Where Are They Now? - Caterina Scaramelli

"Where Are They Now?" is a series of profiles on CHI Fellow alumni. 

Caterina Scaramelli headshot

Caterina Scaramelli served as a CHI Fellow in 2016-17 under the theme "Conservation," and, the following year, as a Keiter Fellow in Amherst's Department of Anthropology & Sociology. She works at the intersection of environmental anthropology; science, technology, and society (STS); and environmental history. She is an Assistant Professor in the departments of Anthropology and of Earth and Environment at Boston University and has recently published her first monograph, How to Make a Wetland: Water and Moral Ecology in Turkey (Stanford University Press, 2021).

Describe your current scholarship.  

I have started a new project on heirloom seeds: in Turkey, as in many other countries, traditional varieties of cultivated plants have become increasingly valued even as they are effectively marginalized from formal agricultural markets and systems. This research came about as many of my interlocutors for the wetland project were talking and thinking about the different kinds of seeds they work and interact with: hybrid and certified seeds in their cash crop fields, traditional seeds passed down from ancestors, kin, and neighbors, or exchanged with other cultivators in seed festivals. Centering the mobility of both people and seeds raises interesting questions about remaking of locality and community through these cultivation and seed exchange practices.  

In a sense, this is quite a traditional set of questions for anthropologists. But I am also building on more recent interdisciplinary work that has centered plant agency and sentience. To delve deeper into this, I have developed a course with a biologist and a historian of science we have called “The Secret Life of Plants.” We have organized the syllabus around biomes—from deserts to tropical forests, botanical gardens to industrial farms, mountain peaks and the Arctic—while pursuing the central question of “what is a plant” from our three disciplinary standpoints.  

What else are you teacing now, and are there any connections between your time at the CHI and your current courses?

This semester, I am teaching a course called “Water Resources and the Environment,” exploring water systems, access, and infrastructure globally, building on anthropological and STS work, and really centered on student work and projects. My favorite assignment for this course leaves students free to do something that is important to them. This year, they have envisioned pop-up stores where customers are billed in the amount of “virtual water” contained by their grocery list; experimented baking bread with NYC and Boston tap water (the results are indeed different!); redesigned commercial water bottles labels; created water pollution maps; devised a middle school water curriculum, and much more. I am always surprised by the creative ways my students apply the big ideas of the course in this open-ended assignment. I also teach an Introduction to Cultural Anthropology and an advanced seminar in global political ecology. 

My time at Amherst College, and the courses I taught in Anthropology while I was a CHI fellow, really helped me generate the pedagogical approaches that are so central to my classes—hands-on activities, engaged projects, interdisciplinary syllabi featuring a diversity of scholarly voices and backgrounds. 

Can you trace the path you scholarship has taken since your time as a CHI Fellow? 

My time at CHI had a big and lasting impact on my scholarship. The wonderful friends and CHI fellows in my “Conservation” cohort: Ada Link, Brett Brehm, and Reed Gochberg, and our director Martha Umphrey, read and gave me feedback on many drafts of what became my wetland monograph and a couple of articles and book chapters. They inspired me to think across fields, to consider a more expansive meanings of visions and practices of conservation (from sound to artifacts and ecologies), to develop my own writing voice, and to keep theory rooted in ethnographic and historical narratives. We organized an incredibly fun and rewarding CHI conference, with invited participants we had selected together and where we also got to workshop our own work. The paper I shared then was published as an article a year later. The weekly CHI salons were a great way to meet colleagues across the humanities and delve into questions and topics I had never considered before.  

My new research project on seeds builds on some of the insights from the “Conservation” cohort and the events we organized. I was able to run a CHI salon event on “seeds” framed as a conversation with an anthropology colleague at Smith College and the director of the Book and Plow farm, where I shared very early thoughts about my new project. Walks through the Mead Art Museum always inspired me to think laterally about questions of place-making, knowledge, and power. And I did a lot of thinking about environmental change and meaning, and about my own writing in progress, on long runs, following trails and roads through the College and around Amherst—I was training for the Boston Marathon that year, and was able to explore fields, swamps, hills, and roads, while observing the slow passing of the season. My favorite loop followed a creek, entered a marsh area, skirted the Amherst Book and Plow fields, followed the rail trail for a while, then crossed a corn field, forest, and farmland. In a way, I see the thinking and writing I did while at CHI as anchored in these landscapes.  

Through their generous mentorship, my Anthropology colleagues let me design and teach courses close to my research interests: “Environmental Anthropology” and “Living with Animals,” and to involve students in my research. The Center for Community Engagement helped me teach my animals class through fieldtrips to local places where humans and other animals come together. Students conducted mini-ethnographies in a zoo, a slaughterhouse, an animal shelter, and an aquatic lab. This engaged approach had a lasting impact on my pedagogy. I also had a wonderful student research assistant, an anthropology senior, who helped me with the preparatory research for my seed project, and gave me precious feedback on early book chapter drafts.  

After CHI, I spent a year as a fellow Yale’s Agrarian Program, where I completed revisions to my book manuscript, before joining BU’s Anthropology and Earth & Environment Departments, where I am juggling research, writing, and teaching.  

Describe a fond memory from your CHI Fellowship. 

My cohort of CHI Fellows developed a weekly tradition of eating a picnic lunch on the stone benches of the War Memorial, looking at the Holyoke Range. Cider donuts from Atkins Farm often complemented our lunch. Our playful, sprawling conversations in informal moments like these are some of my fondest memories. The fellows’ genuine focus and generosity on our weekly fellows' workshops helped me write through the most difficult sections, and refine half-baked ideas. 

I also enjoyed meeting faculty members from across the college—chatting over lunch or coffee, or around a seminar table. Faculty were all very welcoming to all of us CHI fellows, and reached out to get to know us and to talk about our work. This was all very exciting and inspiring. Walking into the Frost Library in the morning, already full with students reading and doing homework, was always a nice transition into writing and thinking mode. The view of the quad from the large glass windows of our CHI meeting space made me feel very much part of the College’s bustling student life, but our offices were quiet and offered a good, protected place to write. 

The collaborative, generous, collegial interdisciplinary environment I found at CHI and Amherst College remains a source of inspiration for me.