Category Archives: Environmental anthropology

The Blueberry Wars

In elementary school, the first “robin red-breast” of spring signaled warmer days, colorful flowers, and a promise that the school year wouldn’t last forever. I considered robins my friends.

Of late, I’ve come to perceive those same songbirds as my enemies.

This year, thanks to non-stop April rains, the blueberry bushes in our back yard have burst with fruits as they’ve never done before. My husband and I have inspected the branches daily with equal doses of anticipation and dismay as their output has transformed from tiny, hard, green things, to pinkish-purple promises, to blue balls of deliciousness.

Keeping vigilant over every move toward the berries’ sweet inevitability, we’ve had to do more vigorous battle with their other major, neighborhood fans, the robins.

As a delicate bird alights on a twig, I play schoolyard bully and drive her–or, is it him?–away. (I’m embarrassed to say, I don’t know my adversary’s gender.) The robin flits across my neighbor’s yard, only to return a few minutes later.

Philip wickedly points out that some wild chirping in a nearby tree might signal a nest filled with robin babies, and who’s to say I’m not depriving babies of needed nourishment?

Three baby robins in a nest, with open mouths waiting for food.  Source: http://clarksilerfamily.blogspot.com/2016/06/born-into-family.html.

Despite usually being a sucker for all things baby, I don’t buy this bid for maternal solidarity and return to my war of words.

“Shoo! Go find your meal elsewhere!” I holler, clapping my hands firmly for extra emphasis. The call of a future blueberry clafoutis dominates my decision.

*

My Biology 101 level of understanding of evolution assures me that humans sit comfortably atop something we easily term the “food chain.”

Merriam-Webster defines “food chain” as:

an arrangement of the organisms of an ecological community according to the order of predation in which each uses the next usually lower member.

When I picture the food chain, a very human-centric model readily comes to mind. (You can tell I’m not a vegetarian.)

How can my husband and I be competing as equals with a small-brained creature so much lower on the evolutionary scale?

Maybe my human arrogance is misplaced. Given that we seem to have the same taste in fruit, who’s to say birds and humans can’t be classified as equals, at least when it comes to dessert?

Then I remember an image from some fields in West Africa where I used to hang out. Come the growing season, birds showed up en masse, excited about the feast of tiny baby corn and rice kernels suddenly enticing them. But any success they enjoyed would come at the expense of the villagers–subsistence farmers, whose food supply they were stealing.

So, farmers enlisted children from the age of three on to serve as a young army. From dawn to dusk, groups of children occupied the fields. To entertain themselves during any intermittent periods of truce, the children brought along homemade flutes, drums, and dolls. Whenever some birds showed up, the kids took a break from their play time to shoot little pebbles at the flying invaders. Their aim was impressively accurate, thanks to homemade slingshots. Deployed over the course of a couple of weeks by those youthful armed forces, that simple technology–a Y-shaped piece of wood, with strips of red rubber tied to two ends and linked by a small piece of leather, to cup the pebble–saved the year’s crops.

The Beng knew what every farmer has known since the advent of agriculture. Never mind brain size or evolutionary scales. For that matter, never mind cute images of birds as characters in children’s books. (Think, Make Way for Ducklings). A food competitor is a food competitor.

It’s true that a more “live and let live” approach to the natural world might re-orient the food chain toward a more cooperative image–say, a non-hierarchical circle, rather than a tiered pyramid.

Still, like farmers everywhere, Beng villagers don’t romanticize the quest for food. Once humans figured out how to plant seeds, everything changed. We’re not just digging roots and killing animals wherever we may find them, we’re setting out clearly demarcated territories for what we consider our food sources–and defending those boundaries not only against our human neighbors, but against other species, as well. If that means chasing away cute robins from our blueberry bushes, so be it.

In the U.S. these days, it’s common for urbanites to dismiss rural residents as less sophisticated–at best, country bumpkins; at worst, ignorant racists. But knowledge comes in many forms. From their distant perch in the rain forest of West Africa, Beng farmers–as rural as they come–have, as usual, taught me a thing or two.

Goose Lessons

What can an anthropologist (who specializes in humans) learn from an unlikely species (like a goose)?

Plenty, it turns out.

My husband and I went goose-banding the other day, thanks to my husband adventurous spirit in discovering a creative, public-outreach program organized by our coastal state’s Department of Environmental Management (“DEM”).

Knowledgeable staff from that department’s Division of Fisheries and Wildlife instructed a small group of citizen-scientists how to herd geese scattered around a large pond, via a strategically managed caravel of kayaks.  

These three kayakers took one path, while two other kayakers took a different path toward geese scattered around this large pond. Eventually, all five kayaks rounded up some 70 geese and converged as a caravel. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

The geese are moulting their flight feathers right now. For a few vulnerable weeks every summer, they’re stuck in the water and can’t fly. Scientific teams takes annual advantage of this brief, flight-less period to herd them for identification. (Biologists band nearly 150,000 geese in North America each year.)

In early summer, Canada geese lose their flight feathers, revealing these blood-filled ribs bereft of feathers. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

In their temporarily terrestrial state, the birds are easily guided by kayaks that surround them to funnel the creatures ever more tightly into a compact group.

Once nudged gently to a small spot along the shore, our geese found themselves directed into a square enclosure assembled on the spot by more volunteers and staffers. 

Geese herded by kayakers on the eastern edge of Long Island (North Fork, NY) three years ago [photo source here]
Staffers and volunteers building a temporary enclosure to keep the herded geese in a small space while awaiting being banded. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

Thus corralled into a manageable space, the geese next endured the more intrepid volunteers among our group learning to wrangle them, one by one.

My husband, Philip Graham, was among the volunteers who risked getting scratched after entering the pen to catch individual geese. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

 The wrangler then gently handed her temporary prisoner off to a staff partner.

This volunteer bravely caught dozens of geese, handing each to a staffer outside the pen, to band the bird. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

The partner then sat with the goose and managed to clip an aluminum band, imprinted with a unique number, around one leg of each goose.

Staffer clamping a numbered band onto a goose’s leg. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

Then the goose endured gentle poking around under its tail feathers to have its sex identified.

Two staffers identifying a goose’s sex. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

Other volunteers (including yours truly) recorded the tag numbers, along with the bird’s age (adult/juvenile) and gender.  

I found my scholarly niche–recording data. [photo by Philip Graham]

Later that day, the scientists on the team would share the data with a federal registry office staffed by biologists–the Bird Banding Laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey, Biological Resources Division, in Laurel, Maryland.

At some time in the future, if a hunter shoots one of those geese (or anyone encounters one of these geese anywhere), s/he should contact that lab to share the goose’s banded number. Scientists will use the data to understand more about the lifespan, habits, and vulnerabilities of the geese. Perhaps global warming-induced change might be inferred. As the lab’s website explains:

Because birds are good indicators of the health of the environment, the status and trends of bird populations are critical for identifying and understanding many ecological issues and for developing effective science, management and conservation practices.

So much for the day’s mechanics, and the long-term goals of this worthy scientific project.  

As for me, here’s what I learned from thinking about our day’s outing as an anthropologist. 

1. Geese are the subject of powerful human stereotypes.

“Mean,” “stupid,” and “herd-like” recurred as assumptions readily evoked by friends and neighbors who heard about my husband’s and my plan to go goose-banding.

A large flock of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) taking off from the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state

2. Geese are widely reviled in urban and suburban America.

From my non-scientific sample of friends and neighbors, I conclude that geese are commonly condemned for their repulsive, slippery, and pervasive droppings on lawns, outdoor running tracks, and park greens alike. Nor did my friends express admiration for their loud honking.

Goose droppings are the frequent subject of cartoons

In fact, my pals all expressed grave disappointment on learning that my husband and I declined to kill all the geese we encountered at close range.

3. Conflicting stereotypes describe humans’ attitudes toward geese.

Despite their image as dirty, loud, aggressive beasts, geese also enjoy a fleeting reputation for their graceful, “V”-shaped migrating flights. As long as they remain far overhead, humans seem willing to cut them some slack and enjoy their passing beauty.

Classic, “V”-shaped winged migration of Canada geese

4. Geese aren’t as dumb as they seem.

Inside our pens, some birds climbed on top of others, making thoughtful efforts to turn their mates into ladders and escape over the top of their pen.

Well, it’s true that they failed at these efforts. Perhaps their brains required just a few more synaptic connections to discern that they needed one more storey of goose floor to reach over the pen’s top edge.

Still, I admired some of their perseverance.

The goose on the left has perched on the backs of its buddies, trying to scramble out of the enclosure. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

5. Geese don’t just represent factory-like replicas of their species.

The birds we banded actually displayed individual personalities.

When we herded them into the pens, a few squawked mightily. Some even stuck out their tongues and hissed. Others vaguely whined. Some complied with docility. Most remained quiescent, thinking their private goose thoughts.

The goose in the foreground was among the most vociferous squawkers. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

6. Geese feel emotions.

As the kayakers approached the shore, the staffers instructed us to hide quietly behind the marsh grasses.

If the birds spotted or heard us, the staff warned us volunteers, the geese would become scared. That might stress them even more.

Several of us volunteers hid behind these tall marsh grasses lining the shore. From behind this dense green wall, our view was quite limited. Reciprocally, we remained hidden from the view of the approaching geese, to avoid scaring them any more. [photo by Alma Gottlieb]

7. Age matters.

While the adults in our pens varied impressively in their behavior, the goslings collectively seemed far less variable. In fact, they all appeared vulnerable. They found themselves easily trapped under the weight of the larger, older geese. I’m sure I even noticed some of them sweating. The biologists in our group became nervous about the risk of the juveniles being crushed to death and instructed the wranglers to extract the babies first.

Thankfully, they were all rescued in time.

*

So what did I learn about humans from my day hanging out with these water fowl?

It’s true that Canada geese occupy a far lower point on the evolutionary scale than do humans.

But that’s precisely what struck me about the occupants of our temporary enclosures.

Even the (evolutionarily) lowly Canada geese are complicated, intentional, worthy of respect for individuals, and defy our essentializing stereotypes.

Shouldn’t the same apply in spades to our fellow humans?





Environmental Anthropology: An Ethnographer’s View of a Cove Cleanup

The curse of the anthropologist: finding culture everywhere in nature.

Publicly posted signs reinvent the medieval European town crier, or the West African village drummer

 

Today, the coastal neighborhood in which my husband and I now live hosted a cleanup in a nearby cove.

 

Of course, this effort was billed as an environmental event. But whenever I bent down to pick up a piece of blue plastic poking up from the sand, or a shard of brown glass glinting under the noonday sun, I couldn’t help thinking of the organization of labor required by clever humans to lug this alarming collection of detritus to a landfill.

 

 

Or perhaps a container ship will transport the bags of sea trash halfway around the world. Someplace in China, rural-to-urban migrant laborers might pick through heaps of American scrap and send the sorted pieces to factories in Shenzhen or Dongguan. There, other rural-to-urban migrant workers (of the sort profiled by the fascinating book by Leslie Chang that I am currently reading, Factory Girls) will make new products from recycled glass and bits of plastic. Maybe next year, those products will make their way on new container ships headed back to the Port of Providence, right up the road from us. And then, I might buy a set of drinking glasses or a plastic spatula at the local mall that boasts, “Made in China.” Was it really? Our work today suggests that such a label might tell only a very partial story.

Or so I fantasized, as I picked out crushed straws and dirtied pencil stubs from the wet sand and stuffed them in my rapidly filling trash bag.

Enjoying a beautiful day for a clean-up; photo by Philip Graham

 

As I joined in today’s collective effort, my mind wandered back to an annual community cleanup that occurred in the small villages of the Beng people in which my husband and I have lived for long periods in the rain forest of Ivory Coast. There, the male chief of every village organizes the event. The goal: to sweep the paths clean that connect village and forest. Farmers walk these paths daily to reach their fields, which are located deep in the heart of the West African rain forest. It’s important to keep the paths clear–otherwise, inattentive farmers worried about this year’s rainfall might forget to look where they’re stepping and tread on a poisonous millipede, a scorpion, or a snake.

Beng villages are designed as discrete clearings in the surrounding rain forest; photo by Philip Graham

 

Once those paths into the forest are cleared, the residents tackle the village itself. The goal: to clear every blade of grass, so no child inadvertently steps unsuspectingly on a green mamba hiding among tall plants while walking to Grandma’s house.

A Beng chief’s word is next to that of god. Beng chiefs are said to use witchcraft to protect their villages, and no sane person would dare deny their annual order to sweep the paths.

A young Beng man sweeps in front of the assistant chief (seated, with a white shirt), while behind him, his older brother, the village chief (seated, with a long, light blue robe) looks on, approvingly; the space is being cleared before a village meeting is convened

 

Moreover, these chiefs occupy a hereditary position. Sure, villagers might dispute the suitability of this or that genealogically qualified candidate, after a particular chief dies. But the basic system offers an official and more or less predictable structure into which individual successors can be slotted.

The neighborhood in which my husband and I now live in Rhode Island lacks such an inherited leader. So how does our annual neighborhood cove cleanup get organized?

As it happens, one woman named Barbara Rubine occupies something of a chief-like position.

Barbara Rubine (left) oversees today’s cove cleanup, along with Andy Gell and Mark Garrison, two Board members of the Edgewood Waterfront Preservation Association 

 

Living across from the cove motivated her to start thinking clean-up thoughts some thirty years ago, when the discouraging view out her window featured more rubbish than river. To maximize her efforts, she founded the Edgewood Waterfront Preservation Association, of which she remains president. As the city of Cranston noted when it voted to commend her for work in 2013, Rubine has “coordinated park maintenance, and shoreline and marsh restoration work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Save The Bay, EWPA and the City of Cranston.”  Which is to say, she’s helped secure major grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as well as local organizations.

Yet, from what I can tell, many volunteers at today’s cleanup don’t know this energetic and visionary woman–even though she is, herself, a veritable force of nature. No, it’s not Barbara Rubine’s moral authority that draws groups of neighbors to add their e-mail address to a list of volunteers, study a long list of labor-intensive tasks, then grab trash pickers and leaf bags and get to work.

 

 

Environmental activist groups sponsoring the clean-up requested e-mail addresses to recruit volunteers for future tasks, then provided supplies for all volunteers to use

 

It must be some collective sense of purpose that, despite its amorphous shape, draws individuals here.

Dean’s grandfather

 

Moreover, many parents clearly aim to model civic engagement for their children.  After all, it takes a village to maintain our neighborhood cove–which, as my five-year-old grandson Dean proclaimed last year (following a tour of Rhode Island’s magnificent coastline), is, after all, “the original, the best, and the most beautiful cove.”

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And so, behind all this laudable effort to preserve the habitat of shellfish beds in their vulnerable corner of the natural world, the structure and motivation of the human labor on behalf of the mussels somehow claim most of my attention.

Fragile mussel beds benefited from the housekeeping efforts of their human friends

 

The curse* of the anthropologist, indeed.

 

* or blessing

 

. . .

 

[All photos by Alma Gottlieb except where noted.]