Friday, December 30, 2016

I Love My Cats. Do They Love Me?

Chili, the angel.
Our cat Chili is an angel. All she requires is regular food and water, a little daily string chasing, a warm lap to curl up in every time she gets a chance, and a hefty amount of independence.

Lemmon, on the other hand, is a whiny pest. She follows us around, mewling and trilling and stretching up to try to turn the doorknobs of doors she wants us to open. When I open the pantry for any reason, she runs across the house hoping to be fed. She stations herself in the path where she knows I will walk next, desperate even for the attention of being kicked accidentally. I can never feed her enough food or play with her for a long enough period of time to satisfy her insatiable desires.

Lemmon, in a calm moment.
Or so it used to be. Although I love her desperately even at her whiniest, I was concerned that she wasn’t behaving in a healthy way. I did quite a bit of reading online about needy and demanding cats and finally happened upon an article stating that focused attention for a few minutes a day could turn these behaviors around. The author wrote of the importance of holding and petting a needy/whiny cat like Lemmon, looking in her eyes, and telling her how much I love her, repeating her name over and over again. Believe it or not, it works! At first it was hard for her to get used to being held like a baby, and she seemed to feel a bit strange about all the eye contact (as cats do). But now she settles right in and blinks at me happily as I repeat her name and coo at her. Sometimes she reaches her paws up towards my face, and a couple of times she has even bitten or licked me softly on my nose and cheeks. Five or ten minutes of this special time calms her down for a long time; a couple of sessions usually last the whole day.

Recently my husband and I watched The Lion in Your Living Room, a Netflix documentary about cats and how, even after millennia of domestication, they retain their wild behaviors. It was fascinating. But the documentary didn’t cover the emotional lives of cats, didn’t seek to explain moments like my special times with Lemmon. Is her growing calmness in my arms simply a reliving of her days as a kitten, turning instinctively to her mother for food and warmth and security? Or do we share an emotional relationship that exists beyond instinct?

Scholars in Animal Studies are currently studying this question: do animals experience emotions and, if so, what is the nature of those emotions? The field bifurcates: domesticated animals whose lives are wrapped up with those of humans may or may not have an emotional life different from that of free-ranging animals. The problem is that scientists cannot ask animals to explain their emotions, so they must infer them from their behaviors. (Of course, just because humans can explain their emotions doesn’t mean we fully understand those either!) Moments of play, courtship, and sharing of food suggest that animals are experiencing such emotion as joy, love, and care, respectively. The behaviors of hanging onto a dead relative or mate with a dejected air - which has been documented in many species of mammals and birds - suggest grief. The next question is how long these “emotions” last. Can animals be said to have real emotions if they are fleeting, unlike humans, who can remember and dwell on emotions such as grief for years?

There are also promising directions in research involving brain imaging, showing what areas of the brain light up when animals see other animals or humans or food or toys. And physical measurements can be taken: heart rate, eye movements, and so on. But then there is the problem of interpretation, as in studies of the human brain: explaining what is happening is much easier than figuring out why.

I think about these questions as I hold my little Lemmon. I’m glad we’re trying to answer them even though I’m not convinced we’ll ever really know the nature of animal emotions. Some scholars argue quite convincingly that humans are simply projecting our own emotions onto those animal behaviors. But it’s amazing enough to me to me that two such very different creatures as Lemmon and I can snuggle, let everything else go, look each other in the eye, and simply feel good in each other’s company. Isn’t that already pretty remarkable? And it sure feels like love to me.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Seven Bird Gifts of Christmas

On Christmas Eve, I can’t help but notice that most of the gifts given in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” are birds:

Seven swans a-swimming
Six geese a-laying
Five golden rings
Four calling birds
Three French hens
Two turtle doves
And a partridge in a pear tree. 

Wait, you say! Golden rings aren’t birds. Well, not a lot is known about the origins of the song, but many speculate that, in keeping with the other kinds of gifts mentioned, the five rings may refer to rings on a bird, such as the ring-necked pheasant, or perhaps to the “goldspinks," which shows up in an old Scottish version, a reference to the goldfinch. Another clarification: “calling” birds is a more recent term. Older versions refer to “collie birds,” which are blackbirds (think black like coal), or “canary birds.” French hens are basically chickens.

Xavier Romero-Frias, "Twelve Days of
Christmas Song Poster," CC BY-SA 3.0
This very old song probably originated as a children’s memory and forfeit game, where one child keeps advancing until making a mistake in trying to remember all the words, and then the next child gets a turn. Since the song is about Advent gift giving (probably from a lover to his love), this implies that at the time of its origin birds were considered among the very best gifts possible. One can imagine that birds represented all kinds of ideas that a lover would wish to convey to his beloved: beauty (swans), fertility (geese laying eggs), nourishment (pheasants and hens), cuddling (turtle doves), and romantic love (partridge, with its heart-shaped breast). It also shows the agricultural base of the context, calling up an image of maids a-milking (perhaps another nod to fertility), surrounded by farm animals such as geese and chickens.

In short, this silly song provides another example of how we invoke animals as symbols in our relationships to one another.

So Merry Christmas to you all. Thank you for the gift you give me of reading my blog! In return, I give you this old video of a wonderful parody of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” by the a cappella group Straight No Chaser.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Unnatural Nature

What is “nature?”

Recently I’ve been noticing that some of my favorite nature spots are not sprawling wilderness. They are sites with a history of heavy human activity. When I was in my hometown of Nashville, Arkansas, recently, I walked most days on the “nature trail” at the City Park. It is a beautiful half-mile trail that meanders through an overgrown pecan grove, by a lazy creek, and past an old cow pasture. The land was a farm once, and the landowner donated the land to the park. There are places along the asphalt trail to stop and read signs about how to look for and appreciate nature, even among the carefully planted rows of pecan trees.

Closer to home, I love to walk on the battlefields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where I work. There is no place around here more serene, at least outside of tourist season. There are pastures, woods, a creek, and small, picturesque hills. I never fail to see a myriad of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and sometimes deer. But these trails are part of a so-called commemorative landscape covered with monuments to Union and Confederate units. The ground is soaked in the blood of tens of thousands of soldiers who died in a brutal three-day battle. And, if you'll notice in the photo, there are plenty of con trails in the clear blue skies overhead.

"Flower in a Sidewalk Crack", by Fuzzy Gerdes (unaltered), CC BY 2.0
If these two places qualify as “nature,” then what about the garden in my backyard? And if that qualifies, what about potted garden plants on an urban balcony? Or the tuft of grass that sticks out of an urban sidewalk crack and provides cover for the occasional beetle? Or a zoo full of wildlife?

Google provides the following definition of nature: “the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals, the landscape, and other features and products of the earth, as opposed to humans or human creations.” Hmm. That definition disqualifies all of the above, which are human creations - or, perhaps, places where the physical world struggles to exist in spite of human interference.

Earthlights 1994-95, captured by NASA
Every geological epoch is given a name to reflect the major occurrences of that period. Although the international bodies that decide these things have not approved it, the current age has been unofficially named the Anthropocene to convey the great impact that humans have had on the earth since our existence. When you think about it, there is hardly any aspect or location of nature that has not been impacted by humans. We have changed the soil, air, water, atmosphere, and seismic activity of this planet. We have changed the genetic structure of plants and animals. We have moved into almost every territory. A CNN travel article online, entitled “10 of the World’s Last Great Wilderness Areas,” includes hotel recommendations for each of them!

So does that mean the whole planet can no longer be considered “nature?” Of course not.

I like that we call the unnatural “nature.” It reminds me that nature is all around us and that we are part of nature as well. It shows me that we don’t have to go to great pains to go out into nature; instead we can begin to appreciate nature as it exists around us. It suggests to me that the kind of human-nature integration that we think only occurred in the past, or is now only accessible to indigenous peoples and hermits, can be ours, too, if we simply decide to slow down and pay attention to what is all around us.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Land of Memory

Each semester in my Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class, I assign a reading about Apache place names by Keith Basso. The Apache, like other indigenous peoples, locate their moral system within the landscape. The place where a particular crime occurred, for example, becomes a perpetual reminder of right action and the consequences of bad choices. This is one of the reasons that indigenous peoples cannot simply be relocated to a new piece of land: that new landscape does not hold their cultural and moral memory as a people.

The house in the woods
Over the last few weeks, I have traveled home to Arkansas for a research project involving family history and traveled to western New York with my mother-in-law for a funeral. As I learned more about my family history, I realized how deeply it is located in the landscape around Nashville, Arkansas. There is the oak tree that my mother’s grandmother planted out on the Hope Highway, there is the old house where my father’s mother was adopted out of an orphanage and into a family, there are the woods where my father once dreamed of building a house and eventually did. I rode around the area with my father, who showed me the creek where Young family members were baptized, the peach shed where everyone used to work during the summer, the cedar trees that indicate the presence of lime in the soil. Our car rides always comfort him and spur memories in a brain that is becoming a little foggier each year.

The old family barn in Avon
In Rochester, New York, and the nearby village of Avon, I got to see house after house that belonged to my mother-in-law’s relatives, places she used to go after school or babysat on the weekend or visited with cousins. She could look at the urban landscape, now much changed, and still envision the Italian grocery that used to tie up her family’s meat purchases in brown paper and the fancy boutique where she was taken by her mother to shop for a dress, a rite of passage that signaled she was growing into a young woman. As she loses her elder family members, that landscape and its buildings remain important ties to her childhood years and her memories of who she used to be.

The landscape is important to us, whoever we are. It holds memories, morals, emotions, and culture. No wonder land can be so contentious: just think of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and what’s happening now in Standing Rock. Even as we move far away from the land where we grew up, we clearly remember the smell of the trees, the feeling of the wind, the way the hot sun burned our skin - sensory experiences that cannot be replicated anywhere else. We still see buildings and trees that are no longer there, or imagine a person walking down a lane or the picnic that occurred just over the hill.

It’s a beautiful, magical connection reminding me that, no matter how much our mobile lifestyles and technologies may seek to separate us from a particular place and its landscape, that attachment is too deeply-rooted, too meaningful to ever really go away.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Hummingbirds of Winter

It’s a wonderful feeling when I find out fascinating new information about nature.

Calliope Hummingbird of Lafitte's Cove
by Dan Pancamo CC BY-SA 2.0
This week it has come to my attention that people see hummingbirds in winter here in central Maryland, where I live. Not the ruby-throated hummingbirds that we have in the summer, but calliope and rufous hummingbirds from the West. They should be in Mexico but instead end up in Maryland and other places on the East coast.

It turns out that lots of people around here leave their feeders out during the winter for the hummingbirds. There are all kinds of tricks online about how to keep your feeders from freezing, for example here.

And then there’s this interesting fact: when they can’t find nectar, hummingbirds eat insects. They can pick them off of leaves or grab them in midair, which is known as “hawking”. In fact, while hummingbirds fatten up on nectar to begin their migration South, they fuel up on insects to begin their migration North.

I spend hours each week obsessively watching birds, reading about birds, and thinking about birds. Hummingbirds are some of my favorites. So how could all of this knowledge have escaped my attention until now? I think the answer lies in the source of my information: other, more experienced birders, who have been feeding and watching birds for much longer than I have. What I actually get to see in the world of birds and nature depends on where I am and when. What I read about birds and nature is equally serendipitous. There’s so much to know about nature, and that’s what makes it so endlessly fascinating. It’s not surprising that foragers, human societies that rely for subsistence on hunting and gathering in their natural environment, require years of training and experience to become good hunters and gatherers. It’s also not surprising that they depend on more experienced elders to teach them. Why should I be any different?

In case you like to feed hummingbirds, or would like to try, consider winter feeding. And keep in mind these important “don’ts”:
  • Don’t dye the water red! Hummingbirds are attracted to red flowers (like those on feeders), but they couldn’t care less what color the nectar is. Red dye is harmful to hummingbirds.
  • Don’t use commercial nectar! It is full of preservatives and dyes, which are harmful to hummers just like they are to humans. It’s cheaper and safer to make your own nectar. Boil one part sugar in four parts water, cool, and serve. Use regular ole white sugar, not honey or any other sugar substitute.
Mexican Long-Tongued Bat at Hummingbird
Feeder by Ken Cosma CC BY 2.0
  • Don’t worry that keeping your feeders out will make hummers stay around when they should be migrating! They know what to do and when to do it, and that decision has to do with their internal clock rather than the availability of food. You should keep your feeders out as long as you’re seeing hummingbirds.
  • Don’t be surprised if other critters find their way to your feeder!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Extinction of a Tool User

There are many reasons to prevent the extinction of species, and one of them is that we have a lot still to learn about plants and animals. My last blog covered three species that have been brought back from the brink of extinction thanks to concerted human effort. Cross your fingers with me that the same can be done for this fascinating one.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Hawaiian crow (Corvus hawaiiensis) - known in Hawaiian as the ʻalalā - is a tool user. It can clutch a stick in its bill and use it to dig food out of a crevice. That already puts it in a unique group of bird species that have been found to use tools in this way. But the Hawaiian crow is a bit exceptional even within this group: it not only uses tools, it manufactures them. The crow can pry off a twig and shape it into just the tool it needs. Watch the process in this video: the crow realizes it needs a tool, makes the tool, and then figures out the best place to use it!

Unfortunately, Hawaiian crows became extinct from the wild in 2002 as a result of disease, predation, habitat encroachment, and shooting by farmers who saw them as a threat to their crops. They have been bred in captivity since then in hopes of reintroducing them to the wild. The success of reintroduction is not assured, especially since rising temperatures have allowed mosquitoes that carry bird malaria to thrive in the higher altitudes of Hawaii where the crows once lived. Nevertheless, six fledglings will be released into the wild this November, and you can read about and follow the process here.

There are many reasons to care about the Hawaiian crow and its survival, and one of them is that the species can help us understand something very interesting about the relationship between humans and nature. One of the many early assumptions about the differences between humans and animals was that only humans use tools. Over the last few decades, scientists have discovered tool use among a diverse set of animals: from sea otters that use stones to open abalone shells to bonobos that use leaves as umbrellas to elephants that use branches to swat flies. There is much to learn about the parts of the brain that allow such complex abilities as tool use and when, where, and how tool use is taught rather than instinctive.

And for those of us who aren’t scientists, there is the simple sense of awe that comes from learning what animals can do and how much like us they can be. I hope someday to watch a video of wild Hawaiian crows using tools and showing us their genius, adaptability, and determination.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Back from the Brink

I was just skimming over my nature notes from this time last year and recalled an amazing week. It was a busy week, and I couldn’t have spent more than 40 minutes total walking outside. But in those 40 minutes walking up and down my country road, I saw three amazing things: a bald eagle, a mink, and an eight-point white-tailed buck deer. Why is that so amazing? Because all three species have been pulled back from the brink of extinction thanks to concerted human effort.

"Bald Eagle Head 2" by Tony Hisgett CC BY 2.0.
The sight of a bald eagle is still a thrill for me because I remember a time when it was such a rare sight. Now the bald eagle is listed as “least concern” and “population increasing” and has been taken off the endangered species list, with over 6,000 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. Their endangerment was caused by a whole host of factors: habitat encroachment; poisoning by DDT, lead shot, mercury, and other toxins in the prey eagles consumed; and shooting by ranchers and others who considered them a pest. Some of these explanations are considered controversial, as are all claims by environmentalists that threaten an industry or way of life, but what is clear is that a combination of efforts taken over the last decades has worked well. Federal and state agencies and individuals have worked hard to protect habitat, outlaw the shooting of eagles, and reduce use of toxins, and will continue to do so in order to ensure the bald eagle survives.

"An American Mink in Capisic Pond, Portland,
ME" by Chuck Hemler CC BY-SA 3.0
By the early part of the 20th century, wild mink were in trouble because of the demand for their fur. This conservation story is a mixed-happiness one: the wild population was saved because of the increase in mink farming. Mink farming is not a nice industry, and the animals are subject to a great deal of cruelty. Mink were farmed in the U.S. and then exported to Europe, what was then the U.S.S.R., and South America to fill the high demand worldwide for mink fur coats. Escapees from mink farms outside the US are now an invasive species, out-competing other native small mammals and reducing bird populations through egg predation. In the U.S., mink farm escapees, bred to be smaller and have thicker pelts, are changing the genetics of the wild population, which may have important long-term effects. But for now, this story shows that, when we stop over-hunting a wild population of animals for whatever reason, the population has the potential to rebound quickly and stabilize.

"Whitetail Deer" by Garett Gabriel CC BY-SA 3.0
And the white-tailed deer. It is hard to believe today, but that population was in severe decline by the end of the 19th century due to hunting for meat and buckskin by Native Americans and settlers of what was then a relatively small population, as well as the removal of food sources through heavy logging in forests. There is historical evidence of concern for deer populations; one New York locale had deer laws as early as 1788 that established a season for deer hunting! Throughout the first half of the 20th century, feeding of deer combined with limits on both season and numbers brought the population back. The clearing of forests ultimately aided the deer, as it provided edge habitat - the meeting of forest and field - that deer prefer. Now, of course, the white-tailed deer population is too big, and they have become pests: harming agriculture and private gardens, destroying new growth in forests, and decimating the habitat of birds and other animals, not to mention causing car accidents. Now many forest and wildlife conservation efforts include the hunting of white-tailed deer.

"American Bald Eagle" by rightclicks
CC BY-SA 3.0
What seems to me to be the most important common denominator in these stories is a change in culture. Conservation efforts are the nuts and bolts of the rebounding of endangered populations, but most important of all, they change our mentality about the importance of animals. Eagle poaching began to decline in part because of stiff financial penalties, but today I’m certain it is kept in check because people have come to see the bald eagle as a somewhat sacred symbol of our national identity. Trapping of minks, beavers, and other animals have declined as the demand for furs and pelts have declined; even mink farming is on a downward trend. And hunters have become some of the best conservationists over the course of the 20th century, realizing that animal populations and their habitats must be managed carefully in order to ensure that the sport of hunting can continue. (In fact, I would argue that we need to encourage more of a hunting culture in this country.) Now we must turn this concerted human effort toward other species facing extinction, and that will be the subject of my next blog.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Peace, Love, and Dinner

My husband and I are out walking. Mourning doves fly up into the air, startled. I exclaim with delight at their beauty and soft alarm calls. He lifts a pretend shotgun and starts shooting them. I envision them canoodling in love and peace, the perfect example of monogamous bird love. He imagines them stewing in a sauce of garlic and herbs.

Doves symbolize peace, love, dinner, and lots of other things, depending on the person or the society. Doves figure heavily in religious symbolism around the world. Goddesses in ancient societies, such as Aphrodite, were symbolized by the dove. The dove gained an important meaning in Judaic lore when Noah released a dove to guide the ark to land after the flood. Christianity applied the dove as symbol to both Jesus and the Holy Spirit, among other things. Perhaps because of its status in religion, the dove became a symbol of peace in European culture. It is symbolic of fidelity and fecundity in Chinese arts and holds spiritual meanings in Indian culture. And expressions such as “lovey-dovey” in English show that somewhere along the way doves became symbols of romantic love as well. How can doves mean so many different things to different people and cultures? Are there any aspects of the actual lives of doves that may have leant themselves to these meanings?

Perhaps it is their look. Most doves around the world are smooth and round, with muted colors: a wonderful gray-brown with shades of rose, or pure white, or light pink or orange. Maybe these colors make them seem peaceful and mild. However, tufted titmice, juncos, and house finches come in varying shades of gray and pinky-grey and white, yet I have never heard them mentioned as symbols of peace.

Perhaps it is their soft cooing, which seems gentle or even mournful. But a similar low hooting on the part of the great horned owl is cast as creepy or ominous or even wise, not sweet or gentle or mournful.

Perhaps it is the close companionship of mated pairs. Males and females are always together, and they mate in much of the world for the entire year (rather than in a limited breeding season, like most birds). Maybe we simply see them displaying mating behavior more often than other birds, which makes them seem more loving. Their young accompany them for a while after fledging, meaning that they are often in small groups. But of how many birds can we say the same?

Even their “prey” meaning to hunters doesn’t make a great deal of sense. They’re larger than many birds, but not as large as many others, so they don’t provide a significant amount of meat. They can fly fast, which I suppose makes them an interesting challenge for hunters, but can’t many other birds fly fast as well? In fact, one of the concerns of those opposed to dove hunting is that hunters may in fact be shooting other birds with much the same general size and shape, which suggests doves aren’t terribly unique as sport.

In thinking about all of this, I would like to suggest a simple explanation: it is their ubiquity, both in time and in space, that makes doves so meaningful. Doves are one of the oldest bird species, older than the songbirds. They are a family of birds (Columbidae) that is spread over almost every part of the world, thrives in just about every type of ecosystem, and includes over 300 species. In other words, there are lots of them around, and there always have been. Human societies have had plenty of time and opportunity to attach meanings to doves. And since doves are familiar to humans all over the globe (unlike most bird families), it makes sense that some of those meanings would come to be shared. Perhaps one religious group had the idea to represent a deity through the symbol of a dove, and that same representation spread to another through syncretism. Migration and shared cuisines could have brought the idea that doves are good to eat from one continent to another.

At the end of the day, doves are birds, doing bird things: breeding, searching for food, calling to each other, flying through the air. That they are the carriers of symbolic meaning says much more about us humans than it does about them.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mowing Up with the Joneses Part III

My mother-in-law Sharon just sent me a link to this blog last week in the Washington Post arguing that we ditch our lawns. It provides even more interesting information about our obsession with lawns and the various kinds of harm that it does. (Mind-blowing fact: more than 20% of the states of New Jersey and Massachusetts is covered in lawn!) Following up on Parts I and II of this series on my own blog, if our desire for a neat, green lawn is the result of history and culture and chasing after prestige, then can it be changed in favor of something that is more environmentally friendly, less dangerous for humans, and easier to keep by homeowners who are already sufficiently busy and stressed?

There are all kinds of substitutes for a green lawn that are beginning to make headlines today. Some people plant gardens in place of lawns. Some people in rural areas let their lawns revert to what they were intended to be, such as woods or a little piece of wetland. Some people grow grass and wildflowers to attract birds and butterflies and other pollinators. Some people grow food forests. It's particularly exciting when businesses on large plots of mowed lawn make a switch. For example, the Audubon Society local chapter to which I belong is now working with the National Humane Education Society in Charles Town, WV, to convert twelve acres of lawn to wildflowers and native grasses.

Will these efforts continue and expand? I predict that they will because they push our prestige button in much the same way that organic food has done: once it became more widely prestigious to eat organic food and shop at farmers markets, and just a little bit more affordable, the movement took off. Now even Walmart attempts to sell mostly organic produce. Such processes trickle down from the wealthy to the Joneses, and then Americans in general begin to aspire to those markers of status. Today there are people taking workshops on growing monarch way stations or planting native species in their backyard. Sales are increasing on books explaining how to grow enough food for one's entire family on one acre of (previous) lawn. People may not be ready to convert their entire lawn into a micro-farm just yet, but lots of them are putting in greenhouses or small gardens.

There are also government efforts afoot in many places. My above-mentioned mother-in-law lives in Montgomery County, Maryland, and the county government is converting a portion of the lawns of neighborhood residents into rain gardens to help capture rainfall that would otherwise carry more pollutants into the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Top-down government solutions such as these are controversial and sometimes create other problems, but they are also a sign that local government policies, which have long been pro-lawn, may be changing.

The key to these efforts, in addition to wrapping them in what I would call "attainable prestige", is changing our aesthetic values. We have to make messiness visually pleasing. The eyes that have been trained by culture to appreciate a neat, green lawn will have to be retrained to love the look of bright wildflowers buzzing with bees and butterflies. The rural landowners who mow all their fields to keep them neat will have to learn to feel good about letting a few of them go to grass and milkweed, knowing that there are grasshopper sparrows and meadowlarks and monarch butterflies thriving because of that decision. And we will all have to stop complaining about that neighbor’s messy yard.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Mowing Up with the Joneses Part II

In Part I, I described some of the historical causes and environmental consequences of the American love for grassy lawns. One of the explanations offered by Ted Steinberg, author of American Green, is prestige: the valorization of a neat, mowed lawn trickled down from the wealthy aristocrats of Britain to the working class of the United States over many decades, as individuals, counties, and homeowners associations came to feel that a neat, green, mowed lawn expressed a certain level of class. I think prestige is an important explanation for this and so many other human behaviors and preferences.

But why a neat, monolithic green lawn rather than something else, say a lawn covered in rose bushes or expensive stones from some far-off land? I think there is another explanation here, which also applies to a great many human behaviors and preferences.

One theory that has been prevalent in cultural anthropology over the last century involves the idea that human cultures are built on binary oppositions that structure relationships between people and things in each culture. For example, male/female is an important binary, and each society will have its own culturally-formed ideas of what are “male” and “female” behaviors, dress, roles, activities, etc. For some anthropologists, such binary oppositions reflect structures in the human brain that force us to think about the world in this way. For others, these are cultural constructions that have no biological or psychological basis. One of the problems with this human tendency to order society around binary oppositions is that one side of the binary is valued more highly than the other. Thus, the theory goes, sexism exists because most or all societies value the masculine over the feminine.

Another important binary seen across societies by anthropologists is nature/culture. The cultural life of most human societies rests on subjugating nature. Religion seeks to tame our natural impulses and instincts. Laws about marriage seek to control our bodily desires and legitimize offspring. Agriculture is all about bringing nature into tune with human rhythms of time and space. And so on. Societies generally value culture over nature, and in some ways nature comes to be seen as the enemy of culture.

This theory may explain in large part why we breathe a sigh of relief when we look out of our windows and see a neat, green lawn. Our lawn mowing and other practices have tamed nature. Rather than a variety of colors, we see a smooth green, accented in a controlled way by flowers we bought at Home Depot, guaranteed to a look a certain perfect way that is a far cry from their wild, original versions. All the scary insects and animals, such as snakes and spiders, don’t have much of a chance in short grass completely exposed to our human eye, especially if we use pesticides on the lawn. Some people even fight to the death against any plant or animal that mars that perfection. Our former neighbor was at war with clover and dandelions, obsessively bringing out the Roundup and re-seeding any little patch in the lawn. (And you don’t want to know what he did to the rabbits and groundhogs.) I always wondered how he felt as he looked across the fence at our messy lawn, with yellow dandelion flowers poking up in spring, white clover flowers in summer, and little bees buzzing all around (at least, that is, until my husband sacrificed them to the blades of the mower).

One of the critiques against the theory of binary oppositions is that they are overstated by the anthropologist, that actual human behaviors and preferences are much more in flow and flux between and around these binary structures. There are certainly groups and societies that value nature as well as culture, and ecologists and anthropologists study small-scale indigenous groups to learn how we can better live in an integrated, sustainable way with nature. Furthermore, critics argue, these binary structures can change over time. So there are people today who are happily living with weedy lawns or planting wildflowers to attract snakes and spiders and all the biodiversity that comes with them, to the yard. In other words, according to this take on the theory, we’re not necessarily naturally inclined to a neat, green lawn; it is something that has been given to us as a preference by history and our circumstances. And prestige. And thus it can be changed. We may always prefer culture over nature, but the content of that relationship can be altered.

In Part III of this series, we’ll take a look at how some individuals and groups are converting lawn into a little slice of wilderness, answering recent calls to forms of prestige that seek to bring a little nature back into the cultural world of our lawns.