AS IF Center has been a seed of an idea for many years, drawing on the nutrients of the growing community of art-science, then floating around on the wind for a bit, looking for the right place to take root. We have set down roots in the remote mountains of North Carolina for many reasons, some of them not so surprising: the rich diversity of flora and fauna, world-class geological sites, dark skies for astronomy, and the abundance of artists that buzz around Penland School of Crafts, just up the road. Nearby Asheville, known for its creative and funky environment, also hosts some excellent but lesser-known science institutions. For example, the National Centers for Environmental Information is the headquarters for the nation’s climate data, and the Southern Research Station of the US Forest Service does important work to study how our forests adapt to human impacts.
But there is another reason to be here, and that is the surprisingly cosmopolitan community that is High Cove, where AS IF Center is located.
High Cove is a magnet for visitors from all corners. On a recent night in May, we had a delightful gathering with Gary Martin, who had travelled from Morocco. Gary, an ethnobotanist who wrote a textbook on Ethnobotany, directs the Global Diversity Foundation for preserving the biological and cultural diversity of the planet. At our gathering, a dozen of us mingled, nibbled on local goat cheese and just-picked ramps, sipped some wine, then I asked Gary to tell us about his work. He pulled out a few dozen plastic bags and spread them on the coffee table, and suddenly it looked like a drug bust. What were all these things?
He opened one bag, a potpourri that included ingredients from all the other bags. He rolled down its edges and offered it to me. I stuck my nose down into the bag and inhaled. I was transported to a spice market in Morocco, with whiffs of cardamom, cinnamon, anise, pepper, and things I didn’t recognize. My olfactory world burst into complex chord: mineral, herbal, salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami, medicinal, fruity, woody, nutty… with overtones and undertones, foretastes and aftertastes, like a well-aged, complex wine.
We focused on the ingredients one at a time. Gary passed around a bag of Melegueta pepper, or “grains of paradise.” A member of Zingiberaceae, or ginger family, the Afromomum melegueta makes seeds which sting the tongue, then reveal clean, citrusy, peppery clouds of flavor that entertain the nose and throat, and fill the head. There were spices that came from every part of a plant. Delicate red threads of the finest saffron in the world, highly valued stamens of the Crocus sativus. Golden, leathery-looking bits of mace, the fleshy aril covering the nutmeg in the Myristica fragrans tree. Orris root, the rhizome of Iris pallida, used as a fixative to bind flavors together.
One highlight of the evening was passing around a small, round seed about the size of a peppercorn, with a smooth woody surface the color of rosewood. It was a guessing game. We scratched and sniffed. One said, “Cloves?” Another asserted: “Cardamom! No, wait. Cinnamon?” And “Hmm… it has a spicy bite, like ginger-ish. But with a deeper note, like maybe nutmeg?” Then we realized, aha. Allspice! Indeed, that is where the name comes from. From Jamaica, allspice, or Pimenta dioica, has flavors reminiscent of so many of these spices.
We expect variety in cities. I have lived in three cities and travelled to a dozen more in different parts of the world. But it wasn’t until I moved to this remote location in the mountains of North Carolina that I had the privilege of learning about ethnobotany from a guy who wrote a textbook on it. Just a few days prior to that olfactory feast of spices, I was at a different kind of feast: my first Russian Orthodox Easter breakfast, eating pascha and drinking tea out of glasses with silver podstakannik, thanks to a Russian artist living at High Cove.
High Cove has had visitors from Burundi, Switzerland, Austria, Morocco, India, and from all over the US. Folks who live here and those who visit have generally travelled widely, studied deeply, and do interesting work in the arts, the sciences, academia, engineering, journalism, and other fields. High Cove residents include a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist / ceramic artist; a physicist / musician; a Stanford University classics professor / woodworker; a radio engineer / meteorologist / Spanish professor. Incredibly, when I arrived, there was already another artist / scientist here, who became a friend and partner in crime.
Our feasts of culinary and olfactory delights are a common occurrence here, as are the equally intriguing curries of stimulating conversation. We relish our “sobremesa” (Spanish for “around the table”), that time of lingering after a meal to enjoy stories, laughter, music, learning, and companionship. It is this rich masala of bright minds, delightful conversations, creative work, and adventurous eating, and that brought AS IF Center to this place.
The world comes to High Cove. We hope you will, too.