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.