Professor explores history of wheat in new book

Reagan Colyer
Montana State University News Service

BOZEMAN, Mont. — When Cathy Zabinski decided to write her first book, she steered away from topics she has studied for nearly three decades: soil ecology, remediation of damaged ecosystems and crop rotations. Instead, she picked a new topic, one she could learn about along with her readers. For her main character, she chose the humble wheat plant.

Zabinski’s book, “Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat, from Wild Grass to World Megacrop,” was published in September. For Zabinski, a professor in the department of land resources and environmental sciences in MSU’s College of Agriculture, the project meant getting out of her comfort zone in order to connect with her audience.

“I was concerned since I study soil ecology at a really technical level, it would be difficult to write about in a way that could be of interest to non-scientists,” Zabinski said. “I thought learning about a new topic could be a really good way to keep in mind this process of discovery and communicating to an audience who is learning about that topic just as I am.”

Zabinski received a fellowship from the Arthur P. Sloane Foundation to write the book and took a sabbatical during the 2016-17 academic year to pursue the project. While many sabbaticals take the form of field work and international travel, hers meant time in New York City, where she visited the botanical gardens to research the evolutionary history of wheat and other plants and attended lectures at Columbia University and New York University focused on the intersection of science and journalism.

Elements of Zabinski’s own studies dovetailed perfectly with the new project. Since earning her doctorate in ecology from the University of Minnesota, she has explored belowground systems, learning about the ways symbiotic fungi, known as mycorrhizae, interact with plants in their landscapes, influencing the evolution of those plants and allowing them to adapt to changing conditions and differing climates.

Her interests brought her to Montana, where she spent six years as a researcher at the University of Montana. She worked in metal-contaminated sites near Butte, exploring the potential for mycorrhizae to help remediate pollution and facilitate the establishment of native plants on damaged landscapes and studying how native and invasive plants interacted with one another.

In 2000, Zabinski moved over the Continental Divide to Bozeman. Her research focus at MSU shifted to restoration ecology, soil science and the extreme landscapes of Yellowstone National Park.

“Like metal-contaminated sites, Yellowstone offers an opportunity to look at another set of really extreme sites,” said Zabinski. “They have unique soil chemistry and acidity that are beyond the range where plants usually like to grow. And the difference between those sites in Butte and in Yellowstone from an evolutionary ecology perspective is that Yellowstone’s thermal sites have been around for much, much longer.”

With that research, Zabinski examined the ways plants adapt to environments that would otherwise be inhospitable. Over hundreds of thousands of years, plants in Yellowstone have adjusted to fit with ecosystems their predecessors couldn’t. “Amber Waves” explores how wheat has done the same, evolving from a wild grass to one of the world’s most harvested agricultural crops.

While her own expertise played a vital role in the book’s construction, Zabinski also had to explore several fields she was unfamiliar with. During her sabbatical, she read up on archaeology and anthropology, as well as the history of agriculture and society in early civilizations.

“Those subjects are not in my training, and the domestication of plants and how early societies started cultivating them was newer to me,” Zabinski said. “I couldn’t figure out how to segue from the Greeks and Romans to Charles Darwin, so I shifted into learning about the medieval period, which took me through famines and the plague and all sorts of other topics. It was really a journey that I hadn’t anticipated when I set out.”

Even through the process of writing her first book, Zabinski’s research activities continued. Her projects range from studying the effects of cover crops on soil quality to addressing invasive species and deepening understanding of the relationships between pollinators, plants and their associated fungi. After nearly three decades of research, she says there are always more questions to look into. With each new research question, she relishes the opportunity to learn something new, part of her reason for writing “Amber Waves” in the first place.

“I figured if there were places I got stuck, my audience would probably get stuck, too. In a way, we really were learning together,” she said. “This book was very much written for the public. I wrote this to give us a sense of the history of our food production, and that background is what I think is really helpful as we’re addressing the big question of how to produce enough food for the upcoming decades with a growing human population. It was a journey that I had not really anticipated when I set out, and that was both interesting and rewarding.”

Zabinski’s book, “Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat, from Wild Grass to World Megacrop,” was published Sept. 15 by The University of Chicago Press.

Cathy Zabinski’s book, “Amber Waves,” was published in September.
Cathy Zabinski