A moment with Caroline S.
Caroline is an aspiring botanist who loves chocolate. In this interview she describes how her two passions come together and inform her career in environmental conservation and preservation.
You’re the biggest fan of chocolate I know. What’s your favorite memory of chocolate?
When I was a freshman in high school, I began studying chocolate because I had actually just gone to a chocolate pairing with various fruits and cheeses. A few chefs and local business owners in my hometown, Sebastopol, ran the event. I remember trying to cook something really creative: a chocolate cake. [laughs]
But it was so cool to see all the ways chocolate was being used: one chef even made an ox tail chocolate soup! Chocolate really brought all these different people and foods together in one space.
How did chocolate influence your studies now and how has it stayed with you in your life?
Chocolate was the starting point for my career, as it is today. It was what got me into botany and into plants in general. I always had a passing interest in the environment, but chocolate really introduced me to plant biology. Since then my interests have morphed; I do a lot of ecological work, particularly in the savanna. But right now, I’m in an archeology course about Aztec history, largely because of the civilization’s role in the discovery and use of this plant. I have a huge soft spot for chocolate still, and it remains a large interest of mine.
Is that why you’ve decided to give the plant a permanent place on your body?
I got my second tattoo, this flower, from the Theobroma cacao tree, which is quite meaningful for me because chocolate remains so central to my career and my interests today. It has had quite a large impact on my life in a weird way.
It’s also such a cool flower; the growth of the Theobroma cacao tree is unique, it requires a very special pollinator. The flower is beautiful. It’s something that I want to stick with me forever and a tattoo is how that manifested!
So you said your botany studies have taken you to the savanna. That sounds far away from any kind of chocolate. Can you talk about that experience and what you love about that environment?
I ended up studying abroad in South Africa because I wanted to have more field experience than I was able to get here in New Haven. That trip ultimately shaped my thesis. I ended up staying the summer after the program to do research in the savanna, which was a powerful experience as well. It’s so different to live in an ecosystem that, by today’s standards, is largely unaltered, a very natural state. I was lucky to see the dynamics of that first hand. The savanna is so special in both flora and fauna. The experience to be in the middle of nature studying these organisms up close was a true privilege.
That sounds like an amazing adventure! Did anything wild ever happen during your field research? Well, the first thing that comes to mind…I got charged by an elephant one day.
I was just learning how to drive stick shift so I was definitely not awesome at it yet. I was driving out to the field that day with my partner. We got out of the car to scope out a potential site and I was with our game guard, who we have to go out with because the animals are really dangerous. They started to walk out toward our site. I had to pee so I was looking for a tree and as I was looking around, I saw this elephant in the not too far distance. I wasn’t sure at first if I was seeing correctly. I then saw her baby. The elephant saw me and started trumpeting. I motioned toward the game guard who was just as shocked. Then the elephant started running toward us and flapping its ears. We were like, “oh fuck” and sprinted back to the car, we all jumped in, we were petrified, and I had to drive stick to get us out of there. But luckily nerves kicked in and we were okay. That was definitely one of the more memorable experiences of my time in South Africa!
That’s a crazy experience. No more run ins with animals after that? Just plants?
Largely. Actually, lots more with elephants. We were always in the car then though. There was a rhino one time, but they usually scare easy so the game guard could throw a rock and whistle and they would run away. There was a time when we were almost surrounded by a herd of buffalo, which was terrifying. We skirted around it through the grass to our car. A lion crossed the road one time, but he wasn’t really interested in us.
But mostly plants after that though, which are scary enough with all their thorns.
I would definitely be scared. There’s no chocolate in South Africa though? The cacao plant isn’t there?
Sadly, no. It grows in northern Africa in the western neck area, like Ghana. There is a lot of chocolate production,but definitely native to Central and South America.
So where do you see your passion for botany and the environment taking you in the future?
That’s a really great question. I am very excited about conservation and environmentalism. That’s very applicable to cacao, which really relies a lot on its environment in order to be successful. Climate change and anthropogenic pressures are definitely affecting the plant’s future. But I like to apply my botany knowledge to questions about preserving the plants of the world today for future generations and millennia to come.
It’s cool that cacao has been around for thousands of years and the Aztecs knew how to cultivate it as a food source, chocolate. It’s also cool that you see plants as active participants in the environment. A lot of people have plant blindness. Can you talk about that?
I have a great love of plants, but I don’t think many share my passion. I think that if asked directly, a lot of people would say that the wilderness is beautiful or that a green space feels happy or peaceful, helping one to relax. But plants are around you all the time, even when you’re not aware of their presence. I think a lot of people don’t pay attention and everything sort of blends together as one green mass. Plants are really unique as individuals. They have a lot of different features that make them special to their environment. I think you have to take a minute to recognize and appreciate that.
Chocolate is such a great example of a plant that brings people in and it resonates with people and their everyday lives. Are there other examples of this?
Sure. I think most plants that you eat have a really interesting history. I think that it could be said of most plants. Corn, for example, started out as a little grass. It evolved, and we evolved with it. It’s now a huge crop that dominates industry, food production, and even gasoline today. But it started as a small plant that humans noticed and decided to cultivate.
Each apple tree is a clone of something that came before it. Each seed from an apple will give you a different tree so for those of you who like Honey Crisp or Fuji that’s because one day somebody noticed that that particular apple on that particular tree tasted really good. They decided to propagate another tree.
Throughout history, we have had so many interactions with these plants, but many people now don’t recognize where these foods come from.
I think it is important to think about the source, especially as we run out of resources. How do you think plants are going to make change in our world today?
One of the biggest questions we face today is how are we going to feed the rapidly expanding population? That has got to come from plants, that’s where we get energy.
Are there any burning plant facts you want to get off your chest? Any future plant dreams?
My ideal world is covered with vegetation and a lot less concrete. More people would recognize plants in their everyday lives, it will generally make more people happy, solve more problems, if we realize what they can do for us.
So the next time we drink coffee or have a piece of chocolate…
Give some thought to how it got there on your table, why it’s important and what it means to you.