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On Satoyama: ALL Alumnus Shares Perspective on the Symbiosis of Humans and Nature

December 20, 2017

Nature has been a constant in the life of Eric Lee-Mäder. He moved around a lot as a child, but was never far from the natural world; a farm field, a river, a pond, or the woods were always within reach. “These landscapes became spaces that I grew to care deeply about,” he explained. “They provide an access point to something outside my immediate human world.”

The natural world continued to be a high priority in Lee-Mäder’s life, and after he earned his BA in Asian languages and literatures (ALL) in 2000, he developed that interest into a career. He currently works at the Xerces Society, a non-profit organization based out of Portland, Oregon that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. His program area focuses on pollinator conservation and agricultural biodiversity. “Bees, butterflies, and insects are fundamental to the functioning of the world,” he said. “It's only natural that I've found a career path advocating for them and working to create safer places for them in agriculture.”

Satoyama as a Sustainable Solution

As a part of the ALL department’s “Environmental Issues of the Pacific Rim” speaker series, sponsored also by CLA’s Environmental Humanities Initiative, Lee-Mäder paid a visit to his alma mater on November 7, 2018 to give a lecture on satoyama, which is the name for Japan’s rural landscapes that blur the lines between nature and agriculture. Lee-Mäder explained that these bio-cultural zones have wide-ranging benefits that support both humans and animals. These benefits also create a functional resilience that allows for the zones to exist in the face of disaster. The concept of satoyama serves as a model for how humans and nature can successfully coexist.

Can America implement satoyama? This is the key question that Lee-Mäder posed before concluding his lecture, and it’s one to which he does not have a clear answer. Since this country is largely peopled by immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, many Americans do not have the traditions and emotional ties to the land that are necessary for a satoyama model to exist. He is optimistic, however, that the people of the United States can become “native” to the land and develop a model that works and is worth caring about.

Working Across Cultures

Lee-Mäder credits his experiences in ALL with giving him many of the professional skills he relies on today. One skill Eric points to is being able to engage with diverse cultural ideas. His college career gave him the opportunity to work alongside people with varying worldviews, life experiences, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and his coursework introduced him to new ways of thinking. His conservation work has taken him to many countries across the world, and his ability to work effectively with people who might approach problems differently than he does has been key to his success.

“Technology has changed our ability to quickly translate between languages, but it hasn't made a dent in our ability to show up in a new land, adapt socially, and enjoy the companionship, customs, food, and local aesthetics,” he explains. “In my experience, all of that requires hands-on training. ALL gave me that training.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.