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The Strangler Fig & Other Tales

by Catherine Petruccione

#106, 22 October 2007

An Interview with Mary A. Hood

BookThink's Author Profiles Series

Mary and Darleen have been traveling the world since their retirement from higher education, visiting places I've only read about - Patagonia, Turkey, China, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Iceland, Peru, Chile, to name just a few. They plan to go to Ecuador in September, then to Galapagos. Far from being tourists, they are intrepid explorers, venturing into areas that the usual tourist doesn't see.

I invited them both back for lunch and an interview with Mary after reading her book The Strangler Fig & Other Tales: Field Notes of a Conservationist (Altamira Press,Walnut Creek, CA, 2004). If you love good travel writing, this book is one you are sure to enjoy. It's an informative natural history of some of the lovely places they have visited around the world, a treasure chest of scientific fact and astute observation written in a lyrical and beautiful style. It is seasoned just right with philosophical thoughts on social justice and humanity's impact on the natural world.

Below is my interview with Mary.

BOOKTHINK: Mary, I have to ask you this - How old are you and how do you stay so young and full of spunk? C'mon, I'll tell you how old I am - I'm 55! (I'm not sure how I let Darlene off the hook on this one.)

HOOD: I'm 63 and Darleen's 65 - hah, she's not off the hook. I think staying active is partially due to hanging around with the right kind of people, those who have enthusiasm and passionate interests in life. That's the one thing I do miss about working at the university. Being around young people is always invigorating.

BOOKTHINK: Mary, tell me a little about your background. Where were you born and raised, when did you become interested in nature and conservation?

HOOD: I grew up in southern Louisiana not far from Baton Rouge. As a graduate student in the 70s, I spent a lot of time in the salt marshes and swamps of Louisiana. A project involving an environmental impact sponsored by several oil companies who planned to build a supertanker terminal and pipeline allowed me to work in the field. I was hired along with a number of other grad students and ecologists to do baseline studies of these wetlands. The stipend allowed me to complete a PhD in Marine Science/Microbiology.

BOOKTHINK: In the first chapter of The Strangler Fig & Other Tales you tell a magical story about your father and your brother being rescued from heavy fog on a Louisiana river by a phantom barge. I was hooked and couldn't put the book down! Tell me a little about your childhood.

HOOD: I grew up where the men were the ones that went out hunting and fishing and the women stayed home and cleaned up the house. I hope this first story sets the stage for what we can define as home. It starts with me at home telling an adventure my father told. In the next stories my travel tales unfold. The final chapter ends with home, but it is a home that I have made.

BOOKTHINK: Tell me a little about the symbolism in the title you chose for this book, The Strangler Fig.

HOOD: The strangler fig is generally considered a parasitic plant by botanists because it entwines around a host plant and eventually kills it. The fig needs the host plant for support. But we might consider the fig a benign parasite because it kills its host so slowly and there is some evidence that the host plant may acquire some benefit from the fig. Ecologists recognize that all creatures exist in a kind of mutual interdependence with others.

We humans think of ourselves as independent creatures, yet more cells in our bodies are microbial than are our own. Every plant and every animal has microbial symbionts or other higher organisms as mutualistic partners. I use the strangler fig as a metaphor for all life's interdependence.

BOOKTHINK: Let's talk about the importance and meaning of home to the traveller, which seemed to be the framework for your book.

HOOD: Most classical travel stories from The Odyssey to The Hobbit begin with going off, having adventures, and then coming home. So that is how I tried to frame the book. It starts at home (my home as a young girl) and ends at home (my home as a mature woman).

BOOKTHINK: I also want to ask you about the illustrations in the book, mostly done by Eric Hinote, which I really liked! Any story behind these?

HOOD: No story really, except he was a struggling art student who needed the money.

BOOKTHINK: When did you and Darleen meet and when did you start traveling together?

HOOD: Darleen and I met at The West Florida Literary Federation, which is the umbrella group for the Back Door Poets, the writers in service to education (WISE), and the poet laureate series. We began traveling because our work schedules coincided. We had Christmas vacations, spring, summer and term-breaks off at the same time. Our first trip to Kenya and Tanzania was a great adventure, and so we simply continued to do it.

BOOKTHINK: What role does Darleen play in ideas about what to write about, editing, and trip planning?

HOOD: Darleen has great ideas about where to travel and a keen ability to organize for a trip. As a librarian she is a whiz at knowing good books and how to find them. Also, traveling with Darleen has offered a degree of safety that I would not have had otherwise.

There is a wonderful essay by Lisa Couturier called "For all the girls who couldn't walk into the woods" in a book entitled The Hopes of Snakes. She writes about how girls must be careful about going into the woods alone. The same might apply with travel. While we are not girls any longer, but we still have a certain vulnerability, and although I would like to be as fearless as Freya Stark, I don't think I would be able to travel alone like her in today's world.

BOOKTHINK: Mary, you were a Professor of biology at the University of West Florida. Can you tell me about your life in teaching?

HOOD: Yes, I taught the microbiology courses at the University of West Florida from 1974 to 2001 (for almost 30 years) and established a microbiology degree within our biology - BS. Many students graduated from our program and have gone on to make valuable contributions, from university professors to epidemiologists to researchers at NIH, EPA, etc. I am grateful that their accomplishments have given me a sense of meaningfulness.

My research on cholera was part of a larger interest in how bacteria live in the aquatic environment, how they colonize and how they adapt to low nutrients and other stresses."

BOOKTHINK: In the book you talk a lot about man's impact on nature, such as loss of forests, not only in South America, but in the US as well. What is our biggest problem - short sightedness, greed, or are people just struggling to survive and can't see the lasting damage they are doing? And what can be done, realistically, in your opinion?

HOOD: There are so many voices - from E. O. Wilson to Al Gore to Bill McKibben and on and on - telling us we humans are mucking up the environment. Sometimes I am more hopeful than at other times. When I'm more hopeful, I think everyone must do what he or she can. Some people can save endangered species; some can recycle; some can change all the light bulbs in their homes to energy savers. Our government and our corporate culture ... well, that's a different story. And I just don't feel very hopeful there.

BOOKTHINK: Is there any country or region you've visited that seems to be doing a good job of preserving their natural resources and their heritage?

HOOD: Iceland has a history of progressive environmentalism. They have been planting trees all over the island in an effort to reforest; they have established some strong environmental laws; and they have increased the number of national parks. But the recent resumption of whaling and the Karahnjukar dam (by Bechtel/Alcoa) represent backwards steps in their progressive record.

BOOKTHINK: Let's talk about heritage a moment. There was an interesting point in the book where you wrote about visiting a forested area in South America and the tour guide was stressing that the beautiful trees had been used for filming by Walt Disney, instead of talking about the rich native history of the area. Perhaps they feel that is the only way they can impress us or connect with us?

HOOD: Yes, it could have been that the guide wanted to make us feel more connected by mentioning something familiar like the Bambi story, but I would have liked to have heard about what the indigenous people thought of the trees. What were their legends and how did they value the tree, instead of a story created by Disney. I should have asked, but as we moved on, I forgot. The point I was trying to make was that our stories represent what we value. Do we value a story created by corporate America more than a story from a native culture?

BOOKTHINK: Where have you had your most memorable travel experience?

HOOD: Turkey was probably my favorite trip. I have always loved Greek and Persian history, and to visit Ephesus and Troy (at least the site most probably Troy) was memorable. The day we visited Troy, it was cold and it started to snow. Big heavy flakes fell as we walked through the crumbling stones of that once great city, that city that inspired Homer. The frosty turning of those snow covered stones ... well, who could not be moved? And we had a wonderful guide who took us to places off the beaten track.

BOOKTHINK: How do you manage to get off the beaten track and away from the tourist areas?

HOOD: We avoid tour groups as much as possible. Usually when we reach our destination, we ask at the hotel where we can hire a good local guide.

At the hotel in Gaza, for instance, we arranged a trip to Alexandria to see the new library with a local travel agent. Our guide was a delightful young man who we got to know. He took us to his neighborhood, where we met his father and his sister, and he took us to a local camel dealer, where we got to see dozens of camels. There we stood in the middle of this herd of camels. Some were calling to one another (they were being very protective of the young camels), some were chewing; and they were all as curious about us as we were of them.

BOOKTHINK: What are the secrets to being a good traveler, and by that I guess I mean, having it be a positive experience for all concerned - the visitor and the visited?

HOOD: It's important to have respect for the culture and the people of the country. I think one has to be careful about taking photographs. It can be a kind of invasion and can take away from really absorbing what's going on around you in the moment. Many tourists spend a lot of time snapping pictures that turn out to be really bad pictures, and no one wants to see them anyway! Travel can be more for learning and experiencing a different perspective on the world, rather than acquiring material things to take home with you.

BOOKTHINK: Which writers do you most admire?

HOOD: Let's start with Janisse Ray and The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which was a real inspiration for me. Others include Barbara Hurd's Stirring the Mud and Entering the Stone, Kathleen Dean Moore's Riverwalking, Holdfast, and The Pine Island Paradox. There are so many good writers. Eudora Welty is another - well, I could go on and on with a list of writers who create such a real sense of place.

BOOKTHINK: Tell me about your future writing and travel projects.

HOOD: We are traveling to Ecuador and the Galapagos in a few weeks. One reason I want to visit the Galapagos is that it is the place where Darwin's observations on natural selection came into being. As a biologist I feel it is a place I need to visit. Also, in June of this year, UNESCO put the Galapagos on their World Heritage in Danger List. Development and tourism are having a devastating effect on the islands.

I would like to write an article on the myth of eco-tourism as a sustainable industry. Maybe some eco-tourism can be sustainable, but what we are seeing is that big money is looking at some of the most fragile environments on earth for resorts. I recently read in the New York Times of a new multimillion dollar eco-resort that is being built on the northwest coast of Guanacaste, Costa Rica by Stephen Case, former CEO of AOL. It's called Revolution Places. The government rejected their environmental impact statement because it lacked specifics.

Now really, if they can't even do the paperwork correctly, what can be expected of their actual project - 120 villas, 330 other residences, a spa, a tennis center, a golf course, and a fitness center?

BOOKTHINK: Good luck to you and Darleen on your upcoming trip. I look forward to hearing about your further adventures - and thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.

Additional information:

Mary has a new book coming out in March 2008 (SUNY Press) - RiverTime: Eco Travel on the World's Rivers, which will cover eco-myths and social connections and touch on some environmental history. She is also working on a book on seasonal roads of the Southern Tier region of New York State, which will cover some of the environmental issues in the areas they explored.

The Strangler Fig & Other Tales is currently selling for $26.95 (new) on Amazon in trade paperback format. It is also available used on most of the usual sites.

The publisher, Altamira Press, A Division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. may be contacted for orders or further information at:

1-800-462-6420 or

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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