Jewel in Taos

Jewel is a sophomore majoring in biology and environmental science in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. A member of the University Honors Program, she is the recipient of the SMU Founders Scholarship and Dedman College Scholarship. During summer 2012, she also received a Richter Fellowship to conduct research at SMU-in-Taos, where she will update “A Guide to the Trees of the Navajo Country,” a 1940s bulletin written to teach Navajo students to manage and identify the trees in their area. She is using a variety of resources to update locations, scientific names, Navajo medicinal uses and other characteristics of the trees.

Reflections from the library

Roadside covered in cottonwood seeds

On Monday, I spent all day in the library working on my project. I used the cold, rainy weather as an excuse to stay inside and work.

On Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I spent nearly all day in the library too. I don’t have the weather as an excuse though, since it was fabulous. Unless I say I’m seeking shelter from the cottonwood seeds, maybe? They almost look like snow as they float to the ground. And they make me sneeze!

I love the Fort Burgwin Library. It’s one big room and styled Southwestern, and I have a view of a hummingbird feeder from my table. Yay! The librarian, Carol Baker, is also wonderful. She found all the books I need and had many helpful suggestions for my project.

For my Richter Fellowship, I’m updating this:

It was published in the 1940s. And it’s quite worn out! Only six libraries have it.

I’m using these books …

… and maybe a dozen other books still on the shelves or in my casita.

A lot changes in 70 years – especially taxonomy and the scientific names of plants! Matching the tree described in one book with the tree described in another is almost like detective work or putting together a puzzle. It’s a lot harder to figure out “which tree grows where and is used for what” than I originally thought.

My faculty adviser, Dr. Ubelaker, and I ultimately plan to have a book that we can present as a gift to the Navajo people. This guide has an identification key and descriptions, but I’m bringing it up to date and adding what each tree has meant to the Navajos.

The more I look up information in books, the more I realize how much I don’t know. For one, my understanding of the Navajo culture is quite limited. And for another, even though I’ve been reading and writing about these trees, I’m not yet confident enough to identify them around campus. I’ve got much to learn.

I’ve been musing about how being human means our minds pretty much start out as a blank slate. We don’t inherit knowledge from our parents the way we inherit their genes. We have to learn from “scratch,” and while we need to make sure to remember certain ideas, we also have a fresh perspective.

A Guide to the Trees of the Navajo Country was primarily meant for teaching, and I hope my additions harmonize with its original purpose. I think the book has many valuable lessons I’d like to preserve and revive.

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First impressions


Since arriving in the Albuquerque airport, I have been constantly comparing and contrasting all that I observe. I’ve lived in central and north Texas for a full nine years, and north New Mexico vastly differs from that area.

First impression: Texas is flat; New Mexico is quite the opposite! Mountains, hills, canyons, gorges, ditches, cliffs … there is so much dimension in the conifer-spotted land.

Second impression: Nearly every building is adobe style. Not just people’s houses, but even Wal-Marts and Sonics and Taco Bells. It was odd to see so many of these sand-colored structures harmonizing with the landscape, rather than popping out against it like the tall shiny buildings of Dallas.

My third impression was that SMU-in-Taos is amazing. My thoughts went like this:

Yay so many trees! Wow so many butterflies!! Wait, there’s a creek through campus!? OMG we have a beaver family?! And HUMMINGBIRDS!

Hiking with Samantha

All within my first three days in New Mexico, I went to the Millicent Rogers Museum, toured Taos, hiked at Pedernal Mountain, shopped at a flea market, and explored the Santa Fe plaza. I’ve spent each evening admiring 40 or more hummingbirds at their dinner “buffet.” I’m truly loving it here.

My experiences so far have culminated into another impression, however, and it strikes me as odd. New Mexico is so unique that sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s part of the same country as Texas. It has a distinct landscape, history, people, and culture. I grew up learning about pilgrims, independence from Britain, pioneers, the Civil War, Industrial Revolution … but that’s not the heritage of many people here. They have different stories to tell.

And I’m here to learn those stories. Specifically, the stories of the Navajo people and their trees. I’ve gone through many ethnobotany books and plant guides, and they all say that the Navajo traditionally have a unique respect for the flora of their land. However, they also address concerns that knowledge of medicine, food, and forest management will be forgotten. My sources that explicitly mention this pre-date 1950. If people worried about that more than 60 years ago, is it still an issue now? What’s the current state of deforestation and over-grazing in the Navajo country? How many people still use the traditional medicine? How do people view the forests now?

I hope to have these questions answered while I’m here. My culture definitely doesn’t know everything about medicine and forest management, and I would like to learn how the Navajo culture approaches similar issues. I hope my work will help preserve knowledge of trees and improve understanding of our world.

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