There is obviously a lot about Facebook that merits serious criticism. And there seems to be more each day. Still, sometimes it can be pretty terrific.
Several years ago, while I was looking through my feed of friends’ postings, I came upon a comment by one Yoshi Maezumi. I was immediately struck by the commenter’s personable sense of humor. But what really got my attention was her name. Although I didn’t know her, I recognized her name as that of the youngest child of the founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, my teacher Taizan Maezumi Roshi.
Curious about how this daughter of Maezumi Roshi’s had grown into adulthood (she was born in 1983 and was just a toddler when I moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco), I went to her Facebook page. I have an impression of one of her posts in particular, though I suspect it may have become inexact with time. In any event, there was a photo of Yoshi standing waist-deep in swampy water, surrounded by dense foliage. She wore goggles and, I believe, a hard hat, and she held before her some kind of scientific instrument, which she was examining intently. Above the photo, she had written something like this: “Doing research on pre-Columbian fire management practices in the Amazon Basin! I love being a paleoecologist!” The pure enthusiasm—those exclamation marks!—seemed to me to stand in an odd and charming contrast to the seriousness of the work she was engaged in.
And then there was this: What in the world is paleoecology?
I wanted to know more. Yoshi and I became Facebook friends, and periodically I would see a post describing her travels, her research, and her adventures, scientific and otherwise. It was always a kick. And I found out what paleoecology is. As the word itself indicates, paleoecology is the study of past ecosystems. When I asked what that actually entails, Yoshi wrote to me: “One of the ways we can reconstruct ancient ecosystems is from lake sediments. I look at pollen grains and charcoal particles from lakes to reconstruct changes in past fire and vegetation in the Amazon.” Yoshi is particularly interested in lessons from pre-Columbian land use and fire management that may have potential management implications for more sustainable land use practices in the Amazonian forests of today.
Related: Healing Ecology
As it happens, today, as I write this, California is in the midst of the worst wildfires in the state’s history. Last year, grass fires swept through the prairies of the American Midwest. And Brazil just elected a president who believes in deregulating logging and agriculture in the Amazon Basin, the very “lungs” of our planet. Paleoecology, though it might sound recondite, may well prove to be of inestimable help to us in finding our way through the environmental perils of our times.
It is often the case that children of a parent thoroughly devoted to a life project—artistic, scientific, religious, political, or whatever kind—can have a hard time of it. And Yoshi’s father had dedicated himself fully to the work of transmitting Zen Buddhism to the West. What’s more, she grew up in a community built around sharing in that work. It can be hard for a child to find her way out from the shadow cast by a parent recognized for his or her dedication and accomplishment. But Yoshi Maezumi seems to have succeeded at that, and to have done so beautifully. She has found, through her own dedication and accomplishment, her own road.
How does the study of paleoecology shed light on widely shared contemporary ecological concerns? The study of paleoecology provides a longterm understanding of how ecosystems respond to changes in past climate and human disturbance. We gain vital insights into how modern ecosystems may respond to modern global issues, including climate change, increased wildfire activity, and increasing anthropogenic pressures—from deforestation and industrial scale farming, for example. Our research shows that thousands of years of indigenous land and fire management have played a crucial role in shaping modern forest drought susceptibility and flammability in the Amazon. This has very important implications for modern fire management and conservation efforts that have historically neglected the role of pre-Columbians in shaping the modern landscape.
One thing that really comes across in your online postings is your love for your work. Would you tell us something about the nature and source of that love? My sister often tells a story about when I was about 5 years old and she found me outside in the garden, counting ants. Thirty years later, most days you can find me behind a microscope counting pollen grains and charcoal particles. I guess it is safe to say that my love of the natural world started at a very young age and has followed me throughout my career.
One of my favorite quotes comes from Albert Einstein: “The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing.” This idea has always resonated with me, despite the fact that I did not always want to be a scientist. One of my first loves as a child (and it continues today) is dance. However, after a bad car accident that ended my professional dancing aspirations, followed by a bit of persuading from my mom, I decided to go to college to be an archaeologist. After all, what’s not to love about Indiana Jones and traveling to far-off exotic places to find lost civilizations and hidden treasure troves? Although I found the romanticized Hollywood version of archaeology to be far from accurate, and I have yet to find the Holy Grail, Pandora’s box, or a treasure chest full of gold, this early trajectory in archaeology has sent me on a journey that has been exciting, adventurous, and immensely rewarding.
While working toward a master’s degree, I had the opportunity to conduct fieldwork in Guatemala, where I became increasingly interested in past human impact on the environment. This led me to pursue a PhD in physical geography, in which I particularly focused on paleoecology of the Bolivian Amazon. During a three-year postdoc at the University of Exeter, I led several lake coring expeditions that sampled water and sediment in the Brazilian and Bolivian Amazon. In some of the more remote regions, getting to our field sites involved chartering small planes, riding motor-cycles through the jungle, wading chest-deep through murky swamp water that was home to anacondas and crocodiles, and fishing piranha out of the river for our dinner. One moment a few years back, while we stopped on the trail to our field site, the sunlight was coming through the rainforest canopy, reflecting off the wings of blue morpho butterflies, and I thought, “It really doesn’t get any cooler than this.” In addition to being in the coolest field office in the world, I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with a brilliant and talented team of people. We have had the privilege of working with many of the local villagers, who act as guides and experts in the landscape’s flora and fauna. We often have village meetings to explain our research, and we get to discuss the history through archaeological and paleoecological lenses. As I have progressed through my career, I have found that the more I learn, the more questions I have. And the questions keep getting more interesting and interconnected.
Does your work as a scientist inform your outlook in areas of life that generally lie outside the domain of natural science: matters of meaning, values, and purpose—in other words, questions about how best to live? One of the things I love most about my work is meeting other people with the same level of curiosity that I have. I think this transcends the boundaries of my own personal research. A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at the British Ecological Society’s Ecology Summer School, which is geared toward inner-city low-income minority college students. It was an honor and privilege to work with such intelligent, engaged, and conscious students. They recognize that the upcoming decades present increasing global challenges, including climate change, water and food shortages, overpopulation, deforestation, increasingly large-scale wildfire activity, and so forth. Despite this knowledge, they are optimistic, enthusiastic, and want to make a difference in the world. It is my great privilege to teach and, I hope, inspire the next generation of scientists and global citizens.
When teaching, I often refer to something one of my favorite authors, David Quammen, writes in his book The Song of the Dodo: “To despair of the entire situation is another reasonable alternative. But the unsatisfactory thing about despair, in my view, is that besides being fruitless it’s far less exciting than hope, however slim.” This idea of hope and optimism influences all aspects of my life and shapes how I interact with my students and the world in general.
As the daughter of a prominent Zen master, you, unlike almost all your father’s students, were born and raised in an environment in which Buddhism was just part of the atmosphere. How would you characterize your relationship with Buddhism? My earliest memories are of living at the Zen Center of Los Angeles. I remember peering into the zendo when no one was there, the sound of temple bells, the smell of incense filling the air as the students prepared for early morning zazen. Our mom would meditate with us in her lap. When we grew older, we spent Sundays at the Yokoji Zen Mountain Center for service and sitting. I did my first sesshin when I was 14 years old. I clearly recall how difficult it was for me, as a child, to be quiet and sit still. Well, things have not changed much. As I got older, and as a result of the car accident, I found zazen very painful and difficult for my body. As a dancer, I’ve found that so much of how I interface with the world is through the physical body. I have always found that moving meditation practices, such as yoga, suit me better.
While in college I took a second BA, in Religious Studies. In reading the texts of the major world religions, I was, and still am, struck by the commonality in the basic principles and moral teachings among different belief systems: don’t kill, don’t cheat, don’t lie, be kind, live a good life, and so on. To me, there is more than one way to shine a penny; different teachings and practices suit some people and not others. As a scientist, I am naturally more at home when religious views are not in a contentious relationship with science.
To me, it does not really matter if you are sitting still or moving, as long as what you do helps bring calm and clarity. Be kind and loving to yourself, be kind and loving to others—this practice is what I try to incorporate into my daily life. That said, I was born Zen and raised Zen; I consider my dad’s successors to be my aunts and uncles. Zen so infuses my worldview that it would be nonsensical to say I am not a Zen Buddhist, even though I do not formally have a regular sangha or teacher.
In my yoga practice, I try to find a balance where I can for a time leave my work and other stresses of life, step on my mat, and simply move and breathe and be present. As I am extremely passionate about my work, I find it very challenging not to bring work home with me: I think about science throughout my waking (and sleeping) hours. Meditation practice becomes crucial for balance.
When you were growing up, did the rather unusual circumstance of having a Zen master dad present particular challenges for you? If so, how did you meet them? My father was away a lot, as much as nine months out of the year, so I really did not spend much time with him while I was growing up. When he came home, he often stayed in his study reading, meeting with his students, resting from jet lag, and so forth. He really did not have much time or energy left to be a dad. Many of his students knew him better than my siblings and I did. After he died, people would tell me stories about the life-changing experiences they had had with him. At first, I could not help but feel envious, but as I’ve grown older, I have been able to develop wonderful relationships with many of his students. Through their stories and memories, I have been able to get to know him a little better and to see him through their love and appreciation of him as a teacher.
“As I have progressed through my career, I have found that the more I learned, the more questions I had. And the questions kept getting more interesting and interconnected.”
Growing up in a Zen household gave me the opportunity to be curious and ask questions about everything. I was never given very direct answers to my questions; rather, I was encouraged to explore and figure out answers on my own. Today, these qualities inform all aspects of my life, including my life as a scientist. Buddhism instilled in me moral values based on a sense of ownership for my actions and responsibility for their consequences. This idea of cause and effect is often how I observe the natural world and make sense of things around me. Buddhism has taught me much about how to be a good person; science is my passion. I strive to meld these two aspects and live my life to the fullest. My father used to say, “Appreciate your life,” and that is precisely what I aim to do.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.