Progress Report, Autumn 2019

Old rice made new, women inventors, cli-fi hits the art world

Exterior view of a greenhouse lit up at night

Sowing the Grain Revolution

Growing up in Washington, D.C., David Shields dreamed of becoming an archaeologist. Now an English professor at the University of South Carolina, Shields is part of an agricultural revolution with a future that lies in the past—one focused on preserving plant landraces, old cultivars that adapted to local conditions over generations.

“I got involved as the researcher because I thought it would be an interesting challenge,” says Shields. “Little did I know I would be consigning huge portions of my life away.”

Poring over 18th- and 19th-century farming journals, Shields has uncovered complex planting schedules and crop rotations employed in the preindustrial South. In researching stories about merchants, restaurants, and cooks, he has found recipes for foods no one has tasted in decades. And by exploring the region’s back roads, he has met South Carolinians tending the same varieties of wheat or watermelon their ancestors did.

Many landraces grown before the 1850s are hardy, able to weather both drought and flooding. Some are nutritious and packed with flavors prized by high-end restaurants and specialty retailers. For example, Carolina Gold rice, milled and sold by Anson Mills in Columbia, makes other white rice taste like paste. “Landraces are genetically diverse, so they’re not bottlenecked,” Shields says. “They were bred for taste, not for mass production.”

As chairman of the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, Shields now works with horticultural and genetic experts, farmers and seed savers, and foodies and chefs to reintroduce old cultivars of grains and other plants into commercial settings. In addition to plant restoration, the foundation is encouraging the use of landraces in breeding new varieties, like a shorter-stalked Charleston Gold rice plant, which isn’t as susceptible to blowdowns.

Another star landrace is Purple Ribbon sugar cane, grown in the 18th and 19th centuries by enslaved people from West Africa for the country’s first commercial sugar operation, on Sapelo Island, off the Georgia coast. Islanders are once again raising Purple Ribbon, thanks to a collaborative effort involving Shields, Clemson researchers, and local growers. Chefs in Atlanta, Charleston, and Savannah prize the sugar, syrup, and alcohol that the cane yields, and the profit from selling Purple Ribbon helps people remain on their ancestral land.

The Carolina Gold Rice Foundation and Clemson University researchers are working with farmers on growing the kinds of grains that were popular in the 19th-century South, including potato oats and purple straw wheat, brought to America by the Salzburgers, German immigrants who settled near Savannah.

Data on the Menu

Online restaurant reviews can reveal more than just where to go for a romantic dinner. According to researchers at MIT, restaurant critiques also serve up information about the establishment’s neighborhood, predicting with 95 percent accuracy the number of businesses, and the daytime and nighttime population. The researchers say urban planners could use such socioeconomic data from online reviews to learn where to provide public services.

Mental Health and Trauma

Nancy Rose Hunt, a professor of history and African studies at the University of Florida, is spending six months at the Centre Psychiatrique SOSAME in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, as part of her Guggenheim fellowship. SOSAME, an acronym for soins de santé mentale, “mental health care,” is a hospital founded in 1994 by the Brothers of Charity to serve people displaced by the Rwandan genocide. Using SOSAME as her base, Hunt will be investigating treatment options for the mentally ill in Bukavu. Do they end up in a hospital, with a traditional healer, at a church, with a relative, or on the street?

Hunt chose Bukavu to study the dynamics of mental health treatment not only because the citizens of the DRC have endured decades of war, kidnapping, rape, and displacement, but also because the city lies on the border with Rwanda and has seen an influx of some 500,000 refugees. No wonder, then, says Hunt, that the need for psychiatric care there has soared.

Promoting Patents

A survey conducted earlier this year by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office showed that the number of women being granted patents is very small—only 12 percent in 2016. To increase this number, the patent office plans to continue hosting an annual Women’s Entrepreneurship Symposium, supporting pro bono legal networks around the country, and making the patent process more accessible, especially to first-time applicants. The office has trained librarians in more than 80 libraries to help with patent and trademark searches, and officials will continue supporting the Girl Scouts and other programs to encourage young inventors and teach them about protecting intellectual property.

TV Teachers

Animated television shows often include moral lessons that are easy for little watchers to digest. When cartoons tackle more complex issues, such as inclusion, children understand more after viewing 30-second inserts that explain or discuss what they’re seeing, researchers from the University of California–Davis have found. They hope their study prompts changes in children’s television programming.


The Climate Chronicles

From Mexico to Canada, a warmer, drier climate in western North America has helped bark beetles to thrive. These insects eat the hearts of trees, making gray zombie forests of trees that are dead but still standing. The stands become fuel for wildfire, helping lightning strikes grow into massive conflagrations. Mountain Time Arts, a nonprofit based in Bozeman, Montana, tackles this and other regional issues in its free, multimedia, public art presentations. “Standby Snow: Chronicles of a Heatwave,” one such collaborative presentation, looks at the origins of the ecological crisis in Montana’s lodgepole pine forests, says Mary Ellen Strom, a Mountain Time Arts founder. The creators of “Standby Snow” include scientists, a composer, Native American scholars, choreographers, and filmmakers. An abbreviated version of “Standby Snow” ran in Bozeman in August, and the center plans to take it to other venues.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia. She is at work on a book on Norman Maclean.


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