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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Butthat’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?
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
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.
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
We have bequeathed you a world that has too many problems, too much fear, and too much hate.
Dad and I tried to raise you to see the good in people, to understand others’ perspectives, to argue for fairness in the face of injustice, to respect the earth, to treat others with respect no matter the god(s) they worship or the size of their bank account or the shape of their bodies or the origin of their passport, and to feel hopeful about the future. Our nation has just elected a man who embodies the opposite of all these principles. He will set the tone from above–but in the end, he’s just one person.
As Bertolt Brecht once wrote, “Because things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.”
Our nation is, like all others, a work in progress. Right now, it feels like we haven’t made any progress at all. With Trump’s election, we’ve set back the clock on women’s rights, minorities’ rights, environmental protection, civility, predictability, respect for science, and the acknowledgment that (like it or not) we all inhabit a globalized world.
But it’s not the end of the story. There’s always a next chapter to be written, and your generation will write a very different chapter.
Your generation understands the urgency of combating climate change. Your generation embraces difference of all sorts–sexual, religious, racial, you name it–because your online engagements show you every hour how diverse, and how interconnected, the world is. Your generation absorbs knowledge because you know how easy it is to find your way to facts, and, with a little research, to separate facts from fiction.
Dad and I so wished that today could have been a day to celebrate. Instead, it’s a day to reflect on the work to be done. It’s a day to dig deep and strategize about how to create the world we want to inhabit. With a president who revels in abusing his power, mocking his opponents, and ridiculing the disabled, the disenfranchised, and the poor, the rest of us will have to work harder than ever to protect the vulnerable and oppose the bullies.
If Dad and I raised you to be optimistic, we also raised you to be resilient in the face of setbacks. I apologize that those skills in resilience will be called for more than ever in the next four years. But we are confident that you have what it takes.
Cleaning up beach waste in the form of abandoned rubber flip-flops . . . recycling landfill-able castoffs . . . training low-income men and women in job skills and providing them with living wages in Nairobi . . . creating beautiful art . . . saving fish, dolphins and baby turtles from choking on rubber detritus . . . educating local residents in recycling options . . . so much goodness in one small company!This small effort may not solve the world’s pollution and poverty problems, but it does highlight one local success story.
The Ocean Sole Company that makes sculptures from flip-flops funnels 5% of its profits into its educational foundation. That’s not a huge percent, but it’s something. Its website says: “The Ocean Sole Foundation works with communities, scientists, conservationists, artists, governments, industries and other not-for-profit organisations that are raising awareness and actively involved in marine conservation. We support actions that recycle, reduce and reuse marine and waterway debris.”
Contrast this encouraging account of garbage-to-art with the typical gloom-and-doom story about sub-Saharan Africa that lands in the Western press. If more journalists published reports like this, instead of yet another lament about ebola, civil war, corruption, or AIDS, what might white people’s images be of the land from which their long-ago ancestors came?
I’m not advocating that Africa’s considerable challenges be ignored. But how about a bit more journalistic balance?
Otherwise, there’s always the stereotype-reinforcing strategy that Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainana offers, instructing would-be authors how (not) to write about Africa:
“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.
Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.”
P.S. Check out the awesome “open letter” recently addressed to the producer of the popular CBS news show, “60 Minutes,” about the unacceptable biases in the show’s (rare) coverage of Africa. Dare we hope this passionately and intelligently argued plea, signed by dozens of prominent scholars and other thoughtful people, might produce some positive changes in the show?