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!