Mountains Beyond Mountains

On the 5th of August 2016 I left Honolulu International Airport with my postdoc mentor and friend Dr. Rebecca Ryals for the first research trip of our collaboration with Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL)  in Haiti.

Ahead of us we had 3 flights, and a total of 18 hours of travel, to skip across the eastern Pacific and continental US, and reach the coastal city of Cap Haïtien in Haiti’s Nord (Nò) Department. We’d spent the night before carefully distributing science equipment among our field clothes and first aid supplies, and the previous weeks equipping ourselves with the basics for an extended stay in Haiti – including the most rudimentary elements of Haitian Creole (kreyòl).

Despite our preparations, I knew that much of what was in store for me during my first trip to Haiti was still fully obscured from me. Not just uncertain, but unknowable! There is a Haitien proverb ‘dèyè mòn, gen mòn’, which means literally ‘behind mountains, there are mountains’ and this English translation was used as the apt title for Tracy Kidder’s  book documenting the extraordinary work of Dr. Paul Farmer and his non-profit organization Partners in Health (Zanmi Lasante) in Haiti. This book was my first introduction to this brilliant little Haitian dictum. Surely it is a fitting metaphor for many situations but in this moment it seemed to capture the thrill of setting out on a new adventure.

In fact, stepping aboard our first flight, I found myself searching for the true start of this journey. I found I had to go back much farther than a month earlier, when I’d finally arrived in Hawaii to begin my postdoc, or 3 months before, when I’d been jumping over the hurdles of visa and passport renewal across the pond in London, Belfast, and my home island of Skye in the highlands of Scotland, or even the end of 2015, when I first began learning creole using the excellent online resource HaitiHub (highly recommended!). I realized exactly a year prior is a good place to start.

In early August 2015 I was living a couple of thousand miles east across the Pacific, in Berkeley, California, with the fragments of my PhD research on wetland biogeochemistry still far from resembling anything like a cohesive whole. It was around this time that I was reading Tracy Kidders’ book and was touched and inspired by the incredible achievements of Partners in Health, but also appalled at the descriptions of Haiti’s abject poverty, only a few hundred miles away from the wealthiest nation on the planet.

Kidder’s book is eminently quotable, but one of my favorites is from Farmer himself. In describing the worldview that motivates his commitment to healthcare as a basic human right, and perhaps underpins his incredible successes, he says “we have to think about public health in the broadest possible sense”.

As a budding ecologist entering my 6th year at Berkeley, I couldn’t help but read this statement about our perceptions of human health as a call to arms to those of us who, for disciplinary reasons, might see human welfare as a separate, niche, or even competing (hopefully not) concern! Ecology is the study of life’s interaction with itself, and with its physical and chemical environment. The quote got me wondering if ecologists could or should be thinking about public (human) health as being another metric, or property, of the global ecosystem?

Over the last year or so, I’ve learned the answer is a definitive yes… And that a lot of incredible work is happening in this space. But this was the time when it started to come together for me. Ecologists are shifting focus away from pristine or undisturbed ecosystems (arguably illusions to begin with), toward those experiencing impacts from human activity or directly managed by man. The global change factors we consider as ecologists, whether that be soil erosion, nitrogen deposition, or a changing climate, also influence the spread of disease, the capacity of local agrarian economies, and the vitality of human communities globally.

In academic circles, we regularly discuss sustainability in the context of long-term climate or global change scenarios. Kidder’s book provides a first hand account of the human consequences of political, economic and – I began to learn – ecological failures that were playing out right now, just a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida. Haiti is a place where food security, human health, and local-to-international ecological threats associated with unsustainable development are an immediate reality for millions of people. To discuss Haiti in these terms is nothing new, but it was the start of this story for me. It was this book about those dedicated to an ambitious vision for global public health that inspired a little more humanity in my view of ecology.

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