This California Couple Really “Digs” Rhode Island

By Harry Anderson

They are anthropologists/archaeologists, Dr. Scott Fedik and his wife Dr. Mary Baker, native Californians who moved to Rhode Island in 2005 when RIC chose her to be the director of its new Environmental Studies Program. Both resigned their professorships with the University of California’s (Riverside campus) department of anthropology in order to make the move. To Mary, coming to New England is tantamount to digging down to the roots of her family tree, for she is a branch of the Backus lineage. William Wolcott Backus was among the first settlers of Norwich, Connecticut in 1659, and its hospital bears his name.

Scholars of ancient ruins and relics, the couple yearned to live in an antique house. For twelve years, while putting up with Warwick’s sprawl and traffic, they finally lucked out and acquired a sturdy, charming 1812 house just off Hartford Pike in Glocester that originally was named the Cornell Tavern and that morphed into a hotel and then a brothel.

“We’re happily settled in now,” Scott smiles, “and are exploring all parts of Rhode Island. We are constantly being amazed by the beauty of this state!”

“Yes, indeed,” Mary says. “It’s very, very nice. I’ll go so far as to contend that Rhode Island may well be one of America’s best kept secrets.”

Professionally, the couple continue their long-standing research projects: hers, the Capuchin monkeys of Costa Rica and his, the ancient culture of Central America’s Mayan civilization. When the interview segued to questions about their projects, Scott spread two National Geographic maps of Central America upon a Cold Brook Café corner table and pointed to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica, saying, “It’s wrong to think that Mayans are extinct. To the contrary, more than a million of them live in all these countries, not to mention Mexico and others. As an undergraduate, I worked with a team of surveyors down there, which led to my career, and ever since, for 35 years, I’ve been investigating the Mayan culture, particularly its impact on ecosystems and vice versa.”

Author of numerous publications and now a professor emeritus, Scott continues, he says, “to go into the jungle with a machete searching for ancient Mayan sites”.

Modern technology, like LIDAR – a laser device mounted on an airplane that beams through tree canopy to accurately give the user a 3D point cloud model of the landscape – is a boon to a survey archaeologist like him, whose job is to find vestiges of Mayan villages now buried beneath centuries of jungle detritus.

“I am trying to gain enough knowledge of how ancient people could sustain their agriculture and thereby enable us today to regain that skill.”

Mary, too, has been trekking the Costa Rican rain forest, closely monitoring the life style of Capuchin monkeys. Early on in her pre-doctoral years, she had the ambition to go to Africa to investigate baboons; but the writing of an undergraduate paper on Capuchin monkeys changed her mind. She learned that this primate is more ideal to study in her effort to resolve conflicts between humans and monkeys, i.e. to better understand homo sapiens’ behavior.

Capuchin monkeys, so called because their physical features (white face, dark brown “robe”, and hoods like cowls on their heads) resemble the Spanish Capuchin monks. Having larger brains than other species of monkeys, these primates exhibit more intelligent patterns of behavior. For example, they can distinguish among jungle vegetation plants of medicinal value. Also, they are trainable to the extent of assisting quadriplegics by working a light switch, fetching objects, and even unscrewing bottle caps.

For the past five years Mary’s focus has expanded to include engaging young people to participate in her anthropological work. Under the aegis of Rhode Island College’s Environmental Studies that she directs, not only do students accompany her for two weeks each summer to the Costa Rican jungle but also via Facebook and Skype she takes to the classrooms of five grade schools virtual field work exposure. In real time eleven and twelve year olds can follow monkeys, talk about collected data, ask questions. All the while they are learning essential scientific concepts and the process of doing research.

“You see,” Mary says with determination, “I want scientists to communicate with non-scientists, especially young people. I believe strongly that this is important. And Rhode Island College has been good in financially supporting my work.”

Asked by the interviewer what they talk about in the keeping room of their 1812 house, Scott and Mary almost together answer, “Mayans and monkeys, of course.” But one could guess that these ex-Californians have now added to their conversations exclamations about Misqamicut and Matunick and other Rhode Island beauty spots.