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.
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.]