly diverse world of chiles that is changing with breathtaking speed. Stop worrying about the impact of climate change on future harvests; cross your fingers for this year’s instead.”

— Rowan Jacobsen , author of American Terroir and Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis




Where Our Food Comes From Where Our Food Comes From – Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine,
Gary Paul Nabhan
Released on: 09/12/2008

The future of our food depends on tiny seeds in orchards and fields the world over. In 1943, one of the first to recognize this fact, the great botanist Nikolay Vavilov, lay dying of starvation in a Soviet prison. But in the years before Stalin jailed him as a scapegoat for the country’s famines, Vavilov had traveled over five continents, collecting hundreds of thousands of seeds in an effort to outline the ancient centers of agricultural diversity and guard against widespread hunger. Now, another remarkable scientist—and vivid storyteller—has retraced his footsteps.

In Where Our Food Comes From , Gary Paul Nabhan weaves together Vavilov’s extraordinary story with his own expeditions to Earth’s richest agricultural landscapes and the cultures that tend them. Retracing Vavilov’s path from Mexico and the Colombian Amazon to the glaciers of the Pamirs in Tajikistan, he draws a vibrant portrait of changes that have occurred since Vavilov’s time and why they matter.

In his travels, Nabhan shows how climate change, free trade policies, genetic engineering, and loss of traditional knowledge are threatening our food supply. Through discussions with local farmers, visits to local outdoor markets, and comparison of his own observations in eleven countries to those recorded in Vavilov’s journals and photos, Nabhan reveals just how much diversity has already been lost. But he also shows what resilient farmers and scientists in many regions are doing to save the remaining living riches of our world.




RAFT Renewing America’s Food Traditions – Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods, 2008

Gary Paul Nabhan; Editor
Forwarded by: Deborah Madison
Released on: 04/01/2008

Renewing America’s Food Traditions is a beautifully illustrated dramatic call to recognize, celebrate, and conserve the great diversity of foods that gives North America its distinctive culinary identity that reflects our multicultural heritage. It offers us rich natural and cultural histories as well as recipes and folk traditions associated with the rarest food plants and animals in North America. In doing so, it reminds us that what we choose to eat can either conserve or deplete the cornucopia of our continent.

While offering a eulogy to a once-common game food that has gone extinct—the passenger pigeon—the book doesn’t dwell on tragic losses. Instead, it highlights the success stories of food recovery, habitat restoration, and market revitalization that chefs, farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and foresters have recently achieved. Through such “food parables,” editor Gary Paul Nabhan and his colleagues build a persuasive argument for eater-based conservation.

“Renewing America’s Food Traditions gives us a great food adventure to embark on—really no less than discovering ourselves through foods that we didn’t even know were, in some way, ours.” Deborah Madison , from the foreword





Arab/American: Landscape, Culture, and Cuisine in Two Great Deserts, 2008

The landscapes, cultures, and cuisines of deserts in the Middle East and North America have commonalities that have seldom been explored by scientists—and have hardly been celebrated by society at large. Sonoran Desert ecologist Gary Nabhan grew up around Arab grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins in a family that has been emigrating to the United States and Mexico from Lebanon for more than a century, and he himself frequently travels to the deserts of the Middle East.

In an era when some Arabs and Americans have markedly distanced themselves from one another, Nabhan has been prompted to explore their common ground, historically, ecologically, linguistically, and gastronomically. Arab/American is not merely an exploration of his own multicultural roots but also a revelation of the deep cultural linkages between the inhabitants of two of the world’s great desert regions. Here, in beautifully crafted essays, Nabhan explores how these seemingly disparate cultures are bound to each other in ways we would never imagine. With an extraordinary ear for language and a truly adventurous palate, Nabhan uncovers surprising convergences between the landscape ecology, ethnogeography, agriculture, and cuisines of the Middle East and the binational Desert Southwest.

Arab/American “provides a sumptuous mosaic of personal and cultural history,” and offers “a delicious read.” – Diana Abu-Jaber




Renewing Salmon Nation’s Food Traditions, 2006

Renewing Salmon Nation’s Food Traditions describes a treasure trove of regional plants and species — some at risk, others recovering. We hope that it can serve as both a reference guide and a historical inventory of species that were once abundant in Salmon Nation.

At the back, this handbook also features a resource guide — a listing of nurseries and seed companies serving the region. With this information in hand, it is up to us to bring these fruits, vegetables, herbs, and shellfish back into widespread cultivation. Farmers can help by growing these varieties, and chefs and retailers can join in by featuring them on restaurant menus and at grocery store. – Debra Sohm Lawson, Director of Food and Farms Market Connections, Ecotrust





Why Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes and Cultural Diversity, 2004

Nabhan, an ethnobiologist and nutritional ecologist, examines how our ethnicity determines our digestion. He explains why modern native Americans are prone to diabetes, and why Mediterranean diets generally work best for those whose forbears came from the Mediterranean.

He urges us to learn about the foods our particular ethnic group used to stay healthy in the home country, and to apply that knowledge to the food choices we make.

“Mixing hard science with personal anecdotes, Nabhan convincingly argues that health comes from a genetically appropriate diet inextricably entwined with a healthy land and culture.” — Publishers Weekly

“Move over Dr. Atkins–here’s someone who really understands what a body needs. In a homogenized world, it is delightful to be reminded that our cells and organs follow a much older and more complex set of instructions. Read it before you head out to the market for this week’s shopping!” – Bill McKibben , author of “Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age”





Renewing America’s Food Traditions (with Ashley Rood), 2004

Where have all these heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds gone? When Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá wrote about visiting the Pueblos of New Mexico in 1598, diversity on the farm and on the table was the norm—not the exception—across most of North America.

Today, roughly four hundred years later, two-thirds of the distinctive seeds and breeds which then fed America have vanished. One in fifteen wild, edible plant and animal species on this continent has diminished to the degree that it is now considered at risk. These declines in diversity bring losses in traditional ecological and culinary knowledge as well. Consequently, we have suffered declines in the food rituals which otherwise link communities to place and cultural heritage.





Woodlands in Crisis (with Marcelle Coder and Susie Smith), 2004

In recent years, the West has suffered from unprecedented stand-replacing wildfires, and the government has invested more money in preventative forest thinning than ever before.

This forest crisis has led to much controversy over the Healthy Forests legislation passed by Congress in 2003. On the Colorado Plateau, it has also spurred heated debates regarding the degree to which thinning can truly serve to restore wooded habitats and what reference conditions and or restoration goals are needed to guide such plans.

This book offers a primer for understanding how diverse land-use histories have impacted the health of pine-dominated ecosystems in the West and points to measures for better managing them in the future.





Cross-Pollinations: The Marriage of Science and Poetry, 2004

A pioneering ethnobotanist, Gary Paul Nabhan credits the arts with sparking unlikely scientific breakthroughs and believes that such “cross-pollination” engenders new forms of expression that are essential to discovery.

In this highly readable book, he tells four stories to illustrate this idea. In the first, coping with color blindness in art class leads to his career as a scientist; in the second, ancient American Indian songs, when translated, reveal an understanding of plants and animals that rivals modern research; in the third, a poem inspires an approach to diabetes using desert plants; and in the fourth, a coalition of scientists and artists creates the Ironwood Forest National Monument in the Sonoran Desert.




Tequila!: A Natural and Cultural History (with Ana-Guadalupe Valenzuela-Zapata), 2004

The array of bottles is impressive, their contents finely tuned to varied tastes. But they all share the same roots in Mesoamerica’s natural bounty and human culture.

The drink is tequila—more properly, mescal de tequila, the first mescal to be codified and recognized by its geographic origin and the only one known internationally by that name. In ¡Tequila! A Natural and Cultural History, Ana G. Valenzuela-Zapata, the leading agronomist in Mexico’s tequila industry, and Gary Paul Nabhan, one of America’s most respected ethnobotanists, plumb the myth of tequila as they introduce the natural history, economics, and cultural significance of the plants cultivated for its production.

Valenzuela-Zapata and Nabhan take you into the agave fields of Mexico to convey their passion for the century plant and its popular by-product.

“Lyricism for all things agave infuses the prose, a rhapsody tempered by hard botanical science.” -San Francisco Chronicle




Singing the Turtles to Sea, 2003

Singing the Turtles to Sea vividly describes the desert, its phantasmagoric landforms, and its equally fantastic animals.

This book contains important new information on the origins, biogeography, and conservation status of marine and desert reptiles in this region. Nabhan also discusses the significance of reptiles in Seri folklore, natural history, language, medicine, and art.

This book is a magnificent ethnobiology that also succeeds in linking the importance of preserving ecological diversity with issues such as endangered languages and human rights. Singing the Turtles to Sea ultimately points the way toward a more hopeful future for the native cultures and animals of the Sonoran desert and for the preservation of indigenous cultures and species around the world.





Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods, 2001 – Paperback 2009

“Nabhan makes us understand how finding and eating local foods connects us deeply and sensually with where we are [and] why the everyday choices we make about food are the most important choices we make” –Alice Waters, chef owner of Chez Panisse

Since Coming Home to Eat was first published in 2001, the local food movement has exploded, and more people than ever are “going green” in an effort lead healthier, more eco-friendly lives. Gary Nabhan’s year-long mission to eat only foods grown, fished, or gathered within 220 miles of his Arizona home offers striking, timely insights into our evolving relationship with food and place—and encourages us to redefine “eating close to home” as an act of deep cultural and environmental significance. As an avid gardener, ethnobotanist preserving seed diversity, and activist devoted to recovering native food traditions in the Southwest, Nabhan writes about his long campaign to raise awareness about food with contagious passion and humor.

“[Nabhan] offers a fascinating, enlightening, and moving account of his own experiences . . . prompting us to think twice about everything from the value of so-called ‘health foods’ to the decline in the percentage of American families who have dinner together at home.” —Los Angeles Times





Efrain of the Sonoran Desert:  A Lizard’s Life Among the Seri Indians – (with Amalia Astorga and Janet Miller), 2001

“The very first thing that you see when you reach the beach and leave your boat behind in the shallows of the Sea of Cortez is a lizard running away from the water. It curls its tail high so the waves won’t get it wet.” That’s what Gary Paul Nabhan remembers about his first visit to the Seri village in Kino Bay. There he met storyteller Amalia Astorga. She tells him the bittersweet history of Efra, a sun-blotched lizard.

In so doing, she helps him to understand how the Seris have protected a species that everywhere else is endangered. Together Amalia and Gary give young readers an insight into the life and culture of the Seris, an endangered people themselves, but a people who know how to love their land and its inhabitants.





La Vida Nortena (with David Burckhalter and Thomas Sheridan), 1999

For the last quarter century, David Burckhalter has photographed the diverse peoples, cultures, and landscapes of Sonora, Mexico.

These fifty-two black-and-white images are a representative cross-section of Burckhalter’s massive body of work on Sonora’s Indians, Hispanos, and Mestizos who, for hundreds of years, have lived in isolation in Sonora’s high mountains, elevated valleys, desert plains, and coastal beaches. His subjects — men, women, and children — are Seris, Yaquis, Mayos, cowboys, fishermen, farmers, musicians, tavern keepers and patrons, merchants, weavers, and pilgrims.

Essays by Gary Nabhan and Thomas E. Sheridan describe the unique, vivacious cultures of Sonora and explore the value of Burckhalter’s photography to our understanding of the region.




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