Member Highlight with Rie Macchiarolo
Written by: ELA Director, Mads McELgunn, MA
This month, ELA is proud to announce a new newsletter segment focusing on our wonderful members and community. Our goal with this segment is to catalog individual experiences and insights across the ELA community so that we can better understand the value that ELA provides members, and the impact ELA has on our work in this incredibly diverse field. We will interview members and/or leaders each month – if you are interested in sharing your experience and perspective, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
For this issue, ELA director, Mads McElgunn, interviewed ELA President, Rie Macchiarolo. A big “Thank You” to Rie, for sharing their time with us to have this conversation, and for their willingness to be our first contributor to this member-focused segment.
The conversation below has been lightly edited for clarity.
How long have you been in the ELA community including the time before you became a member?
I first learned about ELA in my time in grad school, and I simultaneously became a member of the alliance as I was introduced. I learned about ELA in the Conway School. There was a Conway alum, Theresa Sprague, who was serving as board president [of ELA]. She was influential in my time during grad school.
My class met her on our orientation field trip, and she also sat as a guest critic during some of our presentations, and was just really friendly. So, she introduced me to ELA, and I just immediately started gobbling up as many webinars as I could in my free time. That was in 2013, and I have been part of the community since.
Was it the ELA community that made you join?
It was clear that ELA had a specific educational niche that I was looking for at the Conway School. The program itself was really short, it was only 10 months, and it mostly focused on design thinking, understanding systems, and being able to communicate complicated ideas through graphics. And all of that was steeped in ecology. There wasn’t a lot about specific plant information. I left grad school like, “okay, I’ve got this graduate degree now. That feels on one hand, super useful, and on the other hand, I don’t know any plants.”
All of the people that I talked to just told me to pick a couple, learn those, and [develop] a base to go off of and learn from. So when I discovered ELA, the thing I was so excited about was all of these resources online, in the newsletter, and their webinars are specifically about plants – about what plants I should use, or why this particular plant is interesting. I think that was the thing I was initially most excited about. I felt like ELA offered a specific niche of education that I was particularly looking for at that time.
When I moved to Boston, I worked with a volunteer organization called COGDesign that did Pro Bono design work, and I volunteered to be a designer for one of their projects. This was when I was teamed up with Trevor Smith who became ELA president two years later. He and I were working together on designing a community garden. We just hit it off and had a great time working together. I think in one of our first meetings he asked if I knew ELA, and I told him how interested I was in the webinars. He said “I feel like you’d be great on the board,” and I said “sure we should talk about what that means,” but I was definitely at a time of professional development.
I was excited to do basically anything that enabled me to have more information and more connections. I initially had a “this would be great on my resume” attitude, but it quickly developed into being connected with the ELA community and creating relationships with these big names of New England. I just really liked the people that showed up to ELA events because we are all very curious, nerdy plant people who are nature enthusiasts and appreciators.
I will always be a member of ELA because I just really believe in the mission of the work. Supporting an organization like this feels fundamentally good to me, but I’ve stayed in a volunteer role because it feels like the kind of activism that I’ve been able to sustain.
I know this is an impossible question, but do you have a single favorite ELA experience?
I mean, that’s hard to pick just one, but the conferences have definitely been the highlights of my experiences with ELA. I think a couple of years ago at the Ecological Plant Conference there was just a really well stacked conference lineup. One of the speakers was Roy Diblick who wrote this book called The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, which I freaking love puns and he had me at “know maintenance.”
Not only is his book and his work really useful, but I just loved the way that he talked about plants. He was the first person that I heard talk about the responsibility we have when we are putting a plant in the ground. And he was just like “when you plant something, you are putting it in the place where it is likely going to grow for the rest of its life.” He said some things like, “You have to put plants with their friends,” or “know who they’re gonna share a room with.” And he said something like, “when the crowns collide, that’s where the magic happens.” And I just loved the way he talked about the relationships of plants and their environments. I hadn’t tuned into Robin Wall Kimmerer yet at that point, but he emphasized a similar point in understanding how plants relate to each other and their own individuality. By the end of his talk, I was just a puddle of goo. I was just thinking how this was everything I needed, and hearing him speak was probably one of the best ELA moments.
Along the lines of great speakers, if you had an unlimited budget for a speaker, who would you want to speak at an ELA conference?
I mean, probably Robin Wall Kimmerer or Suzanne Simard. I just love the way that Robin talks about plants and humans and how we’re all a part of the same system. Of course, part of this comes from her Indigenous culture and framework she’s from, and I think a lot of that just resonates with me. I feel like that is a big piece we, in the Colonial Western World, are really missing and lacking – this larger sense of community and responsibility, not just to each other as humans, but to everything around us.
Every time I read something of hers or listen to something, it has touched a similar spot for me that I feel like is a place that I’m sort of exploring within myself, and sort of longing to feel more connected. I feel like I’m just always on a quest to feel more connected to the people around me, the world around me, and the plants around me, and she always manages to sort of touch that spot for me. I just feel like I could listen to her talk about anything.
With Suzanne, she has a slightly different angle and framework, but the message feels similar of just understanding how trees are communicating with each other, and how there’s so much happening in the natural world that we can barely begin to understand. I feel like it just really highlights the awe that I feel with everything around us being awe-inspiring.
Last, but not least, have you had a favorite passion project that you’ve worked on that has been connected to ELA in some way either through partners or from the education provided by the organization?
I think I’d say that my front yard transformation has been like what I’ve been training for years. I’m finally in a place where I have a front yard that I can really do something with, and no one’s going to take it away from me or demand that I change it. Almost all of the plants that are in the front yard have some meaningful connection to me, ELA, and the people in ELA. I’ve just learned so many of my favorite plants through learning about what other people ELA plant and what they like. It’s been through all of the conversations that have happened through webinars, or just through our presentations and conversations that I’ve been having with people. I feel like my front yard is a collection of conversations and moments from ELA, which feels really nice.
One more hearty “Thank You” to Rie for their time, and well-wishes for a front yard that feels like a microcosm of ELA’s incredibly diverse, creative, and deeply rooted community (if you’ll please excuse the puns…).
Finally, some additional resources, links, and opportunities for continued learning stemming out of this conversation are included below:
For more information about the Conway School, check out their About Page
For information about upcoming ELA webinars → https://www.ecolandscaping.org/events/category/webinars/
To learn about the work that COGDesign does in the Boston area, Click Here
You can check out one of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s more recent papers, Teaching Biology in the Field: Importance, Challenges, and Solutions here
For an interesting article about the “Wood Wide Web,” and how trees and other plants use mycelium to “communicate” with one another, follow This Link
To check out Suzanne Simard’s Mother Tree Project, Click Here